Join us Thursday, 3/5: “America’s Public Lands: From Yellowstone to Smokey Bear and Beyond” — @RockiesProject

An interview with new Ag Secretary Brown from The Greeley Tribune

Crop circles -- irrigated agriculture
Crop circles — irrigated agriculture

From The Greeley Tribune (Kayla Young):

Third-generation rancher Don Brown of Yuma County made his public premiere as Colorado’s new commissioner of agriculture in Denver last week, making his first speeches at the Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture and the inaugural conference for the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. Replacing commissioner John Salazar, Brown brings a background in water conservation, energy development and technology innovation to the table.

Just over a week into the job, Brown sat down with the Greeley Tribune to discuss his new role and his priorities moving forward.

Q — How is the position treating you so far?

A — I’m really enjoying it. It’s challenging, as we well knew it would be. Agriculture by nature is a challenging business, so consequently the administration of it, the regulation of it, and educating the consumers, is challenging, but I’m enjoying it immensely. I’m meeting a lot of great people of all walks of life.

Q — Moving forward on the Colorado Water Plan, it appears we’ve come together much better statewide on planning for the future.

A — Yes, I think we all recognize that we need to come to the table. Traditionally, of course, agriculture was the primary user of it (water) and with our priority doctrine, you simply have: who owns the water, owns the water. And consequently, we are going to have to all get along and try to figure out how we’re going to make this thing work. I think one real strength of the situation is the governor is as concerned about agriculture as anybody in the state, and that’s a big deal. He does care.

Q — Can we expect a solution, even if temporary, on the Weld County groundwater issue soon?

A — I’ve not had time to fully review all of that, but I know it’s being addressed. To say I have an answer or know what the answer should be, I do not. But I do know it’s had a personal effect. It affected my mother-in-law in Sterling, so I’m aware of these issues. I can’t provide a concrete answer because I’ve not researched it enough yet. That’s the honest answer.

Q — What will be some of the major topics you look at as ag commissioner?

A — We’re moving into e-licenses, where people register online for a lot of their applicator licenses, fertilizer companies, grain warehouses, all of that. We’re also moving that into the pickups of the brand inspectors. … Of course, we’ve got other issues all the time that are cropping up as far as educating consumers on food, why it’s safe.

Q — Do Colorado’s farmers and ranchers have legitimate concerns about Waters of the U.S.?

A — Every situation is different. So often one area in the country is painted with the same brush that another area of the country is. That is not (correct). … We need to make sure we have our input on how those proposed rule changes will affect us, probably in a negative way. We need to make sure we’re constantly monitoring that.

Q — What would ag like to see happen this year in regard to immigration?

A — As a user of the H-2A program, I realize there is an enormous number of problems with that. That piece needs to be worked on, particularly for those who rely on seasonal labor. When winter is coming, the vegetables don’t care; they need help, and they need it now. It’s just that simple. We can’t be dawdling with a system that is behind, and awkward and slow.

Q — What can we do to encourage more young people to get involved in agriculture?

A — The first thing I want you to write down is: now you’re getting personal (laughs). I fit right in the window of the average farmer. We’re seeing somewhat of a swing of younger people coming back into our small community. The brain drain is something we need to work on. Although I don’t have any specific program in mind, it is a deep-seated concern of mine, and it will be something we will attempt to address during my tenure as commissioner.

Q — What is it about Colorado’s agricultural industry that makes it special?

A — There are 3,000 plus counties in the United States, and Colorado in gross sales has one ranked ninth and one ranked 24th. If we were a football team, we’d get recognition every week, every night in the news.

Snowpack news: The Upper Rio Grande River Basin jumps to 84% of normal over the last week

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

@USGS: Map of Assessed Continuous (Unconventional) Oil Resources in the U.S., 2014

The latest issue of CFWE’s “Headwaters” is hot off the presses #COWaterPlan

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Snowpack news

Statewide snow water equivalent as a percent of normal March 2, 2015 via the NRCS
Statewide snow water equivalent as a percent of normal March 2, 2015 via the NRCS

The Colorado River District, et al. appeal May 2014 Aurora Busk-Ivanhoe diversion water court decision

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith) via the Glenwood Springs Post Independent:

A water court case in Pueblo over the size of water rights from the upper Fryingpan River delivered through the Busk-Ivanhoe tunnel to the East Slope has now blossomed into a Colorado Supreme Court case full of powerful interests opposing each other across the Continental Divide.

A bevy of West Slope entities, including Pitkin, Eagle and Grand counties, the Colorado River District and the Grand Valley Water Users, Association are arguing against a May 2014 water court decision that gave Aurora the right to use 2,416 acre-feet of water from the Fryingpan for municipal purposes in Aurora instead of for irrigation purposes in the Arkansas River valley.

The new decree gives Aurora the right to divert up to 144,960 acre-feet of water over a 60-year period.

The other West Slope entities in the case are the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, the Ute Water Conservancy District and the Basalt Water Conservancy District.

