COLORADO CITY — It smells like pond water, leaves laundry dirty and kills the houseplants. It sometimes comes out of the faucet brown. And residents frequently get notices that the levels of two potential carcinogens in their tap water are too high.
“I don’t even give it to my animals,” Colorado City resident Mariah Norvell said of the tap water.
Residents of Colorado City, a community of 760-households southwest of Pueblo, have for years complained about problems with the area’s aging water system. Water tanks are chipping. Decades-old water lines have leaks. The process used to filter the water needs a pre-treatment system. And a storage dam has so many cracks and problems that state officials took away about 70 acre-feet of the district’s water storage, enough to supply up to 200 families for a year.
Residents’ anger has boiled over in meetings and on Facebook community pages in recent months, especially as seasonal blooms of algae add a swampy smell to the tap water. Many blame the problems on mismanagement by the Colorado City Metropolitan District Board and have accused officials of being unresponsive.
Those working for the district say the issues largely stem from lack of funding, a plight common across rural communities. Colorado City is unincorporated and so has no elected town board. Its water and sewer system is managed by the metropolitan district, which is funded mostly by property taxes.
The district has begun to fix the tanks and water lines using $3.7 million in federal relief funding. It hopes to put in a pre-treatment system for $4 million, and to repair the dam.
“I believe there was some mismanagement in the past,” said James Eccher, the district’s manager since December 2018. “That’s why we’re in the position we’re in now and we’re trying to work our way out of it.”
A former mayor of Walsenburg, which is 25 miles to the south, Eccher said he’s confronted a constant stream of projects and repairs since he began working for the district. His predecessor was charged with theft and embezzlement. One of his top priorities is rebuilding trust with residents.
“We’re trying our best to move into the 21st century,” Eccher said. “That’s all we can do with what we have.”
State grants are available to improve water systems. The federal infrastructure law is pumping billions of dollars into water systems nationwide, targeting disadvantaged communities.
Board member Sarah Hunter said there wouldn’t be a “quick fix,” but that the current board is “serious about moving forward” and wanting to see improvement.
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“Money and time is the biggest hold up,” she said, in a written statement.
Much of the odor, color and elevated chemical levels in Colorado City’s tap water could be fixed with a pre-treatment system. The district has been using membranes to filter out impurities. But bits of algae clog the membranes, and the district has had to replace three sets of the $130,000 filters in four years. Employees backwash the membranes each day, a process that uses extra water and manpower.
Dissolved organics are also able to make their way through the membranes, where they react with chlorine and other disinfecting agents designed to kill parasites, bacteria and other viruses. The level of those disinfectant byproducts, total trihalomethanes or haloacetic acids, were in excess of the federal maximum in 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2021.
The Environmental Protection Agency warns that people who consume elevated levels of total trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids over many years may have an increased risk of cancer. Those who drink excess trihalomethanes may also experience problems with their liver, kidneys and nervous system.
The most recent times the district exceeded the disinfectant byproduct levels followed a series of incidents in the summer of 2021 that left residents without water for days. First, a lightning strike cut off communications to one water tank in June — allowing the tank to nearly run out of water without operators knowing. In July, a storm surge swept silt into the water supply, prompting workers to slow down production so they could clean out water filters. And a contractor accidentally cut a fiber optic line used to run the water system, taking it offline. The plant had no ability to manually override the system when the internet went down.
Residents couldn’t shower or flush toilets. They drove about an hour round-trip to Pueblo to fill up water jugs. Others picked up some of the $1,700-worth of bottled water purchased by the metropolitan district.
“It was horrible,” said Nichole Vandermark, who has lived in Colorado City for about six years.
The district also trucked in water from Pueblo, which treats its water with a different cleaning agent. When the various disinfectants mixed, it produced excess amounts of total trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids.
Pattern of violations but no fines
At other times, the district has failed to monitor or report disinfectant byproducts or contaminants, did not inform residents of problems, and did not inspect or fix storage tanks. In 2020 and 2021, it had excessive cloudiness levels, a phenomenon called turbidity that can indicate the presence of bacteria, viruses or parasites. Eccher said that was due to a mechanical failure that was fixed.
