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Big Flush Begins Today in Alamosa

ALAMOSA — Chlorinated water will rush through 50 miles of pipes beginning today to try to cleanse salmonella from the municipal water system.

As the cleansing reaches their neighborhood, residents will be able to do nothing with the water but flush the toilets until the chlorine dissipates days from now. Even washing hands could cause skin irritation, residents have been warned.

About midnight, the city's water tower reached its 500,000-gallon capacity, meaning there is enough pressure to push the chlorinated water through the rest of the neighborhoods in the city of 10,000.

Then, chlorinated water from a 300,000-gallon reservoir, as well as well water that is injected with chlorine as it enters the city's system, will be pushed through the web of pipes. Between 300 to 400 houses got the chlorinated water Tuesday.

The effort is aimed at killing a salmonella infection that has sickened 251 people.

Meanwhile, a Seattle attorney has filed a claim against the city of Alamosa on behalf of a child, James Cook, who he says suffered severe gastrointestinal illness and was hospitalized for five days because of the salmonella outbreak.

Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who specializes in food poisoning cases, said today that when a Colorado city is sued, damages are capped at $150,000 for any injured person or a maximum of $600,000 for all injured parties.

'Getting out of Dodge'

The water use restrictions were too much for Kathleen Tetwiler and her family, who live in the first neighborhood to receive the chlorine.

"We're getting out of Dodge. We're going to Denver," she said.

"We're teachers. They canceled school for the rest of the week," she said. "With three little kids, it bothers me to say you can't wash your hands."

She plans to make the best of it with her husband and three girls: 7-year-old twins and their 11- year-old sister. "We plan to say in an hotel, go to the zoo and have a good time," Tetwiler said.

Her neighbor, Edna Ortega, washed down all her faucets, sinks, tubs and toilets with Clorox wipes and gloves. "You don't realize you need water till you don't have it," she said. She was also surprised by "how automatic it is to just turn on the faucet."

Alamosa public works director Don Koskelin said the 25 parts per million solution is strong enough to kill salmonella bacteria in only 3 1/2 minutes. "So we're being really conservative," he said.

After the cleansing process is done, the water will be de-chlorinated with a chemical, and then dumped into the storm sewers, which empty into the Rio Grande.

Careful watch over pipes

Today, Denver Water technicians will be monitoring the cast iron pipes in the older section of town, because the high velocity of water could cause cracking, said Bradley Simons, engineering manager for the water quality division of the state health department.

"We want to be very cautious about that."

After the decontamination is done, officials said they will bring well water back into the system, gradually diluting the chlorine until people can begin to take showers, and eventually drink it.

In the end, which could be days or weeks away, Alamosa's water will maintain a 1 ppm chlorine level, normal for municipal water systems and enough to keep the water safe from recontamination with salmonella, Koskelin said.

Officials don't know how or where salmonella entered the water system, which is an unusual deep-well system. It has not required disinfection until now.

Most local restaurants are trying to stay open, to earn some money and to rebuild public confidence, said Donna Wehe, director of the San Luis Small Business Development Center.

"It's difficult, but they're bringing in ice from the outside, using paper products, using big gallon water containers to prepare food and clean dishes," she said. "They're using more frozen vegetables."

But some were using their imaginations. Scott Graber, of the San Luis Valley Brewing Co. restaurant, used his brewing kettles to boil water for the restaurant before the chlorination began.

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