Drought/snowpack news: The NIDIS National Drought Early Warning Outlook is hot off the press #CODrought

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Click here to read the outlook nationally or by region.

From the Trinidad Times (Steve Block):

The water situation in the Purgatoire River Valley looks pretty grim at the moment. The Trinidad area remains in the grip of a persistent drought, currently rated as D4, meaning exceptional drought conditions.

About 21 percent of Colorado is experiencing D4 drought conditions, including most of the Eastern Plains, according to State Climatologist Nolan Doesken.

Doesken said D4 conditions work the greatest economic hardship on crop production and cattle sales in southeastern Colorado.

“Exceptional drought, D4, is equal to the kind of situation you’d only see once in any 50-year time period,” Doesken said. “This is not unlike the extreme conditions that eastern Colorado had in the early and mid-1950s and back in the 1930s.”

Doesken said that in mid-March 89 percent of the state was in severe or worse drought conditions. Drought conditions continue to spread throughout the West, as statistics from the U.S. Drought Monitor showed that about 2.94 percent of the western U.S. is experiencing D4 conditions as of April 2, up from about 0.94 percent at the same time in 2012. Colorado’s Eastern plains and eastern Wyoming showed the greatest prevalence of D4 conditions, according to the drought monitor.

Drought conditions are expected to persist at least throughout the end of June, according to data released on April 4 from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.

From the Summit County Citizen’s Voice (Bob Berwyn):

Last summer’s crippling Great Plains drought can’t definitively be linked with global warming, according to a team of federal scientists from various agencies. In a new report issued this week, the researchers said the drought was probably caused by a confluence of natural climate variations that might only come together in a similar constellation once a century.

Cyclical variations in ocean temperatures — especially the combination of a cooler-than-average Pacific Ocean and a warm phase of the North Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation may have nudged the region toward drought conditions, but those factors tend to be more of a factor in suppressing winter precipitation.

And background global warming may increase the chances of high temperatures to begin with, but the research team couldn’t find a direct link between the drought and global warming — in fact, the region hit hardest by the drought has been a kind of global warming “hole” in the past few decades, said lead author Dr. Marty Hoerling, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“The dominant control in this region is the amount of precipitation. When it’s dry, the ground gets really hot … This is one of those events that comes along once every couple hundreds of years,” Hoerling said, adding that the lack of El Niño conditions in the past 10 years may have been another small factor.

Salida: New wastewater treatment plant in production

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From The Mountain Mail (Casey Kelly):

Though improvements to the new Salida Wastewater Treatment Facility will not be fully completed for another couple of months, the city has begun treating wastewater at the new plant. The new facility began treating city water in November, and since then the city has been working to finish remaining improvements at the facility, Wastewater Plant Manager Randy Sack said Friday. Remaining improvements at the facility, which Sack said should be completed in the next “couple months,” include work on landscaping, the driveway, curb and gutter, phone and data lines, and painting.

Moltz Construction has been working on the new facility for the past 13 months, Sack said. “It’s working really nice,” he said. “It’s a little bigger. It’s doing a great job with the things we need it to do.”

Sack also said the new plant is all computerized, which allows easier monitoring of its operations. The previous plant was no longer meeting regulations for wastewater plants, City Administrator Dara MacDonald said. The plant was out of compliance with regard to levels of ammonia and biochemical oxygen demands, which Sack said “measure the organic strength of the wastewater.”

Sack said once the final improvements are made to the facility, the city plans to host an open house to invite the public to tour the new facility.

Sidebar on financials

The total cost of the Wastewater Treatment Facility upgrade project is $17.6 million. The project is being financed through a $12.1 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a $1.35 million Department of Local Affair grant (with matching funds from the city) and a $2.6 million USDA loan the city received in 2009. The city will make its first payment on the $12.1 million loan in fall. The term of the loan is 40 years with an interest rate of 2.5 percent. At the time financing was originally approved, the interest rate was set at either 3.25 percent or the rate in effect at the time of the loan’s closing, whichever was lower. When the loan closed in February, the city secured the lower 2.5 percent interest rate. The city is required to make a minimum payment of $480,405 each year, but can make higher payments to lower the amount of total interest paid over the life of the loan. If the city makes only the minimum payments, it will pay $7.1 million in interest over the life of the loan.City Finance Director Jan Schmidt suggested at a February city council meeting that the city make payments that assumed the previous higher interest rate, which would have the city paying off the loan 8 months earlier and paying less money in interest.

