EDWARDS, Colo. — When Elizabeth Velasco first moved to Colorado from San Francisco del Rincón, Mexico, she was a teenager living in a series of aging mobile home parks in Eagle County — very near the tony ski resorts of Vail and Beaver Creek, but also very far removed.
As a 15-year-old, Velasco says she was definitely aware of water-quality issues that have plagued mobile home parks in the mountains for decades. But as a 34-year-old political newcomer working to unseat an incumbent Republican last year, Velasco became acutely focused on “secondary” water-quality issues such as odor, taste and high mineral content.
“Here in New Castle, in Garfield County, we have a mobile home park with bright red water that stains people’s clothes, makes their kids sick, and breaks their appliances,” Velasco says of her current hometown. “Right now, we are following the (U.S. Environmental Protect Agency) regulations that say that all these things are secondary — odor taste, color. But our families, these are working families, people of color, who are being affected. This is not happening in Cordillera and Beaver Creek,” two high-end resort communities.
So last month, Velasco, now a Democratic representative in the Colorado Legislature, joined fellow Democrats Rep. Andrew Boesenecker of Larimer County and Sen. Lisa Cutter of Jefferson County to introduce the Mobile Home Park Water Quality bill to improve testing and remediation of secondary issues that typically are not regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
“So, this bill really starts looking at those secondary issues to make sure that we are addressing those as well, because it’s part of public safety, public health, public access to a dignified living situation,” Velasco said. “In this state we have over 800 mobile home parks, and just in HD57, in my district, we have 300 mobile home parks.”
The recently redrawn House District 57 includes Garfield and Pitkin counties and the Roaring Fork Valley area of Eagle County, with some of the highest housing costs in the state surrounding the mountain resort towns of Glenwood Springs and Aspen. Mobile home parks are a vital source of relatively affordable housing for working families, many of whom identify as Hispanic or Latino.
Velasco’s bill — House Bill 23-1257 — would create a new statewide water testing program by 2028 to include every mobile home park in the state, even small ones on well systems that aren’t connected to major water utilities. Communicated in both English and Spanish, the program would set up a complaint and interview network, study a remediation plan if necessary, and provide grants to park owners and local jurisdictions to fix issues without passing on the costs to residents.
Smell, taste and color
The first mobile home park Velasco lived in when she moved to Colorado — the massive Eagle River Village Mobile Home Park in Edwards — has for decades relied on a well system notorious for drinking water that “tastes, looks and smells bad,” as reported by the Vail Daily in 2019.
When a deal with Eagle County to connect the park and its nearly 3,000 residents to the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District system fell apart after the owner pulled out due to costs, local and state officials began to study ways to better regulate water quality at mobile home parks. The out-of-state owner staunchly defended its well water as meeting minimum federal standards.
Asked if conditions have improved at the sprawling Edwards park in recent years, Melina Valsecia, executive director of the Eagle Valley Community Foundation, said many of the park’s residents still feel compelled to purchase expensive bottled water for drinking and cooking.
“No, it’s all the same,” Valsecia said. “As soon as everything was stopped, nobody did anything after the (park owner) didn’t want to pay. I run the community market there now, so we are looking at a program to have a water dispenser so people can come and pick up water so they don’t have to buy it. Everything remains kind of the same there.”
Josh Kuhn, senior water campaign manager for Conservation Colorado — which backs Velasco’s bill — said the legislation does have some teeth as far as bridging the regulatory gap between minimum federal standards and addressing secondary issues such as smell, taste and color.
“While the bill doesn’t require remediation for secondary standards, which often have the poor characteristics you described, it allows for testing of them to better understand the scope and scale of the problem,” Kuhn wrote in an email. “Currently, there’s no testing regime for most parks, and the bill requires (the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) to test all parks in the state, including interviews with residents to better understand the problems and then testing accordingly.”
If that testing finds issues that can be remediated, there are subsequent steps that can be taken.
“After the testing, a mobile home park can then leverage the funds in the newly created Mobile Home Parks Water Quality Fund, among other sources, to address the problem,” Kuhn added. “CDPHE’s environmental justice ombudsman is required to provide assistance to residents to understand the results and pathway to remediation.”
The CDPHE does not have an official position on the bill but did provide technical assistance to the bill’s sponsors and proponents.
1 in 5 Latino households is a mobile home
Many of the state’s estimated 800 mobile home parks already get their water from a separate regulated public water system and therefore are not considered to be their own regulated system. But some parks with their own wells and small-scale water systems are considered by the state to meet the definition of a public water system, which requires regular testing for more than 90 contaminants such as bacteria, lead, arsenic and disinfection byproducts.
“The department requires testing from the regulated public water systems,” CDPHE Water Quality Control Division spokesperson Kaitlyn Beekman wrote in an email. “They are required to have a Certified Operator in Responsible Charge who either takes the samples themselves or delegates this responsibility to someone else at the system. The samples must then be tested at certified laboratories and the results must be reported to the department.”
That’s been the case for years at the Eagle River Village park in Edwards, which has a larger population than several small towns in Eagle County, and where residents for decades have complained of low water quality.
“Although this robust testing regime is already in place, the (new) bill focuses on a broader range of water quality issues that can lead to aesthetic issues with water, and will also involve testing at a very small number of mobile home parks not covered by the Safe Drinking Water Act, i.e. with less than 25 people or 15 taps,” Beekman added.
At a hearing before the House Transportation, Housing & Local Government Committee on Wednesday, HB-1257 was referred to the House Finance Committee. Opposed by some in the home building industry, the bill is backed by a collation of 15 organizations that recently launched Clean Water For All Colorado. One of those groups is Protégete.
“Where someone lives shouldn’t determine whether they have access to clean, safe water. This is often not the case for residents of mobile home parks across the state. Our coalition’s goal is to address this inequity,” Protégete Director Beatriz Soto said in a release. “From Protégete’s research through the Colorado Climate Justice Policy Handbook, we know that 1 in 5 Latino households is a mobile home, and the majority of water violations in the state are in counties where there are higher Latino populations.”
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