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The Rural Water Conundrum

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Dale Colerick spent years monitoring Hillrose's drinking water for uranium, and when a new EPA rule put his town's supply over the allowable limit, he set to work finding a new, safe drinking water source. Credit: Paula Gillen

What small, rural utilities and private well owners face in keeping their water safe to drink

By Nelson Harvey

It didn’t take long for Dale Colerick to realize he had a problem.

In the winter of 2004, Colerick ran the water utility for the 300-person northeastern Colorado hamlet of Hillrose, whose grid of old Victorians, doublewides and mobile homes sits south of Interstate 76 amid the crop circles and cattle ranches of Morgan County.

Hillrose drew its drinking water from an alluvial well connected to the nearby South Platte River. Late in 2003, a new federal rule took effect that was meant to reduce the risk of cancer and kidney damage in areas where uranium—often naturally present in surrounding rocks—made its way into groundwater. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed the rule under the landmark 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, which regulates both natural and manmade drinking water contaminants. The new rule directly regulated uranium for the first time, capping uranium levels in drinking water at 30 parts per billion, and gave communities four years to meet the standard before penalties kicked in.

Colerick didn’t need that time. He had been monitoring uranium in the town’s drinking water for nearly two decades under existing EPA rules for communities with high levels of other radioactive elements in their water supply, and he knew that uranium levels consistently registered around 33 parts per billion—just above the new EPA limit.

Under the law, Colerick could have done what many nearby communities did: test through 2007 in hopes that uranium levels would drop, then scramble for a treatment solution if they didn’t. Yet after decades of testing, Colerick and the Hillrose town board were convinced that uranium concentrations in their drinking water wouldn’t  fall on their own, so they took a decisively different approach. They asked the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) for an early declaration that they were out of compliance with the federal uranium standard, unlocking federal grants and loans to solve the problem. Then, at a time when competition for grant funds, engineers and contractors was relatively low, they set to work finding the town a new drinking water source.

This proactive stance set Hillrose officials apart from their counterparts in many neighboring towns, who were dreading the expense of new regulations. Although drinking water rules are designed to protect public health by reducing the risk of both acute illness and chronic disease, that protection often comes at a substantial cost. “Sometimes these small towns are governed by councils that tend to resist new regulations that drive up costs,” says Colerick. “That makes them reactive instead of proactive, which makes it much more expensive to deal with these problems in the long run.”

Residents of Hillrose are among the roughly 20 percent of Colorado citizens that rely heavily on groundwater for their drinking water supply. Many live in small communities like Hillrose: 98 percent of Colorado’s water systems serve communities smaller than 10,000 people. For small, rural water providers, limiting the risk of chronic health conditions ranging from kidney and liver disease to cancer means contending with a long list of federally regulated contaminants. Emerging and unregulated contaminants pose additional challenges. As rural communities work to reduce health risks, they also struggle to spread the costs of water testing and treatment over small populations, while keeping up with changing regulations and the evolving science of water pollution.

Meanwhile, private well owners remain exempt from any water quality regulations, but bear the weighty responsibility of essentially operating their own personal utilities by constructing their own wells and testing and treating drinking water. They count on state and federal groundwater laws to keep their water sources free of some pollutants, but ensuring clean water means paying for water testing and treatment while keeping accurate maintenance records. And yet, many well owners test their drinking water less frequently than state health officials recommend, and high costs are partly to blame. Some groundwater experts believe state government should do more to require or subsidize private well testing, but at least for now, relying on a private well means taking your family’s health into your own hands.

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Dale Colerick, mayor of Hillrose, Colorado, stands inside the town's new water pumping station, used to distribute uranium-free water purchased from the Morgan County Quality Water District to customers for indoor use. Credit: Paula Gillen

Little towns, big costs

By early 2006, Colerick and the Hillrose board of trustees had devised a plan to bring Hillrose’s drinking water in line with federal uranium standards. They would buy wholesale water from the Morgan County Quality Water District, then build a dual indoor/outdoor water distribution system for Hillrose residents, running treated, metered Morgan County water to customers for indoor use while sending unmetered water from the town’s old well for outdoor irrigation. The scheme would require the construction of new indoor plumbing for all customers, along with a new tank, booster pump and chlorinating station. The total construction cost? Just north of $2 million.

