Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar’s upcoming resignation and the political climate in Washington could have consequences for the Arkansas Valley Conduit. “We need to double our effort at Interior to secure funding for the conduit,” lobbyist Christine Arbogast told the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District Thursday.
Salazar, who battled for the conduit when he served in the U.S. Senate, understood the project, which is being studied by the Bureau of Reclamation, which is part of Interior, she said. “If funding slips, the schedule slips and the costs go up,” she said.
The environmental impact study for the $500 million conduit should be complete before the end of this year. Reclamation will decide the best route for the pipeline which would supply water to 50,000 people in 40 communities east of Pueblo. While funding for the study has remained in place through shaky fiscal times in Washington, the funding for the conduit itself never has been guaranteed. If everything stays in place, the conduit could be built by 2022. That implies annual appropriations would be made by Congress.
“Water resources are not a priority with this Congress,” Arbogast said. “Water is a back-burner issue. It has a low profile and a low priority.”
The conduit was part of the 1962 Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, but was not built because of the expense. A 2009 bill passed by Congress provided funding through excess-capacity contract revenues to repay the costs of building the conduit.
More Arkansas Valley Conduit coverage here and here.
The forests in the hills west of Trinidad are filled with green pipes, industrial structures and constant signs that warn outsiders against both trespassing and smoking.
This is natural gas country. It’s also cattle country, fish country, elk country and home to rugged individualists who see the water produced by coalbed methane operations as a godsend rather than a threat. “It’s been a blessing,” says Karen Salapich, a rancher who has organized her neighbors to push back against oil and gas regulations that could require companies to reinject all water produced by drilling into deep aquifers where it might never be used. Dozen of others agreed during a daylong tour of places tucked into the hills west of Trinidad. These people acknowledge that some of the water coming out of the ground may be awful, but say a lot of it is not — particularly in their area.
They are asking state regulators not to waste water that could otherwise be used. “We’ve has a problem with drought and the county has lost a third or more of its livestock. If we didn’t have the CBM water, there wouldn’t be any. People couldn’t continue,” Mrs. Salapich said. CBM stands for coalbed methane…
Past practices by some companies in nearby Huerfano County have caused problems for
landowners who say produced water of poor quality ruined cropland. But in Las Animas County, many have conducted their own tests of water and found it to be of sufficient quality to support wildlife and livestock. They have photographed herds of elk and other animals drawn to CBM water holding ponds.
Todd Huffman is even using it to raise fish.
“It’s like a wildlife park,” Huffman says of Mitotes Lake, which he owns. “People come out here thinking they’ll see a nuclear waste dump, but look at it. It’s beautiful. . . . Take away the water and it’s gone.”
Gary and Karen Salapich lease their property near Gulnare for gas wells, but unlike some of their neighbors, have no water discharges on their property. It’s been so dry, they wish they did.
They first found out about CBM when a line carrying water broke on their property about five years ago and accidentally irrigated one of their hay fields. “The state wanted to know what the damage was,” Mrs. Salapich said. “Damage? That was the only area that grew,” her husband added.
Salapich is a native — his father was the postmaster at the dwindling town of Gulnare — and said methane has always been a problem with wells. While driving, he pointed out an old openpit coal mine above a spring. “That water goes right through a coal seam, so it’s the same as CBM. In my own well, I hit water at 500 feet, but went through a coal seam to go down to 600 feet. You always find gas, but that’s why you vent your well house, to let it escape,” Salapich said. “My well has been here forever.”
He believes the area’s climate has become drier in the past decade and that CBM water is the only way some of his neighbors have been able to continue to ranch.
The Salapiches say not all of the water coming up is of good quality, but believe requiring the energy companies to deepinject all of it would be a waste. They have organized neighbors and attended state rulemaking hearings on the use of water. At issue now is how water quality, as determined by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, will affect its use.
In the Purgatoire River basin to the south, the water from hundreds of gas wells flows freely into the watershed through pipes at many points. It’s turned dry creeks into streams and created wetlands. The Norwest Corp., consultants for the energy companies are monitoring streams for water flow patterns and water quality impacts throughout the Raton Basin.
