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Salem Water Department:
The Watershed and Water System
Water is life. Salem is unique having an adequate supply of clear, sparkling, and good-tasting water. It was the planning by former City officials that we can thank for our good water. It is up to us to ensure this same supply for future generations. A town can survive without water - it is needed for fire protection, homes, and industry.
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 Salem’s early economy.

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 mills.

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 1850’s that Mill Creek’s 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 Salem–the 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 wells.

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 Salem’s 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. Salem’s first sanitary sewers discharged directly to the river (as did all of the other cities and industries in the Willamette Valley). By the 1880’s, 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 1930’s, 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 1930’s. 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 City’s 100 million gallon reservoir built in 1952 was named to honor Franzen and the City’s 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 and industries.

Watershed Management
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 rights–the earliest and best rights on the river.

The quality of Salem’s 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 priority.

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 City’s 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 political topic.

As the story of Salem’s evolving water system unfolds, it will become clear that Salem’s political leaders and staff have been extremely committed to supplying high quality water for Salem’s 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 Salem’s Struggle to Tap Mt. Jefferson Water and Protect the North Santiam River, Oak Savanna Publishing, 2004, 285 pages

Water Works Is Old,1972 supplement to the Capital Journal newspaper, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow


Salem Water Works pump plant, 1895.
Salem Water Works pump plant, 1895.
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Sign indicating first water powered mill founded by Oregon pioneer Jason Lee, 1840.
Sign indicating first water powered mill founded by Oregon pioneer Jason Lee, 1840.
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Water Department office, 1957.
Water Department office looking northerly from shop, March 28, 1957.
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Early water filtration system on Minto Island, 1935.
Early Salem, Oregon water filtration system on Minto Island in the flood plain of the Willamette River, 1935.
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John Geren, Manager of Utilities Department of City of Salem, Oregon, 1960.
John Geren, Manager of Utilities Department of City of Salem, Oregon, 1960.
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Salem Ditch
Salem Ditch, a canal constructed in the 1850's for diverting water from the plentiful North Santiam River to Mill Creek (at a point just upstream from what is now Stayton).
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