Samples collected in 29 locations in eight rivers in the flood zone show high levels of E. coli in the Boulder Creek and Big Thompson River watershed, the state health department said Tuesday. The testing also showed high levels of E. coli in locations in the South Platte Basin all the way to the Nebraska line The samples were collected on Sept. 26, more than two weeks after flooding began. The areas will be resampled in the next few weeks.
Although the state is tracking multiple spills — about 40,000 gallons of oil — from well and storage facilities in the South Platte Basin, the testing showed no evidence of contamination.
“Although much attention was focused on spills from oil and gas operations, it is reassuring the sampling shows no evidence of oil and gas pollutants,” Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment chief medical officer Dr. Larry Wolk said. “There were elevated E. coli levels, as we expected, in some locations.”
The highest levels of E. coli were detected in Boulder and near Niwot, where tests found the bacteria at a rate of 472-911 colonies per milliliter of water. Levels higher than about 126 parts per milliliter are considered unsafe, said Steve Gunderson, director of the state’s water quality control division.
Slightly lower levels of E. coli — 126 to 472 parts per milliliter — were detected along Boulder Creek northeast of Boulder, near Erie and near Boulder Creek’s confluence with the St. Vrain. Similarly high levels were detected near the confluence of the St. Vrain and South Platte north of Platteville, east of Milliken near the confluence of the South Platte and Big Thompson, and long the South Platte west of Kersey and near Orchard, Brush, Sterling and Julesberg.
Levels of 126 to 472 parts per milliliter also were found on the Big Thompson in two spots between Estes Park and Loveland.
State health department engineers estimate about 20 million gallons of raw sewage poured into floodwaters untreated, as well as 150 million to 270 million gallons of partially treated sewage, Gunderson said.
“It’s a wild guess,” Gunderson said. “But there were sewer systems that were out of commission for a while. Some were flooded. Some had sewer lines that were ripped out. It was pretty catastrophic.”
For example, a broken city of Boulder main allowed raw sewage to flow directly into Boulder Creek in the days after flooding began Sept. 11.
The water quality division also looked at feed lots and dairies in the flood zone. “Remarkably, those fared pretty well,” Gunderson said.
The state will test again in the next few weeks, and then return in the spring to begin assessing the impact of the flood and related contamination on aquatic life, Gunderson said.
“Not so much how fish are faring, but we’ll be looking for the bugs they feed on,” Gunderson said. “They are an indicator of aquatic life health and they are sensitive to problems in the stream — water quality, sediment smothering the rocks on the bottom where they live.”
The health department also sampled for metals that may have been released from mining areas in the mountains, but the analysis is not complete.
According to the health department, the E. coli can make people sick. However, outbreaks of communicable diseases or illnesses after floods seldom are seen and have not been reported with the recent flooding in Colorado.
Five public drinking water systems remain on boil or bottled water advisories: Jamestown, Lyons, Mountain Meadow Water Supply, Lower Narrows Campground and Sylvan Dale Ranch.
In the discussions of water in the San Luis Valley we hear of wells being augmented. What does this mean and what is an Augmentation Plan? These are important concepts that are applicable throughout Colorado. This article is intended to describe these concepts as there are Augmentation Plans in the San Luis Valley it is anticipated that we will continue to hear this term as the Colorado Division of Water Resources promulgate Well Rules and Regulations for irrigation wells.
According to the “Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law”, published by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, in 1969, the Colorado General Assembly allowed development of augmentation plans. An augmentation plan is a Water Court-approved plan designed to protect senior water rights, while allowing junior water rights to divert water out of priority and avoid State Engineer shutdown orders. Injury occurs to senior water right holders if the out-of-priority diversion intercepts water that would otherwise be available under natural conditions to the senior water right.
In over appropriated basins, such as the Rio Grande and Conejos River, or where no unappropriated water is available, individuals or businesses wanting to have a well are unable to obtain a well permit for tributary groundwater without an augmentation plan. This does not apply if the new well is for household use only.
Augmentation plans allow for out-of-priority diversions by replacing the water a new well owner (junior water right holder) consume, which in turn depletes the hydrologic system by an equal amount of water. The replacement water must meet the needs of senior water rights holders such as being available at the time, place, quantity and suitable quality they would enjoy absent the out-of-priority diversions. Having an augmentation plan allows a junior water user, for example, to pump a tributary groundwater well, even when a Rio Grande and Conejos River Compact call exists on the rivers.
