Is heavy development fouling local waters?
The Pitkin County Commissioners are concerned that growth and development in the upper valley may be polluting the local watershed.
As a result, they’ve agreed to contribute $20,000 to a study that may provide some answers to the question: are we fouling our own nest?
It’s possible the study could lead to new restrictions on land use, much as concerns about air quality have prompted measures to reduce traffic in Aspen.
The first phase of the study will be an analysis of the surface and groundwater resources from the North Star Nature Preserve to Basalt. It’s designed to show what happens to a drop of water from when it falls to the ground until it flows down the Roaring Fork River.
The study is being conducted by a professor from the Colorado School of Mines in conjunction with the environmental division of the Argonne National Laboratory and the Environmental Protection Agency. The first phase is expected to take three to four months to complete. Sketchy at best The issue of whether the myriad septic systems in the valley may be polluting local waters came up earlier this year during the debate over a building moratorium and the results of rapid local development.
“The commissioners were interested in what impact the growth was having on the water systems in the valley,” said Tom Dunlop, the county’s director of environmental health.
An emergency ordinance was adopted by the commissioners in January, which stopped the processing of new land-use applications for six months. The ordinance stated that “there are inadequate central water and sanitation facilities to service the growth currently permitted under present land-use regulations. Pitkin County has continuing concerns regarding the proliferation of septic systems on ground water resources.”
Dunlop prepared a paper on the topic for the commissioners last March, in which he outlined why the county should be paying closer attention to the quality of local aquifers.
“In Pitkin County, approximately 90 Individual Sewage Disposal System (ISDS) permits are issued each year,” Dunlop wrote. “It can be stated rather accurately than an average discharge from each system equals about 1,000 gallons per day.
“Therefore, an estimated 90,000 gallons per day of sewage treated by septic tank and leach field systems is discharged each day. Multiply the 90 systems times all of the years ISDS have been used … and the numbers of gallons become very large very quickly.”
Dunlop also pointed out that while it is county policy that new houses should connect with public systems rather than develop new private septic systems, there is little data to review to see what damage, if any, new septic systems may be having on the hydrologic resources of the valley.
“It seems clear that current understanding and knowledge of aquifers is sketchy at best,” Dunlop wrote. Decision support system Enter Ken Kolm, an associate professor of environmental science and engineering on leave from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden and affiliated with the Argonne National Lab, which is known for its work on nuclear weapons.
The lab also has a division of Applied Geosciences for Environmental Management in Chicago, and it is that wing of the organization that will be helping with the study.
Kolm recently got his feet wet in the local watershed when he directed a study of the ground and surface water near the North Star Nature Preserve just above Aspen. Now he is looking forward to taking a larger look at the valley’s water resources.
“We want to show how the hydraulic system works,” Kolm said, noting that Aspen is in a proactive, not a reactive, mode. “While there are certainly changes to your hydraulic system from human impacts, I don’t think the system is out of compliance.”
Kolm will first conduct an engineering and analytical review of the county’s water system. The next phase of the study will be to determine what the appropriate responses should be, if any, and whether the responses should be in the realm of engineering, such as new wastewater treatment facilities, or in the realm of land-use regulations.
“I’ve never seen this type of study actually stop development per se, but in sensitive areas it can lead to conservation easements being purchased and that type of thing,” Kolm said.
The information could also lead to new requirements for developers, such as an analysis of how new septic systems might influence the local aquifer.
“Applications could be weighed against what we would know from a study such as this,” said the county’s Dunlop.
Kolm hopes the watershed study will be a “decision support system” and allow elected officials to make informed decisions about future growth and development. “This could be a great tool, and our ultimate goal is to have the valley take control of its watershed.”
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