Residents on Edge Over Tainted Water : Ventura: Amid officials' warnings to boil drinking supplies and avoid bathing, some fear that meals eaten earlier may yet make them ill.


Ventura resident Floyd Smith had a tall glass of water with breakfast Thursday morning, which was fine until just before noon.

That's when he heard that the water supply in western Ventura was contaminated.

"Nobody told me about it until just a few minutes ago," Smith said outside a Ventura grocery store Thursday, where he had gone to stock up on bottled water. "I'm a little worried about this."

Much of Ventura had the same reaction Thursday, as word spread that the city had issued a midday warning to boil all water and stay out of the shower for the next two days.

Coliform bacteria, which comes from human and animal waste, was discovered in a portion of Ventura's water supply. If swallowed, water contaminated by sewage can cause illnesses ranging from stomach discomfort to hepatitis, said Steve Kephart, an environmental health specialist with Ventura County.

There were no reported cases of illness that could be attributed to the bacteria late Thursday, city and hospital officials said.

Officials said huge quantities of mud and debris from the Ventura River--which supplies drinking water to about 70,000 city residents--may have prevented chlorine from reaching and killing the bacteria.

As city water officials tried to spread the word Thursday that the boil-water order is a precaution, and that people are unlikely to become sick, residents on the west side of town flocked to grocery stores for bottled water.

The Ventura Unified School District announced it would close two-thirds of the city's public schools and send bottled water to the others. Area restaurants used paper plates, plastic utensils and boiled water. Some hair salons used bottled water to shampoo their clients.

And west Ventura residents, after enduring a weeklong deluge of rain and mud, now contemplated two days of life without bathing.

"This is crazy," said Ventura resident Dave Nielson. "You might think something like this could happen in the Midwest, or somewhere else, but not here."

Waiting in line to fill five five-gallon water containers, Terra Dobroth worried that the salad she ate and water she drank earlier Thursday at a Ventura restaurant would make her sick.

"I'm wondering if the water was bottled, how they prepared the salad," she said. "They are saying not to drink water, and I had water. They are saying not to eat salad, and I had salad."

Resident Cheryl Palmer said her family will be taking sponge baths the next couple days, using two 50-gallon water tanks the family has kept at their home.

"We always keep some stored," Palmer said. "This is California, and you never know what's going to happen."

Across western Ventura, restaurants and health-care providers settled in for what could be days without usable tap water.

"My kitchen's been boiling water all day," said Lyn Flores, owner of Tony's Steak and Seafood on Thompson Boulevard. "We've probably got 120 gallons in sanitized plastic buckets, and we're putting more on the stove."

About 7,600 students will be affected by the school closures.

"Kids come first," said Ventura school Supt. Joseph Spirito. "Nobody's gotten sick yet. I better not have Montezuma's revenge when I get home tonight."

Area hospitals employed elaborate precautions to prevent patients from using bad water. At Community Memorial Hospital on North Brent Street, employees hauled out the facility's emergency supply of about 200 gallons of bottled water, then ordered 1,000 gallons more from suppliers, said Carol Dimse, the hospital's assistant executive director.

At Mission Animal Hospital on Santa Clara Street, Jack Kaiser, a veterinarian, said animals, too, should not be given contaminated water to drink.

"Our recommendation is that people treat their animals like they'd treat themselves," he said.

The water problem affects west and central Ventura, in an area whose boundary runs from Canada Larga Road on the north to Day Road, along Telegraph Road to Mills Road and west along the Ventura Freeway. It also includes Ventura Harbor, the Ventura Keys and other beachside neighborhoods.

City officials found out Wednesday that the water might be contaminated after a routine test of a water sample taken Tuesday revealed the presence of coliform bacteria in the water, said Steve Wilson, the city's water superintendent. That happens about twice a year, and in those cases a second test is taken.

This time the test results, which the city received Thursday morning, confirmed the contamination, Wilson said. The discovery at the Avenue Treatment Plant marks the first time in at least 30 years that the city's water supply has been found unsafe to drink, he said.

City water officials said they believe the water is no longer contaminated but they won't know for certain until the water passes purity tests two days in a row. The soonest that could happen is noon Saturday.

Wilson, the city's water superintendent, said mud from the storm led to the contamination of one of the Avenue Treatment Plant's four main filters. Since the discovery of bacteria Tuesday, each of the filters has been removed and dipped in chlorine, a chemical that effectively wipes out bacteria.

Wilson said the problem would normally have been avoided because water is exposed to a second chlorine treatment in the city's 16-million-gallon Power Reservoir, but that reservoir is being renovated and has been inactive for five months.

Still, he said the current amount of chlorine treatment is considered well above state and federal standards. Regulations require that water contain chlorine at two-tenths parts per million. Ventura's water tested at a minimum of nine-tenths parts per million, Wilson said.