Replacement water may come from any legally available source and be provided by a variety of means. An augmentation plan identifies the structures, diversions, beneficial uses, timing and amounts of depletions to be replaced, along with how and when the replacement water will be supplied and how the augmentation plan will be operated. Some augmentation plans use storage water to replace depletions. Others include the use of unlined irrigation ditches and ponds during the nongrowing season to recharge the groundwater aquifers that feed the river. A person who wants to divert out [of priority] must file an application with the regional Water Court. Under certain circumstances the State Engineer may approve temporary changes of water rights and plans to replace out-of-priority depletions using Substitute Water Supply Plans. This allows well pumping to continue while Water Court applications for changes of water rights or augmentation plans are being approved. A Substitute Water Supply Plan requires adequate replacement water to cover depletions of water that would injure senior water rights.
What does this mean in the San Luis Valley? There are irrigation companies that have augmentation plans and decrees that allow them to recharge the groundwater so that their members can pump water. This recharge may take place during different times of the year. Individuals and commercial or industrial well users can have augmentation plans for their specific wells.
The San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and the Conejos Water Conservancy District (Districts) have augmentation decrees that allow them to provide augmentation water to offset the water consumed by different entities that need to use wells for their homes or businesses, but not for agricultural irrigation wells.
Without the availability of these services a person or company wanting to put in a well would have to have their own individual augmentation plan, which can be very time consuming and expensive to complete. The Districts sell the augmentation water to the well owners and make a commitment to provide the actual augmentation water back into the hydrologic system on an annual basis. This is achieved by determining how much water each well owner will consume each year, which will typically be less than the amount they pump as some of the water will typically return into the ground. The Districts will replenish into the Rio Grande and Conejos River an equal amount of water as that consumed by the users of their clients’ wells. This is done by releasing into the river systems water that the Districts own. This water in turn has come from the yield of water rights the Districts have acquired over time. These water rights were surface water rights or irrigation water rights that have been through Water Court to change the beneficial use from irrigation to the Districts’ augmentation programs. The Districts provides these services to individuals who require a well for their homes and gardens, to commercial businesses and industry, such as restaurants, solar companies, who need water to wash down their photovoltaic panels, and potato storage operators.
It is anticipated the future Well Rules and Regulations to be promulgated by the Colorado Division of Water Resources will require owners of agriculture irrigation wells to either individually augment the well if the well is not included in a Groundwater Management Subdistrict.
The FDA guidance states that floodwaters may be exposed to sewage, chemicals, heavy metals, pathogenic microorganisms or other contaminants. Even if floodwaters do not come into contact with a crop, they can still cause microbial contamination, and plants may take up chemical contaminants from the soil. Additionally, the soil and plant life could develop mold and toxins from standing water.
So far, the floods have caused more than 37,000 gallons of oil to spill into or nearby rivers and also dislodged wastewater storage tanks used for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). Other dangers in the floodwaters include fertilizers, pesticides, animal manure, human sewage and animal carcasses.
The FDA guidance instructs producers to properly dispose of any crops that have come into direct contact with floodwaters. Other crops must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) does not have an estimate for the amount of crops impacted by the floods because the fields are under too much standing water to evaluate the damages. CDA did confirm that corn was the only animal feed left in the fields. If the corn is harvested, then CDA can test for contamination under its usual testing program.
Because most sources report that the floodwaters mostly impacted fields without crops, the more important evaluation will likely be an assessment of flood-affected fields before replanting.
Evaluating whether farmland is contaminated largely depends on whether the farm was flooded by excess precipitation or rising bodies of water, according to Elizabeth A. Bihn, Ph.D., director of the Produce Safety Alliance. A field is more likely to be contaminated if it was flooded by a nearby water source, she said.
Oil and gas companies in the Colorado’s flood soaked Denver-Julesburg Basin say they are drawing lessons from 500-year flood that swept across hundreds of square miles of the Front Range.
One of the biggest of those lessons was that earth berms got washed away and with them tanks storing oil and water. Metal berms — which are really more like fences -– held in even floating tanks. There have been spills of 1,042 barrels of petroleum fluids and 430 barrels of production water, containing well impurities, for a total of nearly 62,000 gallons, according to the state. Almost all that came from dislodged tanks or valves or pipes connected to tanks.
