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Tackling Water Quality (And Taste) In Sterling, Colorado

The City of Sterling spent $30 million on a water treatment plant that went into operation November 2014.
The City of Sterling spent $30 million on a water treatment plant that went into operation November 2014.

Coloradoans pride themselves on the quality of their drinking water, most of which originates high up in the Rocky Mountains. On the Eastern Plains though, many communities have water that not only tastes bad, it's out of compliance with federal drinking water standards.

At the J and L Cafe in downtown Sterling you'll find diners sipping glasses of tap water as they enjoy lunch. Just a year ago, that wasn't the case.

"You couldn't hardly drink it," said diner Kathy Orchid, she never used to drink the tap water. "It's much better [now]."

KGNU's Maeve Conran reports

The difference for Sterling's tap water lies in the new multimillion dollar water treatment plant, less than a mile from the diner.

Both the city and the state had long been aware of problems with the drinking water, specifically that it contained radium and uranium, contaminants that can lead to kidney problems and bone cancer.

Those issues are all naturally occurring problems points out Ron Falco, the manager of the Safe Drinking Water program for Colorado.

"So this problem happens in the ground water as it's moving through formations that may just have naturally high levels of radium or uranium," Falco said.

Dozens of other communities, all on the Eastern Plains, are also struggling with water quality because like Sterling, they rely on ground water.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued new drinking water standards in 2008, which meant those locations were now out of compliance with federal standards. Falco and other state health officials started working with the communities to improve the water systems.

"Historically, about 55 systems in the state of Colorado, serving about 32,000 people, have struggled with uranium and radium in their drinking water," Falco said. "By 2008, that number was at about 37 systems and about 21,000 people."

Sterling's new water treatment plant has put a dent in those numbers. This town of about 15,000 people in the South Platte River Basin was the largest municipality in the state facing this water quality issue.

The plant uses reverse osmosis to remove the uranium and radium. Reverse osmosis forces the water through a membrane, trapping contaminants which then form a concentrated brine.

But there are a couple of challenges.

One is a 15 percent loss in usable water due to the treatment process, a significant figure for a region grappling with water quantity and quality. The other problem is what to do with that wastewater – the concentrated brine.

Jeff Reeves, Sterling's utilities superintendent, said they're storing that wastewater in an underground reservoir.

"That's down below an impermeable layer so it can't get back up into the drinking water," Reeves said.

Despite those two challenges, the city of Sterling now has water that is well within federal standards. In addition, the reverse osmosis process has also improved the taste.

"We thought that we might as well make the water much more aesthetically pleasing," Reeves said. "If you're going to produce a product that people are going to have to pay for it's a lot easier to get along with the customers if the water is good."

Dennis Lambert, another diner at the J and L Café, isn't convinced the $30 million water treatment plant is making a difference.

"I still don't trust it to drink it," Lambert said. "Everything that's in it, I'd just rather have bottled water."

Lambert and other Sterling residents may still have a bad taste in their mouth, but now it's due to the water charges. They're paying 50 percent more and that has had a big impact on the town.

"A lot of people have changed their ways," Lambert said. "I don't water my lawn as much as I used to. I used to have a good backyard and a front yard. Now it's a front yard, that's it."

Ron Falco of the state's safe drinking water program said Sterling's changes to water treatment are a success. However, other smaller communities are still looking for ways to get their drinking water into compliance.

This story comes from 'Connecting the Drops' - a collaboration between Rocky Mountain Community Radio and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Find out more at cfwe.org.

Copyright 2015 KUNC

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