Arkansas Valley Conduit: Chasing federal dough

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Proponents of water projects all over the western U.S. are chasing dough from the federal government. Southeastern Colorado is no different. Here’s a report about the Arkansas Valley Conduit from Chris Woodka writing for the Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:

A committee of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District working to make the conduit a reality met Thursday at Otero Junior College to discuss the $300 million project’s prospects and what would lie ahead…

A new proposal in Congress, included as part of a public lands bill, would use revenues from the Fry-Ark Project – primarily leases of excess capacity space at Lake Pueblo. Those revenues would repay a 65 percent federal match. The Senate has approved the bill, S22, but it has become entangled in controversy in the House.

Eastern Colorado: Say hello to drought

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From Colorado State University: “Federal and academic scientists across the country this week agreed that Colorado’s Front Range is in moderate drought, which means the next three months are pivotal going into the summer, said Nolan Doesken, Colorado State University state climatologist.

Doesken is a contributor to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which this week listed the Front Range as the area of Colorado suffering most, along with extreme southeastern Colorado, from lack of adequate precipitation. The drought monitor, through the National Drought Mitigation Center based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is a synthesis of multiple indices and impacts that represent a consensus of some 200 federal and academic scientists.”

World Water Day 2009: March 22nd

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World Water Day 2009: “In 2009, the focus of World Water Day on March 22 will be on transboundary waters: sharing water, sharing opportunities. UNECE and UNESCO are the lead UN agencies this year.”

Aspinall operations meeting

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From email from Reclamation (Dan Crabtree): “On Thursday, April 23rd Reclamation will be holding the April Aspinall Operations Coordination Meeting starting at 9:30 a.m. in the Grand Junction Western Colorado Area Office. In conjunction with the Operations meeting, the National Weather Service (NWS) will be hosting a water supply symposium that afternoon, tentatively to be held at the same location. The NWS is currently working on an agenda and further information will be forthcoming as it becomes available. Please mark your calendars. Contact Dan Crabtree with questions by replying to this email or call 970-248-0652.”

Energy policy — oil shale: Alberta tar sand production

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Here’s a look at the scale of the operation to develop Alberta’s tar sands, from Robert Kunzig writing for National Geographic. Click through and read the whole thing. Here is an excerpt:

Where the trapline and the cabin once were, and the forest, there is now a large open-pit mine. Here Syncrude, Canada’s largest oil producer, digs bitumen-laced sand from the ground with electric shovels five stories high, then washes the bitumen off the sand with hot water and sometimes caustic soda. Next to the mine, flames flare from the stacks of an “upgrader,” which cracks the tarry bitumen and converts it into Syncrude Sweet Blend, a synthetic crude that travels down a pipeline to refineries in Edmon ton, Alberta; Ontario, and the United States. Mildred Lake, meanwhile, is now dwarfed by its neighbor, the Mildred Lake Settling Basin, a four-square-mile lake of toxic mine tailings. The sand dike that contains it is by volume one of the largest dams in the world…

Nowhere on Earth is more earth being moved these days than in the Athabasca Valley. To extract each barrel of oil from a surface mine, the industry must first cut down the forest, then remove an average of two tons of peat and dirt that lie above the oil sands layer, then two tons of the sand itself. It must heat several barrels of water to strip the bitumen from the sand and upgrade it, and afterward it discharges contaminated water into tailings ponds like the one near Mildred Lake. They now cover around 50 square miles. Last April some 500 migrating ducks mistook one of those ponds, at a newer Syncrude mine north of Fort McKay, for a hospitable stopover, landed on its oily surface, and died. The incident stirred international attention—Greenpeace broke into the Syncrude facility and hoisted a banner of a skull over the pipe discharging tailings, along with a sign that read “World’s Dirtiest Oil: Stop the Tar Sands.”[…]

“Oil sands represent a decision point for North America and the world,” says Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, a moderate and widely respected Canadian environmental group. “Are we going to get serious about alternative energy, or are we going to go down the unconventional-oil track? The fact that we’re willing to move four tons of earth for a single barrel really shows that the world is running out of easy oil.”[…]