“We’ll look for anything in the lower flood plain with steel containment. … These held up really well,” said Dan Kelly, Noble Energy vice president for the DJ Basin. Noble is the largest oil and gas operator in the basin with about 8,000 wells. Noble has been using steel containment on all new wells, but there were old, legacy wells that had earthen works and the state recorded spills at four Noble sites totaling about 9,700 gallons.
Encana Corp., the fourth largest operator in the basin, with about 1,100 wells, has during the last three years replaced earthen berms with the steel fences at its 425 tank batteries, said Pete Straub, the company’s head of DJ Basin field operations. “We had some produced water tanks that that been buried and were light and floated, but nothing floated away,” Straub said.
The other technology that companies said served them well was the telemetry systems which enabled wells to be shut-in remotely. “We have the capability to close wells within a matter of minutes,” said Ted Brown, a Noble senior vice president. Noble closed 758 wells as the rains started to become heavy – some by radio, some manually. About 394 remain closed, the company said.
Noble has a control room in its Greeley headquarters where it can monitor all its wells. For Encana, whose Longmont office were surrounded by flood waters, many of the 397 wells it shut-in where handled by a Encana employee with a laptop and an Aircard, Straub said. “It gives use flexibility … and it worked,” Straub said. Encana still has 61 wells shut, some for production reasons and some because the ground around them is still not firm, Straub said.
At the peak of the flooding a total of 1,900 wells were shut-in…
The companies say they are now conducting full reviews as is the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. “Nothing is fortunate about this but we will take the knowledge we’ve gained in the last two to three weeks and we will absolutely incorporate into future plans,” Noble’s Kelly said
The concern of environmental and conservation groups, however, is that oil and gas operations shouldn’t be located in the flood plains, regardless of the technology. “You are putting industrial activity and potential pollution in harms way,” said Gary Wockner, Colorado program director for Clean Water Action. “Oil and gas activities have to be more tightly regulated in flood plains.”
“We’ll sit down with regulators and go through all this because I know there is a lot of talk about that right now,” said Noble’s Brown.
The state’s focus on meeting municipal needs at the expense of agriculture is short-sighted because feeding people is as important as building subdivisions, speakers told a crowd Monday.
Several top economists gathered for a workshop for policymakers on how to put a value on agricultural water. About 150 attended the event, cosponsored by the Colorado Ag Water Alliance and the Arkansas Basin Roundtable. “We’re in danger of losing a generation of farmers when the world needs them more than ever,” said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance. The alliance has mounted a national effort to stress the importance of irrigated agriculture, and Keppen argued that farm water should not be the default solution to filling the nation’s water needs. In fact, he suggested that water plans start with a description of how many acres need to be irrigated, then deciding how urban needs would be met.
The same fight is going on in Colorado. The roundtable is looking for ways to put agriculture on the state’s radar for several years. “After having lost water out of our valley, we began to realize that ag water is undervalued,” said Reeves Brown, a Beulah rancher who has spearheaded the roundtable’s efforts. “It’s not just a default position to support the state’s future growth.”
John Salazar, Colorado commissioner of agriculture, echoed those sentiments, saying water should be a vital piece in the upcoming state water plan. “It’s critical to the future of this state and to the water policy of the nation,” Salazar said.
Many political leaders from the county to state level attended Monday’s sessions, which featured presentations in the morning and discussions with speakers in the afternoon. Most said their eyes were opened to new ways of looking at a potential crisis in the state water supply.
To some, it was old hat. “They don’t go back far enough,” said Carl McClure, a Crowley County farmer who serves on the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District board. Crowley County has been ground zero for water transfers for the five decades. “We were talking about the value of water in the 1960s with the first Twin Lakes sales,” McClure said. “This is helpful, because we never talked about all these long-term impacts when the water started selling.”
Cities have paid millions of dollars to buy water from farmers, taking it off the land forever. But there are bigger price tags hiding in the background — for recreation, the environment and small-town Main Streets — seldom considered during prior sales of water in Colorado. “The value of water is getting it to the right place in the right time with the right amount of water,” said Michael Hanemann, a University of California-Berkeley economics professor who worked on some of that state’s biggest water deals. For water, there is always a private benefit derived when money changes hands, but also public economic concerns such as environment, recreation and the health of local economies, Hanemann said.
It may take years for the harm to become apparent. “Trying to look out 50-100 years in time is a real challenge if you don’t get it right,” said Harry Seely, a partner in West Water Research. “One of the lessons (of past water deals) is how the highest and best use of water changes over time.”
