Colorado Springs Utilities and the #COWaterPlan

Pikes Peak with Garden of the Gods in the foreground
Pikes Peak with Garden of the Gods in the foreground

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Ryan Maye Handy):

…despite the painstaking work of people in nine water basins, multiple drafts, dozens of public meetings, and pushback from utility companies, the water plan is not a panacea. To the question of where Colorado’s extra water will come from, there is no simple answer.

“We know there is not a silver bullet, at least not one that we have found,” Eklund said.

Colorado is one of the last Western states to develop a water plan, although water planning on a smaller scale has been going on for decades. Colorado’s Rocky Mountain spine is the headwaters for several major rivers that flow into 18 states, and water here has always been carefully watched.

The state has been credited as the birthplace of water law, after battles between miners and farmers over water rights broke out in the 19th century.

In the modern era, water uses are heavily regulated and litigated – but the state has never had a comprehensive plan for future water use, one that balances its opposing interests.

Since the plan began to compile information in 2013, it has had to juggle the disparate interests of nine water basins, which are home to big cities, rivers, farmland and rural communities. Residents in the Western Slope basins closely watch the Colorado River – which provides much-needed water to California – and push against channeling their water over to the Front Range. The South Platte basin, the state’s largest that covers the entirety of northern Colorado, is desperate for more water for it’s growing cities, and is looking to the Western Slope and to agriculture to provide some of it. Meanwhile, the Arkansas basin, home to Colorado Springs, has a little bit of everything – a dependence on Western Slope water, the state’s second largest city and agriculture that gives $1.5 billion every year to the local economy.

The solution to filling the water gap will come from a mixture of all of these – water from the Western Slope, from farmlands and from cities.

Some of the most scathing commentary of the plan has come from Colorado Springs Utilities, a water manager for the state’s second largest watershed, the Arkansas River basin. Despite the years of work, Utilities feels that the plan has done little more than create a rushed document that delivers a list of “don’ts” instead of a path forward for the future of water.

While Eklund defends the plan as something that is meant to be acted on, the plan’s suggestions are not binding without executive orders or legislation, he said. Because of this, Utilities believes that plan falls short of giving the state a clear direction when it comes to water.

“Without a firm and clear policy statement … the rest of the document is a directionless recitation of guardrails without a road,” wrote Utilities officials in a public commentary submitted in September, when the last draft of the plan was released.

The commentary also criticized the plan as being biased against municipal water use, and not having enough detail on building more water storage, one of Utilities’ preferred methods for girding the state’s growing population against water loss.

Utilities did praise the plan for putting together an impressive collection of water information. However, it also has said that the plan also slowed it’s regular water planning processes.

Despite Utilities’ tone, many of its suggestions resonated with concerns from others around the state. One major consensus to come out of the water plan is that the permitting system for building projects like the Southern Delivery System is broken, Eklund said. Projects like that can take decades and millions of dollars to get approved, both things that need to be cut.

For Eklund, the plan is more than just a collection of problems – it does offer solutions and ways forward for Colorado’s diverse water community. Eklund also thinks of the plan as a living document; once water board members vote on the plan on Thursday, it will continue to be updated and changed. To Eklund’s knowledge, the plan is also the largest civic engagement process the state has undertaken, a process that involved responding to every single one of the 30,000 comments received.

He is confident that Utilities will be happy with the final plan.

“We will just have to wait and see,” said Steve Berry, a spokesman for Utilities, on Sunday night.

“You know how these things go – they never reflect all of your feedback. The good thing is that we have a record of our thoughts on it, and that’s permanent, and that always been looked back on.”

State of the Rockies Project: The Great Divide showing Wednesday

thegreatdividefilmhaveyproductions
From the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project:

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015 at 7:00 pm, Richard F. Celeste Theater, Cornerstone Arts Center
The Great Divide: The Destiny of the West is Written in the Headwaters of the Colorado

Jim Havey, Producer of The Great Divide, Havey Productions

The Great Divide, a feature length documentary film from the Emmy award winning team of Havey Productions, in association with Colorado Humanities, will illustrate the timeless influence of water in both connecting and dividing an arid state and region. From Ancient Puebloan cultures and the gold rush origins of Colorado water law to agriculture, dams, diversions and conservation; the film will reveal today’s critical need to cross “the great divide,” replacing conflict with cooperation. Producer Jim Havey will discuss the making of the film and answer questions after the showing.

Click here to read the Coyote Gulch review.

