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In Pursuit of Clean Water

Schultz staver 010 web
Photo by Matthew Staver

By Caitlin Coleman

May Valley’s water isn’t good. It’s more than just the flavor that’s disagreeable, though that’s part of it. Due to high levels of total dissolved solids, the water doesn’t always settle well with people. The problem isn’t unique to customers of the May Valley Water Association, a drinking water provider that conveys water to 589 taps through more than 200 miles of small pipeline. Many other communities in Colorado’s Eastern Plains rely on municipal water that will make a newcomer’s stomach churn.

Claude Schultz, superintendent of the May Valley Water Association, says the fact that the water makes people queasy isn’t such a problem in and of itself. The association typically hears complaints only when new residents, habituated to purer water, move to the area. They’ll fall sick for a couple of weeks, then turn to bottled water. “In this day and age, people buy bottled water because they don’t like the taste of the water anyway,” Schultz says.

His nonchalance ends when it comes to a more serious contaminant in the water: radium. “It’s a nightmare,” says Schultz, “and we can’t afford to remove it at this point.”

Radium levels in May Valley’s drinking water surpass state and federal allowable limits. Radionuclides are the major water quality challenge across the plains, says Ron Falco, manager of the Safe Drinking Water Program under the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). They include radium and uranium, as well as alpha and beta emitters like plutonium, tritium and thorium—all of which can cause cancer and kidney damage. In Colorado’s affected areas, these substances also happen to be naturally occurring in the soils; they’re transported by water as it percolates through the earth. “There are systems that use groundwater all over the state,” Falco says. “But it’s a bad-luck coincidence that more of those [radionuclide] problems are found within the plains.”

May Valley is one of 33 drinking water systems in Colorado currently working with CDPHE to resolve radionuclide problems in order to provide water that regulators deem healthy. All 33 communities rely on groundwater from deep or alluvial aquifers; 21 are located on Colorado’s Eastern Plains, and 15, including May Valley, are east of Pueblo. That’s not to say that all plains communities face water quality challenges; many towns reliant on the Ogallala Aquifer drink high quality palatable water.

But for affected eastern Colorado towns, water quality issues don’t end at radionuclides. Burlington in April 2014 started warning pregnant and nursing women and infants under six months old not to drink the water because of high nitrate levels. Other plains communities have also surpassed limits for nitrates, trihalomethanes and selenium, among other contaminants, not to mention that the water doesn’t always taste great.

In many cases, the water itself hasn’t changed—and flavor is something most residents have learned to cope with—but regulations and monitoring requirements have become increasingly stringent, throwing water providers out of compliance and into difficult financial situations. For May Valley, the equipment required to reach compliance would have cost $3.8 million, says Schultz. The costs were too high to divide among his customers, and as a public entity, May Valley didn’t qualify for government loans.

In the effort to remedy violations and the public health risks they pose, some communities are drilling new wells in search of purer water, while others are installing expensive treatment facilities. Others find those system upgrades so prohibitively costly that system-wide improvements can’t be made and are holding out for a new federal project that will provide better source water. Even as communities struggle to comply with regulations, some remain wary that new drinking water and even surface water quality rules could soon come online and demand additional costly system changes.

Shifting Standards

The Safe Drinking Water Act was established in 1974. Two years later standards for selenium, nitrates and radionuclides were set, as were others. New standards are established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through a process that includes periods of study and public comment, plus a cost-benefit analysis meant to weigh the costs of treatment against the health risks of leaving a contaminant in the water. Once those standards are set, they’re reviewed every six years. At the state level, CDPHE oversees Colorado’s clean water programs, collecting water quality data and working with communities to help them meet state standards, which are adopted from the EPA requirements at levels that either meet or exceed the federal recommendations.

In 1991, selenium and nitrate regulations were updated; neither has been changed since. Then in 2000, the EPA reviewed its radionuclide rule and, based on new information about its health effects, added a standard for uranium, which wasn’t previously regulated.