On other side, a list of the most powerful water entities on the East Slope have filed legal briefs supporting Aurora’s positions, including Denver Water, Colorado Springs, the Pueblo Board of Water Works, the Northern Water Conservancy District and the Southeastern Water Conservancy District.

Pitkin County is specifically arguing that the water court judge should have counted Aurora’s 22 years of undecreed use of the water for municipal purposes — between 1987 and 2009 — when determining the historic lawful use of the water right, and thus, the size of the right’s “transferable yield” from irrigation to municipal use.

Instead, the judge set 1928 to 1986 as the representative sampling of years and excluded the 22 years of Aurora’s admittedly undecreed use.

Expert testimony in the case indicated that if Aurora’s years of undecreed, or “zero,” use were averaged in, the size of the transferable water right would be reduced by 27 percent — which is what Pitkin County believes should happen.

“When water rights have been used unlawfully for more than a quarter of their period of record, a pattern of use derived solely from the other three-quarters of the period of record will not most accurately represent the historical use of the rights at issue,” attorneys for Pitkin County told the Supreme Court.

The Colorado state water engineer and division engineers in water divisions 1, 2 and 5 are also arguing alongside Pitkin County that the judge should have included the 22 years of “zero” use in a representative sampling of years.

“This court should remand the case with instructions to determine the average annual historical use between 1928 and 2009, including zeros for years when Aurora diverted water through the Ivanhoe Tunnel solely for undecreed uses,” attorneys for the state and division engineers wrote.

The various East Slope entities are arguing in the case that the judge did the right thing by not counting Aurora’s 22 years of undecreed municipal use.

“The water court’s quantification of the Busk-Ivanhoe rights followed all of the rules for a change case — it was based on a representative period of lawful decreed use, it was not based upon undecreed use, and it employed several other factors endorsed by this court to determine a representative period,” Aurora’s attorney’s wrote. “The water court correctly determined it need not go any further, rejecting the appellants’ novel legal theory and finding it unnecessary to prevent injury.”

UNDECREED STORAGE

Meanwhile, other West Slope entities, including the River District and Eagle County, are arguing that Judge Larry C. Schwartz erred in his opinion regarding the right to store water on the East Slope without a specific decree to do so.

“The water court misinterpreted the law and erroneously looked beyond the record in the original adjudication to conclude that no storage decree was necessary and then included water stored and water traded to others within the amount of the changed right,” attorneys for the West Slope entities wrote.

But the East Slope entities support the judge’s conclusion regarding storage.

“The water court correctly interpreted prior case law and ruled East Slope storage was within the ‘wide latitude’ accorded importers of transmountain water provided such storage did not result in an expansion of the Busk-Ivanhoe water rights,” attorneys for Aurora wrote.

Attorneys for Denver Water also told the court that “it does not matter whether a decree specifically identifies storage in the basin of use of the imported foreign water” because “once imported, the foreign water can be stored wherever.”

Built between the early 1920s and 1936, the Busk-Ivanhoe water system now diverts about 5,000 acre-feet of water a year from Ivanhoe, Pan, Lyle and Hidden Lake creeks, all tributaries of the upper Fryingpan River.

The system gathers water from the high country creeks and stores it briefly in Ivanhoe Reservoir, which sits at 10,900 feet. It then sends the water through a 1.3 mile-long tunnel under the Continental Divide to Busk Creek and on into Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville.

From there, the water can either end up in the lower Arkansas River basin, or via pumps, end up in the South Platte River basin, where Aurora is located, just east of Denver.

The Pueblo Board of Water Works owns half of the Busk-Ivanhoe water rights, which have a primary 1928 decree date. In 1990, Pueblo received a decree to use its half of the water for municipal purposes, and that decision is not at issue in this case.

Aurora bought 95 percent of its half of the Busk-Ivanhoe water rights in 1986, and by 2001 had purchased 100 percent of the right, paying at least $11.25 million, according to testimony in the case.

INTO WATER COURT

Aurora came in from the cold in 2009 and applied in water court to change its half of the Busk-Ivanhoe water to municipal uses.

And it also applied for specific water storage rights, including in a new reservoir to be built on the flanks of Mount Elbert called Box Creek Reservoir.

After a five-day trial in Div. 2 Water Court in Pueblo in July 2013, which resulted in 1,075 pages of transcripts and 6,286 pages of exhibits, Schwartz ruled in May 2014 in Aurora’s favor.

West Slope entities filed appeals in October with the Colorado Supreme Court, which directly hears appeals from the state’s water courts.

Opening briefs in the case were filed by West Slope entities in December, and a round of “answer briefs” and “friend of the court” briefs were filed last week by various entities.

The West Slope entities now have until March 21 to file reply briefs in the case.

Once the case is set, oral arguments will be heard before the Supreme Court justices in Denver.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

What Is Oil And Gas Wastewater And What Do We Do With It? — KUNC

From KUNC (Stephanie Paige Ogburn):

When a typical oil well starts producing, there are three main products pumped out: gas, oil, and water. The amount of water is significant. In Colorado, for every barrel of oil produced in 2013, there were 6 barrels of wastewater pumped from the ground.

