Connecting the Drops: Tainted drinking water in Eastern Colorado

Coloradoans pride themselves on the quality of their drinking water, most of which originates high up in the Rocky Mountains.  But many communities on the Eastern plains have water that not only tastes bad, it is out of compliance with federal drinking water standards. As part of Connecting the Drops, our yearlong series on water issues in the state, Maeve Conran reports on efforts to improve water in Eastern Colorado.



Historically, about 55 systems in the state of Colorado, serving about 32000 people, have struggled with uranium and radium in their drinking water. Ron Falco, the Safe Drinking Water Program Manager for the State of Colorado says the reliance on groundwater is the root of the issue. “All of these problems are naturally occurring. So this problem happens in the ground water as it’s moving through formations that may just have naturally high levels of radium or uranium.” The Environmental Protection Agency issued new drinking water standards in 2008 which meant those systems were now out of compliance with federal standards.  Falco and other state health officials started working with the communities to improve the water, and Falco says their efforts are proving successful. By 2008 the number of people drinking water out of compliance with federal standards had fallen to about 37 systems and 21000 people.

A new water treatment plant in Sterling has contributed to the reduction in numbers. Sterling’s new facility is about a year old. This town of about 15,000 people in the South Platte River Basin was the largest municipality in the state facing this water quality issue.

The control room in Sterling’s new water treatment plant where water treatment operators monitor the machinery that removes uranium and radium through Reverse Osmosis.
The control room in Sterling’s new water treatment plant where water treatment operators monitor the machinery that removes uranium and radium through Reverse Osmosis.

David Beck is the water treatment plant operator for the city of Sterling. Here in the control room, he monitors the machinery that removes uranium and radium through Reverse Osmosis.

“…and right now they’re feeding the RO plant and 80% of the water from there goes through the RO process.”

Reverse osmosis forces the water through a membrane, trapping contaminants which then form a concentrated brine.  But there are a couple of challenges – one is a 15% loss in usable water due to the treatment process,  a significant figure  for a region grappling with water quality and water quantity issues. The other problem is what to do with that waste water. Utilities manager Jeff Reeves says the concentrated waste brine is stored in underground wells. “We’re storing it in an underground reservoir that’s down below an impermeable layer that can’t get back up into the drinking water.”

Despite those two challenges, Reeves says the city of Sterling now has water that is well within federal standards. In addition, the reverse osmosis process has also improved the taste. But over at the J and L café in downtown Sterling, less than a mile from the treatment plant, some diners are not fully on board with all the changes.

Diner Dennis Lambert says he’s not convinced the $30 million investment is making a difference. Lambert still has a bad taste in his mouth from the water…but now it’s due to the water charges which are 50% more than a year ago.

“A lot of people’s changed their ways…I don’t water my lawn as much as I used to. I used to have a good back yard and a front yard. Now it’s just a front yard, that’s it. “

But across the dining room, Kathy Orchid is sipping on a glass of water with her lunch. Something she would not have done a year ago.

“You couldn’t hardly drink it…it was bad tasting. It’s very much better. ”

Ron Falco of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment says Sterling’s changes to water treatment are a success.  However, other smaller communities are still looking for ways to get their drinking water into compliance. In the Arkansas River Valley in South Eastern Colorado about 12 communities are waiting for the completion of the Arkansas River Valley Conduit. That will provide them with drinking water from the Pueblo reservoir instead of the groundwater that they currently use.  State officials are working with the remaining communities on water treatment options.

Connecting the Drops is a collaboration between The Colorado Foundation for Water Education and Rocky Mountain Community Radio Stations.



Images: KGNU