Without the [Athabasca River], there would be no oil sands industry. It’s the river that over tens of millions of years has eroded away billions of cubic yards of sediment that once covered the bitumen, thereby bringing it within reach of shovels—and in some places all the way to the surface. On a hot summer day along the Athabasca, near Fort McKay for example, bitumen oozes from the riverbank and casts an oily sheen on the water. Early fur traders reported seeing the stuff and watching natives use it to caulk their canoes. At room temperature, bitumen is like molasses, and below 50°F or so it is hard as a hockey puck, as Canadians invariably put it. Once upon a time, though, it was light crude, the same liquid that oil companies have been pumping from deep traps in southern Alberta for nearly a century. Tens of millions of years ago, geologists think, a large volume of that oil was pushed northeastward, perhaps by the rise of the Rocky Mountains. In the process it also migrated upward, along sloping layers of sediment, until eventually it reached depths shallow and cool enough for bacteria to thrive. Those bacteria degraded the oil to bitumen…

And every day in the Athabasca Valley, more than a million tons of sand emerges from such crushers and is mixed with more than 200,000 tons of water that must be heated, typically to 175°F, to wash out the gluey bitumen. At the upgraders, the bitumen gets heated again, to about 900°F, and compressed to more than 100 atmospheres—that’s what it takes to crack the complex molecules and either subtract carbon or add back the hydrogen the bacteria removed ages ago. That’s what it takes to make the light hydrocarbons we need to fill our gas tanks. It takes a stupendous amount of energy. In situ extraction, which is the only way to get at around 80 percent of those 173 billion barrels, can use up to twice as much energy as mining, because it requires so much steam.

Most of the energy to heat the water or make steam comes from burning natural gas, which also supplies the hydrogen for upgrading. Precisely because it is hydrogen rich and mostly free of impurities, natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel, the one that puts the least amount of carbon and other pollutants into the atmosphere. Critics thus say the oil sands industry is wasting the cleanest fuel to make the dirtiest—that it turns gold into lead. The argument makes environmental but not economic sense, says David Keith, a physicist and energy expert at the University of Calgary. Each barrel of synthetic crude contains about five times more energy than the natural gas used to make it, and in much more valuable liquid form.

McEachern, who works for Alberta Environment, a provincial agency, says the tailings ponds are his top concern. The mines dump waste water in the ponds, he explains, because they are not allowed to dump waste into the Athabasca, and because they need to reuse the water. As the thick, brown slurry gushes from the discharge pipes, the sand quickly settles out, building the dike that retains the pond; the residual bitumen floats to the top. The fine clay and silt particles, though, take several years to settle, and when they do, they produce a yogurt-like goop—the technical term is “mature fine tailings”—that is contaminated with toxic chemicals such as naphthenic acid and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and would take centuries to dry out on its own. Under the terms of their licenses, the mines are required to reclaim it somehow, but they have been missing their deadlines and still have not fully reclaimed a single pond.

More Coyote Gulch coverage here and here.

Science: The ultimate remix

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From the P2P Foundation: “[David Bollier:] ‘Director Jesse Dylan – the director of the Emmy- award winning Yes We Can Barack Obama campaign video – has teamed up with Science Commons to produce a short video explaining why science is the ultimate remix. It’s a great primer on the special challenges facing scientists in sharing and collaborating, and it’s licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.'”

How much water is there left to develop in the Gunnison Basin?

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Here’s a look at the uses for any undeveloped water on the west slope, from Will Shoemaker writing for the Gunnison Country Times. Click through and read the whole thing. Here are a few excerpts:

Blue Mesa Reservoir has long been under the eye of Front Range developers for its water, but in the last year the state has joined the chase. The Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is continuing to pursue a possible water deal with the federal Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) for about a quarter of the water in the reservoir at full capacity.”[…]

The potential contract — for 200,000 acre feet of water a year — came under the local spotlight last May, when the Gunnison County Commissioners’ became aware of the state’s interest by chance.

To date, few answers have been provided about the state’s intent with the water — which DNR leaders say has yet to be determined.

Local water managers aren’t pleased that the DNR has yet to venture to the Gunnison Valley to present its plans, hopes or intentions with the water — especially considering the concept has been presented publicly twice in the last few weeks, at the Colorado Water Congress annual convention in Denver and most recently in Grand Junction.”

Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for the Colorado River District, said the district has “serious” concerns about whether such a contract is needed. He said the district is worried about the precedent this might set for other states “going after” water from CRSPA reservoirs.

But [Alexandra Davis, assistant director with the Department of Natural Resources] says that’s already happening. “The other Upper Basin states are working hard to ensure that they develop everything that they’re entitled to,” she said, noting, for one, a pipeline planned from Lake Powell [to the St. George area], being built by the state of Utah.

More Coyote Gulch coverage here, here and here.

Dolores Water Conservancy: 16th annual Children’s Water and Agriculture Festival

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Here’s a recap of the 16th annual Children’s Water and Agriculture Festival, from Kristen Plank writing for the Cortez Journal. From the article:

The “water and agriculture” theme swept in students from elementary schools ranging from Blanding, Utah, to Dove Creek for the annual event, organized by the Dolores Water Conservancy District…

Students scampered from one hands-on station to the next with their teachers in tow. Pam Coppinger’s fifth-grade Mancos Elementary School class were eager to share their newfound water knowledge. “We’re learning about how much water we use and where we get water from,” said Jessica Gutierrez, 11. The big topics didn’t deter any of the students. Classmate Anna Cox, also 11, said she learned how water rights work in the area…

Presenter Gabi Morey with the San Juan Mountains Association took a different approach to water education by having the students in her group become water molecules. Each student took a journey through the water cycle. “It’s called ‘The Incredible Journey’ and it offers a different perspective for the students,” Morey said as students bounced from one portion of the room to the other. “People think of the water cycle as cyclical but it’s not.” She said molecules can get stuck in glaciers for thousands of years and stay there instead of moving on to another phase in the cycle.

Chalk Creek cleanup

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Here’s an update on the cleanup efforts on Chalk Creek and Pomeroy Gulch, from Susan Shampine writing for the Chaffee County Times. From the article:

The U.S. Forest Service held a public meeting Feb. 24 to explain their plans to reduce heavy metal contamination of Chalk Creek and Pomeroy Gulch in the Chalk Creek Mining District. About 25 members of the public and another 10 – 15 government employees and contractors attended the meeting held at the Sangre De Cristo Electric Association Headquarters. Cleanup of nine abandoned mining land sites (AML’s) near St. Elmo is scheduled to begin in June.

Most of the work to be accomplished this summer involves moving dirt – taking waste rock and burying it in lined holes, capping the filled holes with clean topsoil, then revegetating the disturbed areas. Other work will redirect surface water flows around tailing piles so it does not pick up further metals before reaching Chalk Creek and Pomeroy Gulch. Lastly, in some areas, where the tailing piles are very steep and the terrain difficult to work on, berms will be constructed below the base of the waste rock piles to reduce the movement of tailings…

The plan addresses nine abandoned mining sites, all within five miles of the former mining town of St. Elmo. The sites include the Stonewall Mine, Flora Bell Mine, Mary Murphy Mine, Chalk Creek Shaft, Chalk Creek North, St. Elmo Queen, Gold Dust, Lady Murphy, & Iron City Mill Tailings. All of the work will occur at these sites at elevations ranging from 10,000 to 11,400 feet.

One of the primary objectives of the work to be completed this summer is to reduce human and animal contact with metals contained in the waste rock at the mine sites. Other objectives include reducing leaching of metals from the waste piles into the groundwater and surface water, reducing or eliminating mine discharges into Chalk Creek and Pomeroy Gulch, reducing safety hazards at the mines, and meeting current laws and policies protecting the environment.

The plan identifies three phases of work. Phase one will be accomplished this summer as long as the funding lasts. According to John Neubert, Abandoned Mined Lands Coordinator for the Pike & San Isabel National Forests, Cimarron & Comanche National Grasslands, “I requested funding for this project several years ago, but higher priorities took precedence. This year we were fortunate to get about $500,000 to begin this project.” Phase One primarily addresses waste piles on Forest Service managed lands. Phase Two will address sites that have joint land ownership among the Forest Service, other government agencies and private citizens. This will require assistance from other sources. The third phase will concentrate on land in private ownership and will be managed by the State of Colorado…

For those wanting more information on the work scheduled for this summer, the EE/CA will be available to the public at the libraries. Further information can also be obtained by contacting the Salida Ranger District, 539-3591.

