By Sharna Johnson: Freedom New Mexico
State environmental officials expect a boil water order at Cannon Air Force Base will be lifted by Saturday at the latest.
The order was issued Wednesday after testing revealed E. coli contamination of Cannon’s water.
Drinking water Compliance Operation Manager Mike Huber said Cannon has increased chlorine levels in its water and is flushing systems.
“It’s fairly quick; it’s within a few hours when you crank up the chlorine levels,” he said, explaining two negative tests will be required before the order can be lifted.
“Occupants must boil tap water for five minutes to be safe for drinking… (until further notice) from the installation commander or the public affairs office,” said Cannon spokeswoman Tech. Sgt. Gloria Wilson.
“The safety of our personnel, their families, and visitors from the surrounding community is of the utmost importance and we will not lift the boil advisory until it is safe.”
NMED said the advisory only applies to the drinking water at the base and does not extend to any of the other surrounding water systems.
Cannon operates and maintains its own water systems, which serve about 4,500 people, Huber said.
Officials say they still do not know what caused the contamination.
“We’re trying to pinpoint if there was any kind of (identifiable source) … basically a smoking gun, but we weren’t able to find a smoking gun in this,” he said.
The issue surfaced when a monthly water test revealed the presence of E. coli bacteria in two samples from the Landing Zone.
Huber said in a second round of tests only one sample was positive but it was enough to issue the order.
Testing was conducted on the base’s wells and came up negative, officials said.
E. coli, a bacteria found in human and animal waste, comes in different forms — some benign and then there are strains that have been associated with illness and even death, Huber said.
The tests done by water facilities in the state do not identify the type of E. coli or the level of contamination, he said, but identifies its presence.
“It’s just there or it’s not there,” Huber said.
Huber said there is no indication the water issues have caused any illnesses, and that, “It’s very rare. I can’t remember the last time we’ve had a drinking water born illness outbreak in New Mexico.”
Wilson said the Cannon clinic has seen an increase in patients with mild gastro intestinal illnesses but cannot confirm it is related to the water issues and the increase is not unexpected.
“We expect people to err on the side of caution and this increase in patients can be partially attributed to that,” she said, noting medical personnel are tracking the illnesses.
Symptoms people to look for are nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, or diarrhea.
Wilson said accommodations are being made to provide drinking water for dormitory residents and others who cannot boil water.