Snowpack news: San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan (126%) and South Platte (110%) basins lead the way

Click on a thumbnail graphic below to view a gallery of snowpack data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Update for Ulysses S. Grant’s mining law on horizon? — Eagle River Watershed Council

Eagle Mine
Eagle Mine

From the Eagle River Watershed Council (Kate Burchenal):

While the West has transformed and evolved greatly since the pioneer days, mining laws remain largely unchanged. Hardrock mining and extraction is, to this day, governed by President Ulysses S. Grant’s General Mining Law of 1872.

Five U.S. Senators, including Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, have introduced the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 in an attempt to reform that 140-year-old law and provide a modern mechanism by which we might cleanup abandoned mines throughout the West.

Colorado’s past and present are intricately tied to the hardrock mining industry. In the late-1800s, pioneers ventured West in search of storied riches awaiting discovery beneath the earth. The pioneers were by no means the first people to occupy the land, but their capacity for appropriating and shaping the land far exceeded the practices of their Native American predecessors. Beginning with the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush in 1858 and lasting for decades, Colorado experienced an enormous population boom as people flocked to the area in search of gold, silver and other valuable minerals.

Today, mining still plays a large role in our economy, and active as well as abandoned mines dot the landscape. It is estimated that there are currently 7,100 abandoned mines in Colorado, more than 200 of which are collectively leaking thousands of gallons of acid mine drainage every minute.

“Disastrous spills like the Gold King Mine blowout are easy to see, but the unnoticed toxins leaking out of thousands of abandoned mines are doing enormous damage to our watersheds every day,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

Throughout the West, estimates soar upwards of 500,000 abandoned mines.

Under current law, companies can extract gold, silver, copper, uranium and other minerals from public land without paying any federal royalties. This is one of the last vestiges of the old public land giveaways that enticed and encouraged people to settle the Wild West. Oil, gas and coal companies, on the other hand, pay annual rental payments for extraction activities on public lands.

“Hardrock mining companies have enjoyed a sweetheart deal for nearly 150 years, leaving taxpayers on the hook to clean up hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines leaking toxins and threatening communities across the West,” said Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, who has been pushing for mining reform since he gained federal public office in 1998.

Current funding mechanisms fall far short of the tens of billions of dollars needed to clean up harmful mines around the West. A major component of the new bill would be the creation of a Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund, under which new mining companies would pay annual royalties into fund totaling 2 to 5 percent of gross income. In addition, new and existing active mines would pay reclamation fees totaling 0.6 to 2 percent of gross income. The fees alone are expected to generate upwards of $100 million annually. The Reclamation Fund would provide resources to aid abandoned mine reclamation projects and would be distributed to states, tribes and other organizations through a grant program.

WON’T IMPACT EAGLE MINE

Before the questions come pouring in, I will make it plain that this law would have zero impact on the cleanup effort underway at the Eagle Mine.

First of all, the new act has no retroactive power. Owners of inactive and abandoned mines would not pay fees or royalties; only active mining operations, both new and existing, would contribute to the Reclamation Fund.

Secondly, the royalties would not be sufficient to cover all abandoned mine cleanups, thus the distribution of funds will be prioritized to reflect immediate needs. We are extremely fortunate to have a willing and able responsible party at the Eagle Mine who has been an active partner in the cleanup effort for nearly three decades. In places around the state where there is no active responsible party, taxpayers (read: you and me) are footing the cleanup bill. The 2015 Act aims to shift the financial responsibility from taxpayers to mine operators; it is not intended to help responsible parties conduct ongoing cleanup efforts.

The Colorado Mining Association has released statements expressing concern with the new law. Stuart Sanderson, President of CMA, says the proposed legislation “doesn’t provide workable solutions associated with abandoned historic mines that operated prior to the era of modern mining regulation.”

While the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 will not be a panacea capable of reversing the harmful legacy of mining in the West, we believe it is a step in the right direction.

Kate Burchenal is the education and outreach coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit http://www.erwc.org.

Peanut Lake restoration project underway to prevent breach — The Crested Butte News

Sunrise over Peanut Lake via Bob Berwyn
Sunrise over Peanut Lake via Bob Berwyn

From the Crested Butte Land Trust (Mark Reaman) via The Crested Butte News:

Heavy equipment started rumbling around Peanut Lake this week for a fall restoration project.

Work has begun by the Crested Butte Land Trust (CBLT) to shore up the lake. The Riparian Restoration Project is meant to reduce the risk of a breach of the lake, located just west of Crested Butte below the Lower Loop trail. A natural riparian floodplain buffer between the lake and the Slate River will be created through the $130,000 project.

“We broke ground yesterday [October 28, 2015] morning with an excavator and loader, amidst the wind and rain, after a year of studying and planning with a team of ecologists,” said CBLT stewardship director Danielle Beamer. “Things are going well on the ground—we’ve been able to transplant large, whole mats of willows and vegetation, which will really benefit the regrowth of the wetlands and the river banks. We were running out of time, so we are really grateful that the community stepped up to help us out.”