In the Apishipa River basin, where drilling came later, more water is kept in open ponds, where it is supposed to evaporate. Those ponds have become vital to wildlife and livestock, however.
More recent state regulations require the ponds to be lined, so they have to be fenced because animals slip on the slick materials used to line ponds.
“We don’t want to see the water taken out,” Mrs. Salapich said. “It has good qualities.”
Even without wildlife, Mitotes Lake is a beautiful sight on a chilly winter day. On most days, it’s teeming with critters. Todd Huffman, a Trinidad taxidermist, bought the lake and surrounding land — including the mineral rights — from the state in the early 1980s. The lake, actually a fairly large pond, is fed by flood water in the drainage, and more recently coal bed methane water releases. “There have been years when it was really low,” Huffman said. “One year I lost all my fish.”
The lake level has stabilized, even during the drought, because of the water released from coal bed methane wells. And it has improved the environmental conditions. Water quality is important to him because he raises koi in a greenhouse near the lake. The water coming out of his wells is warm and sometimes he has to add salt to it to kill the algae.
He spends thousands of dollars each year to test the quality. “That water’s a godsend to me,” Huffman said. During the drought, Mitotes Lake has been an oasis for wildlife. “I have a photo with about 200 elk, two bears, turkeys . . . It’s like Noah’s Ark dumped off on the place,” Huffman said. “If they were dumping water that was nasty, everybody would be complaining.”
Ranchers west of Trinidad say the flow water from gas drilling has allowed them to stay in business during the recent drought. “It is so valuable to us,” said Bill Brunelli, who ranches in the Apishipa River drainage area and works for the Huerfano County road and bridge department. “The wells are getting weaker and weaker, and the produced water has helped a lot of people out.”
Where there are holding ponds for coal bed methane water, ranchers don’t have to haul water for cattle, he explained. “If this water goes away, 100 head of my cows are going away,” said Gary Mestas, a rancher who often hauls water to his grazing cattle, but feeds some near mined water releases.
Many ranchers were forced to sell off their herds following the 2002 drought, but have been able to hang on to at least some cattle through the drought of the last two years. “We don’t irrigate with the water, but we have a discharge on the property,” said Brent Tamburelli, who ranches with his wife Tami near Cokedale in the Purgatoire River basin. “Up until the 1980s we always had runoff because of the snowpack, but the weather has changed.”
The Tamburellis, who also have a gravel business, have cut their herd to about one-fifth of the size it once was. But without any water in the recent drought, they’ve managed to keep some breeding stock. He said his greatgrandfather once rand 1,000 head of goats on the ground. The stream cutting through the property would be completely dry without the coal bed methane water, he said. “Any use for it would be better than pumping it back into the ground,” Tamburelli said.
Fred Eichler started his career as a guide, then “lucked into” writing for hunting magazines and hosting television programs for hunters. Eichler and his wife, Michele, host several shows for the Sportsman Channel as well as hunters in the hills near Aguilar. They’ve stalked game all over the world.
Without water, they would be forced to go global more often. For the past two years, coal bed methane water has been keeping the animals near their property alive. “When we have a fire down here last year, they were pulling water out of one of the discharge ponds,” Eichler said.
Michele pulls up video of elk wading into the water, photos of tadpoles swimming right under the discharge pipe and beforeandafter pictures of wetlands dried up when a discharge was stopped. “There’s not a negative to it, and if there was I’d be the first to complain. It’s good for fire mitigation, wildlife, cows and horses,” Eichler said. “There has been so much negative publicity and flat out lies.”
The Eichlers paid for independent testing of a discharge on their property. The only drawback was some ponderosa pines that died when the ground became waterlogged. “It’s an emotional issue, but everyone we’ve talked to wants the water,” Michele said. “This is an arid, dry climate. . . . For the company the water is waste, but it’s been a huge benefit to landowners.”