A water tower with the words “Hugo” sits overlooking downtown on July 21, 2016. THC was discovered in the water prompting a city and federal investigation. (Michael Reaves, The Denver Post)

Colorado town finds THC in its drinking water, issues warning

Law enforcement authorities say there are signs of possible tampering with a Hugo water well

HUGO — This town on Colorado’s Eastern Plains warned its residents not to drink, bathe in or cook with its tap water on Thursday because officials said multiple preliminary tests of the water came back positive for THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana.

Residents were told not even to let their pets drink the water.

UPDATE: State tests find no THC in town’s water; health advisory canceled

There have been no reports of illnesses or any symptoms of impairment from drinking the water, officials said at a news conference Thursday evening. Deeper tests, which could be completed Friday, are needed to verify the presence of THC and to determine the level of contamination, if any.

“We are checking to make sure this isn’t because of the field test kit — that it isn’t a false positive,” said Capt. Michael Yowell of Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office.

But Yowell said there were enough troubling signs for officials to take quick action.

Concerns about the water were first raised by a Hugo company using quick “field tests” to check employees for THC, Yowell said. The simple tests are similar in function to home pregnancy tests in that they can return only two results: positive or negative.

Yowell said the company, which he did not identify, had been getting inconsistent results and decided to test a vial of tap water, expecting it to be negative. Instead, the test came back positive, and the company called authorities.

Yowell said Lincoln County officials conducted 10 other field tests, using two different types of test kits, on the town’s water and six came back positive. Authorities later isolated the positive results to a single well — well No. 1, about a mile south of Hugo’s small downtown. When sheriff’s deputies investigated, Yowell said, they found signs of forced entry at the well, though it is unclear when the damage may have occurred.

“I wouldn’t be doing my job for my community if we just wrote this off,” Yowell said.

The well has been sealed and secured, but he said it will take time for water to flush through the lines. Agents from the FBI and Colorado Bureau of Investigation are participating in the probe, Yowell said, and a representative from the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office was in Hugo on Thursday to support the investigation, as well.

Screening stations are being set up for worried residents, and water is being trucked in. The county’s public health department said the public should avoid the town’s water for at least the next 48 hours and report any effects to the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center.

Hugo Mayor Tom Lee says he was shocked by news of the possibly tainted water. He said there hasn’t been the kind of acrimonious debate over marijuana in Hugo that there has been in other Colorado communities.

“We’ll figure it out,” Lee said. “It just blew my mind.”

Hugo is a Lincoln County town of about 720 people that sits roughly 90 miles east of Colorado Springs and 15 miles southeast of Limon. There are no commercial marijuana operations in Lincoln County. The entire county has only 62 medical marijuana patients, according to the state Health Department.

Mark Salley, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said a state toxicologist is assessing what kind of health effects the potential contamination could have. Salley said — as with marijuana edibles or other products — the impacts would likely vary based on the amount of water consumed and the concentration.

But others cast doubt on the dangers of THC-contaminated water or whether it’s even possible to spike tap water with marijuana.

“It would take more product than any of us could afford to contaminate a city water supply to the extent that people would suffer any effects,” Dr. John Fox, Lincoln County’s health officer, said in a statement.

Peter Perrone, who owns Wheat Ridge cannabis testing facility Gobi Analytical, said cannabinoids such as THC or CBD “are in no way soluble in water.”

“There is zero possibility that there’s anything like THC in the Hugo water,” Perrone said.

“You know how oil and water separate? It’s the same with cannabinoids. They’re lipophilic, which means they’re fat-loving. They would never be soluble in water. In order for people to solubilize these cannabinoids in their drinks, for marijuana products like the Dixie Elixirs sold in dispensaries, it takes a lot of work. It takes so many steps to get a fat-soluble thing like a cannabinoid into something like a drink.”

Joseph Evans, a former EPA scientist who now serves as lab director at Denver-based marijuana testing lab Nordic Analytical, agreed.

“The one thing that bothers me about this story from a scientific perspective is that THC is so insoluble in water,” Evans said. “I can’t imagine, I can’t even fathom the idea that THC would be in water at any type of solubility to create any kind of health hazard.”

A spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency said the agency’s support had not been requested as of about 5 p.m.

Yowell said authorities in Hugo are aware that THC and water shouldn’t mix.

“But when you have a presumptive positive of THC in our water supply, we take that very seriously,” he said.

Regardless, Thursday’s announcement upended life in Hugo.

The town’s restaurant, Jean’s Family Kitchen, closed because it couldn’t use the water. The soda machines at the Loaf ‘N Jug fell silent.

The high school’s 6-man football team had to cancel its summer camp because players couldn’t shower afterward, said Jake McClendon, a fullback and linebacker on the team.

“I thought it was a joke at first,” he said.

Lucas Hohl, owner of Osborne’s Supermarket, said an influx of customers came in seeking bottled water.

Hohl likened the increase in traffic to the “mad rush of sales when a blizzard is coming in.”

He added: “We’re trying to reduce the panic as best we can. It sounds like the town is trying to get the situation under control.”

Colorado town finds THC in its water, warns residents not to drink or bathe in it
A Lincoln County well near Hugo is “being held” by the sheriff’s office until further tests can be completed, according to a tweet. (Provided by Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office)

Some, like 90-year-old Maye Gene Lee, a former mayor of the town, were angry at the possibility that saboteurs may have struck the town’s water supply.

“If I could have gotten my hands on them, I would have taken care of them myself,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to worry about that. And if it happens out here in Hugo, Colo., it can happen any place.”

Others, though, greeted the news with a sense of humor. Patsie Smith, another former mayor, said she received a reverse 911-type message shortly after 3 p.m. telling residents not to drink the water because there could be THC in it. She chuckled at the thought.

“I might have to go drink some water,” she joked.

Staff reporter Ricardo Baca contributed to this report.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com