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Lynette Nicks has not worked for the past two years, instead fighting the breast cancer that has consumed much of her energy and resources.

She's used up $26,000 in savings to pay her bills.

Now, the money is gone, and one bill she can't pay is one of the most critical: her water bill.

The city will cut her water service on Feb. 15 if she can't come up with the $140 that is overdue. She says she doesn't have the money and is resigned to losing water.

Nicks, 39, will be one of about 100 Redmond residents and several hundred Central Oregonians who lose their water service this month. Local water utilities have been shutting off dozens of water accounts each month as people struggle to pay bills.

City officials say there is no law requiring people to have water, so some, like Nicks, appear to be staying in homes without running water, despite the obvious hygiene issues.

“I'm stubborn,” Nicks said. “I will stay here.”

She and her 12-year-old son, Chad, can shower and use water from a neighbor's home, Nicks said, although she's also considering moving temporarily to her parents' home near Prineville.

Redmond assumes that, if water service stays off, the resident has abandoned the home, City Manager David Brandt said. Of the 41 accounts that weren't immediately turned back on last month, Brandt thinks most were foreclosed homes or rentals people had left.

“We assume they're gone,” Brandt said. “It's pretty rare that people stay in a house without utilities because it's extremely difficult.”

The Oregon Public Utilities Commission does not require people to have running water for health or hygiene issues, according to Jeff Freund, a sanitarian in the Deschutes County Community Development Department.

In Redmond, no law requires Nicks to pay to have water returned. Redmond requires residents to have garbage collection, but there's no similar rule for water service.

In Sisters, where about four people a month have water service turned off, people are free to leave the bills unpaid and the water off, Finance Director Lisa Young said. “If it's a homeowner, and it's their house and they choose to get by without water, that's their choice.”

Redmond versus Bend

Bend will force people to move from a home without running water, although it's an action officials rarely take.

Bend will allow residents about two weeks of no water before starting proceedings to remove someone, according to Robert Mathias, a building official. The entire process could take more than a month.

“It's very unusual,” Mathias said. “Typically, people will move from that place.”

Bend recently launched a payment assistance program in which customers can contribute to a fund to help residents in need pay their water bills.

Redmond tries to work with residents on payment arrangements, Brandt said. If a customer has received a notice, the city can delay shut-off for 30 days.

Nicks applied to the city's reduced payment program, which cuts utility payments by 25 percent. But that won't take effect until at least the next bill.

Shutting off is the city's last option if someone won't or can't pay the bill, Brandt wrote in an e-mail. “These are often heart-wrenching conversations, as you can imagine,” he wrote.

Nicks' predicament

Nicks doesn't want to leave the home she's lived in for 12 years, but she may not have much of a choice.

The cancer treatments Nicks has undergone have left her immune system severely weakened. A mild cold, she said, could develop into pneumonia and send her to the hospital.

Nicks doesn't have to worry about losing her home, she says, because the child support her ex-husband pays goes directly to the mortgage. Her three-bedroom home is spotless, though three dogs often run through the house excitedly. A Jeff Gordon fanatic, Nicks' model of the driver's car is the brightest decoration in the living room.

Living without running water is a dangerous situation for someone in Nicks' condition, according to Dr. Robert Boone, her oncologist.

“I think it's sad,” Boone said. “(Water) is probably the last thing they need to go without.”

When she received the shutoff notice about two weeks ago, Nicks expected to find help from social services or the city. She made dozens of calls, but the social services agencies had money to help pay energy bills, not water.

“I'm stunned. I can't believe there's nothing for water assistance,” she said.

Until now, Nicks has relied on the generosity of friends and family. But she says she's tired and understands why people ditch their homes.

“It's easy to see how people get behind and give up,” Nicks said.

Nicks hopes to get through the next few months. She's applied for Social Security disability but was rejected because she was deemed able to work. She's appealed, and the decision is pending.

Nicks has recovered to the point that doctors will begin reconstructing her breasts Monday. The process will take several operations, Nicks said. She hopes to be fully recovered by the summer, when she plans on working again.

She isn't sure how she'll make it until then, though.

“For water, I'm just stuck,” she said.

Patrick Cliff can be reached at 541-633-2161 or at

Feb. 8, 2010