There's something in the water

A Colorado family discovers that their clear "Rocky Mountain Spring Water" is unsafe to drink

  • Hal Walter

 

When you buy a home in the mountains, you feel like you're on top of the world, at the pinnacle of the food chain and even the watershed.

You drill a well and out bubbles clear, sparkling "Rocky Mountain Spring Water." Snowmelt filtered through ancient stone, that sort of thing. I'm the kind of person who analyzes the ingredients list on just about everything I eat. But somehow I'd never questioned what might be in the water I've been drinking for nearly two decades.

Recently, though, my wife, Mary, and I decided to obtain a comprehensive analysis of our well water. Over the years we've lived in Colorado's Wet Mountains, Mary developed hypothyroidism and my son, Harrison, was diagnosed with autism. And apparently I may have attention-deficit disorder. Sometimes I've wondered whether some of these problems have their origins 150 feet underground.

We sent water samples to the Colorado Department of Health to test for a number of standard pollutants, including bacteria, toxic chemicals, minerals and heavy metals. Since there are abandoned thorium mines in the area, we also tested for this radioactive substance. It should be noted that there is no aquifer here; wells are drilled into the bedrock and capture water from cracks created by millions of years of geologic activity.

We'd had the water tested locally for bacteria several times and never received a positive result. In fact, the only reason we'd tested for bacteria was because such a test was included in the package. So imagine our astonishment when the day after we mailed the samples we got a call from the lab saying our water was considered unsafe for human consumption, or even bathing, because of e. coli and total coliform bacteria. Do not allow it to contact open cuts, I was told. This is "very dangerous."

We were advised to "shock chlorinate" the well. This involved a fairly detailed procedure: pouring a carefully measured amount of bleach down the well, running the outside hose back down the well to disinfect the casing, and then opening every faucet in the house to disinfect the pipes. We waited overnight, then ran all the water out of the well and onto the driveway until the outflow no longer smelled like chlorine.

A couple days later, a new test sample was found to be free of bacteria. That was all fine and dandy, but we were worried now. We decided to continue buying water from treatment devices at two health-food stores we frequent while we awaited test results on the rest of the chemistry.

Good call. Because as information trickled in, we learned we had double the EPA-allowable level of lead in our water, and over-the-limit levels of nitrate-nitrite as well. The lab report on our well warned against drinking and cooking with the water, and said that it posed a risk to crops such as celery and green beans. At the same time, it stated that it was rated "excellent for all classes of livestock and poultry." Yeah, right.

Also present were subtle hints of uranium and thorium, though both were well within levels considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. Most troubling was the report on lead. There is an old lead mine a few miles down the road, but it never occurred to us we'd find lead in our water, even after the EPA tested roads in the area a few years ago because they'd been surfaced with tailings from the mine. Hypothyroidism, autism and ADHD have all been linked to lead toxicity. Maybe that explained some of the weird things around here. Then again, maybe not.

This entire exercise made me think about all the other folks across the heavily mineralized West who may be drinking contaminated water. Very few people go to the trouble and expense of having their water tested.

But even testing may not give an entirely accurate picture. Consider that a subsequent retest by the state found no lead in the water, although it did find a renewed presence of coliform bacteria along with higher levels of nitrate than the first test. Perhaps testing is just a snapshot of whatever is present at the time the sample is taken.

The only sensible solution is to treat the water, a potentially expensive proposition, but more logical than drilling a new well. Well water just doesn't come with an easily obtainable list of ingredients, and even the ingredients you know about seem subject to change from week to week. The best advice is to test your water, knowing that you're only getting a snapshot of what may be in it, and treat it accordingly.

Hal Walter is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Westcliffe, Colorado.

There Is something in the water
David Gnaizda
David Gnaizda
Nov 15, 2010 04:39 PM
Hal Walter’s Writers on the Range essay “There’s Something in the Water” highlights a concern shared by every water quality professional in the Rocky Mountain West; the presumption of safety. As a member of the Colorado Water Quality Association Board of Directors and a Certified Water Specialist with over a decade of experience with Southern Colorado Water I can unequivocally state that few wells in our area are of such high quality that they would not require, or at least benefit from, some form of filtration or disinfection.

There is no “pure” water in nature. Water is the “universal solvent” dissolving, over time, almost every thing it comes in contact with and incorporating it as electrically charged, atom sized particles. Many of these contaminants such as lead, radium, arsenic and fluoride can pose serious health risks. Others such as iron and calcium can create aesthetic and mechanical problems in household plumbing. Many Rocky Mountain water wells can contain dissolved gasses including radon, methane and Hydrogen Sulfide. Even Volatile Organic Compounds such as pesticides and herbicides can be present. Water is also the perfect breeding ground for many biological pathogens particularly those which specialize in colonizing the human digestive tract. All of these contaminants can be removed; many, like lead, at relatively low cost. But it is each well owner’s individual responsibility.
 
Over the centuries the science of water chemistry has discovered many different methods of filtration and disinfection; none of which is a universal solution. One can only recommend that well owners begin by contacting a local Water Quality Association member in Colorado at www.cwqa.org or elsewhere in the West at www.wqa.org and arrange a visit to share their knowledge and experience. Many companies offer free basic water tests which will provide much of the required information. Taste is not a test of water quality.

David Gnaizda, CWS, CSR
Member, Board of Directors of the Colorado Water Quality Association
Gardner, Colorado
   

Methodology Consideration
Timothy M Sowecke
Timothy M Sowecke
Nov 17, 2010 10:43 AM
While I am not a water scientist, Hal's inconclusive results might suggest a problem of methodology (sample size, timing, human contamination -think fecal matter on your hands!). I'm sure David could speak much more knowledgeably about this potential problem, if in fact it is even a problem.