The September 2015 issue of “The Current” is hot off the presses from the Eagle River Watershed Council

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

Animas spill may stimulate watershed solutions

On August 5, about 3 million gallons of contaminated water burst out of an abandoned mine above Silverton and sent a plume of cloudy, orange water down Cement Creek to the Animas River, through the heart of Durango, and on into the San Juan River in New Mexico, the Navajo Nation and Utah. Downstream: Lake Powell.

The plume of acidic orange water, containing arsenic, lead and other toxic heavy metals, had built up as a result of historic mining activity dating back to the 1870s… The massive plume was set loose by workers for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency attempting to assess and remediate the source of an ongoing trickle of pollution from the Gold King mine…

In assessing how this catastrophe fits into the overall regional water picture, it is instructive to zoom out geographically and look back in time. The 3 million gallons of contaminated water from the spill translate to a little over 9 acre-feet of water. This quantity is dwarfed by the approximately 13 million acre-feet currently in Lake Powell, despite the fact that it is only 54 percent full…

Hannah Holm is the coordinator for the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University. Holm is a friend of the Watershed Council and wrote this article for our monthly Vail Daily column, The Current. Click here to read on.

Arkansas River Basin: A look at the Bessemer Ditch

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

In Colorado, where settlement depended on water availability, a ditch often is the oldest structure in a community.

Nowhere is that more true than on the St. Charles Mesa. Located just southeast of Pueblo, the area has been home to generations of farm families. It’s known locally for its produce at farmers markets or roadside stands. Everything from cabbages to pumpkins is marketed nationally. As the Colorado State Fair rolls around each year, Pueblo has its share of youth animal exhibitors and farm products entered into contests.

But for all that to happen, a ditch had to be dug.

The Bessemer Ditch stretches more than 40 miles through the city of Pueblo, the steel mill to the east and onto some of the best farmland in the region. Its name, taken from the steelmaking process, is a key to its origins.

It began more as a real estate project than a demand to work the land. The ditch was first known as the Big Ditch in South Pueblo in 1874. It was dug by the Central Colorado Improvement Co., a real estate company formed by William Jackson Palmer to assist the Denver & Rio Grande railroad. While there was no steel mill in that early time, the ditch was meant to open up the land south of Pueblo to small family farms.

It diverted water west of Pueblo from the Arkansas River and was described by The Pueblo Chieftain as a booming area that supported the opening of coal mines to the west in Canon City.

When the Central Colorado Co. merged with other companies to form Colorado Coal & Iron, the forerunner of CF& I, most of the ownership of the ditch came with it. CC& I sought to expand the ditch in the 1880s to bring water to large tracts of land on the St. Charles Mesa. The ditch would run through Pueblo, across the St. Charles River by flume and empty into the Huerfano River.

By 1889, the Bessemer Ditch had incorporated and was selling shares of stock.

“The turning of the water into the Bessemer Ditch is something that Pueblo ought to have celebrated this week with a grand demonstration,” The Chieftain opined in 1890. “It is one of the best things the city and county ever witnessed.”

Glory was short-lived. The ditch company defaulted on an interest payment and was sold at a trustee’s sale in 1894. Soon after, the Bessemer Irrigating Ditch Co. was formed, and remains the operator. It is today a mutual association of landowners.

Initially, a reservoir was built in the Vineland area, but it leaked too much because local soils would not hold water.

Bessemer Ditch survived the flood of 1921. Some structures had to be rebuilt, but the biggest casualties were the company’s records, lost when its offices in Downtown Pueblo flooded.

It also made it through the Great Depression. Even though shut-off notices were mailed to 45 percent of the shareholders, local banks continued to loan money to the company.
In recent decades, the nature of the ditch has continued to change.

Subdivisions of some property and commercial operations on the Mesa have created the need for drinking water delivery, and the St. Charles Mesa Water District has acquired about 10 percent of Bessemer Ditch shares since 1964.

When Pueblo Dam came online in 1975, it included an outlet for the Bessemer Ditch.

Bessemer Ditch, which had supported the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project that built Pueblo Dam, sued the Bureau of Reclamation over clear water. Lacking silt, the water seeped more quickly through the ditch, flooding basements in Pueblo, creating a potential liability.

Although the ditch company lost the lawsuit, a federal project helped seal the 5 miles of ditch through Pueblo by spraying it with gunite.

Beginning in the 1980s, there were attempts by speculators to buy Bessemer Ditch shares to meet the need for additional water supplies in growing cities. Those mainly failed because the asking price was too low.

But in 2009, in response to offers from El Paso County communities, the Pueblo Board of Water Works successfully purchased about 28 percent of the shares for a little more than $10,000 per share. Pueblo Water in 2007 had made a lower offer that failed to attract enough interest.

Part of the deal is that most of the water would be leased back to farmers for about 20 years and that any leasing of water outside the ditch would give priority to Pueblo County.

So, the Big Ditch has come full circle, providing a foundation first for the growth of Pueblo, a century of primarily agricultural activity and now a support system for the county’s growth — all the while continuing to produce world-class green chiles.

Greg Hobbs sent along these photos from his son Dan’s farm off the Bessemer Ditch in the Arkansas Valley:

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Dolores Water Conservancy seeks mill levy — The Cortez Journal

Mcphee Reservoir
Mcphee Reservoir

From the Dolores Water Conservancy District via The Cortez Journal:

The Dolores Water Conservancy District board of directors is asking voters to set a permanent mill levy for the district.

