Ventnor residents received a form letter in January titled “Important information about your drinking water,” informing them that coliform bacteria had been detected in the city’s water, again.

The letter was the fifth such notice in the past 2½ years, Ventnor Water Department Supervisor Thomas Klein said — but the kind of coliform found, “total coliform,” was not the dangerous, fecal variety, but another, harmless variety that indicates only the possible presence of dangerous strains. And follow-up tests were all negative.

But after already going through a citywide emergency in July 2011, when initial tests indicated the presence of fecal coliform — subsequent tests showed the reading was a false positive — why does Ventnor’s water supply keep getting these positive coliform tests?

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“If I knew, I’d make it go away,” Klein said.

Ventnor’s water system is a self-contained, closed system not connected with the systems in other municipalities, except for emergency connections with Atlantic City and Margate. Just like all shore towns in Atlantic County, it draws its water from the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer.

Several other Atlantic County municipalities have their own utilities, including Egg Harbor City and Hammonton, while others — including Northfield, Linwood, Somers Point, Pleasantville and Egg Harbor Township — get their water from the private New Jersey American Water.

Ventnor’s latest positive test came from two of 18 samples taken in late December at Well No. 8 in Ventnor Heights and Well No. 4 at the Public Works building on Cornwall Avenue, Mayor Mike Bagnell said.

“The water that was contaminated was not in the drinking-water system,” Bagnell said. “There are three parts to the water system: the water tower — which is a giant storage tank — the well and the distribution part.”

Water out of the well goes through one of two valves, Bagnell said. Open one and close the other, and water goes directly into the drinking water system. Close that one and open the other, and the water drains from the well, often into a storm drain. Water drawn that way is not going into the distribution system, Bagnell said, and it was samples taken from the drain-off that tested positive.

Klein stressed that all of the recent positive tests were for total coliform, “an indicator organism not harmful in and of itself, but which lives in the same conditions harmful bacteria can.”

There are nine collection points within the city — six on the island, three in Ventnor Heights, Klein said — and according to guidelines from the state Department of Environmental Protection, if more than one sample is positive at a normal collection point, the city has to send a letter to everyone in Ventnor, no matter where the location of the positive test.

“One thing people don’t understand is that there’s very little in the letter that I write,” Klein said. “The last paragraph, what we’re going to do, what’s transpired and what was found. Other than that, it’s all their template. We have to use that.”

The form letter states that “this is not an emergency,” but anyone with “specific health concerns” should boil water. The letter also warns the pregnant, the elderly and those with “a severely compromised immune system” that they should talk to health care providers before drinking the water, before repeating “this is not an emergency” and getting into the specifics of total vs. fecal coliform.

“To me, personally, it sends a mixed message,” Klein said. “It’s written by the legal people as a protection for them. ... They try to have the format used presented generically, but unless you’re in the business, it’s too technical for the average person to buy into. It’s like if we went to lunch with neurosurgeons talking about surgery. They would lose us pretty quickly.”

The recent positives are referred to as a “Tier 2 violation,” which the city has 30 days to remediate. The situation in July 2011 was a “Tier 1 violation,” which the city must react to within 24 hours.

In 2011, Ventnor issued a drinking water advisory late on a Friday, July 29, after one of nine routine samples collected came back positive for fecal coliform, or E. coli. The city could have chosen to wait for secondary, follow-up tests before issuing an emergency advisory, but instead decided not to take any chances and advised residents to boil their water before drinking, brushing their teeth or preparing food — leading to a run on bottled water before the advisory was lifted on Sunday morning, July 31.

All of this took place at the same time there was a separate sewage leak into the canal. The follow-up tests on the water supply, meanwhile, came back negative, and a DEP spokesman later said the original sample was a “false positive.” All secondary tests for the nonemergency total coliform also came back negative.

“I’m kind of baffled sometimes as to the positives we’re getting,” said Theresa Kelly, who was mayor during the 2011 situation and is the current Public Works commissioner. “Something’s seeping in, but trying to find out where is difficult. It’s a very old system. We need to continue to work on it to bring it up to the 21st century.

Kelly said much improvement on the water system “hadn’t been getting done” before her administration began in 2008.

“The city was patching up, and no longer can you patch,” Kelly said. “Most people in Ventnor understand we need to do this work.”

Fixing up the water system has been hampered by Hurricane Sandy, however.

“Two of the wells basically had to be shut down because of Hurricane Sandy,” Bagnell said. “Both were breached. Well 8 in Ventnor Heights, the roof got damaged and the rain came in and shorted the electric. The well was not active by the time seawater breached it.

Well No. 4 at the Public Works building, meanwhile, was breached by the regular tide, but as a precaution the well had been shut down. Once the well was breached, there was also some contamination from seawater, Bagnell said.

Klein said there was DEP approval for construction of a new Well No. 8, “but since the storm, their parameters have changed and it has to be raised,” he said. “That’s a year away. It’s not going to happen this summer. We were also going to paint the Well 10 tower at Lafayette Avenue School, but right now because of the hurricane, (Well 8) in Ventnor Heights is still out of service, and we can’t give up tower 10 to get painted until we solve the problem at 8.”

City Engineer Charles Sabatini also said upgrades were planned for Well No. 7, and Kelly said work at the reservoir at the Public Works building was also possible — all mostly paid for through bonding and capital improvements.

Ventnor just this year switched to a usage-based water fee, after years of a flat rate because of meters being replaced. The rate per 1,000 gallons is $4.65 in nonsummer months and $6.46 in June, July and August, plus administrative costs of $349 per year.

In the meantime, all officials made sure to stress that residents shouldn’t be concerned about the total coliform.

“It’s not a threat to anyone’s home,” Kelly said. “The water is good. People should have no fear. I drink it myself, and it’s fine.”

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