NEWPORT — Fish processing has been halted and water restrictions continue as the city of Newport extended an emergency declaration to July 20 at a special city council meeting on Monday evening.
“The city reached a point where it is necessary to declare a local emergency and enact water curtailment requirements,” read the declaration. The membrane filters at the water treatment plant are becoming plugged, cutting production by 1,000 gallons per minute. The production problems became evident when the Bayfront fish processors began operations a couple of weeks ago, increasing demand by approximately that same amount.
Public Works Director Tim Gross told council, “One of our primary goals is to resume fish processing as soon as possible … but we’re not able to do that because we’re not able to meet the demand.”
Gross noted the issue evolved over time, detailing a timeline that began Memorial Day weekend when high levels of iron and manganese were detected in the water on May 23 and 25. Chemical adjustments were made as a normal course of business. On May 25, fouling tendencies were observed, but the city was able to maintain water tank supply levels and meet water demands.
The city contacted Pall Corporation, manufacturer of the membrane filtration units, for recommendations on June 3. Over the next couple of weeks, “We began to see some capacity-related issues,” Gross said. The main tank dropped to 30 feet from 34, and the membranes still weren’t coming clean. Pall recommended increasing cleaning concentrations.
On June 17, the city was not able to maintain tank elevations. Pall suggested, based on cutting apart one of the membrane units, the fouling was a result of iron accumulation. The city began the process of treating the filters. “We realized we had a more significant problem than just some chemical or dosing issues,” Gross said, and the city engaged HDR Engineering.
The city reached out to the Seal Rock Water District on June 22, and that district began supplying water to South Beach, Gross said.
“We initially contacted Pacific Seafood on June 23. We spoke with them, Bornstein and Rogue Brewery,” Gross said, “and asked that they voluntarily curtail some of their water usage. That was when we started discharging our Yaquina Heights tank … down to the Bayfront to help supplement flow so they could continue operations.”
The city issued the emergency declaration and water curtailment notice on June 24. At that point, the city’s water storage was at about half that of normal. “We called all the hotels,” Gross said, asking them to curb consumption. “We reached out to Pacific Seafood and Bornstein again. Bornstein was not operating at that time, he noted. Pacific Seafood closed their surimi plant until 6 p.m. on June 25. The halt in the surimi processing allowed the city to recover 10 feet in the tanks overnight, Gross explained.
The city contracted with Pall to send someone to help, taking samples to determine the cause of the failure of the filters. Also at that time, the city authorized the purchase of membrane filters to replace two of the water plant’s filtration racks — money for that purchase having been set aside in advance. With expedited shipping, those filters are expected to arrive July 2.
A representative from Pall arrived on June 26. From June 26-29, Gross said, the filters were washed again, the second time in a citric acid. “Our initial results were excellent. It was working really well, and after about 24 hours, it fouled off again.”
On June 27, city officials notified Pacific Seafood and Bornstein that they needed to cease operations because water levels were critical. Also at that point, the city’s 71st Street water tank was isolated strictly for fire protection. Gross pointed out the main tanks reached a low level of 12.9 feet — 23-percent of normal storage — and were not recovering at all. In fact, the tanks were so low, it was creating problems throughout the distribution system.
Gross said it has not been determined why the membranes are fouling and becoming plugged, and that until they do, there is a risk that the new filters will also become clogged. “HDR and Pall are working on it, doing water samples, doing cleaning investigations, and they are trying to figure out how we can get these filters to operate,” he said.
“We are also looking at renting some mobile treatment units,” Gross told the city council. “They are very, very expensive, but one of the problems we are having at the plant right now is that we are forced to push so much water through filters that they are plugging off that it is causing the situation to get worse. We can’t clean it for long enough because we can’t keep it offline that long because then we can’t meet water demand.”
Councilor CM Hall asked Gross if the city needed to consider an emergency order restricting travel to the area for the upcoming holiday weekend.
“Fourth of July weekend is typically our highest demand weekend of the year,” Gross responded. “But our water system is designed to meet both shrimp and hake (whiting) season at the same time, and so we are slowly gaining in elevation in our reservoirs, and that is why our curtailment of processing was so important because we needed to be able to build elevation in our tanks to be able to survive this weekend.”
Heather Munro Mann of Midwater Trawlers Cooperative, a nonprofit trade association headquartered in Newport representing trawl catcher vessels, many home-ported in Newport and belonging to local families, told the News-Times she would have liked to see the city prioritize the fishing industry over the holiday tourists.
“At the end of the day, commercial fishing accounts for approximately 20 percent of the earned income in Lincoln County in any average year. Whiting is one of the big components of that number, along with shrimp and Dungeness crab. So in short, whiting is incredibly important to the community of Newport,” Mann said. “Especially during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic disruption and upheaval the industry faces is enormous. The challenges to keep fishing safely are huge. The fall out in terms of the economics could be staggering.”
In 2019, according to Mann, 40 million pounds of whiting worth more than $8.5 million in ex-vessel value came across Newport’s docks. Generally, economists then multiply that amount by three to get the community impact. This would be not just the revenue earned by the plant and paid to their workers, but also includes revenue that flows out to others, like the city and county and support businesses.
The payroll of a whiting trawler is at least $1 million, Mann said, income that pays for expensive shipyard visits in Toledo. A whiting vessel spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on fuel in Newport each year, supporting the Port of Newport and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars locally on groceries and services, she said.
Mann said she felt the city was working hard to address the problem. “I wish they had acknowledged the financial impact to the community, not just to the harvesters and processors, but to the community of Newport during this time when we have the highest unemployment rate in the state. And if they were going to do anything else, please keep the tourists from coming. They’re going to use a lot of water. I’d rather see the plants operating and the fishermen working than the tourists coming here right now.”