Environment: Bulkhead a big step in Peru Creek cleanup

Summit County: The Pennsylvania Mine gets plugged

Acid mine drainage Pennsylvania Mine via the Summit County Citizens Voice
Acid mine drainage Pennsylvania Mine via the Summit County Citizens Voice

From the Summit Daily News (Ben Trollinger):

On Friday, Oct. 17, Stiegelmeier was one of several federal, state and local officials marking a milestone for the centerpiece of the county’s current mining cleanup efforts — plugging the Pennsylvania Mine.

About 8 miles east of Keystone, the abandoned mine is Summit County’s biggest mess. The mine, considered the worst in the state, spews toxic heavy metal concentrates and acidifies water flowing into the Peru Creek, a tributary of the Snake River, which feeds Dillon Reservoir. Peru Creek is without fish, insects or other aquatic life. The Snake River has life, but it’s sparse and found only in the lower reaches. In 2007, a burp of acidic water from the abandoned mine killed fish all the way to Keystone, county officials said.

This past week, the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety finished installing one of two bulkheads, massive plugs of concrete and steel built about 500 feet inside the mine.

According to project manager Jeff Graves, once both bulkheads are installed, toxic burps and blowouts will be a thing of the past.

“That won’t happen again — it can’t,” he said.

The bulkheads prevent water from flowing through the mine. Water will back up inside, reducing the amount of oxygen the metals and sulfides are exposed to, which should improve water quality.

POSITIVE IMPACTS

Though the more than $3 million project still has far to go, reclamation efforts seem to have had positive impacts already. Last year, the Peru Creek turned reddish-orange seven or eight times. That hasn’t happened once this year.

In addition to the bulkheads, new drainage ditches channel water away from waste-rock piles. Those piles have been capped. Eventually, they’ll be revegetated. Limestone has also been strategically added to raise the pH of the water, which could help filter out metals into settlement ponds.

Organizations involved in the project include: the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Safety, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service, Summit County Open Space and Trails, Northwest Council of Governments, the Snake River Watershed Task Force, the Blue River Watershed Group and the Keystone Center.

More Peru Creek Basin coverage here and here.

So how are we going to build these western water markets? — John Fleck

squeezingmoney
From InkStain (John Fleck):

Peter Culp, Robert Glennon and Gary Libecap have published an excellent new analysis of the potential for water markets to help us dig out of the western United States’ water mess:

Water trading can facilitate the reallocation of water to meet the demands of changing economies and growing populations. It can play a vital role in encouraging conservation and stewardship of water supplies in a way that can address cultural, social, and environmental priorities. It can facilitate building a structure for managing the ever-increasing risks of greater variability in water, including through methods such as insurance contracts, hedging tools, water banking, and other mechanisms. Deploying market tools in the allocation of water can help us to overcome the growing fragility and vulnerability of the water management institutions and infrastructure in the American West.

I agree, and their new work offers a great menu of policy options to move down this path. In brief (again quoting Culp et. al):

  • Reform legal rules that discourage water trading to enable short-term water transfers.
  • Create basic market institutions to facilitate trading of water.
  • Use market-driven risk mitigation strategies to enhance system reliability.
  • [B]etter regulate the use of groundwater by monitoring and limiting use to ensure sustainability, and by bringing groundwater under the umbrella of water trading opportunities.
  • To make water markets work at scale, strong federal leadership will be necessary to promote interstate and interagency cooperation in water management
  • This is great stuff. But how do we actually do any of them?

    Each of their first four bullet points is a staggeringly difficult task that will require enormous institutional capacity within the states to carry out. Consider California’s efforts to move on number four, for example. In the midst of the drought of record, with overwhelming problems caused by groundwater pumping, all California could manage was some feeble legislation aimed at just the first part – monitoring and limiting use to ensure sustainability at some future point in time sorta maybe. This is not for lack of smart scientists and policy people pointing out that the problem is deeper and requires stronger action. This rather reflects a shortcoming of the political system that has left us at with a sub-optimal equilibrium because of the ability of individual players, acting in their own short term interest, to block progress toward a more socially optimal solution…

    Having spent years watching the New Mexico legislature’s lack of institutional capacity to make even simple water rule changes, and watching California thrash about this year in the midst of genuine crisis, I think Culp and his colleagues are a tad optimistic to suggest this could be done “immediately”, but whatever. I’m all for optimism. And I’d file this under the critical category of “baby steps,” smaller and relatively easier things that can be done that provide shorter term benefits and the learning experience to help amass the necessary social capital to take on the harder challenges to come…

    Minute 319, the U.S.-Mexico agreement that, among other things, allowed last spring’s Colorado River Delta environmental pulse flow (and which Culp helped design) is a great “baby steps” example. It includes some of the elements Culp, Glennon and Libecap are asking for (albeit dressed up quite differently), but it was as much about learning how to do stuff as it was about actually doing stuff. It also demonstrates the importance of the role of the U.S. federal government.

    The important thing we need recognize here, I think, is that the investment in the social capital needed to do these things, an investment in what I’ve sometimes called the “institutional plumbing”, is every bit as real and important as the investment in pumps and canals and dams that make up the physical plumbing of water in the West.

    More water law coverage here.

