Happy hump day, Boulder. For those who came to DJ’s Watering Hole last night for a conversation about the No Return story series, thanks for showing up. We appreciate your interest and support. Now here’s what’s going on.

For today, I cover a new study examining the Marshall Fire’s impact on drinking water, and the implications it has for future fires. Though we’ve known for several decades that fires burning near a city’s source water can negatively affect that water through ash and soil runoff in future rainstorms, it’s only in the last five years or so that we’ve begun to understand that all fires can impact drinking water — even those in town, miles below reservoirs.

Damaged pipes and low water levels caused Louisville’s water system to lose pressure during the fire. This created a vacuum effect that sucked smoke and contaminants into the pipes and tanks holding already-treated drinking water. Not only that, but plastic pipes heated by flames were primed to leach chemicals for days and weeks after flames subsided. A bright spot, however, is that the study’s author, Andrew Whelton, said Boulder County’s was “the most effective disaster response to damaged water system” he’d ever been a part of. High praise coming from someone who has been a part of several water disaster recoveries, including the Camp Fire, the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam contamination, and a chemical spill in West Virginia.

Also, I have mice in my apartment. Not as pets, unless you can have pets you never see living in the walls. I spent my Sunday cleaning up after these minute rodents only to worry I might have given myself a deadly disease. I didn’t sleep much Sunday night.

Enjoy your Wednesday. I’ll see you Friday.

— Tim, reporter

What to know today

  • Sun and sun: Sun will shine today and tomorrow with temps around 40 degrees. The cold that’s now passed should hold off for some time, as the forecast shows nothing scary on the horizon.
  • Shelter beds were available during recent cold snap: No one was turned away at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, the city’s largest shelter in North Boulder, due to capacity during last weekend’s cold snap, according to Kurt Firnhaber, the city’s director of Housing and Human Services.
    • It remains unknown how many people slept outside this past weekend, with temperatures dropping below 0 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday night.
    • Unlike Denver and Aurora, Boulder did not open a warming center in response to the recent cold snap. In December, when an Arctic front sent temperatures dropping to dangerous lows, the City of Boulder and Boulder County opened an emergency warming center at the East Boulder Recreation Center.
    • “There is not staff capacity at the city or county to do this on a regular basis,” Firnhaber told Boulder Reporting Lab in an email. “These types of efforts are designated for EOC designated events like floods, fires (and historical cold temps).”
    • To open the warming center in December, Firnhaber has said 20 city employees worked and volunteered more than a combined 300 hours over three days. The center served 107 people.
    • During “critical weather events,” when evening temperatures drop below 10 degrees Fahrenheit or snow is forecast to accumulate at least six inches, the shelter waives entry requirements and restrictions, including a 90-night stay limit for people not enrolled in its coordinated entry program, and opens up more beds. It has the ability to sleep at least 220 people, in part by temporarily moving some people staying at the shelter long term into hotel rooms.
    • The latest cold snap is the second one this winter season since the Boulder Public Library closed its bathrooms due to meth contamination. The library is considered the city’s de facto day shelter where people can stay warm. The Boulder Shelter for the Homeless is closed during the day, except for during critical weather events. — John Herrick
    • Residents seeking to help someone in crisis can call the city’s Crisis Intervention Response Team, a program that pairs behavioral health specialists with police on certain calls, at 911 or 303-441-3333. Shelter options in Boulder include the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless (303-442-4646); Mother House (720-579-1637), which serves people identifying as women, transgender or nonbinary; TGTHR (303-447-1207), which serves homeless youth; and Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (303-444-2424), which serves people impacted by domestic violence.
  • Comcast up for renewal: The non-exclusive franchise agreement Boulder has with Comcast is up for renewal in 2025. On cue, the city is open to community feedback through its Be Heard engagement platform. This does not have anything to do with internet or phone in town, but rather television provided to Boulderites.
    • The city gets the equivalent of about 5% of Comcast’s revenue on its TV service, which brings in about $900,000 for the town. It also collects a fee to cover capital costs for the city’s Channel 8, Boulder Valley School District’s Channel 22 and the University of Colorado’s Channel 63.
    • Renewals are a time to renegotiate agreements, so if residents have input, they should let it be known before March 27.
  • Flatiron Freddy reporting on winter status: Boulder’s version of Punxsutawney Phil is not a live groundhog but a stuffed marmot, outfitted in a hat. On Feb. 2 at 7:30 a.m., the city will have a livestream event that will cover “why a real groundhog would never see his shadow in Colorado and why stars have something to do with Groundhog Day.”
  • Grand opening: The Center for African and African American Studies will celebrate its grand opening on Wednesday at CU Boulder’s Macky Auditorium. Its mission is to “research, promote, preserve, interpret, and disseminate knowledge about the histories, cultures, and arts of Africa, African Americans, and the wider world of the African diaspora.” The celebration from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. will include “tours of our new space, music, performances and appetizers,” according to the university. Registration is required.
  • Tim has mice: Treats left out to train my dog instead trained tiny rodents that my apartment is a great place to live. When my wife pointed them out, I insisted the brown pellets beside the treats were flecks of dirt from a nearby plant. And who nibbled the bread on the counter? Hopefully also the plant, as I’d eaten that bread, thinking the missing sections were collapsed air bubbles.
    • Mice are common in Boulder County, and cold weather increases their drive to find warmth in our homes. But if you find remnants of rodents inside, it’s important to clean their mess carefully, unlike me.
    • Sunday found me crawling about my apartment with a hand vacuum, sucking up animal refuse.
    • Vacuuming, however, was the wrong choice. After spending hours breathing aerated droppings I learned about Hantavirus. Usually carried by Deer Mice in the western United States, the virus can lead to Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome, an infection whose symptoms begin one to to six weeks after exposure with a death rate near 40%. So, this newsletter might take a dreary angle soon.
    • Yet there have been only two cases reported in Boulder County since 1993. Hope!
    • As there’s no established treatment plan for HPS, prevention is best. If you see mouse droppings, spray them with a disinfectant, let it sit for 10 minutes, then wipe them up. To prevent rodents from coming in to start with, plug any holes to the outdoors, keep a tidy home, and don’t leave out dog treats like they’re cookies for Santa.
    • Most importantly, don’t spend an entire day vacuuming up rodent excrement to then pass your evening researching a deadly disease you probably don’t have. — Tim Drugan