In the South Platte Basin city of Sterling, radionuclide levels in the early 2000s were even worse than in May Valley. Sterling, home to about 15,000 people, was the largest municipality in Colorado and one of the largest in the nation with radionuclide and trihalomethane problems. Trihalomethanes are formed when disinfection byproducts bond to other contaminants in the water, creating a carcinogen.

Despite multiple violations, and although the new radionuclide standards passed in 2000, Sterling didn’t take action and begin treating its groundwater until 2008, when CDPHE required it. “We knew that we had issues before then, but when the enforcement order came, we obviously had to start the process of doing something,” says Jeff Reeves, the city’s utilities superintendent. 

With help from CDPHE, Sterling evaluated various treatment options and eventually settled on a reverse osmosis plant, which would improve the taste and hardness of the water and also bring the city into compliance. Since the plant began operating in October 2013, Sterling’s water, which before contained uranium levels between 31 and 32 micrograms per liter, is down to around 0.9 micrograms per liter—the EPA and state standard is set at 30. People are beginning to trust and drink the water again, says Reeves. The city is still completing final piping, but Reeves expects the plant to cost about $30 million when all is said and done—a cost that’s being covered through a 50 percent water rate increase. “It’s been a big project,” he says. “Probably the biggest project Sterling has ever had to do.”

Reverse osmosis works by forcing water through a membrane. Purified water emerges on the opposite side, while contaminants are unable to pass through. Those trapped contaminants form a byproduct that must be safely disposed of. “It’s still water,” Reeves says, “But it’s a brine—it’s concentrated.” Sterling drilled two 7,000-foot-deep injection wells at a cost of more than a million dollars each to dispose of this concentrate. The city will run annual tests, periodically clean the wells, and pay the high electrical bills associated with running 2,000-psi pumps for deep well injection. Not to mention the water they have to send back underground with the concentrate: Sterling now sees about a 15 percent loss of water, water that is injected “down-hole,” as Reeves says, and can’t be used for anything else. To account for this loss, he expects the city will drill a couple more municipal wells in coming years to satisfy demand.

More than 200 miles to the south, La Junta and Las Animas also operate reverse osmosis systems. Las Animas’ came online in the late 1990s to meet updated selenium drinking water standards and La Junta’s was built in 2005 to manage the hardness and taste of water and to comply with chloride standards. For these Arkansas Valley communities with established systems, today’s concerns have less to do with funding new infrastructure, but center around safely disposing the concentrate produced during treatment. 

Unlike Sterling, both of these communities have been releasing their reverse osmosis concentrate into the river mixed with treated wastewater. Releases have offset some of the required replacements the towns must make for the water they pump from alluvial aquifers, which, under Colorado water law, must be replaced due to proven connections with the surface water supply. But the discharges are subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act, and according to CDPHE, the lower Arkansas River and many of its tributaries are already considered impaired for selenium. Selenium, another element that is naturally occurring in western soils, becomes damaging to both human and aquatic life at high levels.

Yet even those Clean Water Act standards are in flux, and the potential for new selenium standards worry these water providers. Early in 2014, the EPA released new draft selenium criteria, and the comment period for those changes ended in July. Although the new criteria haven’t been finalized, if they pass and are accepted in Colorado, they’ll push allowable limits for selenium in surface water even lower and will likely throw the La Junta and Las Animas discharges out of compliance. The discharged brine is simply too thick with selenium and other contaminants. Deep well injection could be an option for disposal, albeit an expensive one, but it
wouldn’t help these water providers return flows to the Arkansas River.

“We’re very concerned,” says Ken Wagner, director of Las Animas Public Works. “It’s going to affect [communities] from Pueblo to the state line.” Wagner’s concern is echoed by Joe Kelley, director of water and wastewater treatment for La Junta, where they’re looking at alternative disposal methods as well as water conservation to reduce the quantity of reverse osmosis concentrate.

