July 17, 2013 Updated: July 17, 2013 at 5:25 pm
Repairing water wells across the Black Forest fire burn area has become one of El Paso County Public Health's main concerns after the blaze left wells exposed to the elements and left some returning residents without a water source.
Nearly one in five of the water wells servicing houses damaged by the Black Forest fire were left exposed, according to an assessment by county employees. Overall, one third of the 522 wells surveyed suffered some form of damage - either through melted wires or exposed well caps.
The damage spotlights an element of the Black Forest fire that was absent from last year's Waldo Canyon fire: The risks to water wells in a rural community, one where residents rely on water sources deep in the ground.
The problem is likely widespread. The health department's survey didn't include houses still standing whose wells were damaged - only those listed on the sheriff's office's initial list of burned homes.
"I have concerns (about aquifer contamination)," said Matt Sares, hydrogological services manager with the state's Division of Water Resources. "The potential risk, I think, overall to the aquifer is relatively small, but we don't even want to find out."
State and county officials have urged residents to temporarily cap their wells as soon as possible to prevent rain water from flowing inside.
The damage varied.
Well heads built more than 25 years ago were often constructed of plastic pipes. Seventy-one of the exposed wells featured this design, said Tom Gonzales, the county health department's director of environmental health.
Many of those PVC well heads completely melted, some of them six inches into the ground, he said.
Wells built in the last 25 years were required to feature metal casing around the pipes.
The department is researching the exact danger to the wells and underlying aquifer.
Gonzales is organizing teams of county employees to check on how many open well heads have been capped. If the teams find any, Gonzales plans to have them cover the wells.
County employees have handed out free kits for residents to check tap water for bacteria - with 5.6 percent of the 524 tested kits coming back positive. That contamination rate is typical for this time of year, said Danielle Oller, a county spokeswoman.
No tests on the aquifer have been done so far, but Gonzales said he's working on options to do that in the future.
The damage has created a rush of business for well drilling companies. The earliest opening for service for Barnhart Pump Company in Falcon is Aug. 22, said Mark Birkelo, the company's general manager.
Seven or eight wells might need to be re-drilled - at a cost of from $8,000 to $15,000 - mostly because parts of the well head fell into the hole.
Most of the repairs consist of pulling pumps, examining the wells and rebuilding well heads - a process that costs about $500 or $600, Birkelo said.
He hasn't seen signs of ashen water seeping to the bottom of those wells, he said.
"We're seeing it localized," Birkelo said. "Usually we can salvage those."
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