Ballot question 4A will appear on the November general election ballot, and would authorize DWCD to fix its operating mill levy at the current 0.483 mills and retain any additional income it receives. DWCD operates McPhee Reservoir and the Dolores Project.

“We think of this as purely a housekeeping measure, but it requires voter approval because it deals with our mill levy rate,” said Bruce Smart, president of the Conservancy District Board.

“We’re spending more of our resources, and tapping reserve funds, to protect our water rights and meet legal and regulatory challenges while dealing with the challenges created by drought.”

The district is also responding to threats to McPhee Reservoir such as preventing an invasion of destructive mussels.

“The bottom line is we have a duty to protect the water, McPhee Reservoir and project facilities for our children and grandchildren,” Smart said.

DWCD manages the water assets of the Dolores Project covering a 440-square-mile area of farms and towns, including the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. Water stored in McPhee Reservoir is relied on for drinking water by the communities of Cortez, Dove Creek, and Towaoc. And the Montezuma Valley Irrigation District stores water in McPhee that is delivered to 1,000 shareholders.

“Water from the Dolores Project is the lifeblood of our local economy – including agricultural and commercial businesses, and the residential growth of our communities,” said District Manager Mike Preston. “In our 28 years of managing the Dolores Project, we’ve seen an increasing need to protect existing water rights and water supplies while making long term investments to keep Dolores Project facilities in good condition. Addressing these needs has become increasingly critical and costly.”

Question 4A will be included in the general election ballot mailed to registered voters in Montezuma and Dolores counties by October 19, 2015.

The district has a long-term contract with the Bureau of Reclamation to operate and maintain the Dolores Project which moves an average of 240,000 acre feet of water per year through the reservoir. The Project facilities include McPhee Dam and Reservoir, the Dolores Tunnel, the Towaoc Highline Canal, the Dove Creek Canal, two hydropower plants, seven pumping plants and the control systems to run them all remotely. Directors on the seven-member board are appointed by the district judge.

Opinion: What will “Godzilla” El Niño mean for the Colorado River? — Hannah Holm

From the Grand Junction Free Press (Hannah Holm):

As chill and darkness creep into September mornings and parent-teacher conferences approach, it’s natural to start wondering about what kind of winter we can expect. And, in turn, what kind of water conditions will follow for farmers, rafters and fish.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the “Godzilla” El Niño headed our way. El Niño, Spanish for “the baby,” refers to a warming of the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, which can result in dramatic weather around the globe. According to the LA Times, Bill Patzert of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab coined the term “Godzilla El Niño” in referring to the fact that we appear to be on track to experience one of the strongest El Niños on record.

So what could this giant reptile-baby do for the Colorado River Basin, where a 15-year drought has helped push water storage levels in Lakes Mead and Powell to record lows?

According to the California Weather Blog, a strong El Niño shifts the odds strongly in favor of a wet winter for all of California. This could help the state begin to recover from its record-setting drought. Unfortunately, above average temperatures are also forecast from the west coast to Utah, which could mean higher snow levels and more rain, with the attendant increased risk of floods, mudslides and general mayhem.

A wet California won’t do much for supplies in the Colorado River, but could ease demands a bit. Southern California relies extensively on Colorado River water to supplement what it gets from its own mountains — which has recently been next to nothing. So more precipitation falling within California should help get the supply portfolio for the Los Angeles metro area a little more back in balance.

It’s not nearly as clear what El Niño will mean for the Colorado River’s headwaters and Colorado ski areas. The Weather 5280 blog did an extensive review of how past El Niño events have affected precipitation patterns around Colorado, and found a mixed bag. For the state as a whole, past El Niños have coincided with increased average precipitation in the summer, fall and spring, but average winters. Breaking it down by region, Western Colorado has gotten the biggest boost to precipitation in the fall, but actually had drier winters in El Niño years.

The Denver Post reports that, while there’s not a strong correlation between El Niño events and average precipitation in Colorado, many of the state’s biggest storms have occurred during El Niño years.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center (CPC) three month outlook, which takes El Niño into account along with other factors, shows that the entire Southwest is likely to be wetter through the fall, with the strongest tendency squarely focused on Arizona and a diminishing but still positive tendency for southern California, southern and eastern Nevada, all of Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, and most of Wyoming.

The temperature outlook over the same period shows equal chances of warmer and cooler temperatures for most of the four-corners states, with increasingly warmer-than-average conditions as you look to the north and west. You can find this information and related reports on Western Water Assessment’s climate dashboard at

So — what kind of winter are we in for? It’s not exactly clear, but our wet spring and summer have already reduced the probability of a formally declared shortage in the lower Colorado River Basin within the next couple of years, which would initially result in reduced Colorado River deliveries to some Arizona farmers. With some help from El Niño, it looks like drought conditions in most of the Colorado River Basin on are their way out, and California should get at least some relief.

In terms of the ski season, take full advantage of any nice, big fall dumps, because there’s no guarantee that more big storms will follow.

