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Crook County in central Oregon is home to the Ochoco National Forest, the Crooked River, and several projects for managing water resources for humans and the environment. The City of Prineville has recently been named one of the best in the US for nature-based solutions to wastewater treatment. But in the north, people have been noticing elevated manganese in their drinking water. In the east, mega-giants Meta and Apple operate data centers in the area, despite being one of the driest counties in the state that experiences multi-year severe droughts.

What people are talking about

Water for data storage
Data storage centers are notorious for using significant amounts of water to cool servers. (1) So for Meta to continue to operate their center in the high desert - one of the driest parts of the state - they are funding wetland restoration projects to try to offset their withdrawals. One such project is the Ochoco Preserve, which Meta contributed a $50,000 grant in addition to $500,000 from the Oregon Lottery. The Ochoco National Forest is to east of the biggest city in the county, Prineville. Old-growth forests are prevalent in the area, which is important in preserving biodiversity, preserving water quality, and combating climate change by storing carbon. The Ochoco Preserve is one of many projects restoring creeks to preserve habitat for fish and wildlife. (2) One of those streams is McKay Creek, a 37-mile-long scenic stream of great importance to native fish and wildlife. In the mid- 20th century, McKay Creek was farmland. As the soil became unfit for farming a land trust took legal ownership for conservation. (2) Habitat restoration will add channel complexity, create more streams, and re-establish wetland area. Another project will restore degraded habitat around Auger Creek to support fish and wildlife. (1) Along with Apple, they also plan to fund an aquifer recharge project which will put water back into groundwater reserves for use in the summer.

Exceptional drought
While Crook County is already one of the driest parts of Oregon, it also experiences abnormal droughts designated "exceptional," the most severe ranking by the U. S. Drought Monitor. (3) Drought hit Crook County particularly hard in 2023 with the lowest reservoir levels in twenty years. (4) The drought has already lasted four years, and the impacts compound. (5) For farmers, this means a massive loss in irrigation water. Grants and programs have been proposed to help farmers offset their losses from the drought. (5).

Dams and fish
Drought is also heavily impacting Crook County’s dams and fish populations. Water was released from the Bowman Dam to downstream waterbodies. Increasing this water flow will sustain fish, although it won’t be enough for fish to move freely. (6) Larger fish suffer in drought conditions and are most likely to die out. (7) The Bowman Dam water release was also carefully planned to preserve enough water for human use in from the Prineville Reservoir. (8) Fish advocates and farmers approved the dam on the grounds that it helps maintains water during droughts but also prevents the flooding during storms. (9)

One of the best in the US!
The Crooked River Wetland has been recognized as one of the nation's top municipal projects. (10) With funding from the USDA, the Crooked River Wetlands were built as a multi-purpose project to divert treated wastewater from the Crooked River, support wildlife habitat, educate visitors, and provide areas for recreation. (11) The 120-acre project helps reduce the cost of water treatment and pipe upgrades. Many supporters funded the project, from local school districts to governmental agencies. The project should translate into lower sewer bills for local residents. (12)

Clear-cutting conflicts
Within the national forest is the popular Walton Lake, which has been subjected to clear-cutting plans by the Forest Service. Logging impacts the water quality of surrounding water bodies by making the water cloudier than normal, which impacts wildlife and aquatic plants. The Walton Lake Restoration Project proposed the thinning of trees near Walton Lake that may be hazardous to people, although those against the idea identified the description of clear-cutting within the Forest Service’s documents. (13) The plan also sought to remove root rot by removing affected trees, although this claim was countered by logging. However, environmental groups successfully argued against it in court. (14)

Off-road vehicle pollution
Forest Service planned to cut into old-growth forests for the Summit Trail System, adding 137 miles of trails for off-road vehicles. (8) However, illegal trail use for off-highway vehicles impacts the soil and water quality when particles like metal and oil reach the water body or riparian areas between a stream. The Oregon Hunters Association sued the Forest Service for this plan in 2017, with the OHA’s main argument being that the trails were inadequate in protecting elk populations and degraded their habitat. This claim was also supported by The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. (15)

Drinking water contamination
North Prineville residents have been noticing farm animal deaths and black sludge in their toilets, which they link to high levels of manganese in their water supply. Residents point to Knife River, a multi-billion dollar construction materials. The company and DOGAMI (Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries say the minerals are in the groundwater due to the geology of the region. (16) However, why manganese is just now becoming a problem is unknown.



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