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Town’s water supply apparently safe from TD

Locations: News Published

But one well could be affected

John Colson

Sopris Sun correspondent

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As the battle wears on over gas drilling in the Thompson Divide area — a vast, scenic zone southwest of Carbondale that stretches from Sunlight Mountain to McClure Pass — some have expressed concern that the town’s water supplies might be contaminated by spills, seeps or other mishaps if drilling ever starts up on an intensive scale.

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“The town has concerns about making sure our water sources are well protected,” Carbondale Town Manager Jay Harrington told The Sopris Sun in a recent interview.

“It’s an issue the town’s raised in our opposition to gas drilling up there,” Harrington added, referring to letters sent by the town government to elected officials and bureaucrats at the local, state and federal levels, urging officials to keep drilling rigs out of the Thompson Divide.

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But the town’s head water official, Utility Director Mark O’Meara, told The Sopris Sun that most of Carbondale’s water sources are situated out of the way of any potential water-born contamination from drilling activities in Thompson Divide, and that any threat of contamination has yet to be demonstrated.

“Some of it’s kind of an unknown,” said O’Meara of the potential for contamination of the town’s drinking water supplies.

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Carbondale, along with the city of Glenwood Springs, Pitkin County and other entities, has been opposed to the drilling plans of primarily two companies — SG Interests of Texas and URSA Resources of Denver — which have applied for permits to drill wells in Thompson Divide, a 220,000-acre stretch of largely undeveloped land.

The opposition to drilling in the Thompson Divide area, led by a Carbondale-based non-profit called the Thompson Divide Coalition, started in 2008. That was when SG and another company, Antero Resources, went to work on plans to drill gas wells in the area. Antero has since sold its holdings to URSA.

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Among the objections expressed by opponents is the concern that, should widespread drilling begin in the Thompson Divide, there is potential for drilling accidents, spills, and seepage from wells, pipelines or other facilities that might contaminate either surface water resources or the aquifers found beneath the surface of the land.

Drilling companies have responded with assurances that modern techniques for drilling and “fracking” gas wells are safe and will not result in contamination of Carbondale’s water resources. Fracking is a method of injecting massive amounts of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to break up gas-bearing rock formations and free up the gas to travel to the surface.

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No affect

O’Meara, regardless of industry assurances, noted that two of Carbondale’s three sources of domestic water — the Nettle Creek springs on the lower slopes of Mount Sopris and wells along the Roaring Fork River — could not be affected by spills or other gas-related mishaps in Thompson Divide.

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The Nettle Creek springs, which provide most of the town’s drinking water, are situated well up on the eastern banks of the Crystal River drainage and upstream from the confluence of the Crystal River and Thompson Creek, which flows out of Thompson Divide, O’Meara said.

Any contamination of Thompson Creek, he added, would flow into the Crystal River and northwestward toward the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers, missing any possible connection with Nettle Creek.

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The three wells along the Roaring Fork River, O’Meara continued, are upstream from the confluence of the Crystal and Roaring Fork rivers, so that those wells also could not be reached by any contaminating flows from Thompson Creek.

The town does have one well, known as the Crystal Well, that is adjacent to the state Parks and Wildlife fish hatchery along the Crystal River and is downstream from the river’s confluence with Thompson Creek.

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The well, known as an “alluvial well,” is at the depth of the Crystal River itself and could be affected by a contaminating spill or leak in Thompson Creek, O’Meara said.

But, O’Meara continued, the fish in the nearby hatchery, who he believed would be sickened and perhaps killed by any such contamination, might perform as “canaries in the coal mine” and warn town officials in time to prevent contaminated water from getting into the town’s water system.

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While he is unsure whether drilling in Thompson Divide represents a hazard to Carbondale’s citizens, O’Meara said, “We’ve got it as an area of concern (in the town’s water planning policies)” but added, “I don’t have any really concrete answers” to those worried about the possibility of contamination.

“I don’t think there’s enough information out there to make a determination,” he concluded.