A year ago, the town of Alamosa was in crisis. Hundreds of people were sick from a Salmonella outbreak. The whole town was drinking bottled water because the city’s public water supply was contaminated.
The head of the Alamosa County Nursing Services, which is responsible for public health in the rural community, had it right from the start when she said: “In the twelve years I’ve been here, we haven’t seen anything like this.”
From onset of the first illness on March 12, 2008 to the city getting permission to allow the public to drink city water again on April 11, 2008, Alamosa experienced the decade’s second worst outbreak of water-borne illness in the United States.
The Salmonella outbreak was blamed for the death of Larry Velasquez, 55, of nearby Romeo, CO. Twenty people were sent to hospitals throughout the region. There were 116 “culture confirmed” cases of Salmonella out of a total of 417 people who got sick.
The town was in a world of hurt because of years of neglect of its water system, but the fixes that might well have prevented the Salmonella outbreak were being made when it occurred. Alamosa’s water problems were summed up recently by the Denver Post:
In the aftermath:
• Health investigators discovered an in-ground storage tank was cracked at the corners and had a hole in its side — potential entry points for a strain of salmonella bacteria found in animal feces. A state inspection of Alamosa’s water system months before the outbreak failed to include a detailed look at this tank. As a result, its interior had not been physically inspected in 11 years.
• The state canceled a 34-year-old exemption that allowed Alamosa to pump untreated drinking water through a delivery system almost a century old. It also ordered the city to improve inspections of its water system.
• Alamosa opened a treatment plant designed to remove traces of arsenic detected in its water for 13 years. The new plant also disinfects water. Had it been completed months earlier, the city could have avoided the salmonella epidemic.
A year later, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has not pinpointed where salmonella bacteria invaded the water supply of a city of 9,000 people. But crumbling infrastructure is a prime suspect.
After tests detected coliform bacteria in Alamosa’s cracked storage tank, the city disconnected it from its drinking-water supply. A 75-year-old water tower was missing bolts and needed repairs on a roof stained by bird droppings.
The city had 50 miles of underground pipes, and "a lot of pipes were World War I vintage. They’re old. They’re very old," said Steve Gunderson, the health department’s water- quality director. "That’s the problem with our nation’s infrastructure."
More DP coverage of Alamosa a year later can be found here.