    “If I have 24 hours of floodwater on the Colorado Canal, I’m going to take it. I need it” — Matt Heimerich

    Fountain Creek Watershed
    Fountain Creek Watershed

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    A district formed to improve Fountain Creek last week made an appeal for those with water rights to get involved in the early stages of a study to build flood control structures.

    “Water rights protection is something we should do before we get into any other aspect of flood control on Fountain Creek,” Larry Small, executive director of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District told ditch company board members Friday.

    Small spoke during the annual meeting of the winter water storage program, bringing experts in to talk about the issue of public safety vs. water rights.

    “We’re not working in a vacuum,” said Mark Pifher, who represents the Arkansas River basin on the state Water Quality Control Commission.

    Denver’s regional Urban Drainage Authority and the city of Aspen have raised questions with the Colorado Division of Water Resources over how floodwater detention rules work in the state, Pifher explained.

    State Engineer Dick Wolfe has adopted policies that say that single-site developments can hold water for 72 hours, but that regional floodwater control projects must augment any water detained with equivalent releases under a substitute water supply plan. That same principle was applied to Fountain Creek when the city of Pueblo built a detention pond behind the North Side Walmart as part of a demonstration project. The city learned it needed an augmentation plan after the project was well underway. Urban Drainage and Aspen officials are not pleased with the policy and are looking at potential state legislation to force a change in that policy, Pifher said.

    Short of a blanket change that would allow the 72-hour rule to apply, the Fountain Creek district wants to study whose rights would be affected by holding back a large flood.

    A study by the U.S.

    Geological Survey completed last year provided solid numbers about how much water dams or detention ponds would hold back at certain points on Fountain Creek. That in turn can be applied to the flows at the Avondale gauge on the Arkansas River, which is upstream from every major ditch except the Bessemer below Pueblo Dam.

    Flood stage

    After Pueblo Dam went into operation 40 years ago, it was determined that flood stage at Avondale was 6,000 cubic feet per second. Floods upstream of Pueblo Dam are contained by curtailing releases to that level.

    The last time flood control protection from that type of event was in 1999. Flows on Fountain Creek are measured and Pueblo Dam can be cut back to prevent that flooding from affecting Avondale as well, said Bill Tyner, assistant division engineer.

    “You can have those huge flashy flows on Fountain Creek and find ways to cut back at Pueblo Dam to protect downstream communities,” Tyner said.

    Reservoirs on Fountain Creek would have to perform differently, because there would not be Bureau of Reclamation staff on hand to open or shut release gates, he said.

    Quenching all thirst

    Several storm events that occurred in the past four years caused the Avondale gauge to top 6,000 cfs for several hours.

    “Those spot events did not satisfy everyone’s needs downstream,” Tyner said.

    That doesn’t matter if you’re a farmer.

    “If I have 24 hours of floodwater on the Colorado Canal, I’m going to take it. I need it,” said Matt Heimerich of Crowley County.

    “Those floods are the only way we get water in storage,” said Donny Hansen, president of the Holbrook Canal.

    The direct rights downstream from Avondale and above John Martin Reservoir can be met with about 4,115 cfs, but storage rights on the canals total 3,631 cfs, he explained. Water rights below John Martin require another 1,534 cfs to be met.

    So, all water rights below Avondale on the Arkansas River total about 9,282 cfs.

    The 6,000 cfs at Avondale might be enough to satisfy all those rights, since the return flows of one ditch are reused downstream, a factor of about 1.5 times, he said.

    But the envisioned dams on Fountain Creek are aimed at stopping monster 100-year floods — the type where heavy rain falls for several days. In the USGS study, a large dam or series of dams upstream of the Fountain Creek confluence would cut in half the peak flow of a 100-year flood — 44,000 cfs, or five times the amount of water needed to fulfill all downstream water rights.

    The 100-year flood flow at Avondale, coincidentally, is 44,000 cfs, according to the USGS.

    Moving ahead

    The Fountain Creek district is not the only agency working at flood control in the Pueblo area. The Pueblo Conservancy District, in the headlines recently for its plan to rebuild the Arkansas River levee through Pueblo, also is responsible for the flood plain from Pueblo to the Otero County line.

    “The high flows on Fountain Creek are a source of erosion that affects the land in our district down below,” said Bud O’Hara, a retired water engineer who is on the Pueblo Conservancy District board.

    O’Hara showed graphs that point out about a dozen smaller events this year that created the potential for minor erosion events.

    Farmers, on the other hand, generally like the erosion on Fountain Creek because it is part of the process that carries sediment downstream to help seal ditches. Many still grumble about the “clear water” that resulted from the construction of Pueblo Dam. In effect, it meant the erosive properties of the river were transferred downstream as more erosion occurred within ditch systems.

    Abby Ortega, an engineer for Colorado Springs Utilities working with the Fountain Creek district, asked the farmers to provide suggestions for consultants to study the issue.

    “We’re looking at how to build structures and not injure water rights,” she said. “We’re asking for your input.”

    “I think the model we should use is the irrigation efficiency rules that was hosted by Dick Wolfe,” Heimerich responded. In that process, farmers and others affected by proposed rules guiding ditch improvements met for 18 months and were able to give immediate feedback. “It’s just too important not to do it right.”

    More Fountain Creek coverage here.