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Wednesday afternoon’s indication from Cardinal Laboratories in Hobbs that one routine water sample had tested positive for E. coli came as a surprise to the City of Artesia Water Department – and an equally unpleasant one to Artesia residents.

A few days shy of one month since the community’s last boil water order was issued in mid-September – with that coming two months to the day after its first-ever order in July – the news was not what anyone in Artesia wanted to hear.

The sample, according to the New Mexico Environment Department’s Drinking Water Bureau website, was collected at a non-well test site: the city offices located at 801 Bush Ave.

September’s alert had also been prompted by a positive result at a non-well site in the 300 block of West Grand Avenue, while the first alert in July was suspected to have originated with the well located in the area of 26th Street.

“One real concerning thing about this is it’s always one sample,” Mayor Phillip Burch told the Daily Press this afternoon. “It’s never, ‘Hey, Artesia, your water system has E. coli in the whole southern part of town,’ or even ‘It’s still where it was last time;’ it’s just one, and it’s never in the same place. So that’s perplexing.”

Even more perplexing was the fact that the sample indicated as positive contained a chlorine level of .97, which should have been well sufficient to kill any bacteria present in the water.

As infrastructure director Byron Landfair indicated at Tuesday’s city council meeting, the Water Department has maintained a residual amount of chlorine in the water system since September’s boil water alert and has plans to continue to do so through the end of the year.

The average level currently in the system is around .5 percent parts per billion, between the .04- and 2-percent levels typically seen in communities that disinfect regularly with chlorine.

The City of Artesia issued a press release around 2:15 p.m. Thursday after speaking with the NMED. That one test showed positive does not place the community under a boil water alert, as the NMED requires a confirmation test be performed first in order to eliminate the possibility of false positives or lab error.

The Water Department was particularly shocked by the result due to the fact it has been conducting its own water tests since September, and all of its samples this week appeared to be negative. But while the department is comfortable its results have been reliable, it is not a certified lab; therefore, its results do not count in the eyes of the state.

Taking the discrepancy into consideration, however, the city decided it would send confirmation samples not only to Hobbs but to a lab in Albuquerque, in addition to conducting its own tests.

The state told the city it would need to establish one lab as its primary, and that lab’s results would be the ones used to determine if a boil water alert will be issued this afternoon. The city elected to choose the Albuquerque lab to better determine whether the positive was, indeed, an error.

“The best thing to happen would be that all three results are clear,” said Burch. “It still doesn’t answer a lot of our questions, but it would probably answer more questions if Hobbs was positive and the other two were clear; that may indicate we might not have had a problem all along and were just getting some of these false readings.

“We think we did the right thing by splitting the samples.”

Some residents have also speculated the city’s flushing of a water line Wednesday in the area of Zia Intermediate School was a result of the positive E. coli test result; the mayor confirmed that was not the case.

“We got a call from somebody in that area saying, ‘My water stinks,’ so our crew went out and just picked a hydrant in the area and flushed it for, they said, less than five minutes, then turned it off and went about their business,” said Burch. “In the report I got, it says that was around 11 a.m., and we didn’t get these positive readings until around 4 in the afternoon, so it was nothing our crews were out there doing as a result of the tests, because we didn’t even know about them at that point.”

With results on the test samples sent to Albuquerque Thursday expected to take a bit longer to receive, the city is anticipating it will receive word around 5 p.m. today.

Should any samples show positive for E. coli, the city would once again be under a boil water alert until two consecutive days of clear testing are achieved. If the samples come back clear, no alert will be necessary.

Information regarding the test results will be posted online at www.artesianews.com and facebook.com/ArtesiaNews as soon as it becomes available.