Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Why you can find great beer in small towns....(hint: it's the water...)


As the snow blankets the mountains for winter, I think back on some of the sunny days this fall.  In September, I traveled to Eastern Oregon for work.  It's there that I found myself sipping a Pallet Jack IPA at Barley Brown's brewery - simply enjoying the sun and autumn evening - without putting 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's is known for its beer.  Located in historic Baker City, Oregon - locals and travelers converge to raise pints and swap stories.

It wasn’t until the next day, when I put on my "work hat" and began listening to Michelle Owen and Jake Jones, staff from Baker City, and Robert Macon and Kelby Witherspoon, staff 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.  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 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 and report back to other Partnership members.  Baker City draws water from multiple diversions off of small streams draining off the surrounding 9,000+ foot 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 is needed to protect this irreplaceable resource.

Cryptosporidium is a parasite that can cause respiratory and gastrointestinal illness. It comes from human or animal sources and is not what anyone wants in their drinking water.  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 – both potential sources.  Baker City, however, is trying to carefully balance the desires of its community, which includes: 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. 

Fences in National Forests are problematic across the West.  They can be barriers for wildlife.  But then they can also keep cattle out of streams.  At WildEarth Guardians, we take down fences and we also install fences. 

As our truck continues to bump uphill, 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.  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 the vehicles to see a neat line of fence on one side of the road and a wobbly, tilting, fence line on the other side.  The new fence has traditional barbed wire lines stretched 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 can cause other problems for wildlife.  Since this is National Forest land, there are specific requirements that should be followed to minimize impacts to wildlife. Most of Baker City's watershed is not fenced, but in specific places, it can help keep cattle away from the community's drinking water.


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 grant monies supported the City in buying supplies and helped the City 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.

Other communities received grants for different types of projects.  One town removed an old bridge that was leaching wood preservative into the river.  Another town planted riparian vegetation to help trap sediment and keep water temperatures cooler. And yet another town decommissioned roads to prevent sediment (i.e. turbidity) from entering the water supply.  One thing Baker City has going for it is that most of the watershed is categorized as “Inventoried Roadless Area”.  The liability of an oversized and deteriorating road system that is so common in national forests is significantly less here.

My work often is focused on restoring public lands that are degraded. But I also work to protect valuable places where the ecosystem is functioning fairly well.  Surveys show that Oregonians value clean drinking water so we work hard to ensure that water remains protected and clean.

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

And now I know one big reason Barley Brown’s beer is so good – it’s the water.  With an award winning brewery and a new distillery attracting visitors from across the state, the City has strong economic incentives to ensure the watershed is well-protected.  






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