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Coliform bacteria taints Palo Alto water

Original post made on Jul 14, 2012

When Palo Alto's utility officials were testing customers' water quality in May they uncovered something strange -- an unusually high amount of coliform bacteria, a bacteria that is generally considered to be nonthreatening but that can indicate the presence of other unsavory organisms.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Saturday, July 14, 2012, 10:27 AM

Comments (37)

Posted by Parent, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 14, 2012 at 7:00 pm

they sent notices? when? I didn't see or hear anything about this. In what form were the notices sent?

Posted by Resident, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 14, 2012 at 8:22 pm

I just received a letter July 13 telling me about this that occured in May. They should of told us during the 3 weeks of testing they were doing on the water.

Posted by Sharon, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 14, 2012 at 9:36 pm

The only people at risk are those with HIV/AIDS and transplant patients.

Those groups have been informed a long time ago that they need to use filtered or boiled water.

For healthy people there is very minimal risk-in fact it may strengthen our immune systems.

Posted by Silly, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 14, 2012 at 10:29 pm

I guess the bacteria accounts for our water rate increase. Can't expect our fine utility dept. to notify us about anything when we could still do anything about it.

Posted by jane citizen, a resident of Professorville
on Jul 15, 2012 at 12:25 am

We have a new infant, 6 months old, and were not informed.

Also people other than HIV/AIDS and transplants can be sensitive,
such as those with Lyme disease, the elderly, other autoimmune
diseases such as cancer, lupis, etc.

Makes sense to just filter the water, regardless of the statements we receive. We filter already, and it helps us sleep at night.

It seems many of the systems we rely on for infrastructure are not what they should be... cell phones work nothing like land lines for reliability or clarity, the banks have let us down, ... what happened to the way of life where people took pride in doing the right thing? hmmm.

Posted by PAU-Captive-Customer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 15, 2012 at 7:30 am

This whole area of the municipal utility's responsibility for reporting anomalies in, or clear degradation in, water quality is not something that is well-established. State law requires that the City publish a yearly report on water quality, which it seems to do. But when it comes to problems, like this one, which are short-termed, then there doesn't seem to be any requirement for revealing these problems to the public.

There are two sets of rules in California for utility customers. One for privately-owned utilities (oddly called public utilities), which are regulated by the CPUC (California Public Utilities Commission). Municipally-owned utilities are not subject to the CPUC, for the most part. So, the PAU seems to be free to do what it wants. The CPUC claims that the City Councils are supposed to provide oversight. However, in Palo Alto, the Charter forbids any direct involvement of the Council in the operations of the City government. So, there is virtually no oversight of the PAU by anyone.

This situation also calls into question the public's right to see the water quality testing reports. We have only the word of the PAU that the levels of contamination were not dangerous.

> and asking the agency to clean the grates at
> its connection to Palo Alto's water system

What's not exactly clear from the PAU's letter, or this article, is why cleaning the grates separating the PAU's pipes and the SFPU's pipes will solve this problem. The PAU made no effort to explain to the public, its customers, how this bacteria (or others) can originate at this interface. There also doesn't seem to be any information as to how long the SFPU took to respond to the PAU's request for service, or if the SFPU had another explanation as to why this bacteria was in our water.

What is also annoying is the fact that the PAU used the US Post Office to deliver this kind of information, rather than e-mail--which would have saved all of us a lot of money.

Posted by Mom, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 15, 2012 at 9:28 am

They could have put out a press release for free...I am disgusted by their cavalier attitude about my family's health.

Posted by Big Al, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 15, 2012 at 1:18 pm

You tell em Mom!
The revolution isn't going to happen until you gals put down the bon bon and your cell phone, step1 out of nieman marcus and demand some real change. Go get em sister!

Posted by Bottled water only, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 15, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Sure glad I drink bottled water, I will continue to do so.

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 15, 2012 at 6:44 pm

Can anyone tell me what purpose was served by sending out a letter 2 months after the incident occurred, probably at a cost of $20,000 to $30,000?