A team of ecologists had informed the land trust that a breach was likely sometime in the next ten years, but when it would occur was impossible to predict. The lake is there primarily as a result of beaver dams and is actually about three feet above the Slate.

“There are three main components of this week’s project,” explained Beamer. “First, we’ll remove a manmade gravel berm on the eastern side of the river. This berm has prevented the Slate’s natural migration, and forced it towards Peanut Lake’s eastern bank, so much so that the lake’s bank is seriously eroding. At the same time, we’ll realign a short segment of the Slate River, which will widen the area between the river and Peanut Lake, significantly lessening the likelihood that the river will break through the lake’s fragile bank. This will return the river and lake to a more natural environment. Finally, we’ll plant willows and other wetland plants—some this week, and more early spring, to restore acres of healthy wetlands, and ultimately benefit the wildlife of the wetlands, including the blue heron, beavers and elk.”

The work is expected to take about ten days. “We expect to finish the restoration work by the end of next week at the latest—it’s a little weather-dependent, but the crew is ready and willing to work through the weekend if need be. We’ll also monitor the area closely for the next five years,” said Beamer.

“Preventing a breach of Peanut Lake is one of our main objectives,” continued Beamer. “By increasing the extent of the wetlands between the river and the lake, the wetlands can act as a sponge, absorbing the heavy flows of spring run-off. We’ll do what we can, and hope that the landscape can return to a more natural system that will protect the lake as well.”

The work is expected to create about an additional 2.5 acres of wetlands in the area after volunteers help plant approximately 1,000 willows.

Funding sources include the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Great Outdoors Colorado, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, Tip for the Trust, the Colorado Healthy Rivers Fund, and New Belgium Brewery. CBLT executive director Ann Johnston said the CBLT also received some very generous gifts from community members.

As for any trail reroutes, Johnston said, “We’re working closely with CB Nordic to reroute a portion of the winter Beaver Trail.”

Good Samaritan legislation could help with acid mine drainage problem

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage via Animas River Stakeholders Group
Bonita Mine acid mine drainage via Animas River Stakeholders Group

From The Mountain Mail (Jason Willis):

You have probably heard of the Gold King Mine near Silverton and the spill of 3 million gallons of acidic, heavy-metal-laden mine wastewater into the Animas River that took place Aug. 5.

A lot of us here in Colorado are well aware of water quality issues resulting from historic hard rock mining operations. The mines and subsequent processing are what made this state, and particularly the mountainous mineral belt, flourish during the late 1800s through mid-1900s.

The events that took place after the Gold King incident made international news, while making the general public aware of how abandoned mines are a detriment to our water quality.

How much of a problem, you ask? According to a recent study completed by Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety (CDRMS), a total of 230 mines are discharging contaminated acid mine drainage (AMD) to our Colorado waterways. Of these, 47 are being addressed with active water treatment efforts, 35 mines are under investigation or being remediated, and 148 mines, well over half, are likely having a negative effect on water quality.

This number does not include abandoned mine waste or tailings piles that also pose a threat via surface water interaction and runoff.

My job got a little bit busier in the wake of this incident. Trout Unlimited has several staff members across the Western U.S., like myself, who work to remediate abandoned mine sites and improve associated water quality.

In 2015 my program alone has put almost $800,000 in private, grant and federal funds in the ground at abandoned mine sites.

These projects have included maintenance, mine tailings removal and revegetation, channel construction and slope stabilization. Most of these projects deal with non-point sources of pollution, which are not easily attributed to a single source.

For example, precipitation and runoff interacting with a mine tailings pile would be considered a non-point source of pollution. On the other hand, point sources are a single, identifiable source of pollution that must possess a discharge permit under the Clean Water Act (CWA). A draining mine discharging AMD would be an example of a point source.

There are several disincentives and liability concerns for nonprofits, watershed groups, local governments and environmental organizations (Good Samaritans) looking to attempt a discharge cleanup. Under the current legislative conditions, a Good Samaritan would assume permanent liability if they chose to install a treatment system at an abandoned mine.

Another roadblock often incurred in this process is the stringent EPA water quality standards applied to the discharge of a selected treatment system. Even if a Good Samaritan is removing 80-90 percent of the pollution from a given draining mine, but not attaining water quality standards, additional liability can be a deterrent for cleanup efforts.

Good Samaritan legislation would help create a mechanism for groups, like TU, to add capacity to perform point source cleanups at abandoned mine sites. A special “Good Sam” permit under the current CWA permit system would be a good first step, in addition to relaxed standards for water quality and required mitigation plan, engineering, sufficient funding and emergency response plan.