City Administrator Dara MacDonald said when the city adjusted sewer rates, it was done in anticipation of the facility upgrade and the debt service that would come along with it. MacDonald said revenue from the city’s sewer enterprise fund is projected to cover the cost of the annual payments, along with the plant’s operation and annual maintenance costs.

Total 2012 revenues for the sewer fund came in at $1,444,641, and total expenditures, which included capital outlay costs for the facility’s construction this year, came in at $8,978,716. Excluding the one-time capital outlay costs this year, the sewer fund had $748,933 in expenditures, which would have resulted in net revenues of $695,708, enough to exceed the cost of the minimum annual loan payment.

More wastewater coverage here and here.

Forecast news: Wide ranging snowfall expected today as wet Pacific storm moves in #COwx #COdrought

From the National Weather Service Grand Junction office:

A moist Pacific storm system will spread widespread snow across northwest Colorado today and tonight. Occasional moderate to heavy snow will occur across northwest Colorado. Valley areas will have snow this morning, but is expected to change over to rain this afternoon. For the southern areas, considerably but more windy with gusts to 35-40 mph. Rain and snow will stay confined to the La Sal, Abajo, and San Juan mountains. This storm will continue through Wednesday, but a period of drier weather is expected during the day on Tuesday, but precipitation will be on the increase Tuesday evening with snow levels lowering to the valley floors.

From the National Weather Service Pueblo office:

Overnight, an upper trough will move into the area with strong westerly flow aloft remaining over the forecast area. Increasing moisture ahead of this system will bring snow to the Continental Divide through morning. Expect widespread cloud cover tomorrow with some light precipitation possible over the eastern mountains, adjacent Plains and the Palmer Divide. For the remainder of tonight..look for winds to gradually diminish and temperatures to fall to near freezing.

From the National Weather Service Pueblo office:

Snow showers are expected in and around the Leadville area through 6am Tuesday. Otherwise, clouds and some sun are expected elsewhere with breezy conditions and above average temperatures expected. Temperatures will be in the upper 60’s to near 70 across the I-25 corridor and eastern plains. The San Luis Valley can expect upper 50’s, while the mountains can expect 20’s and 30’s.

Parachute Creek spill: The town of Parachute is watching the clean up and asking questions #ColoradoRiver

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From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Besides being concerned about possible tainted irrigation water, some Parachute residents are worried about the town’s tainted reputation in light of a natural gas liquids leak near Parachute Creek. Town Council member and former Mayor Roy McClung said the message needs to get out that “Parachute is not a toxic waste dump” as a result of a leak that is drawing national attention. McClung’s comments came during a meeting late last week, as Williams met with the Town Council to talk about its response to the leak and its efforts to protect the town’s irrigation water supply.

Williams recently said it has determined that the leak resulted from a faulty pressure gauge on a pipeline valve set. The gauge began leaking Dec. 20 and it wasn’t discovered and the leak wasn’t stopped until Jan. 3, when a worker went to inspect a valve that had closed down. The company initially believed the leak was less than 25 gallons. But in March it discovered widespread contamination. It now estimates that about 6,000 gallons of hydrocarbons have been recovered and about 4,000 gallons remain in soil and groundwater. The faulty gauge was on a valve set for a pipeline that leaves Williams’ gas processing plant and carries a mixture of propane, butane and other natural gas liquids to tanks on the other side of Parachute Creek. Williams believes that about 80 percent of the liquids that leaked vaporized once they escaped the pressurized line, but that heavier hydrocarbons seeped into the ground.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission says the pressure gauge may be the source of all the contamination, but an investigation continues.

