This mistake gets filed under the category of “OOPS.” It seems that someone with the Otay Water District (just south of San Diego) hooked up with the wrong pipes a few years ago. Instead of sending regular old drinking water into the business center, it was treated sewage water. “Recycled water” as the district likes to call it. That makes it sounds less like pee and more like taking your cans and bottles out to the curb.
Normally, I would just chuckle at this kind of story and be thankful for living in San Diego. But when the paper comes out with the story, who’s in the picture? LifePoint’s former bass player and current lead pastor at Wave Christian Church — Jim Osbourne. Jim’s wife, Carla, runs a party supply store in the affected business park! And there is Jim sporting the ever-fashionable Late Show t-shirt.
Here’s the Union-Tribune story and picture:
August 22, 2007
Shop owners in a Chula Vista business park knew something was wrong with their water. It tasted bad, smelled funny and had a yellowish tint.
“You would flush the toilet, and it looked like it wasn’t flushed,” said Amy Wise, co-owner of the Candy Bouquet, which sends out candy arrangements.
The Otay Water District assured the merchants that the water was fine, but the merchants weren’t convinced. The park’s property manager sent a water sample to a private lab and got some shocking news Friday.
For two years, occupants of the 17 businesses in Eastlake’s Fenton Business Center have been drinking and washing their hands in treated sewage water.
Somehow, the park was hooked up to a pipe carrying recycled water – treated wastewater intended solely for irrigation – instead of drinking water. Now the Otay district is dealing with distraught merchants and the question of how this could have happened.
Signs are now posted on all the businesses warning people not to drink the water. Two food-related businesses – the Candy Bouquet and Dream Dinners, a store that provides ingredients for make-and-freeze meals – were closed by the county Department of Environmental Health.
Yesterday, water district representatives met with the business owners in a hot, empty office at the business park. About 20 people crammed into the tiny room and peppered officials with questions.
“We just want peace of mind,” said Joe Padilla, owner of a computer store.
General Manager Mark Watton didn’t have a lot of answers, but he did make some promises. The water district would pay for medical tests for workers, and would compensate the businesses for their losses. “We want to do whatever we need to do to make things right,” Watton said.
Watton said the water system has been repaired, but the state Department of Public Health requires more clean samples before the water is deemed safe and the two food-related businesses can reopen. Watton said he expects that to happen tomorrow afternoon.
Ken August, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Health, said officials are investigating. “We have learned about the situation and we are evaluating it,” August said.
Recycled water is not tested as rigorously as drinking water because it is not meant to be consumed. Several shop owners expressed concerns that they or their employees could be sickened by the lingering taint of bad water.
Watton said this is the first time he has heard of recycled water being accidentally sent to a drinking tap in the county.
Reports tell of cases elsewhere, including San Antonio in 2002 and Calabasas in 1997. The San Antonio Water System recently paid $19,500 to settle a 2003 lawsuit filed by 13 people who alleged they were sickened by the treated wastewater.
Otay officials say they are still trying to figure out how the mistake occurred. Watton said when the three buildings of the business park were constructed in 2002, they apparently were connected to a purple pipe, the color that usually designates a recycled-water line, instead of a pipe with drinking water.
The business park opened in July 2005, and the water that flowed in was made up of about four parts drinking water to one part recycled water, Watton said.
In May, the Otay Water District entered into a deal with the city of San Diego to buy 6 million gallons of recycled water a day from San Diego’s two reclamation plants. Otay began pumping 100 percent recycled water instead of the blend of recycled and drinking water.
That’s when the merchants noticed the funky smell, look and taste. Josh Bristol, the owner of a home-decorating store, complained to Otay officials in an e-mail July 27. Watton said workers flushed the system clean and thought the problem was resolved.
Wise, who co-owns the Candy Bouquet with Angela Mason, said she contacted the business park owners a couple of weeks ago when she noticed the water’s yellowish tint.
The private lab’s testing showed the presence of total coliform bacteria. The bacteria is not necessarily harmful, but its presence indicates contamination. The lab warned that the sample appeared to be recycled water, and said occupants should be warned not to drink it.
Recycling water for irrigation is not the same as the long-discussed plan in San Diego to send highly treated wastewater back to taps, a program detractors have dubbed “toilet to tap.”
Although most businesses in the Eastlake park are open, the owners of the Candy Bouquet and Dream Dinners wait and worry about the damage to their reputations.
They said their customers are not at risk. Wise said her business uses only prepackaged candy. Jennifer Kober, owner of Dream Dinners, said customers are required to wear gloves when preparing food and no one drinks the tap water or uses it in food preparation. Only filtered water was used with the ingredients and in the coffee brewed there.
Wise said she fears she’ll lose customers when they see the county’s “closed” notice. “People don’t want to know the excuses,” she said. “They just see the sign on the door.”
Staff librarian Jenna Rohrssen contributed to this report.