Voters to decide Orchard Mesa Sanitation District’s future


From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Greg Ruland):

Residents who live within the boundaries of the Orchard Mesa Sanitation District will vote Nov. 3 on a plan to shut down the 39-year-old district and transfer all of its sewer lines, pipes, fittings, taps, valves and controls to the city of Grand Junction as of Dec. 31…

In the unlikely event voters fail to approve the plan, the district will continue to operate as it has since 1976, according to a contract negotiated between the city and the district in 2004.

The 2004 contract resolved a longstanding conflict over the use of fees the district paid the city to process a portion of its sewage, district officials said.

“The board decided it was the best deal we would could get for the ratepayers,” said Deborah Davis-Heidel, district manager since 1982.

Approval of the dissolution plan required by the contract will save district residents about $12 a year on their sewer bill, Davis-Heidel said.

It could also result in immediate improvements. Cash reserves and proceeds from any property sold by the city within two years of the transfer must be spent “exclusively” on capital improvements for district infrastructure, according to the plan.

For example, the sanitation district’s headquarters at 240 
27¼ Road — a 1,500-square-foot office building on slightly more than a half-acre — is expected to be sold in July, she said.

The plan also requires the district to continue billing ratepayers until October. It must transfer all of its billing records to the city by July. The three months between July and October will give the city the time it needs to write new software that syncs the district’s billing records with the city’s, Davis-Heidel said. After October, the city will take over billing.

Voter approval also means two longtime employees, Davis-Heidel and billing secretary Debra Kuhn, will lose their jobs and several independent contractors will lose a reliable, paying client. Attorney Larry Beckner, engineer Steve LaBonde, line cleaner Thomas Gund, construction contractor Mike Kelleher, and auditor Jeff Wendland will lose the district’s business as result of the transfer.

The district’s board of directors approved the dissolution plan in April before City Council approved it in July. In November, voters get their chance to approve or not, Davis-Heidel said.

Board members and staff of the district are prohibited from campaigning for or against the ballot issue, Referred Measure A, she said.

Davis-Heidel expects Referred Measure A to pass. At age 62, she is updating her resume for the first time in 37 years. She’s hoping to sign on with a sanitation district in a mountain town somewhere along the Continental Divide. At least one head hunter has already expressed interest, she said.

She called the district “my first child” and detailed how over nearly four decades it built and then updated and improved sewer lines for hundreds of homes in several Orchard Mesa neighborhoods.

The district spent about 
$1 million in the past five years to upgrade all of its lines prior to the handoff and will have retired all of its debts — including the original bond issue that built the system — before the end of the year, she said.

“We’re leaving the system in better shape than we found it,” she said, crediting the district board with wise stewardship.

#CleanWaterRules: The law that no one loved — Boulder Weekly

From the Boulder Weekly (Angela K. Davis):

On Oct. 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a stay for the Clean Water Rule, which seeks to clarify protection of the country’s streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act. The stay halts implementation of the regulation, also known as the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule, across the country. This ruling follows an earlier injunction by a district judge in North Dakota that prevented the implementation of the regulation in Colorado and 12 other litigating states, which claim the regulation is federal overreach into states’ authority.

The WOTUS rule seeks to clarify which types of bodies of water are protected under the Clean Water Act following two Supreme Court cases earlier this century that called into question the protection of streams and wetlands. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the two agencies that developed the rule, state that one in three Americans get their drinking water from streams, and both streams and wetlands are the foundations of clean water in the U.S.

The two agencies issued the final WOTUS ruling in June of 2015, despite earlier internal memos wherein the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers challenged changes made between the draft rule and final rule. “If the rule is promulgated as final without correcting those flaws it will be legally vulnerable, difficult to defend in court, difficult for the Corps to explain or justify, and challenging for the Corps to implement,” one memo states.

As predicted, the final rule, which was to take effect Aug. 28, was immediately met with litigation from both sides of the political spectrum. Colorado Attorney General, Cynthia Coffman, joined other states in filing suit, which resulted in the August injunction. The ruling on Oct. 9 follows the previous ruling by halting the implementation of the regulation in all states until a federal judge can decide whether or not the rule is in fact federal overreach.

“The attorney general of Colorado and other states have believed that there needs to be clarification in the courts of what the EPA’s actual reach into a state’s natural resources is or should be,” says Roger Hudson, chief communications director for the Colorado Attorney General. “If WOTUS happens, we believe it violates the provision of the Clean Water Act and overreaches into the state of Colorado. The Attorney General’s assertion is that Coloradans should decide how to use and maintain and keep pristine the natural resources of Colorado, not a federal agency.”

Not only did states challenge the rule, but environmental and conservation groups filed lawsuit in July stating the WOTUS rule was too weak and could actually provide less protection than the original 1972 Clean Water Act.

