Local News

Water woes: Rural neighborhood lives under boil water notice for more than a year

JEWELL, Ore. — For more than a year, residents of a rural neighborhood east of Seaside have been living under a boil water notice.

The water that pours from their faucets can be yellowish, sometimes slightly brown, even foamy. Laundry washed in the water smells bad even when bleach is used. One family started breaking out in unexplained rashes that they now believe were caused by showering in the water.

In order to have clean water, the residents of Evergreen Acres can boil what comes through their pipes. They can buy bottled water. If they have a car, they can load up the trunk with empty containers and drive to a spring off Highway 26, about 10 to 11 miles away — or they can try to find their water elsewhere.

The Evergreen Acres water system provides drinking water to around 100 people, including families, elderly people and around 20 students enrolled in the tiny Jewell School District.

The boil water advisory went into effect in October and December 2022, but some residents said they weren’t aware of it until much later.

They say the problems with the water system comes down to the operator, Tony Cavin. Officials with the Clatsop County environmental health division say communication with Cavin has been spotty for a while. State records show he has not taken the steps required to address ongoing violations with the water system.

Jen Lynch, who grew up in Evergreen Acres, and her husband Sam are poised to take over the system. The couple now owns the land where the system is located. They hope to run it as a nonprofit.

“It’s OK to donate our time because it’s our community,” said Sam Lynch, “and in our community, we should be stewards.”

As of late October, the Lynches have been in touch with county inspectors about their desire to bring everything back into compliance. But they are facing pushback from Cavin.

Earlier this year, he told people he was no longer operating the system. Now he claims he still owns the water right. He has threatened the Lynches with legal action if they try to access the system’s facilities. 

Clatsop County and the Oregon Health Authority’s Drinking Water Services section oversee water quality concerns at systems like the one in Evergreen Acres. Officials say the recent legal confusion over who owns the water right has hampered their ability to intervene.

KMUN tried to contact Cavin several times, but could not reach him for comment.

The Lynches have sought legal advice on their own, but say the retainer fees quoted to them have been too high. They aren’t sure what to do next about what they feel is a straightforward legal question.

“I just can’t believe the … state isn’t doing more to make sure that he is doing what he’s supposed to do,” Jen Lynch said.

For her and neighbors who have logged complaints with the state and the county, the inaction has been baffling. 

Enforcement challenges
Cavin took charge of the water system in 2018. As operator, he was tasked with complying with state requirements and responding to county inspections and testing of the Evergreen Acres system. In the past five years, the state has logged 37 points of enforcement at the system. Of these, 15 issues — including the ongoing boil water notice — remain unaddressed. 

About three months after the Evergreen Acres neighborhood came under that boil water advisory, the Oregon Health Authority issued an administrative letter to Cavin, noting a number of violations.

The water system was testing positive for high levels of the bacteria E.coli. Cavin was not consistently reporting sample results, the state wrote, and could not assure water users that the water was safe.

Cavin was told to publish a public notice to water customers and advise them to boil their water. He was also directed to work with the county to investigate the water system and monitor for coliform bacteria in source water. State records show Cavin is still overdue for most of these things.

In August, the state sent another letter. This time, the state warned of possible fines to the operators and even the broader community because the actions outlined in the administrative order had not been completed. 

To date, the state has not issued any fines or taken any additional action against Cavin or anyone else associated with the water system.

Jonathan Modie, a spokesperson for the Oregon Health Authority, told KMUN the agency postponed any enforcement action until a clear owner of the water system could be established. Modie said the state is reviewing its legal authority to see if action will be taken against Cavin for negligence while control of the system is still in flux. 

In general, he said, “OHA’s role is to ensure water systems meet the regulatory requirements. A dispute in water system ownership does not fall under OHA regulatory authority.”

Modie said once the system is under new ownership, the state and county will work with the new owners and offer assistance and support to help the system meet state requirements. 

Meanwhile, the Oregon Health Authority and Evergreen Acres water customers have contacted Oregon’s Public Utility Commission, which regulates some privately-owned utilities in the state for service and rates. 

A spokesperson for the commission says staff are investigating the issues at the water system to see what might come under its authority in this case. If they believe the commission should be regulating the Evergreen Acres system, they will submit a notice of intent to the commissioners. This would happen no earlier than February. 

An uncommon situation
A state database for the Oregon Health Authority’s Drinking Water Services lists every official interaction the state and the county has had with the operators of the Evergreen Acres system going back to 1993: instances where contaminant levels hit too high, or times when county inspectors have reached out about an issue.

