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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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In case you didn’t know, the City of Phoenix has issued a warning directing residents to avoid using tap water that hasn’t been boiled. The mayor urges us to not panic and hoard up on bottled water. Does this strike anyone else as conflicting desires? When encouraged to boil water for no less than five minutes and then told not to worry, most people would jump in the nearest vehicle and beeline it to the grocery store.

However, the hype and hysteria centering around this announcement belie the nature of the problem: one water treatment plant failed a federal clean water standard for particulates. Particulates, to my knowledge, aren’t harmful unless they’re particles of poison, bacteria, or sharp objects. They just make the water cloudy. The water is then not appetizing, but it’s no less potable.

The worst part of this situation—crisis seems unnecessarily dire—is the difficulty of getting valid information. Most of the local news sites carried a simple AP wire story on Monday and Tuesday that lacked any details. The City of Phoenix’s site, linked above, had quite a bit of information but it was from the horse’s mouth and the likely liable entity should people get litigious.

The Arizona Republic finally got a balanced story that tempered the hype and answered a lot of questions (including the advice to “wash with hot water and a lot of soap for as long as it takes to sing Yankee Doodle Dandy”). Of course, Laurie Roberts, a Republic columnist, tried to incite more hype by pandering to widespread ignorance and blaming the Department of Water Services instead of Mother Nature.

In my entire life as a Phoenix native, I have never heard of this sort of thing before. We’ve had serious rains before and, presumably, serious runoffs without such advisories. I have to wonder if it’s because we have more stringent requirements and more sensitive instruments now. We may have had this exact same problem in years past but we didn’t know anything about it. And I also wonder at the frequency of this sort of advisory around the country in places where rainfall is more plentiful.