— USGS (@USGS) April 4, 2013
From The Watch (Gus Jarvis):
A settlement was reached late last month between Sheep Mountain Alliance and PacifiCorp that obligates the company to investigate and take further remediation actions on the Silver Bell Tailings located near the Ophir turn on U.S. Hwy. 145.
Since 1998, PacifiCorp has taken voluntary steps to cap, stabilize and clean the mine tailings deposited by the Silver Bell Mill in the 1950s. For the past two years, that completed remediation work on the tailings have been in a monitoring stage. So far, the remediation work has been unsuccessful in keeping the Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality standards for the San Miguel River at acceptable levels.
Roughly one year ago, when, according to Sheep Mountain Alliance Director Hilary Cooper, the organization was “combing” through EPA water data from the San Miguel River, downstream from the tailings, “alarming” records they believed to be Clean Water Act violations turned up.
SMA eventually brought a citizen Clean Water Act lawsuit against PacificCorp , alleging liability due to years of illegal discharges of heavy metals, acidic drainage and other pollutants from the impoundment. All of those mine contaminants, the lawsuit alleged, were flowing out of the Silver Bell Tailings impoundment and into the Howard Fork of the San Miguel River, despite the remediation work that had been completed on the site.
The lawsuit eventually led to a mediation process between SMA and PacifiCorp, resulting in a settlement and a consent decree announced March 21. In the settlement, both parties agreed to use a third-party expert to analyze and recommend a way forward that both parties could agree on. PacifiCorp has agreed to embark on four-step monitoring process of the tailings that will determine where the specific source of the contamination is located; once that is found, PacifiCorp will come to the table with a proposed correction.
“What we believe is that it will lead to a replacement of the tailings cap,” Cooper said. “But this way, with an in-depth analysis of the contamination sources, we think a new cap will be engineered in a way that will have a higher chance at success than what is there right now.”[…]
In addition to the management plan action, PacifiCorp has also agreed to pay $150,000 to the San Miguel Watershed Coalition. Under federal law, polluters found accountable under the Clean Water Act are required to pay funds in lieu of civil penalties toward local watersheds. The funds will be applied to the restoration of the Priest Lake reservoir.
More water pollution coverage here.
From the Grand Junction Free Press (Sharon Sullivan):
For 50 years, humans have attempted to modify the weather for the purpose of increasing snowpack, to fill up reservoirs, reduce hail, and even prevent rain. The scientific practice of cloud seeding has been utilized on Grand Mesa since the 1990s. Two years ago, the Water Enhancement Authority stepped up its Grand Mesa program by doubling the number of cloud seeders to 16. “We’re trying to increase snowpack on the Mesa, to fill up the reservoirs,” said Mark Ritterbush, the Grand Junction water operations supervisor and secretary for the Water Enhancement Authority (WEA).
The WEA is comprised of the City of Grand Junction, Powderhorn Ski Mountain Resort, Collbran, the Grand Mesa Water Conservancy District, and Overland Ditch and Reservoir Company. Funding for the cloud-seeding program comes from those entities, as well as Delta County, the Colorado River District, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and lower Colorado River basin states.
Meteorologists determine where to place the cloud-seeding machines on the Mesa. Oftentimes, they’re located on private property where landowners are paid rent to host the machines.
In China, cloud seeders — many of them farmers — are paid to use anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers to release pellets containing silver iodide into clouds, according to Wikipedia. Other areas disperse the precipitation-enhancing agents via airplanes.
On the Grand Mesa, cloud-seeding machines consist of tanks on the ground filled with a silver-iodide solution containing chemicals such as acetone. The solution is sprayed across a propane-fueled flame, causing the particles to drift with the wind current up into the cloud. The condensation nuclei turn into ice crystals, ride along with the cloud and fall out as a snowflake. Silver iodide is used because its crystalline structure is almost identical to ice, Ritterbush said.
“A meteorologist (John Thompson of Montrose) watches storms as they come in,” Ritterbush said. “He calls and tells (the landowners) when to turn it on. Rarely are all 16 cloud seeders running at the same time.”
IS CLOUD-SEEDING EFFECTIVE?
There is an ongoing debate regarding the effectiveness of cloud seeding versus letting nature take its course, Ritterbush said. Ten years ago, the National Academies of Science released a report saying, that after 30 years of research, there is no convincing proof of intentional weather modification efforts. “In nature, it’s hard to set up an experiment with a control,” Ritterbush said. “It’s a conundrum how to compare.”
