Alamosa County Commissioners (ACC) received an update on the Mosca Wastewater Infrastructure Improvement Project Wednesday.
“The project is moving forward,” Rachel Baird reported , “and we are in the process of applying for the additional funding it will take to complete it.”
In January, the commissioners approved a $1.4 million plan for a new wastewater treatment system in Mosca. For years now, the small community located in northern Alamosa County has wrestled with a failing sewage system and the threats to public health caused by it.
According to some reports , the system has been in disarray for two nearly two decades, threatening residents’ health because the sewage is not being adequately treated before being discharged, and leaching into the area surrounding existing septic tanks. Seven of the 10 septic/leach fields systems have wells located within the minimum 100 foot setback distance, which makes them highly susceptible to contamination.
A preliminary engineering report describing the proposed system had been presented to the county during a previous meeting. Mosca’s new wastewater system will consist of three parts: a collection system, a wastewater treatment facility and a discharge system.
Ken Van Iwarden, who is representing Alamosa County in the process, explained that groundwater tests were conducted on March 17 by the Colorado Water Association. The results will not be known but will provide more information that will help with determining what type of system will be appropriate for the project.
Until the project is completed , the county will continue to regularly pump the failing system because there is no other option, costing county taxpayers upwards of $50,000 annually.
Expansion of Eagle Park Reservoir and other storage options studied
The summer of 2002 was so hot and dry in Vail that when a rainstorm finally arrived in August, people violated the idiom about common sense and stood and then danced outside in the pouring rain.
In the offices of the local water provider, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Linn Brooks remembers worries that Gore Creek—the primary source of Vail’s water, via wells that draw from the creek’s alluvial aquifer—might disappear altogether. Droughts from the 20th century had never been as severe.
September rains in 2002 eased immediate concerns. But 13 years later, water district still seeks to steel itself from a return of drought that severe—or worse.
Twice, upstream reservoirs have been expanded modestly and wells were drilled downstream at Edwards at a cost of several million dollars.
Now comes discussion of a much more ambitious expansion of Eagle Park Reservoir, one of several ideas for increased storage of the final waters of the upper Eagle Valley.
Eagle Park Reservoir is along the East Fork of the Eagle River, near Frémont Pass, about 20 miles south of Vail. It was built in the 1960s to hold tailings from the nearby Climax molybdenum mine. Then, in the mid-1990s, it was cleaned up and converted to water storage beginning in 1998.
Expanded minimally in 2009 at a cost of $250,000, it can now store a maximum of 3,300 acre-feet of water. The idea now being reviewed would expand storage to between 6,000 and 9,000 acre-feet.
Brooks, now the general manager for the water and sanitation district, says the project would address future population growth in Vail and the Eagle Valley, provide water to meet minimum streamflow water rights and, somewhat more nebulously, deliver water to mitigate water quality problems and benefit the river ecosystem.
But the essential driver, says Brooks, is the potential for intensified drought. Before the drought of 2002, the worst year on record was 1977 and local water planners tried to plan for three years of consecutive drought of that magnitude.
Now, they’re trying to plan for three consecutive years as bad as 2002.
“I would say we are still reacting to 2002,” says Brooks.
But stacked up behind the fresh and concrete evidence of 2002 is the worrisome potential for even more intensified drought such as occurred around 800 to 1300 AD.
Tree rings in the Colorado River Basin—including some from trees near Eagle—provide evidence of those droughts. A recent study calculated that such droughts have a 66 percent chance of occurring in the 21st century.
On top of this comes the effect of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions. Climate models have drawn no clear conclusions about effects of precipitation in places like Vail, they are clear in warning of hotter, longer summers and, when it occurs, more intense drought.
Of course, river flows have always been variable on the Eagle and other river basins of the Southwest. Since the record-shattering drought of 2002, points out Brooks, Vail has also had a once-in-100 years runoff. Precipitation in the high Rockies, she points out, has “extreme variability.”
Memorandum of understanding
The Eagle River has three significant reservoirs at its headwaters:
• Black Lakes, located at Vail Pass, at the headwaters of Black Gore Creek, which can hold 750 acre-feet.
• Homestake Reservoir holds 14,000 acre-feet, but only 1,000 acre-feet can be used for Western Slope purposes. The rest is diverted for use by Aurora and Colorado Springs.
• Eagle Park Reservoir is the newest. In the early 1990s, water attorney Glenn Porzak, of Porzak, Browning Bushong, initiated discussions with Climax about converting assets of the mine to accommodate the growing needs of his clients in Vail for water storage. He represents Vail Resorts, and Eagle River Water and Sanitation District as well as the parallel Upper Eagle River Water Authority.
