More than a million gallons of bacteria-laden irrigation water -- a mixture of groundwater and canal water, none of it up to drinking standards -- poured into Phoenix's drinking supply late last year through a home in the Biltmore Estates that didn't have a system, called a backflow protector, designed to keep irrigation water away from the drinking water. (To give you some perspective, an average toilet flush uses three to five gallons.)
County environmental officials, who called the problem potentially dangerous, issued a cease and desist order to the city last week, ordering Phoenix to fix the problem and improve future communications with the county. The city had already made the homeowner put the correct protections in place, and flushed out the supply system.
"Ducks and geese do go to the bathroom in that water. From a public health standpoint, it's not water we want people drinking," says Tom Waldbillig, manager of Maricopa County's drinking water program. All over the Valley people do drink canal water, Waldbillig adds, but that water is treated extensively first. This water wasn't treated at all.
The bad water might have reached an area that stretches from 24th to 32nd streets, and Camelback Road north to the Arizona Canal. That includes the Biltmore Fashion Park and several other office and shopping complexes. City officials used computer analyses to estimate the affected area.
Both the city and county have sampled the water supply in recent days and have not found any contamination. Bob Hollander, compliance and regulatory affairs administrator for Phoenix's water services department, says that's probably because the city routinely adds bacteria-killing chlorine to the drinking water.
A meter reader first noticed a drop in water pressure on December 5. A second reading was conducted December 10. The following day, the water was shut off and samples (all negative) were taken. Water meters are read once a month, so the area's drinking water supply could have been contaminated over several weeks, Hollander says.
County officials say they were not notified until January 2, even though the city was required to tell them about the contamination within 24 hours and follow up with a written report five days later, says Laura Devany, spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Environmental Services Department.
The county, rather than the state or federal government, is responsible for regulating water quality and health concerns. Health officials don't know if anyone got sick, but someone may have. They just wouldn't have known it was the water, Waldbillig says -- and they may never know, because the city failed to notify county health officials of the contamination in a timely manner. What someone thought was food poisoning or the flu might actually have been caused by bad water.
The county gets calls all the time from people who say their water tastes funny; they're referred to the city. But if the county had known there was a problem, those calls would have been investigated, Waldbillig says.
Because of the time delay, the county health department cannot conduct a proper investigation to find out if the water made anyone sick, Waldbillig says. "The nature of the population out there is so transient . . . that it makes it very difficult from an epidemiology standpoint to determine if anyone got sick."
The county's cease and desist order requires the city to properly notify residents who may have been affected by the contamination. Waldbillig says he's still not sure how large the affected area is. A "vague" notice went out to Biltmore residents already, but the county is making the city send a second, more detailed letter.
The law does not require homeowners to have systems in place to protect the water from such contamination, unless they are in a "cross connection" situation such as the one along the Biltmore golf course. Twenty-one homes, including the one in question, need the systems, which cost about $2,000 for homes that size, according to Hollander. Some already had the systems and some didn't, he says, adding that soon they all will.
Hollander says problematic meter readings come up from time to time, but he doesn't recall an incident like this taking place.
Waldbillig oversees water departments all over the county. Phoenix has the largest; in fact, the city has one of the largest water departments in the nation. "Actually, they do a darn good job of operating a huge water system," Waldbillig says. He reviewed a draft of the response to the cease and desist order Monday and says it was comprehensive.
He's not critical of the steps the city took to fix the problem, but rather the lack of communication about those steps. Not only didn't the county find out about the problem until the beginning of January, Waldbillig says, Bob Hollander himself didn't know until January 18.
Hollander confirms that, agreeing that communication was a problem. "I don't think there's an issue remaining," he says.
Tell that to a Biltmore resident who had the flu in December.