The new system would also impose a serious burden on Hillrose water customers, boosting the base rate for 5,000 gallons of water from $15 to over $75 per month. Yet Colerick argued that the long-overdue rate hike would bring Hillrose rates in line with those in many surrounding towns, while securing the future of the town’s water supply. (For that same 5,000 gallons of water, nearby communities pay anywhere from $26 in Brush to $58 in Fort Morgan to $67 for rural customers outside of Sterling, as of press time.) As they scouted for project funding, Colerick and other town officials went door to door, telling property owners that their water contained uranium levels that were no longer safe to consume in the eyes of the federal government.

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Dale Colerick talks with Hillrose residents. Credit: Paula Gillen
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Many rural Colorado towns, like Hillrose, struggle to keep up with changing water quality regulations in order to reduce health risks. Credit: Paula Gillen

“We were able to get most people on board,” says Colerick, who today is the mayor of Hillrose and the public works director for the nearby City of Brush, even as he continues to run Hillrose’s water system. “Was it a shock to the ratepayers? Absolutely. But was it out of line with what everyone else around us was paying? No.”

Before the project, Hillrose was far from the only small town in Colorado with water rates too low to cover the costs of modern water treatment. Experts say many small Colorado utilities have not raised their water rates in 15 or 20 years. This leaves little money for maintenance or emergency repairs, and forces communities to use their water systems far beyond their useful lives, according to training specialist Paul Shreve of the Colorado Rural Water Association (CRWA).

The problem is that small communities are often hesitant to spread the cost of new water projects over their modest populations. So says Leroy Cruz, who until retiring in late 2015 worked as a circuit-rider for the CRWA, traveling the state conducting water rate studies for small utilities and helping them apply for funding.

 “Many small-town officials were elected on the promise that they would keep rates low for their constituents, but the problem is that those low rates do not cover depreciation of their water systems or future needs,” Cruz says. During his career, he often saw communities letting their systems deteriorate, then applying for federal grants to replace the systems. “It appeared that communities were keeping rates low and not maintaining their systems because it would give them a higher probability of getting federal grant funds in the long run,” he says.

Aside from the sharp rate increase borne by Hillrose water customers, the town’s plan to comply with the new EPA uranium rule also relied heavily on grant funds. To revamp the water system, Colerick secured a $1 million grant from USDA Rural Development, and a $1 million interest-free loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB).

In Colorado, funding sources like these, along with the Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund, which is run conjunctively by several vested state agencies, are a vital way for small utilities to finance new drinking water projects. Yet demand for funding far outstrips supply. Over the last decade, the revolving loan fund has never funded more than 8.5 percent of the projects on its annual eligibility list, and has never met more than 2.6 percent of the total funding need expressed each year by water providers.

New or more stringent federal drinking water rules—which develop as scientists learn to measure increasingly minute levels of pollution or its effects on human health—often prompt small communities like Hillrose to revamp their water systems. “Lab testing has become more and more sophisticated, and we can now see things that we just couldn’t see before,” says Andrew Ross, senior water quality scientist for CDPHE’s Water Quality Control Division. In 2001, for instance, EPA strengthened the arsenic standard from 50 parts per billion to 10, in light of growing evidence of a link between small concentrations of arsenic and cancers of the bladder, skin and lungs. A scientific advisory board  for EPA is now considering whether the current arsenic standard goes far enough to protect human health.

The cost of improving drinking water systems to meet new federal standards can be stiff, but so are the financial penalties that regulators impose when communities violate those standards and the public health consequences that may follow exposure. In the summer of 2015, the eastern Colorado City of Burlington, population 4,003, was fined nearly $1 million by CDPHE for 2,109 violations of state drinking water rules. State officials alleged that city employees had failed to notify customers or state regulators hundreds of times between 2009 and 2015 when water samples taken from town drinking water wells exceeded federal standards for nitrate, a pollutant often traced to agricultural fertilizer runoff, leaking septic systems or animal waste. If infants under six months old drink water with concentrations of nitrate above the federal drinking water standard of 10 parts per million, they risk developing a rare condition called “blue baby syndrome,” where nitrate in the gut is converted to nitrite that competes for oxygen in the bloodstream, sometimes leading to death.

Today, Burlington officials are working with CDPHE to complete a $4.25 million blending station that will dilute the city’s nitrate-contaminated well water with clean groundwater. The project will be funded mainly through a grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and a loan from the Water Resources and Power Development Authority, although repaying that loan may require a water rate hike. The city will be off the hook for most of the $988,000 in fines it owes if it can finish the project by December 2017.  Yet the source of the city’s nitrate pollution remains a mystery. Troy Bauder, a water quality specialist with Colorado State University Extension, launched a study in the summer of 2016 to uncover the mystery source by examining isotopes of nitrogen and other elements found in the town’s contaminated wells. “This chemistry may be able to tell us if the nitrate was from fertilizer, an organic source like animal manure or human sewage, or a natural source [like bacteria in the soil],” he says.

