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The community of Artesia got an unwanted jolt last week when the possibility of a third boil water order in as many months presented itself in the form of a water sample showing positive for E. coli.

The test result was received late last Wednesday afternoon from Cardinal Laboratories in Hobbs and came as a shock to the City of Artesia and its Water Department.

The department had, since the city’s second E. coli contamination since July in September, been conducting its own testing in an effort to avoid just such surprises. Their results had indicated no bacteria but, as they do not qualify as certified by the New Mexico Environment Department, did not count.

Also puzzling was the fact the water at the location where the contaminated sample was obtained – 801 W. Bush Ave. – also showed a chlorine level of .9 percent, a level that would normally kill any bacteria present.

The Water Department had been maintaining a residual amount of chlorine in the water system since September – an amount hovering around an average of .5 percent, between the .04- and 2-percent levels seen in communities that treat regularly with chlorine as a means of disinfection – and plans to continue to do so through the end of the year.

The positive test left the community in a holding pattern of sorts as the city awaited the results of a confirmation round of samples. Another positive indication would have required a boil water order.

The city opted to send the second set of samples collected Thursday, Oct. 12, not only to Hobbs but to Hall Environmental in Albuquerque, which it established as its primary lab. Despite being Friday the 13th, the news that afternoon was good, as all three sets of samples – including those being tested in-house by the Water Department – came back clear.

Whether that indicates a false positive, a lab error, or that E. coli was actually present Tuesday but eliminated by Thursday is unclear.

“Unfortunately, it just creates more questions than it gives us answers,” Mayor Phillip Burch told the Daily Press Saturday. “That also applies from the standpoint that our test results on Wednesday differed from the lab’s.

“Fortunately, all three sample sets were negative Friday, and that’s what we wanted to see.”

Burch said the city has not yet made a decision as to whether it would be changing labs in the future. Artesia had begun using the Hobbs-based lab not long before its first-ever E. coli contamination in July, having switched from a lab in Ruidoso.

“We’ve not had that discussion yet,” said the mayor. “We have a conference call set for Monday morning with the state, and we want to go through that before making that determination.

“They pretty much say it’s our choice, whatever we want to do, so we’ll have that discussion Monday.”

Burch also confirmed the Water Department will continue to test the water system twice per month.

As to the source of the contamination – if indeed E. coli was present at all – that continues to remain up in the air.

“What’s confusing is that we’ve never had, say, six of the eight samples come back positive,” said Burch. “It’s always just one, and it’s always in a different place.”

The city stated at an emergency meeting in September that it had investigated any and all possibilities it could think of, but short of finding a deceased animal in one of the pipes, there was no way to pinpoint the cause.

Burch told the approximately 50 residents in attendance that Water Department employees had been driving streets and alleyways searching for leaks or breaks in water lines and had even gone as far to peek over fences in the area where the contamination surfaced to see if any clues could be found; none were.

The city encouraged any residents noticing such things as strange odors or pooling water around their properties to contact them, and also offered to listen to any suggestions citizens may have.

At that meeting and a town hall held Sept. 28 at the Artesia Center, attended by around 20 residents, the city continued to hear a prevailing opinion that most citizens do not want the water system to be treated permanently with chlorine.

However, the city council acknowledged at their regularly-scheduled meeting Oct. 10 that they would be exploring all options in an effort to ensure Artesia’s water does not become contaminated again.

The council said it expects to hear the suggestions offered by Occam Engineers Inc. – the firm hired by the Water Department to research potential water treatment methods – at its Oct. 24 meeting.

“We didn’t anticipate this latest thing jumping up, so I don’t know if it will change that date or not,” Burch said Saturday. “But we’ll explore that over this coming week also.”