Radar getting another look at snowpack — The Pueblo Chieftain

Conejos River
Conejos River

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Water officials in the San Luis Valley will once again set up a temporary radar station this winter to help measure the region’s snowpack.

Although the technology was in use last winter, it’s hoped another season of gathering data from radar and other new technologies will eventually lead to a model that can more accurately translate snowpack to stream flows.

“No one in the country has ever used radar to measure snow,” Nathan Combs, manager of the Conejos Water Conservancy District, told a committee of state lawmakers Monday.

Getting an accurate prediction of stream flows is important for valley water users, who are often forced to forgo flows to help the state comply with the Rio Grande Compact.

Delivery obligations under the compact, which divvies up the river’s flows between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, go up in wet years and down in dry years.

Combs told lawmakers in April the forecast for the Conejos called for 235,000 acre-feet of stream flow for the year, with a delivery requirement of 65,000 acre-feet for the compact.

But runoff was bigger than expected, boosting both stream flow projections for the year and the amount of restrictions on irrigators.

As of the beginning of the month, the Conejos’ stream flow projection had jumped to 255,000 acre-feet and its compact obligation grew by another 12,000 acre-feet.

Combs said that kind of jump is hard to deal with after runoff has come and gone.

“The farther we get down the season, the less water there is to pay this increased obligation,” he said.

Nor is an overestimation of stream flows any help.

“If we’ve overpaid early and then we go through and our stream forecast goes down, now we’ve sent all this water we can’t get back,” he said.

Combs said in the past the snow measurements and forecast data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service had not caused problems.

But that has changed over the last decade as forest fires, spruce-beetle infestations and increasing dust storms have changed the snowpack’s behavior.

Combs’ district has taken part in a pilot project funded by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Rio Grande Basin roundtable that also added extra stream and snow gauges to the Conejos’ watershed.

Likewise, water officials have also been active in the revision of the Rio Grande National Forest Plan.

“We need more instrumentation in the wilderness areas,” said Travis Smith, who represents the Rio Grande on the state conservation board.

The tour and hearing with the Water Resources Review Committee did not include any funding requests for projects and was mainly a way for water officials to educate lawmakers about valley water issues, Smith said.

#ColoradoRiver: The latest Water Center @ CMU E-Newsletter newsletter is hot off the presses

Sprawl
Sprawl

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

LAND USE IN WATER DISCUSSION
Addressing land use patterns has recently become more central to the discussion over how to meet Colorado’s future water needs. For more details, see this Water Center column.

Reclamation Releases a Draft Environmental Assessment for Developing Hydropower at Drop 5 of the South Canal

South Canal hydroelectric site
South Canal hydroelectric site

Here’s the release from the US Bureau of Reclamation (Justyn Liff/Jennifer Ward):

Reclamation announced today that it has released a draft environmental assessment for a hydropower project at Drop 5 of the South Canal, part of the Uncompahgre Project in Montrose, Colorado.

The project, proposed by the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, will be located approximately four miles downstream from the Drop 4 hydropower project on the South Canal. A Lease of Power Privilege will authorize the use of federal facilities and Uncompahgre Project water to construct, operate and maintain a 2.4 megawatt hydropower facility and associated interconnect power lines.

The hydropower plant will operate on irrigation water conveyed in the South Canal and no new diversions will occur as a result of the hydropower project. Construction activities and operation of the hydropower plant will not affect the delivery of irrigation water.

The draft environmental assessment is available and can be received by contacting Jennifer Ward by phone at 970-248-0651 or email jward@usbr.gov.

Reclamation will consider all comments received prior to preparing a final environmental assessment. Comments can be submitted by email to lmcwhirter@usbr.gov or to: Ed Warner, Area Manager, Bureau of Reclamation, 445 West Gunnison Ave, Suite 221, Grand Junction, CO 81501. Comments are due by Monday, September 14, 2015.

Eric Wilkinson (Northern Water) statement about Fort Collins staff recommendation on NISP

Map of the Northern Integrated Supply Project via Northern Water
Map of the Northern Integrated Supply Project via Northern Water

From the Northern Water Twitter feed and FaceBook:

“The 15 Northern Integrated Supply Project participants and Northern Water are disappointed in the City of Fort Collins’ staff report pertaining to the NISP supplemental draft environmental impact statement.

“NISP participants have spent $12 million on the detailed SDEIS process. Under the direction of the Army Corps of Engineers, several expertly qualified independent consultants have thoroughly studied all aspects of NISP as reflected by the funding provided by the NISP participants to complete those studies. Two different consultant teams have independently studied the issues surrounding water and wastewater treatment and have concluded that NISP will have little to no impact on the City of Fort Collins operations. As a result of these efforts, we had sincerely hoped that staff would have had a more favorable opinion of those analyses and of the SDEIS as a whole.

“As planned by the Corps, in addition to the river water quality evaluation completed for the SDEIS, detailed water temperature and water quality analyses will be completed prior to the release of the Final EIS.

