Feds fail to find flaws in our water, but they keep looking

By Jayson Jacoby April 02, 2010 11:40 am

Every now and again, while I’m standing in my kitchen and chugging a glass of cold tapwater, I think about the journey these refreshing ounces had recently made through many miles of concrete pipe.

I wonder whether I’m quenching my thirst with the bounty of Mill Creek or of Goodrich.

Probably this is a riddle which has no solution.

Baker City diverts water from fully a dozen streams and springs, and it all goes into a pipeline that spans more than a dozen miles between the mountains and town. I suppose that by the time the liquid flows from my faucets it’s been mixed up as thoroughly as a well-made martini.

(And as mixed up as I would be if I had just knocked back a couple of those.)

It seems to me rather wonderful that when I wish to see where my water comes from I need only look west at the forested slopes of the Elkhorns.

I would at any rate prefer to gaze at real trees as opposed to artists’ rendering of trees printed on the label of a plastic bottle.

Baker City’s water system is not quite unique by Oregon standards.

But it is unusual.

Our city is one of just four places in the state that obtain their drinking water from streams so pure that the water doesn’t need to be filtered to meet muster with the federal government’s purity standards.

The other members of this fortunate quartet are Portland, Bend and Reedsport.

The feds have been nosing about in Baker City’s water, sniffing for trouble, pretty regularly since Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Since I’m no more fond of debilitating diarrhea than the next man, I sort of appreciate this diligence on my behalf.

In the main, though, the government’s investigations around here have come to naught.

The city, which pays a lab to test the water four times a week, last year searched for, but failed to find any trace of, about 100 chemicals.

(Perhaps most troubling is the possibility that as many as 100 chemicals — which is a lot of chemicals in my view — could infiltrate out water.)

This roster of suspects includes some 30 synthetic organic chemicals and 21 volatile organic chemicals, according to the drinking water report the city is required (the feds, again) to mail to residents once a year.

(The report, compiled last summer, covers testing done in 2008.)

I’m not sure what the difference is between a synthetic organic chemical and a volatile one, although the latter sounds more dangerous.

In any case, I’m pleased to know that I’m not ingesting either kind when I guzzle city water.

Of the three substances the tests did detect in the city’s water last year (aside from hydrogen and oxygen, of course), one is actually good for you — good for your teeth, anyway.

That’s fluoride.

Some cities actually pay to add fluoride to their water, but in Baker City we can fortify our enamel for no extra charge.

According to the water report the concentration of fluoride, which leaches into the water from rocks, is less than .87 parts per million (ppm).

Unfortunately the report doesn’t say how much less.

Cities that fluoridate their water generally try to maintain a concentration of between .7 and 1.5 ppm, so we’re in the anti-caries ballpark anyway.

As for the less desirable components there are two: nitrate and nitrite.

The good news here, though, is that both contaminants are so scarce in our water as to be irrelevant.

Each is present at less than .1 ppm. By the feds’ figuring, nitrite poses no known health risks at concentrations of less than 1 ppm, and the danger of nitrates is negligible at anything below 10 ppm.

So we’re in the clear.

The government, though, seems disappointed by this overwhelming evidence pointing to the purity of Baker City’s water.

But the government is nothing if not persistent.

Having failed to find anything nasty in our water by way of the standard battery of tests, the feds has been casting about for other candidates.

That they found one should not surprise anybody.

It’s called cryptosporidium. Although in the interest of saving syllables I’ll use the nickname: crypto.

Crypto is a microscopic parasite that likes to linger in the intestines of animals (yours and mine included, if it can find its way inside) and cause all sorts of mischief there.

The experience is unpleasant but rarely fatal — much like listening to any album from the Osmonds, now that I think about it.

The worst outbreak in U.S. history (of crypto that is, not the Osmonds) happened in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1993 and was blamed on the city’s drinking water. About 400,000 people were sickened, but fewer than 50 died. And most of those victims were AIDS patients who had severely weakened immune systems that made them more vulnerable to all sorts of infections.

Anyway, crypto exists, and we don’t want it in our water.

And especially not in our intestines.

But here’s the thing: Baker City doesn’t now, and never has, tested its water for crypto.

Most cities don’t.

Nor does the federal government require them to do so.

All available evidence, though, strongly suggests that crypto is not in our water.

The lack of diarrhea outbreaks, for one.

Oregon has confirmed fewer than 1,000 human cases of crypto infection since 1988. Fewer than a dozen were in Baker County, and none was connected to the city’s water.

Such details are no deterrent to the federal government.

Given what we know about crypto — and more to the point, what we don’t know — it seems to me reasonable for the government to require cities to add crypto to their testing regimen. Which the government has done.

This will cost Baker City maybe $10,000 a year.

But the feds, probably because they’re accustomed to dealing with dollar figures that don’t stop at five digits, are not satisfied with mere testing.

They insist the city spend a couple million bucks to bombard the water with ultraviolet light. This kills crypto.

I imagine it’s a particularly effective method when there’s no crypto to kill.

(The city does add chlorine to its water, but chlorine doesn’t kill crypto.)

I don’t mind paying extra to ensure a refreshing drink of water won’t condemn me to a couple of weeks confined close to a toilet, feeling anything but refreshed.

But it seems to me a silly squandering of my dollars — not to mention a waste of ultraviolet light — to eradicate a substance before you’ve even confirmed its presence.

That’s like going in for radiation and chemo before you’ve had a biopsy.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.