LAKE HAVASU CITY, Ariz. — From water-skiing college kids to retirees in houseboats, tourists flock to this desert oasis, lured by its sparkling lake and the incongruous sight of the London Bridge rising from the Arizona desert.
But there is trouble in this Colorado River city. High levels of coliform bacteria in the channel beneath the British bridge have closed two of the lake's busiest beaches for almost a month, and news of the mysterious contamination is keeping tourists away.
One recent Friday evening, almost no one strolled through the English Village, a collection of small shops, restaurants and other businesses located in the shadow of London Bridge, which was dismantled and transported block-by-block to the desert, where it reopened in 1971.
Only a fraction of the normal boat traffic stirred the lake, which draws people from both coasts.
"Normally there should be at least 100 people walking around here," said Jesse Maheu, who rents ski jets from a small lakeside shop. "I didn't have a single ski go out today."
The problem was discovered prior to the July 4th weekend, according to John Parrot, head of the Chamber of Commerce.
Coliform bacteria indicate the possible presence of animal and human waste as well as other disease-carrying organisms.
Gov. Fife Symington and Mayor Richard Hileman have declared public health emergencies, and the state has allocated more than $125,000 to find and eliminate the contamination's source.
The bacteria were found in the narrow channel dredged to create a small island, where most of the tourist businesses and major beaches are located. The cause of the contamination remains unknown despite a monthlong search, said Ed Fox, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Fox named several possible factors, however, including sluggish water flow, water temperatures near 90 degrees, septic tanks, malfunctioning sewage systems, storm sewers and illegal dumping from boats.
The environmental agency has hired a consultant and employed dozens of field inspectors, police divers and a Department of Public Safety helicopter.
The helicopter is equipped with an infrared detection scope that can spot discharges of warm sewage water.
As the search continues, the summer tourism season is slipping away. Parrot had no firm figures but said he'd been told that business is off by 50% and more compared to last summer.
"What is really killing us is reports of things like sewage washing up on the beach, stuff like that," Parrot said. "They're just not true."
The few tourists out in the late-afternoon heat recently said they weren't especially concerned about the condition of the beaches.
"I heard about the beaches, but we're not going to be boating or swimming so it doesn't bother us," said John Oliver, visiting from Haymarket, Va., with his wife and grandson.