Utah authorities investigate claims of E. coli contamination at Bryce Canyon

Utah authorities have recently become concerned by the possibility that Bryce Canyon National Park’s drinking water could be affected by E. Coli. It is suspected that the E. Coli in the water is caused by prairie dogs. As of Tuesday last week, the tests they have conducted have shown no E. Coli contamination in the water.

Every few months, dangerous food and waterborne bacteria make the news headlines. E. Coli, Listeria, and Salmonella are just a few of the concerns that affect everything from peanut butter to lettuce and even ice cream.

Unfortunately, E. Coli is now a possible concern for the drinking water in Bryce Canyon National Park.

E. Coli is a bacterium that lives in the digestive system of most healthy people and animals. Since it is an ever-present bacterium, E. Coli itself is not inherently dangerous. However, there are certain strains of E. Coli that can cause major illness, including vomiting, diarrhea, and, in severe cases, death.

It is the fear of these serious illnesses that have park and city officials determined to ensure E. Coli is not an issue for the more than 2.5 million visitors that are expected to come to Bryce Canyon National Park this year.

Since the Bryce area depends on tourism for annual revenue, an E. Coli scare could have a very negative effect on the entire city and its economy.

“At Bryce Canyon City, we are dependent on tourism,” Shiloh Syrett, the city’s mayor 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.”

Officials say that E. Coli is only a concern for untreated water. The treated water that is used in town has no evidence of E. Coli. The source that is cause for concern is the well that supplies water to cabins and visitor facilities within the park.

This well has a large prairie dog population nearby. The feces from this large prairie dog colony are most likely the cause of the E. Coli found in this untreated well water.

Officials have emphasized that it is this well, not the large well used by Bryce Canyon City, that is affected by E. Coli.

“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.

Bryce Canyon City’s well has many safeguards against contamination. The well is 100 feet deep and sealed tightly. The depth of this well ensures that animals and their waste can’t gain access to the water source.

Since the city’s water is not affected, the source of the E. Coli has been traced, and E. Coli is not contagious, those who were planning on traveling to Bryce Canyon National Park are urged to not change their plans. If they don’t drink the contaminated water inside the park, there is no risk of E. Coli.

There have been no issues found by state drinking water officials in the last monthly tests, but they are still planning to review the water system this week.

“Bryce Canyon is in full compliance with everything they’ve done,” said Utah Department of Environmental Quality Division of Drinking Water director Marie Owens.

Though state drinking water officials may not be concerned, local leaders believe there is a legitimate reason to be concerned about the water, and insist that action is taken sooner rather than later. In fact, on Monday, the county commission called the problem with the water an “immediate, direct, and significant” public health threat.

“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.

As recently as last year, and in many years prior, a park employee has shared the results of E. Coli positive tests from water in the park. These tests, of which there are more than a dozen, have read positive for E. Coli each time.

Some years are worse than others when it comes to E. Coli in the park well. During years with higher rainfall and water levels, water contaminated with debris and E. Coli is more likely to leach into the well.

Sheriff Perkins said that two feasible ways to mitigate this well issue are to get a new well or move the prairie dog colony. It is not apparent which, if either, of these actions will be taken. However, something must be done to avoid more serious problems for visitors and to maintain the park’s image.

Past actions to prevent the prairie dog population from contaminating the well, such as a fence built between the colony and well, have been taken, but further action is required. Therefore, they are working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to move the colony next month, National Park Service spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo said.

Since Utah prairie dogs are a threatened species, they are federally protected. This protection has long been a source of frustration for local homeowners, who believe that the prairie dogs are taking precedence over the health and safety of their properties.

Whether the issue is dealt with by controlling the prairie dogs, changing the well, or using another method is yet to be seen. It is clear, however, that something must be done to protect park visitors from this serious E. Coli bacteria.

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