In Colorado, new scrutiny and possible fixes coming for drinking water in mobile home parks

State officials got a head start on a new testing program at one community in Western Colorado.

Silvia Barragán stands outside her front door in Apple Tree Park in western Colorado on April 28, 2024. For years, Barragán and her neighbors in the mobile home park have been speaking out about the discolored water that comes out of their taps. (Eleanor Bennett / Aspen Public Radio)

In western communities, mobile home parks provide a more affordable place to live, but residents often face problems with their drinking water. 

In Colorado, a new law gives the state authority to test water quality in these communities and force owners to fix any issues.

The state plans to start testing the water at hundreds of parks across the state this summer. Officials have already gotten a head start at one community in Western Colorado that helped spur the legislation.

Apple Tree Park sits on the banks of the Colorado River just across from the town of New Castle. 

Silvia Barragán moved to the park in 2015. Her street is lined with trees and she has a big yard with a garden. 

“Some people might look at this as just a trashy mobile park, but it’s not,” Barragán said. “It’s a nice, nice neighborhood. There’s a lot of kids in the summer running around and there’s a lot of elderly people that have lived here most of their lives.”

Barragán is originally from Michoacán, Mexico, and she raised her family in western Colorado. Her experience at Apple Tree Park over the last decade has mostly been positive. 

“Since I moved here, I felt peaceful and at home,” Barragán said. “My neighbors are great neighbors and I haven’t had any issues in Apple Tree except the water.”

Cars line up in front of mobile homes on a quiet street at Apple Tree Park in western Colorado on April 28, 2024. Water quality issues at the park helped spur a new Colorado law that gives the state authority to test water quality in mobile home parks and force owners to fix any issues. (Eleanor Bennett / Aspen Public Radio)

For years, Barragán and her neighbors have been speaking out about the discolored water that comes out of their taps. 

“It’s kind of brownish, yellowish. It’s kind of nasty,” she said. “It’s like river water, like if I’m camping and I go get river water, that’s what it looks like.”

Barragán only wears black now because the water stains her clothes and laundry, and it ruins her appliances.

It has an unpleasant smell and taste, so she fills up water jugs at the local grocery store.

“I buy water,” Barragán said. “I buy water for cooking, I buy water for drinking, I buy water for the dogs.” 

When the state tested the water at Apple Tree Park, they found it meets federal EPA standards under the Safe Drinking Water Act, passed in 1974, but it has higher than normal levels of heavy metals such as iron and manganese. The park is supplied by groundwater wells, and is outside the limits of the nearby town of New Castle, which draws the majority of its drinking supply from a nearby creek.

Apple Tree Park resident Silvia Barragán points at a bucket she filled with discolored water on April 28, 2024. The water meets federal EPA health standards, but has higher than normal levels of heavy metals such as manganese and iron, so Barragán buys water at the local grocery store. (Eleanor Bennett / Aspen Public Radio) 

Joel Minor used to manage the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s environmental justice program, and said Apple Tree’s situation — of heavy metals showing up in underground well water — is pretty common. 

“Because of the taste and color and odor of the water, it can be unpleasant to drink and can cause other issues,” Minor said. “We recognize that that creates challenges for park residents and may require them to spend money on things like bottled water or repairing or replacing appliances.”

While Apple Tree’s overall water system meets federal health standards for drinking, a recent round of testing this winter found that a few samples out of the 200 taken had manganese levels that were above the EPA’s health advisory for infants. High levels of manganese can negatively impact babies’ brain development.

When the state got the test results back in February, they worked with the park owner—Utah-based company Investment Property Group (IPG)—to notify residents and local health officials about the issue. 

“What we want folks to know is to be cautious about using tap water from the park for making formula for infants under the age of six-months-old,” Minor said. “These particular locations where this occurred seem to be spots where maybe the water isn’t being flushed quite as well.”

A water-stained bathtub in Silvia Barragán’s home at Apple Tree Park is one example of how the discolored water has impacted her appliances. Other residents at the mobile home park have also had to replace appliances such as dishwashers and laundry machines more frequently than usual. (Eleanor Bennett / Aspen Public Radio)

With the passage of the Mobile Home Park Water Quality Act in 2023, the state’s been working with IPG to do more regular testing and to fix the water issues. The company didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. 

