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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]