A little help at the wellhead

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Like many residents in Colorado's rural San Luis Valley, Claire Baker, who lives 10 miles north of Alamosa, relies on water from a private well. Informed of the risks, thanks to the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council's outreach, Baker now regularly tests her water for all contaminants. Credit: Christi Bode

 In summer 2005, Chris Canaly was at her desk in the offices of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC), an environmental group housed in a two-story brick building next to a tattoo parlor in downtown Alamosa, when the phone rang. On the other end was Tami Thomas Burton, then the environmental justice coordinator in EPA’s Denver office. “She told me that she knew that a third of the people in the San Luis Valley relied on household wells for their drinking water,” Canaly recalls. “Then she asked if our group would be willing to help the EPA do free household well testing around the valley.”

Canaly, who by then had spent six years at the helm of the SLVEC, had long wanted to engage the group in public health issues. She knew that EPA was deeply unpopular in the conservative San Luis Valley and would be unlikely to succeed without the political cover of a local grassroots group like hers. She also knew that many wells in the valley were laced with high levels of contaminants including arsenic, a toxic element that originates in the volcanic rock of the San Juan Mountains to the west and leaches into groundwater. Acute arsenic poisoning causes skin lesions and blackening of the hands and feet, conditions that at least one Alamosa doctor documented in his patients in 2003. At levels closer to the EPA drinking water standard of 10 parts per billion, long-term arsenic exposure has been linked to skin, liver, lung and bladder cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

In 2005, voters in Alamosa took a major step toward resolving their arsenic problem by approving a bond issue to build a new $12.6 million water treatment plant. Since its completion in 2008, the plant has provided treated water to about 9,000 Alamosa residents. Still, the population of Alamosa County is closer to 16,000, and private well owners remain on their own in a valley where census figures put roughly a quarter of the population below the poverty line and many people struggle to pay for well testing and treatment. In light of that information, Canaly decided to collaborate with EPA.

EPA's mobile lab in the San Luis Valley visits a groundwater testing site. Courtesy: San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council
The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council and volunteers receive an Environmental Stewardship Award from EPA in 2007. Courtesy: San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council

In summer 2006, the agency dispatched a mobile lab to the San Luis Valley, and technicians fanned out to test nearly 400 private wells. Bacteria, whether from leaky septic systems, wildlife or other sources, was found in 28.5 percent of the wells tested, while 1.4 percent contained nitrates, nearly 12 percent contained arsenic, and 3 percent contained uranium.

Based on those results, the SLVEC and other groups got a three-year grant to continue the work, distributing 337 private-well test kits in the summer of 2009. Tests showed that 12 wells exceeded the federal EPA arsenic standard while 30 others approached it. Bacteria also remained a major problem—42 percent of all wells tested showed some level of bacteria, while 9 percent tested positive for coliform bacteria, which can signal the presence of fecal material.

“The big issue that came back was that no one was cleaning their wells,” says Canaly. “We went

through an education process, gave out DVDs and taught people to do shock chlorination. And a lot of people followed up on it.” Responses to arsenic contamination varied, Canaly says. Some well owners chose to do nothing, others switched to bottled water for drinking and cooking, and those who could afford it installed point-of-use reverse osmosis systems, which range in price from about $200 to $600 at Home Depot and require changing out $40 to $50 filters once a year. 

To many observers, this well testing partnership in the San Luis Valley seemed like a model that could be deployed in other communities. EPA officials involved in the effort spoke of replicating it elsewhere, and Canaly gave a presentation on it at the National Rural Health Association’s 2010 conference. Others, though, reasoned that rather than relying on the federal government, state health officials should take a more proactive and ongoing role in subsidizing the costs of private well testing.

At a minimum, CDPHE recommends that homeowners test private wells when they purchase a property and annually thereafter for coliform bacteria, lead, nitrate, and nitrite. The agency also advises annual testing for arsenic, calcium, copper, fluoride, iron, and uranium—all are common in groundwater or household plumbing and can be dangerous in high concentrations.

 “You see this story play out over and over again—it’s not until there is something that threatens folks that they get activated and interested in water quality, and by then it is often too late,” says Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University. “A lot of times people come from urban environments, buy their little piece of heaven out in the country, and it takes them a while to realize that they are in the water and wastewater utility business.”