In 2020, IPG bought the mobile home park from the local Talbott family, which had owned the park since its inception. The company has properties across 13 states, including more than 110 mobile home parks, according to the Mobile Home Park Home Owners Allegiance’s online database.

The state has been having regular meetings with IPG, Garfield County health officials, local advocacy groups and park residents to come up with a variety of ways to improve the water. 

“One key short-term solution that we’ve been working with the park on is flushing the water system more frequently, which can help remove iron and other metals that have accumulated in the system,” Minor said. “We’ve also worked with that same coalition to put on an informational webinar about how to do in-home flushing for appliances like water heaters and pipes so that residents are also able to flush their own water systems.”

Another short-term fix already underway is putting in water stations where residents can fill up jugs for cooking and drinking. 

The state is providing direct funding to the park in the form of an assistance grant to help install these stations. One has already been installed at a local school across from the mobile home park that’s also owned by IPG, and the company plans to install a second by early June in a communal area near the entrance to the park. 

“That was something we came up with based on feedback from park residents that folks are having to drive across the river and across the highway into New Castle to fill water jugs for drinking and other purposes,” Minor said. “So these are key short-term solutions, but we recognize they don’t address the root cause of the problem.”

A Pride flag hangs outside a home at Apple Tree Park near New Castle, Colorado on April 28, 2024. State officials are working with the company that owns the park to fix its water quality issues under a new state law that went into effect this year. (Eleanor Bennett / Aspen Public Radio)

To address the root cause, the state is proposing bigger engineering solutions like installing a filtration system, or even connecting Apple Tree to a municipal water supply. 

But Apple Tree is just one of about 750 mobile home parks in Colorado. The new legislation gives the state authority to test, but the full scope of just how bad water quality could be at those parks, and the costs to fix the various causes could easily begin to rise as testing ramps up.

There is additional funding available for park owners to make these system-wide changes, and if they don’t, the state could impose fines until the problem is fixed. 

“We are really trying to prioritize solutions that won’t increase rent for park residents by either looking at lower cost options or ways of getting outside funding that can ensure that some of those costs don’t get passed on to residents,” Minor said. “We know that passing along the cost could potentially make the equity challenges that are already at play worse if residents have to pay more for their water bills or their space rents.”

Alex Sanchez leads the Glenwood Springs-based Latine advocacy nonprofit Voces Unidas, which worked with Apple Tree residents and Democratic Colorado House Representative Elizabeth Velasco of Glenwood Springs to pass the water quality legislation. 

“We’re not opposed to getting state dollars and federal dollars to be able to support or incentivize some of these solutions,” Sanchez said. “But ultimately, we believe it’s the responsibility of those corporate owners who have been making a lot of profit off the backs of hardworking folks without having access to, you know, quality water, potentially sidewalks, infrastructure and other benefits that many of us take for granted.” 

Apple Tree Park resident Silvia Barragán fills up a bucket with the discolored water that comes out of her kitchen faucet on April 28, 2024. Barragán only wears black now because the water stains her clothes and laundry. (Eleanor Bennett / Aspen Public Radio)

For Sanchez and Voces Unidas, the new law is just the first step in addressing a widespread environmental justice issue — many people living in these communities have lower incomes, don’t speak English as a first language, don’t have access to resources to file complaints, and are Latines or other people of color. 

“The issue is not just contained to one or two parks. Something is happening in these mobile home park communities and because they’re not regulated, there’s not a lot of accountability,” Sanchez said. “Many of these communities across Colorado are owned by corporations that are from out of state.” 

In a recent statewide poll in Colorado, Voces Unidas found 41% of mobile home park residents surveyed did not trust or drink their water. 

Since 2020, the state’s health and environment department has received 66 formal water quality complaints from 42 parks. State officials estimate that it will take them four years to test the water at all of Colorado’s roughly 750 parks. 

For her part, Apple Tree Park resident Silvia Barragán is glad that her community is at the top of the state’s list.  

“When I bought this place, I thought I was gonna retire here,” Barragán said. “So I would be sad to think that I need to buy another place just because, you know, I haven’t seen any change.”

Barragán hopes the new legislation will speed things up, but she doesn’t know how much longer she can wait for clean water. 

This story was produced by Aspen Public Radio, in partnership with The Water Desk, an independent initiative of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism. 

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