Small community water systems can be a lot to manage, said Lucas Marshall, environmental health supervisor for Clatsop County. Lines break. Across the county, the infrastructure is aging. In general, smaller systems have fewer resources and almost no backup. The entire operation might be overseen by a single person. With many of these systems, the rates collected from customers go straight back into funding the water system, not into a paycheck for the operator.

At some point, every water system operator will have a test for contaminants come back positive, Marshall said. That’s to be expected.

Inspectors in Marshall’s division offer support and guidance to water operators like Cavin. Under state regulation, they are supposed to conduct regular water system surveys and respond to water quality alerts with follow-up sampling and investigations when necessary.

In many ways, the Evergreen Acres water system is not unique. It has had issues over the years, under different operators.

But the state database shows the county and state have often had difficulty reaching Cavin, and that he was frequently overdue in sending in water samples after water quality alerts were triggered. Now there is his insistence over the water right.

“We have tried everything we can think of to try to offer support, to provide resources, to attempt to make contact, to ensure corrections were being made or that the system wasn’t being abandoned,” Marshall said.

He said the lack of communication from Cavin hindered both the county and the state in addressing issues at Evergreen Acres. When they have heard from Cavin, Marshall said the information Cavin provided was often very different from what his customers were saying.

“It is a challenge because there’s limitations in what we’re able to do from a county side,” Marshall said. 

He noted that state enforcement has been involved since February. “So we’re working with (the state). We’re meeting with them weekly, in constant communication trying to come up with solutions,” he said.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the nearby Elderberry Nehalem Water Service, a privately owned system with 60 customers, was also under a long term boil water notice. Its operator too had stopped communicating with the county and the state. The Public Utility Commission eventually pursued enforcement, finding the water utility was providing “inadequate or discriminatory service.”

Oregon Health Authority’s Drinking Water Services and Clatsop County also pursued enforcement against the operators of this system for “failure to address drinking water standards.”

In that case, the operator left and a new person took over. Marshall says the challenges posed by the pandemic slowed action in that case. But now, he said, the long-running situation at Evergreen Acres is prompting the county to examine its approach.

“The county is definitely looking at how we can prevent something like this from happening in the future,” Marshall said. 

This could mean changes to ordinances or county code to add additional provisions to protect community. Marshall said such a discussion would require the input and interest of the county Board of Commissioners.

‘Extraordinarily difficult’
Lee and Christy Nelson have lived in the Evergreen Acres neighborhood for eight years. They say they first found out about the boil water notice this summer. 

Christy Nelson now showers at the Jewell School District where she works and carts the family’s laundry to a laundromat in Hillsboro. She hauls water from the spring off Highway 26, filling one gallon jugs that she has sanitized. It all adds up: The time spent on the road or in line at the spring behind other neighbors, or at the laundromat waiting for clothes to dry. There’s the money spent on gas and laundry.

Nelson works full time for the school district and cares for her husband who has a disability. She also has a teenage daughter in the home.

“It’s been extraordinarily difficult,” she said. 

Still, she says, they’re just a family of three. She thinks about one of her neighbors, a young family with five children and another baby on the way. She knows the water situation has taken a significant toll on them.

“I just don’t understand how somebody… how you have that much power over an entire community of people and not give anything about it,” Nelson said of Cavin. “I don’t understand that. I just don’t.”

Cavin has continued to post on a Facebook page that functions as a community message board for Evergreen Acres water customers.

Recently he posted a picture of water sample testing results dated Dec.7. The analysis report says samples were taken from the well head at the Evergreen Acres pump house and that the water is free of harmful levels of bacteria. 

One man asked Cavin if this meant they could stop boiling water.

Cavin wrote back, “I would say you don’t have to. I can’t call the lady from the county until Monday but any other time it was OK to use.”

But state officials and county inspectors have not logged any new water sample testing from Cavin and the boil notice advisory remains open on the state’s database. 

On Dec. 14, a county environmental health inspector noted that she had texted Cavin asking him to step back and allow the Lynches to test the water system and get it running again — or to do so himself.  

Neighbors KMUN spoke with don’t trust Cavin’s post or that he got the water sample from the well head. They’d previously sent off samples of their own for independent testing. They say levels of E.coli were still high then and, in some cases, rising. 

With Cavin’s new claims, they plan to test again.