Will Artesia treat its water? Records show E. coli outbreaks spread throughout city
Bacteria-contaminated water is now reality for the people of Artesia.
Twice this year Artesians doubted their access to one of the most basic human needs: clean water.
Outbreaks of E. coli, potentially fatal bacteria originating in animal and human waste, shook the rural southeast New Mexican community in July and September.
Residents, businesses and any users of Artesia’s municipal water system were asked to boil their water before consumption.
During both incidents, businesses shuttered, public school classes were canceled, and bottled water was brought in from out of town.
Artesia Public Schools reported spending up to $1,000 per day during the September incident to provide bottled water to all students and staff.
The New Mexico Environment Department’s Drinking Water Bureau was brought in after the first outbreak to monitor Artesia’s path forward and ensure public safety, and state officials remained in contact with the city during the following months.
If a third advisory is enacted, NMED requires the city to submit two days’ worth of clean samples, with E. coli and total coliforms absent, before the advisory could be rescinded.
Records acquired by the Current-Argus via the Inspection of Public Records Act reveal a widespread bacterial problem, with outbreaks reported from numerous parts of the city.
To combat the contamination, the city introduced chlorine into the system in July, then again in September.
The first chlorination in July was allowed to run out of the system, and was not present during the second outbreak, but the city quickly reintroduced the chemical to kill the bacteria again.
It appeared the bacteria was eradicated, but another positive test result was reported Thursday, and a second one could result in a third boil water alert in as many months.
In a Thursday news release, the City of Artesia announced an E. coli-positive sample was received the day before after samples were sent to a lab in Hobbs.
At the time of the recent sampling, a residual level of chlorine was in the water supply to control the spread of bacteria, read the release.
"Typically, this level of chlorine would be sufficient to eliminate all bacteria in the lines," read the release. "Sampling this site again, as well as other sites in the vicinity of this site, is required by the State of New Mexico and the city will comply with this procedure."
City officials said the incidents were unprecedented, as no outbreaks were reported since Artesia was founded in 1905.
The city is renowned for its "artisan" wells, and crystal clear water drawn from the ground amid some of the densest extraction and agricultural activities in southeast New Mexico.
But aging infrastructure could have led to contamination, records show, and the city was left to decide if it would treat its drinking water – pumped from numerous ground wells throughout Artesia – for the first time in more than a century.
In a letter received as part of the IPRA request, Drinking Water Bureau Engineer Specialist Brian Barrick shared concerns about the state of the city's 26th Street Well, and a nearby valve.
Barrick wrote that the well's top bowl was not properly mounted and bolt holes were larger than the bolts, leaving a gap where contaminants could seep in.
He also said the well lacked a "sanitary seal."
"These conditions may present potential entry points for contaminants, as well as introduce shear stress to the bolts, given the torque and vibration the pump will produce," Barrick wrote.
"I would request that you have your operators fully remove the inoperable check valve and put plating over the openings to the well and the distribution to prevent any further introduction of contaminants."
In addition to upgrading the infrastructure itself, the city is considering permanent chlorine treatment in its municipal water supply.
Chlorination worked temporarily, as samples tested negative just days after the chemical was introduced in both incidents.
At a September town hall meeting, Director of Infrastructure Byron Landfair predicted any solution the city settles on may cost between $500,000 and $2 million.
During Tuesday’s Artesia City Council meeting, a decision was postponed until Oct. 24 as city staff needed more time gather data as to the mineral makeup and chemical properties of the wells, Landfair said.
In the meantime, Landfair said three of the city’s wells were set up for emergency disinfectant should another outbreak be reported. The city will also maintain residual levels of chlorine in the system for the rest of the year.
“During both events, the state was very interested in what we were gonna do long term,” said Artesia Mayor Phillip Burch. “We asked the citizens. They’re the ones that have to bear the brunt.”
At numerous public meetings held in the city in response to the outbreaks, residents voiced concerns over chlorination, expressed pride in their city’s clean and “chemical free” water and worried about the cost.
JT Jackson addressed city leaders at a town hall held in September. The 60-year Artesia resident said changing the system was not necessary or worth the potential price.
“We were proud to say we were one of the few systems in the state that doesn’t have chlorine in it,’” Jackson said. “I’d hate to see us put chlorine in it, and spending all this money. I think we have a glitch. It’s a glitch that will be worked out.”
But other residents, business owners and local leaders supported chemical treatment, anxious to disinfect the water and return to normal.
“There is no unanimous decision on if we should or not (treat city water),” Burch said. “We’re going to have to make a decision as to what is best for the long-term safety of the community.”
The E. coli discoveries were spread throughout the community, including Artesia and the nearby Morningside Water Co-op, which gets 100 percent of its water from the city.
Burch said city and state officials struggled to identify the source as it appeared to move throughout the pipe system, with positive test results originating in a multitude of apparently unrelated areas.
Documents acquired by the Current-Argus through the IPRA request showed samples testing positive for both E. coli and total coliforms taken from several wells, businesses and other locations in the city and from Morningside.
During the July outbreak, which led to the city’s first boil water advisory, from July 15 to 24, E. coli and total coliforms was found in samples taken from seven sources within the city’s system.
But the most consistent source of positive results came from locations listed at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC).
The center is situated on about 1,300 acres just west of U.S Highway 285, which bisects the city.
Two water sources listed at FLETC, located at 1300 W. Richey Ave., were identified in the lab results as FLETC #1 and FLETC #2.
They both tested positive for both E. coli and total coliforms on July 17 and 18.
FLETC #1 was also one of the original three locations that tested positive for the bacteria on July 15, prompting the first alert, along with a location at 1505 N. 13th St., across West Richey Avenue from the center, and the 26th Street well.
FLETC would also test positive again on July 19, along with the Morningside Co-op.
After chlorine was introduced on July 19, the next days’ samples were clear of E. coli, but a July 21 positive test for total coliforms from a sample taken at a location on the property of an Allsups at 1910 W. Main St. prolonged the alert.
All test were clean and the alert was lifted on July 24, nine days after the alarm was raised.
During the next two months, the chlorine was allowed to run out of the system and the city seemingly returned to normal.
Then on Sept. 14, records show routine water samples taken from the First Baptist Church, 322 W. Grand Ave., tested positive for both E. coli and total coliforms.
Two days later on Sept. 16, E. coli and total coliforms were found nearby at a location in the 500 block of W. Grand Ave.
Records show chlorination was present in the sample that tested positive.
A location at 401 S. 1st St. showed total coliforms on Sept. 17, and the same location had E. coli and total coliforms on Sept. 19.
The next day, total coliforms were found at a location at 1415 W. Hermosa, but two straight days of clear tests prompted the lifting of Artesia’s second boil water advisory.
Landfair said residual chlorine will be present in the system until 2018, while the city works on preventative measures.
Three wells are prepped for emergency disinfection, he said, in case of another outbreak.
And in the interim, it will be up to the city to determine a path forward: be that permanent chemical treatment or other infrastructure improvements.
"It’s been a long time without having to make this kind of decision," Burch said. "I don’t think the council has ever even had the discussion."
City staff deferred to Burch when asked for comment. Burch did not respond to calls and emails from Current-Argus staff and has been unavailable for comment on the E. coli issue since the September incident.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, email@example.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.