Yet, studies suggest cloud seeding can increase snowpack 5 to 15 percent, which makes the program’s annual cost of between $30,000 and $40,000 cost-effective when you factor in the extra water, Ritterbush said. The cost variable is due to weather conditions, how often seeding takes place, and the cost of silver, Ritterbush said. According to the World Meteorological Policy Statement, “a well-designed, well-executed program shows demonstrative results,” said Joe Busto, who runs the weather modification permitting program out of Denver for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
The Grand Mesa has been a forum to introduce new equipment and different seeding technologies, Busto said. The topography is ideal for setting up cloud-seeding machines at a high elevation, he said. “There’s a rich history of research on the Grand Mesa, during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s,” Busto added.
Arlen Huggins, a semi-retired research scientist with the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev., is familiar with the Grand Mesa project. Huggins said there is plenty of convincing evidence that modifying weather is effective for increasing precipitation. He mentioned prior Bureau of Reclamation studies, plus a recently completed five-year experiment in Australia. “There’s a lot of evidence related to snowfall enhancement,” Huggins said. “It makes it a viable option for increasing water supply.”
The Water Enhancement Authority is in the process of collecting data comparing seeded areas versus non-seeded areas on the Mesa, Ritterbush said.
So, what happens when silver-iodide particles hit the ground or land in lakes or rivers? While there has been no monitoring for silver in western Colorado’s environment, researchers in Australia have spent millions searching for traces of the mineral, Ritterbush said. In Australia, where lake beds and soils have been tested, they “just don’t find it near toxic levels,” Busto said.
Huggins, who is considered a cloud-seeding expert, said he’s often asked about potential risks of silver toxicity in the environment. “It’s a minuscule amount of silver being released,” Huggins said. “The silver iodide amounts released are not harmful. (The particles) are not soluble in water. It cannot be taken up by aquatic species. It does not bio-accumulate.”
There are approximately 106 cloud-seeding sites in Colorado, including Summit County, Gunnison, Telluride and the Dolores area, the West and Eastern San Juan mountains. Vail and Beaver Creek have the oldest program, having cloud-seeded for 38 years. Most permits are issued from November through March and sometimes into mid-April, Busto said. “We monitor snowpack, avalanche hazards, and suspend programs when needed,” he said.
A 2010 statement from the American Meteorological Society states that “unintended consequences of cloud-seeding, such as changes in precipitation or other environmental impacts downwind of a target area have not been clearly demonstrated, but neither can they be ruled out. Continued effort is needed toward improved understanding of the risks and benefits of planned modification through well-designed and well-supported research programs.”
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:
Illegal stocking of smallmouth bass in Miramonte Reservoir will force Colorado Parks and Wildlife to partially drain the lake and treat it with an organic pesticide to kill all the fish early this fall. Restocking will occur shortly after the treatment is completed.
The good news for anglers is that as of April 1 all bag and possession limits will be removed for smallmouth bass and trout until the treatment begins.
“This emergency public salvage will allow licensed anglers a unique opportunity to catch and keep these fish prior to the treatment,” said Eric Gardunio, aquatic biologist in Montrose.
Miramonte Reservoir is located in San Miguel County about 10 miles south of Norwood in western Colorado. The reservoir is one of the most productive stillwater trout fisheries in the state and people travel from throughout the West to catch the rainbow and brown trout that regularly grow to quality size. The lake is also a popular destination for crayfish enthusiasts. Miramonte accounts for about 20,000 angler days every year which contributes $1.5 million to the economy of San Miguel County.
The illegal stocking of smallmouth bass has threatened the trout fishery and crayfish, as well as native fish downstream in the San Miguel and Dolores rivers, prompting action by Parks and Wildlife.
During the salvage anglers must have a 2013 Colorado fishing license and only hook and line methods of take will be permitted. The use of explosives, toxicants, firearms, seines, nets, snagging or electricity is prohibited. Signs will be placed at access points around the lake to notify anglers of this temporary regulation change.
“The trout fishing following ice-off around April 1 should be productive and anglers should take home good numbers of the pink-fleshed Miramonte trout,” Gardunio said.
As the reservoir is drained beginning in May, angler access may become difficult due to exposed mud flats. Boat access will be limited as ramps will eventually become unusable as the water level drops. Interested anglers are encouraged to utilize the fishery early in the year to avoid access issues later in the season.
This emergency salvage is a part of an effort by Parks and Wildlife to maximize angling opportunities in the short term while rebuilding the trout fishery at Miramonte as soon as possible.