Go deeper

New study confirms Marshall Fire contaminated drinking water, but the response prevented a crisis

By Tim Drugan

February 1, 2023

A new study on the Marshall Fire reaffirms the need for better guidelines to safeguard water systems from contamination as wildfires burn through more residential areas. 

But Andrew Whelton, the study’s lead author, hopes lessons from the Marshall Fire can help other communities avoid the worst future fires have to offer.

“The Marshall Fire was the most effective disaster response to a damaged water system that I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. 

Whelton, a professor of civil, environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University, flew out to Boulder County days after the Dec. 30, 2021 disaster to study the damage to water systems and municipalities’ response. His study, published in American Water Works Association in January, helps answer, at least partially, the question of how much contamination occurred and what can be done to improve wildfire water safety.

The fire damaged six public drinking water systems: Louisville, Lafayette, Superior, East Boulder County Water District, Eldorado Artesian Spring, Inc. and the Sans Souci Mobile Home Park. Toxic chemicals leaked into pipes from damaged homes and into hydrants where low water pressure created vacuums that pulled the compounds into the distribution system. 

In Louisville, some chemicals remained at unsafe levels for weeks after the burn, evading several flushings of the system. That includes benzene, a volatile organic compound, or VOC, that has been found to cause cancer in the long term.

Continue reading…

What else we’re reading

  • Meth residue is closing public spaces along the Front Range (including, beyond Boulder, in Littleton, Englewood and Arvada). This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s being used more rampantly right now, but that testing has increased. Meth residue can stick around as long as five years after the drug was used. Health risks to people exposed are low, but children are more vulnerable.

BRL picks

🥦 Vegan buffet: On the first Friday of every month, Jill’s in the St. Julian will host a lunch buffet for those resigned to plants or maybe those who are plant-curious. From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., wood-oven pizzas, vegetables, grains will be available for all those interested. The buffet is $28.

🎸Al Di Meola: This Friday at the Boulder Theater, a “bonafide Guitar Legend” will perform at 8 p.m. Di Meola has earned four gold albums, two platinum albums and sold more than six million records worldwide thanks to his “ongoing fascination with complex rhythmic syncopation combined with provocative lyrical melodies and sophisticated harmony.” Tickets are $40.

📗 Dancing with History: First arrested for protesting during the civil rights movement, George Lakey was most recently arrested during a climate march at the age of 83. Speaking at the Boulder Bookstore tonight at 6:30 p.m., Lakey will talk about his book, Dancing with History: A Life for Peace and Justice, which “shows readers how to find hope in even the darkest times through strategic, joyful activism.” Tickets are $5.

For more ideas on what to do this week, check out BRL’s Local Events page.


Tim Drugan

Tim Drugan is the climate and environment reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering wildfires, water and other climate-related issues for Boulder with a focus on explanatory and solutions journalism. He also is the lead writer of BRL Today, our morning newsletter. Tim grew up in New Hampshire and graduated from UNH with a degree in English/Journalism. Email: tim@boulderreportinglab.org.