Published: 4:23 pm, Tue. Sep. 19th, 2017Updated: 4:13 pm
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was published in Wednesday’s edition of the Daily Press, which was printed prior to the city’s receipt of that day’s test results. Those results came back positive not for E. coli but total coliforms, meaning the earliest the boil water order can now be lifted is Friday afternoon.)
With Monday’s test results having come back clear of all contaminants, a similar result Tuesday would have lifted the order in place since Saturday afternoon. The first day of all-clear testing had been delayed slightly when Sunday’s results showed total coliforms – a naturally-occurring bacteria found in soil – but E. coli had not been present since the two tests that prompted the order Thursday evening and Saturday morning.
Unfortunately, the city learned Tuesday that not only had Monday’s samples tested positive again for coliforms, E. coli was present again, as well. And the two-day clock started over, meaning Thursday afternoon will now be the earliest the order could be lifted, pending today’s results.
“These positive tests yesterday just threw us for a loop,” Mayor Phillip Burch said this morning.
After Monday’s result, the city was confident its efforts to flush the system with chlorine were proving effective. Once the new positives were received, the Water Department was forced to start over.
“Last night, the city crews increased the amount of chlorine in the tanks, and late at night – probably around 10 or 11 – they were out flushing lines to help pull that into the system,” said the mayor. “Unfortunately, there’s no page in the book that says, ‘OK, when you’ve tried everything, do this.’ It’s just not there, and the perplexing part of this whole thing is not being able to pin it down – not knowing where it came from so you can take care of it.”
Where was the source of the contamination?
Since the first confirmed detection of E. coli in the Artesia water system in July, the Water Department has been turning in more samples for testing than is required.
The department collects samples from five wells, then three more from the taps of randomly-chosen locations around town.
July’s contamination was detected in Well No. 9 on 26th Street. Due to the fact that well had been recently accessed for repairs and reinstalled, the city was able to say with “reasonable certainty” it was likely the source of the contamination.
According to the New Mexico Environment Department’s Drinking Water Bureau, the source of both last week and Tuesday’s E. coli detections was one of the non-well sample points at 322 W. Grand Ave.
“So we can’t relate the two at all,” said Burch. “We’ve continued to test in all the other parts of town, and we aren’t getting anything there. And the wells have all been negative from the very first.”
Burch also points out the city has never had, either in July or now, more than one sample test positive.
“I’m not an expert on these things, but I would think that if a bacteria is out there and growing, you would see it spread, but we’re not seeing that at all,” said the mayor.
Has the city identified any potential cause of the contamination?
As is the case with most E. coli contaminations in residential water systems, pinpointing the exact moment the bacteria could have entered the system is impossible.
“We tap into that water system I don’t know how many times a month,” said Burch. “And any time that system is opened, there exists a risk of contamination.”
As such, the Water Department says the same possibilities present in July continue to be possibilities this month – new construction of both homes and businesses; the 13th Street Reconstruction Project; and any time a leak or break occurs that requires patching.
“There are procedures that our folks go through every time a line is opened and put back together to ensure that it’s done properly, and for years and years, we haven’t seen any problems in that,” said Burch. “But every one of those things are opportunities for something to get into the water.”
Burch says the city has also discussed the potential the contamination could have originated at the Artesia water system’s very source – the aquifer.
“Our water starts out in the mountains,” said the mayor. “It comes down through the aquifer and moves through Artesia from the north and west going south and east. And things have changed over the years that didn’t exist when our first water system was put together here in Artesia.
“We’ve got the advent of oil and gas, and that poses risks – any time you punch a hole in the ground, something can happen. Dairies are on the surface, but liquids from dairies go into the aquifer, and while normally that’s in the shallow areas and not the deep wells that we pump out of, any time something gets below the surface, it’s always moving, and typically, it’s moving south and east.”
The mayor says the city has had discussions with experts on the topic of aquifers and the flow of bacteria, but such discussions can only educate officials on more potential – not definitive – causes.
“We’re questioning a lot of things, and we’re coming up with not a lot of answers,” Burch said. “There’s not anything that you can say, ‘That is it, and we can prove it.’ But it’s out there, and we’re responsible for controlling it, and that’s what we’ll do.”
If the first positive test result was received Thursday evening, why was the boil water alert not issued until Saturday afternoon?
The question most frequently asked on social media since the city issued its first press release Saturday afternoon announcing the boil water order is this: If the first E. coli detection was received Thursday evening, why did the city wait until Saturday afternoon to alert the public?
NMED protocol states that if a positive test result is received, a second is required before the state will issue a boil water alert. That action, the state says, is to confirm bacteria is, in fact, present and that the initial result was not a false positive, lab error, or other cause.
“We’re simply following what the state guidelines are,” said Burch. “They say on the first one, those happen. Nothing is required. So that’s what we did. On the next one, from the point we got the test result until the press release went out, it was probably 15 minutes. We had two press releases ready to go – one to say, ‘You may have heard this happened, it did, but the result was a false positive and everything’s fine,’ and one to say, ‘We have confirmed the presence of E. coli.’”
The fact that many residents did hear of the initial positive test result ahead of the confirmation test is what raised much of the ire. Rumors were circulating widely on Facebook beginning Friday.
Burch says the state’s protocol on confirmation testing prevents unnecessary panic in the event the initial indication was a false positive or human error. And while many residents say they would rather have known the possibility of another boil water alert existed ahead of time, regardless of whether the second test came back clear, the city did not feel the contamination should be announced until it was 100-percent confirmed.
“Every time you think a thunderstorm might be coming, in all of that, there’s the possibility of extremely high winds or a tornado, but you don’t hear them say that until they have clear evidence that something’s going on,” said Burch. “That’s just a no-win thing. We followed the state’s protocol, and now we’re continuing to do that in order to take care of the issue.”
Where do we go from here?
The NMED continues – as it did in July – to question the city on its plans going forward.
“The state has been patient,” said Burch. “They ask questions, and we give them answers. And in talking to the state every day, which we do, they have not suggested anything that we haven’t already been doing.
“The one answer we can’t give them yet is what we’re going to do going forward. We had some of those discussions in July, and I have told them, ‘That’s going to be a decision the city council makes.’”
The council is, of course, now stepping up the pace toward making that decision. They’ve scheduled an emergency meeting for 5:30 p.m. today at City Hall to discuss the topic.
“It will only have one subject,” said Burch. “The council is going to have choose a direction pretty quickly, and in order to prepare for whatever that is, we need to have some guidance from engineering saying, ‘If you want to go this direction, here’s how you would do it, and here’s what the cost would be,’ and so on.
“We need to go ahead and prepare for that, and to do that, we have to move monies. So that’s what we hope to accomplish tonight is to give the Water Department some direction of saying, ‘OK, here’s your money, go get us some information.’”
The meeting will be open, and any resident wishing to attend and address the council is welcome to do so. However, the city also plans to hold another town hall meeting once the boil water alert has been lifted.
At the first town hall in July, all residents who addressed city officials on the topic expressed their desire that the city not begin using chlorine as a means of regularly disinfecting its water system.
“Those kinds of comments are still coming in, and then some are also saying, ‘We’d prefer not to have it chlorinated and treated, but do what you need to do,” said Burch. “We’re getting a lot of comments from the community, which is good.
“And if somebody wants to comment at the meeting tonight, they’re certainly welcome to. This is something that impacts every person in this community, and I have no problem in allowing people to speak their mind on this.”