Colorado’s water infrastructure needs

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Here’s a look at Colorado’s crumbling water supply infrastructure from David Olinger writing for the Denver Post. From the article:

Year by year, the price to fix Colorado’s drinking-water infrastructure keeps climbing. Pending requests for state help to improve water systems have ballooned from $800 million to $1.3 billion since 2005. Forty-eight of these projects, totaling $143 million, would treat water supplies posing acute or chronic health hazards. Louise Malouff’s 6-year-old son was among the children treated in emergency rooms after a pollutant — salmonella bacteria — invaded Alamosa’s water supply…

Some infrastructure money in the $787 billion federal economic-stimulus bill is coming to aid troubled Colorado water systems, but it’s not nearly enough to assure safe drinking water statewide. Colorado expects $32 million in stimulus money to help finance drinking-water projects, about 2.5 percent of the total sought by hundreds of cities, towns and districts. “The amount of money available pales in comparison to the need,” said Steve Gunderson, the state’s water- quality director…

This crisis is largely invisible. People typically notice infrastructure systems only if they fail. “It’s out of sight, out of mind,” said Tom Curtis, deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association. “You turn on the tap, and water comes out. You flush, and it goes away.”[…]

In the past two years, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has dealt with 120 “acute” drinking-water incidents that posed potential public health risks — up from 68 during the previous two years. Last year there were 62 state orders to boil tap water or drink bottled water. Nearly half were caused by broken water mains or other maintenance issues. Two water districts were ordered to boil water four times in one year, and the town of Rye has been told to boil its drinking water since May. The health department says the growing number of acute incidents may reflect better reporting from local water systems, not a growing health risk. But it acknowledges that its current staff is insufficient to keep up with the combined effects of aging infrastructure, stricter federal rules and population growth. “Currently, there is a backlog of about 120 community public-water systems with unresolved violations, and resources have allowed only one such system to be referred for enforcement,” the Water Quality Control Division recently reported to the state legislature. “This type of performance will not be accepted under the new rules.”

Ron Falco, Colorado’s drinking-water program manager, said most of those inspection-based violations — inadequate maintenance or incorrect water sampling, for example — are not directly health-related. But new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules will require stricter state oversight, and there is a risk the agency “would find we’re not doing an adequate job” of protecting water supplies, he said. Overall, 97 percent of Colorado residents drink water that meets all health standards, Falco said. That’s well above the EPA target of 90 percent and above the national average. But that still meant 156,498 people in Colorado drank from water supplies with “health-based violations” in fiscal 2008, according to EPA data. And because those problems were concentrated in 100 small systems, almost one-eighth of Colorado’s community water supplies violated health standards last year…

Colorado let developers create their own quasi-governmental water and sewer districts, then turn the infrastructure over to homeowners after projects are completed. Many of these districts are now reaching the half-century mark with original pipes…

The Teller district has joined the growing list of small water providers pleading for state help with infrastructure repairs. In most years, the health department has had little or no grant money for drinking-water projects. Those who wanted help applied for loans. This year will be a little different. Thanks to the economic-stimulus package, the department expects an extra $32 million — and to use half of that to forgive principal on loans to needy applicants. That falls far short of the nearly $1.3 billion in pending drinking-water projects statewide, plus another $456 million in new projects from cities seeking a piece of the federal infrastructure pie. It won’t even come close to covering the state’s highest-priority projects for public health…

A hundred miles north of Teller County, in a district just west of Brighton in Adams County, Hi Land Acres homeowners were told to boil their drinking water four times last year…

In Rye, a small town in the foothills southwest of Pueblo, boil-water orders have been distributed every two weeks since last spring. The issue: filtration. Rye had installed new filters to meet drinking-water regulations, but they clogged during spring runoff, costing the tiny town hundreds of dollars to replace them daily. Citing the cost, the Rye council decided in May to stop filtering the water. The state promptly ordered Rye to boil water before drinking it. “You should try running a restaurant where you can’t use the water coming out of the sinks,” said Cat Irvine, who served breakfast and lunch at the Rye Rendezvous. “I jury-rig a way to run my espresso machine. I can’t wash or rinse any of my vegetables” in the sink. She closed the restaurant last month…

In Hot Sulphur Springs, a town west of Rocky Mountain National Park, spring runoff last year turned the drinking water cloudy, violating turbidity standards. Turbidity, a general measure of particles in the water, is regulated like a pollutant because past disease outbreaks in drinking water have often been associated with high turbidity levels. The town ended up boiling its water for months. Lauralee Kourse, a water and sewer district operator called to help Hot Sulphur Springs, found a water system that had not been properly maintained for a long time. Incorrectly applied chemicals had eaten into the concrete of a drinking-water well. The town had some wooden water mains, and its galvanized iron pipes were so corroded that half the water produced was leaking out. The water smelled and looked dirty, and it was accumulating dirt between the treatment plant and the faucets…

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