This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more, go to You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at or on Twitter at

Colorado River Basin including Mexico, USBR May 2015
Colorado River Basin including Mexico, USBR May 2015

DARCA: Invasive Species Workshop and Float Trip


From email from the Ditch and Reservoir Company Alliance (John McKenzie):

Hello DARCA Members –

I am attaching the finalized agenda for our workshop and float trip on Sep 24-25. We are in the process of opening up participation to non-DARCA members so please register this week to secure a spot. You may go to the DARCA website to register and will need the code, 6JILB409. (Look under the Workshops tab)

Will see some of you in a couple of weeks.

If you have any questions, please give me a call.


John McKenzie
Executive Director
Ditch and Reservoir Company Alliance
1630A 30th St., #431
Boulder, CO 80301

Tel: (970) 412-1960

The September 2015 “Headwaters Pulse” is hot off the presses from the Colorado Foundation for Water Education

A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 -- photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin
A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 — photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin

Click here to read the September 2015 edition. Here’s an excerpt:

Last month, the nation watched aghast as a Colorado river turned orange. The crisis on the Animas River brought the importance of water to national attention, highlighting its crucial role in tourism, mining, recreation, and public health – but also spotlighting the vulnerability of our watersheds.

As I heard the story unfold, I was struck by the apt similarity of Animas with animus. Google will give you two main definitions for this word: (1) hostility or ill feeling, and (2) motivation to do something.

The story of this spill is, unfortunately, a tale of mistrust, ill feelings, and hostilities between communities, mining companies, and government regulators, among others, and the spill is not likely to improve the situation. But the orange river is only the most visible evidence of slow pollution that has been ongoing for decades from old mines, which citizen groups and government agencies have been trying to stanch. Even when the river is no longer orange, pollution is still a problem.

And so I hope that the conditions on the Animas give us all some motivation to protect our watersheds, whether by joining a local watershed group, participating in Colorado’s Water Plan, attending this year’s Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference, or devoting the time to learn more about Colorado’s water. Check out the resources below for more ideas.

At CFWE, our programs incorporate diverse perspectives and facilitate dialogue that brings together uncommon allies, working to reduce animus over water issues. Informed decision-making and collaboration can help secure a better water future for us all. So let’s turn the orange Animas into our animus to improve and celebrate Colorado’s water.

Economic flood recovery progressing two years later — the Estes Park Trail-Gazette

Estes Park
Estes Park

From the Estes Park Trail-Gazette (Jon Nicholas):

It has been two years since the catastrophic Colorado floods of 2013. The outstanding visitation and tax revenue numbers from this summer suggest that most guests could not guess that the recovery is ongoing.

We’ve come a long way in those two years, but much work remains…

The impact in places like downtown Estes Park and Lyons will be substantial, as flood insurance premiums could skyrocket for some businesses.

In addition, Larimer County Commissioner Tom Donnelly announced to Glen Haven residents that $2 million in federal money is being allocated for restoration of bridges and roads in Larimer County.

Under existing federal regulations, money could not be allocated to privately owned roads or bridges that exist in much of rural Larimer County. The presence of second homes in many of these areas was also a barrier to obtaining any federal assistance. Cooperation among our Congressional delegation and Larimer County officials was necessary to obtain an exception to federal rules, which were not designed with our region in mind.

Cooperation has been another key to getting us back on track. No one person or organization can take all the credit. For example, the Fish Creek Road restoration requires cooperation among the town, county, Upper Thompson Sanitation District and Estes Valley Recreation and Park District. The United Way created a unique fund that delivered over $1 million in grants to local businesses for flood recovery. Mountain Strong for Nonprofits evolved from community members who banded together to help their neighbors. Crossroads Ministries received and distributed substantial assistance.

The Community Foundation of Northern Colorado provided grant monies to a host of local recovery efforts, including a grant to Estes Park EDC and the Town of Estes Park for a flood recovery coordinator. Through that program, Estes Park EDC assisted over 50 businesses in successfully obtaining $1.9 million in Recover Colorado business grants.

Our dedicated staffing and partnership with Larimer SBDC greatly benefited local businesses. As of this summer, over 60 percent of the statewide Recover Colorado grants had come to Estes Park, Glen Haven, Drake and southwest Larimer County.

For Estes Park EDC, assisting local businesses is always a top priority, but this was just the first step. The recent completion of the NEO Fiber Consulting plan for competitive broadband is a major step toward addressing both the cost and speed of local Internet services. Assuming the plan goes forward, it will greatly benefit both our residents and guests, our existing businesses and businesses to come.

Finding long-term resources for resiliency is another key. Two weeks ago, we received good news. After receiving an application from Larimer County, the Colorado Economic Development Commission accepted Southwest Larimer County as an Enterprise Zone. Thus provides local businesses with the opportunity to obtain a number of different tax credits designed to expand and support your business. We are an Enterprise Zone because census data revealed that Estes Park is lagging the state in population growth.

In 2013, we spoke about the 28 percent decline in 35 to 44 year old residents that occurred between the 2000 and 2010 Decennial Censuses. The 2012 Census data estimated that we have lost 46 percent of our 35 to 44 year olds since 2010. The loss of working age families can be attributed to less workforce housing availability and fewer year-round job opportunities compared to Front Range communities.

The flood has exacerbated such concerns, as demonstrated by the large number of job ads that continued to appear in July and August. The size of this population decline threatens funding for our schools, due to long-term declines in enrollment.

Later this fall, Avalanche Consulting will meet with the Town Board to present a regional economic development strategy for the Estes Park region. There will also be public meetings to discuss the plan and its implementation. The plan combines the results of extensive community meetings and outreach earlier this year with the experience of a national consulting firm.

