How the Boulder County fires contaminated water supplies in Superior and Louisville

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
Locks on the Louisville Public Library’s water fountains on Jan. 3, 2022. A cart of water bottles sits in front of the fountain for anyone to use, since the town’s water supply might be contaminated after wildfires in Boulder County.

Household water supplies in Louisville and Superior could be unsafe to use after the grass fires that ripped through Boulder County last week, and state and local officials are warning all residents to boil their tap water before using it. The guidelines recommend residents boil water for one minute before cooling it for use.

Several factors are fueling the water problems in both communities. Firefighters used so much water trying to extinguish the Marshall and Middle Fork fires that pressure was lost in both water systems. Bacteria and other organisms can enter water lines that aren’t properly pressurized and contaminate water supplies. 

The fires also carved a destructive path through Superior and Louisville that broke water mains and destroyed as many as 1,000 homes, damaging and exposing other pipes, leaving them open to other contaminants entering the water systems.

Officials hope to cancel Superior’s boil orders by Friday, Jan. 7, and Louisville's by Sunday, Jan. 9.

Alex Ariniello, the director of public works and utilities for Superior, said the town's water treatment facility also lost power when the blaze torched a shed that housed a set of backup generators. Electricity was eventually restored, but the flames also destroyed two pumps. Ariniello said the town is working on replacing the pumps.

Since some homes that survived the fires are still without heat or power in sub-zero temperatures, Ariniello said the town has shut off water to some houses completely.

“We've offered that we would shut off service so they don't have their pipes burst,” he said. 

To ensure fire crews had enough water to fight the fires, which ignited Dec. 30, Louisville switched its water system over to use untreated and non-potable water. Louisville and Superior both need to flush their systems and test their water quality before they can lift the boil notice for residents.

Ariniello said the city shut off water service to homes destroyed in the fires to ensure no contaminants entered the water system from those locations.

“Some of the pipes may have burnt and have gotten some hazardous materials in the water supply,” he said.

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
Louisville resident Kristin Groth helps load a case of bottled water into a truck on Jan. 3, 2022.

Kristin Groth and other volunteers gave out free bottles of water to residents Monday at the Louisville Public Library. Residents pulled into the parking lot to load up pallets of water for their family and pets. Groth has lived in Louisville for almost 30 years. Her home survived the fire, but she’s been boiling water for her family.

“We just have a big pot on the stove that we boil, and then we wait until it cools and pour into a pitcher,” she said. 

Groth is still struggling to comprehend the aftermath of what is likely the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s recorded history. She was one of more than 30,000 people who evacuated the fire.

“We know people who lost their homes. It’s just devastating. It’s just tragic,” she said.

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
Yash Thakker, a student at Northeastern University in Boston, is living in Louisville for an internship. He doesn't have a car, so he borrowed a cart from King Soopers to pick up water on Jan. 3, 2022.

Yash Thakker, a Boston college student who moved to Louisville without a car in the fall for an internship, borrowed a shopping cart from a nearby King Soopers to haul supplies of water from the library to his home.

Thakker also had to evacuate during the fires and went to stay with a friend in Englewood. He called an Uber, which took two hours to arrive due to traffic from road closures and wildfire evacuations.

Thakker grabbed as much water as possible and loaded the shopping cart before setting out for his home nearby. His power is on, but Thakker said the gas heat in his home hasn't been reliable. 

“Our house is so cold that we are even wearing our jackets in the house,” he said. “It’s a bit challenging.”