The consortium was expanded to include Eagle County, the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, and owner of the mine, which is now FreeportMorgan. Climax paid to clean up the reservoir at a cost of $12 million.
But Aurora and Colorado Springs also own substantial water rights in the basin. In the 1960s, they joined to build Homestake Reservoir. In the 1980s, they proposed to further expand the water collection system within the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. The project was called Homestake II.
Eagle County thwarted that ambition. Its 1987 denial survived court challenges and statehouse attempts to yank the legal rug from under the local government.
The River District convened discussions that recognized that the water rights of the Front Range cities must be recognized—but, in developing the water, the Western Slope must benefit, too. The Eagle River memorandum of understanding inked in 1998 identifies 30,000 acre-feet of water in the Eagle River Basin to be developed in thirds: for Aurora, Colorado Springs, and the Western Slope.
Even if Eagle Park gets expanded, it’s unlikely to be the only project, says John Currier, chief engineer for the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
“It’s very likely that you can’t develop the water in the Eagle River MOU in one single project. I think it’s more accurate to say it’s one project with multiple components.”
Another long-discussed idea is a small reservoir in the Homestake Valley near the Blodgett Campground. Still another is a holding facility, called a forebay, in the same valley, along Whitney Creek, that would hold water pumped back from Camp Hale. From this impound water could be further pumped up the valley to Homestake Reservoir. Yet a third idea is a small reservoir on Red Sandstone Creek, north of Vail.
Benefits of Eagle Park, says Currier, are that it already exists, it’s on private property, eliminating need for the high level of environmental review that other projects on public land would require, and the property has already been disturbed.
The latter is a persuasive argument to Ken Neubecker, a representative of American Rivers, a conservation group.
“Without looking at the details, I would think favorably of it. Eagle Park Reservoir was an old tailings pile to begin with. It wasn’t like ripping up an undammed valley like Blodgett Reservoir would. Adding onto it would be the best use of facilities we already have.”
Expanding Eagle Park, however, will likely be expensive. No cost estimates have been delivered, but Brooks says it’s something “we cannot do on our own. We would have to have partners in a project like that.”
Porzak says Aurora could benefit by storing water from the Columbine Ditch, a water diversion across Tennessee Pass, in the reservoir.
Energy use also is problematic. The reservoir has almost no upstream. Water would have to be pumped 150 vertical feet from the East Fork of the Eagle River, says Porzak.
A small reservoir at Whitney Creek would also require pumping water, says Currier. But for diversions to the Front Range, going farther down the Eagle River is even more challenging.
Exactly what would best benefit the Vail Valley is still unclear. Brooks has turned to a tool called scenario planning that is used by Denver, Seattle and many other water planners. It tries to calculate a whole range of variables, including population growth and climate change. Expanded storage is only one of the responses. “Basically, conservation and optimization should be applied first,” says Brooks.
Expanded storage, however, will ultimately be necessary for a variety of purposes. “I don’t think we will ever be able to conserve our way out of needing an expanded Eagle Park Reservoir,” she says.
While needs of population growth can be met relatively easily, Brooks sees need to provide broader but somewhat more nebulous environmental and aesthetic benefits.
“It’s always been a little harder for our boards to wrap their heads around paying for the aesthetics in the streams,” she says. “They’ve certainly gone there in the past, paying literally millions to ensure the stream flows for health.”
Making that case is becoming easier. Water quality impacts from urbanization and other development impacts have become documented, and state water quality standards have tightened. As nutrients get washed into the waterways from stormwater, the capacity of the river gets whittled away, Brooks explains.
There seems to be no rush by anybody to build anything quickly. But there is a sense that the decisions made need to be very good. Unless the climate changes to produce more snow and rain, the upper basin will be without additional water to develop. Downstream, there could be more, but not at the headwaters.
“If it’s not the last drop, it’s darned close to the last drop in the Eagle, because you’re just physically constrained by what you can develop,” says the River District’s Currier.
Going farther downstream, as has been discussed with such “big straw” projects as the Yampa River pumpback or Flaming Gore pumpback, remains possible, adds Currier, but “at that point your energy costs are hugely significant.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper has made Colorado the third state to ban on tiny plastic particles from soaps and cosmetic products.
In May 2014, the CALL7 Investigators were first to expose concerns over microbeads in Colorado water. That investigation confirmed the plastic particles — which are found in some toothpastes, face washes, body washes, shampoos, eyeliners, lip glosses and deodorants — had made their way through state filtration systems and into the South Platte River. The CALL7 Investigators sent water samples from the South Platte to a specialized lab in Marietta, Ga., which found microbeads made of polypropylene, a type of plastic. The toxic particles can be consumed by fish, and ultimately, by humans.
