“…there is a proposal afoot that would extend [EPA] jurisdiction and accompanying regulations far beyond what makes sense” — Sallie Clark

Groundwater movement via the USGS
Groundwater movement via the USGS

Here’s a guest column (The Pueblo Chieftain) from Sallie Clark dealing with the Environmental Protection Agencie’s proposed clarification of “Waters of the US” under the Clean Water Act:

Coloradans have a special appreciation for the beauty of nature all around us. Everyone benefits from the beauty and bounty of America’s rivers, streams, lakes and other waterways. Of course, these natural resources should be protected from irresponsible polluters, and regulations are in place to ensure clean water in our communities.

But, there is a proposal afoot that would extend federal jurisdiction and accompanying regulations far beyond what makes sense. The National Association of Counties (NACo) sees this proposal as a critical issue, and in my role as First Vice President of NACo and a Colorado county commissioner, I am concerned about how these rule changes will impact local communities.

A new rule, proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, would erase the distinction between bodies of water — such as streams and lakes — and ditches on the side of a road. According to the proposed redefinition of “Waters of the U.S.,” a river would be no different than a public safety ditch; a lake no different than an emergency flood mitigation system.

This latest example of over-regulation makes no sense and creates more confusion than it seeks to address.

Local water conveyances, such as ditches and flood control channels, may fall under federal regulation in this unworkable proposal. It is unclear how far it would extend into drainage systems. That means counties would be required to obtain federal permits to do routine maintenance work on a roadside ditch or storm-water drain. These are essential components of effective water management.

In many cases, the nation’s counties are responsible for maintaining storm drains and other water conveyance systems that keep people safe from rising waters. They often pay a high price to wait for the federal government to issue permits. This new red tape would slow down the process even more and potentially put more people in harm’s way by inhibiting projects that keep water off of roads and away from homes.

The costs and delays of this federal over-regulation would have a significant impact on public safety and economic prosperity. To give a concrete example of some of these concerns, maintaining drainage is critical to keeping our roads safe and open for use, and it requires daily attention. Increasing fees due to additional regulatory permitting for all runoff, as anticipated by the proposal, could bring maintenance efforts to a halt.

How this regulation would be administered is unclear and would be especially cumbersome if it went directly through federal offices not adequately equipped to accommodate heavier permitting.

The expense for plan preparation would add costs not accounted for in our existing budgets.

If fully exercised every basic culvert maintenance or repair could be held up, placing not only a burden on counties financially, but also putting citizens at risk due to delays, as all work would have to first be reviewed and approved by a federal agency.

The approach taken by this proposal would drain local budgets and create delays in critical, time-crucial repairs with no demonstrated long-term environmental benefit.

Federal over-regulation and unfunded mandates unnecessarily hinder counties’ ability to get things done for local citizens. All of us want to protect the environment, but we cannot allow over-regulation to do more harm than good.

Sallie Clark is first vice president of the National Association of Counties and an El Paso County Commissioner.

More Environmental Protection Agency coverage here.

Carrots vs. sticks, and how can Colorado push deeper water conservation? — Allen Best

Orr Manufacturing Vertical Impact Sprinkler circa 1928 via the Irrigation Museum
Orr Manufacturing Vertical Impact Sprinkler circa 1928 via the Irrigation Museum

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Having a conversation about conservation may be clever word play. Having that conservation is rather more difficult than saying it, as became evident in legislative committee hearing last week in Denver.

Nobody testifying before the committee opposed the idea of saving water as Colorado seeks to accommodate 10 million people at mid-century, up from today’s 5.3 million. In fact, it became clear that much is already being done.

But neither was there clear agreement about what the next steps should be and what role state government might have. State Sen. Ellen Roberts, whose bill last winter spurred the legislative hearing, summarized the testimony as recommending “local control, state conversation.”

Without specific mandates, per capita water use has declined dramatically since the late 1990s. Per capita residential use in Pueblo dropped from 185 gallons per capita daily to 120 this year. “We’ve changed, the culture changed,” said Paul Fanning, of the Pueblo Board of Water Works.

Changes provoked by severe drought of 2002 has remained. Before the drought, people were giving turf 22 gallons per square foot in Denver. Now, it’s down to 16 gallons, said Chris Pipher, governmental affairs coordinator for Denver Water.

Municipalities use only 8 percent of water in Colorado, suggesting the state can easily reallocate or develop water for new residents. It’s not that simple. Water available for additional development in the Colorado River Basin is uncertain and highly contested in the case of new transmountain diversions. Rural, farming areas want to survive – while preserving the right for individuals to sell their water to cities, if they wish.

Roberts’ bill originally proposed sharp restrictions on lawn sizes when new subdivisions are built that use water obtained by drying up farms. That proposal didn’t survive.“I now know what it’s like to be between people and grass in Colorado,” said Steve Harris, of Durango, who originally came up with the idea.

The idea now on the table is to specify a ratio between indoor and outdoor use. The size of the dwelling wouldn’t matter. It’s currently at about 50-50, but in some places 60 percent of annual water at homes is used indoors. Some thing it can be pushed to 70 percent.

Why does this matter? Indoor water is typically flushed down drains and ultimately 85 to 90 percent is returned, after treatment, to streams and rivers. Water is being directly reused after treatment in several places in metropolitan Denver.

If that proportion is higher, that means less water is used outdoors.