Nonprofit organizations, including Waterkeeper’s Alliance and the Center for Biological Diversity, challenge the rule stating that it would have “adverse impacts” on the “use, enjoyment and preservation of the waters of the United States.” The organizations maintain the rule weakens protection of certain streams, wetlands and ponds that are either too far from larger streams and rivers, or too close to bodies of water used for agriculture and ranching.


Gold King spill heightens concern and awareness of abandoned mines

Colorado abandoned mines
Colorado abandoned mines

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Toxic mines hang over this haven [Crested Butte} for wildflowers, contaminating water and driving residents — like counterparts statewide — to press for better protection.

A local group went to federal court this month seeking long-term assurances that a water-treatment plant will always remain open as the collapsed tunnels and heaps of tailings leak an acid mix of heavy metals: arsenic, cadmium, zinc and others.

State data show these contaminants reaching Coal Creek — the primary water source for Crested Butte and the Gunnison Valley’s green pastures — at levels exceeding health standards.

“A lot of people are nervous,” said Alli Melton of High Country Conservation Advocates. “We’d like to get it as clean as possible.”

Municipal officials in Nederland, Georgetown, Breckenridge and other mountain towns also urge faster cleanup of festering inactive mines after the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine disaster, where an Environmental Protection Agency team triggered a spill of 3 million gallons that turned the Animas River mustard yellow.

Tens of thousands of inactive mines in Western states continue to taint headwaters of the nation’s rivers, including an estimated 230 sites in Colorado where state officials have documented bit-by-bit degradation of waterways.

But stopping the harm — even as clean water increasingly is coveted — remains technically and politically difficult.

Congressional efforts to create a national cleanup fund haven’t gotten off the ground. Gov. John Hickenlooper and fellow Western governors are trying to sort out liability and funding to spur cleanups. State lawmakers are asking questions.

Five miles west of Crested Butte at Standard Mine, the EPA a decade ago declared an environmental disaster and launched an $8 million Superfund cleanup. EPA contractors currently are designing a “flow-through” bulkhead plug that could partially block mine drainage before it contaminates the valley.

That’s a tricky approach because bulkheads can back up muck and cause it to rocket out elsewhere — poisoning more land and water. At Gold King Mine, a bulkhead in nearby Sunnyside Mine may have set up the deluge the EPA set off…

The High Country Conservation Advocates’ lawsuit seeks financial assurance from U.S. Energy to guarantee that treatment of Keystone Mine drainage would continue if the company closes. High Country Conservation targeted the U.S. Forest Service, because mining activities occur on federal land, accusing the feds of failing to collect, as required, financial assurance bond money.

In a 2012 memo, Forest Service officials acknowledged they’re required to do this. Agency officials this month declined to discuss the allegations.

Crested Butte Mayor Aaron Huckstep and the Gunnison County commissioners support residents, asking state health officials, in an Aug. 18 letter, “to protect the public against the environmental and human health catastrophe that would ensue” if U.S. Energy failed to operate the plant…

Problems at mines

The old mines leaking above Crested Butte exemplify problems at the estimated 230 inactive mines statewide that health and natural resources officials know are contaminating waterways.

West of Boulder above Nederland, a plug blocking waste in Swathmore Mine popped loose around Sept. 20, turning the Middle Boulder Creek orange. A hiker noticed and alerted Nederland authorities. Firefighters raced to the mine, followed by the EPA, town administrator Alisha Reis said.

“We routinely see orange iron runoff in the spring. It is a fact of life around here. And definitely, post-Gold King, folks are more aware than usual,” Reis said. “We pay to do our own water testing. It is in our interest, if we have anything happening — to be sure we know the nature of any release and what we need to do to handle it. That is our watershed. We’re always incredibly vigilant about protecting our watershed.”

In Georgetown along Interstate 70, town leaders last summer implemented a watershed-protection plan that focuses on threats from mining, town administrator Tom Hale said. Town officials also encourage the Forest Service to clean up old mines on federal land.

Breckenridge projects to make more open space available for recreation increasingly collide with toxic mine waste.

Acid drainage and water leaching through tailings have poisoned French Creek and Blue River to the point that fish cannot reproduce, town manager Tim Gagen said. Breckenridge recently was forced to embark on water treatment at a 1,800-acre site southwest of town, Gagen said.

“The problem with these old mines is tunnels go for miles underneath the mountains and they have different leakage points that you can’t detect,” he said.

An association of mountain resorts has had the issue of toxic mines on its agenda for years, and the Gold King and Crested Butte situations probably will make protection, if not final cleanup, more of a priority, he said.

Statewide, drainage from inactive mines is the main cause of harm to rivers and streams, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — a problem that has left 1,645 miles of waterways classified as “impaired.”

And the specific heavy-metal contaminants trickling into Coal Creek above Crested Butte are among the most pernicious. The CDPHE has found cancer-causing cadmium contaminating 809 miles of rivers statewide. Arsenic contaminates 244 miles. Lead contaminates 185 miles. Manganese contaminates 403 miles. And zinc, lethal for fish, contaminates 907 miles.

