SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Residents in Eagle Mountain on Tuesday were forgoing showers and stockpiling bottled water after officials reported someone broke into a city reservoir, threatening the security of the water supply.
The city is testing the water to determine if there was any contamination and is urging residents to avoid city drinking water in the meantime.
Test results from a state-certified laboratory are expected early Tuesday evening.
Dave Norman, Eagle Mountain’s public works director, said that after a hiker discovered the break-in Monday afternoon, city officials disconnected the reservoir from the water supply and alerted police.
The reservoir sits in remote foothills above Eagle Mountain, a city of about 23,000 that is about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City.
The city has no reason to suspect any contamination — no unusual tastes, odors or other issues were reported — but officials want to be overly cautious because there was a break-in, Norman said.
Until tests come back, they’re advising residents to avoid tap water for drinking, cooking, showering and brushing teeth. Instead, residents should use bottled water or any safe stored water they have at home, officials said.
The city is not offering bottled water or water trucks, leaving residents to turn to local convenience stores and markets.
Michael Sharp, manager of the Ridley’s Family Market, one of the few grocery stores in the area, said the market sold out of bottled water after more than 400 cases were purchased Tuesday, with customers scooping up four or five cases at a time. The market then put in a rush order for an extra truck of bottled water that arrived Tuesday afternoon, but Sharp said that too is selling quickly.
“We’re flying through it nonstop,” he said.
The store’s water system is also shut off, so grocery store workers are using bottled water to mist produce and keep it moist, Sharp said. “It’s the best we can do right now since we don’t know what’s going on with the water,” he said.
The city reservoir resembles a large, below-ground swimming pool with a concrete lid covered up by dirt, Norman said. A locked gate protecting the reservoir had been broken Monday, as was a metal hatch above the ground to access the reservoir.
Someone would need bolt-cutters or a similar tool to break in, he said.
Residents live within half a mile of the reservoir, and people can ride by the reservoir on bicycles and ATV trails, so officials hope it was someone nearby who was curious about the metal hatch, Norman said.
The break-in could be the work of a local teenager or group of teens, or a curious resident, he said.
The reservoir can hold up to 2 million gallons of water, but officials said they don’t believe it was full at the time. If there is contamination, it’s hard to say exactly how many gallons could be affected because the water system would have been continually pumping.
If the tests come back clean Tuesday evening, residents can begin using the water then. If tests indicate the presence of bacteria like E. coli, the city will have to institute a water-boil advisory until the system can be flushed.
A water boil won’t fix every possible contaminant, so that’s why officials have not yet issued such an order, Norman said. “Right now, we just don’t know if or what we’re dealing with, so that’s why the total restriction advisement,” he said.
Regardless of what the tests indicate Tuesday, officials will flush the reservoir and refill it before connecting it back to the city water system, which serves about 25,000 people.
Residents were alerted about the possible contamination on Monday by email and social media posts, and electronic message boards were posted around the city Monday night, Norman said.
When asked about the possibility of terrorism, Norman said officials have to consider that as a possibility.
“You have to consider that somebody would be trying to tamper with the water system,” he said. “I don’t think that that’s the case, and I hope that it’s not. But you have to at least consider it.”
There are no security cameras at the site, and reservoirs are checked once a week, Norman said. Officials plan to install alarm systems at that reservoir and four other city storage tanks and check the sites daily.
Tampering with a public water system is a federal offense that carries penalties of up to 20 years in prison and $1 million fine.