Muddling Through

Although most of the contaminants Eastern Plains communities are dealing with are found naturally in soils, human-introduced contaminants like the nitrates found in fertilizers also find their way into groundwater. Irrigation in these farming communities aggravates the issue when excess water drains down, drawing surface and sub-surface contaminants through soils and aquifers and into rivers.

Dr. Tim Gates, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Colorado State University specializing in hydraulic systems, says plants’ roots also serve to concentrate any naturally occurring or applied minerals or fertilizers found in irrigation water during evapo-transpiration. “What the crops are doing, they’re creating this huge distillation factory out on the ground,” Gates says. “They’re pulling this water out, they’re vaporizing it, but what they leave behind in the soil is a more concentrated form of that water.” That concentration of contaminants is further pulled through the ground the next time the field is irrigated or rained on. Addressing the root of aggravated water quality isn’t an issue municipalities can solve on their own, but will require a suite of tools including more efficient irrigation, improved management of fertilizers, and more. So towns continue treating their water.

Some Eastern Plains water providers have found creative solutions to solve their compliance issues like drilling a new well to find better water or mixing water from different wells, using larger quantities from those wells with higher quality water. Burlington is trying to avoid using its nitrate-laden wells altogether—though when demand is high that’s not possible—while it looks to purchase water rights from additional clean wells and considers making more major changes to the city’s infrastructure. Other communities have piped their systems together, and one, Kit Carson, is working with CDPHE to form a water district to gain eligibility for additional grant funding and bring the cost of treatment within reach.

After it tried drilling additional wells only to find that those, too, were contaminated, the May Valley Water Association found a temporary solution to its radionuclide issues. Instead of the financially unattainable reverse osmosis plant, they’ve built a small-scale reverse osmosis filling station in Wiley where customers can obtain purified water. The filling station processes between 70 and 110 gallons of water each day; although it’s capable of processing much more, the limited use can likely be attributed to the inconvenience of hauling water. As for the rest of his customers, Schultz estimates 80 percent of them have a water softener and reverse osmosis filter at home to improve taste and reduce stomach upset, but that doesn’t satisfy the state and the EPA, he says. The filling station, however, does—at least for now.

Schultz, along with about 40 other water providers including Las Animas and La Junta, is holding out for a more permanent fix: the Arkansas Valley Conduit. The conduit is a 230-mile pipeline designed to carry water transported through the Fryingpan-Arkansas transbasin diversion project from the headwaters of the Colorado River Basin’s Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers to the Arkansas Basin’s Pueblo Reservoir and pipe that water farther east to the lower Arkansas River Valley. The project, estimated to cost $400 million, would serve 50,000 people in 40 communities, delivering fresh mountain water to southeastern towns and cities as far as Lamar that are dealing with saline surface water, contaminated groundwater, and water quality violations.

The Arkansas Valley Conduit was originally planned and authorized as a feature of the Fryingpan- Arkansas Project in 1962. But it was later cut from Fry-Ark plans, mainly because beneficiaries in the Arkansas Basin were unable to repay construction costs at the time. Water quality issues resurrected the concept of the conduit around 2000, and in 2009, federal legislation was signed that would allow project proponents to help finance the conduit with Fryingpan-Arkansas Project revenue generated through storage contracts with entities who use excess capacity in the project’s reservoirs. Then in early 2014 the Bureau of Reclamation approved and finalized the conduit’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which moved the project one step closer to completion. Like the rest of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, the conduit would be owned and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, while the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District would play an administrative role and work locally with project beneficiaries. Now that the EIS is secure, financing the conduit is the top priority for proponents.

Many are counting on this proposed silver-bullet-ish project. La Junta’s master plan, completed over the past decade, incorporates the conduit—now the city is expectantly waiting. It isn’t alone in eagerly anticipating a completion date estimated for between 2020 and 2023. In Las Animas, Wagner wistfully discusses the project. Referring to the water quality and reverse osmosis concentrate disposal issues plaguing his community, he says, “The Arkansas Valley Conduit would solve all of those issues for us.”

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