More Environmental Protection Agency coverage here.
From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):
The Environmental Protection Agency proposes to tidy up currently ambiguous definitions of what waters are covered under the Clean Water Act. There’s some pushback in the hinterland from the American Farm Bureau, which usually aligns with Republicans, and others.
“Opponents say the rules are a power grab that could stifle economic growth and intrude on property owners’ rights,” reported the New York Times in a March story.
In Colorado, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton told the Durango Herald in September that it was a “water grab” by the EPA. “This is straightforward: You either want to protect the private-property rights of water in Colorado and protect our state law or you don’t,” Tipton said.
The Farmers Union doesn’t see it that way. It traditionally aligns with Democrats and stronger environmental protections. This is no exception. To that end, the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union on Thursday morning held a session in Denver designed to both provide explanation from the EPA and to affirm more broadly the support of the Farmers Union for the role of the federal government in ensuring clean water.
Bill Midcap, director of external affairs for RMFU, set the tone in his introduction. He noted that when growing up north of Fort Morgan, he had learned to swim in the Riverside ditch that served his family farm. In that same ditch, he taught his children how to swim, he said.
He went on to say that he wouldn’t go swimming in the ditch now. The connection to the EPA proposed new rules wasn’t clear, although the insinuation was that water quality has worsened—and needs corrective action.
Further testimony came from Alphonso Abeyta, who is 76 and is a fifth-generation farmer and rancher in the San Luis Valley. He’s southwest of Antonito at about 8,000 feet in elevation, he said.
He told several stories about water quality. One was a plan by the U.S. Department of Energy to transfer contaminated soil from the Los Alamos National Energy Laboratory onto a train siding at Antonio, just 100 feet from a tributary to the Rio Grande. It took some backbone, but the locals blocked the transfer and the risk of contamination water.
“Well, we stopped the Department of Energy from shipping waste from our little town,” he said.
But in another case, the locals got stung – and they’re still stung. That’s a result of the famous Summitville mining fiasco in the 1980s, which resulted in costly pollution of the Alamosa River.
“How can we have organic food when we use water that killed all those fish?” he asked. “Today, we still don’t have fish in that stream. That’s where life begins, at the headwaters.”
If none of these stories spoke directly to the proposed regulations, the background message was again clear: Protecting water quality is important.
The RMFU position is clearly articulated as “common-sense guidance” that “protects clean water for our farms and families, and provides greater certainty for landowners.”
The Clean Water Act is complex and comprehensive, as one speaker described it. Adopted by Congress in 1972 and signed into law by President Richard Nixon, it took several years for the the EPA to formulate the rules and regulations to execute Congressional intent.
Shaun McGrath, the administrator of the six-states EPA region headquartered in Denver, said that the EPA analyzed more than 1,000 scientific studies in creating the proposed rules. The public comment period ends Nov. 14.
The fundamental problem is that the original rules left some questions of what waters are covered by the Clean Water Act. The EPA concluded in the 1970s that Congress intended a broad definition of what “waters of the United States” were to be covered under the law, and courts have upheld this broad definition. But there were some areas of lingering uncertainty, and the U.S. Supreme Court has muddled the waters with its decisions.
One key area of uncertainty is what exactly constitutes “uplands,” which are undefined in current rules, and what water located above ordinary high-water mark for a river or stream would be covered.
In a detailed explanation of the existing and proposed rules, the EPA’s Karen Hamilton emphasized that the proposed rules would not expand areas to be covered to include floodplains and riparian areas.
However, ponds located above the ordinary high-water mark would be specifically come under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act under the new rules.
Groundwater would remain exempt, although the current rules recognize some connection between groundwater and flows of navigable rivers. See much, much more at the EPA website.
A dozen or so farmers and ranchers were at the meeting, coming from diverse parts of the Eastern Slope. The questions they asked suggested agreement with Midcap’s opening statement that, if anything, the EPA doesn’t go far enough in ensuring clean water.
One question revealed a fundamental mistrust of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. The proposed rules do not venture into fracking.
Abeyeta, in a video produced by RMFU, summarized the story well. “Farmers know that everything is connected,” he said. “Snow from the mountains feed the streams, the streams feed the rivers, the rivers feed us. You can’t grow food without water. You can’t live without water.”
For a more in-depth sorting out of the issues, the EPA goes very, very deep. The Durango Herald story is modestly deep, as is a story from High Country News in June. But for a Republican perspective see the essay by U.S. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana. In this posting on The Hill, he calls the proposed rules the “granddaddy of EPA abuse of the Clean Water Act.” However, the Los Angeles Times thought the rules sensible.
Footnotes: This correspondent’s grandparents lived along the Riverside Ditch north of Fort Morgan, maybe two miles from where Midcap grew up and farmed. Abeyeta’s son, Aaron, is a modestly famous poet who just released a new book called “Letters from the Headwaters.” Aaron Abeyeta is also the mayor of Antonito and the high school football coach.
More Environmental Protection Agency coverage here.
From The Grand Junction Free Press (Brittany Markert):
…through his current research, he’s [Cabot] suggesting that farmers and Grand Valley residents adopt more efficient water use practices — from crop watering to shorter showers — for its long-term benefits.
To prove his theory, Cabot is studying water impacts on two Mesa County farms. One is dealing with irrigation conservation related to split-season watering. The other is irrigation efficiency, comparing the three watering systems — drip, irrigation, and furrow.