Many well owners don’t recognize their responsibility, and when they do, testing is expensive. The “deluxe Colorado package” offered by CDPHE’s state lab covers heavy metals, bacteria, nitrate, sodium, uranium, and a suite of other contaminants but it costs $265. Colorado offers plenty of educational resources to private well owners—CSU Extension has instructional videos and pamphlets on private well safety, affordable recordkeeping templates, and a free online water quality interpretation tool. But there is no statewide program offering discounted well testing.

Such programs do exist in other states. In Wisconsin, families with an income under $65,000 per year can be reimbursed for the costs of water testing, water treatment, new well construction or even a temporary supply of bottled water. And in Nebraska, the state health department offers free nitrate and coliform bacteria test kits to well owners who have recently drilled new wells or made repairs.

Andrew Ross at CDPHE believes that his department should follow the lead of other states, subsidizing private well testing in the same way that it now offers a voucher to offset the cost of radon testing in home basements and crawl spaces. 

But Katherine James, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus who has been studying the public health impacts of arsenic and other metals in San Luis Valley groundwater for about 13 years, cautions that well testing is only half the battle. Many people in impoverished areas, she says, also struggle to pay for water treatment if their well tests show contamination. “The EPA or the state may test your water for free, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to afford to do something about it,” James says. “Any statewide well testing program in Colorado would have to engage with the community if their contaminant levels turn out to be high, and help them find ways to actually treat their water.”

Emerging threats to groundwater quality

For all the expense associated with treating water to government standards, some of the emerging contaminants that Colorado’s small, rural utilities and private well owners alike now face are not regulated. Methane pollution from oil and gas drilling is one of these. In Colorado, there have been some documented examples where flammable methane from the geologic layers targeted in oil and gas drilling has migrated into drinking water wells. At high concentrations, gas dissolved in water and released into the air through a showerhead or kitchen faucet can trigger an explosion.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June 2016, University of Colorado-Boulder engineering professor Joe Ryan and his co-authors analyzed water samples obtained by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) between 1988 and 2014 in the Denver-Julesburg Basin, a drilling hotspot in northeastern Colorado. They found an average of two cases of oil- and gas-linked methane contamination in the basin each year since 2001, involving less than 1 percent of the basin’s more than 54,000 wells. Yet their study emphasizes that each case has substantial health and quality-of-life impacts for affected well owners.

Rather than blaming the oft-scapegoated practice of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” the researchers singled out old, leaky and shallow gas well casings as the likely source of contamination. Before they were strengthened in the mid-1990s to require deeper surface casings on gas wells, Colorado’s regulations failed to anticipate the depth of future drinking water sources. As population growth and water consumption drives down groundwater levels in many oil- and gas-producing areas, water wells are drilled deeper and aren’t always protected from old gas wells, Ryan says.

Regulators investigate every report of water contamination they receive, according to Greg Deranleau, environmental manager for the COGCC. When faulty oil and gas well casings are the culprit, operators must remedy the problem and provide nearby well owners with potable drinking water. When leaky gas wells have been capped and abandoned and their former operators are no longer in business, the COGCC itself might shoulder the cost of fixing the issue.

Despite these responses, some worry that today’s regulators could again be failing to protect future drinking water sources as they oversee another aspect of drilling: the deep-well injection of oil and gas wastewater. Although the mile-deep wells constructed for wastewater disposal are far deeper than any current sources of drinking water, they still require an aquifer exemption from EPA, certifying that the geologic layers where waste is being injected are unlikely to supply drinking water in the future. In July 2016, EPA granted such an exemption for the proposed Windy Hill project outside of Brush, Colorado, where a company, Windy Hill Operations, plans to build two wells: one to extract brackish water for industrial uses from a mile below the surface and another to inject oil and gas wastewater at the same depth.

“When today’s injection wells are permitted, there is no known connection to places where drinking water is being extracted,” says Waskom of the Colorado Water Institute. But, he adds, “Technological change will likely allow us to use some waters in the future that we now consider marginal, and that is the reason that we need to think about this long-term.”

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Amanda Massey-Holman worries about the health of her two daughters, Jaydyn (left) and Terry (right). The family drank unfiltered water in Security for five years before learning of PFC contamination. Although the city has temporarily switched to a clean water supply from Pueblo Reservoir, Holman is still wary of consuming the tap water. Credit: Matthew Staver

Other emerging threats to drinking water remain unregulated simply because EPA’s regulatory process moves slowly: Conducting scientific research, accepting months of public comment, and giving water providers time to comply often means that years pass between the time that contaminants are first suspected as dangerous to public health and the enforcement of regulations.

