Sacramento officials said Monday they were “optimistically cautious” that bacteria detected in the Pocket/Greenhaven area water supply have left the system, but an advisory urging residents to boil drinking water remained in place, sending residents scrambling to buy bottled water and prompting schools to shut off drinking fountains.
The city issued an advisory shortly before midnight Sunday encouraging the tens of thousands of south Sacramento residents between the Sacramento River and Interstate 5 to boil their drinking water before consumption. That notice was based on five tests dating back to Wednesday showing “total coliform” bacteria in the Pocket neighborhood.
But two subsequent rounds of samples gathered Sunday tested negative for the bacteria on Monday. If Tuesday’s results are also negative, the city will work with the state to issue an all-clear, said Sacramento Water Quality Superintendent Pravani Vandeyar at a press conference Monday afternoon.
The advisory is believed to be unprecedented in a city where residents have long trusted tap water as a reliable drinking source at the confluence of two major rivers.
“This has never happened before, to our knowledge within the city,” said Sacramento utilities director Bill Busath.
The city notified residents by posting an advisory online, alerting the media, posting signs at major intersections in the area and sending recorded phone messages to residents.
Coliform bacteria are naturally present in plants and soil, but they are also found in human and animal fecal matter. Water is routinely tested for coliform because they can indicate that other potentially harmful bacteria may be present.
Since the Sunday samples tested negative, City Councilman Rick Jennings and other leaders said at Monday afternoon’s press conference that they have some confidence that the water is clean but would wait for similarly clear readings Tuesday and approval from the state to lift the drinking water advisory.
Until then, city leaders continue to encourage residents to boil their water for at least a minute and then cool it before drinking it or using it for cooking. If the water is not being used for consumption, it does not need to be boiled.
The detection was limited to an area near a levee in the Pocket; city officials declined to provide a more specific location. The succession of readings positive for coliform led the city to issue its drinking water advisory.
“We have not seen this many positives in that short a time frame in one location,” Vandeyar said Monday.
But she also sounded confident that whatever problem may exist is “very localized to that area.” City Manager John Shirey said the city issued a broad advisory for all of Pocket/Greenhaven to “err on the side of caution.”
City crews can take a variety of remedial actions such as system repair, flushing and killing the bacteria with chlorine for a short period. Vandeyar said the utilities department flushed the pipes around the contamination on Friday, but it did not solve the problem.
Officials stressed that E. coli, a sub-group of total coliform group, has not turned up in the samples. E. coli would pose a greater risk that pathogens are present.
Sacramento’s water boil advisory will remain in place until the city issues a directive rescinding the voluntary notice, working in conjunction with the state Division of Drinking Water. The city said the likelihood of becoming ill is low, but illness is possible, especially for people with chronic conditions.
Some residents in the Pocket area headed to the grocery store Monday morning to get bottled water, just in case. Shelves for water in Nugget Markets on Florin Road and the two Bel Air grocery stores in the area weren’t quite cleared out as of noon Monday, but were emptier than usual.
Brittany Ragster, 30, bought a case of water bottles after hearing about the advisory. She lives in the Pocket area but said she did not get a phone call from the city.
“I’m a little concerned,” she said. “I do a lot of cooking, so I’m going to have to come back for more water for that and for the kids to drink.”
Marcy Smith, 66, got the phone call last night. She said she’s nervous about the warning, but she has bottled water to drink.
“I’m a big water drinker,” she said. “I drink 12-14 cups a day, so I’m going to go through it pretty fast.”
Sacramento City Unified School District spokesman Gabe Ross said schools in the area shut off their water fountains Monday to ensure no students drink the water. Bottled water was on hand for lunchtime.
Several public schools are located in the advisory area, including John F. Kennedy High School, the School of Engineering and Sciences, Caroline Wenzel Elementary School, Genevieve F. Didion K-8, Martin Luther King Jr. K-8 School, Matsuyama Elementary School and Sol Aureus College Preparatory K-8 School.
Ross said most of the schools’ food is safe because it’s prepared off site. Anything usually prepared on site with tap water was removed from kitchens. The schools sent notice to parents Monday morning and will continue to monitor the situation, he said.