The bill signed into law Thursday bans microbeads by 2020.
The ban has the backing of large personal-care product manufacturers including Johnson & Johnson.
Illinois and New York have already enacted bans, and other states are considering bans.
Members of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable are urging the public to attend a scoping meeting on April 6 at 7 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Express in Montrose to make suggestions or comments regarding the Gunnison Basin Implementation Plan.
Tri-County Water Conservancy District’s GBR representative Mike Berry explained the BIP will become a part of the Colorado Water Plan.
“The BIPs are the critical information in the state water plan in my opinion,” Berry said.
Berry said the meeting will offer the public a chance to learn more about the Gunnison BIP, including strategies and opportunities for water use in the basin.
“It’ll be an opportunity to ask questions and give feedback,” Berry explained.
Public comments will be considered as GBR representatives finalize the BIP before submission to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
The BIPs will then be incorporated into the CWP, which is scheduled for completion in December 2015.
Berry said, “The whole idea behind the Roundtable process is a bottom-up strategy.”
The BIP has identified a number of potential water projects in the basin, including upper basin portions of Ouray County, but Berry said federal funding is currently lacking to make large projects a reality.
“I think our solutions are going to come from other directions,” Berry said, suggesting conservation or demand management water strategies may be more feasible in the near term.
Ridgway and Ouray GBR representative Joanne Fagan said the goal of the BIP process is to determine strategies to meet the water needs of the state.
Fagan agreed that conservation is the “low hanging fruit” to meet growing municipal and industrial water needs.
Fagan said members of the public can read the Gunnison BIP online at http://www.coloradowaterplan.com and can find a list of potential projects under Table 7 in the document.
She described the upcoming meeting as a “more global process” looking at ways to address perceived shortfalls without drastically changing ways of life in Colorado.
According to a March 18 press release, “The GBR was formed by statute in 2005, under the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act; it is one of nine roundtables in Colorado, charged to ‘encourage locally driven collaborative solutions to water supply challenges,’ assess ‘basin-wide consumptive and non-consumptive water supply needs,’ and ‘serve as a forum for education and debate regarding methods for meeting water supply needs,’ according to Colorado Governor’s Office.”
The GBR consists of 32 members representing local governments of the basin and other environmental, industrial, agricultural and recreational interests.
“To encourage locally-driven and balanced solutions to water supply challenges, the plan identifies water projects through targeted analyses of water issues in the basin,” the press release stated. “The BIP includes analyses of water shortages, water availability under variable hydrologic conditions, and various site-specific water supply issues. The ultimate purpose of the plan is to better identify priority needs in the basin and highlight proposed projects that will excel at meeting these needs in the future.”
Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership Coordinator Agnieszka Przeszlowska said her organization is helping to promote the event.
Przeszlowska said, “The BIPs are an opportunity for anyone in the Uncompahgre Basin to provide input on needs or projects that they see value in.”
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
Rain across southern-most portions of the nation provided drought relief, while dry weather maintained or worsened drought from California into portions of the Rockies, Plains, and Upper Midwest. In addition, above-normal temperatures further reduced already-dire mountain snowpacks over much of the West and accelerated pasture and crop-water demands in the nation’s mid-section. Dryness also increased in the Northeast, though below-normal temperatures mitigated the impacts of the precipitation deficits…
Dry, unseasonably warm weather maintained or worsened drought over the central Plains. With temperatures approaching or topping 80°F from southeastern Colorado into Kansas as well as little if any rain, drought conditions remained or intensified. In particular, pronounced short-term dryness (25 to 50 percent of normal over the past 90 days) across central and southern portions of Kansas supported the expansion of Moderate (D1) to Severe Drought (D2). Soil moisture continued to decline, and many streamflows were in the 10th percentile or lower…
Despite pockets of light rain, unseasonable warmth (up to 10°F above normal) coupled with increasingly dry conditions over the past 90 days led to the expansion of Abnormal Dryness (D0) and Moderate Drought (D1) in the western Dakotas. Over the past 90 days, precipitation has totaled 60 to 75 percent of normal (locally less) in the newly-expanded D0 areas of the northern Plains, while the D1 area of South Dakota has received less than 50 percent of normal precipitation. The dryness coupled with rapid snow melt and temperatures well into the 70s in South Dakota have accelerated water demands for emerging pastures and greening winter crops. In addition, reports from the field indicate dry soils are becoming an underlying issue…
Southern Plains and Texas
Worsening drought in the north contrasted with heavy rain and drought reduction in the south. Across Oklahoma and northern Texas, most areas received less than 0.5 inch of rain during the monitoring period, which coupled with daytime highs in the upper 70s and lower 80s (degrees F) afforded no relief from drought. In areas where rain was sparse or non-existent, Severe to Exceptional Drought (D2-D4) expanded as streamflows continued to decline well below the 10th percentile. Soil moisture likewise rapidly diminished as the unseasonable warmth increased crop- and pasture-water demands. Meanwhile, moderate to heavy rain (1 to 4 inches) from southern Oklahoma into central and southern Texas reduced drought coverage and intensity, with the most notable improvements occurring between San Antonio, Texas, and the Big Bend. Despite the soaking rainfall, little change was made to the drought coverage and intensity northwest of Austin, where reservoirs levels struggled to rebound due to a persistent, pronounced long-term drought…
The overall trend toward drought persistence or intensification prevailed, with relief confined to a few scattered locales in the Four Corners Region and southeastern California. The west continued to cope with much-above-normal temperatures, further depleting already-dire snowpacks and reducing spring runoff prospects over much of the region.