Economist Tom Binnings, whose Summit Economics company worked on a study of Front Range urban water values several years ago, said economic studies of water value often depend on who commissions the study. Immediate needs often overshadow long-term goals. “We have a short-term bias,” he said. “We have to long for long-term relationships that balance food security with population growth.”
Colorado is ahead of the rest of the nation in thinking about its water future. “I was struck by the brilliance of rotational fallowing (such as the plan promoted by the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch),” said Frank Ward, an economics professor at New Mexico State University. He called it a good way to prevent permanently taking water out of agriculture.
Bonnie Colby, an economics professor at the University of Arizona, said other values provided by agriculture such as agritourism, open space, wildlife habitat, local food supply and even as a “risk buffer” for urban water supply should be factored into the cost of transactions.
In a state where more water transactions have taken place than possibly any other spot in the world, Colorado has a “well-functioning” water market — but extra efforts will be required to keep its farms, ranches and dairies operating. More data will be needed to stress to cities the “silent” opportunities of keeping water in agriculture, and the exploration of alternative water transfers between cities and ag producers needs to continue as well. Those were among the many points hammered home by agriculture economists and other industry experts during a workshop Monday.
“Valuing Colorado’s Agriculture: A Workshop for Water Policy Makers,” hosted by the Colorado Ag Water Alliance and Arkansas Basin Roundtable, was attended by Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar, Colorado State University faculty and Gov. John Hickenlooper’s special adviser on water, John Stulp, among dozens of others.
The main focus of the meeting was slowing down the ongoing “buy and dry” of farmground in Colorado — growing cities purchasing water from farmers who have left the land. At the current rate of buy and dry, 500,000 to 700,000 acres of irrigated farmground could be out of production by 2050, according to the Statewide Water Supply Initiative study, released in 2010. Already, the region’s largest water project — the 12-reservoir Colorado-Big Thompson Project — has gone from about 85 percent ownership by agricultural users when it went into operation in 1957, to only about 34 percent ag ownership now, numbers from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District show.
Without more efforts and cooperation in the near future, Colorado’s $40 billion ag industry — the state’s second largest-economic contributor — is in jeopardy, and climate change could only add to those challenges, presenters said Monday.
In addition to being an economic driver, a healthy ag industry provides open spaces, wetland habitats for wildlife, and food, fuel and fiber for a growing population, according to speakers, who stressed that more studies and data are needed to detail to policy makers and urban populations those benefits.
During their presentations, Bonnie Colby, an agricultural and resource economics professor at the University of Arizona, and Frank Ward, professor of water policy at the New Mexico State University, spoke of some in-the-works alternatives to ag producers selling their water rights to cities, such as rotational fallowing, where ag water providers and users agree to take some land out of production — improving the health of that soil — and lease unused water to cities, rather than selling water rights permanently.
Colby, Ward and others who presented also talked of creating water banks, deficit-irrigation farming, incorporating dryland crops onto irrigated acres and improving the state’s “use it or lose it” water policies.
Colby shared numbers with the crowd, showing that from 1987 to 2010, more water transfers took place in Colorado than any other state, and possibly any other place in the world. She and other presenters stressed that Colorado’s water market provides a good foundation for meeting its future water challenges, but more flexibility, data, cooperation and communication will be needed.
Rebecca Love Kourlis — executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal Systems, and former Colorado Supreme Court justice — noted during her presentation that the challenge of keeping water on Colorado farms presents a “golden opportunity” for land-grant universities, like CSU, to step up their ag-water research and efforts to educate the public.
Kourlis added that the nation’s cheap food policy — which for decades made profiting in agriculture tough, leading many farmers to leave the land and sell their water to cities — should be evaluated as well.
Kourlis also encouraged ag producers to have more dialogue with the state’s 13 Water Court judges and seven Colorado Supreme Court justices about the challenges agriculture faces.
Kourlis noted, though, that she’s pleased with how the conversations have changed in Colorado from a decade ago, when farmers and ranchers were simply encouraged to conserve their water, she said.
“That doesn’t provide incentive for farmers to stay in agriculture,” she added, while complimenting Colorado officials for their current efforts to develop a comprehensive statewide water plan.
Across the board, farmers need more incentive to keep their water and stay on the farm, stressed Kourlis and Dan Keppen, a water engineer and executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, who noted during his presentation that only 6 percent of farmers today are under the age of 35.