At approximately noon on the surprisingly sunny Friday of second week, I was standing on a sandbar in the middle of the Arkansas River, holding a pH meter and test tubes in my hands. It should be noted that I was also in my underwear.
Two of my classmates were standing next to me, equally undressed, scooping up vials of cloudy river water. We stood in a line facing the nearby highway overpass, shivering. There were cars slowing down to watch us. Clumps of algae were adhering to our legs and the river was moving fast, but we dug our toes into the sand and stayed put. We were here to test sewage.
Fountain Creek, which flows into the Arkansas only slightly upstream from where we were standing, is notorious for its poor water quality and tell-tale smell. Its headwaters are in Green Mountain Falls, a small town between Manitou Springs, Colo. and Woodland Park, Colo.. On its journey to the Arkansas, however, it joins with Monument Creek, an urban waterway polluted by thousands of Colorado Springs residents. Flooding, urban runoff, and even bird droppings all contribute to the contamination, but sewage effluent is one of the biggest concerns.
On a given day, municipal sewage facilities in Colorado Springs process over 37 million gallons of wastewater. Following treatment, that water is discharged into Fountain Creek. In the past, sewage effluent from the city of Colorado Springs has contributed to nearly half of Fountain Creek’s annual flow, and the downtown Las Vegas Wastewater Treatment Facility has been implicated in elevated concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous in the water. Eighteen releases of raw sewage into Fountain Creek occured between 2006 and 2010, and Colorado Springs has been forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to Pueblo in reparation for these and other accidental releases.
In short, Fountain Creek is polluted, and, prompted by a Biostatistics class project, we visited to test water quality below several sewage plants in the area. We felt properly professional and scientific donning waders and assembling our equipment in Pueblo’s version of neighborhoods — a strange combination of fenced industrial wasteland, hobby farms, and carefully sculpted front yard gardens — but that faded as soon as the waders started leaking. Or even before, when we realized that the Arkansas River in spring is no Monument Creek, and we had to wade across — with pH meters and backpacks balanced on our heads— the fast-moving, very brown river to our test site.
It was a long day. At our second test site, a mile and a half upstream from the Pueblo Sewer Treatment Plant, we bushwacked through thick bushes and past piles of old clothing that suggested they were the previous sites of homeless camps. We ditched the sodden waders and slipped into the river in our underwear. The pretense of any sort of professionalism had long since been left in the muddy waters of the Arkansas, but we were hanging onto a single-minded purpose: we must get our data.
In the later afternoon, we were whistled at as we spread out nitrate and phosphate tests across stone picnic tables at a riverside park, the off-putting meows of a peacock — yes, peacocks make a sound like a cat meowing, and yes, there are people in Pueblo who own peacocks — in the background. We crept past an imposing several-story-high cross in an empty field next to the highway, scooped water samples from the industrial side of the creek as people played with their dogs and someone on a horse trotted along the other side of the creek. At one point, an enormous fish flailed between our legs and then disappeared into the murk, and we jumped at the brushings of plants and algae for the rest of the day.
Toward evening we were back in Colorado Springs, wading across Fountain Creek for our second-to-last samples. We didn’t see the red tent tucked into the trees on the other side, but the man in it saw us and yelled “Get out!” over the sound of trucks and water.
We got out. But we still wanted our samples — we hadn’t come this far to be scared away by a single tent — so we walked slightly upstream and found ourselves in the middle of a homeless camp.
By 7 p.m. that evening, we were finally finished, bags of tightly capped and meticulously labeled test tubes in our backpacks, muddy shoes and waders discarded in the back of the car. We were wet, sunburned, and exhausted, but at least we had our data.