This summer has been a record year for tax revenues. Despite our successes, the recovery is ongoing. Long-term resiliency against future events is an important goal. With leadership and collaboration, we ensure we remain a vibrant, multi-generational community in the decades to come.

From the Boulder Daily Camera (Charlie Brennan):

The storm that upended the lives of thousands of Front Range residents almost two years ago was nearly unprecedented for the area, so much so that it largely confounded the best efforts of those charged with forecasting its scope and impact.

But the lessons learned from the 2013 event could go a long way toward ensuring that should a similar storm strike this area — and in a changing global climate, it could — the forecasting community would be better prepared for it.

Those are key findings from “The Great Colorado Flood of 2013,” a paper accepted for publication soon by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. It is one of the most comprehensive analyses to date on a memorable storm that may only have the September 1938 flood as close precedent in the past century for the Boulder area.

The 71-page paper features no fewer than 26 contributing authors, representing the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and CU’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences…

Colorado behaving like the tropics

The record-breaking dimensions of the 2013 storm were born of a confluence of climatological factors, including a significant tropical influence flowing into a charged atmosphere flush with water vapor, over a landscape that was already well saturated.

Recapping the way the system had set up, the paper states: “The large-scale atmospheric pattern that supported persistent heavy rainfall in northern Colorado during 10-16 September 2013 consisted of a blocking ridge over the Canadian Rockies and a slow-moving, cutoff, upper-level cyclonic circulation to its south over the western U.S. The blocking anticyclone assisted in keeping the western-U.S. cutoff circulation in place for several days, and to the east and southeast of this circulation, moist air was transported northward and westward toward the Front Range in Colorado.”

That’s far different from the usual variety of flood-prone events for which most local forecasting models are geared — such as a slow-moving thunderstorm that might camp out over a localized river basin, like that which triggered the tragic Big Thompson flood of 1976.

And just as the tuning of a musical instrument can be adjusted for the music it is expected to play, the forecasting tools of the National Weather Service are calibrated for conditions they expect to see — not the outlier that invaded Colorado two years ago.

“Weather forecasting models are tuned to observe the weather in the entire United States year-round, and they are tuned to typical weather, not atypical weather,” Friedrich said.

“Then, because the models didn’t forecast the rain correctly, the radars didn’t measure the rain correctly, and that had trickle-down so the hydrological forecast was basically lagging, due to the incorrect input data. And the reason the radars did not observe it correctly was the nature of the storm. It was very tropical.”

Weather blogger Bob Henson stated in an email, “This paper reiterates how challenging it is to accurately predict and measure heavy rain and flooding. This was a Colorado storm that behaved like a tropical downpour, from the microphysics within the clouds to the phenomenal rainfall they produced.”

Meteorologist Matt Kelsch, a co-author on the report, said atmospheric models are always evolving, using past storms as guidance.

“When a storm occurs that is so far removed from the historic experience, our forecasts, both computer and human, struggle,” Kelsch said. “The modeled atmosphere leading up to the second week of September 2013 was strongly suggesting an unusually wet period — but not 12 to 20 inches.”

As bad as things were for the 24 Colorado counties socked by more than $2 billion in damage, Henson said it could have been worse.

“We are lucky to have far better modeling and observing technology at hand than we had in 1976, when the Big Thompson flood took almost everyone by surprise and killed more than 100 people,” he said. “Neither humans nor models fully anticipated the scope and power of the 2013 disaster, but we knew heavy rains could affect a wide area, and we had much better tools for responding quickly and saving lives when the threat materialized.”

The paper concludes by offering the hope that new research weather forecast models such as NOAA’s High Resolution Rapid Refresh model could improve precipitation forecasts, and that new generations of spatially continuous hydrological models could produce better information on timing and location of floods — presuming that more accurate rainfall estimates and forecasts are available to feed into those models.

The storm was such that it stretched historical superlatives in the moment, and some endure. Most notably, the paper supports the contention that in some pockets in a corridor stretching from Boulder northwesterly toward the St. Vrain, Little Thompson and southern half of the Big Thompson watersheds, rain fell during one 24-hour period at a clip qualifying as a 1,000-year-rain — meaning that in any given year there is a 1-in-1,000 chance of it occurring.

“We don’t have the data to say otherwise,” Gochis said. “It’s all a fit to what you have seen before. Otherwise, you’re just kind of extrapolating.”

Gochis added, “If we had 1,000 years of data, we could have a lot more confidence in saying that. …

“I don’t really like that (1,000-year) term. The flood was definitely unprecedented in its scale — not just in local amounts, but in its widespread extent.”

‘Do we know what actually fell?’

Many might be surprised to know that even now, two years later, it still isn’t known exactly how much rain came down.

“Do we know what actually fell? No, but we certainly have a very good estimate, much better than what we would have had even 15 years ago,” Kelsch said. “The struggle is in low-population mountainous areas. Low-population areas have fewer rain-gauge reports, and mountainous areas have less radar-based measurement of what is happening between the cloud and the ground. This was most apparent in parts of northwestern Boulder and western Larimer counties.”

Friedrich noted in an interview last week that a question that remains prominent in her mind is “whether this is an outlier event and whether these types of events might occur more often. Is this a response to climate change? Is this something we might experience in the near future?

While noting that there is not yet enough data to draw a solid conclusion, she referred to a paper published in June by NCAR distinguished senior scientist Kevin Trenberth. The Trenberth paper, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, didn’t assert that climate change caused the 2013 flood, but that it likely enhanced its severity.

The 2013 storm was extraordinary, Trenberth said, as demonstrated by the fact that records were “not just broken but smashed.”

“And yet we are seeing more and more of these sorts of things around the U.S. and around the world,” he said. “They are hard to connect because every one is different; the atmosphere has infinite variety, and the weather never repeats. But climate change is altering the odds.”

Currently, hurricanes in the east Pacific and a record-breaking El Niño boosting sea-surface temperatures over large areas are examples of the Earth’s natural variability which, coupled with climate change, “puts us outside the previous experience,” Trenberth said.

“There are many phenomena involved in all these different events, but the environment in which they occur has changed to make the extremes more extreme — the rainfalls heavier, and the droughts hotter and drier and with wildfire a consequence,” he said.

Whatever the future might hold, Gochis said the fact that “Boulder, itself, didn’t receive a lot of catastrophic damage” suggests much of its floodplain planning and flood strategizing has paid dividends — and should continue to, in the face of future events.

Gochis was less sanguine about other areas of concern, mentioning as an example the restoration of foothills roadways.

“Transportation corridors were put back where they were,” Gochis said. “I think we’re still vulnerable there. But to make them more flood resilient would take a lot of money.”

Plume of subtropical moisture streaming into Colorado September 2013 via Weather5280
Plume of subtropical moisture streaming into Colorado September 2013 via Weather5280

Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference — October 6-8

Click here for all the inside skinny. Here’s an excerpt:

We are proud to announce the 10th Annual Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference, hosted by the Colorado Watershed Assembly, the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, and the Colorado Riparian Association. This conference, taking place in Avon, CO from October 6-8, 2015, works to expand cooperation and collaboration throughout Colorado in natural resource conservation, protection and enhancement by informing participants about new issues and innovative projects and through invaluable networking!

After spill, work suspended at 10 mine sites — The Fort Collins Coloradan

Colorado abandoned mines
Colorado abandoned mines

From the Associated Press via the Fort Collins Coloradan:

Site investigations and some cleanup work at 10 polluted mining complexes in four states were suspended because of conditions similar to those that led to a massive wastewater blowout from an inactive Colorado gold mine, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said.

The sites include three in California, four in Colorado, two in Montana and one in Missouri, according to details obtained by The Associated Press following repeated requests for the information.

They have the potential for contaminated water to build up inside mine workings, EPA Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus said. That would set the stage for a possible spill such as last month’s near Silverton, Colorado, where an EPA team triggered a 3 million gallon blowout of toxic sludge while doing excavation work on the inactive Gold King Mine.

The accident fouled rivers in three states and attracted harsh criticism of the EPA for not being prepared despite prior warnings that such a spill could happen.

“We want to take extra caution before we initiate any work,” Stanislaus said of the work suspensions. Some the mines were abandoned decades ago and have grown more unstable over time, raising the risk of an accident.

The stop-work order was issued last month but officials for weeks refused to disclose specifics.

Cleanup efforts on some of the mines have been going on for years yet remain unfinished, underscoring the complexity of a long-running attempt to address an estimated 500,000 abandoned mines across the U.S. Work on others was in the early stages.

In a report to Congress delivered Friday, the Government Accountability Office said federal agencies identified thousands of contaminated mine sites in recent years — even as their attempts to assess what harm is being done to people and the environment have lagged.

Further investigations were needed to gauge the danger posed by the 10 mining complexes under the suspension before work could safely resume, according to internal EPA documents released by the agency.

That includes categorizing their level of hazard. For those deemed a “probable hazard,” the EPA plans to keep the work stoppage in place until emergency plans are drawn up to deal with any accident.

The agency also wants to get the results of an Interior Department investigation into the Colorado accident before proceeding on most of the other sites. That’s expected in late October, department officials said.

Prior to the Aug. 5 Gold King spill, the EPA and its contractor, Environmental Restoration LLC of St. Louis, appeared to have only a cursory emergency response plan in the event of a spill, according to documents released under public records requests.

There was no cellphone coverage at the remote site in the San Juan Mountains, and the workers did not have a satellite phone, according to EPA documents. As a result, they had no way to immediately communicate with the outside world when the rust-colored water loaded with heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, began rushing toward downstream communities.

Fault vein in Standard Mine Gunnison County
Fault vein in Standard Mine Gunnison County

One of the sites where cleanup work was subsequently halted was the Standard Mine in the mountains above Crested Butte, a ski town in west-central Colorado. Crested Butte Mayor Aaron Huckstep said that after work was suspended, the EPA met with residents and officials and made sure cleanup workers could communicate directly with the town in an emergency.

“They understood that they needed to make sure that the communication channels and the communication protocols were in place and the folks knew who to call and when to call them,” Huckstep said.

EPA documents show wastewater at the site periodically spills over a crudely-built impoundment, raising concerns about a “potential catastrophic failure” and the possibility of tainting Crested Butte’s drinking water. But Huckstep said he didn’t believe the Standard Mine was a threat to blow out, based on EPA statements and differences in the land.

The EPA said the town’s water meets safety standards.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment spokesman Warren Smith said wastewater flowing from the mine was not considered an acute health threat. Work on the site resumed Sept. 4 after officials determined appropriate safety measures were in place.