Shouldn't they have done this back when the incident occurred, and try to notify residents by using the local news media?

What kind of thinking goes on at City Hall?

Posted by RussianMom, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 15, 2012 at 6:57 pm

I was wondering too why the letter was two months later? What for????
Anybody use the whole house water filtration system? Any recommendations?

Posted by @Resident, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 16, 2012 at 12:34 am

Everyone cool down! A little increase in bacteria count will not harm anyone. The state's guideline for the safe level of bacteria is typically much lower than the critical level that actually causes harm to humans. Rather than causing panic, the water company took the right course of action of trying to increase monitoring and trying to find the source of the problem.

Recently I received a water quality report from the city. I assume everyone should have received it. I reviewed the report carefully. In all chemical and bacterial measurements, when applicable, our water reads well below all the thresholds set by the state. I have not seen such a comprehensive report from any bottle water company.

Posted by David Pepperdine, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 16, 2012 at 11:17 am

@PAU-Captive-Customer, thanks for an informative and insightful post. I agree that CPAU has become a runaway train. Remember Ulrich, who suddenly resigned when some questions arose a few years back? Remember the CPAU employees who were doing private work during regular work hours? All these guys are now on our pension payroll.

CPAU is Palo Alto's end run around Prop 13. The city can keep raising utility rates to circumvent limits on property taxes. After all, where else you gonna go for water and sewage. The city leases trucks and equipment from CPAU - a case of the tail wagging the dog.

Posted by Sandy, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 16, 2012 at 12:37 pm

How nice that chloramine, our water disinfectant since early 2004, is much less effective than chlorine, our former disinfectant, at clearing the water of bacteria, etc. Chloramine also causes lead to leach from soldered pipe joints and eats away rubber gaskets and washers in plumbing fixtures. It also causes skin, gastrointestinal, and respiratory problems in sensitive individuals. Go to for more information.

Posted by Susan, a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 16, 2012 at 1:23 pm

The MultiPure filtration system removes chloramine from water. See

Posted by College Terrace Mom, a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 16, 2012 at 1:47 pm

We purchased a small distillation unit for our home, using distilled water for drinking and cooking. A whole house unit is on my wish list to protect us as we bathe.

Posted by resident, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 16, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Well i did not receive anything in the mail until Firday 13 2012, why not sooner a little
late don't you think. What is going on in City Hall, why were we not notified when it happened.
Is this what our increases in our untilites are paying for late information to the people
who live her.

Posted by Debra Katz, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 16, 2012 at 6:35 pm

I am the Utilities Communications Manager and I would like to provide some information to those who expressed specific concerns about not getting the notice promptly enough. Far from being "cavalier" towards customers, CPAU takes its responsibility to our community-owners very seriously and I want readers to understand three key points:

1)There was NO EMERGENCY condition whatsoever and had there been, we would have used the media, the emergency alert calling system and a variety of other venues at our disposal to inform the public immediately.

2) The length of time required to issue this mailed notice was a function of the process involved between CPAU and State health regulators, which included:
a)follow-up testing to verify whether the coliforms indicated the presence of any harmful bacteria in the water (there was not)
b) a determination by regulators as to what kind of notice had to be given, if any, given this was not an emergency situation
c)creation by staff and then approval by regulators of the notice wording
d)printing, folding, stuffing, sorting and mailing over 35,000 notices.

3)Finally, minor water quality fluctuations do occur during the course of the year. Therefore, in general, we encourage those customers who are extremely sensitive to water quality changes (with compromised immune systems etc.)to consult with their health care providers to determine if their situations warrant taking precautionary actions such as using filtration devices.

We are fortunate in Palo Alto to have one of the most pristine, high-quality water supplies in the country. Our ongoing monitoring helps guarantee that remains true. In this case, the monitoring worked well to detect a possible problem and let us address it before any adverse impacts occured.

Posted by No bottled water here, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 16, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Bottled water is a scam. Good for emergencies; bad for any other time. No rules on cleanliness. Plus the chemicals leaching from the plastics. No thank you. Since we damned Hetch Hetchy, might as well drink it.

