All over the world, water quality is quickly becoming one of the most pressing environmental concerns of the 21st century. Life depends on it, and yet access to clean water is growing increasingly difficult. The New York Times, in a five-part series titled “Toxic Waters” has outlined many of the problems: from over-flowing and aging sewer systems, to toxic waste from industry; from agricultural run-off to chemical contamination. Colorado has its own share of problems, stemming from unprecedented population growth and large-scale oil and gas development over the past decade. (See “Colorado Waters Under Pressure.”)
Municipal systems are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, and are required to test water for bacteria and other contaminants on a regular basis. Despite the testing and the regulation, problems still occur. (See National Assessment of Tap Water Quality) Alamosa, like many other municipal systems, has experienced its share of problems. In March and April of 2008, there was an outbreak of salmonella poisoning, which was traced to the city water system. Arsenic was discovered in the city water system in the 1980’s, at levels exceeding EPA regulations, and the City was required to install a reverse-osmosis system to deal with the problem. Arsenic has been linked to many serious health problems.
Private wells are not regulated by any government authority (such as EPA), and are not required to test for problems. It is up to the individual well-owner to regulate their own water quality. The same problems that are seen in city water systems are often seen in domestic wells, from heavy metals such as arsenic and cadmium, to problems with bacteria and nitrates. It is estimated that thirty percent of SLV residents are not served by public water systems, and obtain their water from household wells.
In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came to the San Luis Valley and worked with the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council to form a collaborative partnership made up of several businesses, organizations, educational institutions, government entities, and environmental groups. This partnership was named SLV LEAP-HIGH (Landscape Environmental Assessment Plan-Health Inspired Goals for Humans). Working with volunteers from the group, EPA brought a mobile lab to the Valley, and conducted free household-well testing in each of the six counties. Over 400 households participated. Results indicated that 28.5% of household wells tested positive for bacteria, 1.4% for nitrates, 11.9% for arsenic, 1.4% for lead, 3.6% for fluoride, and 3.1% for uranium.
Because of the success of the project, on April 12, 2007, EPA officials presented six community leaders who participated in the SLV LEAP HIGH project with the U.S. EPA Friends of Environmental Protection Award for outstanding stewardship and outstanding environmental education in a rural setting.
The SLV LEAP-HIGH partnership, through the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, recognizing the extent of the problem with private well water, received a three-year grant under the EPA Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem Solving program. With that funding, the collaborative group has held regular monthly meetings, and has brought in additional partners, including the Colorado State University Extension Project. In the summer of 2009, the group presented educational meetings in five Valley counties, and gave out free household-well test kits. Over 300 households participated in this second phase of well testing. Preliminary results indicate 42% of household wells tested positive for bacteria, and 9% for harmful coliform bacteria. There were high levels of arsenic, cadmium, and iron, and many tests exceeded EPA maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for sodium, sulfates, nitrates, and total dissolved solids. The LEAP-HIGH collaborative is compiling the results of this testing, and creating maps of Valley counties showing the test results by geographic area. A report will be issued in the spring of 2010 outlining these results.
As part of the educational presentation, participants were given DVDs and other materials which detailed many of the important aspects of maintaining a private well. Participants were instructed on how to apply shock chlorination to treat bacterial problems in the water. CSU also offers a tool for understanding test results. Simply type in the results from your lab report, and get a detailed analysis of problems. The booklet, Protecting Your Private Well, was also presented at meetings and contains lots of helpful information about household well protection.
Additional materials have been developed by the collaborative to help well owners. Many people are not aware of the problems caused by bacteria or arsenic or any of the other contaminants found in the SLV. For a better understanding of the contaminants and the related health concerns, check out The Dirty Dozen. Other materials present information on things you can do to protect your well and the types of treatment systems available and the problems they address.
When problems are encountered with water, many individuals switch to bottled water. This can be a valuable and sometimes necessary temporary solution. Almost everyone in the city of Alamosa was forced to use bottled water for a few weeks in the spring of 2008. But not all bottled waters are as safe as we imagine. In one study, published in The Archives of Family Medicine, researchers compared bottled water with tap water from Cleveland, and found that nearly a quarter of the samples of bottled water had significantly higher levels of bacteria. To understand the labeling of bottled water and what it means, go to Hitting the Bottle.
The use of bottled water brings with it a whole host of other environmental concerns. These include the fact that petroleum products are used in the production of the plastic, and that shipping of bottled water is enormously costly in terms of the burning of fossil fuels and the resulting damage to climate change. Plastic bottles take over 1000 years to biodegrade, and only about 20% are recycled.
These are not the only concerns. Bottled water has had a detrimental affect on many neighborhood communities throughout the USA and the world. The Sierra Club, as well as citizen’s groups in Michigan, Maine and California, have gone to court over the Nestle Corporation’s water bottling operations. These groups claim that Nestle’s practices have degraded lakes and wetlands, lowered water tables, and pose a threat to residential and agricultural water supplies. A series of cases have found that Nestle Waters North America has damaged the environment through their pumping operations. Closer to home, the Nestle Corporation is currently working with Chaffee County to bottle water from the springs at Brown’s Canyon, on the upper Arkansas River. This water would be piped to Johnson Village and then trucked to Denver to be sold as part of Nestle’s Arrowhead brand. (See Controversy brews over Nestle-Aurora water issue)