“We are trying to understand how much water is available in agriculture without jeopardizing agriculture,” Cabot said. “We look at both conservation and efficiency, to prepare them for future water issues.”
This is important to western Colorado because, according to Cabot, residential use of water takes precedence over agriculture use of water. He suggests that conservation and efficiency work hand in hand, and the future of agriculture water is up to how residents and farmers use the water available now.
Cabot said he hasn’t found the best solution for water conservation yet, but he continues to study ways for farms to be more efficient locally.
“Western Slope agriculture and Western Slope water cannot and will not be considered as a single, easy-to-go-to solution to the water-supply concerns of others,” said Mark Harris, the general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association.
There is no easy solution, Harris agreed, but there’s also no denying a large chunk of water is tied up. All communities along the Western Slope and downstream are dependent upon water available, including agriculture and municipal use.
“The future holds a lot of different opinions, though through the lens of farmers, they are resilient,” Cabot said. “If they want to keep farming, they will.”
FUTURE OF AGRICULTURE & WATER
According to Colorado Mesa University’s Water Center coordinator Hannah Holm, when water becomes scarce, farmers have a target on their backs as the first to lose it. And with Colorado currently putting together a water plan to accommodate population growth and reduction in resources, water availability is a hot topic in the agriculture industry these days.
Farmers are as concerned as the rest of the state about having enough water for the state’s future, Colorado Agriculture Water Alliance confirmed. And they’re working to understand the challenges and what the future will hold.
John Harold, an Olathe Sweet Corn farmer at Tuxedo Corn Company, said agriculture is just part of the water-shortage solution.
“We can get by with less and do just as good as job,” he said. “My son and I have 200 acres of drip irrigation and proved we can grow quality crops with less water. There’s tremendous investment to it.”
Farmers are also encouraged to invest in efficient water systems to promote less waste, while also keeping up with population growth.
“It’s a perfect example of doing more with less,” Cabot added.
For more information, visit http://www.crwcd.org.
From The Telluride Daily Planet (Mary Slosson):
Town Council approved a restoration project Tuesday that will transform two man-made sewage lagoons on the Valley Floor into new wetlands.
The two artificial ponds, located in the open Valley Floor space adjacent to the southwest corner of the Pearl Property, are believed to have been excavated in the 1960s with the intent to use as sewage treatment lagoons. They were never used and almost immediately filled with water, officials said. As a result, they were eventually left alone to grow as wild as they could.
“We look at this as a naturalizing of what was obviously a mechanical, man-made and never used excavation, the spoils of which isolated it from the wetland ecosystem,” said Angela Dye, chair of the Open Space Commission. “This project will integrate it into the wetland system we have up there now.”
The restoration project is expected to take two to three weeks and is budgeted at $116,500. Town officials hope to complete the project this fall, when they say the construction would least impact wildlife that calls the ponds home.
In fact, that wildlife is one of the reasons that planners decided to incorporate some of the ponds’ already existing standing water into the final wetland restoration design, instead of reverting the plots back to their native state and removing the standing water altogether.
“There was a desire to keep the pond, and it wasn’t purely for aesthetic reasons,” said Town of Telluride Program Director Lance McDonald, summarizing planning discussions leading up to the restoration proposal.
“There is a lot of wildlife that use the standing water. There is not a lot of standing water on the floor,” McDonald said. “The diversity of animals is quite high here: raccoons, muskrats, fox, geese, ducks. This was an opportunity to have a place for those species on the Valley Floor even though it’s not a natural feature.”
Dye said that the restored sewer ponds would become an environmental education opportunity, with student groups able to observe the waterfowl, mammals and wildlife that flock to the area.
The restoration project will remove the land beam between the lagoons that was created during the original pond excavation to create one uniform body of water, and then use that soil to create wetland benches in the water. The project will also reintroduce native vegetation to the area using samples and seeds from the immediate wetland areas.
A total of 34,800 square feet of new wetlands will be rehabilitated, creating a seamless natural environment from the Pearl Property to the rest of the Valley Floor.
More restoration/reclamation coverage here.
From The Greeley Tribune (Kayla Young):
Two Weld County ballot initiatives aim to direct more tax dollars toward the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District with the intention of increasing water infrastructure and maintenance investments for agriculture and communities.
Ballot issue 4B proposes increasing the district’s annual tax allotment to a maximum of $750,000 in order to provide a stable water supply and maintain storage projects for farms, ranches and municipalities in Weld, Adams and Morgan counties.
Broken down, the home-owners’ tax would equate to an additional $2.34 a year for the owner of $100,000 house, said Kathy Parker, the district’s public information officer. She specified that business owners would not be subject to the levy.
Board member Randy Knutson emphasized the need for infrastructure improvements, especially following the wear and tear brought in 2013.
“With the flood last year and the increased maintenance and repair that we’ve been faced with, that’s a big reason for this particular tax increase, that and aging infrastructure,” he said.
He encouraged non-agricultural landowners to consider the possible benefits the tax would bring to overall quality of life.
“They benefit from agriculture; they benefit from water quality; they benefit from delivery of water, which eventually provides food for them,” he said.
The second ballot issue, 4C, would “de-bruce” funding restrictions created through the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). In other words, the issue would open up excess tax revenue and grants not currently available to the district due to tax code regulations.
“We have lost millions of dollars by not being able to participate in funding and grant money that has been available. The TABOR amendment has limited our ability to participate,” Knutson said.
More 2014 Colorado November election coverage here.