2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Hope flows for Tahama Springs restoration despite tainted water tests

Published: June 1, 2014, 8:00 am, by Bill Vogrin

Colorado Springs Utilities workers Paul Andersen, left, Jon Cockroft and David Mataipule clean out Monument Valley Park’s Tahama Springs on Wednesday in an effort to test the water that inspired the city’s name. The springs, named after a Sioux chief and scout who traveled with Zebulon Pike, was damaged in a 1935 flood and destroyed in 1965 after another flood. A local group is trying to bring back the historic springs, and cleaning the 50-plus years of debris from the springs is the first step.    Christian Murdock / The Gazette

Colorado Springs Utilities workers Paul Andersen, left, Jon Cockroft and David Mataipule clean out Monument Valley Park’s Tahama Springs on Wednesday, May 21, 2014, so the water could be tested. The springs, named after a Sioux chief and scout who traveled with Zebulon Pike, was sealed after Monument Creek flooded in 1965, destroying the pavilion. A local group is trying to bring back the historic springs. Christian Murdock / The Gazette

For the group working to restore Tahama Springs as a free-flowing source of water in Monument Valley Park, success is so close they can taste it.

But they dare not.

The well, on the west bank of Monument Creek, had been sealed since a flood in 1965 destroyed the well’s pavilion, depriving the city of its namesake and leading to envy and jealousy of Manitou Springs with its mineral springs that seem to bubble up on every corner.

The Historic Preservation Alliance of Colorado Springs is determined to restore Tahama and is working with a coalition that includes the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation, Colorado Springs Utilities and a group of young professionals.

(I wrote about their efforts in March. Read that column here.)

Already they hired experts to evaluate the site, locate the springs with an underground camera and take preliminary water samples for testing. Once they found a substantial flow, they hired Utilities to help dig a half-century of crud from the well to allow more detailed water sampling and analysis.

Colorado Springs Utilities worker Frank Trujillo cleans out the well at Tahama Springs before flushing it out to take a water sample Wednesday, May 21, 2014, in Monument Valley Park.   (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Colorado Springs Utilities worker Frank Trujillo cleans out the well at Tahama Springs before flushing it out to take a water sample Wednesday, May 21, 2014, in Monument Valley Park. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

On May 21, utility crews spent hours digging trash and debris from the well. One lucky crew member was strapped in a harness and lowered through a manhole about 12 feet to hand fill bucket-after-bucket with trash, tree branches rocks and crud until a huge vacuum hose could be pushed down to suck out accumulated water.

Finally the alluvial water was found, pouring from a layer of shale.

Jeff Long, of the preservation alliance, watched the scene unfold.

“They pumped it out to get the water off the bottom so only water flowing from the side was sampled,” Long said. “We didn’t want any bottom contaminants.

Then they let the spring run several minutes.

“Finally, they lowered the guy back down with water sample bottles. He had to get it quickly because water was coming up from the bottom of the well.”

Long said everyone on the scene was buoyed by what the staffer brought back to the surface.

Colorado Springs Utilities workers found items from the past in the Tahama Springs including old whisky bottles, hoses and a pair of boots while cleaning out century-old Tahama Springs Wednesday, May 21, 2014, in Monument Valley Park.   (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Colorado Springs Utilities workers found items from the past in the Tahama Springs including old whisky bottles, hoses and a pair of boots while cleaning out century-old Tahama Springs Wednesday, May 21, 2014, in Monument Valley Park. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

“It was exciting,” Long said. “It was a very clear stream of water. And the water he brought up wasn’t turbid or cloudy. It was good-looking water.”

But, as the cliché goes, looks can be deceiving.

Long said he was tempted to taste the water, he opted to wait for an official analysis.

Good thing he did.

Lab test results came back last week with some bad news. Testing confirmed the presence of total coliform bacteria and specifically E. coli, a common form of bacteria that generally is harmless, according to the Mayo Clinic. But it can cause brief diarrhea and some strains can cause abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting.

It’s not something you want in your drinking water.

