Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

We might never solve the mystery of Baker City's cryptosporidium outbreak.

Which is to say, we might never know where, and when, enough of the parasite got into the water to make hundreds of people sick.

That's just the nature of this tiny beast.

The problem is that crypto is potentially present in many kinds of mammal poop. And given that the city obtains its water from a 10,000-acre swatch of forest which is home to thousands of animals, all of which defecate, finding the smoking gun, as it were, is rather unlikely.

But of course city officials are hardly powerless.

There are tasks the city can undertake that would either reduce the risk of future crypto outbreaks, or protect the water in case another big dose of the protozoa enters the system.

And although we understand that city administrators, as well as city councilors, have been busy, we'd like to see, and we're sure residents agree, a greater sense of urgency in the city's efforts.

First, the city must, to the extent practical, prevent cattle from trespassing in the Elk Creek area, the southernmost stream from which the city diverts water.

There is no definitive proof that cattle are responsible for the crypto outbreak. But there is ample reason for the city to treat cattle encroachment in the watershed as a significant crypto threat; moreover, it's a threat the city can do something about.

Cattle are known carriers of the parasite (tests on cowpies collected last week near Elk Creek are pending). At least six cows entered the watershed in that area through a broken fence earlier this month. And, most troubling of all, a sample of water from Elk Creek collected on Aug. 4 contained 913 crypto oocysts - no other sample ever taken, from any city source, has contained more than three oocysts.

The crypto in Elk Creek might have come from elk, deer or other wildlife rather than cattle. But although it's essentially impossible to prevent wildlife from wandering the watershed, a sturdy fence will keep cattle out.

The city had a plan in place this spring to build a section of fence near the Elk Creek diversion to augment the existing Forest Service grazing allotment fence (which is maintained by the grazing permittee, the Foster Ranch). The new fence should be a top priority.

And if possible the city should ensure that fence gates in the area can be locked. Rancher Don Foster, in a letter to the editor (on this page, at right) notes that in 2012 some of his cattle got into the watershed, apparently after someone failed to shut a gate, one that's not equipped with a lock.

Further, the city needs to be more rigorous in monitoring the watershed for cattle trespassing, in particular Elk Creek since it's the drainage where an active grazing allotment borders the watershed.

The city's second key endeavor is to have some form of crypto treatment in place, or bring crypto-free wells on line, as soon as possible - even if this means the city needs to rent equipment while a permanent UV plant is being designed and built.

Yes, the boil order has been lifted, all water samples over the past three weeks have been free of crypto, and the city will be testing water twice a week.

All that is good, but it's not enough to reassure many residents. After all, due to the nature of crypto tests - they take at least a few days - if another glut of crypto enters the water we won't know until potentially contaminated water has already flowed from our faucets. And even if nobody gets sick, two consecutive positive tests for crypto would reinstate the boil order, which obviously would raise the level of anxiety.

The city's original deadline to deal with crypto was October 2013. In 2011 the state extended that deadline to Oct. 1, 2016. The extension seemed reasonable in that pre-crypto outbreak era.

And although we're loathe to endorse spending public dollars on interim measures, we don't believe there's anything more valuable in Baker City today than regaining the public's trust in the most vital service the city provides.

The time for delays, and for cutting corners, is past.