The Artesia City Council elected Tuesday to move forward with permanent disinfection, a decision the councilors say they did not take lightly.
“There are some strong feelings out in the public that we not disinfect the system,” Mayor Phillip Burch said. “But there’s, in my mind, more strong feelings of ‘Take care of the problem. Do what you need to do to make sure that we don’t have to boil this water again.’”
After undergoing its first-ever boil water order in July due to the presence of E. coli, the city was shocked two months later when a second contamination surfaced, forcing another alert. One month after that, in October, a sample again showed positive for E. coli; confirmation testing, however, did not, and no boil order was necessary.
The sudden rash of positive samples after so many decades without baffled the city’s infrastructure department, particularly considering each sample was isolated and appeared in a completely different area of the city than the last.
“That’s why we so much wanted to have a source,” said Burch. “What was the problem? Where did it come from? To try to be able to deal with it, and through all of this, we didn’t end up with anything.
“The state has been very helpful in trying to identify that source with us, and we’ve just not been able to. So without that, it starts to get down to what do you do, what decision do you need to make to make sure that the public’s safe, and that gets down to the bottom line pretty quickly.”
At both town halls held following the boil water alerts, as well as an emergency council meeting after the second, the majority of public feedback leaned toward leaving the city’s water untreated. But, the council said, with other residents simply calling for the city to “do something,” the community must understand the only “something” available is disinfection.
“I know that there have been strong feelings both ways,” said Councilor Raul Rodriguez. “But is this a fair statement: If we choose to disinfect the system that we are really taking a proactive approach to try to resolve the situation.
“Tomorrow, we’re going to have somebody say, ‘You guys decided to disinfect the system, that’s not what we wanted.’ But on the other hand, we have to take the approach that we had to do this in order to prevent another incident. This has been a hard thing for a couple of months to try and absorb and to educate ourselves on the problem and problem solving this thing, but sooner or later, we’re going to have to make some sort of decision, and the best way I could examine it in my mind is that we do care for the citizens, we care for the merchants, we care for everybody… this is not something that we want to wish upon anybody else, but if we make a decision to disinfect, we are trying something to be proactive and not be reactive if we have to boil again.”
Burch pointed out the council’s Infrastructure Committee, which includes councilors Bill Rogers, Luis Florez and Terry Hill, along with infrastructure director Byron Landfair and members of his staff, had undergone multiple active debates over both sides of the coin.
“I’ve seen them really wring their hands over this, because it is important, not only to the department but the primary thing, the thing they always got back to, which is, ‘What’s in the best interest of the citizens,’” said Burch.
“I don’t know how it would be prudent for any of us to sit here and say, ‘Well, our system ran for 80 years or 90 years, but we’ve had several in the last little bit,” said Rogers. “So I think for the health and the safety of the public… I just can’t see how we can not.”
“I don’t like the thought of having to do disinfecting on a permanent basis,” said Hill. “However, I also realize the burden and the stress it puts on not only the citizens but on Byron and his department, because everybody looks towards that Water Department whenever they have that issue.”
The council ultimately voted unanimously to permanently disinfect, with Councilor Manuel Madrid Jr. absent.
That decision, however, did not include a choice of disinfection system.
Landfair said the department, with the help of Occam Engineers Inc., has narrowed its options down to two. Now that the council has given permission to go forward, the firm will begin to prepare logistical analysis of the two methods to determine which would best suit the needs of Artesia’s water system.
Once that decision is made, the city plans to host a town hall – likely after the holidays in the second or third week of January 2018 – to present its choice for disinfection to the public.
“One of the things the committee wanted to do in between now and going out for bid was hold at least one town hall where we allow the community to come in, and we tell them what system we’ve selected, what’re the pros and the cons of that system, and let them have an opportunity to ask any questions of that system as far as its safety and its history,” said Landfair.
In the interim, the Water Department will continue – as it has since September – to maintain a residual level of chlorine in Artesia’s water. To make that practice safer and more efficient, however, the council also granted permission for the emergency purchase of three trichlor acid pellet disinfection systems at a total cost of $72,000.
Councilor Jeff Youtsey pointed out city workers have been climbing water towers every day since September to administer chlorine treatments; the temporary pellet systems would reduce that danger.
Landfair said the systems will be on skids in order to allow the ability to relocate if necessary, and their use will reduce the amount of times workers need to interact with tanks to once a week or every 10 days.
The trichlor systems will be installed at the Roselawn Avenue, Fifth Street, and Lonesome No. 1 South wells.
“The tablet systems are pre-generated chlorine pellets,” said Landfair. “You fill a tank up full of these pellets and then the system backwashes those pellets and creates about 10 gallons of hypochlorinated solution that is then metered and injected into the system at a pre-determined rate.”
Prior to the disinfection vote, Youtsey also breached the subject of whether lab error could have played any role in the onset of positive test results in Artesia, asking what the impact would be if a decision on disinfection were postponed until after the January town hall.
“That’s a pretty good question, and the best answer I can provide to you is time will only tell us,” said Landfair, stating that pushing the decision back would effectively “bring engineering to a standstill and push permanent installation that much further out.”
As it stands, once a method is selected, Landfair estimates a six-month installation period, meaning if the council is ready to go out to bid in mid- to late February, the permanent disinfection system would not be fully functional until around August 2018.
“Hence why we wanted to go ahead and install a temporary system in there that’ll help keep the residual in the system better than loading the tanks,” Landfair said.
“I share the concern about the results that we got,” said Burch. “In talking to the state, to be fair to the lab, they are a certified lab, they do test water samples from other communities, and I would assume, and they assume, that if it were an operational problem, we would not have been the only community that saw this.
“As much as I’d like to point the finger at a reason for this, we just haven’t been able to make that connection, and we’re hopeful that the relationship with the Albuquerque lab will be a positive one and we’ll just go forward from here.”
“I don’t believe any of us take this lightly,” said Youtsey. “I know we’ve all struggled with it, and God knows it’s been a burden to the citizens, but one thing I would like to get out there is even if we chlorinate, there is still a possibility that this could happen.”
“You’re right,” said Hill. “Disinfection is not going to guarantee 100 percent that this isn’t going to happen again. I’m concerned for the citizens as much as the rest of you. I’m trying to listen to everybody. But I see the need to go ahead and do this.”