The original problem was fire. Flames of the Grizzly Creek Fire raged for five months in 2020, burning more than 32,000 acres in western Colorado.
Now, fires have created another problem, and it has to do with water.
Debris and ash from the fires and subsequent mudslides fell into the Colorado River, the main source of drinking water for 40 million Americans.
The effects of the fire pose a long-term threat to drinking water in the adjacent silt, said town manager Jeff Lyman, which is the first town west of the Glenwood Canyon fire source to draw water directly from the Colorado River.
“We had some crazy mudslides that added sediment and mud and sand and chemicals and everything that comes out of the fire,” Lyman said. “The burned hillsides run down the river to where we get water.”
Lyman said the town must do more flushing and backwashing of its filters to ensure the drinking water remains clear. To keep up, one of four sets of filters needs to be replaced every six to eight weeks. But at a cost of $50,000 per repair, the sediment from the fire is expected to remain in the river for five years or more.
With more than 3,500 residents, Silt doesn’t have the resources to change filters every few months.
“We can’t keep doing what we’re doing for such a long time,” Lyman said. “We weren’t born for this.”
Engineers working for the town estimate it will cost around $30 million to build a new treatment plant or find another sustainable long-term solution to upgrade the treatment and filtration equipment.
Lehmann doesn’t yet know where the money will come from, but he has been negotiating emergency funding with government agencies. FEMA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment can fund long-term solutions to the silt water problem. Lyman said he hopes to have a plan in place in about the next eight weeks.
Rifle, 8 miles west of Silt, did not have “any particular challenge” from the wreckage of the Grizzly Creek fire, according to an email from utility director Robert Burns.
Burns said the confluence of the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers near Glenwood Springs helps dilute their water. The same goes for their powerful plant, built in 2017, which removes turbidity — the cloudiness caused by sediment in the water. Large sedimentation tanks allow solids in the water to settle before treatment.
In the silt, several wells provided the town with an alternative source of water. These are often used to offset high sediment levels in rivers during spring runoff.
But because they are right next to the river, the riverbed that feeds the wells is still affected by poor water quality since the fires.
Additionally, using these wells introduced other problems that existed long before the Grizzly Creek Fire, such as manganese found deep in the rock. Resident Brett Conant said the water in his home turns brown every time the town switches between wells and rivers.
“When we see our water turning brown, we don’t want to drink it,” Conant said. “And we certainly don’t want kids drinking it.”
Conant said his water turned brown at least dozens of times a year, but said the town tried to alert residents by email before it happened. He blamed manganese in Silt’s water for clogging his appliances and having to replace his dishwasher, boiler, toilet valve and water heater. Trey Fonner, Silt’s director of public works, said to his knowledge there was no link between manganese in the water and frequent electrical replacements, and he was not aware of any similar complaints from other residents.
There are no enforceable federal or state standards for manganese in drinking water. Conant informed the state of his concerns, which Lyman said helped get silt into the state’s radar that monitors water quality.
Silt’s tests found that manganese levels in the system were not dangerous, Layman said, but Conant wondered if the city was testing in the right place and was concerned about the health of his two children. Studies have shown that excessive exposure to manganese can lead to neurodevelopmental problems, especially at a young age.
Like a small town, Conant kept changing the water filter in his home. He spends about $20 on three new ones every three months.
“I change the filters a lot because they get clogged very quickly,” Conant said. “They’ve always been brown.”
The Grizzly Creek Fire exacerbates existing water quality problems in Silt. The number of brown water days has increased due to mudslides, Lyman said.
“I don’t think anyone thought this sediment event and increased turbidity would end any time soon,” Lyman said. “So we need to devise a plan that can handle it.”