"I am very, very sorry for the inconvenience this is causing people," Wilson said. "But this isn't a mess-up of any kind. This is something that was out of our control."

Times staff writers Constance Sommer and Miguel Bustillo and correspondent Catherine Saillant contributed to this story.


Schools Closed

These schools will be closed today because unsafe levels of bacteria have been found in the water supply:

Ventura High School

Anacapa Middle School

Cabrillo Middle School

De Anza Middle School

Blanche Reynolds School

Elmhurst School

E.P. Foster School

Lincoln School

Loma Vista School

Pierpont School

Sheridan Way School

Will Rogers School

Alternative and adult-education schools:

Pacific High School

Opportunity School

Ventura Islands High School

El Camino School

Adult Education

Ocean School

--Catherine Saillant


Specialist's Advice on Bacteria Problem

Steve Kephart, an environmental health specialist with Ventura County, on Thursday answered questions that those in western Ventura might have about their water supply.

QUESTION: How long do I need to boil the water before it's safe to use?

ANSWER: You should boil all your water rapidly for at least five minutes.

Q: What could happen if I accidentally drink contaminated water?

A: In the worst case scenario, you could get very sick. It's hard to say, because it would all depend on how much you consume and how much contamination there was in the water. Because sewage leaked into the water system, just about any type of human pathogen that's in sewage could be in the water system--from hepatitis to all sorts of infectious bacteria.

Q: What should I do if I feel sick?

A: Contact your doctor immediately.

Q: Can I take a shower or a bath?

A: It's not the best idea, because if contaminated water seeped through a cut, or if any landed on your lips and you drank it unintentionally, you run a risk of infection. If you do want to wash off, make sure you first boil any water you will use.

Q: Can I wash my hands?

A: Ditto for hand washing. Everything you are used to doing by turning on a tap, you now need to boil water to do.

Q: I drank some water Friday morning before the warnings were issued. Will I be OK?

A: You are probably OK, but no one can say for sure right now.

Q: Is it safe to use dishes, if I washed them in the dishwasher?

A: No, because the dishwasher doesn't heat water high enough.

Q: What about my clothes? If I just washed them in the washing machine, are they contaminated?

A: Well, you shouldn't go washing any clothes in the washing machine now, because, just like the dishwasher, it does not heat up the water enough to disinfect it. But if you washed your clothes earlier and they're already dry, you're probably safe. After all, you're not going to eat your clothes.

Q: Is filtered water OK to use? Is one kind safe, another kind not?

A: You should not drink any kind of filtered water, because no water filter can guarantee that it filters down to bacteria size. They are really not designed to remove pathogens.

Q: Can I use water from vending machines?

A: No, they dispense filtered water, so it's the same problem.

Q: Is bottled water from the store OK?

A: Besides boiled tap water, the only kinds of water you should use are sealed, bottled water, or water from outside the contaminated, western Ventura area.

Q: Is it safe to go to restaurants?

A: We're not ordering the restaurants closed, but we are telling them not to use tap water unless it's boiled and when possible to use plastic utensils and paper plates.

Q: When will I be able to use my tap water again?

A: At the earliest, on Saturday.

Q: Once the water is declared safe, do I need to flush the water lines in my house?

A: That would probably be a good idea. Ideally, you would want to run each faucet in the house for about five minutes each, to make sure all the contamination washes down the drain. You should flush your hot water heater, as well.

Q: What are the chances of a recurrence?

A: Probably very slim--unless, of course, there is another major storm, and then it's anybody's guess.


County Rainfall Here are rainfall figures from the Ventura County Flood Control Department for the 24-hour period ending at 6 p.m. Thursday. Oct. 1 is the beginning of the official rain year.

Rainfall Rainfall Rainfall Normal rainfall Location last 24 hours since Jan. 3 since Oct. 1 to date Camarillo 0.47 8.50 11.85 5.47 Casitas Dam 0.83 14.80 21.95 09.17 El Rio 0.47 8.62 14.32 5.81 Fillmore 0.47 10.80 15.15 7.68 Moorpark 0.59 8.07 12.56 5.79 Ojai 0.39 10.60 19.42 8.09 Upper Ojai 0.75 23.50 24.19 8.63 Oxnard 0.63 9.80 13.64 5.57 Piru 0.39 9.09 15.41 6.61 Santa Paula 0.24 6.54 17.20 6.98 Simi Valley 0.71 9.65 12.30 5.52 Thousand Oaks 0.55 10.00 13.41 5.90 Ventura 0.71 12.40 15.09 6.17 Govt. Center


Bad Water Because recent flooding allowed bacteria into the water supply, residents in central and western Ventura should boil drinking water and refrain from bathing or showering in it until further notice.

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