A state inspection in 2016 showed there was the ability for contaminants to enter the district’s drinking water, that some chemicals were poorly stored and that four storage tanks had defects, including unscreened vents and unprotected overflow drains. District operators were not properly testing the membranes, there was no on-site written protocol on how to clean filters, and the district wasn’t properly monitoring or recording turbidity levels. A turbidity meter had malfunctioned.
The state has written up the district for violations but never issued fines, a penalty they typically apply to “recalcitrant” systems, said Ron Falco, with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s water quality control division.
“With communities that experience these kinds of violations where it’s a combination of chemistry and their raw water source, that’s not the first tool that we want to use,” Falco said.
The Colorado City district is under an enforcement order requiring it to come up with a plan — and schedule — to fix the identified problems. The district has in the past made adjustments that temporarily improved the system, but in the past 18 months it’s become apparent that those more minor fixes won’t work in the long term, Falco said.
It’s not necessarily a unique problem. In the 2000s and early 2010s, the regulation of disinfection byproducts became more stringent. Some communities made operational adjustments, like increased flushing, while others struggled to adapt and had to construct improved pre-treatment processes, he said.
Colorado City’s district is looking for funding to put in a pre-treatment system called a dissolved air flotation system with carbon filters. It also used a chemical spray to kill off algae in September.
“Our expectation is that Colorado City does really need to step up and make sure that this happens. We understand that it’s challenging, and we understand that they’ve tried these other measures, but now it’s time to get things working for the residents there,” Falco said.
“You really don’t want to drink that”
Residents have been taking elaborate measures to purify their drinking water.
Becky Thompson puts a 5-gallon stock pot on the stove to boil each day. She lets it cool overnight, pours it batch by batch through a half-gallon filter, and then transfers the water to an assortment of glass jugs and pitchers in the fridge.
One Tuesday afternoon, Thompson filled the stock pot with tap water and stuck in a device that scans for total dissolved solids.
“We’re sitting at 230” impurities, she said, pulling the meter out to read it. “But then you take it in here,” she said, moving the stick into one of the jugs with filtered water, “it’s zero.”
“We have to change that filter at least once a month,” she added.
Thompson had no idea the water quality was poor when she moved to Colorado City with her husband and now 6-year-old daughter in January 2021. It wasn’t until a neighbor came over to introduce themselves and saw Thompson pour herself a glass of tap water that she learned.
“They’re like, ‘you really don’t want to drink that,’” she said.
Vandermark said the water bleaches dark clothes in the laundry and has ruined eight of her husband’s work shirts. If she closes the door while the kids are in the bath, the bathroom will quickly smell like a chlorinated swimming pool. She has photos of the bathtub full of yellow water.
Vandermark typically fills up water jugs at Walmart and fills up her five daughters’ water bottles for school using filtered water in the fridge. When she sent her daughters to school with tap water, none of them drank it. They said it smelled like mold.
“They were all disgusted,” Vandermark said.
John Van Zandt’s family at one point couldn’t do laundry because the clothes looked and smelled dirtier after being washed. Van Zandt initially thought that maybe sewage had leaked into their tap water or that a rusty pipe was discoloring it. But even though he installed a filter to remove sediment that had been present, a “swampy” taste and smell remained, he said.
“I don’t think we should be charged at all. We have such garbage water,” he said. The family previously lived in Swink, which like 18 other Arkansas Valley communities, has elevated levels of radium in the water. The minimum base charge for water in the district is $27.37 per month.
“We’ve liked living in the outlying areas that we’ve lived in because they’re small quiet areas,” he said. “But at the same time, it comes with major trade-offs like radioactive water or silt in your water.”
The quality of the water has sparked health concerns among some residents, even as local officials and experts say it poses a danger only after years of consumption. Much of the district’s water comes from a drainage basin that is also used by the town of Rye. Groundwater in the area has high levels of radioactive materials and other contaminants, limiting its use as potable water, according to an engineering report requested by the state.
Thompson once got out of the shower covered in hives. The water had smelled particularly swampy that day. “I had been using those same soaps for years,” she said. “Nothing changed.”
