Environmental pollution concerns come to forefront Reports that the state finds El Dorado Irrigation District’s drinking water system primitive, outdated and an avenue for hazardous pollutants sent El Dorado County residents scrambling for more information Wednesday. The message that pregnant, elderly and sick residents should boil their water or buy it bottled was buried in fine print in the 28,000 notices mailed in September to EID customers. Dozens of residents called EID offices Wednesday after The Bee obtained a copy of a state report showing photographs of manure piles, animal carcasses, mats of algae and other contaminants in and near EID’s open reservoirs. “That article made me a firm believer that I’m not crazy,” said Sue Reimer, who was seven months pregnant in 1996 when she was diagnosed with giardia, a water-borne virus that causes intestinal problems. The El Dorado engineer said she was drinking only EID water — and lots of it, at her doctor’s suggestion. There’s no confirmed connection between EID’s water and illness in El Dorado County, county officials say.
The problem at EID, state health officials say, is that after the district filters water drawn from the American River, it stores the water in small reservoirs open to the elements. Most other water districts use closed steel or concrete tanks. Only a few other California water districts currently store treated water in open reservoirs, including those in McCloud, Santa Barbara, Montecito, Carpinteria and Los Angeles. None of those has as many as the 11 used in EID. The El Dorado reservoir water consistently meets state health standards on bacteria, EID officials say, because the district constantly bubbles chlorine from nearby tanks into the reservoirs and sends the water on to homes. But they admit their open reservoirs expose the water to contamination by disease-causing agents for which there are no health standards or required testing in small water districts: giardia, viruses and cryptosporidium.
“We are more vulnerable because they are not covered,” said Marjie Lopez Read, EID water quality superintendent, “even though the treatment is complete at the water plants.” William Hetland, EID general manager, said the district hasn’t ignored the problem of covered reservoirs. Several years ago, he said, it began buying rubberized membrane covers for the reservoirs. Seven had already been installed when, in July, the California Department of Health Services ordered the district to either build steel tanks or put concrete lids on all of its reservoirs. The rubber covers, the state decided after a 1997 investigation, allow too much contamination of treated water by animals, vegetation and rain. “We’ve been addressing this problem,” said Hetland. “Maybe not as fast as they’d like, but we have been addressing the problem.” Until 1990, he said, the district didn’t even filter its water. It simply pumped American River water to the reservoirs and treated it with chlorine.
The state put EID on a four-year schedule to cover its reservoirs, a job that EID board member Raymond Larsen estimated would cost $30 million to $40 million and force the district, with an annual water supply budget of $10 million, to raise rates 50 percent. The state also ordered the district to advise customers that if they’re elderly, pregnant, ill, HIV-positive, undergoing cancer therapy or otherwise suffering from a compromised immune system, they should either use bottled water or boil their water. A flier titled “EID News from the Water Front” was mailed to all customers and sent home with school children, Hetland said. But several residents said they either didn’t notice it or didn’t realize its significance. The warning about boiling water appeared on the third page.
“I never saw this notice,” said resident Reimer. “I always look.” To back up its enforcement order, the Department of Health Services prepared a vividly photographed report that didn’t circulate much beyond the EID board of directors. It shows bird droppings, dead frogs and birds, beer bottles, the footprints of human swimmers, runoff from horse and cattle pastures and animal skeletons in the reservoirs. “If an infected cow, while grazing, defecates into the drinking water stored in this reservoir,” states the caption to one photo in the report, “the water becomes contaminated with literally millions of Cryptosporidium organisms.” Water quality experts say chlorine does not kill cryptosporidium, an intestinal parasite that was responsible for an outbreak that infected 400,000 people in 1993 in Milwaukee. Chlorine generally kills viruses but does not completely kill giardia. El Dorado County health officials say that so far this year they documented six cases of giardia and two of cryptosporidium, some of them from Lake Tahoe, which is not in the EID service area.
Those numbers are no higher than documented in previous years, they said, and investigations usually show that victims have been swimming in rivers or drinking from streams while backpacking. But Reimer said she hadn’t been backpacking in five years when she got giardia. It made her “sicker than a dog,” too sick to even care for her 2-year-old for two weeks. “I lost 10 pounds and I got to the point where I was having contractions,” she said. “I called EID and said the only water I drank is your water. How did I get giardia? They said we treat all our water.
.. They told me I was crazy.” Other EID customers say they’re regular drinkers of bottled water. “We haven’t drunk any of that water for four or five years,” said Wave Baxter of Diamond Springs, whose groceries at a Placerville Lucky store included a large bottle of water. “The last time I set a glass on the container and turned around to look the bottom was full of sand.” But board member Larsen, who lives in Camino, said he drinks the water with no qualms. “I know the pictures are rather graphic but if you go out to most of these reservoirs it looks nothing like the pictures,” said Larsen.
“We have fences around these things. We can’t keep ducks out, of course, but there are precautions taken so that if e coli (bacteria) does get into the system, the chlorine is added as it leaves the reservoir to solve that potential threat.” EID’s water system, centered around Sly Park Reservoir, was built in the 1950s by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for drinking water and agricultural use.