SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah authorities are investigating reports of drinking water contaminated by E. coli linked to prairie dogs at Bryce Canyon National Park, but said Tuesday that tests so far show the water is clean.
The park saw 2.5 million visitors last year, and Garfield County leaders are alarmed about contamination reports linked to feces from prairie dogs near the well that supplies water to visitor facilities and cabins.
Park officials said contaminated samples came from untreated water. Treated water is safe, they said.
Outside of the park, Bryce Canyon City’s water supply for all of its restaurants, hotels, residential houses, campgrounds and other facilities is not affected by the E. coli contamination, according to a press release Tuesday.
“We want all to know that the water used by Bryce Canyon City is safe to drink, as we have put in place safeguards to prevent water contamination,” said Shiloh Syrett, the city’s mayor.
For decades, the local government and businesses of Bryce Canyon City have had a contamination plan to prevent E. coli and other bacteria from entering the water supply. The city’s well is sealed tight and the water is sourced at 100 feet below ground. With such a deep-water source, animals cannot access and contaminate the water, like the surface water source used by Bryce Canyon National Park, the press release states.
“At Bryce Canyon City, we are dependent on tourism,” Syrett said. “The scare of an E. coli outbreak in Bryce Canyon National Park could decrease the number of visitors to the area, which will not only greatly impact the park, but also the surrounding cities. We hope that the national park and federal government will act quickly to clean and protect its water and mitigate the fear of E. coli.”
Those wishing to travel to Bryce Canyon National Park should continue with their plans, as E. coli is not contagious; however, visitors should not drink the park’s water until the water concern is resolved, according to the press release.
State drinking water officials said they’re planning to review the system this week, but so far have seen no evidence of a problem in monthly drinking water tests.
“Bryce Canyon is in full compliance with everything they’ve done,” said Utah Department of Environmental Quality Division of Drinking Water director Marie Owens.
But local leaders aren’t convinced.
“This has been going on for a long time, and we’re not going to put up with that anymore,” said Garfield County Sheriff Danny Perkins.
The county commission passed a resolution Monday calling it an “immediate, direct and significant” public health threat.
A park employee has shared results of more than a dozen tests over the last several years have shown the presence of E. coli, most recently last year, Perkins said.
It’s a bigger issue in high-water years when more debris enters the water supply, Perkins said. He said the park should get a new well or move the prairie dog colony.
The park constructed a fence last year and is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to move the colony next month, National Park Service spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo said.
The water is safe after being treated by a micro filter and chlorination, she said.
Utah prairie dogs are a threatened species, and federal endangered species protections for them have been a source of frustration for property owners who say the rules go too far and allow them to take over.
Written by LINDSAY WHITEHURST, Associated Press
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include reaction from the mayor of Bryce Canyon City.
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