In the north, a steady influx of Pacific moisture and weekly average temperatures up to 7°F above normal resulted in moderate to heavy showers from the Cascades into the northern Rockies. However, plentiful water-year precipitation (since October 1) in the Northwest was in sharp contrast to virtually non-existent snowpacks, with the snow-water equivalents less than 25 percent of normal (locally less than 10 percent) across Oregon as well as southern and northwestern Washington. The lack of snow maintained concerns for spring and summer water supplies despite the generally favorable 2014-15 water year.
In the Four Corners, drought worsened in the northwest while conditions improved somewhat in southeastern portions of the region. In particular, Severe to Extreme Drought (D2-D3) expanded over northern Utah to account for water-year precipitation averaging 30 to 45 percent of normal; the Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) – a measure of drought severity – depicted values at or below -1.75 (D3 equivalent) in this same area . In addition, snow-water equivalents southeast of the Great Salt Lake were near or below 50 percent of normal (3-10th percentile). In New Mexico, however, improving conditions were noted in the southern Rockies, where locally more than an inch of rain and high-elevation snow afforded relief from Moderate Drought (D1).
In California, changes to this week’s depiction were generally minor as the state entered a fourth consecutive year of drought. Locally more than an inch of rain was noted in the Cascades and in the Coastal Range, but the moisture fell well short of supplying drought relief. Even with this week’s rain, precipitation deficits over the past two weeks exceeded 2 inches in these same locales. In the D4 areas of the Cascades and southern San Joaquin Valley, water-year precipitation has averaged 30 to 50 percent of normal, and locally less than 50 percent of normal over the past 3 years. Short-term moisture has been somewhat more plentiful in northern California, though even areas north of Sacramento are dealing with significant long-term precipitation deficits (70-75 percent of normal over the past three years) that will take considerable time to erase. Despite the generally worsening conditions, a small reduction in Extreme Drought (D3) was made in southeastern California’s Mojave Desert, where the wildflower bloom has responded favorably to showers…
Warm, mostly dry weather over the west will contrast with chilly, wet conditions east of the Mississippi Valley. The greatest likelihood for drought-easing rainfall will be from Texas and the northern Delta into the Northeast. Spotty showers are expected over the Rockies and Northwest, though the light rain coupled with persistent warmth will not ease drought or aid spring runoff prospects. Mostly dry, warm weather is expected over California and the Southwest. The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for March 3 – April 4 calls for near- to above-normal temperatures nationwide, except for colder-than-normal conditions across the nation’s northeastern quadrant. Meanwhile, above-normal precipitation from the northern Plains and Upper Midwest into the Great Lakes and Northeast will contrast with drier-than-normal conditions in the south, particularly from California into the Four Corners and southern Plains.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast predicts drought will persist or worsen in Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon and western Colorado through June.
“Periods of record warmth in the West and not enough precipitation during the rainy season cut short drought relief in California this winter, and prospects for above-average temperatures for this spring may make the situation worse,” said Jon Gottschalck, with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.
Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and Washington had their warmest winters on record, Gottschalck said.
Above-average temperatures are expected to continue this spring in the Far West and northern Rocky Mountains.
Above-average precipitation is predicted for parts of the Southwest and the southern and central Rockies.
The above-average precipitation predicted for Colorado over the next three months could reduce drought conditions in the southeast part of the state. The moisture could ease the fire season, Gottschalck said, but also could increase undergrowth that worsens the situation…
Thursday’s NOAA spring forecast is the most recent in a series of grim reports on the drought.
Last month, scientists from NASA and Columbia and Cornell universities published a study predicting a better than 80 percent chance of a “megadrought,” one lasting at least 35 years, hitting the Southwest and central Great Plains in the second half of this century.