Water Chronicles

Snyder is the first Michigan governor or former governor to be charged for alleged criminal conduct while in office.

Former Michigan governor and GOP golden boy Rick Snyder has pleaded not guilty to charges of willful neglect of duty, stemming from poisoning the city of Flint’s water supply in 2014.

Flint had been declared a state of “financial emergency” near the end of 2011. Michigan’s governor and both legislative houses were staunchly Republican, and strongly believed in local control… except when they don’t. Governor Snyder appointed an emergency manager to take control of the city. To save money, the officials he put in charge of Flint’s finances switched the source of the city’s water from the Detroit River to the polluted Flint River. Two outbreaks of Legionnaires’ Disease, with twelve fatalities, soon followed. Tests found E. coli and lead in the city’s new water supply. Thousands of Flint residents now suffer long-term damage from lead in their water.

After a two-year investigation, a grand jury recently brought criminal charges against Snyder and eight others. Snyder’s former top aide faces felony charges of obstruction of justice and extortion. Two former state health officials each face nine counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Here in Portland Oregon, the city’s Bull Run Watershed is surrounded by untouched forests, that are off-limits to the public to protect water quality. Smaller towns in Oregon are not so fortunate.

Corbett Oregon watershed

The town of Corbett sits on the Historic Columbia River Highway, about thirty miles east of Portland, not far from Bull Run. The community’s water comes-or did come-from two nearby creeks. In November, 2019, Corbett’s residents got the news that they now had only one stream supplying their water. Clear-cut logging around one water source had left only a single row of trees on either side to protect it from mud, herbicides and debris left behind by the loggers. When trees were blown over by wind, the creek’s water level dropped too low for the community to get water.

Unlike Portland, Corbett does not own the land around its water sources. Unlike other states, Oregon law gives community water districts very little protection from logging operations. Timber companies have been very successful with their lobbying. Oregon requires only a twenty-foot buffer. Washington state mandates a fifty-foot buffer with additional trees left up to two-hundred feet from the water. California requires thirty feet and a minimum of half the tree canopy remain within one-hundred feet from stream banks.

The Oregon Forest & Industries Council, a lobbying organization, says, “Oregonians should feel confident forest practices strongly protect their drinking water.” The owner of the company that did the clear-cutting around Corbett’s water supply said they have a good relationship with the Corbett Water District and would consider its concerns when planning future cuts along its water source. “I guess if the watershed wanted us to put bigger buffers in they could pay us the value for that stuff, and we could let it sit there.”

Corbett has begun working on a new water source, at a projected cost to the three-thousand residents of $2.2 million. Since 1991 Oregon legislators have lowered timber taxes, much of which went to counties.

(Timber taxes had supported public libraries in Douglas County. A couple years ago citizens there decided they didn’t want to use their own money, so the libraries closed.)

The Oregon Legislature also passed laws shielding timber companies from Clean Water Act requirements. So long as logging is done in “good faith” according to the state’s “best practices,” companies can’t be found in violation of water quality rules.

Corbett is one of thirty communities that have taken their concerns about logging and drinking water to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality in the past twenty years. Unlike Washington’s Department of Ecology, the Oregon D.E.Q. does not have the statutory authority to set rules to limit pollution caused by logging.

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