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‘Importance of securing a source with absolute best water quality’

The unsung heroes of Colorado’s water sectors are the local public water providers. At the turn of the century, our town mothers and fathers repeatedly made strategic and visionary decisions that secured a safe and reliable drinking water supply.

History has shown that these same water providers continuously demonstrated smart fiscal management and leadership. Meanwhile, some communities across the U.S. have faced severe repercussions because of the catastrophic mismanagement of their local water utilities.

Three distinct water providers took different journeys: One prudently navigated finances and obligations; and two suffered the consequences of prolonged fiscal mismanagement and neglect.

In 1981, as a 25-year-old college graduate, I traveled across the country to work as director of water and wastewater utilities for the city of Glenwood Springs, at the confluence of the Colorado and Roaring Fork Rivers. In the early 1900s, Glenwood Springs chose not to tap into the obvious and more economical supply of pumping out of the proximate Colorado and Roaring Fork Rivers.

Instead, the city sourced water from two distant, smaller tributaries, Grizzly and No Name creeks, both with pristine watersheds within the White River National Forest. They ignored the obvious and cheaper alternatives, and made the difficult but correct long-term decisions.

The unimaginable construction challenges of tunnels through persistent bedrock and viaducts suspended on vertical cliff walls at a time when heavy machinery was nonexistent, would have deterred most risk adverse officials. They chose a diversion from Grizzly Creek, almost 8 miles away and hundreds of feet higher in elevation, which allowed gravity flow through town. Even today, no energy is required for pumping.

Yet, why did they embrace such risk?

The answer lies in the importance of securing a source with the absolute best water quality. After disinfection, clean safe water was delivered straight from the creeks to homes, without the modern treatment methods we use today.

These water supplies were a source of great pride for the community that continues today. I saw this vision replicated by many communities, including Mancos, Durango, Cortez and Dolores.

Contrast this with the experiences and lack of leadership demonstrated in Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi.

To cut costs, in 2014 Flint switched water supplies from a pristine source to the adjacent Flint River. This ill-fated decision of selecting an inferior water source led to leaching lead from aging water pipes, resulting in 12 deaths, and $626 million in settlements over lead poisoning. Children’s health is still a concern today.

Flint lacked local vigilance. Federal and state agencies stepped in to rescue the community.

Jackson suffered from generations of neglect and underfunding. In 2022, that neglect led to 150,000 residents without safe drinking water, no water to flush toilets or fight fires. Underground pipes could not hold water. The aging water treatment plant failed after flooding.

With rates kept artificially low for years, no funds were available to replace aging infrastructure. The community had little connection with their local water system. Once again, federal agencies had to step in.

Keeping rates low failed to fund the replacement of aging infrastructure, and endangered public health and safety. Thankfully, the foresight of our local leaders has resulted in a legacy of clean, safe and affordable drinking water.

That legacy will be challenged, however, as we enter an era of water scarcity, a warming climate, risks from watershed forest fires, pressures from a growing population and the increasing presence of new manmade chemicals in our water supplies.

Next time you see a local water provider board member or water staff, offer congratulations on a job well done.

Louis Meyer is a retired civil/water engineer engaged in Western Slope and statewide water issues for the past 45 years. He lives in the north Animas River Valley. In 2013, he was the lead author for Colorado’s Water Plan for the Colorado Basin.