Wellington, Colorado: A Cautionary Water Tale

Just a little north of Fort Collins, Colorado lies Wellington, a small town that consists of one middle school, one elementary school, a grocery store, two gas stations, a Burger King, and two small neighborhoods. Wellington is reminiscent of one of those small towns we watch on television shows and movies like One Tree Hill, Gilmore Girls, and Steel Magnolias. Given its population of 6,514 residents, most everyone knows everyone else’s business, and neighbors tend to be friendly and pleasant to each other. Parents feel safe raising their children in such a family friendly and easily navigated town, and even though the town tends to be rather quiet, Wellington is so close to Fort Collins that it’s easy to head south for a bite to eat or a more expansive shopping experience.

But there’s trouble in paradise. The water has made residents sick and could eventually drive people away, and this has been an ongoing problem for some time. Wellington water has been drilled out of oil and gas wells, making it undrinkable for many. The water ends up being loaded with salts and trace metals. Not only is the water harmful to those who live in Wellington, but it also does damage to the surrounding crops and soil. Various companies would like to clean up the water and get the “gunk” out, but it would cost $1 million to build a deep injection well, which means the water companies aren’t jumping on that opportunity too quickly.

Some residents manage to get past the problem with store-bought water filters that attach to their faucets. Others turn to water bottles to quench their thirst without getting a stomachache. Remarkably, most of the residents just put up with the problem because their love for the town is greater than the concerns brought on by a significant health issue. Others have been forced to move away because of the water continuously making them sick.

Wellington isn’t alone with its water problems. Other Colorado towns have also been dealing with the concern of contaminated water. After I found out about Wellington, I did some research and learned that Las Animas, Colorado water is undrinkable unless the residents have wells because the tap water is full of sulfur. My mother grew up in Las Animas, and she remembers people getting sick from the water and wondering why because she never did. She knows now that it was because those people didn’t have wells. It’s sometimes the case that the water in the bigger cities is cleaner because there is more money to pay for the cleanup, but in smaller, rural towns like Wellington and Las Animas, there isn’t enough financing to make the tap water drinkable.

Moreover, the problem is more widespread than most people realize. Chemicals from oil and gas wells in Western Colorado have seeped into rural drinking water and caused problems. For instance, a few years ago, a man staying in his cabin just outside of DeBeque, Colorado drank the water and immediately felt sick. His symptoms included a burning sensation in his throat, a throbbing head, a stomachache, and a feeling of suffocation. They were caused by the ingestion of benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene, which all together become carcinogens.

What I’m mainly frightened by is the fact that Colorado is supposed to have clear, clean, drinkable water right out of the tap, but we’re running the risk of seeing much of our clean water running out and being left with carcinogenic water that makes people sick. If this keeps up, the problem might even migrate into larger cities, and this isn’t an alarmist view. Finding adequate supplies of potable water will likely prove to be humanity’s biggest challenge in the coming decades, and Colorado isn’t exempt from this situation. We need to be more responsible in this regard in order to ensure a brighter future.