On President’s Day weekend, two separate groups of skiers staying at an inn near Vail Pass got sick. It was unclear whether the inn’s well water was to blame, so Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment inspectors Catherine Heald and Heather Drissel strapped on snowshoes for a three-mile hike to the inn. Once there, they inspected the water system, collected samples for testing and informed other guests about the situation. And though the water was not confirmed to be the culprit, the inspectors provided additional necessary guidance to the water system operator.
“In my eight-plus years in Water Quality Control Division, I’d never made a trip like that. It was quite an adventure,” said Drissel, a field unit manager who works in the division’s Pueblo office.
Our state’s large population of skiers, snowboarders, hikers, bikers and campers and sightseers drink lots of water to stay hydrated, but they may be unaware the water served at most slope-side lodges, campground hydrants, highway rest areas and roadside coffee shops comes from on-site wells and springs. These water systems are regulated by the state to ensure their safety.
There are about 1,200 such small, public systems in Colorado. Though they have fewer regulations than community water systems (e.g. Denver Water), their safety is critical to public health. Whether it’s a routine visit or one prompted by an emergency, as in the example above, state and local inspectors must trek to where the water system is, in all types of weather.
“We find little places in the state we never knew existed,” said Heald, coordinator of the division’s Non-Community Groundwater Sanitary Survey Program. “But if it’s a public water system, and it’s getting its water from a well or spring, it’s on our radar.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division highlights Drinking Water Week (May 5-11) as an opportunity to build awareness of what is necessary to ensure the water from all consumer’s taps is safe.
The Safe Drinking Water Program’s annual report and a brochure regarding the value of water highlight the challenges of providing safe drinking water, as well as the status of Colorado’s water supply safety.
Suppliers serving residential customers must meet different and more stringent requirements for water quality than suppliers who serve transient customers such as skiers and campers, but the water systems serving transient customers still are an important and challenging part of the state’s program.
Protecting the source – the groundwater – is key, and a couple of common violations keep state and local inspectors busy. For example, cracked or corroded wellheads can provide an avenue for small contaminants, rain and surface water to get in. Similarly, tanks that store treated water may be damaged, allowing entry to snakes, insects and birds.
In 2009, the Water Quality Control Division revised its partnership with local public health agencies, and has since strengthened the oversight of this widely dispersed and large universe of non-community water systems.
“The performance-based program has resulted in thorough inspections of Colorado’s small public water systems, with follow-up to ensure serious problems are corrected,” said Steve Gunderson, Water Quality Control division director. “This benefits public health by ensuring the water served by these water systems is safe for consumption.”