“We are very pleased that NISP has received more than 100 endorsements from throughout the state including the Fort Collins Coloradoan editorial board, BizWest, the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce and the Larimer County commissioners.

“The NISP participants and Northern Water look forward to establishing working groups with both the City of Fort Collins and the City of Greeley to develop measures to address their concerns and further enhance the Poudre River.”

#AnimasRiver: Antiquated mining law hamstrings cleanups — The Durango Herald

LegacyMineWorkCDPHE

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

Outdated hard-rock mining laws enacted in the 1870s tie the hands of the federal government to curb pollution that contaminates water supplies, as was the case with the Gold King Mine spill.

Perhaps the most significant deficiency comes in the form of a “free and open” provision of the Mining Law of 1872, otherwise known as a “right to mine.” Limited reforms have been made to the law over the last 143 years, leaving in place a provision that prohibits the federal government from blocking a mine from opening or even collecting royalties from operations.

The law also left little to government regulation, falling in line with the theme of Manifest Destiny from Western expansion in the 19th century. When the nation’s mining laws were crafted, the goal was settlement, not environmental regulation.

“The 1872 mining law is the freest ride of all free rides on the books,” said Roger Flynn, an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado School of Law and the director and managing attorney of Western Mining Action Project, a nonprofit that handles hard-rock mining cases…

Just who holds the liability remains unclear. Flynn said some of the responsibility rests with the mine’s owner, Todd Hennis. Some liability also may fall on the EPA, which became a sort of operator when it began working there.

But it’s much more complicated than that. Gold King, near Silverton, became inactive in the 1920s. But the neighboring mine of Sunnyside also is entangled in the web. The mine became inactive in the 1990s, and ownership at the time reached an agreement with Colorado to install bulkheads in the mine. Since that mine was dammed, wastewater in nearby mines has increased.

Sunnyside Gold Corp., a subsidiary of Kinross Gold, entered into a consent decree, allowing for the mine to continue to leak heavy metals, while the company agreed to costly reclamation projects.

Judging by the disaster earlier this month, overall efforts have not been enough, which begs the question: How did it get to this point?

The simplest answer is money. The Mining Law of 1872 allows companies to extract billions of dollars worth of precious metals – such as gold and uranium – pay no royalties and avoid liability for environmental damage in several situations. Without the royalties, there is limited government funding for reclamation, and few burdens are placed on the companies themselves.

Over the years, beginning in the 1970s, the federal government began to take action on environmental issues, enacting laws around clean water and endangered species. But companies have found loopholes. One example is hiring experts to vouch for water quality.

Because the federal government is charged with the “free and open” provision under mining laws, officials often default to this clause. In other words, if the experts say the water is safe, and the government is obligated to let a company operate, then there’s little recourse for regulators.

An option for reclamation is declaring an area blighted with a Superfund listing, which opens the doors to funding. But as was the case with Gold King, communities sometimes resist the federal listing, as they fear it leaving a stain. Flynn said the end result is a government that is rendered impotent.

“The 1872 mining law makes mining the highest and best use of the land,” he said. “Whatever minerals you find on that are free. … Agencies will say we can’t say no to the mine no matter how destructive, unless you can prove there will be a Clean Water Act violation on Day 1.”

The irony, of course, is that those violations don’t occur until well after operations have begun.

“The feds don’t have the ability on public land to say no – no matter how bad the idea is, how bad the place is – because of the 1872 mining law,” Flynn said. “So, they permit these things all over … and they allow potential pollution.”[…]

State Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, is not so sure that the answer is additional regulations, suggesting that there are new technologies out there that allow for cleaner mining activities. Coram has years of experience in hard-rock mining, having owned several mines, including uranium.

“I don’t think the problem lies with what we’re doing today. … That changed. We do a lot better,” he said.

“I’m not comfortable with the EPA being in charge,” Coram said. “I would much rather that federal funding goes into letting the state run those projects.”

Meanwhile Durango and parts thereabouts are worried about the spill and its affect on the economy. Here’s a report from Jonathan Romeo writing for The Durango Herald. Here’s an excerpt:

Some fear the frenzy of images broadcast around the world when the Animas River turned a sickly orange for more than 12 hours could have an effect for years to come.

“Stigma is the perception of the public, even after fixing the problem,” said Tom Alleman, an attorney at Dallas-based Dykema Cox Smith. “The Animas had brand damage.”

Alleman told the crowd of about 20 people Friday at the DoubleTree Hotel that the state of Colorado does allow individuals to file claims for compensation for stigma damages, but those kinds of situations aren’t common and can be subjective.

He said the law lists stigma damage as an event that is not “reputationally enhancing,” and in the case of the Gold King Mine spill, that might be easier to prove.

Jack Llewellyn, executive director at the Durango Chamber of Commerce, said it’s too early to tell the long-term effect the spill will have on the city’s tourism industry, but there is no denying the hit river-related businesses took in the immediate aftermath of the blowout.

