Oh, crap: E. coli scare false alarm

A short-lived E. coli scare last week had Chico water users scrambling to buy bottled water, boiling tap water and rethinking just how well they wash their hands after going potty.

The California Water Service Company on Sept. 26, in consultation with the Department of Health Services, issued a “boil-water notice,” the first such warning in the company’s 76-year history. By the next day, the results came back: It was a “false positive,” and the water was good to drink. Bacteria like E. coli can cause serious illness, or even death in the very young or very old.

Mark Lightcap, manager of Cal Water’s Chico district, said his staff was working past midnight that Thursday and is as relieved as everyone to learn that the system is OK. On a personal level, Lightcap said, “It took so much intense concentration there wasn’t much time to get freaked out.”

Cal Water’s Emergency Preparedness Plan kicked in and, with plenty of water in the aquifer, the company was able to flush the system and add a little more chlorine for good measure.

“It will certainly be expensive,” Lightcap acknowledged, but an exact accounting will not be complete for about a month. “Our top priority was the health of our customers.”

One place especially affected by the scare was Enloe Medical Center, where spokeswoman Ann Prater said close to 40 elective surgeries were canceled and Enloe turned to other hospitals to sterilize their equipment for emergencies. They converted to bottled water and waterless hand sanitizer. “It was certainly a significant expense, but we haven’t put a dollar amount on it,” Prater said.

Lightcap said that it could have been animal or human fecal matter that caused the samples to register positive for bacteria. “We are undergoing an investigation,” he said. Theoretically, the samples could have been contaminated in a variety of ways, including en route to or at the lab in San Jose, or from something funky in the ice used to store the samples. But all four of the samples that tested positive were taken by the same, veteran Cal Water employee. “That person has been wracking [his or her] brain,” Lightcap said, to remember where he or she could have come in contact with fecal matter. “They could have touched something that someone else touched,” Lightcap said, or perhaps stepped in animal waste and not known it. Cal Water workers are careful to practice good personal hygiene. “No one is in trouble,” he added.

If there really had been E. coli in the water, he said, “it would have to be the wells or something in the pipes.”

Lightcap said the experience was stressful, but he’s pleased with how it was handled.

Cal Water faced some criticism from politicians, including 2nd District Butte County Supervisor Jane Dolan and 3rd District Assembly candidate Stuart King, who felt that rather than rely on the media to get out the information, each customer should have been notified personally within three hours of the potential contamination being discovered.

"Under the circumstances, I think we did a really good job getting the word out," Lightcap said.