Clear Creek: A river runs though it — The Clear Creek Courant

Clear Creek watershed map via the Clear Creek Watershed Foundation
Clear Creek watershed map via the Clear Creek Watershed Foundation

Here’s part II of the series on Clear Creek from the Clear Creek Courant (Ian Neligh). Here’s an excerpt:

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part series examining the past, present and future of Clear Creek.

Through the mountains and down to the plains, Clear Creek has rushed along its jagged banks long before civilization ever found it and the gold hidden within. Its discovery led to industry, economy and community. The tie binding the stream to the people living along its banks will not be broken easily.

A commitment

Several thousand mines are estimated to crisscross the county. Lasting repercussions of the mining industry led to more than 100 efforts to clean up the stream and mitigate the mining pollution in the last decade.

According to David Holm, the Clear Creek Watershed Foundation’s executive director, stream mitigation is a “forever commitment.”

“Once you’re going down that road, you’ve really made a forever commitment for maintenance,” Holm said. “So mine drainage is like that. It is a forever problem.”

Mine waste removal and restoration of stream banks are projects that, once completed, are ultimately removed from the Clear Creek remediation radar screen, Holm said.

Clear Creek always had a “metal footprint” because of the natural mineralization in the mineral belt, which the stream cuts across, Holm said.

“So there’s no question that there would have been iron, manganese, aluminum in elevated levels, and probably a little bit of a diminished pH,” Holm said. “The tremendous increase in exposure to the weather and elements of the mineral zone, brought about by mining, definitely has increased that footprint, and we will never eliminate that additional increased footprint.”

However, the stream is cleaner today than in recent memory, thanks to efforts by the Watershed Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

A new industry

The mining industry, once so reliant on the stream, has dwindled to nearly nothing. In its place, a recreational industry has grown by leaps and bounds.

Since 1991, rafting companies using Clear Creek have experienced more than a 7,000 percent increase in customers. This increase comes at an ideal time, when the county is looking to transition to a recreation-based economy, with Clear Creek considered the area’s crown jewel.
The increase in visitors to the county had nearly a $19 million economic impact in 2013, according to the Colorado River Outfitters Association.

Association executive director David Costlow said the meteoric rise in recreation over the years is in large part due to the stream’s close proximity to Denver and to the relatively relaxed regulations for outfitters launching in Clear Creek.

Costlow said a lot of companies based on other rivers, such as the Arkansas, now bring customers to Clear Creek.

Last year, 61,000 “user days” were reported on the stream. A user day is how the rafting industry tracks customers and equates to one customer spending time on the river during one day. In 1991, the Colorado River Outfitters Association noted, Clear Creek had just 800 user days. Today the area has 15 rafting outfitters, with several owning locations in the area and putting in additional features such as zip-lines.

“You can see the growth on Clear Creek pretty rapidly. It was just 30,000 (user days) not too long ago, and now it is around 60,000,” Costlow said. “It’s a fun river, a lot of rapids per mile.”

‘Mining recreation opportunities’

County officials see the stream as a large piece in the area’s economic puzzle. In 2010, Clear Creek Open Space, with the help of funding from a Federal Highway Administration grant, created the Lawson Whitewater Park. The park includes boulders that create specialty chutes and waves for kayakers and other boaters along the 450-foot stretch of Clear Creek just upstream from Mile Hi Rafting. The park also has parking and a changing station with environmentally friendly toilets.

County Commissioner Tim Mauck said Clear Creek saw little to no rafting 15 years ago, and now it is the second busiest river in Colorado. The county is working on a Greenway Project, which it hopes one day will create an uninterrupted recreational space following the stream from one end of the county to the other.

Earlier this year, officials met for a groundbreaking ceremony for a $13.9 million project that will link Clear Creek and Jefferson counties with a 10-foot-wide concrete trail for 6 miles, improve stream access, and link the Oxbow parcel with Mayhem Gulch.

“Looking for recreational opportunities is really something we need to position ourselves to take advantage of,” Mauck said. “The stream is the lifeblood in so many ways, not just physically to the necessities of life, but we’re drawn to it in ways that just make obvious sense.”

Mauck said Clear Creek offers a diversity of recreational opportunities such as rafting, kayaking, angling and gold panning, and the county needs to continue to transform itself and take advantage of the creek, but now in a different way.

“It’s (now about) mining the recreation opportunities,” Mauck said.

More Clear Creek watershed coverage here.

NOAA: Western drought brings Lake Mead to lowest level since it was built #ColoradoRiver

Lake Mead water levels via NOAA
Lake Mead water levels via NOAA

From Climate.gov:

On July 11, the day these photos were taken, the Lake Mead reservoir reached its lowest water level since the lake was first filled during the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. The lake’s elevation was 1,081.77 feet—147.23 feet below capacity and 133.99 feet below its last peak in 1998. Similar to how the rings in the cross-section of a tree trunk can tell a story about that tree’s past, the high points and low points of Lake Mead’s water history can be glimpsed from observing recent photos taken at the Hoover Dam.