Handling toxic mines

Methods for dealing with toxic mines include rerouting streams around tailings, installation of various bulkheads, and building water treatment plants.

Yet, at the federal level, there’s no dedicated funding for cleanup — other than Superfund money that may or may not follow an official declaration of environmental disaster — which usually requires support from a governor.

Colorado officials said state funds are even more limited.

“We will continue to direct available time and resources to the highest priority sites where we can have an impact,” state spokesman Todd Hartman said.

In Congress, staffers for Sen. Michael Bennet said he’s still working on a bill with New Mexico senators to reform the 1872 law that governs hard-rock mining — aiming to charge companies royalties to create a cleanup fund. Bennet, Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton also are working on legislation to shield groups that embark on voluntary cleanups from liability for accidents.

Meanwhile, Western governors are discussing the problem.

“These are all conditions that were created by previous generations. And there’s a resistance to the present generation wanting to pay for it — because it is expensive,” Hickenlooper said. “To address all the issues, just at the mines in Colorado, you’re looking at billions of dollars.”

“(Western governors) are looking at that, and looking at how do we cobble together some local funding and some federal funding? What would that look like? And what timeline is reasonable? How do you prioritize what comes first?”

Hickenlooper adviser John Swartout, who was working on the issue recently in Washington, D.C., said towns seeking Superfund intervention may face a stigma without necessarily receiving funding for cleanup. “(But) because of this terrible accident,” Swartout said, “it is the right time to have this conversation and have it result in some legislation.”

For some residents, Superfund stigma is the least of their worries, and waiting on Congress appears futile.

Earlier this month, an EPA crew working on Standard Mine accidentally triggered another spill — of only about 500 gallons — and blamed it on a vacuum truck dipping too low into metals-laced sludge that spilled into Elk Creek, which flows into Coal Creek. No major harm to town water was expected.

For assurance, the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition expanded its water testing and was waiting for results. While Crested Butte’s town water-treatment plant purifies water before it reaches households, the plant manager said it couldn’t handle a massive toxic spill.

Even after this hiccup, the EPA, working in partnership with the coalition to contain acid waste from Standard Mine — and possibly, in the future, Keystone Mine — holds the greatest promise for protection, said Steve Glazer, a resident of Crested Butte since 1969 and president of the watershed coalition.

The coalition is looking for ways to expand water monitoring to include groundwater, which may be contaminated and reaching Coal Creek, Glazer said. And residents want to make sure current contamination isn’t hurting children and residents whose immune systems may be relatively weak, he said.

“We’d like Congress to be much more proactive. It’s unfortunate they politicize everything they do. They can’t agree to blow their nose. It’s unfortunate there’s so much dysfunction in national politics,” he said. “We have a problem. How can we fix it? We’re moving forward. The reason this unfortunate accident happened (Oct. 6) is that we’re doing something. We’re not just sitting around. When you’re active, and you have a potentially dangerous site, things happen.”

Tamarisks: They’re back . . . they never left — The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Just because there hasn’t been as much talk about tamarisk lately doesn’t mean the invasion is over. Now, talk has begun again, but the message has changed.

Eradication is out; control is in.

While tamarisks, or saltcedars, are watergulpers, a fully grown tree uses only about 20 gallons a day, not 200 gallons as mistakenly was often reported in the past.

And trees should be taken out for a reason, and with a plan, not just because they are bad invaders.

Those messages have been conveyed twice in the last week by the Tamarisk Coalition to area conservancy districts. Based in Grand Junction, the group incorporated in 2002. The group works with other organizations to improve habitat, not just wipe out saltcedars.

“In a nutshell, what we do is help people restore rivers. We’re focused on that,” Stacy Beaugh, executive director of the Tamarisk Coalition, told the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District board last week. “You can’t just cut them down and walk away.”

She assured the Southeastern board, which took the lead in earlier tamarisk removal programs for the Arkansas Valley, that Southeastern Colorado remains a high priority.

A few days later, the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District heard from Rusty Lloyd, program director with the Tamarisk Coalition.

Lloyd explained that the group no longer is concerned with completely removing the trees, many of which were purposely planted for erosion control. But it supports efforts to remove pockets of the plant where possible and natural controls such as beetles to knock back the numbers.

“The beetle can weaken the plants, and some plants don’t come back,” Lloyd said. “It seems to be doing its job, but it’s sporadic.”

Lloyd said there are water quantity and quality benefits from removing tamarisk, but the purpose for any program should look at other issues such as improving wildlife habitat. A plan should be in place to replace tamarisk with more beneficial species.

“There are lots of invasive species we are concerned with,” Lloyd said. “We don’t blindly advocate people tearing out plants. You need to have a purpose.”
Past efforts to remove tamarisks have not always worked and sometimes cleared the way for other invasive species to take hold.

“We learn as much from our failures as we do from our successes,” Lloyd said.