Hot Sulphur Springs: It could be weeks before residents can drink their water again
April 27, 2008
It’s been more than two weeks since Hot Sulphur Springs residents were told that it was unsafe to drink the water.
And in those two weeks, officials have worked to solve the problem, but faucets are still off limits to residents.
For those waiting to hear from town hall, there is good news and bad news.
The bad news is that it’s not going to be a quick fix. That means the Colorado Department of Health’s boil water order will not be lifted anytime soon. It may remain in effect for several more weeks.
Water technicians working on the problem say that major repairs and new construction are absolutely necessary at the town’s water plant. In addition, a large portion of the town’s buried water pipes must eventually be dug up and replaced.
The good news for Hot Sulphur Springs is that a dedicated and competent group of water engineers are now in charge of running and repairing the towns’ water infrastructure. Town, county and state officials are also moving as quickly as possible to secure the funding for the needed repairs.
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While inconvenienced by the current situation, the citizens of Hot Sulphur Springs remain generally in good spirits and are coping as best they can.
The Colorado Department of Health issued its water restriction order on April 7 after the turbidity (cloudiness) of the water at the town’s water filtration plant reached levels that exceeded the state’s safe-water standards. The order requires that all drinking and cooking water be boiled for at least one minute prior to use.
What has kept Hot Sulphur’s water problem from turning into a disaster is that the town’s water plant is still functioning and treated water continues to flow to homes and businesses. Residents can flush their toilets, wash their clothes and shower in the water that comes out of their taps.
To further help the town’s residents deal with the situation, free bottled water is being given away at Hot Sulphur’s Town Hall. The City Market grocery store chain delivered a semi-trailer load of bottled water there on Thursday.
“It’s not that bad. We just grab the bottled water and go,” said Hot Sulphur resident Reagan Smith, who stopped by town hall Friday to pick up some bottled water for her family. “We can still shower and flush the toilets, so we’re fine.”
Also stopping by to pick up bottled water was Delores and Carl Cordova, who own a second home in Hot Sulphur Springs.
“After awhile, you get used to it and kind of forget,” Delores said. “But I’ve caught myself sticking my toothbrush under the water faucet …”
Her husband, Carl, said they are coping with the inconvenience.
“We’re doing OK, but the funny thing is that you don’t realize how much water you actually go through a day until you’re in a situation like this,” he said.
Hershal Deputy, Hot Sulphur’s mayor for the past 15 months, said the town has already distributed 1,400 gallons of bottled water to residents since April 7. Prisoners at the Grand County Jail, which is located in the town, also get their share of the bottled water.
“We understand the frustration level is running high with some residents who are impatient to get this solved,” Deputy said. “But they have to realize that it took some time for us to get into this situation and it’s going to take some time to fix it. So hang in there. We’ll get it fixed and it will be fixed right so this doesn’t happen again.”
A town meeting to explain the water situation was held April 15.
“We had 116 residents show up,” said Darin Foran, a town trustee who was the acting mayor pro tem when the state order was issued. “The citizens were very supportive, listened politely to what we said, and asked good questions. By and large, everyone has been very understanding in this situation.”
Hot Sulphur Springs’ water crisis has apparently been developing for several years, according to town officials. A number of factors contributed to the problem that finally culminated in the Colorado Department of Health’s order on April 7.
“I’d describe it as a ‘Perfect Storm’ scenario,” Deputy said. “Maintenance and upgrades at the water plant had been deferred for years. On top of that, we’d had some major leaks in the town’s water pipes as well as a lot of growth in recent years. This all combined with a heavy spring runoff that hit in April.”
On April 7, the filtration system at the town’s water plant began to fail. The normal turbidity level of the water produced by the town’s plant was 0.2. However, a water sample taken that morning showed levels of 3.65 which is well above the maximum safety limit of 1 turbidity unit. When water turbidity rises, the likelihood that certain types of bacteria could get through the filtering process increases.
“If the turbidity is up that high, it was explained to me that we can’t guarantee that the bugs are not getting through,” Deputy said.
Through an intergovernmental agreement, Hot Sulphur was able to secure the services of two licensed water operators ” John McWilliams of the Genesee Water and Sanitation District and Lauralee Kourse of the Tabernash Water and Sanitation District.
“There’s no easy answers or a magic wand that’s going to solve this problem,” Krouse said. “This situation did not happen overnight.”
The water operators were able to fix the filtration problem at the town’s water plant. However, major repairs still need to be done at that facility.
“We cleared up the filtration problem by doing some basic housekeeping,” she said. “But the issue now is not about producing high quality water, which we’re already doing. It’s that we’re essentially putting that clean water into a dirty bucket.”
Krouse explained that once the water, which is drawn out of the Colorado River, goes through the water plant’s filtration system and chlorination process, it then flows into the “clear well,” which is a small building adjacent to the plant. From the clear well, the water is then pumped into the town’s water distribution pipes.
Words such as “deteriorating,” and “disintegrating” were used by Krouse to describe the clear well’s present condition, despite being thoroughly cleaned. She said the improper use of chemicals in that facility over the years has left it “beyond repair.”
To try to immediately clean up and disinfect the town’s distribution system, the water operators performed three complete “flushings” of the town’s water pipes. These flushings involved sending highly chlorinated water through the water lines and then opening all 40 of Hot Sulphur’s fire hydrants, one at a time.
“We’ve been sending water with turbidity levels of 0.5 through the system, but it’s coming out of water taps measured at 1.5,” Krouse said. “That shows the pipes are part of the problem.”
If blame must be assigned for this crisis, Krouse said it lies squarely with the Colorado Department of Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division, which should have conducted annual inspections of the water system.
“The Hot Sulphur water system was near a complete collapse,” she said. “This is a classic example of no maintenance and no oversight being done for 15 years. The state is responsible for oversight and not the town. There is no paperwork on flushings or repairs.”
To repair the damage done to Hot Sulphur’s water system, Krouse recommended a three-stage solution.
“We need to rebuild and re-automate the filtration plant as per its original design so that it can operate correctly,” she said. “Then, we have to build a new clear well with new pumps. From there, we go after the money to replace about 70 percent of the town’s water pipes.”
Krouse said work on rebuilding the water plant’s equipment is already underway. Also a new site for the replacement of the “clear well” has been selected with construction planned for June and July.
In the meantime, the water operators are considering another flushing of the system over the next few days to attempt to further improve the water quality coming out of the taps.
To fund all of the necessary work, Deputy and Foran said the town is working with the Grand County Commissioners to secure Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) grants.
“DOLA has been very supportive and is helping to expedite the money,” Deputy said. “And our commissioners Nancy Stuart, James Newberry and Gary Baumgartner have been very helpful in aiding us to find the cold, hard cash from the state that we’ll need to do these emergency repairs.”