“We definitely saw an impact, and it directly affected the river-rafting industry. It was like shutting down Main Street at Christmas time,” Llewellyn said, referencing the fact that August is a critical revenue month for summer tourism businesses.

Llewellyn added that just the other day, a woman bringing 20 senior citizens to the area called ahead to ask if the water was safe to drink, and it’s that skepticism he fears might influence other visitors to choose a different destination when making vacation plans.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Owner Al Harper said the train suffered some cancellations at first, but ridership rebounded rather quickly. Most of the railroad’s projected 183,000 riders come from outside Durango.

He’s more concerned about how stakeholders of the mining network north of Silverton will implement a wastewater-treatment plan.

And that brings in yet another layer of “stigma” in connection to the Gold King Mine spill: a Superfund listing, which is an EPA program that cleans up hazardous waste sites.

Since the spill, there has been considerable pushback from Silverton residents who believe visitors will fear and avoid the small tourism town if it is designated a “Superfund” site and prefer to explore other options.

However, those in favor of the Superfund argue the stigma of a town that refuses to clean up once and for all a history of unregulated mining regulations that have tainted the Animas for decades is far worse.

Harper, who also owns a hotel in Silverton, said residents of the town may be more open to the Superfund designation if the EPA draws clear lines of where the boundary extends.

“Let’s face it, the city limits of Silverton have not been polluting the river,” he said. “We need to make clear the mining area is a Superfund; Silverton is not.”

#CleanWaterRules Litigation Update: Let’s All Just Take a Breath — Jon Devine

rifflesaspenjournalismbrentgardnersmith
Photo via Aspen Journalism — Brent Gardner-Smith

From Switchboard (Jon Devine):

If you’re following the legal fallout from the Obama Administration’s finalization of its initiative to protect critical streams and wetlands – called the Clean Water Rule – you were probably on the lookout for action this week. (And, you’re a bit odd. It’s OK – me too.)

That’s because the rule, which the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Gina McCarthy, and the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, signed back in May, was scheduled to take effect today.

That didn’t entirely happen as planned, due to a single court ruling yesterday. More on that in a minute, but first some background to provide context for my ultimate message in this post: this is just part of the process, and there is no need to overreact to a preliminary ruling in one case…

What Happened [last] Week

In the run-up to the rule’s implementation date today, a number of the parties that sued the agencies claiming that the rule is too protective of the nation’s water resources asked four trial-level courts to block the rule from taking effect. One of these courts, in Oklahoma, where two cases were pending, granted the federal government’s request weeks ago to put those cases on hold while the government seeks to have the cases transferred and consolidated in Washington, DC. The other three courts – located in Georgia, North Dakota, and West Virginia – all issued rulings this week. (All but one of the remaining district courts with pending challenges from state or industry opponents have postponed any further proceedings in the cases, at the federal government’s request. Similar requests are pending in the challenges that the conservation groups have filed.)

Of the three courts that issued rulings this week on opponents’ requests to delay the rule, two of them, the Northern District of West Virginia and the Southern District of Georgia, both refused to grant the delay and held instead that the cases should be heard by the appellate court.

That leaves one court – the District of North Dakota – which ruled yesterday that it both has the jurisdiction to decide the case and that it should temporarily prevent implementation of the rule while the case is more fully argued. The court concluded that the state plaintiffs in that case, led by North Dakota, were likely to prevail on their legal claims that the rule was too protective, and that the states would be harmed by the rule taking effect.

Although we are still reviewing the decision closely and evaluating our options for next steps, we profoundly disagree with the court’s conclusion that the extraordinary remedy of an injunction is justified here, and are disappointed that the rule’s implementation will be delayed, at least to some extent. Every day the rule is not in force in a given place, the streams, ponds, and wetlands that people swim in, fish from, boat on, and depend on for drinking water are at unnecessary risk of being polluted or destroyed.

At the same time, let’s see this ruling for what it is – a temporary delay in one of a dozen or so cases. Indeed, the agencies have explained that the Clean Water Rule will take effect today for those states not involved in the North Dakota litigation. And, even in that case, proponents of the Clean Water Rule will have additional opportunities to explain why the rule’s safeguards are well within the bounds established by the Supreme Court and are supported by the voluminous scientific evidence of the importance of the waters that the rule protects.

Consider a recent point of reference: the Affordable Care Act was found to be invalid by some different courts when it was similarly challenged in a number of places. At the end of the day, however, it was twice upheld by the Supreme Court, and is now the law of the land.

Cases such as that, plus the certainty that the Clean Water Act authorizes the agencies to protect those water bodies that significantly affect downstream waters, give me confidence that, despite the delay in this instance, the cases attacking the rule as too protective will ultimately fail. When that happens, the rule will remain in place with necessary protections for the health and well-being of our families and communities, as well as our prosperous fisheries and tourism industries.

Inhale, exhale, repeat.