EDWARDS — In the seven months since the Vail Daily published a three-part series on water-quality issues at the Eagle River Village mobile-home park, the company that owns the park has been busy conducting surveys, testing water, upgrading equipment and launching an outreach campaign to assure residents that the park’s well water is potable and safe to drink.
But one thing the Littleton-based company, Ascentia, won’t be doing is spending the millions of dollars necessary to connect the populous park — more than 2,000 people in 381 mobile homes — to the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority system despite ongoing complaints from residents that the well water tastes, looks and smells bad.
“The premise is that the water that we have now is not somehow bottle-quality water, but … the first question is: Is our existing system serving its purpose? And the answer is ‘Yes,’” Ascentia president and CEO John Eberle said in a meeting last fall with the Vail Daily and Eagle County officials. “So we have a Ford that’s working just fine. Do we want to go buy a Maserati? No, I don’t need to buy a Maserati.”
Eagle River Village, a critical low-income working-class neighborhood off U.S. 6 in west Edwards, has more than twice the population of Minturn and houses about 3.5% of Eagle County’s total population. Ascentia bought the park in 1985.
The well water at Eagle River Village is regularly tested and in compliance with the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act as administered by the Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Officials there confirmed they have been working with Ascentia to further improve water quality. But sodium levels are still high, making the water taste salty and leading residents to buy bottled drinking water.
“The water meets all water quality regulations, but there are high sodium levels in the water,” CDPHE officials said in a written statement. “Appropriate amounts of daily water consumption are foundational to human health, so we encourage Ascentia to do everything possible to improve the taste of the water.
“While the state doesn’t have regulatory tools to require a reduction in sodium, we will continue to provide technical assistance to Ascentia, with the goal of residents having access to safe and clean-tasting water.”
The original Vail Daily series was based on complaints from numerous residents of the park — most of them translated from Spanish and offered anonymously out of fear of retribution from park management — that the well water is unfit for consumption. For many years, residents have been purchasing bottled water.
Ascentia officials say that since last summer, they’ve informally surveyed nearly 300 residents about the water and found only three or four trailers with discolored or smelly water, which they attributed to infrastructure problems in the trailers such as bad pipes and agin water filters or hot-water heaters. They are also systematically replacing water risers — the pipe that connects each home to the main water system — to improve water pressure.
But nothing much has changed in the past seven months, according to a group of six residents who spoke to Aspen Journalism in mid-January. All six residents, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution or possible eviction, said they had not been contacted by park management about water quality.
“A Ford?” one resident said of the well water. “It’s more like a bicycle.”
They added that the water pressure, despite the replacement of some water risers, has not improved noticeably in recent months.
County officials, who had offered $1.2 million in water rights as part of a $4.4 million deal to connect the park to the UERWA system — a deal that fell apart last spring — agree that the park’s well-water system is adequate and Ascentia does not need to “buy a Maserati.”
“Are they going to spend $4 million to $7 million and tie into the (UERWA) water? No,” Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll said. “I don’t think they need to.”
Consultant Tom Day of Colorado Water Systems said the mobile-home park doesn’t need any additional water rights and has a system that’s inexpensive to run, with operable wells that are chlorinated. He advised Ascentia to do the deal last spring if the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District — the local water provider that contracts out to the UERWA — would assume liability for the well-water system at Eagle River Village.
“If Eagle River Water and (Sanitation District) was willing to take over your infrastructure, your pipes and everything in the community, that would be a huge, good thing for you guys,” Day told Ascentia. “(ERWSD officials) weren’t willing to do that. So then what’s the big upside for Eagle River mobile-home park? When they asked me, I said I don’t really see a big upside.”
In a blind taste test conducted for the Vail Daily and county officials, five samples of water were provided — three from Eagle River Village and two from Eagle River Water and Sanitation District sources in Avon and Cordillera. Due to elevated sodium levels, the Vail Daily identified the three samples from the park on the first try. The water did not look or smell bad.
Why the ongoing complaints?
