UPDATE: Dubuque boil advisory extends into Thursday
by Alicia Yager, originally posted on May 3, 2016
About 3.3 million gallons of water were lost Tuesday when a water main broke in Dubuque, the largest amount spilled in the city in at least 24 years.
Fears of potential bacterial contamination prompted officials to issue a boil advisory for drinking water that runs through 3 p.m. Thursday. About 5,500 water customers live in the impacted area, which includes all of downtown Dubuque, the Port of Dubuque and properties in the area of Central Avenue and Rhomberg Avenue.
But some residents, including restaurant officials, expressed concern over the city’s approach to notifying residents of the potential risks.
The city issued the public advisory nine hours after the water main break was reported, saying residents shouldn’t drink the water or use it in the preparation of food.
William Henson, general manager of Jitterz Coffee & Cafe, said he found out from a friend after 10:30 a.m. — when the city issued the public advisory — that the boil advisory was in effect. As a result, he was able to adjust procedures for safety. Hours later, he said he still had not been contacted by the city about the issue.
“What I’m most concerned about was not hearing from the city at all,” Henson said. “I’m upset about that.”
Brant Schueller, the city’s water distribution supervisor, said crews responded to the break near East 22nd and Johnson streets at about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday.
The leak in the 20-inch-diameter transmission main started from a joint that pulled apart, Schueller said.
Schueller said the cause of the burst is still being verified, but staff thinks it might have been related to nearby construction on the Upper Bee Branch Creek restoration project.
Water was shut down in a five-block area around the break at about 3:15 a.m., he said. Because of the size of the main, the Park Hill standpipe servicing the area experienced a pressure drop that opened the possibility of a bacterial contamination.
Crews started repair work at 6 a.m. and completed it by 5 p.m., Schueller said. City officials could not provide a cost estimate for repair work or the water lost.
Schueller said the five-block area without water was scheduled to have the water service shut off Tuesday in connection to Bee Branch construction, albeit at a later time in the day.
“It just came a little earlier and unexpected,” he said
Mary Rose Corrigan, City of Dubuque public health specialist, said people in the affected area still can shower or bathe with the water.
“You just don’t want to drink it or clean food with it without cooking (the water) further,” she said.
Corrigan said most potential waterborne pathogens would be taken care of through normal water-treatment processes, but there still could be a potential for illness that would include diarrheal symptoms if bacteria is present in the water. Anyone experiencing symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps should contact their health care provider.
She said Tuesday afternoon that she had not been contacted by anyone experiencing illness, but noted it usually takes 24 hours for such symptoms to arise.
The city’s press release states that water should be brought to a boil, allowed to boil for one minute and then allowed to cool before it’s consumed.
Boiled or bottled water should be used for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth and food preparation until further notice, the release states.
The recommendation had an immediate impact on some local businesses.
Walgreens at 345 E. 20th St. reported at about 6 p.m. that it had sold 10 times as much bottled water Tuesday as normal. Shelves holding bottled water at Hy-Vee on Locust Street were empty as of about 5:30 p.m.
David Estafen, owner of The Food Store, said he received a call from city officials about the water advisory at 12:22 p.m.
Luckily, he said, a friend already had informed him of the boil advisory and he was able to work around the water issue without having to throw away food.
“My store opens at 10 a.m., and I start cooking before them,” he said. “I need to be notified early.”
Estafen said the kitchen operated with boiled water and alternative water sources.
Henson said the brewing equipment at Jitterz has antimicrobial filters, which staff used to give customers drinking water as well.
Mike Cyze, the Dubuque Community School District’s director of school and community relations, said school staff had to bring in new or disposable dinnerware for lunch for students at Audubon, Fulton, Marshall and Prescott elementary schools.
About 1,200 students attend those schools.
Cyze said all elementary school meals are prepared at the district’s central kitchen on Chaney Road, so food was not impacted. He said fresh water and hand sanitizer have been brought to the schools as well.
“A lot of staff was able to help get the right resources where they needed to be,” he said.
Tara Deering-Hansen, vice president of communications for Hy-Vee, said upon hearing the advisory, staff at the Locust Street store immediately switched to using bottled water for anything that would require tap water.
“We’ll continue to do that until the advisory is lifted,” she said.
Estafen said while notifying all affected food service businesses would be a huge burden on city staff, he believed the situation could have been handled better.
“I don’t want to be crazy critical, but it’s a huge public safety concern,” he said. “There should be a system in place for phone calls.”
City Water Department Manager Bob Green said his staff reached out to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday to consult on whether to issue a water boil advisory.
“They weren’t available until 8:30 a.m.,” he said.
Green said it took time to evaluate the DNR information and identify the impacted areas of the city while fielding a large volume of calls from residents. The city issued its press release at about 10:30 a.m.
Dubuque Public Information Officer Randy Gehl said along with the press release, health department staff reached out to food service businesses that have permits with that department to alert them of the advisory.
He also said that, starting at about 11:45 a.m., a city “code red” message was sent to approximately 8,700 registered phone numbers in the impacted area.
“Any time we have to go through an exercise like this, we look at improvements,” Gehl said. “We’re certainly taking notes through this to improve in the future.”
Schueller said per DNR requirements, water samples were taken to test for contamination. He said no results were available Tuesday afternoon.
“It takes time for it to be completed — a minimum of 18 hours,” he said.