If you've never boiled over at the incompetence of state and county environmental offices, now's the time. If you've never been frightened that their lazy attitude could endanger your life, now's the time.
Just ask Ed Whitehurst. He's an ordinary Arizona guy who did the most ordinary thing to seek refuge from the heat. Just like nearly 250,000 of us normally do during the summer. But Ed Whitehurst will never go tubing down the Salt River again. He'd never risk it, even if he weren't worried about getting his artificial leg wet.
As New Times reported last week, Ed Whitehurst lost his lower left leg because of a deadly bacteria he picked up while tubing on his day off. It was June 5 when Whitehurst and his friends were enjoying the Valley's most popular pastime. They stopped for lunch on a cliff near the river's South Blue Point Bridge. Whitehurst slipped off the overhang and plunged thirty feet into shallow water, shattering his left ankle. His foot was twisted ninety degrees and a large bone fragment pierced the skin. He spent about fifteen minutes floating rapidly downstream before sheriff's deputies picked him up.
Ed Whitehurst's leg would have healed if its open wound hadn't been attacked by a deadly infection from the bacteria aeromonas, a parasite his doctors attribute to human waste in the river. Less than a week after the accident, the bacteria had so eaten at his leg and was spreading so rapidly that doctors had to amputate to save his life. "The parasite had literally eaten away at me," he tells us. "When the doctors cut into my leg, all they found was pus around what was left of my calf muscle."
In researching the story, reporter Darrin Hostetler naturally called the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. How often do you test the river water? he asked. It's not our job, he was told. He dutifully took down all the other places DEQ suggested he call. And he called them all. The Maricopa County Health Department. Nope, they don't test either. The Arizona Department of Health Services. Not our problem. The U.S. Forest Service. Not us. Salt River Recreation, a private company that rents tubes. Someone there said testing wasn't necessary because the Salt "is the cleanest river in the U.S." (Don't you love that an agency with the words "environmental quality" in its name thinks it's kosher to refer inquiries about deadly water bacteria to a private tubing company?)
Hostetler found that the Salt River Project does test water from the Salt River coming into its canals--since this water eventually is treated and comes out of our taps at home. But the river clearly isn't the utility's responsibility.
The horrifying part is that the river's purity isn't anybody's responsibility. At least not in this state, where environmental quality is a farce. Nobody is even curious enough--to say nothing of disturbed enough--to do a simple test on a river that is jammed with 11,000 tubers each week from May to September. Everyone in authority is quite content to ignore what happened to Ed Whitehurst.
This isn't some parts-per-billion scare that says someday, if you live long enough, you might contract some deadly pollution disease. This is a right-now problem that has already eaten off the leg of one young man. How many more will it take? Is everyone who cuts himself on a tubing trip in danger? Is everyone who arrives with an open nick or sore courting disaster? Would twenty more Ed Whitehursts make somebody act? How about 100?
How long will Arizona tolerate this laziness and incompetence?
There's nothing mysterious or difficult about what must be done. The river's water must be tested. Now.
If the bacteria level is dangerous, signs must be posted on the river so every tuber knows of the danger. Now.
This isn't some parts-per-billion scare that says someday, if you live long enough, you might contract some deadly pollution disease.