The Aug. 12 stop-work order from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy did not apply to sites where halting operations would pose a threat to people or increase the potential for harm to the environment, according to internal EPA documents.

Also exempted were portions of the 10 stopped projects where construction already was completed, such as treatment systems for contaminated water that pours continually from many abandoned mine shafts.

That’s the case for two sites listed in northern California — the Leviathan sulfur mine near the town of Markleeville and the Iron Mountain metals mine near Redding. Water continues to be collected at the sites, to be treated and then discharged.

“We have not received any direction from EPA to shut down our treatment. It’s been business as usual for us out there,” said Scott Ferguson with the Lahonton Regional Water Quality Control Board, which is involved with the Leviathan mine.

EPA spokeswoman Laura Allen said other work at the two mines has stopped, including plans to remove a beaver dam at Leviathan.

NOAA: September 2015 El Niño Update and Q&A


From NOAA (Emily Becker):

The CPC/IRI ENSO forecast says there’s an approximately 95% chance that El Niño will continue through Northern Hemisphere winter 2015-16, gradually weakening through spring 2016. It’s question & answer time!

How strong is this El Nino now?

The only real way to answer this is to throw a bunch of numbers at you. Essentially, it’s “pretty strong.” The three-month, June-August average of sea surface temperatures in the Niño3.4 region (the Oceanic Niño Index) is 1.22°C above normal, via the ERSSTv4 data set. This is the third-highest June-August value since records start in 1950, behind 1987 (1.36°C) and 1997 (1.42°C).

The August average is 1.49°C, second behind August 1997 (1.74°C). The August Equatorial Southern Oscillation Index (which measures the strength of the atmospheric part of ENSO) was -2.2, second to 1997’s -2.3. There are many ways of measuring El Niño, so the ranking of El Niño will change depending on which variable (winds, pressure, etc.) or time period (monthly, seasonal) you want to examine.

When is El Niño going to hit?

El Niño isn’t a storm that will hit a specific area at a specific time. Instead, the warmer tropical Pacific waters cause changes to the global atmospheric circulation, resulting in a wide range of changes to global weather. Think of how a big construction project across town can change the flow of traffic near your house, with people being re-routed, side roads taking more traffic, and normal exits and on-ramps closed. Different neighborhoods will be affected most at different times of the day. You would feel the effects of the construction project through its changes to normal patterns, but you wouldn’t expect the construction project to hit your house.

Okay, then… but what’s going to happen in my home town?

The expected changes in regional weather patterns due to El Niño are a big part of the NOAA Climate Prediction Center’s seasonal forecasts. Over North America, the Pacific jet stream (a river of air that flows from west-to-east) often expands eastward and shifts southward during El Niño, which makes precipitation more likely to occur across the southern tier of the United States. Check out the winter (December-February) forecasts here.


Chances of possible temperature (upper map) and precipitation (lower) outcomes for December 2015-February 2016: above normal, below normal, or near normal. Above or below normal means temperatures in the upper or lower third of the range of historical temperatures. White does not mean “near normal;” it show places where the chances for above-, below-, and near-normal temperatures are equal. Maps by NOAA, based on data from the Climate Prediction Center.

Why winter?

The weather in the winter is controlled more by global atmospheric flow than summer weather is, when small-scale events like thunderstorms tend to be more important. Since El Niño’s remote effects are felt though its modulation of global flow, winter is when the most noticeable impacts occur.

Winter in the Southern Hemisphere is just winding down. Did El Niño have an impact on their winter?

A few months ago, Tony wrote about expected effects of El Niño during June-August. Most of the El Niño-related changes that have been identified during past events are in the Southern Hemisphere during their winter; there are also significant effects in the tropics. These include warmer weather in some areas of South America, dry conditions in India, Indonesia, and Australia, and warm and dry conditions in Central America and the Caribbean. Also, more rain than average in part of Chile, and some cooler temperatures in part of Australia.


Observed temperature (upper map) and precipitation (lower) from June-August 2015. Observations are shown as their ranking in the period 1948-present: for example, a 90th percentile temperature means this June-August was warmer than 90% of the past June-August averages. figure from CPC data.

Much of South America did experience a very warm winter; in some areas, it was the warmest winter since these records began in 1948. Parts of Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile received a lot of rain during July-August. Central America and the Caribbean are very dry right now, with the June-August rainfall deficit just adding to a severe drought throughout the region. Also in line with expected conditions during El Niño, rainfall in some portions of India and Indonesia were well below average, and very few areas in this region saw more rain than average.

However, as we’ve said before (here and here, for example), El Niño impacts are not guaranteed, and an example of this is Australia’s recent winter, which was not nearly as dry as it has been during past El Niños.

What about the places that are directly affected by all that warm water? I heard the surface temperatures were more than 90°F in some places!

The warmer-than-average tropical Pacific waters can have a big impact on marine life. For example, there were large coral bleaching episodes (coral die-offs) during past El Niños, and it’s likely we’ll see a lot of coral bleaching this year. The warmer water can also affect fisheries, seaweed farms, ocean mammals, and birds.

What about the hurricane season? That’s supposed to be affected by El Niño, right?

El Niño can amp up the hurricane season in the Pacific, by providing lots of warm water to power the storms, and reducing the vertical shear (the change in wind speed/direction as you go up in the atmosphere). On the other hand, the shear is increased over the Atlantic, which makes it difficult for storms to form and strengthen. So far this year, the Pacific has been very active, and the Atlantic has been pretty quiet. There have been some unusual events in both basins recently – Tom wrote about them here and here.

Could El Niño die before this winter?

It’s unlikely. There is a large reservoir of warm water just below the surface of the tropical Pacific that will help to keep surface temperatures relatively high for at least a few more months, and the atmosphere is in sync with the ocean. However, the strength of the atmospheric response over the next few months is still to be determined. In 1997, the near-surface winds along the equatorial Pacific weakened so much that they reversed from normal, and blew from the west to the east, helping to reinforce the warm sea surface temperatures. We haven’t seen behavior like that yet, and it’s hard to predict right now if we will.

I keep hearing how the “Blob” (a large area of warm ocean temperatures off the West Coast of the U.S.) is going to be in a battle with this strong El Nino this winter. Which one will win?

El Nino and “the Blob” are not on an equal playing field, so the short answer is we expect El Niño to dominate the large-scale atmospheric pattern over the Pacific-North America this coming winter.

Sea surface temperatures during August compared to the 1981-2010 average. figure, based on data from NOAA View.

The Blob is not capable of changing the overlying atmospheric pattern in a significant way. In the Tropics, changes in ocean temperatures can easily lead to changes in the atmosphere above it. But outside of the Tropics, such as over the North Pacific Ocean, the physics are different, so ocean temperatures can’t effectively change the large-scale atmospheric flow or circulation pattern. The amount of heat in the Tropics is an enormous engine that drives rising motion and affects the whole globe’s circulation; the Blob is like a Fisher Price Power Wheel in comparison.

That said, the way that El Niño might affect water temperatures off the West Coast, or how those water temperatures might affect storms that are steered into the area by El Niño, is really hard to tell. As with any forecast, there are a lot of elements at play. However, El Niño is the dominant factor shaping the overall global picture for this winter.

Are you really naming El Niño?

No. That was a joke!

Water 101 seminar is Sept. 25 in Bayfield — Pine River Times

Greg Hobbs at the 2015 Martz Summer Conference (of course there is a projected image of a map -- this one was the division of Colorado into water divisions by major basin, heeding the advice of John Wesley Powell)
Greg Hobbs at the 2015 Martz Summer Conference (of course there is a projected image of a map — this one was the division of Colorado into water divisions by major basin, heeding the advice of John Wesley Powell)

From the Pine River Times:

The 9th Annual Water 101 Seminar will be held Sept. 25 at the Pine River Library in Bayfield. Keynote speaker will be Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs.

Hobbs will speak on Colorado water history and law. Other speakers will include representatives from the Bureau of Reclamation, Corps of Engineers, Colorado Division of Water Resources, Pine River Irrigation District, Town of Bayfield, and La Plata/ Archuleta Water District.

The schedule also includes a presentation on the Colorado Water Plan (comments for which are due on Sept. 17) and the Southwest Basin Implementation Plan that will be part of the state plan. Water emgineer Steve Harris will speak on water banking.

The event will run from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Space is limited so register early! The general public registration fee is $35 before Sept. 16, or $40 after that date and at the door. The registration fee includes lunch, snack, and an information packet. The fee for professionals seeking CECs is $50 before Sept. 16 or $60 at the door.

The seminar qualifies for continuing education credits (CECs) for lawyers and realtors, training units for water utility operators, and teacher certificate renewal hours.

The seminar is sponsored by the La Plata-Archuleta Water District, Pine River Irrigation District, Town of Bayfield, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, and the Water Information Program.

For more information or to register, contact the Water Information Program at 247-1302 or visit their website at

Montrose Water Sports Park wins Starburst Award — Montrose Daily Press

Miles Harvey of Salida takes  a spill off his standup paddle board into the Uncompahgre River during FUNC fest on Saturday
Miles Harvey of Salida takes a spill off his standup paddle board into the Uncompahgre River during FUNC fest on Saturday

From the Montrose Daily Press:

The Colorado Lottery honored Montrose recently with one of its 2015 Starburst Awards.

The award recognizes Montrose’s excellence in use of lottery funds in creating the Montrose Water Sports Park; the City of Montrose is to formally accept the award at city council’s Sept. 15 meeting.

“This award provides further acknowledgement of all of the planning and effort that went into creating the Water Sports Park,” City Manager Bill Bell said in a statement Friday.

“While the city had a central role in creating this amazing community asset, the finished product represents the collaborative effort and vision of many organizations and individuals in the community. This award recognizes everyone who had a share.”

Great Outdoors Colorado (funded by lottery proceeds) provided partial funding to build the water park, as well as new trails along the Uncompahgre River and improvements to nearby Montrose Recreation District facilities.

Colorado Lottery noted exceptional collaboration among local entities in choosing Montrose for the Starburst Award. Montrose was one of 19 communities to receive a Starburst Award.

“These projects display how important outdoor recreation is to both Coloradans and visitors,” Lottery Director Laura Solano said in the statement.

“The Lottery congratulates and recognizes the 2015 Starburst winners for their vision in creating quality recreation opportunities in their communities.”

The Water Sports Park is located at Riverbottom Park on Apollo Road. It boasts six “wave simulator” structures within the river, several rock-terraced spectator areas, nearly one-half mile of recreation trails, Americans with Disability Act-compliant access ramps at each end of the park, two rock-climbing boulders and several fish-habitat improvements.

