Conundrum Hot Springs tests low for E. coli levels but concerns remain |

Conundrum Hot Springs tests low for E. coli levels but concerns remain

The popularity of the Conundrum Hot Springs has exploded and brought environmental degradation to the surrounding area. Despite the presence of human waste nearby, tests of water samples show low E. Coli levels in the three pools.
Aspen Times file photo |

The health of soakers at the Conundrum Hot Springs doesn’t appear to be at risk from contaminated waters, but the health of the environment in the popular backcountry area is taking a beating, a wilderness ranger said this week.

Tests of water samples taken from the three natural pools at the hot springs on Labor Day Weekend showed E. coli levels significantly below the standard deemed safe for swimming areas in Colorado.

The Aspen-Sopris District of the U.S. Forest Service enlisted Wilderness Workshop to collect samples from the hot springs. The water was taken to the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District for testing.

The upper pool at Conundrum showed an E. coli level of less than 1 colony per 100 milliliters, the middle pool tested at 6.3 colonies per 100 milliliters, and the lower pool registered at 8.6 colonies per 100 milliliters.

“It’s not your usual (wilderness) user group.”
Andrew Larson
Wilderness ranger

Natural hot springs aren’t subjected to standards for E. coli. Users run the risk of possible high levels, according to Christie Duckett, lab supervisor at the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District. But for comparison, public swimming areas and recreational areas with water can have a maximum E. coli level of 235 colonies per 100 milliliters, she said. The Conundrum Hot Springs were well within the acceptable range.

E. coli bacteria live in the intestines of humans and animals. Many varieties are harmless, but some strains can cause abdominal issues and, in extreme cases, life-threatening kidney failure, according to the Mayo Clinic website. Exposure is common through water or food.

Forest Service officials wanted the water tested at Conundrum Hot Springs this summer because exploding use of the area has led to problems with improper disposal of human waste, according to Andrew Larson, lead wilderness ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. Oftentimes piles of human waste are left behind, neither buried nor packed out, he said.

“The good news is we’re not exceeding recognized standards (for E. coli),” Larson said. “The bottom line is that no water-quality tests have ever exceeded standards up at Conundrum, but the human-waste issue is a concern for wildlife-contamination, aesthetic and human-sanitation reasons.”

Conundrum Hot Springs are located in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, roughly 14 miles southwest of Aspen.

Water testing has been undertaken in the past, but E. coli standards have never been exceeded, he said. One advantage of the Conundrum Hot Springs is a high flow rate of water through the pools, which are embedded in Conundrum Creek, according to Larson.

“It definitely helps to circulate water,” Duckett said.

Although E. coli readings were low, the water testing showed coliform in excess of 2,419.6 colonies per 100 milliliters at the lowest of the three pools at Conundrum. There is no standard for coliform levels, Duckett said.

Coliform are bacteria that live in the intestines of warm-blooded animals. They can indicate a presence of other disease-causing bacteria, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website. E. coli is part of the group of fecal coliforms.

Duckett said tests for coliform are similar to casting a net into a lake and seeing what type of fish turn up. Identifying E. coli among the bacteria is like identifying one specific type of fish among the catch in the net, she said.

The Forest Service has encouraged Conundrum Hot Springs visitors in recent years to pack out their waste. It provides plastic bags at the trailhead off Conundrum Creek Road but ran out in August this year, according to Larson. The agency’s limited recreation dollars were budgeted for other purposes. The bags cost about $1.50 apiece, he said. The Forest Service provided about 1,000 bags this summer.

Human waste is one problem among the broader concerns the Forest Service has over the Conundrum area. The hot springs, which require an 8-mile hike, have become a party spot more than a place to find solitude. Larson said he hiked in recently to show one of his bosses the conditions there. They encountered 10 groups backpacking in. Three of the groups were hiking with boom boxes blaring tunes.

“It’s not your usual (wilderness) user group,” he said.

While loss of the wilderness feel is a concern for the agency, environmental degradation is a bigger issue, Larson said. His staff regularly hauls trash out of the Conundrum area, from common items such as food wrappers to swimming suits and clothing. Rangers regularly patrolled Conundrum on weekends this summer.

“Things improve with regular ranger presence up there,” he said.

Nevertheless, environmental degradation has spread with the sheer number of visitors, according to Larson. Campfires are allowed outside of a quarter-mile zone from the hot springs. However, there is little wood available at the high elevation.

“People are felling 6- to 8-inch trees up there,” he said.

It’s one of the peculiarities of human behavior — people are willing to backpack into Conundrum to partake in a unique experience, but they’re also undertaking in activities that will eventually ruin that experience.

When the Forest Service and conservationists celebrated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Bill by Congress earlier this year, Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer said she wanted to address excessive use of some parts of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. The agency will aim to engage residents in 2015 in a discussion about how to better manage areas such as Conundrum, she said.

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