A year after crypto, feeling (mostly) relieved
My mind maintains that there’s no reason, with UV light now illuminating every drop of Baker City’s water, for me to fret about cryptosporidium.
My intestines beg to differ.
This reaction from my digestive system is not entirely rational, to be sure.
But a week-long bout of stomach cramps and watery diarrhea — a distinction from regular diarrhea that I would have discounted as redundant until I experienced it — is not conducive to sober contemplation.
A year has passed since Baker City’s drinking water, previously celebrated for its purity, turned on us, in the manner of a well-loved dog driven mad by a brain tumor.
I was among the residents afflicted with those unpleasant gastric symptoms in late July and early August of 2013.
The final official toll of people infected with crypto was about 23, but that includes only those whose stool samples were analyzed in a lab.
I wasn’t one of the 23.
I didn’t think it was necessary to go to the potentially messy trouble of submitting a sample to confirm what my guts had made abundantly clear.
And I figured the lab techs had enough on their hands, so to speak, as it was.
Anyway, my experience could have served as a case study for crypto contamination, checking all the boxes common to the affliction.
Not to mention the medicinal limits of Imodium, which had until last summer always performed admirably — even miraculously, on a couple of particularly pressing occasions — when I called upon it.
Based on the door-to-door surveys that health officials conducted, as well as anecdotes such as my own, there is little doubt that hundreds of people got sick last summer.
What’s less clear, it seems to me, is whether blame for the debacle can be cast with a satisfying degree of certainty.
City Hall was the natural target. That’s where our water bills end up, after all.
The city was not as diligent as it ought to have been in ensuring the fences designed to keep cattle out of the watershed near Elk Creek were in good repair.
Even today crews continue to strengthen the barbed wire boundary between grazing allotments and the watershed.
This failure doesn’t quite amount to the proverbial smoking gun of courtroom dramas.
Cattle were not proved, beyond any doubt, as the source of crypto; indeed, none of the limited number of cowpies tested contained crypto.
Yet it seems to me beyond coincidental that the only water sample that contained more than a small amount of crypto was drawn from Elk Creek. Among the dozen streams and springs from which the city diverts water, Elk Creek is the only one near which cattle had definitely wandered last summer.
Of course wild animals — bears, most famously — excrete in the woods, too, and with no regard for the proximity of water.
But among more than a dozen species of crypto, the few that are most likely to make humans sick are also found most often in cattle.
The bottom line is that had the city put a higher priority on maintaining the fences near Elk Creek, it’s plausible to believe that our crypto crisis wouldn’t have happened.
Some people have also criticized the city, and in particular members of the City Council, for balking a few years ago at installing a UV light system that renders crypto harmless.
There was indeed reluctance.
But to make the case that the city was negligent because it failed to have a UV system operating by June or July of 2013 — a system that should have safeguarded the water supply, regardless of cows and fences — you have to expect that city officials possess a clarity of foresight that is rare, if not unprecedented.
Portland’s water bureau, a considerably larger and more generously budgeted outfit than Baker City has, lacks such foresight.
Moreover, officials from Oregon’s largest city have been far more dismissive of crypto as a public health threat than their counterparts in Baker City.
Portland successfully petitioned state health officials for a reprieve from the federal mandate that the city add a second form of water treatment — such as UV light — to protect its citizens from crypto.
Baker City officials secured an extra two years to comply — until Oct. 1, 2016, a deadline that the crypto outbreak made moot — but they never sought an exemption.
I talked with several experts on crypto last summer and all emphasized how unusual it is for people to be infected with the parasite by drinking tapwater — including tapwater from cities such as Baker City and Portland that get their water from surface sources but don’t have filtration plants.
It’s possible that Baker City suffered from bad luck rather than bad management.
Probably we’ll never know for sure.
What we do know is that any crypto that pollutes our water shouldn’t pose any threat, having undergone a thorough UV bombardment before it reaches our faucets.
This gives me no small comfort.
It happens to be the identical technology that I use to disinfect the water I dip from streams while backpacking. Fortunately, given the volumes involved, my UV light is smaller than an eyeglasses case and weighs about the same.
I trust the device and have used it, with no colonic complaints, for several summers.
But science, however soothing to the intellect, can’t quite banish the brief flutter of fear I sometimes feel when I get a twinge from somewhere around the belly button.
Jayson Jacoby is editor