Results available from West Slope well water survey

Ken Nordstrom, environmental health director for the Delta County Health Department, joined in a project to survey well water in Delta County and other West Slope counties. (Photo courtesy the University of Colorado)

Results are available online from a new voluntary survey of private drinking water quality on the Western Slope conducted through a partnership involving Delta County, the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Centers for Disease Control.

People can review the results through an interactive online map created by Holly Miller as part of her recently completed master’s degree in the environmental engineering program at CU Boulder. The site shows locations for all the tested wells, provides links to request free water testing kits and includes detailed water-quality information.

Of the 457 wells analyzed in the survey, 11 percent had arsenic concentrations exceeding the Colorado primary drinking water standard maximum contaminant level. Additionally, 15 percent of the well water that was tested exceeded at least one primary drinking water contaminant standard from the state.

Miller’s work was partially funded through a CU Boulder Outreach Award and was a small part of a study funded by the CDC into this issue. That larger project is entering its fifth year and is led locally by the Delta County Health Department with work in Delta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties, where about half of the residents use private wells.

Samples for the survey came from volunteers in those communities. Miller’s work was conducted under Professor Joe Ryan, who said the database was an important step toward promoting public awareness. That’s because water quality is an important factor in overall health, but privately owned wells are unregulated and mostly untested for things like arsenic. Putting the survey results online gives residents, many of whom rely on well water, information about their water quality and that of their neighbors so they can make informed health decisions.

“With the maps she created, you can see if you are in an area that already has problems, or areas you may want to avoid if you are drilling a new well,” said Ryan, who works in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering.

Arsenic in groundwater can occur naturally or can come from human sources like agriculture, where it was used as a pesticide, or mining operations. Ingestion can have short-term effects, including nausea and fatigue, as well as long-term effects like skin thickening and discoloration. Ryan said more testing is needed, but the source of the higher levels, in this case, was likely geologic. A better understanding of those conditions would be valuable when making decisions about new wells and development needs in those communities. 

Ken Nordstrom, environmental health director for the Delta County Health Department, said a healthy drinking water source is crucial for a healthy community. “CU Boulder has helped us develop this resource for individual homeowners to ensure that they have a healthy drinking water supply.”

Miller has since taken a job with the State of Nevada. But she said other counties have contacted her for advice on setting up similar databases. “Collaborating with Delta County has been a great asset for my professional career. I gained valuable research and outreach skills, which ultimately created the foundation for my current position, where I work as the project manager for my program’s geographical information systems database used to map information about abandoned mine land sites across the state,” she said.

The water project in Colorado is nearing completion, and sample kits have now been sent to about 1,000 volunteers. From that group, results have been returned to more than 750 of them. Miller said the plan is to update the interactive map by the end of the year, and the Delta County Environmental Health Department staff plans to survey residents in the counties to identify the effects the project has had on helping private well owners keep their water safe.

Ryan said this type of work was just as important for students in his lab starting their careers as it is to the communities they serve.