“The eye-opening thing was the E. coli,” said Rick Johnson, an environmental specialist with Utilities’ water quality support group.

Johnson said the lab tests also showed unexpected nitrate levels, which could indicate fertilizer is leaching into the water. And the fluoride levels in the water were high enough to require consumers be warned before drinking it, Johnson said.

The Memorial Day flood of 1935 killed an estimated 18 people in the region, washed out every bridge across Fountain and Monument creeks except for one at Bijou Street and wreaked havoc in Monument Valley Park where it heavily damaged Tahama Spring. Courtesy Pikes Peak Library District, Stewarts Commercial Photographers Collection.

The Memorial Day flood of 1935 killed an estimated 18 people in the region, washed out every bridge across Fountain and Monument creeks except for one at Bijou Street and wreaked havoc in Monument Valley Park where it heavily damaged Tahama Spring. Courtesy Pikes Peak Library District, Stewarts Commercial Photographers Collection.

However, he gave the group hope, noting that one test is not definitive of the water quality.

“A lot more testing needs to go into this,” Johnson said. “I’d suggest resampling after it sat there for at least a week. The sampling we did was right after we had stirred everything up. This was an initial test and not under ideal circumstances.

There’s a good chance it could change. I wouldn’t put a lot of weight on the test.”
The preservation alliance board agreed with Johnson that the news, while discouraging, was not a deal-breaker.

“The board is as enthusiastic as ever,” Long said. “We’re still firm in our intent to proceed.”

If further testing produced evidence of contaminants, one option is to install a filtering system on the spring. Two types of filters, UV and reverse-osmosis, could be used to ensure safe drinking water, Johnson said.

Long said the board will investigate those alteratives and more, depending on future test results.

“The point is, the spring has been opened, it’s clear and it is running,” Long said. “That is huge.”

This is architect J. Mark Nelson's drawing of the proposed new Tahama Spring pavilion. It would be an open-air facility, with no roof, to discourage homeless from camping inside. A new steel hand pump would be installed with a gravel drain. It would contain benches and medalions honoring Gen. William Jackson Palmer, Zebulon Pike and Sioux Indian Chief Tahama. Courtesy the Historical Preservation Alliance of Colorado Springs.

This is architect J. Mark Nelson’s drawing of the proposed new Tahama Spring pavilion. It would be an open-air facility, with no roof, to discourage homeless from camping inside. A new steel hand pump would be installed with a gravel drain. It would contain benches and medalions honoring Gen. William Jackson Palmer, Zebulon Pike and Sioux Indian Chief Tahama. Courtesy the Historical Preservation Alliance of Colorado Springs.

The coalition intends to raise $250,000 to finance restoration of the spring and well. The money also will pay for reconstruction of the historic Spanish pavilion built in 1926, severely damaged in the Memorial Day flood of 1935 and destroyed in the 1965 flood.

Supporters also intend to replace three large, round bronze plaques, or medallions, that hung in the pavilion.

They honored city founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer; explorer and Army Lt. Zebulon Pike; and Chief Tahama, the Sioux Indian from Winona, Minn., who befriended Pike and became famous as an Indian ally to the U.S. government and even fought for this country in the War of 1812.

Finally, money will be needed to provide a trust for future maintenance — especially if a filtration system is installed.

Long is optimistic issues with water quality will be worked out, the needed money will be raised and the spring and pavilion restored.

“We have a lot of momentum,” Long said. “We’re gonna do this.”

This octaganol concrete pad and stone well in Monument Valley Park in downtown Colorado Springs once were part of Tahoma Spring, an alluvial spring that flows about two gallons per minute according to recent testing, as seen March 5, 2014. A coalition hopes to raise $250,000 and restore the Spanish-style pavilion with eight archways, benches and a steel hand pump. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

This octaganol concrete pad and stone well in Monument Valley Park in downtown Colorado Springs once were part of Tahoma Spring, an alluvial spring that flows about two gallons per minute according to recent testing, as seen March 5, 2014. A coalition hopes to raise $250,000 and restore the Spanish-style pavilion with eight archways, benches and a steel hand pump. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette