NGWA Upper Great Plains Groundwater Conference, 9/22-9/23


From the National Groundwater Association:

Gain insight on groundwater issues such as availability and quality, water scarcity, and low recharge rates being encountered in the Upper Great Plains, a growing and economically important region, during this NGWA conference.

The conference will primarily focus on the American states of Colorado, the Dakotas, Montana, Nebraska, and Wyoming, as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan — including the plains, mountains, and intermontane valleys of this region.

Click here to view the conference schedule.

NOAA: The July State of the Climate is hot off the presses


From NOAA:

July 2015 warmer and wetter than average for the US

The Northwest and Southeast were warm while the central U.S. was cool. Record precipitation in parts of California did little to improve long-term drought.

The July contiguous U.S. average temperature was 73.9°F, 0.2°F above the 20th century average and ranked near the middle in the 121-year period of record. The average contiguous U.S. temperature for January-July was 53.0°F, 1.7°F above the 20th century average, and the 10th warmest year-to-date on record.

The July precipitation total for the contiguous U.S. was 3.16 inches, 0.38 inch above average. This was the 14th wettest July on record, and marked the fourth consecutive month of above-average precipitation for the Lower 48. Above average precipitation was observed across much of the West, Great Plains, and Ohio Valley. Below-average precipitation was observed in parts of the Southern Plains, Southeast, and Northwest.



  • Above-average temperatures were observed in Alaska and the Northwest—Washington had its fourth warmest July. The Southeast was also warmer than average where Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina were all much warmer than average. Louisiana had its third warmest July on record. No state was record warm.
  • Below-average temperatures stretched from the Great Basin, through the Central Rockies, and into the Central Plains and Midwest. Above-average precipitation across these regions was associated with suppressed daytime temperatures. No state had July temperatures that were much cooler than average.
  • Precipitation

  • In the West, California, Nevada and New Mexico were much wetter than average. California had its second wettest July on record with 0.64 inch of precipitation, 0.46 inch above average. This is the dry season for California—even small precipitation totals can cause large departures from average compared to history. In mid-July, the remnants of Hurricane Dolores impacted the state with record precipitation observed in Los Angeles and San Diego. Flash flooding caused significant impacts, including destroying a busy bridge on Interstate Highway 10. The precipitation did little to improve long-term drought conditions or improve wildfire conditions in northern parts of the state.
  • Above-average precipitation was also observed in the Ohio Valley, where four states were much wetter than average. Kentucky had its wettest July on record with 8.99 inches of precipitation, 4.65 inches above average. This bested the previous record of 8.25 inches set in 1910. This is the second consecutive month with record wetness in parts of the Ohio Valley.
  • Below-average precipitation was observed across parts of the Northwest, with worsening drought conditions in the region. Below-average precipitation was also observed across parts of the Great Lakes and Southeast. Louisiana had its ninth driest July on record.
  • According to the August 4 U.S. Drought Monitor report, 27.1 percent of the contiguous U.S. was in drought, up slightly since the end of June. Drought conditions improved across parts of the Southwest and Northeast. In the Southeast, drought improvement and degradation were mixed, with only scattered precipitation impacting the region. Drought conditions remain dire across California, with 46.0 percent of the state experiencing the worst category of drought (D4, exceptional).
  • #AnimasRiver: Gold King mine spill reaches Utah


    From the Farmington Daily-Times:

    Evan O’Keefe, supervisor with the San Juan County Geographical Information Systems department, estimated this morning that the plume, which is now in the San Juan River, is about three hours south of Aneth, Utah.

    He said the speed of its travel depends on factors like topography. He also noted that, at this point, the front part of the plume is not as noticeable.

    “It’s not like it was when coming down the Animas River,” O’Keefe said.

    The plume of toxic waste passed through San Juan County on Saturday. From Silverton, it traveled along the Animas River and flowed into the San Juan River at the confluence in Farmington.

    It is continuing west in the San Juan, which is a tributary that feeds into the Colorado River.

    The New Mexico Environment Department is also offering free water testing for residents affected by the spill. The department will provide free water testing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office substation in Lee Acres, 21 County Road 5500 in Farmington.

    A spokeswoman for the department said those hours may be extended if the demand for water testing continues. One scientist involved in the testing said a line of people were waiting at 8 a.m. today to get their water tested.

    To get their water tested, residents need to bring 16 to 32 ounces of water in a clean container.

    One rural water user association in the county has spent thousands of dollars buying water from Farmington and Aztec because it had to shut down its wells after the toxic mine waste spilled into the Animas last week.

    “We don’t want to take a chance of contaminating them — and it sure has cost us a lot of money,” said Rick Mitchell, Flora Vista Mutual Domestic Water Association general manager.

    Mitchell said he has spent about $7,000 buying water from Farmington and Aztec for the system’s users. The association maintains a series of wells along the Animas River. It supplies all of its water from those wells, expect during peak demand in the summer when it buys water from nearby cities.

    The association serves about 5,000 people, Mitchell said.

    City of Bloomfield officials said they have received calls from concerned residents about the quality of the city’s water…

    Bloomfield pulls its water from the San Juan River, and the city’s water supply has not been affected by the mine spill, said Jason Thomas, the city engineer and public works director, in a press release. He said the city’s water is safe to drink and to use on gardens and for animals.

    But Thomas also notes that “if our neighbors need to share our water supply, we will need to begin water conservation measures to prolong the supply.”

    Officials have set up several potable water stations throughout the county for residents and RV and livestock owners to use.

    #CleanWaterRules: Colorado among 13 states that want judge to block new federal water rule — The Denver Post

    Fen photo via the USFS
    Fen photo via the USFS

    From the Associated Press via The Denver Post:

    Thirteen states led by North Dakota are asking a federal judge in Bismarck to block a new rule that gives federal authorities jurisdiction over some state waters.

    North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem (STEHN’-juhm) says a preliminary injunction will be filed Monday.

    The states filed a lawsuit in June challenging the rule by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. The states say the new rule illegally expands the jurisdiction of those agencies under the federal Clean Water Act.

    The law [rule] goes into effect Aug. 28. The injunction seeks to suspend the new rules until a court can decide the case.

    The other states joining the lawsuit with North Dakota are Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, South Dakota and Wyoming.

    More Environmental Protection Agency coverage here.

    When our river turned orange — High Country News #AnimasRiver

    Health and environmental officials in San Juan County are evaluating the Animas River after roughly 1 million gallons of mine waste water were released Wednesday. August 6, 2015. (Photo courtesy San Juan Basin Health Department)
    Health and environmental officials in San Juan County are evaluating the Animas River after roughly 1 million gallons of mine waste water were released Wednesday. August 6, 2015. (Photo courtesy San Juan Basin Health Department)

    From The High Country News (Jonathan Thompson):

    The mustard-Tang plume was the result of approximately three million gallons of wastewater and sludge that had poured from the dormant Gold King mine into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas, some 50 miles upstream on the previous morning. The water had backed up in the mine behind a sort of dam formed when the mine portal’s ceiling had collapsed sometime earlier. Workers from the Environmental Protection Agency were hoping to install a pipe to drain the water so that they could eventually plug the mine, keeping the contaminated water inside it and out of the streams. Instead, they ended up accidentally breaching the dam, releasing the water.

    While the spill occurred just a few miles above Silverton, the impacts hit Durango the hardest. The Animas River courses through the middle of Durango, provides a portion of its drinking and irrigation water, and over the last few decades has become the recreational and aesthetic, wild, green heart of the city. The spill essentially stopped the heart’s beat. Officials closed the river for public health reasons, shutting down hundreds of recreational boaters and tubers, not to mention the local rafting industry. No one yet knows what will happen to the fish, the birds, the bugs and other wildlife that call the river home…

    Really, though, the EPA wasn’t the root cause of the emergency. It was, most likely, a disaster waiting to happen and the most visible manifestation of an emergency that’s been going on in the Upper Animas River Watershed for decades. Here’s nine items to help you understand the big picture:

    • Pollution in the Animas is not new: The Upper Animas River watershed consists of three main streams, the Animas, Cement Creek and Mineral Creek all of which drain the Silverton Caldera, the highly mineralized collapsed core of an ancient volcano, and which run together at Silverton. Miners started going after the minerals in the 1870s, and the river’s been the victim of their pollution ever since. Mines simply poured their tailings directly into the creeks and rivers until, in the 1930s, downstream farmers got them to stop; the remnants of those releases can still be found under the river bed in Durango and beyond. Then there’s acid mine drainage. The portals and shafts blasted into the mountainsides hijack the natural hydrology, pulling water flowing through fractures toward natural springs into the mine tunnels. There, the water reacts with iron disulfide (pyrite) and oxygen to form sulfuric acid. The acidic water dissolves naturally occurring heavy metals such as zinc, lead, cadmium, copper and aluminum. The resulting contaminated water flows out of the mine adit as if from a spring. By 1992, when the last major mine in the watershed shut down, there were some 400 mines in the watershed, many discharging unmitigated discharges into streams. Not a fish could be found for miles downstream from Silverton, and the impacts to aquatic life were felt in Durango, where, when the mines were still running, sensitive fish were unable to reproduce.

    • Superfund has long been on the table, and long been swept off: As mining waned in the late 1980s, federal and state regulatory agencies started looking at how to clean up the mess. Superfund, which comes with a big pile of cash, seemed like the obvious approach. But locals feared that the stigma would destroy tourism along with any possibility of mining’s return. Besides, Superfund can be blunt; the complex Animas situation demanded a more surgical, locally-based approach. So the Animas River Stakeholders Group, a collaboration between concerned citizens and representatives from industry and federal and state agencies, was created in 1994 to address the situation. The approach was successful, at first, but then water quality began deteriorating again. The specter of Superfund returned. Many locals, worried about impacts to property values and tourism, have again resisted. Sunnyside Gold Corp. (see below) has offered millions of dollars to further cleanup efforts — as long as there’s no Superfund designation.

    • The problem is massive and complex, but not hopeless: In 1991, the last big mine in the region, the Sunnyside, shut down. Its owner, Sunnyside Gold Corp., planned to plug the American Tunnel, thus stanching the flow of acid mine drainage (which it ran through a water treatment plant), and then walk away. The state wouldn’t allow it: While a plug, or bulkhead, would be a short-term fix, in the long-term the water, and its contaminants, might back up in the mine and find another way to the surface. So Sunnyside agreed not only to bulkhead its mine, but also to clean up abandoned mines nearby — a sort of pollution offset project — while continuing to run the waters of upper Cement Creek through a water treatment facility. That, combined with the ARSG’s extensive efforts, worked: By the early 2000s, zinc, cadmium and lead levels in Mineral Creek had dropped by 50 to 75 percent, and water quality in the Upper Animas had improved significantly (Cement Creek had never supported fish, and never will). Fish appeared just below Silverton, where they hadn’t been seen in probably a century. It was success, without Superfund.

    • Then it got even more complex: Sunnyside cut a deal with the state and Gold King mining, a small operation owned by a Silvertonian. Sunnyside would leave, and turn over its water treatment operations to Gold King, along with enough cash to keep it running for a while. Gold King hoped to eventually resume mining the Gold King (not far from the American Tunnel). For decades, the Gold King, like the nearby Red and Bonita mine, had not discharged any water. But not long after Sunnyside sealed its bulkheads, water started pouring out of all of them. “It was not a coincidence,” says Peter Butler, ARSG co-coordinator. The backed up water had found natural fractures to follow into the other mines. Together, the Gold King and Red and Bonita would become some of the biggest polluters in the basin. Initially, their waters were run through the treatment plant that Sunnyside had left behind. But before long, Gold King ran into technical, financial and legal troubles and the treatment plant stopped operating. Water quality for miles downstream once again deteriorated. The fish that had returned to the Animas below Silverton were wiped out. Part of the renewed impetus for a Superfund designation was to bring in funds to resume water treatment as well as figure out ways to clean up the basin’s remaining major polluting mines.

    • In the meantime, a piecemeal approach continues: The ARSG, along with federal and state agencies, continue to do what they can to clean up mines. In some cases, this means plugging them, which is what the EPA is working on at the Red and Bonita, and planned to do at the Gold King, when the dam broke. Other methods include diverting water before it gets into the mine in the first place, and removing waste piles at the entrances to mines so that acidic discharge from the mine can’t leech minerals out of the rock. Until the Gold King is plugged, it will continue to discharge acid mine drainage, just as it had before the spill.

    • This isn’t the first time that something like this has happened, nor is it the worst: In June of 1975, a huge tailings pile on the banks of the Animas River northeast of Silverton was breached, dumping tens of thousands of gallons of water, along with 50,000 tons of heavy-metal-loaded tailings into the Animas. For 100 miles downstream, the river “looked like aluminum paint,” according to a Durango Herald reporter at the time; fish placed in a cage in the water in Durango all died within 24 hours. It was just one of many breaches of various magnitude. Just a decade before, the same tailings pile was found to be spilling cyanide-laced water into the river. In 1978, after the American Tunnel was bored too close to the floor of Lake Emma, the lake burst through, sending an estimated 500 million gallons of water tearing through the tunnel, sweeping up huge machinery, tailings and sludge, and blasting it out the adit and sending it downstream. No one was working in the mine at the time, which is either miraculous, or suspicious, depending on who you ask.

    • Short-term impacts aren’t as bad as the water looks: Sampling done by the EPA upstream from Durango show that the plume’s peak put the Animas River’s water’s acidity on par with black coffee, and contained elevated levels of iron, manganese, zinc and copper. But by the time it reached town, the acidity had been diluted significantly, and levels of those metals were far lower, but still “scary,” according to EPA officials. Still, the plume moved through quickly, lessening harm. A test by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, in which trout in cages were placed in the river prior to the plume’s arrival, has so far shown no acute effects: Only one of 108 fish had died during the first 24 hours in contaminated water. Meanwhile, the Mountain Studies Institute has been monitoring macro-invertebrates, and their results have been similarly positive.

    • Long-term impacts are still unknown: As the plume moved downstream, sediment settled onto the river bottom and its rocks, which could affect aquatic bugs. And it’s likely to get kicked up during high water flows. If thick enough, the sediment could even affect the river’s appearance, providing a Tang-colored reminder of this disaster for months to come. Also, water in some domestic wells near the river reportedly had a yellow tint in the days after the spill moved through, but it’s not yet known what other contaminants may have gotten into the water. Irrigators had to shut down their ditches in hot weather, which could damage crops, and the ag economy, just as the river closure is costing rafting companies thousands of dollars each day. The plume moved through critical habitat for razorback suckers and pike minnows further downstream; they may prove more sensitive than the trout. But then, the Animas and San Juan rivers in New Mexico had their own water quality issues before the spill: alarmingly high levels of human fecal bacteria.

    • The EPA messed up, but they’re not the root cause: It’s true that EPA officials took a “cavalier attitude” (EPA Region 8 administrator Shaun McGrath’s word) in the first hours after the spill, downplaying the impacts and failing to notify those downstream. And they admit that before tinkering with the mine, they should have taken better steps to mitigate a possible disaster, such as drilling into the mine from the top to assess the situation without the danger of busting the dam. Had they not messed with it at all, though, the gathering water and sludge might have busted through the de facto dam sometime anyway. Clearly, the water quality issue goes far deeper than this one unfortunate event.

    If initial public reaction is any indication, the disaster has woken Durangoans up not only to how important the river is, but also to what’s been going on upstream. And they’re likely to exert whatever pressure they can on their neighbors up in Silverton to accept, even embrace, Superfund and a comprehensive cleanup effort. They speak from experience: Durango was the site of a massive federal cleanup of a uranium tailings pile in the early 1990s, and tourism and property values did just fine. Moab, Utah, another tourism mecca, is currently in the middle of a similar cleanup. The hordes of visitors mostly seem oblivious to it. Such is not the case, however, with our Tang-hued river.