“Treating the reservoir is something we wish we didn’t have to do, but we know we must,” said Renzo DelPiccolo, area wildlife manager in Montrose. “People who illegally move fish into lakes, ponds and rivers are not only committing a criminal act, they are endangering native species, stealing a resource and recreational opportunity from thousands of anglers and negatively impacting the local community.”
The chemical treatment, using Rotenone, is scheduled for early fall and the reservoir will be opened for fishing until that time. The date of the treatment will be announced late in the summer. During the treatment the reservoir will be closed for public safety. The reservoir will be drawn down and Rotenone will be applied to the remaining water and feeder streams to kill all of the fish. Rotenone breaks down quickly in the environment and poses no threat to vegetation or non-aquatic species.
Biologists will restock the lake with fish as soon as the pesticide has dissipated; a quick recovery of the trout and crayfish fisheries is expected.
“Miramonte is a very productive fishery where trout can grow ten inches or more in a single year,” Gardunio said. “We expect the catchable and sub-catchable trout we stock following the treatment to be up to quality size within a year of re-stocking.”
“This reservoir is managed as a put-and-grow trout fishery and that management strategy will not change,” explained John Alves, senior aquatic biologist for the southwest region for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Under this management strategy we can provide an excellent angling opportunity at a low cost to anglers.”
Smallmouth bass, which are a warmwater predator fish, were illegally stocked in the reservoir sometime before 2011 and reproduction has been documented. A recent survey showed that in one year smallmouth bass have increased in abundance from 5 percent to 44 percent of the fishery.
“The bass are now a top predator in the lake. They compete with trout for food and space, and consume trout and crayfish,” Alves said. “If left alone, the bass could eventually devastate Miramonte as a trout fishery. Furthermore, the habitat, prey base and water temperature will not support a quality bass fishery in the long term. So, once an illegally stocked fish population has become established, the only recourse is to start over by using a fish pesticide to kill all the fish in a lake.”
In addition to impacting a renowned sport fishery, the smallmouth bass also pose a threat to downstream native fish. An agreement between the state of Colorado, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and neighboring states restricts stocking of non-native warm water fish without a permit because of the danger they pose to native and endangered fish.
Miramonte Reservoir is located above the San Miguel and Dolores rivers which support important populations of three native fish species that biologists are working to protect: the roundtail chub, the bluehead sucker and the flannelmouth sucker. These native fish are found only in desert rivers of the western United States. Changes in the river system such as dams, pollution, water withdrawals, competition and predation from non-native species have caused these fish to decline in range and numbers.
“Native species are needed to help maintain the natural health and balance of any ecosystem. If a species is lost it affects the health of other plants and animals, and changes a natural ecosystem forever,” Alves said.
CPW aims to maintain healthy native fish populations not only for the benefit of native ecosystems and the people of Colorado, but also to prevent unwanted federal management of these species under the Endangered Species Act.
“Illegal stocking carries serious consequences that can have long-lasting negative effects on both fisheries and local communities,” DelPiccolo said.
Anyone who has information about illegal fish stocking at Miramonte Reservoir or at any other water in Colorado should contact the Parks and Wildlife office in Montrose at 970-252-6000, or call Operation Game Thief at 1-877-265-6648. Tips can be made anonymously and cash rewards are possible.
To read a full fisheries management report about Miramonte Reservoir, see: http://wildlife.state.co.us/SiteCollectionDocuments/DOW/Fishing/FisheryWaterSummaries/Summaries/Southwest/MiramonteReservoir.pdf.
For more information about fisheries management in Colorado and aquatic nuisance species, see: http://wildlife.state.co.us/FISHING/Pages/Fishing.aspx.
From The Durango Herald (Jim Haug) via the Cortez Journal:
Almost two years after the reservoir was filled in June 2011, local government officials have not allowed kayaking, bird watching or mountain biking on the 5,500-acre site. Lake Nighthorse might be a case of politics proving to be a bigger obstacle than the laws of physics.
About two miles from downtown Durango, the lake is a temptation for all kinds of outdoor enthusiasts, but it is not yet accessible to the public. Officials now are saying 2014, but they have delayed the opening before.
To venture onto the property without permission literally is a federal offense, although judging by footprints and pawprints, people and their dogs apparently have made the trek. “We’ve had to chase out people with kayaks and canoes,” said Tyler Artichoker, facilities manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation…
After budgeting almost $200,000 to open the lake this summer, Durango Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz laid out a series of complications that has moved the goal of opening the lake to the summer of 2014. The city first must annex the land so it can provide law enforcement. The Bureau of Reclamation must approve a lease agreement with the city and do an environmental assessment of the city’s master recreation plan, which was developed after much public input and consensus building about the kinds of recreation to allow. Jet skis are out. The master plan calls for a “family beach” to distinguish it from other kinds of beaches. The bureau’s environmental assessment then must be made available for public comment, which is expected to happen in April.
