Water quality in Colorado mobile home parks a problem for decades

Karla Garcia remembers the first time her son came rushing in to tell her about the water.

After moving two years ago to Apple Tree Park, a mobile home community tucked beside the Colorado River in New Castle, Garcia and her two kids quickly noticed the rust-colored water flowing through her taps.

The water, she said, stains her clothes, her shower and her drinking glasses. Sometimes it smells like eggs.

As a result, the 37-year-old single mother is forced every month to buy gallons of water for cooking and drinking. Meanwhile, her children say the water quality makes them want to move back to Mexico.

“I don’t know how to explain to my kiddos how we’re living in the most powerful country in the world and we have to shower with this brown water,” Garcia said.

Her family, though, is hardly alone.

Mobile home park residents across Colorado — and the rest of the nation — have consistently ranked water quality issues as one of the enduring problems in America’s last bastion of unsubsidized affordable housing. Residents say it’s been known for decades — the discolored, odorous water that pours from their taps.

These concerns have prompted Colorado lawmakers to bring a bill this session that would establish for the first time a statewide water quality testing program across the more than 700 mobile home parks that dot the Centennial State.

HB23-1257, dubbed the Mobile Home Park Water Quality bill, would also create a grant program to help park owners and local governments address water quality issues and task regulators with developing an action plan to improve water quality.

“It’s really not acceptable,” said Rep. Elizabeth Velasco, D-Garfield County, one of the bill’s sponsors, who grew up in mobile home parks in Colorado’s high country. “We know this is happening in low-income communities where people of color live — not in prominent, wealthy areas. This is an environmental justice issue.”

The legislation marks the fifth year in a row that Colorado lawmakers have introduced bills aimed at boosting protections for the state’s tens of thousands of mobile home park residents.

Since 2019, Colorado has created an oversight program to manage complaints, registrations and enforcement over mobile home parks and mediate disputes. Lawmakers have also passed numerous bills aimed at beefing up tenant rights and paving the way for more resident-owned cooperatives to purchase their parks.

Still, water issues have consistently ranked as one of residents’ core concerns, leading many to eschew tap water altogether.

“These are chronic, longstanding issues,” said Alex Sánchez, president and CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas, a Latino-led advocacy organization.

“Water quality is a huge concern”

The bill — co-sponsored by Reps. Andrew Boesenecker, D-Fort Collins, and Sen. Lisa Cutter, D-Jefferson County — would task the Water Quality Control Division within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment with developing a program to test the quality of finished water at all mobile home parks in the state by 2028.

If testing reveals a water quality issue, the state would mandate park owners submit a remediation plan and provide an alternative water supply or adequate filters — without passing on the costs to residents.

The language currently in the bill says park owners who fail to develop or implement the remediation plan could be forced to forfeit their park — though bill sponsors said that will likely be amended as the legislation works its way through various committees.

“This has been a piece of the puzzle we’ve been trying to work on for years,” Boesenecker said. “The more we talk to residents, water quality is a huge concern.”

The state’s public health department already regulates the water at many mobile home parks. The agency doesn’t, however, oversee water for a small number of parks that service fewer than 25 people or 15 taps. The parks’ owners are also responsible for repairing and maintaining the pipes that deliver water to mobile homes.

The bill, importantly, also addresses concerns that go beyond federally mandated testing for contaminants, including the water’s color, odor and taste.

Dignora Sanchez has been drinking bottled water for as long as she can remember.

The 35-year-old grew up in Boulder’s Orchard Grove Mobile Home Park and 20 years later is raising her 12-year-old son there.

Sanchez said she spends $100 a month on water because the tap produces a stream that looks like apple juice and doesn’t feel safe to cook with or drink. Her son has eczema — and she wonders whether the water has anything to do with it.

“I would like to invite whoever has a doubt to come live a day without drinking water, just to see the struggle of not having healthy, drinkable water,” she said.

State health officials told Apple Tree residents last year that the water is discolored due to high iron content, but that it isn’t necessarily an enforceable health-safety concern.

While primary water contaminants — such as cancer-causing chemicals — are enforceable, many naturally-occurring minerals that cause taste and odor issues, such as iron and manganese, are not regulated.

That lack of trust in water quality is enough to be a problem, Boesnecker said.

“Even if it meets water safety standards, would you want to drink that and would you want to bathe in that?” he said.