How that water — sometimes referred to as produced water — is treated and disposed of has become a growing issue as oil and gas production has increased in Colorado and across the United States.

Mark Engle, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, is working to pin down just how much of the wastewater is being produced nationwide.

“Since the big explosion in shale gas and tight oil production in the last four or five years, [there is almost no data on] how much the amount of produced water has changed in the U.S,” Engle said.

Quantities of wastewater, which can be 10 times saltier than seawater and is often laced with hydrocarbons, have grown because of the shale boom, which requires continual drilling of new wells to be profitable.

“And so just to have stable production, you have to keep putting more and more and more wells in, and they are all producing water,” said Engle.

Most of these wells, drilled in shale formations like the Niobrara in Northern Colorado, or the Bakken in North Dakota, are horizontal wells that are hydraulically fractured. To do this, millions of gallons of water, chemicals, and proppants, like sand, are pumped into the ground at high pressure, opening up tiny cracks in the shale.

The goal of this process is to free up trapped oil and gas. But trapped water flows back as well. Some of that water is what was used in the fracking process, but a lot of it is also ancient water from deep within the Earth.

That wastewater picks up a lot of chemicals because of where it comes from, said Ken Carlson, an engineering professor at Colorado State University who studies energy and water issues.

While many folks worry about what’s in fracking fluid, Carlson is more concerned with the naturally occurring pollutants from deep below.

“Sometimes people think it is hazardous because of what we put down there,” said Carlson. “And the truth is, the water that comes back has been in contact with oil and gas compounds for maybe millions of years.”

Wastewater is almost always incredibly salty. It also often contains dissolved metals and compounds like benzene, a known carcinogen, said Carlson. In some places, like Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, that wastewater can also be radioactive, as it picks up naturally occurring elements like radium from deep inside the earth. (Waste from Northern Colorado has not been shown to be more radioactive than natural background levels.)

Because of this, such water is usually disposed of, said Greg Duronlow, the environmental manager of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

“It is a waste product with some negative characteristics. So it does have to be handled carefully,” said Duronlow.

When a well is producing, companies separate the products that make them money — oil and gas — from the water. In Colorado, that water is usually stored in on-site tanks or pits that fill up. Later, it gets trucked away.

There are a few main things that happen to the wastewater after that.

By far the most common way of dealing with wastewater is disposing of it deep underground, in injection wells. While some energy companies have their own wastewater disposal wells, an injection well industry has also cropped up to meet this need. In the U.S., there are around 30,000 injection wells used to dispose of fluids from oil and gas production.

Even though wastewater is disposed of deep underground, there are still risks. Recently, some injection wells have been linked to earthquakes. Spills are also an issue. Pipelines carrying wastewater can leak, as can holding pits, and trucks transporting waste can spill it.

In Colorado, the spill rate for wastewater is very low — over the last 15 years, just 0.009 percent of all wastewater produced was spilled, according to COGCC data. The agency’s oversight over spills has grown in recent years, and it recently made its spill reporting requirements more stringent, requiring spill reports for even one barrel, rather than five.

“All spills, regardless of their size, are required to be cleaned up by an operator,” said Duronlow. The agency also has tighter restrictions around oil and gas operations that are near public water supply areas, he added.

“I would say an industry with a spill rate of a thousandth of a percent, they are working pretty hard to keep those numbers low,” Duronlow added.

While overall, the state does have a very low spill rate, simply because so much wastewater is produced, the total spill quantities can still be high. From 2005 to 2013, spill amounts ranged from 10,000 to 72,000 barrels (420,000 to 3,024,000 gallons) per year.

In 2008, in Garfield County, a rancher took a drink of water from a tap in his cabin, and swallowed a toxic mix of oil and gas related compounds, landing him in the hospital. The polluted drinking water was contaminated from a produced water holding pit that leaked; the COGCC fined the energy company Williams $432,000.

Other pits containing produced water have also leaked; Oxy USA also received a COGCC fine for contaminating two springs with produced water from leaking pits.

Some companies have tried recycling wastewater, re-using it for hydraulic fracturing future wells. In states like Pennsylvania, where disposing of wastewater is expensive, and Texas, where water is scarce, recycling has grown in popularity. Some Colorado companies are also recycling wastewater.

There are some concerns about this approach. For one, treating the wastewater creates yet another waste stream — the chemicals that were taken out of the water, and are now concentrated. Moving more water around can cause other problems, like increasing the potential for spills as the water is transported and handled.

Sometimes, wastewater is so dirty that cleaning it up to the standards they need for hydraulic fracturing just isn’t worth the cost. The COGCC is working with some companies on recycling produced water to reuse, but “it takes a lot of work to clean up the water to a point even that they want to use it,” said Duronlow.

For every new well drilled and the oil it produces, though, there will be wastewater to be dealt with. Getting a handle on that water — whether it is injected or recycled, piped or trucked — will continue to be a significant task.