5 takeaways from Cottonwood’s first public water forum

‘The sample was contaminated, not the water.’

Utilities Operation Manager Mike Traynor demonstrated to the public how easy a sample can be contaminated if proper protocol isn’t followed. (VVN/Halie Chavez)

Utilities Operation Manager Mike Traynor demonstrated to the public how easy a sample can be contaminated if proper protocol isn’t followed. (VVN/Halie Chavez)

COTTONWOOD -- Cottonwood city staff hosted the first of two public water forums Thursday in response to water concerns amid news that the Arizona Attorney General’s Office indicted a former city employee for allegedly forging drinking water test results.

A 2017 report by the Arizona Department of Health Services revealed that Cottonwood employees “knowingly” submitted inaccurate information in testing drinking water samples for bacteria.

The water testing samples contained the bacteria coliform, according to the ADHS report. According to the Center for Disease Control, coliforms are bacteria found in plant material, water and soil. They are also present in digestive tracts as well as human and animals feces. E. coli is a subgroup of the fecal coliform group, according to a Department of Health website. Most of the time, coliforms are not harmful, according to the CDC.

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Cottonwood City Manager Doug Bartosh answers questions during Cottonwood’s first public water forum Thursday. (VVN/Halie Chavez)

The meeting was hosted by Utilities Manager Roger Biggs and Regulatory Compliance, Safety & Administrator Debbie Breitkreutz at the Cottonwood Riverfront Park Reclamation Facility. Cottonwood City Manager Doug Bartosh also weighed in at the forum.

At the forum, staff outlined the process of the city’s water system and rebutted claims about unsafe drinking water. The second forum is scheduled for Thursday, June 14.

Here are five takeaways from the first public forum:

1. Water is safe to drink, officials say

According to Biggs, mistakes were made but the water is safe to drink.

“The sample was contaminated, not the water,” he said. “We determined the contamination came from inside the residence.”

In an email to The Verde Independent, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Erin Jordan said ADHS alerted ADEQ after they discovered the issue with the water sample. ADEQ then sent inspectors to the public water systems and collected water samples.

“The systems are in compliance with federal drinking water standards,” she wrote in the email. “Residents in the City of Cottonwood are being supplied healthy drinking water.”

2. Water sample was contaminated by new employee

According to Cottonwood city staff, the employee who took the original contaminated water sample was brand new and inexperienced.

“It was resampled but proper protocol wasn’t followed, Bartosh said. “The paperwork wasn’t filled out properly.”

3. Water samples are easily contaminated

Utilities Operation Manager Mike Traynor demonstrated to the public how easy a sample can be contaminated if proper protocol isn’t followed.

“Meters aren’t in a sterile place,” he said. “Testing requires a lot of sanitation and disinfection.”

Traynor said anything can contaminate a sample.

“Simply putting the lid down or dropping the container can contaminate the sample,” he said.

4. Water samples are now going to an outside lab

Analysis of samples is now being conducted at a separate lab, said Jordan.  ADEQ continues to monitor the data submitted from water samples.

5. City also has questions

Bartosh said the complaints that ignited the investigation into Cottonwood’s water system were filed by “former disgruntled employees.”

“There’s still a lot of information that hasn’t been released,” he said.

Biggs said that city staff still has questions themselves and won’t know the whole story until the final AG report is released.

Bartosh said at the meeting that as someone with 30 years of experience in law enforcement, he thinks the AG is playing hardball.

“There’s a phrase we use … you can indict a ham sandwich,” he said.

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