In the Four Corners, we love our world-class mountains, deserts, forests and rivers. Most people worry about water and air quality in this context – are we protecting our rivers from the impacts of growth, agricultural practices and historic mining? What am I breathing on my mountain bike ride?
As important as these questions are, don’t forget about questions closer to home: What is in my drinking water? What impact does my household waste have on my neighbors? What am I breathing after I get back from that ride?
We might not think of them this way, but these are fundamentally public health questions. Unhealthy water supplies and contaminated air can make people sick, increase stress, affect job and school attendance, and even cause death in extreme situations.
Public health works to protect your water and air quality in a variety of ways. Some are regulatory: We require adequate wastewater systems on all homes to prevent contamination of our limited groundwater. Some are educational: We provide radon testing kits and perform drinking water testing for residents and businesses. Our goal is to reduce the odds that your life will be interrupted by an illness derived from your environment, so you can continue enjoying the things you love about Southwest Colorado.
Take wastewater as an example. Few bother to think about what happens when we flush a toilet or run the water in our sink. In city limits and in some subdivisions, a central sewer facility treats waste and charges you a fee for the privilege. But thousands of households in this region are not connected to any sewer system. Instead, they rely on an individual low-technology, passive wastewater treatment system with a limited design lifespan, commonly called a septic system.
Septic systems are critical infrastructure for a region that is experiencing high population growth at a density that won’t support central sewer systems, but unless you’ve built one for yourself, you probably don’t know much about them. People prefer that their wastewater operate according to “out of sight, out of mind.” But when septic systems fail because of overuse, lack of maintenance or advanced age, the result is improperly treated wastewater, with disease-causing pathogens and nitrates, entering aquifers used for drinking water, rising to the surface and creating a nuisance sight and smell, or washing into rivers and lakes that we all share.
This is where public health comes in: requiring a permit, adequate design and a satisfactory inspection for every new septic system ensures that wastewater from new developments won’t put your drinking water at risk. San Juan Basin Board of Health continues to update rules to protect water resources, and recently adopted new regulations that will require most septic systems will be inspected before the property they serve is sold, starting in 2019. Dozens of new property buyers every year, who often have no idea how their wastewater is treated, are surprised to learn that their system was never designed for the size of home they have, or is already failing, and they inherit the responsibility for repairs. Inspections up front will quicken repairs of failing and inadequate systems, improve water quality and protect buyers and sellers from unnecessary headache (and wallet-ache).
Public health works best when it works on two levels – in the background, preventing problems before they can make someone sick, and in the foreground, educating people about risks to their health and how to protect themselves, their neighbors and the community. If we all take our share of this responsibility, we can minimize risks, improve our environment and keep our water and air clean enough for your kayak trip and your bike ride.
Brian Devine is Water and Air Quality Programs manager at San Juan Basin Public Health.