Once the bureau signs off on the lease agreement, the city plans to get assistance from the Colorado National Guard for help with land clearing. An entrance station and boat-inspection area also must be built with funding from a state grant…
“If you can name a governmental entity, it has a stake in Lake Nighthorse,” Rinderle said.
From the Canyon Courier (Daniel Laverty):
On March 26 of last year, hell came to 4,000 acres 6 miles south of Conifer. As the battle to fully control the Lower North Fork Fire continued for a week, residents waited and watched as they learned about three neighbors who lost their lives and homeowners who lost everything in a blaze that was sparked when a prescribed burn escaped in high winds. The Colorado State Forest Service had overseen the burn on March 22, 2012, on land owned by Denver Water 6 miles south of Conifer to reduce fuels in the area. The subsequent weekend was quiet, but about 1:15 p.m. March 26, high winds carried embers across the control line, resulting in two small spot fires. The State Forest Service asked for containment help from the North Fork and Elk Creek fire departments, but the blaze was declared escaped about 2:30 p.m.
Before containment a week later, the Lower North Fork Fire burned 4,100 acres, destroyed two dozen homes and claimed three lives. ‘You remember where you were’
State Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, was at the state Capitol on March 26 last year, serving on the state’s Joint Budget Committee. “It’s one of those days where you remember where you were,” Gerou said. “We were in the final stages of closing the budget, and I received e-mail alerts about the fire. It was a really tough day because I was down in Denver, and that’s not where I wanted to be.”
Gerou said she spent most of the day watching for e-mails and checking online for updates while staying in contact with Jeffco Sheriff Ted Mink and Gov. John Hickenlooper.
As the flames approached
Sharon Scanlan and her husband, Tom, lost their home off Kuehster Road. Tom was out of town on March 26, and Sharon was in Denver when she heard about the fire. She raced home to do whatever she could before the flames reached her house. She did what mountain residents know to do — turned off the propane, prepared the windows and filled the bathtub with water. Sharon even left a note on her door to let firefighters know their above-ground pool in back was filled with water. Sharon gathered her animals — a canary, a dog and two parrots — and walked down to the barn to check on her horses. “At that point, I could see and hear the fire,” Sharon said. “The whole forest below our property was on fire. I saw a tsunami of flames. It was surreal.”
The flames were getting closer. Sharon calmed her horses, loaded them into their trailer and drove away safely with her animals. “As I drove out, I found myself kind of laughing at myself because here I had gone through all of that silly stuff of taking care of the windows, putting water in the bathtub and leaving a note on the door,” Sharon said, “and within 10 minutes, my house was burning down.”
Now it’s been a year since, according to Sharon, “the whole mountain was on fire.” With the anniversary, “I had a desire to maybe leave town this week,” Sharon said. “But (the victims) may have a little gathering.”
She still hasn’t worked through the emotions of losing everything. “It’s amazing how, in the blink of an eye, you can find yourself weeping. It’s not just your house; it’s all of your possessions.”
Sharon’s mother had died just a month before the fire. Her mother’s wedding ring and other mementoes were lost to the flames. “I miss talking to her,” Sharon said, holding back tears. “But I’m glad she doesn’t know what we’ve been through this past year.”
From the Canyon Courier:
One year after a state-overseen prescribed burn re-ignited in high winds and torched 4,100 acres south of Conifer, officials have made several changes to address some of the glitches in procedures and protocols that were apparent during the horrific blaze. But for victims of the Lower North Fork Fire last March, the changes have amounted to too little, and have come decidedly too late. “The public is under the impression that everything has been taken care of,” said Sharon Scanlan. Her husband, Tom Scanlan, says that in fact the victims have received virtually no restitution or aid from the state. The home belonging to the Scanlans was destroyed along with 22 other houses. Three of their neighbors died.
And yet despite a bill approved in last year’s legislative session designed to help compensate victims for their losses, litigation and inaction so far have left many victims on their own in trying to reclaim lives decimated by the fire, Tom Scanlan said. “I’m incredulous that the attorney general has delayed compensation of the victims here,” said Scanlan, who has been a spokesman for the fire’s victims and was part of a group that conducted independent research into the blaze and its causes. “The legislature … specifically directed that a speedy compensation process be established, that homeowners could go through the state’s claims board. We’ve all had to hire lawyers at our own expense, and it’s done nothing but delay the process. … There is no justice happening in any of this.”
State Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, who last year sponsored the bill that suspended the state’s liability cap related to damage claims from the fire, agrees that the victims continue to face a frustrating ordeal. “It’s been a very frustrating process,” Gerou said. “The attorney general is dragging his feet because he doesn’t want the state to take any responsibility, because he doesn’t want to have to deal with the payouts that could happen with all of the insurance companies.”
A spokeswoman for the state attorney general’s office said that because of the large amount of litigation involved, and the nature of some of the claims, the AG’s office has been unable to move forward. “The state regrets that the process to compensate claimants of the Lower North Fork Fire is moving slowly,” said AG’s spokeswoman Carolyn Tyler. “However, it is the nature of some of the claims that is preventing us to move … more expeditiously.”
The current total of claims is about $73 million and, according to Tyler, some are duplicative and some involve losses that insurance companies have already covered.
Changes resulting from the fire
Several procedural and practical changes were made in the wake of the Lower North Fork Fire:
• Jefferson County is now using a new emergency-notification system, CodeRED, after the previous system came up wanting. Several hours elapsed last March between the first 911 calls from nearby residents who reported smelling smoke, and the emergency-notification calls urging an evacuation. Notification calls also went to homes nowhere near the blaze, while some houses in the path of the flames did not receive alerts.
• Evacuation alerts have been fine-tuned to more clearly inform residents of the severity of a threat. A three-level evacuation protocol, conceived by the Elk Creek Fire Department, has been adopted statewide. The top level —Stage Three — advises simply, “Leave immediately.”
• A new protocol for prescribed burns was called for in a report by the Lower North Fork Fire Commission, whose findings recommended consultation with local fire departments and a host of safeguards and monitoring requirements.
The commission, which has been strongly criticized by Tom Scanlan and others for failing to assign responsibility for the disaster, was created by the legislature last year to investigate the wildfire and recommend changes that would prevent future blazes like the Lower North Fork Fire.
A community that pulled together
In the days while the fire still burned and in the weeks and months that followed, a devastated community pulled together with fund-raisers, firefighter feeds and moral support. The Mountain Resource Center in Conifer coordinated an avalanche of donations of food, clothing, furniture and gift cards for victims. The number of donations became so great that the MRC created two lists: items needed by victims and items people were willing to donate. Area organizations such as the Rotary Club of Conifer offered the services of its members, who were willing to run errands, drop off items or do whatever was necessary to help the community. The Conifer Area Chamber of Commerce put together an event to feed hungry firefighters at Conifer High School, with hundreds of community members offering to serve. Journey Church provided two dozen volunteers to help the American Red Cross at the evacuation centers, first at Conifer High and later at West Jefferson Middle School, to aid some of the 900 families who left their homes.
Pets and other animals from the burn area were welcomed at foster homes and at the Jeffco Fairgrounds and Foothills Animal Shelter. Jefferson County HEAT — the Horse Evacuation Assistance Team — worked long hours to help keep the large animals safe, and since the fire, it has had an outpouring of new volunteers.
The litigation against the state that now includes insurance companies as well as individual victims remains active, and the state has said that compensation as a result of Gerou’s legislation must wait for the legal process to run its course. Tom Scanlan said that while he and some other victims have received payouts from their insurance companies for homes and belongings incinerated in the fire, they will continue to seek restitution for other damages and for the decline in property values. “We aren’t going to go away,” he said.
Gerou said there have been positive changes in the aftermath of the disaster, including new emergency protocols. “There has been legislation having to do with controlled burns and how the state functions in emergency management during a fire,” she said.
But at least so far, that has provided limited comfort for the victims still trying to reassemble their lives. “It’s very disappointing,” Gerou said. “The tough thing about it is that when you have a state that does this to individuals, we all think we can count on our state to do the right thing. But basically what the state of Colorado is telling these victims is, ‘It’s OK if I burn down your house; it’s OK if I kill your wife or kill your parents.’ “There’s a whole group of people that have lost faith in their state government.”
From email from State Representative Randy Fisher:
I’m pleased to announce that one of my top priority bills for the 2013 legislative session, HB-1044, was passed in the House on third reading on April 5. If the bill becomes law, it will authorize the use of graywater recycling in Colorado and will provide Coloradans with a powerful and readily available water conservation tool.
HB-1044 has its roots at CSU where professors Larry Roesner and Sybil Sharvelle have conducted foundational research and development on graywater systems. Drs. Roesner and Sharvelle are the co-directors of the Urban Water Center at CSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Both professors have spent countless hours at the Capitol advocating for passage of HB-1044. They have earned my respect and gratitude for their efforts to help write and advocate for the bill.