Water budgets were also mentioned frequently. Boulder has already embraced the concept. The budget is the amount of water you are expected to use during a specific month. Each customer’s budget is based on the unique water needs and past use. Stay within your budget and you pay less for the water you use.

Two water districts in the southwest metropolitan Denver, Centennial and Highlands Ranch, also have adopted water budgets for customers.

“The water budget for outdoor irrigation provides enough water for healthy landscapes, but not so much that our resource is wasted,” the Centennial Water and Sanitation District website says. “Progressively higher tiered rates over the allotted budget serve to encourage conservation.

Several speakers made the point that it’s far easier to install water conservation when homes and other buildings are developed, instead of afterward. Rebecca Mitchell, of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, further offered that incorporating water conservation is much less expensive than developing new supply.

John Barnett, long-range planner for Greeley, noted that a 20 percent increase in density will yield a 10 percent decline in per-capita consumption.

But Greeley, like all other municipal representatives, pushed back at a “one size fits all” approach to conservation.

Joseph Stibrich, planning director for Aurora Water Department and the Metropolitan Roundtable representative at statewide negotiations, says one all-encompassing standards “does not work in Colorado as the ability to reach higher levels of conservation is dependent upon what has already been accomplished to date.”

Stibrich also spoke to the perceived drawbacks of conservation that goes too far in towns and cities: reduced tree canopy, increased “heat island” effects, increased stormwater runoff and accompanying water quality degradations, and reductions in property values.

A recurring theme was a call for “measurable outcomes.” Bruce Whitehead, director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, said the conversation needs to lead to outcomes that are “meaningful and quantifiable.”

Drew Beckwith, of Western Resource Advocates, suggested one way that Colorado might allow local autonomy while move statewide conservation forward is to use funding as incentive. That’s what California does, he said.

April Washington, chairwoman of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, lives in Norwood, and as a resident of the Western Slope, she said she feels there needs to be something that is a “little more forceful.”

Despite the absence of clear ideas of how future legislation may take shape, Whitehead said he was pleased with the conversation in Denver. “I heard loud and clear that he entities do have conservation measure sin place, but they are all using different methods,” Whitehead said in a later interview. “I can’t say enough about the work that Denver has done, and other communities, too.”

Whitehead continues to think the proposal coming out of Durango might work. It sets a goal of indoor use vs. outdoor use, clearly pushing local governments to deeper conservation, but letting them figure out how to do it.

Also of note:

Denver Water’s Chris Pipher called “bluegrass still the path of lease resistance.”

Chris Elliot, a developer of master planned communities in Arvada, Aurora and Golden, said that planning offices generally are very open to landscaping that requires less water use, but parks departments are old school, wanting to lavish water.

Brenda O’Brien of Green Co said the role of state government is to provide consistency.

State Rep. Don Coram, of Montrose, listened to Denver Water’s Jim Lochhead talk about Colorado River problems, and then responded: “We’ve heard a lot today about water budgets,” he said. “It’s time they lived within their budget, as far as I’m concerned,” taking swipe at California’s water use in excess of its compact allocation.

More conservation coverage here.

Western watershed priority: Manage wildfire risk and impacts


From the Albuquerque Journal (John Fleck):

Krista Bonfantine can look up into the mountains behind her Sandia Park home and understand, better than most, the connection between the forested watersheds that provide most of New Mexico’s water and the stuff coming out of her tap.

As she opened the lid on the concrete box that surrounds Cienega Spring, which supplies her neighborhood’s water, she pondered what might happen if a fire burned through the overgrown woods above – the risk of floods tearing down the picturesque canyon, ash and debris wiping out the water supply intake.

Fire and the resulting damage to watersheds have been an increasing concern in recent years, and Bonfantine is part of an ambitious effort to tackle the cause – overgrown forests in New Mexico’s mountains.

While the risk to Bonfantine’s neighborhood is nearby, and therefore immediately apparent, the widespread risk of fire in the watersheds that provide much of New Mexico’s water supplies is harder to see.

The problem is not just the forests themselves, explained Beverlee McClure, president of the Association of Commerce and Industry, a business group. The threat of upland fires threatens the reliability of the water supplies on which we all depend, she said…

McClure’s organization is part of The Rio Grande Water Fund, a broad-based coalition that is working to scale up patchwork efforts underway in the mountains of northern and central New Mexico to restore forests in order to protect the watersheds and water systems on which they depend.

As McClure spoke, a crew from a Corona-based company called Restoration Solutions was at work up the road with chain saws, felling trees in an overgrown patch of woods at a place called Horse Camp on the edge of the Cibola National Forest.

The overgrown woods in the mountains of New Mexico are the result of a century of firefighting that prevented natural, low-intensity fires that used to clear out undergrowth. The result is forests that are so thick in places that they are hard to walk through…

Trees being cut last week on Forest Service land near the Sandia Crest Road can be used as firewood, but there is not enough money to be made from cutting the small timber clogging the unhealthy forests to make such work self-supporting, Racher said. “There’s not enough value in that wood to pay for what needs to be done,” Racher said.

That is at the heart of the Forest Trust, which is attempting to raise $15 million per year in government money and private contributions to pay to expand the work, said Laura McCarthy, director of New Mexico conservation programs for the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group…

“This is a big problem that the federal government is not going to be able to solve for us,” McCarthy said.

More restoration/reclamation coverage here.