There's Something in the Water

by Rebecca Twinney


Situated just beneath the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Springs gets most of its water from high country snowmelt. Because water drains directly from snowcaps like the one carpeting Pikes Peak, Colorado College students are primarily first-time users of this water. Logically then, it would follow that our drinking water is some of the highest quality worldwide. 

Even so, I had my doubts. Living in Slocum my freshman year, I was spoiled by the fancy fountains spouting cold, clear water.  Moving to Montgomery, a building then completely void of water fountains, was a somewhat unwelcome change. The water from the kitchen or bathroom sink tasted and smelled off. And was I just imagining that slightly brown color? I would still usually make a special trip to Worner or the library just to fill up my water bottle. I refrained from using fountains if the filter light was flashing red, and I became increasingly conservative with the water I had saved up. If friends asked for a swig from my water bottle, I’d say, “Ok, one sip.” Then I’d proceed to stare them down, lest they take a sip and a half. 

In one of my finer moments, I even melted ice cubes in the microwave, rather than get water from the bathroom sink. Of course, half of this decision was driven by laziness, but the other half was sheer paranoia. 

Throughout this obsessive period, I was judging water solely based on how it looked and tasted. Before second semester of my junior year, I had no actual academic basis for my suspicions. Environmental Sociology with Wade Roberts was my first real exposure to the prominence and risks of the possible pollutants we could be consuming. At the end of the block, Wade even suggested that the drinking water from the century-old Palmer was contaminated. Maybe I wasn’t crazy after all. Maybe someone else had also seen the second shooter on the grassy knoll. I would get to the bottom of that metallic taste or die trying. That is, as long as dehydration didn’t claim my life first.

Racing against the clock, I set out to sample water from different locations on campus. When I first chose the tests to include, a kit for arsenic caught my eye. With the kit in my hand, though, I felt like the people who sincerely believe that there are humanoid lizards, waiting patiently to suck our blood. If I entertained the idea that the college was feeding us arsenic, how long before I also feared a reptilian elite? Just how slippery was this slope? Gingerly peering around, I put the arsenic kit back on the shelf.

Instead, I picked kits for pH, phosphates, nitrates, nitrites and manganese. I spent the next few weeks sprawled out under water fountains with test tubes and color charts. And when passersby asked what I was doing, I refrained from warning them about the blood-sucking lizards. After all, I was only doing a real science experiment. And here are my very legitimate findings:

While testing for manganese still seemed slightly excessive, I was hoping to identify the water’s metallic taste. However, none of the samples I tested actually contained manganese. Because this mineral enters water through the erosion of rock and soil, the Water Research Center says that its presence could indicate rusty pipes. Surprisingly, though, even the buildings constructed in the early twentieth century tested negative, suggesting that the college’s pipes might not be as corroded as my roving mind had pictured. 

In fact, the hardness of the water more likely accounted for the coppery taste. According to the Water Research Center, water hardness is closely linked to pH. While a pH of seven signifies pure water, water with a higher pH often tastes noticeably different. While our drinking water, with a pH of 8.5, is likely harder than pure water, it does not pose any real danger. 

In terms of pH, 8.5 is also relatively high. To put this value in perspective, battery acid has a pH of zero, while bleach has a pH of 13. Although a pH of 8.5 fits within the EPA’s standards for drinking water, it occupies the basic end of this spectrum. In fact, this value falls between seawater, with a pH of eight, and hand soap, with a pH of nine. However, you’ll be happy to know, that human blood has a pH right around seven. Thus, even if our water is closer to seawater than to pure water, it won’t attract those pesky lizards I keep mentioning. 

Likewise, while our water’s spot on the spectrum may be unsettling, it is still important to recognize that the pH does not pose a health risk. In fact, according to the Water Research Center, its relatively basic nature may actually prevent the corrosion of the century-old pipes running beneath the campus. 

Outside of water hardness and pH, Worner, Armstrong, Antero and Loomis are the cleanest water sources sampled. Containing no organic compounds, these sites offer the best of Pikes Peak snowmelt. As it turns out, I wasn’t totally off base in favoring these locations.

Alternatively, and unsurprisingly, the Olin basement contains both phosphates and nitrites. Arguably the least welcoming study-space on campus, the Olin basement offers the least pure water sampled. A close second on the uninviting scale, Mathias also offers phosphate-contaminated water. Finally, as Wade Roberts suggested, Palmer’s water exhibited higher phosphate levels than any other building. 

Because phosphates and nitrites occur in fertilizer and decaying plant matter, the Water Research Center suggests that agricultural runoff may account for their presence in our drinking water. Runoff likely also explains the phosphate levels found in Monument Creek and the days-old snow. Although the water in Monument Creek contained more organic compounds than any on-campus site, the snow on the banks actually contained fewer compounds than the Mod Pod, Palmer and Olin. While my tests did not account for the unappetizing chunks of dirt that the snow harbored, this water source lacked the higher levels of phosphates and nitrites flowing from select drinking fountains. Hence, if you were really invested in finding the purest water on the north side of campus, you may actually have more luck boiling snow than filling up in the archaic Olin basement.

Before you go harvesting snow or melting ice cubes, though, it’s important to recognize that all of the on-campus sites still fall within the EPA’s standards for phosphates, nitrates and nitrites. Even with the off taste and the filter status flashing red, these tests found that our drinking water consistently meets the EPA’s strict requirements. 

Ultimately, if you’ve had similar suspicions about CC’s drinking water, I hope this study puts your mind and stomach at ease. While I’m slightly embarrassed to report that my suspicions were mostly unfounded, it’s good to know that CC and the Colorado Springs water treatment facilities are taking our health seriously. Whether you continue to go out of your way for the purest water is up to you. But just as long as you’re not filling up your Nalgene in Monument Creek, you’re more likely to have a chilling encounter with a humanoid reptile than face health risks from our drinking water.


Part of the Toxic issue