PAWSD designs Source Water Protection Plan

The Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) has a new Source Water Protection Plan (SWPP) designed to safeguard area water supplies and the consumers who depend upon them.

The plan, which the PAWSD Board of Directors approved Nov. 18, comes in response to a Source Water Assessment and Protection program performed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) in 2004. A number of federal, state and local agencies cooperated in the effort, which analyzed district raw water sources and identified areas of vulnerability to outside contamination.

PAWSD surface water resources are contained within the Upper San Juan River and Piedra River watersheds. Elevations within the area range from approximately 10,900 feet at the top of Wolf Creek Pass to 7,420 feet near the Lake Forest spillway. In a generally arid climate, the region averages roughly 36 inches of annual precipitation.

PAWSD obtains the bulk of its raw water directly from Four Mile Creek and two precise locations along the San Juan River. While the district will not identify specific areas and their types of vulnerability for security reasons, the general areas of concern include the West Fork of the San Juan River, the East Fork and main stem of the San Juan River, and the Stollsteimer Creek source water areas.

First and foremost, these areas are vulnerable to contamination by wildfire. In 2002, the Missionary Ridge Fire threatened Durango water supplies, as soot and ash washed into lakes and streams that feed its raw water supplies. Treatment options for such disasters are available, but they’re costly and take time to implement.

Because a major highway (and mountain pass) closely parallels the San Juan River and the PAWSD raw water intakes, the potential for a serious chemical spill is quite real. Every day, trucks carrying large volumes of toxic chemicals travel U.S. 160 east and west through Pagosa Springs and over Wolf Creek Pass.

Between June 2002 and June 2006, for instance, Colorado experienced approximately 924 truck spills of oil and gas chemicals and waste, alone. Of them, 14 percent contaminated groundwater supplies and 6 percent contaminated surface water.

Geologic instability continually threatens PAWSD water supplies in the area of Jackson Mountain, east of Pagosa Springs. There, a miles-long raw water transmission line runs from the West Fork intake to a water treatment plant up Snowball Road. While the mountain shifts annually and pipeline repairs are constant, a major slide could take the line out completely, thus dramatically reducing water availability for some time.

Though drought is not a contaminant, persistent drought conditions could also render water supplies inadequate for prolonged periods of time. According to a new PAWSD Drought Management Plan, diminished supplies would force the district to enact mandatory water restrictions, which could alter consumers’ convenience and appreciably increase the cost of water.

In the creation of its new Source Water Protection Plan, PAWSD first identified primary areas of concern and associated threats, then prioritized them and devised an Emergency Response Plan (ERP) as a method of averting or mitigating disaster. While the SWPP (and emergency response component) will continually evolve as ever-changing conditions and a growing community warrant, the current plan speaks to potential issues in order of perceived importance.

The first issue addresses chemical spills. Since the district is largely unable to prevent such incidents, it has already initiated the building of a strong collaboration with local law enforcement, fire, medical and transportation officials to enable a rapid response. The development of interconnecting raw and potable water sources will also permit diversion of alternate sources to community areas directly affected by a chemical spill.

The second priority deals with forest fire. Again, the district can do little to prevent such incidents, but as stated above, it has developed interconnecting water sources that will help sustain a weakened or contaminated area in case of emergency.

Landslides are another priority the district is powerless to prevent. In response to such a calamity, the district will utilize the aforementioned interconnecting systems to keep the affected segment of the community in water, while collaborating with emergency and transportation officials through the Archuleta County Multi-Agency Coordination Group. By exchanging data and resources, PAWSD believes the community will enjoy enhanced protection.

Drought constitutes a fourth priority in the plan, which the PAWSD Drought Management Plan will fundamentally address. However, other action components include studies and the identification of likely areas where future raw water storage might be feasible, should demand dictate a need. The proposed Dry Gulch Reservoir is an example of this work in progress.

As the fifth of six priorities recognized in the plan, PAWSD believes increasing community awareness is essential. To that end, it will form a committee to formulate and implement an informational program, in order that a well-educated society will better understand matters of concern and take ownership in protecting its source water supplies.

Land use controls represent the sixth priority, as population growth and future development will reshape the local environment and expose raw water resources to potentially negative social impacts. In response, the district will continue to foster good working relationships with town and county planning departments, CDPHE and other applicable state agencies to insure proper planning.

With the intent to maintain existing plan provisions, implement others and constantly monitor success of the overall Source Water Protection Plan, PAWSD will fund the program with general operating revenue built into its annual budget.

Meanwhile, the entire 31-page plan is available for review at pawsd.org, or at the PAWSD offices at 100 Lyn Ave.

chuck@pagosasun.com