In summertime, the town of Burney, California is usually bustling with tourists. People come from all around to go fly fishing or catch a glimpse of Burney Falls. But this year, an E. coli outbreak kept vacationers away for weeks. It also sent numerous residents to the hospital.
Contamination of the local water supply was to blame. After the bacteria was discovered in the water, all of the town’s restaurants had to be shut down. Residents were given boil water notices.
The Los Angeles Times’ Jessica Garrison painted a bleak picture of the situation last week.
Up and down the town’s main street, restaurants with empty parking lots have remained dark for days. At the McDonald’s on the north end of town on a recent evening, a car entered the drive-through. The driver rolled down their window and spoke plaintively into the microphone. After receiving no response, they slowly drove away.
The local Safeway — which serves as the town’s de facto public square, especially in the hot summer months — is seeing a run on prepared meals. Residents pushed carts full of cases of water and frozen food. Some residents stopped to compare notes about who had fled town until the water was better and whether it was safe to take a shower.
The boil water notice was finally lifted on July 25 after 13 days. According to officials, there is no more E. coli in the town's water.
How the supply became contaminated is becoming a subject of lore. Some believe a water line came in contact with sewage. Others say a raccoon climbed into a water tank and died.
The immediate crisis is over, but harms to tourism and the local economy remain. The incident has also shed light on the vulnerability of rural water systems in Shasta County and beyond. A 2022 audit flagged 370 failing water systems, serving hundreds of thousands of Californians. Most of the failing systems were in the Central Valley.