Tainted, brown drinking water grips a Southern Oregon town
Janel Harlan remembers drinking water from the hose as a child in Lakeview. Back then, the water looked clean, something she rarely thought about.
But when Harlan returned to her Southern Oregon hometown as an adult, she was stunned by what she saw coming out of her faucet.
“It was like dark, sludgy Coca Cola,” Harlan said. “It was disgusting.”
For Lakeview’s 2,500 residents, this smelly brown drinking water has become the norm — at least, for now. Many avoid wearing white clothes, because they get stained in the washing machine. Some residents reported using baby wipes to bathe instead of showering. When the water gets particularly brown, the town’s lone grocery store runs low on bottled water.
Other people have gallons of spring water shipped to them, or pay for expensive home filtration systems.
Lakeview’s leaders are sounding the alarm, hoping state and federal lawmakers can step in to provide the tens of millions of dollars needed to fix the crisis. But, that kind of funding is unlikely, as Oregon grapples with billions of dollars’ worth of backlogged water infrastructure projects statewide.
City officials say Lakeview’s water is safe to drink. Recent testing shows samples passed federal standards for regulated contaminants, with levels of lead nearing those limits. Another potentially harmful element found in the water, manganese, isn’t federally regulated. Many residents aren’t convinced the water is safe, and for some, the uncertainty conjures memories of a decade-long history of water problems in one of Oregon’s most remote corners.
The color of Lakeview’s water can range from a light beige to a dark black, sometimes resembling a cup of coffee.
Shelley Weber, a hairdresser who’s lived in Lakeview her whole life, said she runs the water through a filter to avoid the color.
“It’s never good when I’m shampooing somebody’s blonde or white hair and the water looks like that,” Weber said.
The causes of the water’s dark tinge are both natural and manmade. The geology around Lakeview is rich in manganese and iron, natural elements found in the town’s groundwater supply. When these elements combine with chlorine during the treatment process, it activates rust in the water and gives it that brown color, according to city water managers.
This process also corrodes the pipes. Over time, the pipes become so worn down that they dirty the water further, continuing a vicious cycle that has worsened the problems over time. Leaks and breakages are increasingly common, threatening the stability of Lakeview’s entire system.
“We repair leaks almost every day,” said Lakeview Town Manager Michele Parry.
The rural community doesn’t have a way to finance major infrastructure projects.
“We’re on borrowed time,” Parry said. “We don’t have the capabilities like our urban counterparts, with population, with more taxes.”
Parry said the upkeep of the pipes has been neglected for a long time. She points at multiple photos of pipes in various states of decay.
“That’s not a pipe — that is danger,” she said.
In 2021, the Oregon Legislature approved $15 million for Lakeview to build a new water treatment plant, stemming from American Relief Plan dollars the state received. City leaders are now pressing lawmakers for an additional $30 million to begin overhauling the pipes.
Lakeview has no formal treatment plant at the moment. Currently, the town pumps water out of a well, adds chlorine, stores the water in a tank and then pumps it out to the community.
But even if a new treatment plant comes online in early 2026 as planned, nearly 50 miles of pipes are so corroded and damaged, the water will likely remain discolored for years to come, according to Amber Hudspeth, an environmental scientist hired by the city.
“Doesn’t matter if [the water is] clean if you put it into a dirty bucket,” Hudspeth said. “Lakeview is going to continue to have issues with the quality.”
State Rep. Mark Owens represents Lakeview and helped secure the money for the new treatment plant. He said another influx of funding is unlikely to happen until he and his colleagues in the state Legislature have more information.
“We have to show how we’re going to solve the problem with the funding,” he said.
Lakeview could be part of a bleak trend, Owens said. A 2021 League of Oregon Cities survey found municipalities across the state need some $23 billion for water and sewer infrastructure updates.
“This is not unique to Lakeview,” Owens said. “This is going to continue across most of Oregon.”
Routine testing shows Lakeview’s water has remained within federal regulations for safe drinking water, but that doesn’t mean it is free of potentially harmful contaminants.
The city’s latest Consumer Confidence Report showed the amount of lead in the water at 11 parts per billion, nearing the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. Nearby towns have much lower lead levels: Bend and Burns reported having zero lead in their water. Klamath Falls reported less than 1 part per billion.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains that no level of lead is safe, and ingesting lead can pose serious health risks, especially for infants. However, only amounts above 15 parts per billion are considered a violation of federal law.
Hudspeth said 11 parts per billion of lead still falls within federal guidelines for safe drinking water and that she’s not worried.
“If you are practically 25% down below the standard, that is well within the threshold of a water system that’s operating well,” Hudspeth said. “I would say that level is not a level of concern.”
Drexell Barnes, the water quality manager for the City of Bend, said that just because water complies with federal limits, doesn’t mean it’s safe.
“It’s the difference between a health guideline and a regulatory guideline,” Barnes said. “Any amount of lead, we know, is not safe.”
The Oregon Health Authority considers manganese an “emerging contaminant,” which are chemicals in drinking water known or suspected to pose risks to human health that aren’t subject to federal regulatory oversight. Public health agencies have warned that consistently drinking water with high levels of manganese can lead to nerve damage and other health problems.
Infants and elderly people who drink more than 0.3 milligrams per liter of manganese in a 10-day period can experience impacts to the nervous system and learning problems, according to OHA.
Hudspeth’s tests of Lakeview water in 2022 showed six out of nine samples were above the federal health advisory level for manganese. One well showed concentrations that were over six times the health advisory level.
Many people who live in Lakeview don’t trust the water. Their suspicions go back decades, long before the taps ran brown.
In the late 1950s, this part of Oregon was a hotbed for uranium mining, with more than 130,000 tons of the radioactive element extracted in a two-year period. It was a huge economic boon for a region that’s often relied on the extraction of natural resources to boost the economy.
In the decades after the uranium mines near Lakeview closed, residents were concerned that tailings from the abandoned mill were making people sick with cancer, as OPB reported in 1980.
The federal government eventually cleaned up the tailings in the 1980s, and buried the radioactive waste in a clay pit several miles outside of town.
Janel Harlan was a small child when the clean-up happened, but she remembers the aftermath.
“The mines created a lot of issues,” she said.
Harlan, 41, remembers her mother and grandmother discussing their concerns that the water was having some sort of effect on the family’s health.
“They always felt like something was in the water,” she said.
Harlan’s mother died of uterine cancer. Her children suffer from chronic illness. She’s also had health issues her entire life, and she worries the water could be to blame. Now, as an adult, she tries to use the town’s water as little as possible.
“I do not drink the water,” she said. “I don’t use it for my cooking. I don’t use it for my coffee. My pets don’t use it.”
Lakeview’s government has held town halls about the new treatment plant in an effort to win back the public’s trust and ease concerns about safety.
Parry, the town manager, said she knew the town’s pipes were in disrepair for at least a year before making a public announcement this month, because she didn’t want people to be “freaked out.”
“I think that that’s unfair for us to talk about it and to put that information out into the public unless we have a solution,” Parry said.
Without any clear path for solutions, some residents seem resigned to living with discolored, smelly water.
Yutximy Santiago has lived in Lakeview for 12 years and said she’s mostly learned to adapt — don’t wash clothes on certain days. Stick to drinking bottled water, if you can.
“When I saw it the first time, I thought it was really gross. But now it’s like a normal thing. I guess you get used to it,” Santiago said.