Tiny bug makes it harder to trust our water

By Jayson Jacoby August 09, 2013 10:05 am

Trust, as anyone knows whose mother ever nabbed him filching jelly beans from the candy drawer, is far more easily lost than regained.

Baker City’s water supply, I’m afraid, is that little boy with sugar  crusted around his mouth.

And all of us who rely on that water, well, we’re the mom with a scowl on her face.

This state of affairs, this suddenly rampant suspicion of our once-reliable faucets, saddens me.

It is no exaggeration to indulge in cliché and call it the end of an era.

The confirmation last week that cryptosporidium, a microscopic parasite that does nasty things to a person’s gastrointestinal tract, was recently present in the city’s water, and that that water is the most likely source of the illness that has plagued an estimated 300 to 400 residents the past few weeks, ends the city’s century-plus run of providing citizens with pure water.

Baker City has boasted of its water for all that time, and rightfully so, it seems to me.

The 10,000-acre swath of forest on the east slopes of the Elkhorns, about 10 miles west of town, that constitutes the city’s watershed has done well by us over the decades.

Its frothy streams, among them Marble, Salmon and Mill creeks, carry the kind of chilly, crystalline water that backpackers relish when they take a break on a long day’s hike.

Except backpackers aren’t allowed in the watershed.

The relatively strict limits on public access to the area is one reason the federal government has continued to allow the city to use these surface sources (as distinct from groundwater) without filtering the water.

Baker City is among just four Oregon cities with that exemption — the others are Bend, Reedsport and, best known because of its size, Portland.

Federal officials recognize crypto as a particular threat, though.

Although the lack of filtration can allow certain disease-causing bugs to get into our pipes, the city does add chlorine to the water, and chlorine gets rid of common waterborne pests such as giardia.

But chlorine, at the low concentrations that are safe for potable water, has no effect on crypto, which unlike giardia is protected by a shell called an “oocyst.”

(Unfortunately, this shell disintegrates when the oocysts get into your intestines, releasing the protozoa to reproduce. Darn evolutionary biology.)

Crypto’s resistance to chlorine prompted the federal government to require cities that don’t filter their surface water to either build a filtration plant, or to add some other type of treatment that gets rid of the crypto threat. Baker City’s deadline to comply is Oct. 1, 2016. The city’s preferred option, as of now, is a machine that would cleanse the water with ultraviolet light.

Considering that crypto is spread by animal feces, and considering that elk, deer, mountain goats (since 1983, when the state released the first batch not far from the watershed) and, of course, bears, have been defecating with regularity in the wooded watershed all these years, it seems that perhaps Baker City has been lucky not to have had a crypto outbreak before 2013.

Except that, until 1984, apparently no American city had had its water infected with crypto, at least to a level that caused widespread sickness, according to CDC.

Testing for crypto was rarely done back then, though, so it’s possible that crypto has been fouling up our intestines for a long time and we just didn’t know what to call it. Except unpleasant.

All of this is quite interesting, to be sure — crypto is quite a mystery if you’re into studying diarrhea-causing pathogens, I imagine.

(I don’t envy the person tasked with tidying the labs, though.)

But even if Baker City officials can pinpoint the source of the glut of crypto responsible for the city’s outbreak, and then figure out how to eliminate that source, I doubt people who experienced this ordeal will ever twist a faucet quite so thoughtlessly.

And given our quite reasonable aversion to prolonged bouts of stomach cramps, I suspect that for many of us the twinge of skepticism — manifested by a wince from the gut — will persist even after a treatment plant has been certified by the feds and is diligently poring over every gallon.

 This discomfort would not be altogether rational.

Baker City residents gulped local water for a considerable period of time with no apparent ill effects, after all.

But, to return briefly to that purloining boy, once mom has caught you with a handful of jelly beans, all those days when you didn’t raid the cupboard, and your sincere pledge to not sneak in again, don’t count for much.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.