Several attempts at this legislation have been introduced in the last 15-20 years. Fear of creating a loophole for industry and amending the CWA were the unfavorable factors for previous bills.

Capitalizing on the increased publicity in the wake of the Gold King incident could help Good Samaritan legislation gain traction. Currently, Colorado Sens. Bennet and Gardner and Rep. Tipton are gathering input from key stakeholders to develop language for a Good Samaritan bill that can excel where past attempts have failed.

This change in legislation would open the door for more funding mechanisms and expertise to an industry already fighting an uphill battle. With an estimated 500,000 abandoned hard rock mines in the Western United States resulting in contamination of 40 percent of Western headwater streams, now is the time for increased awareness and applicable legislation to help improve our water quality for future generations.

For information on how you can help take action to keep our water clean, visit http://sanjuancleanwater.org.

For more information about Collegiate Peaks Chapter and our events visit our website: http://collegiatepeaksanglersTU.org

Arkansas River Basin: Winter water storage starts up

Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters
Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Some Arkansas Valley farmers remember — and not too fondly — the cold, blustery and sometimes snowy days around this time of year when they’d venture out to irrigation headgates and fight the ice to move water.

For the past 40 years, most have not had that chilly experience. The water is stored either in Lake Pueblo, John Martin Reservoir or along the Arkansas River in a ditch company’s reservoir.

On Sunday, winter water storage began this year, reflecting one of those unusual cases when all of the water interests in the Arkansas River basin appear to be rowing in the same direction.

“The best thing we did was the winter water program,” said Carl Genova, a Pueblo County farmer, when he left the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District board in 2009. “The district was able to get all those people together.”

To be fair, achieving harmony in the program was no simple task. Ditch companies that had snarled at each other for a century came together in 1975 when Pueblo Dam had been completed to fulfill a vision from the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s.

The idea isn’t complicated: You hold back the flows of the Arkansas River for a few months when no crops are growing for use later in the season.

But the execution of that concept is as complicated as the hit-or-miss, use-it-or-lose-it water conditions farmers in Southeastern Colorado have always labored under.

The winter water storage program was voluntary for the first 12 years, until a court decree was issued in 1987. The decree required participation not only by ditch companies, but by Pueblo and Colorado Springs as well. The Southeastern district administers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Corps of Engineers operate two of the reservoirs used in the program.

And, oh yeah, Kansas also accused Colorado of violating the Arkansas River Compact when it filed suit in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1985. The special master in the case threw out that claim a decade later.

Winter water has operated every year since 1975, with the exception of 1978, when the Catlin Canal refused to join because of a lawsuit with the Colorado Game and Fish Department. The program was diminished in 1998-99, when the safety of dams program lowered the level of Lake Pueblo temporarily so the dam could be reinforced.

In most years, it boils down to a math problem for farmers to contemplate during the chilly months. The water is allocated to the participating ditch companies and stored where they can best use it.

Over the past 20 years, it has stored an average of about 130,000 acrefeet (40 billion gallons) of water annually for use in the following irrigation season. The water is stored from Nov. 15-March 15.

During wet years, some winter water spilled — about 300,000 acre-feet total — from Lake Pueblo because there was no place to store it. Priority storage in Lake Pueblo goes to ditch companies that do not have their own reservoirs.

In recent years, there have been some quirky ripples surrounding the winter water program.

The release of water through Pueblo to support its Gold Medal trout fishery in the winter months became an issue during negotiations surrounding Pueblo Water, Aurora and Colorado Springs use of Lake Pueblo in 2004. The cities agreed not to exchange water into Lake Pueblo during low-flow periods.

The city of Pueblo had placed boulders in the river below Pueblo Dam to improve fish habitat, and having water during the river months became more critical. Pueblo already was gaining a reputation as a winter fishing mecca during times when other sites were less accessible.

The very next year, Arkansas River flows dried up as the winter water program sought to balance its accounts in Lake Pueblo because too much water had been stored in reservoirs below Pueblo.

After the same thing happened briefly in 2007, water users agreed to leave 100 cubic feet per second in the river and sort out the accounting later.

Three years later, the Pueblo Conservancy District needed to make emergency repairs to the levee through the Downtown Whitewater Park, partly caused by concrete anchors of parts of the kayak course that were attached to the levee.

By storing winter water in Lake Pueblo, flows in the Arkansas River are kept artificially low, making for favorable construction conditions.

That lesson was remembered last year, when the district began a complete rebuild of the levee through Pueblo and timed the work in the river bottom to the reduced flow period.

Winter water storage also places a very junior call on the river, 1910, that allows many junior rights in the Arkansas River basin — both upstream and downstream — to use or store water that might otherwise not be available.