Water trail changes course

This aerial view shows the location of Ontario’s proposed water trail along the Malheur River. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is recommending city officials find a safer alternative, as the bacteria in the Malheur is often "above levels for safe recreation."

ONTARIO

The new water trail, one of the upcoming recreational projects budgeted by the City of Ontario, will need to undergo some changes before moving forward — specifically being relocated to a different body of water.

The trail, which would utilize the lower Malheur River for floating purposes and include places to launch canoes and other small watercraft along the way, was pitched to the Ontario City Council by City Manager Adam Brown in May of 2020. In a meeting at that time he likened the idea to a similar one where he had located from in Michigan.

According to documents released in late March from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Malheur River has the second-worst water quality in the state, according to a rating by the Oregon Department of Environment Quality.

After these findings were released, the newspaper reached out to Oregon DEQ to get more information about how that rating might impact recreational projects on the river, such as the water trail.

Bacteria often ‘above levels for safe contact recreation’

The Oregon DEQ on March 31 in its response to the newspaper offered its recommendations in an email received on Monday afternoon.

“DEQ doesn’t recommend recreating in the Malheur River near Ontario at this time because there are often high levels of bacteria in the water. The Snake River is a nearby alternative with better water quality that’s safer for recreating. Bacteria levels in the Malheur between Vale and Ontario are often above levels for safe contact recreation. Water quality starts to improve upstream of Vale, where Willow and Bully creeks enter the Malheur around river mile 20,” writes Laura Gleim, public affairs specialist with Oregon DEQ.

The response also states how exposure to high levels of these bacteria by immersion or swimming in the water can lead to “gastrointestinal illness, such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and cramping.”

Gleim noted that over the past 20 years, much work has been done to “improve water quality in the Malheur River, but there’s more to be done to get water quality back to safe levels for recreation.”

She said that converting from flood irrigation to sprinkler irrigation helps to eliminate runoff and improves water quality.

“The local Malheur Soil and Water Conservation District and Malheur Watershed Council are working really hard to improve conditions. Irrigation districts and farmers have been great partners in improving water quality over the past couple decades,” she wrote.

Gleim said in the conclusion of her email that the DEQ is “reaching out to the Ontario city manager with this info.”

City manager at first urges not ingesting the water

The newspaper reached out to Ontario City Manager Adam Brown on March 25 for comment on the watershed report and how it may impact the future of the project. He responded in an email that day and stated that although dirty they could put up signs warning against drinking or ingesting the water.

“Anyway, it looks like they are getting some funding to get some cleaning. What I thought I read, was that it was upstream a bit. So anything they do upstream will help us downstream,” wrote Brown.

He also mentioned that there may be “some other available funds from Sen. Wyden’s River Democracy Act” that could go toward the project, but said that the city would have to wait to know for sure.

“We have considered putting up signs that warn against drinking or ingesting the water. We may still do that. We don’t have an actual launch right now, but there is a trail head. Hopefully the focus on cleaning will come as we start adding the amenities so that it is a safe experience for everyone,” wrote Brown.

He also suggested the newspaper could follow up with Sammy Castonguay, one of the city’s parks committee members, who has floated the Malheur River previously.

In reaching out to Castonguay, he said that although the river was dirty there were efforts to clean it up.

“Yes. The Malheur water quality is terrible. Major concern, but as long as the City makes it very clear, like on a sign at the kayak slip or on the pamphlets we [Friends of the Owyhee] hope to produce, that you should not swim (or even touch) the water. Just because the waterway is polluted does not mean it does not still deserve our outdoor love,” he said.

He went on to say that perhaps more eyes on the water would help people recognize the cleanup that has to be done.

“Friends of the Owyhee also recognizes the problem and sees this as a future opportunity for our community to engage in ecological stewardship and outdoor recreation,” he said, and shared a pamphlet that was in the works regarding the water trail. That map was not available for the public at this time.

It is noteworthy that the alternate route is on the Snake River. It is unknown whether users would pass by the city’s effluent discharge from the wastewater plant; however that is along a stretch in Ontario but not discharged during summer months, according to Brown.

City will ‘reevalute’ following DEQ input

However, after the newspaper pointed out the response from the DEQ, Brown said the city’s elected officials would have to “reevaluate” the water trail plan.

The amount that had been budgeted by the city for this project is $30,000, paid for out of the Marijuana Revenue Fund, although it was noted at the time that the project should not require that full amount to complete.

Following up with the newspaper in an email on Monday afternoon, Brown said that the city will have “to reevaluate” the plans for the water trail, but noted that there have been no actual funds spent on this project so far.

In a phone call following the email, he said that plans may include having to “move the drop over to the Snake River.”

“I will have to talk to the [Ontario City] Council about it,” said Brown, “Discuss it with them and get their approval.”

Leslie Thompson contributed to this story.

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