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
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.