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Red Cliff sanctioned over water problems

Tamara Miller

The state of Colorado has ordered Red Cliff to fix its drinking water problems or face $1,000-per-day fines and possible criminal prosecution of town officials.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued the enforcement order on April 30 and gives the town one month to repair its leaking water treatment plant. The town also has up to four mounts to comply with numerous other orders, including development of an operations and maintenance manual that if followed will keep the two-year-old treatment plant functioning properly.

The town’s residents have endured on-again and off-again orders to boil tap water before drinking. When the water plant is not operating properly, water mains fill with untreated water from Turkey Creek. Several residents have contracted giardia – a parasite that can cause stomach cramping and diarrhea – from drinking the untreated water.

Fixing the town’s water plant is the Town Board of Trustees’ No. 1 priority, said Mayor Ramon Montoya. Montoya, who was elected to his seat in April, attended a meeting April 15 to reassure state officials that the town had plans to fix the plant soon. He said he was “extremely disappointed” the enforcement order was issued two weeks later.

“At that meeting I was assured that my being there was a big, major step in preventing this from happening,” he said.

The enforcement order say “Red Cliff has not developed and/or implemented adequate operation and maintenance practices to prevent or mitigate (contamination of drinking water)… when the Department determines that a physical condition, or an operation or maintenance practice poses an unreasonable risk to the public health, the Department may issue an enforcement order.”

The town could be fined $1,000 a day for failing to comply with and meet the deadlines in the order. Town officials also would be found guilty of a misdemeanor for failing to comply and could face a $1,000 fine and up to a year in county jail.

Big projects, tight deadlines and little money

Red Cliff has an annual operating budget of less than $500,000. Sewer bills run about $70 per home. And the town of about 350 people has the highest property tax rate in the state. Finding funding to fix the town’s water treatment plant may therefore require some creative thinking.

Before the enforcement order was handed down, Red Cliff already planned to refinance its long-term debt to free up $7,000 to fix the water treatment facility and $50,000 to fix the sewage treatment plant. The town was issued a cease-and-desist order last summer for violating state regulations over its wastewater treatment plant. The plant sends less than fully-treated water back into the river below town.

The town board will vote on the refinance package June 7. But those funds won’t be enough. “It’s a function of money,” Town Administrator Guy Patterson said. “This enforcement … is a lot of stick and very, very little carrot.”

The ideal solution for the wastewater treatment plant is to build another, Patterson said, but that likely would cost more than $1 million.

Just to make ends meet for 2005, the town likely will have to consider raising the water and sewer rates another $10-a-month, Patterson said.

Town officials have invited state and federal agencies and the department of health to attend a May 17 meeting. The topic? Funding.

“That is the opportunity for us to ask for help,” Patterson said. “We are trying to look as hard as we can for grants to try and get this done.”

The department of health is aware of the town’s financial problems, said Scott Alarich, an enforcement team leader for the agency.

“It wouldn’t be unusual for us to work with the town and perhaps assist them in gaining access to various funding entities,” Alarich said.

“I know it will be solved”

Simply fixing the treatment plant may not solve the problem, town officials say. Most Red Cliff residents leave their faucets running – or “bleed” their lines – during the winter to prevent water pipes from freezing, but it taxes the town’s water treatment plant. If there is ever a disruption during the winter, the plant cannot filter enough water to keep up with consumption – about 225,000 gallons per day during peak periods.

“People in town still need to bleed,” Montoya said. “I’m one of them that does. But there’s a difference between just dripping your lines and leaving the kitchen faucet all the way open, all the time.”

Residents may soon pay the price for using so much water. The town has plans to install water meters at all residences.

“We’re planning on doing it, but it’s still in the preliminary stages,” Montoya said. “Apparently they had water meters installed 25 to 30 years ago but that didn’t work because several of the water meters froze.”

The fact that Red Cliff spent $450,000 on a water treatment plant two years ago to solve the town’s drinking water problems isn’t lost on Montoya. The board of trustees won’t authorize the contractor’s final payment because they believe the plant isn’t finished. Montoya said the town has formed a subcommittee to look into it.

“I think in the past two years there’s been a lot of finger-pointing as to whose responsibility is what,” he said.

“I know it will be solved,” Montoya added. “That was the goal before we got this compliance order. To make the plant 100 percent operational 100 percent of the time.”

Staff writer Tamara Miller can be reached via e-mail at: tmiller@vaildaily.com or by calling 949-0555 ext. 607.


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