Posted by Mr.Recycle, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 16, 2012 at 10:04 pm

No Bottled Water: It isn't true that there are no rules on cleanliness for bottled water. Bottled water is regulated by the FDA.

"FDA has established specific regulations for bottled water in Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (21 CFR), including standard of identity regulations (21 CFR 165.110[a]) that define different types of bottled water, such as spring water and mineral water, and standard of quality regulations (21 CFR 165.110[b]) that establish allowable levels for contaminants (chemical, physical, microbial and radiological) in bottled water. FDA also has established Current Good Manufacturing Practice (CGMP) regulations for the processing and bottling of bottled drinking water (21 CFR part 129). Labeling regulations (21 CFR part 101) and CGMP regulations (21 CFR part 110) for foods in general also apply to bottled water. It is worth noting that bottled water is one of the few foods for which FDA has developed specific CGMP regulations or such a detailed standard of quality."

Posted by Setting the record straight, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 16, 2012 at 10:59 pm

Bottled water in fact undergoes less scrutiny than tap water...

Web Link

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 16, 2012 at 11:11 pm


You didn't answer the question of why did you send the letter if there is nothing wrong? (probably at a cost of $20,000 - $30,000) - you could have just included another insert in the utility bill at a considerable savings.

And if you sent the letter because there is something wrong, why not alert people sooner through the local media?

Posted by PAU-Captive-Customer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 17, 2012 at 8:43 am

> You didn't answer the question of why did you send
> the letter if there is nothing wrong?

Good point.

What's interesting here is that the State Health Regulators were involved. If there we NO EMERGENCY, why were they involved, and why did they have to have any say whatsoever over the wording of a letter explaining that there was NO EMERGENCY?

This little scenario opens a window into the murky nature of public health regulation, particularly where municipal utilities are concerned. What's missing from Ms. Katz's comments is any sense of what would have constituted an emergency. What exactly might happen to the water supply, how long would it likely take for the monitoring to kick in, how long would it take the local decision making process to spin its wheels, and would the State need to be involved in the declaration of an emergency. All of this information is generally out of the public's view, right at the moment.

The link in the article points to a Wiki-page on Coliform Bacteria:
Web Link

Coliforms can be found in the aquatic environment, in soil and on vegetation; they are universally present in large numbers in the feces of warm-blooded animals. While coliforms are themselves not normally causes of serious illness, they are easy to culture and their presence is used to indicate that other pathogenic organisms of fecal origin may be present. Fecal pathogens include bacteria, viruses, or protozoa and many multicellular parasites.

Additional information on this page states that E. coli is in the Coliform group. This leads back to the question of the source of this contamination. Why would asking the PAU water supplier to clean the grates between the two systems have anything to do with fecal matter in the water supply being delivered to Palo Alto? Perhaps there is a reason, but there seems to be no information in Ms. Katz's posting, or in the letter sent to our homes, that answers this, or any of the other process-oriented questions that have appeared on this thread.

Ms. Katz's comments, when posted, more often than not fail to answer key questions about PAU process, and responsibilities. Sadly, there is no one on the City Council who can answer any of these questions, either.

So, Ms. Katz--will you answer the questions on this thread that need answering?

Posted by WilliamR, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 17, 2012 at 9:07 am

Even if there is no emergency about the water contamination, and no letter had been sent, word would have gotten out anyway, and this forum would be filled with people screaming to high heaven about a giant coverup, heads should roll, we're all going to die, etc., etc., etc. So, better to send the letter to let people know that the utilities know that the condition exists.

Posted by PAU-Captive-Customer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 17, 2012 at 9:34 am

Googling "coliform hetch hetchy" provides some additional information about this situation--

[PDF] Frequently Asked Questions re Coliform in Water Notice (July 2012)

File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat - Quick View
Once the coliform was detected the laboratory immediately performed further ... are monitored regularly – however, leaf debris from the Hetch Hetchy system can ...