Invasive mussel workshop in Lake County

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From The Mountain Mail: “Lake County Open Space Initiative will host an aquatic health workshop at the National Mining Museum at 6:30 p.m. March 12 in Leadville. Focus will be on discovery of Zebra and Quagga mussels in Colorado and what’s being done to halt spread of the destructive species into water in Lake County. Keynote speaker will be Elizabeth Brown, invasive species division of wildlife coordinator. Brown will provide the history and life cycles of Zebra and Quagga mussels.”

More Coyote Gulch coverage here and here.

Snowpack news

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From the Vail Daily (Scott Condon): “The statewide average snowpack has shrunk from 20 percent above average on Jan. 1 to 17 percent above average on Feb. 1 to just 8 percent above average on March 1, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service…The loss in snowpack wasn’t so drastic in the Roaring Fork River Basin over the last month. For the basin as a whole, which includes the Fryingpan and Crystal River valleys, the snowpack was 22 percent above average Tuesday. The conservation service’s data showed the snowpack was 29 percent above average east of Aspen, near Grizzly Reservoir. It was 38 percent above average at North Lost Trail, near Marble. Statewide, this winter isn’t nearly as ferocious as last winter. The statewide snowpack is only 80 percent of what it was in 2007-’08, according to the conservation service.”

From the Greeley Tribune:

The state’s mountain snowpack took another hit in February and is now 20 percent below where it was a year ago, but remains 8 percent above the long-term average. The South Platte River is the only basin that is below the long-term average, said officials with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service…The good news is that latest statistics on reservoir storage shows slightly above average storage across the state. Only the Rio Grande basin is reporting storage volumes significantly below average, while near average storage is reported across most of the remainder of the state. The South Platte is 1 percent above the long-term average and 11 percent higher than March 1 of last year. Decreases in the percent of average snowpack were measured in all of Colorado’s major river basins in February, ranging from a 3 percentage point decrease in the North Platte basin, to a decrease of 16 percentage points in the Rio Grande basin. Southern Colorado reported some of the greatest decreases in snowpack percents of average including the Arkansas basin which decreased by 14 percentage points from last month.

From the Fort Morgan Times:

[Snow Survey Supervisor Mike Gillespie] said the amount of precipitation that falls in March, April and May often determines the moisture levels for the entire growing season. Since little moisture is expected to fall during these crucial spring months, Gillespie said, it is likely that snowpack levels will drop even further in the coming weeks and months. “We’re really dependent on spring moisture in this part of the state for a good runoff from that snowpack,” he said. “If we don’t see a wet spring, we’re typically looking at runoff that’s pretty mediocre.”

Morgan County Extension Agent Marlin Eisenach said that without precipitation this spring, the overly dry topsoil and sub soil in Morgan County will likely hurt both dryland and irrigated crop farmers. He said it would take about 12 inches of moist snow or one inch of rain to raise topsoil moisture content to an acceptable level, and even more to improve subsoil moisture.

General Mining Act of 1872: Modernization needed

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On February 16th Gunnison County commissioner Jim Starr traveled testified before a congressional committee on the proposed changes to the General Mining Act of 1872. Here’s a report from Seth Mensing writing for the Crested Butte News. From the article:

During the hearing, Starr told the subcommittee that although “hardrock minerals are valuable natural resources that should be extracted and put to beneficial use,” the law that permits their removal from federal land is “antiquated” and needs revision.

He also said the mechanism that allows for mineral extraction “is not the appropriate mechanism and any new mechanism needs to have sufficient protections from exploration and operations in ‘special areas.’”

Starr said this week, “I focused a fair amount on keeping the water quality and quantity as high as we can, especially given the prospect of global warming,” said Starr.

“We have long recognized that significant natural resources, such as our natural parks, must not be open for location and entry. Before it is too late, it is imperative that we now also recognize the local and national importance of protecting our municipal watersheds,” he told the subcommittee.

More Coyote Gulch coverage here.

Sustainable landscape conference

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From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (David Young): “The eighth annual Colorado State University Extension Sustainable Landscaping Conference takes place Saturday at the Boulder County fairgrounds in Longmont, signifying a growing demand for landscapers who are able to integrate cost-saving measures that benefit the environment with sustainable plants and grasses.”