People are always attracted to water. We hiked up the mountain to this cascade in Le Tigre National Park, Honduras.
(This post has been sitting in my drafts for a couple of years. Now, that we’re on a “boil” order in my county in northeast Kansas in July 2011, I thought again of how we take our clean water for granted. I wrote this about a visit to Honduras, where you can’t drink the water from the tap.)
It’s early on a February morning in 2007, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and already hot. I don’t mind. Back home in Kansas City it’s freezing.
Behind the courtyard wall, I wait at the gate, listening. I’m an early riser so I volunteered to make the water bottle exchange.
“You’ll know when they’re coming,” my friend Michael told me the night before. “They call out “Agua Azul, Agua Azul.” He likes the sound of it. “It’s like a call to prayer.”
Most societies and religions find spiritual and cleansing properties in water, so Michael is right about that.
Three large empty bottles sit on the driveway near the gate. I hear the faint call, and I lean out to look.
I see a truck slowly rumbling down the steep incline of street in this affluent neighborhood in the capital city of Honduras. The back of the truck is stacked with large water bottles.
“Agua Azul. Agua Azul.”
I wave my hand at the truck. A man darts to the gate, grabs the empty bottles and replaces them with full ones. He hops back on the truck and continues his call. “Agua Azul. Agua Azul.”
Now we’ll have purified water for the next couple of days. We go through it quickly, using it for everything that passes our lips. The water truck comes three mornings a week. It saves the trouble of taking the bottles to the store. The house has running water, but it’s not purified. We have to be careful not to drink it or even use it for brushing our teeth. I keep a small bottle of purified water in the bathroom during my visit.
You can’t be careful everywhere, and on a trip to see the Mayan ruins in Copan, Honduras, some of us come down with horrible gastrointestinal distress. I’ll spare you the details (worst diarrhea of my life!), but it was touch and go on the drive home. Michael and Anita knew the roads and the rest stops, and thankfully, my husband is an Eagle Scout, prepared with supplies at all times, including a roll of toilet paper.
At home, we take pure water for granted. But civilization has long been plagued, literally, with contaminated water. Cholera is one disease spread by water fouled by bacteria. People would often drink alcoholic beverages, rather than water, because they were less likely to get sick. Steven Johnson writes about a cholera epidemic in “The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.”
Hacienda San Lucas overlooks the Copan River Valley, where the early Mayans settled more than a thousand years ago. Maintaining pure water is always a problem wherever people gather in cities.
In Copan, we visited Flavia Cueva, who owns the Hacienda San Lucas. Anita, who is with the U.S. State Department, had met with Flavia before on an official visit. Local people and members of the International Rotary were working to improve the water quality. International Rotary is providing water distribution and health education to six remote villages in the area.
My water district at home, WaterOne, sends out an annual water quality report, summarizing what’s in the water and provides lots of facts, which are also available on the website. WaterOne was one of seven utilities worldwide selected as a finalist for a global water award for its Wolcott Treatment Plant. We’re very lucky we don’t need to buy bottled water, regularly, although there is a run on bottled water now because of the boil order.
Here’s a copy of the story in the Kansas City Star about our boil order:
Raccoon Believed Culprit in John County Boil Order
By MATT CAMPBELL
The Kansas City Star
Posted on Fri, Jul. 01, 2011 03:57 PM
A raccoon appears be to the culprit in a water pipe rupture that led to a boil advisory for more than 400,000 water customers in Johnson County.
Officials of Water District No. 1 found the animal dead inside an electrical unit at the Hansen treatment plant on Holiday Drive in Kansas City, Kan.
Eric Arner, a spokesman for WaterOne, said the animal may have chewed into wires or just brushed by the equipment, triggering an event that will affect customers at least until 5 p.m. Saturday during one of the hottest spells of the year so far.
People in the WaterOne service area — which includes most of Johnson County but excludes most of Olathe — are advised to use bottled water or to boil their tap water at least two minutes before consuming it. Unboiled water is safe for washing and bathing.
Retail stores in Johnson County are reporting brisk sales of bottled water. People are buying shopping baskets full of it at the Lenexa Sam’s Club, 12200 W. 95th St.
“We’ve got plenty for today and two more semis were dispatched when we heard about this,” said club manager Eric Rector. “We should have more in stock tonight.”
The Price Chopper at 8686 Antioch Road in Overland Park was sold out by mid-afternoon. A new shipment was expected over the weekend but store management did not know when it would arrive.
The boil precaution is necessary because the pipe rupture led to a drop in water pressure, which may have drawn contaminants into the system. Officials are testing tap samples from across the 275-square-mile water district for safety. That process, and flushing any contaminants out of the system, takes at least 18 hours.
Arner said water officials noticed a sudden drop in system pressure at 7:20 a.m., which they later attributed to a raccoon that got inside the housing of one of the huge electrical switches that run the pumps. The animal apparently shorted out the switch.
“The pumps themselves are designed to trip off when there is any fluctuation in power so they don’t fry their circuits,” Arner said. “So when the power was restored in a matter of seconds or even milliseconds the pumps turned back on and created a water surge.”
Officials believe that surge caused a 54-inch pipe near the Hansen plant to rupture at a joint. Arner said the pipe should not have failed even with a surge and WaterOne is investigating whether there were any other factors involved.
Water officials were able to restore pressure throughout the system shortly after the pipe break but some areas may have less pressure than normal.
While most of Olathe is outside WaterOne, between 6,000 and 7,000 people in northwestern and southwestern areas of the city are affected, said city spokesman Tim Danneberg.