Something in the water
Durango tangles with murky drinking water

Celebration, Florida, Disney's take on New Urbanism. It doesn’t take a degree in hydrology to realize that there is currently something wrong with the Durango water supply. Tongues throughout town have picked up swampy flavors, a white film is consistently showing up on dishes, clean laundry has been hard to come by and watering restrictions are imminent. However, the upside is that there is no hazard to health according to Durango officials, who are working overtime to provide solutions to the recent shock to local water quality.

“It’s difficult to categorize the current situation as a crisis, but it’s certainly a different circumstance than anything we’ve dealt with before,” says Durango Public Works Director Jack Rogers.

Rogers is referring to the dark brown hue common to the Animas River lately combined with the city’s present reliance on the river for drinking water. Normally, the city taps the Florida River for the majority of its drinking water. However, low flows and fluctuations on the usual source have sent the city to the more reliable Animas. Landscapes scarred by this summer’s wildfires and the resulting flash floods have led to heavy silt and ash loads and ultimately poor water quality on both rivers.

The cloudiness of water, or turbidity, is measured in units called ntu’s. Normally, turbidity in the Animas is 1.5 ntu, and the city is required to treat to a level of less than .3 ntu. “What we saw on Saturday was above 500 ntu,” says Rogers of the present near crisis.

The Animas River as it flows through town.  Although it's currently safe to drink after it's treated, city water officials are working to devise long-term fixes for treating high loads of ash and sediment in Durango's water supply.Quality not quantity

The city is pumping water from the Animas at Santa Rita Park up to the 7.5-million gallon Terminal Reservoir above Hillcrest Golf Course. Once there, the sediment is given an opportunity to settle out prior to treatment. The sticking point comes with Durango’s average use of 5 million gallons of water per day, a reality that could require watering restrictions during times in which the river is running muddy.

“It’s a quality issue, purely quality not quantity,” said Chris Wilbur, Durango Water Commission member.

In late August, the Durango City Council voted to give authority to impose emergency water restrictions to City Manager Bob Ledger. Violators would receive one verbal warning and subsequent infractions would result in a fine, up to $300. Water Commission member Kent Ford has made the suggestion that when needed, emergency restrictions be ordered swiftly and for a duration of three days.

“It seems to me that we should be quick to pull that trigger,” he said. “You don’t want three or four days to pass when you’re pumping bad water.”

The Animas River as if flows north of town.Dirty but bacteria free

Three or four days of pumping silt-laced water would have consequences at the tap. And though tap water as of late has tasted swampy and left residue on dishes, Rogers assures that the water is currently safe to drink. The laboratory at San Juan Basin Health Department concurs, saying that tests for bacteria in Durango’s drinking water have turned up negative.

“There are no health concerns about the water right now,” says Rogers. “There are concerns about the increasing hardness of the water.”

The swampy flavor was the result of a brief and harmless algae bloom. “I didn’t know if it was getting better, or I was getting used to it,” said Fred Kroeger, Water Commission member.

The increasing hardness of tap water has led to the film on dishes and difficulty in getting clothes clean. The problem’s cause is the city’s shift from the Florida to Animas. “We’re seeing mineralization, primarily calcium, in the Animas that’s exacerbated in times of drought,” says Rogers.

While water hardness seems to be no big deal, the city also is keeping its eye on a potential health risk. Water quality tests Aug. 5 turned up the presence of organic carbon in Durango’s drinking water. On the one hand, organic carbon leads to discoloring of the water. On the other, it poses a health risk when combined with chlorine, a key component of water treatment.

“When the water is chlorinated, the carbon changes, and high levels of chlorinated hydrocarbons have a health effect when they persist over a long time,” said Rogers. The only hang-up is that Durango currently has no equipment capable of treating organic carbon. “Organics aren’t going to be easily removed,” says Rogers. “If we have to treat the organics we would have to lease new equipment.”

Rogers says he expects the organic carbon to continue to taper off, but that he “can’t guarantee that the water will be back to an acceptable level.” As a result, the city is prepared to lease equipment if need be.






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