This dynamic was on display last spring in the communities of Security, Widefield and Fountain south of Colorado Springs. Every few years, EPA requires public drinking water systems to sample for so-called “emerging contaminants,” compounds that can occur in drinking water, may have adverse health effects and could warrant future regulation if EPA determines that new rules would reduce public health risks. Early in 2016, test results revealed that drinking water in Security, Widefield and Fountain had among the highest levels in the country of perflourinated compounds (PFCs), industrial chemicals used in carpets, clothing, fabrics, food packaging, firefighting foam and countless other products.

Then in May 2016, EPA announced that it was radically tightening its drinking water health advisory level for PFCs from 400 parts per trillion down to 70 to protect vulnerable populations like nursing mothers and their infants from PFC-linked disorders like low birth weight, accelerated puberty, heart disease, liver disease and certain cancers. The new advisory level, according to CDPHE, is roughly equivalent to a drop of water in a 10-mile string of railroad tank cars, and PFC levels in many of the municipal and private wells in the communities of Fountain, Security and Widefield are far higher. 

State and federal regulators suspect PFCs were released during firefighting drills at Peterson Air Force Base between 1970 and 1990. Although the Air Force has not accepted responsibility and continues to study the problem, it has put up $4.3 million for the affected area in Colorado to install carbon filters at or near municipal wellheads, purchase bottled water or reverse osmosis filters for private well owners, and help some private water systems tie into municipal water networks. El Paso County Public Health offered free private well tests in fall 2016, since tests run between $200 and $300, according to spokeswoman Danielle Oller. By late summer, test results from 30 wells revealed that more than two-thirds showed PFC concentrations over the EPA advisory level.  Well owners have responded to the contamination in diverse ways, says Aaron Doussett, El Paso County Water Quality Program manager. Some let an Air Force contractor install point-of-use filtration systems in their homes, others switch to bottled water for drinking and cooking, and a few, reasoning that their water looks and tastes fine, shoulder the risk of ingesting PFCs and choose to do nothing at all.

For their part, some who rely on municipal water say the PFC crisis has severely shaken their faith in their water providers. Amanda Massey-Holman, 32, lives in the worst-impacted zone of Security with her two daughters, along with two dogs and a cat. Since learning at the end of June that their water was contaminated, her family has been drinking bottled water they’ve stockpiled from a series of charity events around town. Holman also makes regular trips to her sister’s house across town to fill up a cooler with water for cooking. She says she and her family drank unfiltered tap water for five years before they learned of the contamination, including a period when she was pregnant with her youngest daughter. Today, they use tap water for little more than outdoor irrigation, though Security Water and Sanitation has replaced all contaminated groundwater with surface water purchased from Pueblo Reservoir.

“I don’t know what would give me confidence to drink the tap water again,” Holman says. “They have been telling us for 20 years that it is safe to drink, and all of a sudden it is not. Who is to say that in the next year or five years they won’t turn around and say it is not safe to bathe in? We’re actually considering moving out of the area because of this.”

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Community meetings, like this July 2016 meeting in Colorado Springs held in response to nearby water contamination, offer a forum for residents, local officials and regulators to share information, air grievances and shape community response. Credit: Matthew Staver

Roy Heald, general manager of the Security Water and Sanitation District, points out that his utility has always relied on the best available science to determine whether its water was safe, but science has evolved.  “Just because science changes, that does not mean that what we told people in the past wasn’t true,” says Heald. “Our water throughout all of this has met all federal and state regulations. They lowered the health advisory, and we have been working for months to meet that.” 

For now, Security Water has shut down its contaminated wells and switched entirely to surface water from Pueblo Reservoir. The utility is also constructing a second supply line to get more water from the Southern Delivery System, a new pipeline that began delivering water from Pueblo Reservoir to Eastern Plains communities in April 2016. And over the next year, the agency will design a carbon filter treatment system for its contaminated groundwater. In the meantime, EPA is weighing whether to regulate PFCs.

Whether the water in Colorado’s rural areas is threatened by a naturally occurring contaminant like uranium or an emerging pollutant like PFCs, keeping it safe often depends on a suite of factors. Regulators must have the enforcement power to protect the groundwater used today, along with the foresight to safeguard future sources. Federal grants and loans help defray the high costs of testing and treatment for rural communities, while effective local officials maintain their systems diligently and are brave enough to pursue politically unpopular water rate increases when necessary. The state’s private well owners, too, have sometimes relied on federal help to maintain their water supplies, and some argue that state government should do more to encourage private well testing and protect the health of rural residents. It’s unavoidable, though, that ensuring healthy drinking water in rural Colorado requires a healthy dose of personal responsibility. 

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