Farmers Water Company and the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality are still working to find out how E. coli may have gotten into the Madera Highlands water system, but they expect the issue to be resolved within 72 hours.
On Thursday afternoon, Farmers asked 1,400 customers to boil their water after sampling showed the possible presence of the E. coli bacteria.
Although it's not certain E. coli is in the water, Farmers increased the chlorination levels just in case additional tests confirm its presence, said Beth Gorman, a spokeswoman for the Pima County Department of Environmental Services.
"The public water system is taking confirmation samples today and they put a rush order with the lab to analyze the results," she said.
They will publish the results on their website: www.FarmersWaterCo.com
Farmers and PDEQ will test the yet water again to see if the chlorine took care of the issue.
"If resolved, the water system will lift the Boil Water Advisory and notify its consumers the water is safe to drink. If not resolved, the water system will continue with corrective actions," she said.
Jennifer Lynch, environmental quality manager for the water program at PDEQ, said that water companies only need to have one negative test after corrective measures are taken for the water to be considered safe.
The impacted area is south of Quail Creek and east of Union Pacific Railroad.
The communities affected include Madera Highlands, Madera Reserve, Colonia Real, Pasadera, Madera Shadows, Madera Foothills Estate and homes along Camino de la Canoa. The Continental School complex and the United Community Health Center are also covered by the boil advisory.
All public water systems are required to test for E. coli each month within the distribution system, Gorman said.
"The EPA has set a limit for E. coli at zero, which means any presence of the contaminant would trigger a Boil Water Advisory and corrective actions," Gorman said.
Federal and state rules mandate water systems issue a Boil Water Advisory once tests confirm E. coli, but Farmers issued the advisory "to be proactive and in the best interest of public health," Gorman said.
Farmers and PDEQ are investigating what caused the positive E. coli test results, but E. coli commonly enters the water system through increased run-off with recent rains, breaks in pipes, or treatment failure, Gorman said.
"Positive E. coli results are rare. I would say, on average, we see one or two per year," Gorman said. "We regulate 167 public water systems in Pima County."
Nan Walden, who along with her husband, Dick, own Farmers, said this is the first time they've had a positive test for E. coli.
“We just appreciate the understanding of the community,” Nan Walden said. “People have been really very nice and they realize we’re doing all we can and we really regret the inconvenience. We notified all the schools right away this morning, that was one of the first calls I made.”
Bottled water is being made available to affected customers at United Community Health Center, 1260 S. Campbell Road, in Green Valley from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily as long as necessary.
During the first two hours of distribution Thursday, Farmers had already handed out 150 cases of water.
“We urge people to use bottled water and that’s why we’re making it available or they can safely boil water for three minutes and then the water is safe to drink,” Dick Walden said. “And it’s OK to bathe in it and take a shower, just keep your mouth shut.”
Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria normally live in the intestines of healthy people and animals. Most varieties of E. coli are harmless or cause relatively brief diarrhea. A few particularly nasty strains, such as E. coli O157:H7, can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting.
“The main thing is not to panic, but to be careful. Especially with very young children and older people who may have sensitive systems. And if anyone gets sick consult their doctor,” Nan Walden said.
Customers living in the affected area can call (520) 879-7474 for further information.