“Graywater” consists of the discharge from fixtures other than toilets, kitchen sinks, and dishwashers that is collected and recycled within residential, commercial, or industrial facilities with minimal treatment in accordance with public health standards. HB-1044 amends Colorado’s public health statutes to allow more efficient first-use of water by enabling the recycling of graywater within the facilities in which it is generated. Graywater reuse is an important municipal and industrial water conservation tool that has the capability of reducing per capita water consumption by up to 30%.
The Coloradoan newspaper had a very positive editorial about HB-1044 in its Sunday, February 3, edition. Here is a link to the article:
A critical vote on the HB-1044 occurred last week when the House Appropriations Committee voted to approve a small general fund appropriation required by the health department for rulemaking. The approval of the appropriation paved the way for consideration of the bill in the House. The Senate will begin deliberation on HB-1044 in the coming days.
More 2013 Colorado legislation coverage here.
From The Albuquerque Journal (John Fleck):
…before I got to Ghost Ranch on Friday afternoon, I took the turnoff to Abiquiu Reservoir. In drought-parched New Mexico, this is the one reservoir that has a lot of water. It glistened blue-green beneath a bowl of rust-red cliffs, shimmering in a brisk afternoon wind. For fans of cooperation, there is hope in plans for a release beginning today or Wednesday out of Abiquiu, a big slug of municipal water now in storage to try to boost the meager flow of the Rio Grande. The water is part of whatever the opposite of a “rainy day fund” might be, water the Albuquerque agency has been importing into the Chama Basin from the headwaters of the San Juan River and stashing at Abiquiu for later use. Even in this dry year, Albuquerque has a smartly acquired stockpile.
For about three weeks, Albuquerque will release about 200 million gallons of that water per day, running it down the Chama, into the Rio Grande north of Española, and down through Albuquerque to eventually to drought-depleted Elephant Butte Reservoir. It’s not a donation. Under its water rights permits, Albuquerque is required to make up some of the water its groundwater pumping indirectly sucks out of the Rio Grande as the river flows through the metro area.
The most efficient way for Albuquerque to do that is to move the water in the dead of winter, when evaporation losses are lowest, sending it down to Elephant Butte to make up for the impact of pumping on the river. Moving it now instead, Albuquerque will lose about 10 percent to 15 percent of it to evaporation, according to John Stomp, the Albuquerque water utility’s chief operating officer.
Here’s the announcement from the USDA:
Statement from Under Secretary Harris Sherman
“After four years of having the privilege to work alongside the enormously talented, hard working people at USDA, and especially my colleagues in the United States Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service, I am today announcing my upcoming departure from USDA.
We have worked together to accomplish tremendous things in the past four years. With the Forest Service, we developed a new Planning Rule for management of our national forests and grasslands, accelerated restoration of millions of acres of forests and watersheds, and supported traditional forest products and other uses of the national forests. We expanded recreation opportunities and supported thousands of recreation-related jobs, protected Native American sacred sites, and invested in our young people and veterans by giving them jobs and training opportunities. We worked with partners around the country to create new public-private partnerships, fostering an ethic of collaboration. In addition, we protected communities from catastrophic wildfires, supported State and private forest landowners, and conducted critical forest research.
With NRCS, we invested in landscape scale conservation from the Chesapeake Bay to the Everglades to the Bay Delta. We enrolled a record number of acres of private working lands in conservation practices, expanded the application of voluntary certainty and safe harbor agreements with individual landowners, introduced new programs and technology that will support the ability of private landowners to implement conservation practices and protect wildlife, and assisted Gulf Coast states and landowners in addressing water quality impacts to the Gulf of Mexico. We also played a leadership role in responding to natural disasters from Hurricane Sandy to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
I am so proud of what we have been able to accomplish. I thank the President and Secretary Vilsack for their leadership and for having given me the opportunity to serve my country in this role. While this has been a very difficult decision for me, I believe it is a good time to transition to new leadership and I have every confidence that my successor will continue to achieve the results that I’ve witnessed from NRCS and the Forest Service over these past years.”
Statement from Secretary Tom Vilsack
Over the past four years, Under Secretary Harris Sherman has led a comprehensive push to enhance and modernize the ways in which we conserve our forests and protect our natural resources. Under his leadership, USDA carried out a record level of conservation work alongside farmers, ranchers and forest landowners. He led the way to a modernized forest planning policy that recognizes the multiple uses of our forests, and will lead to more resilient forests and greater rural economic opportunity. Harris helped target our conservation efforts in priority areas, and forged new partnerships that have strengthened a collaborative approach to landscape conservation and forest restoration. As a result, even in a time of tighter budgets, USDA is in a position to continue achieving positive results in conservation for decades to come. I appreciate his service to our nation, and I wish Harris Sherman all the best in the future.