Groundwater monitoring has found high benzene levels near the creek, including on the creek side opposite from the valve set, but it hasn’t been found in the creek water.

Surface water testing

The irrigation season is about to begin, and the town diverts water from the creek into a reservoir that’s used by residents and on town properties. Williams has been working to try to keep the creek water clean and has a plan in place to shut down the reservoir intake should contamination be detected upstream.

Judith Hayward is a Parachute resident who enjoys gardening. This year I’m going to be concerned unless I am assured somehow with testing that this water is not going to give me problems in my garden,” she told trustees and Williams officials.

Dave Keylor, vice president and general manager in the Piceance Basin for Williams, said the company has nine surface water testing points in the creek and six absorbency booms in place. It also visually inspects the creek each half hour and has installed about 90 groundwater monitors as part of its response.

The reservoir diversion point is about two miles downstream from the leak site. The town has given Williams the ability to control the diversion point because of the proximity of Williams workers to it and the company’s continuing monitoring of the water. “We feel confident that at this time, that you can turn your water into the irrigation ditch at the diversion point,” he told town officials Thursday.

The state Department of Natural Resources on Friday reported that diesel-range organics were detected in the creek at the diversion point, but also noted that recent creek tests in the contamination area didn’t detect the organics. Some intermittent diesel-range organics also have been detected upstream from the leak site and may be a result of things such as stormwater runoff from roads. The state also noted that there are several industrial sites between the leak area and the diversion point.

Parachute also has a second, unused reservoir that it is working on using for extra storage to temporarily meet irrigation needs should the creek show contamination. Keylor said contaminated water also could be diverted into that reservoir.

Inaccurate reports

Meanwhile, McClung said he worries about how all the media coverage of the leak will affect the town. “Nobody remembers the good stuff but they remember the bad stuff,” he said, citing environmental disasters in places such as Love Canal and Three-Mile Island. “… I’m afraid that we’re going to start building that kind of reputation in this valley.”

McClung said he has been called from as far away as North Carolina, from people with questions including whether the town will blow up. Town Administrator Bob Knight said he’s taken media calls from as far away as New York. McClung said he overheard at a local restaurant that a family that had been ready to move to Parachute changed their minds because of the leak. “That kills me to see families that don’t want to move here because of this,” he said.

Keylor and town officials said one challenge is inaccurate information reported in the media. Williams has created a website, http://www.answersforparachute.com, to provide information on the incident. Keylor said Williams community and corporate communications representatives also could help work with the town on public relations. Keylor said it’s also going to take “a lot of transparency and a lot of honesty” by Williams in terms of being upfront about the mess he said the company has made and what it is doing to determine the extent of the contamination and clean it up. “We feel our reputation has taken a hit here,” Keylor said, acknowledging that so have the reputations of stakeholders. “We take that personally.”

“It will take some time to rebuild our reputation but we’ll do it, we’re going to get this cleaned up, we’re going to be here for the long haul.”

Benzene questions

Williams’ efforts continue to focus in part on fully delineating the extent of contamination. Keylor said investigators believe they have done that on three sides, but not yet to the southeast of the valve set. The creek also heads southeast from the valve area before briefly angling south. As of Friday, benzene contamination had been determined to extend as far as 1,400 feet from the valve site. The presence of benzene on both sides of the creek has puzzled investigators, who believe that groundwater directly beneath the creek flows away from it, which has helped to keep benzene out of the surface water. “We’ve not yet determined the reason for that,” Keylor said of the benzene found across the creek from the leak site. “There are a couple of hypotheses but we have not nailed down why that is.”

He said lab tests show that hydrocarbons in the immediate vicinity of the valve site are the same as what flows through the natural gas liquids line. But officials are awaiting test results to determine whether the more distant hydrocarbons also match the pipeline’s contents.

Meanwhile, Williams continues to hear criticism that it should have notified more parties after discovering in March it had a significant situation on its hands. David Blair, chief of the Grand Valley Fire Protection District, said when concerns about possible waterway contamination arise, one of the first places the public will call is the fire department. “But we didn’t have a clue” what was going on, he said.