The highest rust-colored ring on the concrete dam structure shown in the top photo marks the height of the water when the lake is near capacity (it’s never allowed to literally fill to the tip-top). The top of the dark ring around the water intake towers at image left in the foreground indicates the height of the water level on December 21, 2012—the highest the lake has been this decade. At the time, water levels were down 95.4 feet from 1998 levels. The white “bathtub ring” seen on the rocky sides of the reservoir in the bottom photo shows the historical high water level in the reservoir. The ring is a coating of minerals, deposited on the rocks while they were covered by water.

The Lake Mead reservoir—the largest in the United States—stores Colorado River water for delivery to farms, homes, and businesses in southern Nevada, Arizona, southern California, and northern Mexico. According to the National Park Service website, about 96 percent of the water in Lake Mead is from melted snow that fell in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Each year, these “Upper Basin” states are required to allow a minimum flow of Colorado River water to reach Lake Mead.

This year’s new low was hardly unexpected. Runoff in the Upper Colorado River Basin was 94 percent of average in 2014, but that flow wasn’t enough to make up for the previous two years’ shortfalls: runoff was only 47 percent of normal in 2013 and 45 percent in 2012, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

The past two years are a continuation of a15-year dry spell in the U.S. Southwest that has led to more water going out of Lake Mead than coming in. The lake reached an all-time high of 1,215.76 feet in November 1998, but it has not approached that level since. The Bureau’s Boulder Canyon Operations Office projects the lake’s elevation to continue to drop through the fall, falling to approximately 1,080 feet in November of this year.

Fluctuations in regional climate and the resulting water level in Lake Mead are an expected part of its operation, but many scientists are concerned that the recent prolonged drought could be a sign that the region will confront significant water supply challenges as greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise.

Projections of precipitation changes in the Colorado watershed are less certain than those for temperature changes in the Southwest, but rising temperature along with declining snowpack and streamflows may threaten the reliability of surface water supply across the Southwest, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment.

The report also warns that the current drought could be just beginning. Southwest paleoclimate records show that severe mega-droughts at least 50 years long have occurred in the past several thousand years. Unlike those ancient droughts, however, similarly dry periods in the future are projected to be substantially hotter, and for major river basins such as the Colorado River Basin, drought is projected to become more frequent, intense, and longer lasting than in the historical record.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

Drought News: South Platte River basin drought-free from stem to stern #COdrought

Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

Summary
This U.S. Drought Monitor week saw heavy showers and thunderstorms across the Central Plains and portions of the Upper Midwest as well as along the central and western Gulf Coast. Rainfall accumulations in the Central Plains and Upper Midwest were heaviest across Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska with some areas receiving in excess of six inches. The combination of above-average summer rainfall accumulations in many areas and short-term gains (seven-day accumulations) led to improvements in drought-affected areas of Kansas and Nebraska. Along the central and western Gulf Coast, locally heavy rainfall fell across coastal areas of Louisiana and Texas with some areas receiving five-to-ten inches helping to improve drought conditions in southeastern Texas. Meanwhile, much of the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeast remained relatively dry with the exception of some isolated showers and thunderstorms across portions of Florida and Georgia. Temperatures were well above average for the week across Texas, the Southern Plains, Midwest, and portions of the Mid-Atlantic and New England. Out West, light rainfall accumulations were observed in the Central Rockies, New Mexico, and Wyoming. In the Southwest, monsoonal rains began to taper off across the region. West of the Continental Divide, dry conditions dominated…

The Plains
Drought conditions continued to improve across portions of Kansas and Nebraska this week as heavy rains increased soil moisture conditions and streamflows. Rainfall amounts were highest across eastern Kansas and southeastern Nebraska where accumulations ranged from three-to-six inches leading to one-category improvements in areas of Severe Drought (D2) and Moderate Drought (D1). In southwestern Nebraska and southeastern South Dakota, summer rains have brought conditions back to normal. In west-central Oklahoma, above-average temperatures and short-term precipitation deficits led to expansion in areas of Extreme Drought (D3) and Severe Drought (D2) while rainfall this week helped to slightly improve areas of Extreme Drought (D3) and Severe Drought (D2) in the Panhandle. During the past week, temperatures were above normal in the Southern Plains while Northern Plains temperatures were below normal…

The West
During the past week, conditions were generally dry across most of the West with the exception of some light, isolated shower activity (<2 inches) in portions of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. The Far West, Great Basin, and Intermountain West were dry, however. Improvements were made on the map in parts of the eastern Great Basin including one-category improvements in areas of Severe Drought (D2) in northwestern and west-central Utah, as well as northeastern Nevada where springtime and monsoon-season rains helped improve rangeland conditions, soil moisture, and streamflows. In the mountains of northeastern Nevada and south-central Idaho, snowpacks were below normal for the Water Year (since October 1st); but total precipitation amounts at Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) SNOTEL sites (observational stations that measure snow water content, snow depth, accumulated precipitation, soil moisture, and air temperature) in these areas show that Water-Year-To-Date accumulated precipitation is near normal or normal. In this region, lingering hydrologic impacts persist as reservoirs remain well below normal. In northwestern, west central, and southwestern Utah, monsoon rains improved soil moisture and rangeland conditions according to the August 25, 2014, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Utah Crop Progress and Conditions Report. In northeastern Utah, northwestern Colorado, and southwestern Wyoming, summer rains helped to improve conditions leading to one-category improvements in areas of Extreme Drought (D2) and Severe Drought (D1). During the past week, temperatures were above normal in the Far West and below normal across the eastern half of the West…

Looking Ahead
The NWS WPC 7-Day Quantitative Precipitation Forecast (QPF) calls for moderate-to-heavy rainfall accumulations (two-to-five inches) across the Desert Southwest, Southern Rockies, Central Plains, Upper Midwest, Southeast, and lower Mid-Atlantic regions. Late in the period, a plume of subtropical moisture is forecasted to move into the Southwest bringing potentially heavy rains. In the Far West, dry conditions are forecasted to persist across California, the Great Basin, and most of the Pacific Northwest. The 6–10 day outlooks call for a high probability of above-normal temperatures across the Far West, Southern Plains, South, Southeast, and Mid-Atlantic while below-normal temperatures are forecasted across the Central Rockies, Northern Plains, Upper Midwest, and New England. Temperatures across much of Alaska, including western, south-central, and southeastern regions are forecasted to be above normal. Regarding precipitation across the conterminous U.S., a high probability of above-normal precipitation is expect across the Southwest and the eastern half of the U.S. Below-normal precipitation is expected across the Pacific Northwest and western Alaska while precipitation in southeastern Alaska and the eastern half of Interior Alaska is forecasted to be above normal for the period.

Aspinall Unit operations update: Summer rains bolstering flows in Black Canyon

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from Crystal Dam will be reduced from 1600 cfs to 1450 cfs on Wednesday, September 3rd at 1:00 PM. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows have remained relatively high due to the August rains and flows are expected to stay above the September baseflow target at the new rate of release.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for September.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 600 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon should be around 450 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Drought news

Jacob Bornstein speaks about the Role of Groundwater in the State Water Plan, 9/17/14 @AWRACO #COWaterPlan

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Denver District Court Throws Out License to Build Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill—Again — @sheepmtn

Here’s the release from the Sheep Mountain Alliance (Hillary Cooper):

A Denver district judge has ruled against the license issued by the state of Colorado to Energy Fuels to construct and operate a uranium mill in Paradox Valley in western Montrose County for the second time.

In a court ruling issued Wednesday, September 3, 2014, District Judge Robert McGahey found that the hearing process for the mill, ordered by a previous judge who invalidated the license in June of 2012, did not comply with the 2012 order. In today’s order, Judge McGahey ruled that a hearing officer must review the record established at the November 2012 hearing and make an “initial decision as to whether Energy Fuels application has met all criteria under state law.” Sheep Mountain Alliance and Rocky Mountain Wild retained technical experts who presented solid evidence at the hearing to prove that Energy Fuels’ application was based on false information and that the environmental review was incomplete.

“This process has been mishandled by the state agency from the start and the district court has agreed again,” stated Hilary Cooper, executive eirector of Sheep Mountain Alliance. “If the state chooses to continue this process, it will be taking action on a 2009 application for a project that will most likely never be built.”

Sheep Mountain Alliance, a grassroots conservation group based in Telluride, Colorado, has led the effort with Rocky Mountain Wild to stop the Piñon Ridge uranium mill based on significant environmental impacts to the surrounding region. SMA filed a lawsuit against the state of Colorado in February 2011 after the first radioactive materials license was issued to Energy Fuels. The Piñon Ridge mill would have been the first conventional uranium processing mill approved in the U.S. since 1980. The judge agreed with SMA’s challenge and ordered an independent hearing officer to conduct a hearing in November 2012. The hearing officer did not take action on issues raised during the hearing. Instead, the hearing officer sent the file to the state with simple direction to proceed with the license consideration. The state then issued a second license to Energy Fuels in April 2013. SMA and RMW again challenged the decision, and today’s ruling found that the hearing officer “failed to make a conclusion as to whether Energy Fuels application met all criteria for issuance of a license pursuant”.

In the meantime, Energy Fuels acquired the existing White Mesa uranium mill in Blanding, Utah, and admitted that they did not intend to build the Piñon Ridge mill because of unfavorable economic conditions and the redundancy of two mills in close proximity. In addition, Energy Fuels has entered into a contract to sell the Piñon Ridge mill property and other assets to George Glasier, the original founder of Energy Fuels, who is backed by Baobab Asset Management, Inc.

“The application lacks sufficient analysis of impacts to wildlife and the environment,” states Matt Sandler, staff attorney with Rocky Mountain Wild. “This decision is a win for the wildlife and the natural resources of this region. Our hope is that this remand will finally highlight the deficient environmental analysis included in the application.”

“The state has a clear choice to deny the Energy Fuels application and require a future developer to reapply with an updated application, which must address the conditions on the ground at that time,” states Cooper. “It’s time to release the communities of southwest Colorado from the false hope embellished by this industry for too long.”

More nuclear coverage here.