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Baker City and Forest Service Work to Protect Drinking Water

Guest Author, Marlies Wierenga, WildEarth Guardians

Sipping my Pallet Jack IPA at Barley Brown’s brewery on an early September evening, I didn’t put much thought into the primary ingredient of the beer – water. Me and my fellow brewery companions just enjoyed our beers. Having won many awards, Barley Brown is known for its beer. Located in historic Baker City, Oregon – locals and travelers converge to raise pints and swap stories.

Baker City Sign

It wasn’t until the next day, when I began listening to Michelle Owen and Jake Jones from the City of Baker City and Robert Macon and Kelby Witherspoon from the U.S. Forest Service describe the drinking water watershed that the connection was made in my head. Seems silly given that I was in Baker City as a member of the Drinking Water Providers Partnership. The partnership was formed to help restore and protect the health of watersheds which communities depend upon for drinking water while also benefiting aquatic and riparian ecosystems. One way we achieve this is through an annual grant program. In late 2015 Baker City applied for, and received, a grant to help purchase and install fencing in their ongoing effort to protect their drinking water source area. It’d seem obvious that I would consider water while drinking beer, but like most people, I often take clean water (and good beer) for granted.

As our vehicle left historic city hall and headed up into the surrounding mountains, I began to listen, learn, and see what a gift the community of Baker City really has. Being one of only three unfiltered water systems in Oregon, the water is both amazingly pure and also highly vulnerable. We traveled up-valley, passing by the ranch of longtime residents the Fosters who have a strong relationship with the City, community, and stewarding the land. As we continued driving upwards, we left the grassy slopes behind and entered the ponderosa pine forests. Crossing into the Forest Service lands, we could see Elk Creek trickling along at the bottom of the valley slope. Being early September, water flow in the creek was fairly low.

We were heading up into the watershed so I could see what was accomplished in order to share with other Partnership members. Baker City draws water from many diversions from small streams draining off the surrounding 9,000 feet plus mountains in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Three years ago, the City experienced a cryptosporidium outbreak, which was a big alert to the community that more was needed to protect this irreplaceable resource.

Cryptosporidium comes from human or animal sources. To avoid this kind of problem, other cities that have unfiltered water systems err on the side of caution and have closed their watersheds to people and cows. Baker City is trying to carefully balance the desires of its community: access for grazing, access for hunters, and protections for the community’s pure water. By fencing high priority areas, the City hopes to keep cattle away from entering the more vulnerable areas.

Baker City Fence Old

When I ask Jake, who has been with the City for over 25 years, when the fencing project would be done, he responded that fencing is never “done”. It’s ongoing with about 10% of the fencing needing to be repaired every year in addition to installing more. Fencing can break due to animals (i.e. elk, cattle), weather (snow, ice), and humans (cutting fencing). The watershed is big – 10,000 acres – so it’s impossible to fence it all. This is why the work needs to be focused.

When we finally reach our destination, we step out of our vehicles to see a neat line of fence on one side of the road and a wobbly, leaning, fence line on the other side. Traditional barbed wire lines stretch between posts while the bottom line is barb-free so smaller animals can move through. Fencing can solve some problems by keeping cattle out, but then can cause other problems for wildlife. Since this is National Forest land, there are specific requirements to be followed in order to minimize impacts to wildlife.

Baker City Fence New

Jake points out the different posts that hold up the fencing. The wooden posts are built locally and the City tries to purchase as many of these as possible. One of the City’s greatest challenges is capitalizing on new areas of economic growth. Supporting local micro-businesses is one way. A distillery has also just opened in town, benefiting from the great quality of the water flowing down the hills. City staff know that keeping the water clean and pure is not only good for the health of the community but is also tied to economic growth.

The Drinking Water Providers Partnership funding helped support the City in buying supplies and finance part of the labor and contractors for fencing. The Forest Service and Baker City worked together on the project, with support from the Fosters, who are one of the two grazing permittees.

After taking some photos, we return to our vehicles to follow the road back to town. When I ask why Baker City is a such a great place to live and work, Jake says: “It’s a postcard every day.”

And now I know one big reason why Barley Brown’s beer is so good – it’s the water.

Baker City Landscape


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