From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):
The Coloradan who has headed the U.S. Forest Service is leaving after a tumultuous four years when the agency did battle with ski areas and fought some of the state’s most destructive blazes. Harris Sherman, a former head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, will leave his post May 8 as undersecretary of natural resources and the environment in the Department of Agriculture. Sherman said now is “a good time to transition to new leadership” in the spot, which includes direct supervision of the Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service.
He joins fellow Coloradan Ken Salazar, who served four years as secretary of the interior, in leaving the administration in President Barack Obama’s second term.
In his letter of resignation, Sherman listed a new forest planning rule as a major accomplishment, as well as protecting communities from the ravages of wildfires. Sherman brought “Colorado common sense to the Obama administration and its management of our national forests and public lands, which create jobs and are a big part of our high quality of life,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. Udall lauded in particular Sherman’s work on the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, which allows ski areas to increase tourism and job creation throughout the year.
During Sherman’s tenure, the Forest Service also became embroiled in a court fight with the National Ski Area Association over the agency’s demand that ski areas turn over new water rights in order to obtain permits to operate in national forests. A federal judge ruled that the Forest Service had failed to involve the public in drafting the directive and ordered the agency to reconsider the directive and seek public comment. The Forest Service has yet to announce plans for public meetings to discuss the directive.
From The Denver Post (Jason Blevins):
“As you know, I am a Westerner at heart and, after four years, I am feeling a strong ‘tug’ from that direction, particularly from my family in Colorado and California,” he wrote. “Although this has been a difficult decision for me, I think it is a good time to make a transition.”[…]
In his letter to Forest Service employees, Sherman outlined his agency’s achievements over the last four years, including forest planning rules, land conservation, public-private partnerships that assisted in forest and watershed restoration projects, expanded recreation opportunities at ski areas and streamlining review and approval processes. “We worked with partners around the country to create new public-private partnerships, fostering an ethic of collaboration,” he wrote. “I marvel that in the face of declining budgets, record fires and temperatures, and challenging forest health conditions, we have achieved so much.”
Sherman’s departure comes as the Forest Service installs sequestration budget cuts and begins harvesting public input on a controversial plan to control water used by ski areas on public land. Sherman said he will remain at the USDA through May 8 to assist in the transition toward a new undersecretary.
From the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Groundwater monitoring wells have found contamination as far as 800 feet from the presumed center of a hydrocarbons leak near Parachute Creek, and also across the creek from the leak site, as the area of known contamination keeps growing.
In addition, what are called diesel-range organics (DROs) were detected in an absorbent boom that had been in place in the creek itself, in the first sign of potential contamination of creekwater related to the leak. And state Department of Natural Resources spokesman Todd Hartman said a creek water sample on March 9 in the investigation area also showed the presence of DROs. However, spokesman Matthew Allen of the Environmental Protection Agency said the levels of that substance in the boom after accumulating over 10 days was very low, and it is believed to have come from other sources upstream.
The DROs also were found in an upstream sample March 9, and Hartman said subsequent tests at those two sites and other surface water sampling locations since then have shown no more hits for the substance. Kirby Wynn, oil and gas liaison for Garfield County, said the developments are of great concern to the county. “It’s certainly an alarming shift in the situation,” he said.
The developments were made public exactly a month after Williams first reported contaminated soil just east of the creek March 8 in a pipeline corridor that goes beneath the waterway. Three pipelines in the corridor serve Williams’ adjacent gas processing plant.
Some 6,000 gallons of hydrocarbons have been removed from the leak site, and the leak source hasn’t been determined. The investigation has centered on the area around an above-ground valve set for a 4-inch natural gas liquids line that leaves the plant, and around a nearby interceptor trench.
High levels of benzene in groundwater previously had been reported as far as 325 feet from the primary investigation site, and as close as 10 feet from the creek. But no groundwater contamination previously had been found on the other side of the creek from the leak site.
State investigators and Williams previously have said the creek appears to be a “losing creek,” meaning groundwater beneath it appears to flow away from it toward the central leak site, helping protect it from the contamination. With contamination now across the creek, Hartman said he doesn’t know what that means, but added, “We believe it’s a losing stream all around at this stage,” meaning the flow on the other side of the creek also is away from it. “I have no indication right now that would indicate we feel differently about that,” he said.
