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Wed., April 23, 2014

Editorial: Water alert a lesson in ways things can go wrong

Don’t drink water from a hose. Pasadena Park Water District 17 did essentially that last month and ended up triggering a mandatory boil order that could be a case history in how everything that can go wrong will.

Because the owners of a home where district workers normally take a water sample were gone, they sampled a tap outside the house, where it could easily be contaminated by dirt or other material. The lab analyzing the water found E. coli, a bacterium that can cause diarrhea, nausea and other symptoms.

When E. coli are found, the Washington Department of Health requires a retest at the first site, points upstream and downstream, and at the well where the water was obtained. No E. coli was found, but there was other coliform bacteria that should not be present in a water system, but would not by itself trigger a boil order.

But because of the initial E.coli finding, the state requires a Tier 1 alert to water system customers directing them to boil water.

The lab confirmed the water was tainted at about 4:40 p.m. on Friday, March 21. At that point, the district can take any one of four actions to notify its customers: alert the media; post conspicuous notices like sandwich signs around the district; post notices on every customer’s door; or reach out through some other means approved by the state.

The state takes the lead in contacting the media. Do that after 5 p.m. on any day, and you miss the early evening news cycle. By the time the 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. cycles come around, many of the customers are in bed. Do that on a Friday, and many will be out, perhaps for the weekend.

It could get worse. And did.

The Department of Health uses email to alert media of a news event. That day, the email system was down. Agency officials had to call each newsroom individually to get the word out.

So, the district complied with regulations, but many customers did not get the word in a timely way. Some were hot, and let the district, state and media know so.

The district recovered by doing what should have been done in the first place: using a reverse 911 call system that notified customers the water was again usable. However, with so many relying exclusively on cell phones, if they have not registered the phone with the 911 system, they will not get a call.

The City of Spokane uses reverse 911, Twitter and Facebook. It also notifies anyone who subscribes to the city’s several websites. In a significant emergency, the mayor can be summoned to add urgency to an alarm.

Neither the city nor Pasadena district have had to issue a Tier 1 alert for many years. Statewide, there might be as many as 100 in a year.

To help small districts like Pasadena, with just 2,300 customers, the Department of Health intends to meet with all districts that tap the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer users to encourage cooperation and support during future alerts. Good idea. Although the health threat last month turned out to be minimal, that may not always be the case.

Any effort to protect the aquifer is a plus. How it’s treated above and below ground matters if we want to keep it drinkable – from a glass.

To respond to this editorial online, go to and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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