Just 40 years ago, Pueblo Water would track complaints from customers about “red water” coming out of the faucets.
It stained clothes so badly that cases of heavyduty laundry cleaner were part of the utility’s routine supplies.
“The water wasn’t harmful to customers, but it had an iron taste,” said Terry Book, executive director. “We have very few complaints now.”
“And most of the time, it’s the smell coming from the pea trap (on sinks), that they mistake for coming from the waterlines,” adds Matt Trujillo, director of operations.
Pueblo is not remotely in danger of seeing the same types of problems that Flint, Mich., has experienced recently despite demographic similarities.
Flint experienced increased lead and other contaminants in its water after switching its source of supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. Within six months, bacteria was found in the water and a boil order was issued. General Motors stopped using municipal water in October 2014 because it corroded car parts.
The Environmental Protection Agency found high levels of lead in the water in February 2015, and elevated levels of lead in blood tests of children in August.
Under state and federal orders, Flint optimized corrosion controls, then switched back to using Detroit’s water supply.
Finally, in December, the city declared a state of emergency, confirmed by President Barack Obama in January.
Like Pueblo, Flint is a relatively poor community of about 100,000 people with aging infrastructure.
Unlike Flint, Pueblo recognized the need to upgrade old waterlines decades ago.
“Since 1978, we’ve concentrated on removing undersized or unlined pipes,” Book said. “Problems like Flint’s have occurred elsewhere. Older communities haven’t had the money to fix problems.”
The Pueblo Board of Water Works anticipated the need back in the 1960s, when it revised its rate structure to include repairs and maintenance.
By the time Book came to work for Pueblo Water in the late 1970s, a waterline replacement program had started. Each year, about $1.5 million is spent on replacing or repairing lines.
At one time most Pueblo waterlines were cast iron, and some dated back to the late 1800s.
There were a few asbestos- cement pipe installations in the mid-1900s.
There were even some wooden waterlines up until a few years ago.
Today, almost all of the delivery lines in Pueblo are PVC or at least ductile iron lined with cement to prevent leaching metals. The exception is an area around North Greenwood Street, with unlined pipes that will be addressed in the near future, Book said.
Pueblo has had relatively little trouble with lead in water because there aren’t many
lead pipes in Pueblo. Only 32 service lines, which connect to individual customers from the mains, are known.
“With the service line repair program (started last year), we’ve replaced one already,” Book said. “They aren’t a big problem because we have hard water, and the calcium coats the inside of the pipes.”
Copper and lead are also monitored each year for the Consumer Confidence Report that is posted on Pueblo Water’s website. The numbers are derived from testing of 50 households — the 32 which have lead pipes leading into the homes and 18 others that have brass fittings that contain lead (no longer allowed under building codes), explained Don Colalancia, water quality manager.
The number reported is the 90th percentile, which is the fifth highest household in the sample. In 2014, 9.3 parts per billion were found, compared with more than 300 parts per billion in Flint.
The report, which is scheduled to be updated next week for 2015 measurements, also provides information about other contaminants, how Pueblo’s water is treated and how facilities such as water tanks are maintained to prevent contamination.
Another factor in water quality safety is the source of supply. Pueblo gets nearly all of its water from Lake Pueblo, completed in 1975 as part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project.
“The raw water from a reservoir is generally of better quality and less expensive than taking it from a river,” Colalancia said. “Pueblo Reservoir has high-quality water.”
By using the South Outlet Works at Lake Pueblo, Pueblo Water can take advantage of a manifold that is capable of drawing water from four elevations.
“The reservoir will ‘turn’ at certain times and that affects water quality,” Book explained.
Finally, politics play a minor role when it comes to Pueblo’s water.
In Flint, state and local politics reportedly played a big part in the city’s decision to attempt to save money by switching sources. That led to ineffective efforts to use chemicals to correct the problem, and ultimately more expense to deal with the outcome.
In Pueblo, the Pueblo Board of Water Works consists of five members who are elected for staggered six-year terms. The board makeup has been more consistent than other Pueblo County governments, with most members serving multiple terms. Mike Cafasso, the junior member of the board, has served since 2007. Kevin McCarthy, the senior member, was first elected in 1988.
“It’s a dedicated board,” Book said. “And they’ve always supported the staff.”