The North Fork of the Toutle River was filled in with rocks and sand by major landslides during the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Southwest Washington.

The North Fork of the Toutle River was filled in with rocks and sand by major landslides during the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Southwest Washington.

Conrad Wilson/OPB

Dawn Woitt-Campbell sits on the front porch of her house in Longview, Washington.

“We’re looking at a green pan that we have boiled water in twelve different times,” she said.

The pot is caked with a hard, white chalky material.

“We do one gallon of water, boil it down to nothing. Then we’d put another one in and boil it down to nothing,” she said. “I did it kind of as a project.”

In a way, the problems the city’s having with its water today date back to the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Southwest Washington. Monday marks the 35th anniversary of the eruption.

The natural disaster killed 57 people and drastically changed the region’s landscape. Much of the mountain’s exploded top ended up in streams and rivers that nearby towns relied on for water.

Tim Kuhn of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stands on a dam that cuts across the North Fork of the Toutle River. On a clear day Mount St. Helens is visible just off in the distance.

“What we’re seeing here is the result of the eruption,” he said.

Treed hillsides line the walls of a massive river valley. In spots the river looks like it’s hardly moving. It’s wide and flat. The river essentially flows through a giant sandbox.

“That’s Mount St. Helens working its way down in the form of sand,” he said.

At the dam, the river narrows and picks up speed, carrying with it the tiny remains of what was once the top of Mount St. Helens.

“The point of the dam is just that,” he said. “To help us manage the sediment that’s coming off the mountain.”

The North Fork of the Toutle River was filled in with rocks and sand by major landslides during the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Southwest Washington.

The North Fork of the Toutle River was filled in with rocks and sand by major landslides during the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Southwest Washington.

Conrad Wilson/OPB

Kuhn says for about a decade, the dam caught most of the sediment.

But around 1998, the sediment pushed the water around the dam, meaning more of Mount St. Helens flowed down the Cowlitz River – where the city of Longview drew its drinking water.

In January 2013, the city switched from taking water out of the Cowlitz to an aquifer in town.

There were several reasons for that switch, including endangered fish and pollution. But one of the major reasons: Volcanic sediment caused all kinds of problems.

“It looks a lot like sand, but it’s really a volcanic ash and it’s very abrasive,” said Todd Douglas, a water quality specialist with the city of Longview. “It really wears down metal.”

Amy Blain, an engineer with the city, said a normal water pump should last 20 years. But the city was getting only five years before its pumps had to be rebuilt.

She said it’s clear to her that the volcanic sand caused all kinds of engineering headaches. The change to ground water has also been challenging for some parts of Longview, she said.

“There’s a lot of fear about the location of this of this plant and its proximity to industrial activity across the street,” she said.

From the city’s pump houses that draw from the aquifer, it’s easy to see a pulp and paper mill. The wells aren’t far from an old aluminum factory.

The water is safe, Blain said. But that’s of little comfort to Gin Mathews, who lives in Longview.

Gin Mathews, who lives in Longview, sifted her hands through a bucket of dusty rocks that left her palms stained a sort of iron red.
“Now remember this is now dried," she said. "But this is what was coming into our homes through the pipes.”

Gin Mathews, who lives in Longview, sifted her hands through a bucket of dusty rocks that left her palms stained a sort of iron red. “Now remember this is now dried,” she said. “But this is what was coming into our homes through the pipes.”

Conrad Wilson, OPB

“Now remember, this is now dried, but this is what was coming into our homes through the pipes,” she said, sifting her hands through a bucket of dusty rocks that leave her palms stained iron red.

This is also the water that Woitt-Campbell boiled to uncover that white chalky powder.

When the city changed its water supply in 2013 it reversed the flow through the city and freed up decades of mineral deposits in its water pipes. Since then, the city has replaced some pipes.

But Mathews said even though the discolored water has disappeared, it smells like chlorine and leaves mineral spots on dishes and kitchen counter tops.

“We will never drink it,” she said. “I don’t cook with it. I don’t rinse our food with it. I don’t brush my teeth with it. I do have to shower with it.”

A citizens advisory committee will make recommendations this summer. City officials say one option would be for the city to return to the Cowlitz River.