T he original problem was fire. The flames from the Grizzly Creek fire lasted for five months in 2020, burning more than 32,000 acres in western Colorado.
Now, the fire has created another problem, and it has to do with water.
Debris and ash from the fire and subsequent mudslides fell into the Colorado River, the main source of drinking water for 40 million Americans.
The effects of the fire pose a long-term threat to drinking water in neighboring Silt, which Town Manager Jeff Layman said is the first town west of the fire’s source in Glenwood Canyon to draw its water directly from the Colorado River.
“We had some crazy mudslides and that increased sediment and dirt, sand, chemicals and all the stuff that comes off of a fire,” Layman said. “Burnt hillside made its way down the river to where we draw our drinking water.”
Layman said the town has to do a lot more flushing and backwashing of its filters to ensure that drinking water stays clear. To keep up, one of the four banks of filters needs to be replaced every six to eight weeks. But each repair costs $50,000, and sediment from the fire is projected to remain in the river for five years or longer.
With a population of just over 3,500 residents, Silt doesn’t have the resources to keep replacing their filters every couple months.
“We can’t keep doing what we’re doing for that length of time,” Layman said. “We’re not built to do that.”
The engineers working for the town have estimated around $30 million will be needed to build a new treatment plant or find another sustainable long-term solution to upgrade equipment for treatment and filtration.
Layman doesn’t know yet where that money will come from, but he has been in talks with government agencies about emergency grant funding. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment could fund the long-term solutions to Silt’s water problems. Layman said he hopes to secure a plan within approximately the next eight weeks.
Rifle, 8 miles west of Silt, did not have “any extraordinary challenges” from the Grizzly Creek fire debris, according to an email from Utility Director Robert Burns.
Burns said the confluence of the Colorado and Roaring Fork Rivers near Glenwood Springs helps dilute their water. So does their robust plant built in 2017 that removes turbidity — cloudiness caused by sediment in the water. A large sedimentation pond allows solids in the water to settle before treatment.
In Silt, several wells offer the town an alternative water source. These are usually used to offset high sediment levels in the river during spring runoff.
But because they’re located right next to the river, the riverbed that supplies the well is still affected by the poor water quality since the fire.
Plus, using the wells introduces other problems that have existed since long before the Grizzly Creek fire, like bringing up manganese found deep in the rocks. Resident Bret Conant says the water in his home turns brown every time the town switches between the well and the river.
“When we see that our water’s brown, we don’t want to drink it,” Conant said. “And we certainly don’t want to have the kids drink it.”
Conant said his water turns brown at least a couple dozen times a year, but said the town tries to alert residents through email before it happens. He blames the manganese in Silt’s water for clogging his appliances and having to replace his dishwasher, boiler, toilet valves and hot water heater. Silt’s Public Works Director Trey Fonner said to his knowledge, there’s no connection between manganese in the water and frequent appliance replacement, and he’s not aware of any similar complaints from other residents.
There aren’t any enforceable federal or state standards for manganese in drinking water. Conant alerted the state of his concerns, which Layman said was helpful to get the Silt on the state’s radar for monitoring water quality.
Layman said Silt’s tests found that manganese levels in the system aren’t dangerous, but Conant wonders if the city tests in the right locations and worries for his two children’s health. Studies show overexposure to manganese can cause problems with neurological development, especially at a young age.
Just like the town, Conant consistently replaces the water filters in his home. He spends about $20 every three months to purchase three new ones.
“I replace the filters so frequently because they get plugged up so quickly,” Conant said. “They’re just brown all the time.”
Existing water quality problems in Silt have been exacerbated by the Grizzly Creek fire. Layman said the number of days with brown-tinted water have increased because of the mudslides.
“I don’t think anybody thinks this sediment event and increased turbidity is going to be over anytime soon,” Layman said. “So we need to design a plan that can handle it.”