“I asked the same question last time: Why did this come up if everything looks OK?” said Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry, who has attended multiple tastings. “And I think when you went through the science pieces of it, that was helpful.”
Chandler-Henry was referring to an Eagle River Mobile Home Park Water Assessment conducted in September for Ascentia by Lamp Rynearson, an engineering company with offices in Lakewood and Fort Collins. The test showed water within U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended levels in 39 of 40 contaminant-testing categories, excluding sodium.
“I was pretty convinced after last time here that it’s a taste and film issue,” Chandler-Henry said. “And I think some of the comparison data that you have with your water and Eagle River Water and Sanitation (District) water was interesting, because it shows a quality comparable except for those secondary pieces on the taste.”
Ascentia also cites a 2018 Consumer Confidence Report filed with the state showing favorable comparisons to ERWSD water.
In that report, the trailer park’s well water tested at 115.4 milligrams per liter (mg/L) of sodium. State officials said EPA guidelines recommend levels below 60 mg/L in general and below 20 mg/L for people on a low-sodium diet. For those people, they recommend contacting a doctor and installing an under-sink filtration system.
“Aesthetics matter so much. The last message we want to send is that it doesn’t matter,” said Marko Vukovich, Ascentia’s vice president of asset management. “We’re on a well … and we don’t claim to be Fiji (Water) by any means. There are and have been opinions for a long time regarding the taste or preference of well water, but that’s very different than danger.”
Vukovich said the majority of the residents surveyed in recent months told the company they cook with and bathe in the park’s water but don’t drink it.
So Ascentia has launched an information-outreach campaign in English and Spanish to convince residents the water is safe to drink, cook with and bathe in. Company officials say some of the communication issues stem from cultural differences in the predominantly Hispanic park.
“Tests show that Eagle River Village water is high in TDS (total dissolved solids),” reads a fact sheet. “TDS includes minerals such as sodium, calcium and magnesium. These minerals are naturally occurring and don’t pose a health risk, but they can affect the taste of the water.
“So what does it all mean? While your water is potable and safe to drink, higher mineral content can cause water to taste salty. We are committed to ongoing testing and maintenance of our water system and appreciate your continued feedback.”
Ascentia’s Eberle said he thinks the misconception that the park’s water is undrinkable has spread by word of mouth for many years, from social media to local dentists who tell patients to avoid drinking the water.
“And some in the Hispanic community say, ‘We just don’t drink water from a tap. We buy water. That’s just what we do because that’s what we’ve always done,’” Eberle said.
Asked whether the Mexican heritage of the majority of the park’s residents plays into their reluctance to drink the water, as suggested by Eberle, the six residents pushed back on that notion.
“Of course not!” one woman said. “They think we like carrying around the big, heavy jugs that cost a lot of money?”
Another resident recently had family visiting from Mexico and they all drank the water because they hadn’t been told to avoid it. She said they all got sick.
Faviola Alderete, the community health strategist for Eagle County Public Health who attended a taste-testing, said she moved to Eagle County from Chihuahua City — where many local residents are from — and her first home was renting a room from a family in Eagle River Village. When she first moved into the park in 2000, Alderete said she was told not to drink the water.
“I felt that this was a seed that was planted a long time ago and it has been perpetuating from generation to generation,” Alderete said. “So people keep saying the water is bad. That’s what I believed. I didn’t want to bathe my newborn baby with the water from here because I was told it was bad water.
“We, as Hispanics, rely a lot on word of mouth. So my neighbor who has been living here for five years before I got here, of course, I am going to believe what they’re saying,” she said. “So I think it’s just the mistrust and the lack of education on water.”
Ascentia urges residents of Eagle River Village mobile-home park who have water-quality or water-pressure issues to call Eagle River Village community manager Maria Cisneros at 970-446-8646.
Residents can also reach out directly — and, if they wish, anonymously — to the Ascentia home office in Littleton by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 303-730-2000.
Residents can also contact CDPHE’s Water Quality Control Division by email at email@example.com or by phone at 303-692-3500.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Vail Daily and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story ran in the Feb. 12 edition of the Vail Daily. This is the first of a two-part series.