Hartman said a thin layer of liquid hydrocarbons was found in a monitoring well 800 feet east of the primary investigation area and in the first monitoring well installed on the creek’s south side, across the creek from the leak area. “Laboratory analysis of the groundwater from these wells was not available as of (Monday) afternoon,” he said in a press release. “Additional monitoring wells are being installed along the southern bank of the creek to the northwest. Tests are ongoing to determine whether the liquid hydrocarbons are similar to those recovered near the primary interceptor trench and above-ground valve set.”
Hartman said Williams has undertaken additional measures on the north side of the creek to protect it, including digging a series of trenches to lower the groundwater level and remove liquid hydrocarbons and contaminated water near the stream’s edge.
Authorities previously have said there has been no evidence of impact to the creek from the leak. Hartman said he was referring to benzene contamination. Benzene is a carcinogen and byproduct of oil and gas development.
Hartman said WPX Energy, the landowner in the area, replaced its absorbent booms in the creek and did lab analysis on the spongy boom material previously in place for 10 days. It showed diesel-range organics at 213 to 349 parts per million, and no detections of benzene or gasoline-range organics. “The source of DRO is unknown,” he said.
Williams has placed two additional booms. One is downstream of any groundwater monitoring wells where hydrocarbons have been detected. Another is upstream of the investigation area, and was placed to determine if any DROs are entering the area from upstream.
Allen said anything can transport DROs into a creek, such as someone walking into the creek with contamination on their boots. Allen said chemical compounds making up diesel can be found in nature, but DROs wouldn’t be expected to show up naturally in a creek.
If pollutants are found to be impacting the creek, the EPA has authority under federal law to take additional measures to address the situation, he said. But he said it sounds as if the levels detected were low enough that the EPA investigator involved determined it didn’t require new action by the agency. “It wasn’t anything that sparked concern,” he said.
Wynn said more information needs to be gathered about the DROs, but they “may be of great concern.”
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, part of the Department of Natural Resources, has led the investigation. But the EPA and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also have been involved. Said Hartman, “We are in a great deal of communication with both CDPHE and EPA about this site and their involvement could increase.”
Allen said if the EPA’s involvement escalates, that doesn’t necessarily mean it would take over the investigation. Often in such instances a “joint unified command” involving the EPA, state agencies and responsible parties all work together to respond to a problem, he said.
On Thursday, Williams revealed that a pressure gauge on the valve set was discovered Jan. 3 to have been leaking. But the company says the gauge probably leaked fewer than 25 gallons, and wouldn’t explain benzene having traveled hundreds of feet in groundwater by now.
But Bob Arrington, a member of the Garfield County Energy Advisory Board and a retired mechanical engineer with pipeline experience, says he thinks such a gauge could leak 6,000 gallons in just 4 1/2 hours. “I know if you lose a pressure gauge it can gush out on you,” he said. He also said groundwater moves fast enough to explain the benzene’s travel.
Williams spokesman Tom Droege said Monday he can’t speculate about the contribution caused by the Jan. 3 leak. “We’re definitely looking at it, though,” he said.
More Parachute Creek spill coverage here.
From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):
A community blessing for farmers and public prayer for rain are planned later this week in response to the drought which is gripping the Arkansas Valley. The event will be at 10 a.m. Friday at Milberger Farms, 28570 U.S. 50, in Blende.
“We honor St. Isadore, the patron saint of farmers,” said the Rev. Joseph Vigil, pastor at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Blende. “When he was working the fields, people would see angels following him and helping him.” St. Isadore lived in Madrid, from 1070-1130, and is the patron saint of Madrid, and the U.S. Rural Life Conference as well. A small statue of St. Isadore will be used in the blessing as well.
The Rev. Matthew Wertin, pastor at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Avondale, also will participate in the blessing. “It’s both a blessing for the canals and land, as well as a prayer for rain,” Vigil said. “It’s open to all denominations. We don’t want to limit it to just the Catholic church. All are welcome to intercede for farmers.”
The idea for the event came from farmers and former farmers on the St. Charles Mesa. “We chose Milberger’s because it’s sort of a neutral place,” said Bernie David, who farmed on the mesa until age and drought caught up with him in 2002.
“We just need the rain, whether it’s down here or up in the mountains to get the river going,” added farmer Joe Mauro.
Southeastern Colorado is in its third year of drought, with snowpack at 69 percent of average prior to storms that are expected to move through the state this week. Streams are expected to be flowing at just 56 percent of normal, according to the latest assessment by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.