A damaged Eldorado Drive in the Town of Superior is seen here on Jan. 6, 2022. In the aftermath of the Marshall Fire, Superior residents have filed 350 complaints about unusual tastes and smells in their water. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

State health officials have found no evidence the Town of Superior’s drinking water is unhealthy in the aftermath of the Marshall Fire, according to water quality engineers with the state Department of Public Health and Environment. 

The town hosted a public meeting with health officials on Wednesday after receiving about 350 reports from residents of unusual odors and tastes in the water since the fire. Some said the water was “smokey,” according to town officials. 

Health officials said the state has reviewed more than a dozen water samples across the town. They have found no evidence of unhealthy levels of bacteria or toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are released from burning homes, in the water since the city flushed its system several days after the Dec. 30 disaster. 

“It’s very possible, and actually relatively common, to have perfectly safe water that has several aesthetic properties that are displeasing,” said Tyson Ingels, the state’s lead drinking water engineer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). 

A depletion of water from fighting the fire, and mains broken by the fire, can cause the pressure to drop in water systems. When this happens, the system can draw in bacteria. 

‘We all are learning’

A separate, emerging area of concern is when plumbing also draws in VOCs such as benzene. 

Following California’s 2017 Tubbs and 2018 Camp fires, researchers found benzene, which can be toxic in the long term, in the water system at concentrations exceeding federal health standards. 

Several samples reviewed by Colorado health officials have detected no evidence of benzene at concentrations above federal health standards, state officials said.

Chelsea Cotton, a source water and emerging contaminants engineer for CDPHE, said she has been coordinating with the Environmental Protection Agency and the states of California and Oregon since 2020, when researchers published a study on the impacts of wildfires in urban areas. 

Cotton said long-term contamination from VOCs can come from heated plastic PVC lines servicing homes from the main distribution system. She said the Town of Superior uses copper service lines, which may have helped prevent long-term contamination. 

Officials also said the town may have prevented more contamination from getting into the system by closing off lines servicing homes destroyed by the fire. 

“We really do think you’re in a pretty safe position as far as long-term contamination goes,” Cotton said. 

She said the state will recommend follow-up sampling, especially for homes that have been significantly damaged and may need service lines replaced. Officials acknowledged they have more experience responding to forest fires and the effect on reservoirs — not urban fires and the effect on urban infrastructure. 

“We all are learning to a degree,” said Ingels, of CDPHE. 

Odor and taste

State and local officials have not released information indicating whether any of the water samples analyzed by the state so far were taken near the homes of residents who have complained of smokey water. The state has not responded to a request from the Boulder Reporting Lab for information on recent samples. 

Alex Ariniello, the director of public works in the Town of Superior, said some of the samples collected to test the water for VOCs may have been collected near homes where residents reported concerns. But Ariniello said the town has not yet matched the sample locations to the complaint locations. 

“We did collect three samples yesterday from households reporting smoky water and should have the results late Friday, if not Monday,” he wrote in an email to the Boulder Reporting Lab on Thursday. 

Of the samples taken to test for VOCs, neither the state nor town has reported concentrations of contaminants above federal health standards. 

The Town of Superior issued a boil water advisory following the fire, which destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Superior and Louisville. After water systems were back up and running, following state reviews of water samples across town, the advisory was lifted on Jan. 6. 

For residents who detected unusual odors and smells, the town suggested residents run their water taps for five minutes to flush their system. The advisory also recommended they read a 2003 article published in a water utility industry magazine suggesting water that smells and tastes smokey is “an aesthetic problem and not a health hazard.” 

If the smell and taste does not subside, state officials said residents should consider purchasing a filter for their taps. 

The state continues to test the water at locations across the town. 

Officials have said it will make the results available to the public. 

John Herrick

John Herrick reports on housing, climate, health and local government for Boulder Reporting Lab. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. He is interested in stories about people, power and fairness.