Tests confirm municipal water as source of Alamosa salmonella outbreak


DENVER — It could be three more weeks before Alamosa residents can drink water straight from the tap after an outbreak of dozens of cases of salmonella linked to municipal water.

The city and county of Alamosa declared emergencies, which would allow them to tap into state funds as officials scramble to provide residents with safe water and disinfect its system with chlorine.

The earliest the city water system could be flushed is Tuesday, and disinfecting it and making sure it is safe could take several days, James Martin, executive director of the state health department said Friday.

Ned Calonge, chief medical officer for the state health department, said an epidemiologic analysis indicates the municipal water system is the source of the outbreak.

As of Friday, 138 cases of salmonella linked to the outbreak had been reported in people from infancy to age 89, of which 47 were confirmed by lab testing, Calonge said. Of those 47, seven people have been hospitalized.

Alamosa, a southern Colorado town with about 8,500 residents, gets its water from a deep well system. Since water is pure from the aquifer, it is not chlorinated.

About 45 businesses are providing enough bottled water to keep residents supplied for several days, in some cases for free, for drinking, brushing teeth, washing dishes, making ice, cooking, drinking and making baby formula, said Hans Kallam, director of the state Division of Emergency Management.

Bulk water is also available from East Alamosa, which is not connected to the city system.

Residents may at times have to buy their own bottled water, but anyone who needs help will get it, state officials said.

"No one's going to go without water in Alamosa during this emergency," Martin said.

However state officials were still looking for donors who could provide disposable plates and utensils and hand sanitizers, Martin said.

Boiling tap water will kill bacteria to make it safe for use, but health officials warned that no one should use even boiled tap water once the flush of the water system begins.

Investigators are working to determine how the system was contaminated. Possibilities include a compromise in a storage tank or cross-contamination with a sewage line, Calonge said.

The city had been working to switch to a chlorinated system, but the salmonella outbreak is speeding up the city's timetable, Calonge said.

The outbreak has affected business for many restaurants, who were told to toss any produce washed or misted with city water if it was going to be served raw, and to stop serving ice or soda fountain drinks made with city water. They also could not wash dishes with city water.

Salmonella is typically spread by food, but there have been cases of the bacteria in water leading to outbreaks.