The latest tests of water in Sacramento's Pocket-Greenhaven neighborhood for coliform bacteria were negative, but city utility officials say they won't reverse the voluntary advisory recommending residents boil their drinking and cooking water.
The alert was distributed through automated phone messages and media alerts Sunday night after repeated tests showed the presence of the bacteria. Coliform is a common organism that doesn't cause illnesses, but it can be an indicator that more harmful organisms are present.
“We tested specifically for those including E. coli so we know those are not in the water ... what we don’t know is what else might be in the water that may be a problem," said Bill Busath, director of the Sacramento Department of Utilities.
The lack of information frustrated Pocket neighborhood resident Richard Lehman, who wanted to know how long the advisory would last, if water must be boiled for washing dishes and how his health could be affected.
“Is it vomiting? Is it nausea? Is it diarrhea? You know, what are the symptoms?" said Lehman.
Some residents are already claiming that they are getting those symptoms from drinking the water, but Busath notes that it's also flu season, and those symptoms may not be caused by contaminated water.
Coliform levels are commonly detected but go away quickly. They can be caused by stagnant water in the system or localized construction that compromises pipes, but those causes have been ruled out in this case.
Meanwhile, city schools have put drinking fountains off limits and have gotten a supply of bottled water for students. Parents have purchased bottled water for schools, as well.
“No panic at all, we haven’t had any of the kids worried about the availability of water because we made it known that water is available to them, so we're in good shape here," said Genevieve Didion School Principal Norm Policar.
Shari's restaurant staff was pouring scalding hot water from its coffee machines into water pitchers and cooling it before serving customers. Many have asked if the water was safe to drink.
The water boiling advisory is not mandatory, and everyone has their own safety threshold. Busath said personally he wouldn't boil water because the risk is so small. But some businesses feel differently.
“We are concerned for our guests, and we have to know for our sake, too," said Keriann Elliott, Shari’s restaurant shift supervisor.
The latest negative tests aren't conclusive because traces of the bacteria have disappeared before only to return in subsequent tests. More tests are under way.