But when the link is selected:

Web Link

there is nothing but a blank space on the screen. Perhaps this file has been removed? At any rate, typical of the shoddy web-site management of the City of Palo Alto

Posted by PAU-Captive-Customer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 17, 2012 at 9:48 am

The City does provide an archive of its published water quality reports, if anyone is interested--

City of Palo Alto Water Quality Reports:
Web Link

Posted by PAU-Captive-Customer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 17, 2012 at 9:54 am

Coliform comes from fecal matter, which occurs where animals and humans intersect the water supply, in some fashion--

An Analysis of Wilderness Water in Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite National Parks for Coliform and Pathologic Bacteria:
Web Link

Results.—Coliform bacteria were detected in 22 of the 55 sites. All of these sites were below areas used by backpackers or pack animals. Thirty-three sites were free of coliforms. These sites included
both those used lightly by backpackers and those with no human or domestic animal use. All samples contained expected amounts of normal aquatic bacteria including Pseudomonas, Rahnella aquatilis,
Serratia spp, and nonpathogenic species of Yersinia.

Conclusions.—Most sampling sites in these national parks are free of coliform or pathogenic organisms. Low levels of coliform bacteria are found in some bodies of water where the watershed has
been affected by human or pack animal travel.

Posted by Silly, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 17, 2012 at 10:38 am

I guess the bacteria is why we got ANOTHER rate hike??

Posted by Mr.Recycle, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 17, 2012 at 10:54 am

@Setting the record straight - Less scrutiny isn't the same as "no rules" as asserted earlier. And less scrutiny doesn't mean less safe either.

Posted by Dennis, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 17, 2012 at 3:17 pm

re Silly "... why we got another rate hike"

All that bacterial dividing and replicating requires a lot of feeding, thus, the need for another rate hike. (It's The Palo Alto Way to nourish our bacteria with first class nosh.)

Posted by Mom2, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 17, 2012 at 3:35 pm

Where's our notice?

I guess I just got it here.

Posted by the_punnisher, a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 17, 2012 at 7:07 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

This is a " sh***y situation " ( pun intended ).

Other utilities ( including Evergreen Metro in CO ) IMMEDIATELY get the word out though local media! They don't rely on our USPS to do the LATE informing to the local residents..

For those who " poo-poo " ( pun intended ) these problems, I suggest you wouldn't mind drinking the used water in your toilets when a drought is announced. That is similar to the situation here.

This stuff used to happen all the time when you put the outhouse too close to your drinking supply.

Posted by Margaet, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 17, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Maybe this has something to do with the death of my three goldfish over the last month although I must confess that one of them was found on the floor one morning and the other two belly up in the bowl.

Posted by RussianMom, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 17, 2012 at 10:15 pm

Why exactly mail a letter at 30K cost? Email? Phone messages? Police dept is already doing that. Maybe. Of that much for rates increase

Posted by Debra Katz, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 18, 2012 at 5:57 pm

Since several commenters indicated I hadn't explained why we sent out the notice if there was "nothing wrong", I must not have made make that clear and am happy to try and do so now.

1) The notices were REQUIRED to be sent by direct mail (a decision made by State regulators, not CPAU, so to not send them or to send by email was not an option we had.

2) State regulators involvement is mandatory any time a standard is exceeded and does not in of itself imply a hazard exists. Water utilities like CPAU can not unilaterally decide the actions to be taken.

3) The current regulations specify that when certain coliform water quality standards are exceeded, this kind of notification is required, even when follow-up testing verifies that there were no more coliforms or any other bacteria, harmful or otherwise.

I hope this added detail clarifies things a bit.

Posted by resident, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 18, 2012 at 6:14 pm

I'd like to thank Debra Katz for using this forum to communicate with the public. It is refreshing to see a city staff member take initiative to do this, and to open themselves up to the kind of criticisms that can occur on an open forum. If more city staff jumped in to respond to questions or concerns raised on Town Square it would be a great public service, reduce misinformation and generally be good for citizen-city staff relations. Thank you Ms. Katz!

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 18, 2012 at 8:55 pm

Yes, thanks to Ms. Katz for posting - I learned some things from this.

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