Keylor said Williams mistakenly assumed that regulatory agencies it had contacted would spread the word to other parties, but now realizes it had a responsibility to do so.

Kirby Winn, Garfield County’s oil and gas liaison, said he takes some blame for the poor early communication. He said while he was notified, he failed to pass the information on to the county’s emergency manager, who would have then let the fire department know.

From The Denver Post:

State environmental overseers on Friday said diesel range organics detected in Parachute Creek near a hydrocarbon spill has reached gates to a town drinking water reservoir. The gates have been closed since the spill by Williams energy company’s gas processing plant was reported last month.

The results of water test taken on April 6 and 7 showed diesel range organics at 0.71 and 0.49 parts per million. Diesel range organics at a slightly higher of 0.73 ppm had been found on the creek upstream of the suspected source of the spill.

More oil and gas coverage here and here.

USFS to hold a series of public meetings after NSAA lawsuit victory last December

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From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

The U.S. Forest Service is turning to focus groups to help it deal with a water-rights directive that landed the agency a slapdown in federal court. Forest Service officials are to conduct focus-group discussions Tuesday about the clause, which they hope to publish in August and then begin the process of collecting public comment in preparation for adoption by February.

The process being undertaken is “bizarre beyond belief,” said Glenn Porzak, a Colorado water lawyer who represents the National Ski Area Association, which took the Forest Service to court last year to stop enforcement of the directive. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

It’s not a new approach, Forest Service spokeswoman Tiffany Holloway said. “Listening group sessions are just one of the ways that we engage the public in our decision-making,” she said.

The Forest Service was rebuffed by federal court in Denver when it demanded that the new ownership of Powderhorn Mountain Resort turn over new water rights in order to obtain a lease to operate the ski area in the Grand Mesa National Forest.

Powderhorn was the first resort in the nation to be subject to the directive. The court later found that the Forest Service had fallen short of public-involvement requirements in implementing the directive. Ski resorts, environmental organizations, community organizations and representatives of natural-resource industries are invited, each to their own listening session, the Forest Service said.

Ski areas are to be represented at a meeting Tuesday in Denver. Other meetings are scheduled in Salt Lake City; Lake Tahoe, Nev.; and Washington, D.C. “The sessions will focus primarily on the principal rationale underlying the ski area water rights clause: ensuring that sufficient water remains available to support ski areas and dependent communities,” Leslie A. Weldon, deputy chief of the National Forest system, wrote to participants. Officials have said the policy is needed to prevent ski areas from selling water rights to other users should they have more value than for snowmaking.

Since the policy was invoked with Powderhorn, municipal water providers, grazers and other industries and organizations that use federal lands have been told they could be subject to the same requirements. “We’re disappointed we haven’t been invited to participate” in the listening session, said Mark Hermundstad, the Grand Junction water attorney who represents the Ute Water Conservancy District. Ute Water filed an amicus brief in the Powderhorn case that “raised serious issues about how the Forest Service rules could be applied,” but won’t be allowed to direct them to the Forest Service listening process, Hermundstad said.

The Forest Service has “kind of awakened a sleeping dog” by extending the policy beyond ski areas, Porzak said. Municipalities and other users “are now focused on this issue,” he said. While the sessions are open to the public, “The intent is to have people of like interests/expertise to be able to have conversations with people of similar interests,” Holloway said. “We will not turn people away from any meeting but will ask that they allow the invitees to have a free conversation.”

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., whose 3rd Congressional District includes several ski areas, grazers, municipal water suppliers and others, said he was disappointed the Forest Service was conducting meetings far from where the effects of the policy will be most heavily felt. “When are they going to talk to the people who stand to be affected by this effort to trample all over state water law?” Tipton said via a spokesman.

More NSAA coverage here.