Pueblo asks for more time to meet water quality standards

Wastewater Treatment Process
Wastewater Treatment Process

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The city of Pueblo laid out its case for more time to study which methods of reducing contaminants, especially selenium, in wastewater to state and county officials Friday.

“The city’s approach is not just a study, but an adaptive management program,” said Gabe Racz, the city’s attorney for water quality issues.

Pueblo plans to ask the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission in December for an extension of temporary modification for discharges from the sewage treatment plant east of Pueblo. The city wants three years to meet sulfate standards and 10 years for selenium levels.

There are complicated, interrelated processes that need to be implemented in order to meet new federal standards for selenium, ammonia and nutrients, said Gene Michael, wastewater director for Pueblo.

EPA letter calls NISP impact statement insufficient — BizWest

Northern Integrated Supply Project via The Denver Post
Northern Integrated Supply Project via The Denver Post

From BizWest (Dallas Heltzell):

In a 20-page letter sent last week to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA listed a series of objections to the Supplemental Draft Economic Impact Statement released by the Corps in June regarding the proposed Northern Integrated Supply Project. Echoing comments made in recent weeks by officials from Larimer County and the cities of Fort Collins and Greeley, the EPA said the Corps’ SDEIS lacked sufficient information to adequately predict the project’s potential impacts or to achieve the level of compliance with provisions of the Clean Water Act that the Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District would need to get a federal permit to build and manage NISP…

“Although stressed and, in some instances currently degraded” by withdrawals for various uses, the Poudre and South Platte “river systems are of ecological, agricultural and recreational value to local and regional areas in Colorado and their aquatic and hydrologic functions are extremely difficult to replace,” wrote Martin Hestmark, assistant administrator in the Office of Ecosystems Protection and Remediation for EPA’s Denver region, in the Sept. 3 letter to the Corps’ Denver regulatory office.

Hestmark’s letter detailed concerns about what the agency regards as insufficient Corps projections about river hydrology, water quality, permitted discharges, aquatic biological resources, wetlands and riparian areas, agricultural impacts and climate change, as well as proposed steps to mitigate those harmful impacts and possible alternatives.

The EPA gave the project an EO-2 grade. The EO, or environmental objection. “signifies that the EPA’s review identified the potential for the NISP project to cause or contribute to violations of water-quality standards or significant degradation that, without sufficient mitigation, could be substantive and would occur on a long-term basis,” Hestmark wrote. “The ‘2’ rating signifies that the EPA’s review identified the need for improved impact analysis and mitigation to adequately assess the potentially significant, long-term environmental impacts of the proposal. Given the importance of documenting the project’s consistency with requirements in the Clean Water Act, the planned Phase II water quality effects analysis and the related mitigation for those effects should include a formal and full public review in advance of the final EIS.”

In a letter dated Aug. 28, Northern Water general manager Eric Wilkinson wrote that “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. …

“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” late this year or early in 2016, Wilkinson wrote, adding that the project has received more than 100 endorsements from around the state, including industry and economic-development groups, newspapers and the Larimer County commissioners.

Northern Water’s boundaries include about 880,000 people living on 1.6 million acres in portions of Boulder, Broomfield, Larimer, Weld, Logan, Morgan, Sedgwick and Washington counties.

From the Fort Collins Coloradan (Jacy Marmaduke):

The Environmental Protection Agency has qualms about the review process for the Northern Integrated Supply Project, detailed in 20 pages of comments made public Thursday.

The EPA gave a rating of “Environmental Objections — Insufficient Information” to the Army Corps of Engineers’ supplemental draft environmental impact statement, which was subject to public comments until Sept. 3.

The “environmental objections” rating means the EPA has identified significant environmental impacts that the project must avoid. The “insufficient information” rating means the EPA found that the SDEIS doesn’t contain enough information to fully analyze the project’s environmental impacts.

The EPA’s comments aren’t necessarily binding, but the agency has veto power over the permitting process.

Both ratings are one step away from the worst the EPA can dole out. The EPA could have rated the project “environmentally unsatisfactory,” meaning it shouldn’t proceed as proposed, and “inadequate,” which would have required the Army Corps to release another supplemental draft.

The EPA’s rating is consistent with calls from the Fort Collins City Council, Save the Poudre and the Larimer County Board of Commissioners that the Army Corps conduct additional analysis of how NISP would affect water quality in the Poudre River, the primary source of water for a project that would create two reservoirs to provide 40,000 acre feet of water annually to 15 participants. Those include 11 cities/towns and four water districts. Towns include Windsor, Severance, Dacono, Eaton, Evans, Erie, Frederick, Firestone, Fort Lupton, Fort Morgan and Lafayette. The Fort Collins-Loveland Water District is a participant.

Essentially, the SDEIS includes a half-finished water quality analysis that predicts what kind of water quality effects might occur — temperature changes and increased concentration of certain sediments — but not the magnitude of those effects. The SDEIS says the full analysis will be in the final environmental impact statement, slated for release next summer.

NISP opponents took issue with the lack of full analysis because the Army Corps isn’t planning for a public comment period between the final EIS and its record of decision on the project.

In its comments, the EPA recommends the Army Corps publish the additional analysis before the final EIS and allow for a formal public comment period.