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The State

San Diego Water Crisis Is Called a False Alarm

Health: Officials say reports of bacteria in supplies were incorrect.

July 18, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Civic fears over the possibility of tainted water eased Wednesday night when follow-up tests showed that earlier tests that found illness-causing bacteria in the county's water supply were apparently erroneous.

Nine of 23 local water agencies had immediately stopped buying water from the regional San Diego County Water Authority when results released Tuesday from monitoring at 11 sites purported to show the presence of a coliform bacteria that can cause vomiting, fever and flu-like symptoms.

With most areas of the county devoid of their own sources of water, the scare showed this growing county's extreme vulnerability to disruptions or quality problems in its flow of imported water.

The county's water supply "continues to be safe," a visibly relieved Chris Guild, deputy general manager of the water authority, said late Wednesday as the new results taken from 30-plus sources were released.

The county buys 85% of its water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, more than any of the six counties that depend on the mega-agency.

Authority officials had advised the 23 member agencies, particularly those without their own treatment systems, to consider halting their purchases of water from the county supply after Monday's routine tests at all 11 sites in the far-flung system were positive.

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But officials had been perplexed by the fact that other tests showed that the water was clean when it was shipped southward by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and clean after it was distributed to the local agencies that serve the county's 2.7 million people.

Believing that the 11 tests were false positives, officials immediately ordered a new round of tests.

The authority will continue probing to determine why the Monday tests resulted in false positives, Guild said. A private firm does the authority's monitoring.

The water authority, which functions as a consortium, buys water from the Metropolitan Water District and distributes it to the 23 agencies. Only a few of those agencies have their own estimable sources of water. Just 15% of the county's water comes from local sources such as wells or mountain runoff.

Along with advising local agencies to consider suspending their purchases, water authority officials had also stressed that the bacteria discovered by the tests is not the deadly e-coli bacteria.

Like many water districts, the San Diego authority increased security measures after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Additional patrols, cameras and testing procedures were established.

The city of San Diego, the authority's largest customer, opted to continue buying from the water authority. The city has an extensive treatment system.

Several of the districts that discontinued purchases are small agricultural districts that either have their own wells or their own storage capacity. The cities of Vista (population 60,000) and Oceanside (160,000) also suspended purchases, relying on storage and telling residents to reduce usage.

Some farmers in the avocado-rich northern section of the county stopped irrigating their fields. One small agricultural district advised residential customers to boil their water.

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