Water reuse in oil and gas operations is an expensive undertaking

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From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

While Colorado’s drilling boom produces record amounts of gas and oil, the multiplying wells also are bringing up far greater quantities of a salty, toxic liquid waste — 15 billion gallons a year. If cleaned properly, all that liquid could become safe water to restore rivers, irrigate food crops and sustain communities in an era of drought and declining water supplies. Or at least it could be reused by oil and gas companies to reduce their draw of fresh water from farmers and cities. “You could use that water for anything,” said Steve Gunderson, water quality control director for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “We’ve got to do our best to make sure we protect our environment. In a state like Colorado, water is our future.”

But Colorado leaders have no policy for reusing oil and gas industry waste. More than half is injected untreated into super-deep wells — filling rocky voids from which oil and gas was extracted. Other waste is dumped in shallow pits, stored in evaporative ponds or discharged after partial treatment under state permits into waterways. Technology exists to clean liquid waste right up to drinking water standards, but it’s expensive, about three times as costly as buying fresh water for drilling and fracking, which runs about 17 cents a barrel, and burying waste untreated for about 70 cents per barrel…

Some companies, such as Encana, treat liquid waste to the point at which it can be reused for fracking more wells. They remove fracking gel and microbes, yet the liquid stays too toxic and salty to irrigate crops. Modern treatment methods — used in Wyoming and other states where geology does not allow safe burial — purify liquid waste so that water can be put back in rivers. This restores aquatic life and eventually helps fill drinking-water reservoirs…

High Sierra’s water-treatment plants near Front Range drilling fields use a combination of mechanical skimming, chemical reaction, reverse-osmosis filtering and biological treatment to transform truckloads of toxic black muck to crystal-clear water…

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, charged with both promoting and regulating the oil and gas industry, has issued 3,191 permits letting companies dispose of liquid waste in evaporative ponds, shallow pits and 300 super-deep injection wells. Disposal in pits and ponds can lead to toxic emissions and contamination of groundwater. Hundreds of the pits in eastern Colorado are unlined, pre-dating rules implemented in 2009. Even under those rules, operators can seek variances that let them avoid installing liners. And companies operating in Washington, Yuma, Logan and Morgan counties have until May 1 before new pits must be lined.

The liquid waste comes from drilling boreholes at oil and gas wells. First, drillers inject about 300,000 gallons of fresh water. Then frackers inject 1 million to 5 million more gallons, mixed with sand and fracking fluids, to loosen oil and gas in shale rock. This all blends with briny underground pools that are often saltier than seawater and laced with metals…

Spills can be devastating — as seen along Colorado’s once-pristine Spring Creek, a tributary of the North Platte River in a wildlife-rich area near Walden, west of Fort Collins. For more than a decade, Englewood-based Lone Pine Gas has been allowed to discharge hundreds of thousands of gallons of what is supposed to be treated liquid waste into the creek under a CDPHE permit. State permits specify the levels of various metals, oil and grease, salts and chemicals that must be removed before discharging waste into surface waterways. But discharges by Lone Pine have degraded Spring Creek to the point that, according to a recent EPA emergency response assessment, aquatic life is impaired. Last April and August, EPA crews found oil-contaminated soil heaped in open, unlined piles and cattle drinking oily water from waste ponds. Lone Pine spilled oil into the creek in 2006 and in 2011 — material that blackened and poisoned creek beds, according to state and federal records. As recently as 2010, CDPHE officials renewed Lone Pine’s discharge permit without review, records show. Now state water-quality officials are suing the company and say they will toughen enforcement under a compliance plan backed by court order…

Today in Colorado, 51 percent of the 326 million to 398 million barrels a year of the oil and gas industry’s liquid waste is injected deep underground, state officials said in responses to Denver Post queries. Another 12 percent is discharged into creeks and rivers — about 1.6 billion gallons a year — under 23 CDPHE permits…

Most fracking now is done using recycled produced water, he said…

Industry leaders “are doing pilot projects right now that are protected by non-disclosure agreements” and investing in filtration technology, Ludlam said. “There’s a lot going on behind the scenes.”

More oil and gas coverage here and here.