Where every tap could spill poison

Times Staff Writer

Randy Wilhelm, along with the 10,000 or so other residents of this isolated agricultural crossroads, is caught in a hygiene dilemma.

Dirty dishes are piling up in his apartment. He dares take only the briefest of showers, and he has sprouted an unkempt goatee because he hasn’t shaved for a week. And, starting today, he can’t use municipal water for any purpose other than to flush his toilet. No laundry. No dishes. No coffee.

“How do you not shower?” said Wilhelm, 40. “I can’t wash my dishes. My house stinks.”


Salmonella has contaminated the city’s water supply, sickening more than 200 people since last week. For everyone else, the inconveniences are immense.

Bottled water is scarce, with most residents relying on public distribution centers. Businesses have closed. Today the city will begin flushing its pipes with chlorine, making it risky for anyone to come in contact with tap water. Even boiled water will not be safe.

Officials say it could be several weeks before the system is cleaned out.

How the water source became contaminated is unclear.

Alamosa -- in the heart of the vast San Luis Valley, about 200 miles southwest of Denver -- draws its water from deep wells that tap the aquifer directly. Because the drinking water comes straight from the ground, it is not chemically treated.

The first warning of possible salmonella contamination was Wednesday. By Friday, Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. had declared a state of emergency, freeing up $300,000 in funds and mobilizing the state National Guard to help distribute bottled water. On Monday, the first round of tests came back positive for salmonella, a bacterium normally associated with food-borne illnesses caused by raw poultry or eggs.

Salmonella, which can cause fever, stomach cramps and diarrhea, is potentially fatal. Medical officials said none of the patients in Alamosa has been critically ill. They think that 237 people have been affected; 68 cases have been confirmed.


Some residents may have continued to drink tap water after the warnings, said John Pape, a state epidemiologist. “Just because the government tells you not to do something,” he said, “doesn’t mean you’re not going to do it.”

It could take several days to flush the pipes, said Alamosa Public Works Director Don Koskelin. “We need to move the chlorine through roughly 50 miles of pipeline,” he said.

After that, authorities will have to wait a week for tests to come back before they can declare the water safe to drink.

It is rare for municipal water sources to be contaminated by salmonella. One of the largest instances occurred in Riverside in 1965, when 16,000 residents were sickened; three died.

The restaurants and cafes in Alamosa that remain open are offering free bottled water and have posted lengthy explanations of why it is safe to eat there.

“It’s been real, real bad,” said Fae Aragon, 23, a waitress at Hunan Chinese Restaurant, which hauls a 50-gallon tank of purified water to its kitchen every morning for cooking and cleaning. “All last week was terrible. Nobody came in because they’re afraid of the water.”

Sheila Holman, a retired teacher, considers herself lucky: She is leaving on a planned vacation. “I’m going to San Diego so I can take a shower,” she said.

But Laurie Duarte, 41, can’t get out of town. On Monday evening, she stopped by a distribution center to fill several gallon jugs with clean water from a firetruck. She’s hoping she can keep enough on hand so that she and her 9-year-old daughter can take baths.

“It’s been pretty hard,” said Duarte, who works at a local Head Start program.

Still, residents are trying to maintain a positive outlook.

“What I told people is to go get some baby wipes,” said Connie Velasquez, 72. “You just do what you have to do.”



Times staff writer DeeDee Correll in Denver contributed to this report.