Water quality still lagging
By Jerd Smith, Rocky Mountain News
Colorado's water is cleaner than it's ever been, but 25 percent of rivers and 43 percent of lakes still fail to meet water quality standards, according to a new report from Environment Colorado.
As the 35th anniversary of the Clean Water Act approaches, more work needs to be done to shore up enforcement and monitoring work under the act, said Matthew Garrington, field director of Environment Colorado.
"Certainly there have been great successes in cleaning up our waters, but we still face important challenges," said Garrington.
In the report, called "Troubled Waters," environmentalists examined violations of the Clean Water Act by major industries and wastewater treatment plants. The act turns 35 Oct. 18.
Roughly 45 percent of major facilities in Colorado violated their discharge permits at least once in 2005, the most recent year for which data was available, giving the state a ranking of 38 out of 50. Maine got the top spot, with nearly 87 percent of its facilities violating their discharge permits.
But water quality issues continue to plague Colorado, with a quarter of rivers and 43 percent of lakes failing to meet water quality standards for their intended purposes, such as fishing, wildlife habitat and drinking water.
"Obviously a lot has changed since the Clean Water Act occurred," said Steve Gunderson, director of the water quality division at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
"The huge problems that led to the act are behind us. We don't have burning rivers like we did. We don't have raw sewage going into the South Platte River. In general, water quality standards have gotten tighter. There's been a lot of progress, but there are new challenges facing us."
Colorado's soaring population growth means more water treatment plants are discharging into streams. New contaminants that can't yet be filtered, such as medical waste from antibiotics and others drugs, are causing problems for fish, and drought and climate change will likely reduce stream flows, making it harder to maintain water quality, Gunderson said.
Federal funding is also a problem, with cash for enforcement staying flat or even declining in some areas, and loan funds for small community infrastructure work cut in half, Gunderson said.
"That makes it tough," he said.
There's some good news on the cash front though. State lawmakers have given the division enough money to hire 22 new staffers over the past two years, a 17 percent increase.
Despite Colorado's relatively strong showing in the report, Gunderson and Garrington said pressure on the state's water supplies, particularly mountain headwater streams which supply rivers around the country, is getting worse, again, because of development and population growth.
"I can't imagine what clean water would be in this state without this act," Gunderson said. "But there are lots of challenges ahead of us. We are the headwaters of the country. That's an enormous amount of responsibility."