Steamboat Springs When Oak Creek residents received their water bill for March, it contained something out of the ordinary.
A letter included with the bill warned residents that the town’s water supply has elevated levels of Total Trihalomethanes, or TTHMs, a byproduct of disinfectants that stems from organic matter in the water supply.
The level averaged 82 parts per billion in the past year, and the state mandates the level at 80 parts per billion or fewer.
The state requires notification of the public when that level is surpassed.
Bernie Gagne, Oak Creek Town Board member and Public Works Commission member, said that the violation is not a cause for panic among residents but that it is a cause for concern and a call to action for the town to take measures to improve its water quality.
“There are health concerns by state standards that we have to recognize,” Gagne said. “We do recognize that. I would also say that when we’re over by 2 or 3 parts per billion, the difference is negligible from any perspective, but nonetheless it is important, and we do have to rein in the number.”
The TTHMs appear after the disinfection process and are usually reflective of the water source. Because Oak Creek’s water is primarily surface water from Oak Creek, it contains more leaves, mud and other organic matter that will lead to TTHM production in the treatment process.
The letter advises the public that “you may want to use an alternative drinking water supply. If you have specific health concerns contact your doctor.”
It also mentions that although the contamination is not an immediate risk, people who drink an excess of TTHMs throughout many years might experience liver, kidney or central nervous system issues as well as an increased risk of cancer.
Compliance Assurance Manager Lori Gerzina with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division said TTHMs are a chronic contaminant that could pose health risks.
But if the level of contamination required boiling water or drinking bottled water, the letter would have said so.
“It’s not meant to be alarmist, but we would like to have an educated and informed public,” Gerzina said. “We want people to be informed and make their own decisions.”
Gagne said the issue was discussed at length at Thursday’s Oak Creek Town Board meeting, where the Public Works Department discussed possible redresses to the issue.
Already, the town has reduced its level of disinfectants to remain in compliance, and it also is working to reduce the appearance of TTHMs.
He said the town could build an extra settling pond before the collection pond to allow the organic matter — pine needles, bark, leaves — to sink to the bottom and not make it into the collection pond.
Another possible solution could be to add an extra filtration system to the water-treatment plant.
Gerzina said Oak Creek is not the only town experiencing the issue. TTHM violations are increasing across the state as measurement capabilities improve.
In 2009, 11 towns in Colorado violated TTHM standards, and the Public Health Department works with all of these towns to help bring them into compliance, as they will offer to do with Oak Creek.
Still, the standards are in place for a reason.
“It is not an emergent issue,” Gagne said. “But we will, starting immediately, assess different means of approaching the problem.
“We’re putting as much pressure on ourselves as the public can put on us.”