|Early Water Systems
In 1840 when Jason Lee and the "major reinforcement"
of Methodist missionaries moved the mission from the original
site north of Salem to a site on Mill Creek at Boones Island
(at the present Broadway Street bridge over Mill Creek), the
Willamette River was pristine and the pioneers could safely
drink its waters. Jason Lee and the Methodist missionaries knew
the "Chemeketa Plain" contained excellent water resources
for many uses. One of these was Mill Creek which would later
serve as an excellent power source for local mills fueling Salems
But as the pioneers quickly found out, the Willamette River
did not stay pristine and the waters did not flow abundantly
in Mill Creek year round. The pioneers soon discovered, after
constructing a small dam and erecting a sawmill and flour
milling plant, that Mill Creek almost dried up in most summers.
So, to their dismay, there was no year around power for their
They did continue the luxury of drinking clean water from
the Willamette River but only for a short time. In the mid
1850s, as more and more pioneers arrived, the Willamette River
started showing signs of pollution from human and industrial
waste. The solutions for cleaning up the river were very long
in coming. (Even with the turn of two new centuries, the Willamette
remains polluted and, at the start of the twenty-first century,
it takes extraordinary technology to treat this water to Federal
drinking water standards.)
The discovery in the 1850s that Mill Creeks low
summer flows were inadequate to power a growing, prosperous
State capital was disheartening to Joseph Watt and his fellow
investors in a major industry for Salemthe Willamette
Woolen Manufacturing Company. They decided to embark on an
incredibly ambitious project: construct a canal for diverting
water from the plentiful North Santiam River to Mill Creek
(at a point just upstream from what is now Stayton). The canal
was completed by Chinese laborers using plows and shovels.
When completed, Salem was power wealthy. The diverted water
provided water power for the new woolen mill and, eventually,
for several additional industries.
Prior to 1870, Salem residents and businesses depended on
shallow wells and dipping water from the Willamette River
and Mill Creek. A small business was created by an industrious
Chinese resident who hauled water from the Willamette and
sold it to businesses and homes that did not have shallow
In 1870, two business men, David Allen and J.M. Martin saw
an opportunity to build a piped water system for the downtown
area and close by residential areas. The system would also
provide fire flow capacity for a growing city that was plagued
by frequent structure fires. The system built for Salems
1200 residents was an 80 foot high wooden water tank filled
from the Willamette River with a steam powered pump. The water
tank was located on the banks of the Willamette where the
Riverfront Park is now located. The 80 foot elevation of the
tank provided ample pressure for the downtown area from about
Union Street to Mission Street and about 12th Street to the
Willamette River. This first privately owned water system,
named the Salem Water Company, was just what a growing State
capital needed. It provided the required water pressures to
serve buildings of up to three stories. The pressurized water
system created a building boom in the downtown area. Several
multi-story buildings were constructed as a result including
the Chemeketa House Hotel and the Reed Opera House.
Unfortunately, over the years the Willamette River also became
a very convenient place to dump wastes. Salems first
sanitary sewers discharged directly to the river (as did all
of the other cities and industries in the Willamette Valley).
By the 1880s, the river was dangerously polluted and
not suitable as a drinking water source. However, Salem continued
to use it and suffered the ridicule of residents, visitors
and State Legislators who feared they would get sick from
drinking the foul water (and many probably did). In 1885 the
Salem Water Company was sold to R.S. Wallace. He then purchased
the site now occupied by Fire Station No. 1 at the corner
of Trade and Commercial and built an entirely new water intake
and pumping system. The new intake was unfortunately from
the Willamette Slough which also had bad water quality. The
pumping system was an improvement over the original system.
The pumps were partially powered by a water wheel located
on the millrace near present Liberty Street. The pump had
a unique rope drive system from the water wheel to the pumps.
The pumps could also be powered by a steam engine when additional
water was needed.
Mountain Water, Finally
Until the 1930s, the Salem Water Company tried to create
a better drinking water source. After the raw Willamette Slough
water was found to be an unacceptable source, the water company
developed a new source on Minto Island. The new intake was
from the Willamette River. It was then treated by primitively
filtering the water through the natural soils on Minto Island.
However, the finished water remained polluted. At this point
the citizens of Salem were suffering water borne diseases
such as typhoid, and they desperately needed a clean, healthy
source of water. Public pressure for developing a healthy
water system started in 1910 when Salem voters approved a
$400,000 bond issue to purchase the Salem Water Company. The
City Council approved an ordinance to purchase the system,
but Mayor Lachmund vetoed the ordinance (the City Charter
gave the mayor veto power at that time). Mayor Lachmund believed
the costs would exceed the $400,000 and the city could not
afford it .
Public pressure for a healthy water system continued unabated
until a Mountain Water Party was elected and the City Council
finally acted in the early 1930s. They purchased the
private water system and sold 2.5 million in bonds to build
a new mountain water system using the North Santiam River
at Stayton Island as the source. This was a daring step by
the City Council even though the citizens had voted to approve
the bonds. A very vocal minority thought the mountain water
system was far too expensive and felt we should stay with
what we had, because it was cheap.
