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State imposes new water testing rules in wake of algae blooms

About 150 to 200 water systems in the state may be affected by the new rules, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

COURTESY OREGON NATIONAL GUARD - Oregon Army National Guard Spc. Joshua White and Andy Smetana, with the City of Salem Public Works Department, conduct water distribution operations for citizens in Salem, June 2, after toxins from algae blooms were found in the water. About 150 to 200 water systems in the state may be affected by new rules requiring testing for cyanobacteria that can cause harmful algae blooms.SALEM — New state rules will require some public water systems to regularly test for cyanobacteria that can cause harmful algae blooms.

About 150 to 200 water systems in the state may be affected by the new rules, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

The rules apply to public water systems that use surface water that has had harmful algal blooms or cyanotoxin detections, or is susceptible to such algal blooms, and public water supplies that use water downstream from those sources.

The state is stepping in with new testing requirements after a panic late last month over levels of cyanotoxins in the City of Salem's water supply.

Salem and surrounding communities served by that water supply are still under a do-not-drink advisory for vulnerable groups, such as young children and pregnant and nursing women.

The new state rules — taking effect Sunday, July 1 — will require certain systems to test raw water every two weeks, starting July 15, until Oct. 31.

Suppliers using cyanotoxin-susceptible water sources and systems that buy their water from those suppliers will be subject to the rules.

Two toxins will be tested for: microcystins and cylindrospermopsin. Those are the two cyanotoxins the Environmental Protection Agency has established health guidelines for.

The maximum allowed level of microcystins in treated water is .3 parts per billion for vulnerable people, and 1.6 parts per billion for healthy people 6 years and older.

For cylindrospermopsin, the maximum amounts in treated water are .7 and 3 parts per billion, respectively.

If either cyanotoxin is detected at a level higher than .3 parts per billion in the raw water, the system must test the raw and treated water weekly under the new rules.

If any level of those cyanotoxins is detected in treated water, the water system must test treated water daily. A system in that circumstance can return to weekly testing after two consecutive days without detecting cyanotoxins in treated water.

If the level of cyanotoxins is higher than any advisory level in treated water, the system has to get a confirmation sample as soon as possible within 24 hours, and issue a do-not-drink advisory if that confirmation sample shows an amount cyanotoxins higher than advisory levels.

OHA says it will be "encouraging" water systems to notify the public within 24 hours if water tests show any levels of those two cyanotoxins, even if they are below advisory levels. But that won't be required.

An erroneous alert about the water issue sent out by the state caused confusion when the do-not-drink advisory went out to area cellphones May 29, followed by a run on area bottled water supplies.

While that mistake on the state's part was soon corrected, the city has struggled with notifying people properly, due in part to delays in getting test results. The city put a blanket do-not-drink advisory into effect June 6 for vulnerable groups. Since June 19, Salem's drinking water has tested below advisory levels for those groups.

"As harmful algal blooms become the norm in Oregon, as they are around the country, we must address this emerging threat to our drinking water supplies," OHA Director Patrick Allen said in a prepared statement. "These temporary rules close a gap in regulations and will help us protect our drinking water systems so everyone in Oregon is kept safe from exposure to cyanotoxins."

The health agency is working with the state's Department of Environmental Quality to analyze samples at its Hillsboro lab, at no charge to water suppliers that meet the criteria.

"The impacts of climate change will continue to exacerbate conditions that lead to algal blooms and having better data will help us understand the threat posed to our water systems and how we can reduce harm," said DEQ Director Richard Whitman.

Permanent cyanotoxin testing requirements are in the works.