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Bacteria in Clearwater's water puzzle utility

More than 20 city water samples test positive for organisms found in intestines. No illnesses have been linked to the E. coli .

Published November 16, 2004

CLEARWATER - Traces of the intestinal bacteria E. coli have been detected throughout the city's drinking water system, city utility officials say.

No related illnesses have been reported, according to the Pinellas County Health Department, and officials say the city's water meets federal guidelines.

Utility experts, however, have not identified the bacteria's origin. They hope to launch an $87,000 independent audit this week that will diagnose the failure.

E. coli , a bacteria commonly found in animal and human intestines, can indicate the presence of serious waterborne diseases, including cholera, dysentery and typhoid. The E. coli strain in Clearwater's water supply is not by itself harmful, said Mike Flanery, director of the Health Department's environmental engineering division.

"It's a puzzle, and we haven't come up with any logic to it," Flanery said. "It could be a complete false alarm. But we're taking the approach as if it's real."

Since September, 21 different city water samples tested positive for E. coli . The positive results have spanned the city and puzzled water department officials, who have not discerned a pattern or source.

In most cases, further testing showed no trace of the bacteria, said city utilities director Andy Neff.

Before September, the city's water system had been free of biological activity for the previous 13 months.

"Nothing we can tell changed in the system," Neff said. Clearwater receives about 70 percent of its water from Pinellas County Utilities. The other 30 percent comes from the city's own underground well system.

City officials have examined their own well water and have not detected problems. Meanwhile, there have been no E. coli hits elsewhere in the county's water network, which includes unincorporated Pinellas County and Largo, Safety Harbor, Tarpon Springs and part of Oldsmar.

The county had used chloramine to disinfect its water until Oct. 25, when it switched to chlorine, a stronger disinfectant. Clearwater reported positive E. coli results both before and after the switch.

Officials in Dunedin, which has its own well field, have not reported any biological activity, either.

"It's pretty unusual, and the city's trying to grapple with it," said Bob Lowell, director of Pinellas County Utilities' lab department. Pinellas County Utilities had three E. coli hits in its system last year. Lowell, who has been with the department since 1978, cannot remember another significant incident before that.

Along with the 21 positive E. coli samples in Clearwater, there have been another 42 positive tests for coliform, a broader family of bacteria that includes E. coli . Total coliforms indicate biological activity in the system, Neff said.

In a normal month, city workers collect about 110 water samples from water meters across the city. In September, after the first E. coli results were noted, city workers collected 1,510 samples, close to 15 times the normal amount. "Our people are going through every possible combination or scenario," Neff said. "We're ruling nothing out."

The city issued three localized boil-water notices for residents in September when multiple samples collected from those areas tested positive for coliforms.

Clearwater's water system has always met federal Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, water experts said. The level of biological contaminants has not exceeded 5 percent of samples.

"The trend appears to be lessening, but that doesn't lessen our concern," Neff said. "We need to have the answer. We need to understand what's happening."

[Last modified November 16, 2004, 00:39:15]

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