Brandie Chartier, who works for a water well drilling company, has had one cat die with a tumor and two bulldogs have needed to have tumors removed since she moved to Colorado City in 2020. She knows she can’t prove the water caused it, but it’s become a major concern for her.
Norvell, the woman who said she won’t give the water to her pets, blames the drinking water for the severe gut problems she developed after moving to Colorado City from Arkansas.
Norvell has seen the tap water leave a pink residue at the bottom of her dog’s stainless steel water bowl. It has come out of the faucet looking brown. She considered putting in a system to filter the water but it’s too expensive.
“I’m already paying more than what I should for a water bill that I can’t even use anyway,” she said.
Other residents have spent thousands of dollars installing in-home filtration systems or purchased cheaper over-the-counter water purifiers.
Eccher, the district manager, suggested some of the complaints were overblown. Water always leaves a film in bowls, he said; his house plants have survived on tap water; and he also had to filter his water while living in Pueblo. Much of the discoloration was cut down when the district began adding chlorine dioxide to the water in 2016, he said.
“The biggest problem is we have an old system, we have metal pipes and you’re going to have some discoloration if there’s a break,” Eccher said. If the water system is shut off and restarted, it stirs up sediment in the pipes. Discoloration can also come from indoor plumbing.
Many of the district’s problems reflect those faced by small, rural systems, including a lack of qualified workers and an inability to fund upgrades or repairs, experts said.
About 98% of the state’s 2,095 public water and wastewater systems serve communities with fewer than 10,000 people, according to the Colorado Rural Water Association. The average age of pipes and major water treatment facilities in Colorado is approaching 50 years, the end of their functional life, according to a 2020 infrastructure report from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Residents in the Lower Arkansas Valley have for decades had water contaminated by naturally occurring selenium, lead and radionuclides, with some communities lacking the funding to adequately treat it. In 2014, St. Mary’s, a small mountain town between Winter Park and Idaho Springs, had no clean drinking water for more than three weeks after a water line cracked.
Water treatment systems nationwide are also adapting to population growth or changes to water sources, especially in the arid West.
“How much water is available? Where is it? Is it in the reservoirs that were full 20 years ago?” said Julie Korak, a University of Colorado Boulder professor with expertise in water quality and water treatment engineering. “How do changes to water quantity impact the chemistry of that water?”
Discoloration of water can occur when an element like manganese or iron in water is mixed with a chemical, like a disinfectant, that changes its chemistry, she said. The elements can go from being dissolved to forming particles with a color. They might accumulate on appliances, like the inside of a toilet bowl or a sink.
Water storage issues
Bob Cook, a former board member of the Colorado City Metropolitan District board and now one of its most prominent critics, believes the loss of storage is the biggest water issue facing the community.
“You’ve got to have water,” he said, “even if it’s bad water.”
He also blames the district manager and long-time board members for not addressing the problems sooner or informing him of emergencies that came up, including the lightning strike on the water tank. As a board member, he said had to file public information requests to get information.
State officials reduced the storage capacity of the reservoir last year, after improvements they had demanded to repair the district’s dam weren’t completed.
District staff didn’t tell board members about the problems at the time, Cook said. Eccher attributed that to the departure of an employee and a period in which his responsibilities were not picked up by others.
This fall, the state asked for a compliance plan to address the repairs to the dam and threatened to further reduce the reservoir’s capacity. It put the penalty on hold so long as the district kept working on the issues.
Making the required improvements to the dam would require about $2.6 million, Eccher said.
The problems date back to at least 2011.
Terry Kraus, a board member since 2016, said he didn’t feel that there was any subterfuge, but that elected board members face a steep learning curve in figuring out the state’s complex water laws. The state has had changing requirements for water systems that take time and money to address, and there are financial barriers that make quick fixes difficult, he said. The district must apply for grants, which takes time.
“There is no way we could raise water and sewer rates enough to do all that’s necessary on the infrastructure” while keeping the services affordable to citizens, Kraus said.
Cook, though, said it doesn’t matter whose fault it is or who is blamed for the problems.
“It matters that it wasn’t addressed,” he said.