Editorial: Situation with local water system is frustrating all around

Editorial: Situation with local water system is frustrating all around

There’s no getting around it. It’s a pain to have to boil your drinking water  before using it. And those with young children and those caring for elderly friends and family members have it the worst. 

But that’s where many in the region find themselves today, at least those in Westerly and Pawcatuck who get their water from Westerly’s municipal system.

A routine test of the water on Monday came back positive the next day for E. coli and total coliform. Town utility officials contacted the state Department of Health and were told to resample on Tuesday from the same location that tested positive from Monday’s samples. The second batch of testscame back on Wednesday showing negative for bacteria, but positive for E. coli from a sample taken from one well in the Bradford wellfield — a well that had not been running on Wednesday.

Intially the state told the town to continue with routine sampling after the negative test results received Wednesday, but then, within about a half hour,  the health department reversed course and told the town to issue the boil water advisory. By then it was Wednesday evening.

Some who took to Facebook to comment on the story complained that the state and town should have informed the public immediately of the first positive test. Department of Health protocols in the scenario that unfolded in this case — a positive test for non-harmful bacteria but an indication of the possibility of other, harmful bacteria — called only for retesting.

And as it turned out, that second test did turn out negative for bacteria but positive for E. coli from that one well. These orders cause angst and frustration. People load up on bottled water and go through the inconvenience of boiling and storing large quantities of water at home.

Imagine the outcry if a boil water advisory is issued only to find out the test is a false positive. Residents and the hospital and the school system would have gone through all this effort and expense to be on the safe side, never a bad side to be on, but imagine the complaints of incompetence.

These protocols are based on experience and science. Issuing such an order has to be well thought out and not made in haste. The reversal in this case — to at first hold off on communication and then to issue the order — does seem an odd course for the state DOH to take. But local officials were following state procedures. What if they had issued an order without state support — a move that is probably not an option — and the tests continued to come back negative? Imagine the howls then. 

Bottom line: Either something got into the water system or a test was inaccurate. It’s all an inconvenience either way. Slinging mud at those working to get to the bottom of it all serves no useful purpose and doesn’t make the inconvenience any more palatable. Let’s hope that the most recent sampling comes back negative.   





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