Greg Pierce, director of the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab at the University of California Los Angeles, said he’s never seen a bill like Colorado’s that specifically deals with the intersection of mobile home parks and water systems.

“You rarely see bills that really try and do anything about trust (in water quality),” he said.

An organization representing park owners, though, says they don’t feel this piece of legislation is necessary.

“We weren’t made aware of the water quality in parks being as bad as the bill would lead us to think,” said Tawny Peyton, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Home Association.

Persistent lack of trust

Water issues are some of the most common complaints from Colorado’s mobile home park residents.

The state tallied approximately 29 alleged violations in its most recent Mobile Home Park Oversight Program annual report related to landlords’ responsibility to maintain park-owned water, sewer and utility lines. Its first annual report a year prior also listed water as a top complaint.

Residents across the state have faced frequent, and sometimes prolonged, water outages.

Those living in Summit County’s Farmers Korner Mobile Home Park this winter went 52 days without reliable running water, prompting state regulators and the attorney general to seek relief through the courts.

The state again went to court after the owner of a Durango mobile home park failed for two weeks to provide adequate water to residents during an outage.

Since HB22-1287 went into effect Oct. 1 — beefing up the state’s enforcement mechanisms — the Mobile Home Park Oversight Program has issued three cease-and-desist orders related to landlords’ responsibilities to provide water to homeowners, according to state data. The attorney general filed court complaints on behalf of the state to enforce two of those three cases.

But the Mobile Home Park Act does not currently contain any direct language that regulates water quality in parks.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has taken escalated enforcement action against one mobile home park this year — and issued four enforcement orders since 2022 — for water-quality-related concerns, state data shows.

In the 2023 case, regulators said the owner of the Durango Junction Creek Mobile Home Park “failed to provide adequate filtration and disinfection of a surface water source.” The state levied Impact Communities a $200 fine. (The owner of that company, Dave Reynolds, also operates Mobile Home University, a course for investors that teaches owners to remove amenities and hike rents repeatedly because mobile home tenants likely won’t leave).

Last year, the state found the Elephant Rock Mobile Home Park in Colorado Springs repeatedly had radium levels in its water above maximum allowable standards. Some people who consume radium over many years have elevated chances of developing cancer. The park owner did not comply with state orders for nearly two years, records show, leading regulators to levy a $65,000 penalty.

For residents, years of persistent problems add up.

Ninety-five percent of mobile home park respondents to a Clean Water for All Colorado survey said they don’t trust the tap water in their homes. Nearly three-quarters said they don’t drink their tap water and almost half don’t cook with it.

As a result, 53% of respondents, nearly all of whom are considered low-wage earners, said they spend more than $50 per month on bottled water.

“Residents have been voicing this concern for many decades and they have not been heard,” said Alex Sánchez of Voces Unidas de las Montañas.

A nationwide problem

The issue of safe drinking water at mobile home parks, though, is hardly Colorado-specific.

In 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency found levels of arsenic in a California park’s water as high as almost 10 times the allowable limit. The feds were forced to step in the following year at another mobile home park in California after drinking water was contaminated with fecal matter and disease-causing organisms.

A multiyear investigation by the EPA and Pennsylvania environmental regulators in 2012 found more than 4,300 Clean Water Act violations at 15 mobile home parks in the state and more than 900 Safe Drinking Water Act violations across 30 parks.

Pierce found in a 2017 study that California mobile home parks had more frequent water quality violations compared to other water systems. Mobile home park residents were also four times more likely to have water cut off than those served by other systems.

“This is a systemic issue,” said Esther Sullivan, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Denver who has spent years researching mobile home parks across the country. “It’s not one or two communities — it’s an issue across an entire housing type.”

It’s not all nefarious behavior on the part of park owners, Sullivan said. Many American mobile home parks were built in the 1970s and ’80s — meaning their infrastructure is crumbling.

Some parks also utilize what engineers call “small water systems,” which service only a handful of homes, as opposed to larger, citywide piping networks. Even the EPA acknowledges that these systems face “unique financial and operational challenges in providing drinking water that meets EPA standards.”

But the enticing business model that has led to private equity giants and national real estate companies gobbling up mobile home parks is also part of the equation, Sullivan said.

“The biggest draw in investing — whether it’s private equity or a person — is the passive income generation,” she said. “You’re not actively investing in the maintenance of the park.”

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