The mountain water system was built in 1936 and 1937. It
consisted of an intake and a buried perforated pipe for filtering
the river water through the pervious cobble and sands on Stayton
Island. The system was called an infiltration gallery. The
island was located a short distance upstream of the City of
Stayton. A 13 mile, 36 inch concrete pipe was laid from the
island to a new 10 million gallon reservoir on Fairmont Hill
in the City of Salem. When completed, the first mountain water
system was the beginning of a water infrastructure that had
the potential to provide excellent and plentiful water for
a quickly growing city.
In the 1950s, City Manager J.L. Franzen and Water Department
Manager John Geren gave the city expertise and the passion
to continue the development of an excellent water system.
The Citys 100 million gallon reservoir built in 1952
was named to honor Franzen and the Citys Geren Island
water treatment system was named to honor John Geren.
In 1957, the water system was greatly improved by the construction
of a 54 inch water transmission line and the construction
of state-of-the-art slow sand filters that provide polishing
of relatively pure North Santiam River water. The system produced
the high quality drinking water demanded by Salem residents
A major achievement was securing the legal rights to divert
the North Santiam River water and use it for municipal purposes.
Since 1951, the City has acquired 154 million gallons per
day of 1856 water rightsthe earliest and best rights
on the river.
The quality of Salems water in the future now depends,
to a great extent, on the quality of the watershed. Sixty
eight percent of the watershed is owned and managed by the
United States Forest Service (USFS). The remainder of the
watershed is Oregon State forest land, forests managed by
the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and a small amount of
agricultural and urban lands.
During the 1980s, the USFS sold huge amounts of old growth
timber, clear-cut thousands of acres on steep mountain slopes,
and built hundreds of miles of logging roads. This created
the potential for massive erosion with major negative consequences
for continued high quality water in the North Santiam watershed.
However, the Clinton Forest Plan in 1993 created very high
standards for logging practices and targets for more sustainable
forest yields. Due in large part to this new forest plan,
the watershed has more recently been in a state of recovery.
To safeguard this important resource, City officials and
the elected Federal representatives need to continue their
aggressive vigilance in protecting the watershed from logging
practices detrimental to excellent water quality.
Salem has a very complex and unprecedented challenge with
the Endangered Species Act (ESA) requirements being imposed
on urban area water supplies where fish have been listed as
either endangered or threatened. This is a situation that
exists today and could compromise the early water rights Salem
has worked hard to obtain.
A major indicator of the health of a river system is the
health of the biological life in the river. In the 1990s the
Federal government listed the Oregon chub as endangered and
two salmonid species as threatened in the upper Willamette
basin. The two salmonid species are: spring Chinook salmon
and winter steelhead. The North Santiam River, however, could
be an anomaly in the region because it still has very good
runs of the threatened fish. This is due to the excellent
habitat the North Santiam provides for spawning and rearing
of juvenile fish. The continued health of these fish will
depend to a great degree on the quantity of water in the river.
But demands on river water for both in-stream and out-of-stream
uses continue to mount as population increases and recreational
uses of stored water in Detroit Reservoir become a higher
The Federal agencies charged with regulating the threatened
and endangered species are very concerned about the amount
of water Salem diverts from the river. Two Federal agencies,
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National
Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), are particularly concerned
about the amount of water Salem can divert in the future because
of the extensive water rights it owns. The future therefore
becomes very cloudy due to the threatened and endangered fish.
This may create a major long term challenge to the city in
continuing to provide water from the North Santiam River far
into the future.
Limiting the amount of water diverted from the North Santiam
River by greatly increasing conservation will undoubtedly
be one of the Citys main priorities in future years.
During several drought years between 1994 and 2001, the City
successfully reduced peak water use through aggressive public
education campaigns. Whether this will work in non-drought
years remains to be tested.
The Future Is Unclear
It seems clear the future will require a new direction for
the city in managing its water system. Since 1996, a major
effort went into expanding and modernizing the treatment system
at Geren Island at a cost of $34 million. Management emphasis
in the future has to be directed to conserving water so as
to keep as much water in the river as possible and to provide
leadership and resources in preserving the habitat of the
threatened and endangered fish.
However, this new direction could very well seriously affect
the economy and future growth of the City. Regardless, it
is very likely this new direction will become a much debated
As the story of Salems evolving water system unfolds,
it will become clear that Salems political leaders and
staff have been extremely committed to supplying high quality
water for Salems residents and businesses. In the past,
the city has also felt confident in knowing the quantity of
water needed will be there for many years into the future.
Now that future has become clouded. How the conflicts over
water supplies will be resolved is of major importance to
the City. Will future leaders be up for these challenges?
We can surely hope so.
Researched and written by Frank Mauldin
Mauldin, Frank, Sweet Mountain Water City of
Salems Struggle to Tap Mt. Jefferson Water and Protect
the North Santiam River, Oak Savanna Publishing, 2004,
Water Works Is Old,1972 supplement to the Capital
Journal newspaper, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow