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Transmountain Diversions connect us all — Water Quality and Quantity Blog

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office
Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

Here’s a report about last week’s Colorado Foundation for Water Education transbasin diversion tour from the Water Quality and Quantity Blog. Here’s an excerpt:

Because QQ works to address environmental (and resulting economic) impacts from transmountain diversions, the best part of the tour for me was gaining a better appreciation for how interconnected the State is through transmountain diversions.

The Arkansas Valley is the recipient of water that is diverted through complex tunnel systems, or simple diversion ditches, from the western side of the Continental Divide to water population centers on the Front Range. The tour focused primarily on the benefits that historic transmountain diversions (TMDs) have provided to the Eastern Slope. Chaffee County Commissioner Dennis Giese even thanked the West Slope for the water that makes their recreation and ranching economies thrive (a touching gesture that does not happen enough in dialogue across the divide).

We saw the first-ever TMD, the Ewing Ditch, and walked along the ¾ mile ditch from the diversion point to the point it crosses the Continental Divide. We saw TMDs of a much larger scale too, watching water blast from the side of a mountain, bringing water from Homestake Reservoir in the Eagle River basin through a 5-mile tunnel to Turquoise Reservoir and the Arkansas River basin.

More Colorado Foundation for Water Education coverage here.

Aspinall Unit operations update: 450 cfs in Black Canyon

Aspinall Unit
Aspinall Unit

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from Crystal Dam will be reduced from 1450 cfs to 1350 cfs on Tuesday, September 30th at 9:00 AM. The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association will be reducing diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel by 100 cfs on Tuesday morning. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows have remained relatively high due to the September 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 base-flow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for September through December.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 450 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 950 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon should still be around 450 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

More Aspinall Unit coverage here.

EPA plans concrete bulkhead for Red and Bonita mine in 2015

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage
Bonita Mine acid mine drainage

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

Representatives from several government agencies, including the EPA, informed La Plata and San Juan county commissioners last week that the Red and Bonita mine will be plugged to help stem the flow of metals.

“This is a worthwhile investment,” said Steve Way, on-scene coordinator for the EPA.

The EPA plans to pay for the large concrete bulkhead, which could cost between $750,000 and $1.5 million, Way said earlier this year.

The Red and Bonita Mine is a major source of metals such as cadmium, zinc, iron and aluminum that have been flowing into Cement Creek and are responsible for killing off native fish and other species, the researches told local commissioners.

“We really need to do something about this before it gets worse,” said John Ott, general manager of Animas Water Co.

While his well water is in good shape, as a farmer on the Animas River below Bakers Bridge, he said he is disturbed by the pollution.

In 2003, the Sunnyside Gold Corp., the last major mining operation in Silverton, stopped treating the water in Cement Creek.

Then in 2006, the Red and Bonita started leaking high levels of metals after the American Tunnel was plugged in several places, which raised the water table, said Peter Butler, co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

In recent years, the EPA and other agencies have come together to assess if plugging the mine would significantly reduce pollution. They found it contributes some of the highest levels of heavy metals year-round to Cement Creek and leaks about 300 gallons of polluted water per minute, Way said. A plug would help, but it would not eliminate all the seeping metals.

The mine was active for only a few years in the late 1800s, and miners carved out only 2,000 feet of tunnels below the surface that the EPA and the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety could explore in 2013. After mapping the mine, scientists don’t believe the tunnels are connected to any other systems where polluted water could find an outlet.

The scientists also reason that the bulkhead could reduce the amount of pollution any potential water-treatment plant would have to process if one is installed. The Animas River Stakeholders Group has been researching treatment plant options, but it could be very expensive to maintain.

“Treating water, that is a forever decision,” Way said.

However, a valve will be built into the bulkhead, so that if it causes problems, it could be opened back up. To what degree the plug may raise the water table and how the water would be dispersed is unknown, Way said.

While this would be an EPA project, it will not require Superfund listing. It would be a short-term project by a different branch of the agency.

More Animas River watershed coverage here.

Monsoon, hurricane Odile help southwestern Colorado precipitation totals for water year #COdrought

West Drought Monitor September 23, 3014
West Drought Monitor September 23, 3014

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Trotter):

The 2014 water year is ending gently – for Colorado, at least – as monsoonal rains and the remnants of Hurricane Odile provided enough moisture to push even the drought-stricken southeastern quadrant of the state into the 70-90 percent of normal precipitation range…

The 2014 water year is ending gently – for Colorado, at least – as monsoonal rains and the remnants of Hurricane Odile provided enough moisture to push even the drought-stricken southeastern quadrant of the state into the 70-90 percent of normal precipitation range.

It’s reasonable to think of it almost as an escape, as the state was cool and wet enough to avoid the massive wildfires of the previous two years, Black Forest in 2013 and Waldo Canyon and High Park in 2012, which claimed a total of more than 1,100 homes. There was no epic September flood this time around.

In comparison to California, which continues in the throes of devastating drought, and parts of Washington and Oregon, where millions of acres burned this water year, Colorado was downright fortunate.

“Water year” is a Western term, and the new one begins Oct. 1. It has to do with the annual cycle that includes the first snow in the high country, the accumulation of the snowpack, the spring melt and runoff, the warm summer and whatever rain might fall.

That makes today, Sept. 30, New Year’s Eve of the 2015 water year. But one can forgive residents of southeastern Colorado if they’re not breaking out the party hats. While the late rains boosted moisture totals there toward respectability, the region has been locked in various stages of damaging drought for years.

The U.S. Drought Monitor map, a product of the Department of Agriculture that is updated weekly, has five levels of dryness, from D0, abnormally dry, to D4, exceptional drought. Along with the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, a big chunk of northeastern New Mexico and southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado has been firmly fixed with D3s, extreme drought, and D4s, as bad as it gets.

The modern map, in fact, has looked very similar to that of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, even though, as of now, it has moderated a bit.

“Absolutely,” said assistant state climatologist Wendy Ryan from her office in Fort Collins. “As we were keeping track, particularly in 2011 and 2012, we started drawing comparisons to the ‘30s. It was as dry and as hot down there as the Dust Bowl.”

The visual elements were also there: Enormous dust storms, but not with the frequency or longevity of the 1930s, and tumbleweed melees that covered highways and buried barns and houses…

The lower Arkansas River basin has a long way to go before recovery to normal, Ryan said. The late season moisture has allowed farmers there to get a start on winter wheat, an endeavor that hasn’t panned out in the recent drought years. The big word is evapotranspiration, which is the soil losing moisture with no rain, and through plant transpiration, or “plant sweat.”[…]

The Four Corners were also dry this water year, as was the San Juan River basin, and the Rio Grande has been drought-plagued – which pretty much accounts for the southern tier of Colorado.

In the northern half of the state, the picture for this closing water year has been dramatically different.

The upper Colorado River basin has been flush, and beginning after last September’s massive floods, conditions along the South Platte basin have been extraordinary. Winter wheat yields on the northeastern plains were bountiful, conditions there “beautiful,” as Ryan described them.

A look at the “teacup” map published weekly by the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University also tells the story. Lake Granby is 128 percent of average for this time of year, 98 percent full. Blue Mesa is 74 percent full, Lake Dillon is 99 percent full. Green Mountain is at 85 percent.

All of this munificence is a matter of scale, of course. Downstream on the Colorado River, massive Lake Powell was only 51 percent full last week, and, on the other end of the Grand Canyon, giant Lake Mead has been losing water after years of drought like someone pulled the plug.

Unrelated to the Colorado River but very related to water in the West is the map published last week by the California Department of Water Resources depicting water levels in the Golden State’s major reservoirs, which ranged from 12 to 39 percent full.