Friday, August 2, 2013

Random Thoughts on the Baker City Crypto Outbreak

[Edited 8/3/13]

                           Goodrich Reservoir, Baker City Watershed

They say that hindsight would have been perfect foresight, or something like that, and my first chemistry teacher would always reprimand his students when they made a mistake by saying "In the future" la de da de da, hoping we would learn from our mistakes. I guess it doesn't always turn out that way in the real world.

As of today there were less than 10 confirmed cases of disease caused by Cryptosporidium (crypto) in Baker City, according to published reports. Most people I speak with know of at least a few people who have symptoms consistent with cryptosporidiosis who have not gone to the doctor for various reasons.  The main reasons, in my view, that they haven't sought treatment, is because the symptoms did not overwhelm them, and that going to the doctor can be expensive, especially for those with little or no health insurance. These anecdotal reports seem to indicate that the number of cases in Baker City is far higher than the number of reported cases, quite possibly in the hundreds. Hopefully, the state epidemiologists will at least conduct minimal studies with large enough sample sizes to extrapolate/estimate the number of people actually infected.

Yesterday I asked the State Health Authority to tell me whether the city was required to do additional testing after the initial 2-year round of testing, which showed positive for crypto, ended in 2012.  My reading of the requirements, as well as theirs, indicated that no more testing was required by the LT2 Rule until 6 years had passed.  Today, the city has confirmed that they have not been testing the water for crypto since the first round of testing ended and that they were not required to do so. (That was the question I asked them yesterday.)

Most folks I have spoken with indicate to me that continued testing would have been the sensible thing to do, given that we had positive tests for crypto in the watershed. That was my view too, but it didn't happen. The current events in Baker City seem to indicate a weakness in the EPA's monitoring requirements for crypto, and a lack of prudence by city officials in charge of protecting our water supply. Another suggested that given the previous positive tests, that in addition to monitoring in the absence of any effective treatment, no water from Goodrich should have been used in the municipal water supply before testing for pathogens, including crypto.  In hindsight, I certainly agree, even if Goodrich or Mountain Goats don't turn out to be the sources of the problem.

Another individual wondered why the city was spending the money to have an employee drive the test samples to Seattle and then pay for a motel while waiting for the results which they would then take back to Baker City. Why can't the city send them overnight via US Mail, UPS or Fed Ex? To the best of my knowledge, they haven't had to drive them up before.

I have previously complained to city officials and others about our city priorities which seem to continuously discount our needs for basic infrastructure in favor of so-called "economic development." The sentiment I'm hearing from those I speak with is that the city leaders thinks it is more important to win city beauty contests and spend money on putting Resort St. utilities underground, throwing money at the golf course and airport, and etc. (not to mention increased expenditures for aggressive policing and employee salaries and benefits), than it is to spend our tax dollars on water testing, and basic infrastructure, like water treatment, sewage treatment, water delivery systems, sewers, streets, and etc.  (If you look down Resort Street today, after the utilities have been put underground, it still looks like a bit of a wide alley.  If you first look at the price tag for putting the utilities underground, well, then it looks like a million bucks!)

Lonely Golfer on Our Golf  Course

Take the golf course for one example. With regard to all the subsidies that have historically gone to the golf course after the addition of the back nine holes, some Councilors reflect the conventional elite wisdom with statements like this:

Dennis Dorrah:
For my part the golf course is much like the swimming pool. It improves the quality of life of many of our citizens and I see it as a tool for drawing business to our community.
Clair Button, whose house backs up to the golf course:
Each house built because of the golf course contributes between 2000 - 6000 dollars in property taxes annually. Multiply that times the number of houses that have been built because of the growth the golf course has generated. The housing creation is ongoing. We want that growth to increase the tax base.  They pay to pave their own streets and provide sidewalks. Those people have the money to invest in business. They create jobs. They pay a large share of our water and sewer system upgrades. They spend money at local businesses, all of which keep our local economy moving.  The economic recycling of money is a well documented phenomenon. The entire community does benefit.
Miracle workers according to Clair. The two Councilors are not alone among city leaders, they just let their opinions be known. The truth is that the claims are not backed up by valid statistics or cost-benefit studies, and the city just spent over $150,000 to replace the sub-standard water tanks in the Scenic Vista development, overlooking the golf course, that were accepted by then City Manager Tim Collins on July 31, 2003.  Mr. Collins, an avid golfer, purchased property in the subdivision a few years later. The golf course has also made evident two classes of citizens--those who can drive their unlicensed vehicles (golf carts) all over town without harassment (golfers), and those who have to license their vehicles to drive them on our streets because they will be cited if they don't (the rest of us). They also take many hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of potential drinking water for free to irrigate a little used facility that won't pay for itself.

Additionally, the state and federal government have given us millions to spend on rebuilding selected streets in recent years, when what we needed was money to move swiftly on water and sewage treatment.

But the important point is this:  Who is going to want to come to live in Baker City so as to enjoy the subsidized golf course and a few tidy new streets when our drinking water is contaminated with crypto because we spent our extra dollars on elite activities like the golf course, airport, and underground utilities for business people on Resort Street, instead of on necessities like water testing and treatment?

There are also questions about how rapidly information is getting out to neighboring towns and cities who have citizens who visit Baker City. An interesting situation was related to me by a friend this afternoon.  She had two elderly women visit last Monday from La Grande.  One was around 75 and the other was 105 years old (a very remarkable woman who was raised in the Baker City area). They drank lots of water. The younger of the two ended up in Grande Ronde Hospital a few days later with gastrointestinal pain, stomach upset, and diarrhea. She's on intravenous antibiotics. When my friend told the mother and the nurse about the crypto outbreak in Baker City, neither had even heard about it.

Now just in case you think I never have positive things to say to the city, the letter below is just one example of a positive response to their efforts. It is easy to stand back and be the critic when you are not involved in a situation, especially when it comes sort of natural and they don't want to hear what you have to say anyway. While I do think the EPA, the state, and the city need to reevaluate the LT2 rule with regard to the monitoring that should be required when crypto has already been discovered in a watershed prior to initiation of effective treatment, and that no one can be proud of previous crypto monitoring issues or the PR problems on Wednesday morning, I do think that Mike Kee and his staff have done a good job of thinking the current situation through, while marshaling state and other resources, in their response to the current problem. ('Course some may think their lax oversight may have had a hand in causing it.)

July 31, 2013 

Just looked at the Herald and found the "City asks residents to reduce water use" article. Earlier today I mentioned to Jeanie that I thought the Goats might be contributors. The only reason I mentioned it was because I hiked from Marble Pass to Elkhorn (Goodrich) Peak a week ago. Goats are spread out along the rim from Marble Pass to Goodrich Res. and beyond. I only saw a polygamous "family" of five near the pass, but the sign, from tracks, to shedding hair, to scat pellets was everywhere, especially along the rim above Goodrich. I recalled the photos of the goats at the reservoir from earlier this year in a newsletter (???) and in any event, during this dry year, one suspects that the bowl around Goodrich and perhaps the waterline itself, is seeing a lot of goat scat deposits due to water seeking behavior.  Might be worth checking a few scat samples near the reservoir.

I am really, well, almost proud, and certainly grateful, that you and your staff have approached this outbreak in a logical manner, even if it doesn't turn out to be the goats. Everything that I read you are doing is delightfully sensible. The fact that you are looking at relevant factors and following the evidence is very encouraging.

Good luck in tracking it all down and trying to keep the water safe.

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