A snake In the sink | AspenTimes.com

A snake In the sink

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Colorado Historical SocietyMill Street was Aspen's busiest street, even in 1884. It was also the location for Aspen's main sewer line.

“There’s a snake in the sink,” my mother said in a matter-of-fact tone. I felt excited to watch. A baby garter snake emerged from our plumbing, sliding through our kitchen sink faucet, but my mother, who worked for the city water department, and my father, who got even crazier calls for his plumbing services, found the phenomenon to be completely ordinary. They were accustomed to Aspen’s antiquated infrastructure.

Screens on the city water intake prevented unwanted objects from entering the water system, as long as the screens remained in place. If someone did not check them daily, they could remain jarred out of place or clogged with debris. Because the intake was located high above town, water pressure was not a problem, except in winter.

Water lines, especially those branches from the main lines to people’s homes, were often installed too close to the surface. A week of near-zero weather would freeze them solid; thawing frozen lines became a busy Aspen business.

Aspen’s sewage infrastructure was even more notorious. The downtown blocks were connected to a 30-inch pipe that had been installed in the 1890s. There was no sewer plant; the lines fed directly into the Roaring Fork. Most of Aspen did not have sewer lines. Residences had outhouses. Even after a plant was constructed, old lines dripped sewage into the river.

The combination of ancient sewer pipe and poor waterline plumbing combined to produce Aspen’s souvenir for unsuspecting tourists: giardia. “Don’t drink the water” was as common a comment to Aspen visitors as to travelers in third-world countries.

Those who have had giardia know how debilitating it can be. “I’d rather die,” sums up the stomach pains and the wasted time spent on the throne. Like the animals who carry giardia throughout the wilderness without experiencing symptoms, Aspen locals seemed immune. Eventually, knowledge of Aspen’s contaminated water seeped into the national press, putting pressure on authorities to take action.

In the mid-sixties , after years of embarrassment and denial, Aspen’s City Council tackled the problem. A preliminary study revealed more than 300 sewer-to-water cross connections in just one downtown block. Sewage, leaking from the original sewer line, was entering through breaks and holes into water lines.

As with many of Aspen’s infrastructure projects, locals wondered whether the planning department ever lived up to its name. The replacement of the sewer line came a year after the downtown streets were paved. After waiting years to enjoy the smooth drive and mud-free springs associated with new-laid asphalt, locals had to wait one more summer, watching as their beautiful Mill Street was torn up to bury the new sewer line.

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