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Drinking water: How safe is it?

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Significant steps have been taken to ensure Utah's drinking water stays pure. But recent contamination in Riverton demonstrates that the state's water systems can be vulnerable.

A dead raccoon inside Riverton's 3 million gallon water tank contaminated it with fecal coliform bacteria, a type of E. coli, and residents were forced to boil tap water for several days.Though the incident is uncommon, it begs the question: Just how secure is our drinking water?

"If someone knew the littlest bit about water systems, it wouldn't take much to mess up the whole (Salt Lake) valley," said David Ovard, director of the Salt Lake County Water Conservancy District.

Because water companies lack continuous monitoring or sophisticated security systems, toxins could be introduced into a drinking water source or distribution line and escape detection until people become sick.

Water managers say their resources are sufficient only to do what is reasonable to reduce the most likely risks and to meet standards and guidelines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In addition to stringent design and construction requirements, the EPA mandates regular testing for more than 120 contaminants, including bacteria, organics (such as solvents), pesticides, radioactive elements and heavy metals.

Most of the contaminants can cause chronic health problems after long-term exposure and, therefore, are tested for less frequently. Tests for lead, copper and bacteria are more frequent because of those contaminants' potential to cause acute illness after limited exposure. But even a bacterium test takes 24 hours to perform.

The frequency of testing also is determined by the size of the population served by the water system. Smaller water companies and their customers have limited financial resources. A single test for volatile organic compounds, for example, costs at least $350.

"The little mom-and-pop systems cannot afford it," said Dave Hansen, a drinking water division scientist.

Under federal regulations adopted by the state, a town of fewer than 1,000 people is required to test for bacteria just once a month, while a metropolis such as Salt Lake City tests four times a day.

A midsize town such as Riverton requires its water to be tested every other day. It was one of those routine tests that led to the discovery of E. coli, which was later traced to the dead raccoon.

In addition to testing requirements, federal and state agencies have worked together during the past 10 years to implement "source protection" programs to prevent contaminants from entering rivers, lakes, reservoirs and ground water.

These measures include laws prohibiting discharge of chemicals into storm drains or onto the ground, vigorous inspection and removal of leaking underground petroleum storage tanks, limits on pets in watersheds and increased environmental-education cam-paigns.

However, the efforts cannot protect against the occasional flood, earthquake or catastrophic traffic accident. And the only barrier now between a saboteur and the water source is a fence and a padlock, if that.

"There are so many ways it could be done, you hate to even mention that it is possible. There are people out there capable of anything," Ovard said.