By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Colorado farm town copes with presence of salmonella in water; treatment makes it unusable
Placeholder Image
    ALAMOSA, Colo. — Marsha and Shawn Cody joined hundreds in long grocery lines for bottled water after learning that salmonella had contaminated this farm town’s water supply.
    They stocked their freezer with microwavable food like burritos and chili. They bought paper plates and cups. When the schools closed, they entertained their children at home.
    But they decided they’d had enough when officials started pumping heavy doses of chlorine to clean the water system — making the water unusable for anything but flushing toilets. Marsha left town with the kids to stay with friends.
    ‘‘We just don’t want to take the chance of our children getting sick,’’ Shawn Cody said, noting how he had absent-mindedly rinsed a bottle for 8-month-old Katiegh with tap water before doing it again with bottled water.
    This week, chlorine levels have been reduced enough to allow residents to at least bathe again and schools to reopen.
    More than 300 of Alamosa’s 8,500 people have been sickened since the first victims showed symptoms on March 7. Some 73 salmonella cases have been confirmed, with 11 people requiring hospitalization. About half the victims have been under age 11.
    Salmonella can cause diarrhea, fever and stomach pain. Victims typically recover on their own, though infants, the elderly and those with impaired immune systems may require treatment.
    State health officials didn’t confirm the outbreak until March 20. Salmonella is usually a food-borne disease and contamination of public water systems is rare.
    The particular strain that caused the outbreak is one found in the feces of local deer, birds and other warm-blooded animals. How it got into the water remains a mystery.
    The search for the source is frustrating, City Manager Nathan Cherpeski said.
    ‘‘As we get evidence, it will start to appear we have the source. But at the end of the day we start to have evidence it’s something else,’’ he said.
    From 1971 to 2004 there were 15 salmonella outbreaks in municipal water systems, said Jonathan Yoder, a waterborne epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks such incidents.
    Of the five cases since 1985, two involved cracked pipes or problems in the distribution system, Yoder said. Two more were blamed on insufficient water treatment. The other was attributed to untreated ground water.
    In Gideon, Mo., in 1993, bird feces was determined to be the probable cause after bird feathers were found floating in a water storage tank, said Steve Gunderson, director of Colorado’s water quality control division.
    But officials never determined the source of a 1965 outbreak in Riverside, Calif., that affected 16,000 people.
    Alamosa draws its water from a deep well and is the largest Colorado water system not required to chlorinate its water, Gunderson said.
    Plans to change that were under way before the outbreak. A $16 million water treatment plant will come online this summer. It was built because arsenic levels in city water exceeded Environmental Protection Agency standards.
    Once the entire system has been disinfected, which is expected to be completed April 7, officials plan to leave a residual amount of chlorine in the water to prevent future contamination.
    That’s small solace to the Codys, who, like many residents, were in disbelief when word of the outbreak spread. Some residents continued to use tap water to make soup and coffee. All were allowed to bathe in it before the chlorination began Tuesday, and drinking was permissible if it had been boiled.
    Signs posted outside town have been warning that the water is unusable and National Guard troops have distributed bottled water.
    Gas stations quit offering coffee or soda from fountains. Restaurants advertised a free bottle of water with meals rather than daily specials. Hand sanitizer has been in heavy demand. And fresh vegetables are no longer available at the city’s three grocery stores because they can’t be misted.
    The Comfort Inn, which has its own, uncontaminated well, opened several rooms to allow residents to shower.
    ‘‘We’ll see what we’re made of,’’ said Gary Wuckert, an apartment manager, who filled his bathtub before the heavy chlorination began.
    ‘‘It really is like the old-time days when we had to haul in water,’’ said Kathy Rogers, mayor pro tem. ‘‘It’s tough but we’re resilient.’’

Sign up for the Herald's free e-newsletter