A House Bill recently heard before the House Committee on Energy and the Environment would ban clearcutting, roadbuilding and the application of many chemicals in watersheds that supply drinking water — a move timber companies say intends to cripple logging operations in Oregon.

Proponents of House Bill 2656 said that tens of thousands of Oregonians depend on fresh drinking water that originates in land where logging often takes place. And the runoff from erosion and herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers can compromise the potability of that water.

Supporters in Salem on March 12 included those from environmental groups, former water treatment plant operators and coastal residents, whose drinking water largely originates on privately-owned forest land.

Brookings and Harbor get their drinking water from the Chetco River. The only problems it has had in recent years have been during high tides that corresponded with low-river flows in the fall. Then, Harbor’s system had salt intrude into its municipal water collectors, forcing customers to purchase potable water for weeks on end.

Those in favor

Supporters said clearcutting and roadbuilding cause erosion during rainstorms and the ensuing sediment makes water more turbid, vulnerable to algae blooms and difficult to treat.

“Under some circumstances, evidence has indicated an increased risk of erosion and turbidity events for timber harvest on steep slopes — particularly in shallow landslide-prone areas,” said Gene Foster, watershed management manager at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, in an email. “This can lead to increased sediment and sedimentation that could affect some types of public water supply treatment systems.”

They presented research that shows nutrients carried into waterways by sediments promote algae blooms, which thrive in warm summer water temperatures. Algae such as cyanobacteria — which affected Salem’s water last summer — produce neurotoxins and can elicit costly water treatments.

Other research shows toxic algae blooms in drinking water systems globally have increased in frequency as a result of warming air and water temperatures.

Additionally, some water treatment facilities must use more chemical treatments when drinking water contains more organic compounds, according to the bill’s supporters. Other studies show carcinogenic compounds can be produced as a result of sunlight interacting with excessive chlorination, supporters noted.

Supporters of the bill are also concerned with the effects of logging on streamflows. At the hearing, they cited research showing summer streamflows in Oregon’s Douglas fir plantation forests have been cut in half during the last 60 years when compared to old-growth forests.

Those against

Opponents of the bill included timber company representatives and other forest land property owners.

Eric Geyer of Roseburg Forest Products told the committee the restrictions would make companies like his unable to operate.

He and others in the timber industry disputed claims that logging operations contribute to sediment transport. They pointed to other studies showing sediment levels in waterways remained the same after harvests.

“I don’t see any benefits of this bill, I only see detriments,” Geyer said.

He said the Oregon Forest Practices Act exists to apply the latest forestry research to regulate logging operations in a way that protects residents.

Chad Davis, program director at the Oregon Department of Forestry, testified at the hearing, citing seven recent instances in which the Forest Practices Act was updated to better protect water quality and wildlife.

Yet proponents of the bill say the Forest Practices Act doesn’t protect residents enough.

“Oregon’s current laws and regulations for the protection of forests and drinking water sources are inadequate and are seriously out of line with neighboring states,” Lawrence said.

Geyer said the bill was also unnecessary because waterways in areas with primarily forested land consistently have the highest rated water quality across the state, according to a recent water quality report by DEQ.

“Without the ability to clearcut, build access roads and apply pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, Oregon timber companies cannot be competitive in the timber market,” Geyer said.

People seeking an exemption to the bill would have to get approval from the state forester and DEQ. Exemptions would only be granted if the proposed project was intended to improve watershed conditions by removing invasive species, increase carbon storage or improve climate resiliency. Projects would not be approved if they would increase the risk of algal blooms or sedimentation.

Geyer said the bill will place unnecessary restrictions on a timber industry that is already sufficiently regulated.