What's next with city's water

Written by Baker City Herald Editorial Board August 02, 2013 09:09 am

The reputation Baker City’s drinking water has earned over more than a century has been sullied by a microscopic parasite.

As of this writing, tests had not confirmed beyond any doubt that city water is the source of the cryptosporidium infections that have affected dozens of residents.

But the city’s water is the most likely culprit.

It’s not for nothing that city officials on Wednesday morning recommended residents boil tapwater before drinking it or using it to wash their dishes or brush their teeth.

Yet even if, as unlikely as this might be, it turns out that the crypto came from a different source, the citywide crisis this week has convinced us that protecting residents from crypto and other waterborne illness must be the city’s top priority.

To be sure, the nasty little parasite didn’t arrive, as it were, from a clear blue sky.

In 2010 and 2011, lab tests found small numbers of crypto “oocysts” — the protective shell that makes the parasite resistant to the chlorine the city adds to its water to disinfect it against some other contaminants — in three 10-liter samples of city water.

Unfortunately, the presence of crypto wasn’t revealed to the public as soon as it should have been because Michelle Owen, the city’s public works director, failed to review all of the test reports.

Last fall city councilors debated two treatment options. The city’s preferred option has been an ultraviolet light (UV) system that inactivates crypto, giardia and some other parasites. But UV is not as effective as a filtration plant in removing viruses, UV has no effect on chemicals, and a UV system would not protect the water from dirt and ash that could foul streams were a wildfire to burn in the city’s watershed. City officials have worried for many years about such a fire, but the city’s long history of providing pure water has made the investment seem unnecessary.

And it’s a big investment: The extra capabilities of a filtration plant come at a cost of perhaps $15 million, compared with an estimated $2.5 million for a UV system.

 But in the wake of a week in which so many people were afflicted with stomach cramps, diarrhea and other unpleasant symptoms, in which restaurants and other businesses suffered during a busy weekend, we believe that extra cost is worth it.

Once the crisis is over, city officials should put together a presentation showing how each treatment option would affect customers’ bills. 

No treatment plant can be built quickly, of course. But while construction is under way the city needs to institute a rigorous testing program to ensure that, if crypto again pollutes our water, we’ll know as soon as possible.

And if it turns out, as officials have speculated, that mountain goats that live (and poop) near Goodrich Lake, from which the city draws some of its water, are the source of the crypto, the city will need to figure out how to reduce that risk.