Legal Issues - About Water Issues

Is this legal to drink from... or not?
Drinking Water

Bacteriological and chemical are the two types of tests used to assess domestic water quality. Chemical tests check for contaminants such as sodium, chlorides, nitrates and hardness. While the taste, odor or appearance of water from a well or other source can show gross contamination, chemical analysis is needed to detect the impurities that cause hard water, stain fixtures and corrode pipes. Water starts to taste bad when the amount of total dissolved solids (minerals, salts, etc.) exceeds 500 to 1000 parts per million. The water gets increasingly nasty as the numbers get larger than 1000 ppm.

Bacteriological tests determine if water is bacteriologically safe for humans. Most of these tests are designed to detect coliform bacteria, micoorganisms that are known indicators of pollution from human or animal wastes. Anyone wanting a bacteriological test should contact a certified water testing lab for specially prepared bottles and instructions for taking the water samples. Special techniques are required to collect samples because improper collection procedures can easily contaminate your samples.

What do the Numbers on the Lab Report Mean:
  • pH measures the intensity of acid or alkali in the water. Pure water has a pH of 7.0. Most well water in Colorado will test between 6.5 and 8.5. pH of less than 5 can cause problems because of the metals dissolved in the water. A reading over 8.5 indicates lots of sodium bicarbonate.
  • Calcium and magnesium cause hardness. They enter the water through limestone-type materials in the ground.
  • Hardness causes greasy films on dishes and hair after washing, causes greasy rings on bathtubs and causes poor laundry results. Hardness can be removed by water softening units but this exchange of calcium and magnesium for sodium may be a concern for folks on a low sodium diet.
  • Sodium can also be a problem for the low sodium diet folks but it can be reduced or removed using expensive treatment systems.
  • Potassium is an essential nutrient for humans but its concentration in most drinking water is trivial.
  • Carbonates and bicarbonates are the major alkalis in water. Naturally occurring levels of alkalinity up to 400 mg/l as CaCO3 are not a health hazard. Low alkalinity indicates low pH and possible problems with corrosion in the metal pipes of plumbing systems.
  • Chloride is also important to folks on low salt diets. At levels higher than 250 mg/l of chloride, most people would find the water salty. To remove chloride is expensive.
  • Sulfate in excess of 250 to 500 ppm can give a bitter taste to the water and may have a laxative effect on folks not used to it. Removal or reduction of sulfate is expensive.
  • Nitrate in excess of 45 mg/l (or above 10 mg/l if reported as nitrate-nitrogen) is a problem for pregnant women and infants under six months. Never use high nitrate water for formula or other infant foods. Most adults have no problems with higher levels of nitrate. Nitrate removal systems are expensive.
  • Total dissolved solids is what's left when the water evaporates. Values of less than 500 ppm are fine and up to 1000 ppm may have little effect on most people.
  • Flouride is important for kids in the development of their teeth. Optimal flouride content is 0.9 to 1.5 ppm. Higher amounts are rarely found in Colorado but amounts over 3.0 ppm can cause undesirable effects.
  • Iron and manganese cause troublesome stains on clothes and plumbing fixtures and can cause a bad taste in the water. They can be reduced or removed completely in water softener units with special resins or by small aeration, filtration and chlorination treatment systems.

Taste and odor problems are usually caused by any number of organic compounds. These compounds may be present naturally or may be due to sewage or other contamination sources. Elements such as arsenic, lead and molybdenum also have recommended limits. If you test for these, make sure your water is below these limits. For example, lead above 0.015 ppm can cause mental development problems in children and adults. If your water tests above these recommended limits, you need to consult a professional.

A Little Bit About Water Rights

Water rights are a very complex issue and I can't do more than an extremely brief introduction to the subject here. Basically, the water of every natural stream in Colorado belongs to the public and is subject to appropriation. Most surface water in Colorado is fully appropriated, except in extremely wet years. Having a stream cross your land does not give you the right to divert water, unless you have a water right decree from Water Court. Even with decreed water rights, you can divert water only after prior decrees have been satisfied.

The source of water, the amount that can be diverted or stored, the types and places of use, and the priority, are established by a water right decree. The first right of use of available water (up to the decreed amount) goes to the first water right decreed (first in time, first in right). All subsequent water rights are given lesser priorities to establish the "pecking order." If there is a shortage of water, senior water rights get first dibs and junior water rights may not be fulfilled. Surface water (springs and streams), storage rights (ponds and reservoirs) and underground rights (wells) are the three basic types of water decrees.

If you buy land with an existing irrigation ditch running across it, the folks who own the water have the right and duty to use and maintain their ditch across your land. Water right owners are required to prevent unnecessary flooding and water waste by keeping their ditches, headgates and measuring devices in good repair. Owners can divert only the amount of water allowed by their water decrees and only for their decreed uses.

A "catch pond" is water held by an erosion control dam. These are small check dams built on normally dry water courses to control soil erosion. These are classed as "non-jurisdictional dams" and if you need to construct one, you must submit a "Notice of Intent to Construct a Non-Jurisdictional Water Impoundment Structure" to the Division Engineer in your local water division for approval. While the water held by a typical erosion control dam may seem trivial, too large an impoundment of water can cause significant damage to downstream senior water rights and, if the dam fails, can also cause downstream property damage, for which the dam owner is legally liable.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service can help you design and build one of these dams (once you have approval from the Division Engineer). Cost-sharing programs are available in some cases. The state periodically inspects all dams in the state, however, the primary responsibility for maintaining a safe dam lies with the property owner.

To drill a water well (or even to replace a pump in one), a permit is required before beginning the construction. A property of less than 35 acres that was created before June 1, 1972, may apply for a household use only permit. Properties larger than 35 acres may apply for a domestic permit that allows them household use, outside watering of domestic animals and irrigation of up to one acre of garden and/or lawn. In subdivisions of less than 35 acres with a central water system, allowable use of water is specific to that subdivision. logo
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