#AnimasRiver: “We have to kind of look at the larger picture for the future” — Monica Sheets

This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]
This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

For roughly two decades, Silverton has rebuffed federal Superfund dollars to clean up the scores of abandoned mines leaching contaminants into its surroundings.

But in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill, and under immense pressure from its downstream neighbors, the southwestern Colorado town’s leaders are now leaning toward endorsing the controversial remedy.

“If we want some remediation immediately, we’re going to have to go that way,” said Ernie Kuhlman, chairman of the San Juan County Commission. “I think our downstream partners — Durango, La Plata County and the Indian tribes — want something done immediately.”

The change in heart was tangible last week as Silverton’s elected officials, accompanied by representatives from neighboring communities, spent three days touring four of Colorado’s largest mine Superfund sites.

The weighing of a national hazard priority listing represents a major paradigm shift for the town, which up until the last several weeks had been working to find alternatives to Superfund. In August, Silverton officials sought an unprecedented congressional appropriation but were told it wasn’t viable.

The town has long worried a designation would bring with it negative economic impacts, bureaucratic red tape and stigma. While those fears remain, leaders now say Superfund appears their best — and perhaps only — option…

Visiting Superfund sites

State health officials say last week’s Superfund tour, requested by Silverton’s leaders, was an unusual but important measure to show those wary of the program how well it has worked elsewhere.

Colorado has a handful of Superfund sites in which the EPA has targeted mine pollution for cleanup. They include Leadville, Clear Creek and Gilpin counties, Minturn and a site near Creede.

All four, where work has led to dramatic increases in water quality and aquatic life, were visited by the Silverton group.

“We can talk about Superfund until we are blue in the face,” said Bill Murray, who oversees the EPA’s regional management of the program. “But what they really need to do is talk to people to know what it’s been like.”

While some officials — particularly in Leadville — told the contingency from Silverton that a Superfund designation can bring with it headaches, stakeholders all agreed it is the only option…

The sprawling, 18-square-mile Leadville Superfund project was one of the first to land on EPA’s national priorities list when it was designated in 1983. The initiative centers on efforts to address water and soil contamination.

While Leadville and Lake County leaders told Silverton representatives that Superfund has drastically removed waste, they also complained about disagreements with the agency and how long the EPA’s efforts have taken…

Over Tennessee Pass in the Eagle County town of Minturn, 65 miles of tunnels along the Eagle River turned the winding waterway orange for years until the site was designated Superfund in 1986. In 1991, a water treatment plant was built at the site to siphon the copper, zinc and cadmium leeching from the mine.

Brown trout populations have returned, and water quality has been improving.

“People here are thrilled,” said Willy Powell, Minturn’s interim town manager.

In Idaho Springs, where a treatment plant paid for with Superfund dollars cleans contaminated water, stakeholders said their inclusion on the national priorities list was unpopular but needed.

Clear Creek was soured by heavy metals before EPA remediation efforts began in 1983. The waterway now serves as a drinking source for more than 250,000 in the Denver area.

“We had no other choice,” said Nelson Fugate, a former Clear Creek County commissioner…

Sweetening the deal

The EPA is working to sweeten the Superfund deal for Silverton, agreeing not to include the town within any areas designated in a national priority listing.

State health officials say town leaders would have to endorse Superfund by the end of January for the town to be considered for designation in the spring.

The EPA says preliminary studies of the Upper Animas Mining District have shown it reaches the hazard threshold for a Superfund designation. However, more research would be needed to determine the scope of contamination.

Some in San Juan County complained that the solution is coming before the extent of the problem is known.

“We are being asked to put this on Superfund and be put on the national priorities list,” said Scott Fetchenhier, a San Juan County commissioner. “I want to see some scientific data that says, ‘This is a good idea.’ I think we are putting the chicken before the egg.”[…]

“We have to kind of look at the larger picture for the future,” said Monica Sheets, remediation program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, who led the tour. “We’re not going to push this approach on you. We just wanted to show you how this works in other communities.”

USGS: Using the Markets for Environmental Science

Honeybees are important pollinators, an ecosystem service that is not always adequately accounted for in traditional markets. Image credit: Marisa Lubeck, USGS.
Honeybees are important pollinators, an ecosystem service that is not always adequately accounted for in traditional markets. Image credit: Marisa Lubeck, USGS.

From the United States Geological Survey (Alex Demas):

The invisible hand of the market might seem a strange player for environmental science, but it’s an emerging force for regulators and land managers. It’s these markets that have inspired USGS scientists Emily Pindilli and Frank Casey to explore how earth science and economics can join forces to achieve meaningful impacts for decision-makers.

Their research falls under a concept known as environmental markets. These markets won’t be found in Wall Street, but rather out on the landscape, as the natural environment provides many amenities that aren’t included in traditional markets. For example, when bees pollinate farmers’ crops, they’re providing an ecosystem service that benefits the farmer and society with a higher crop yield.

Emissions trading is one example of a market-based solution to an environmental problem. Image credit: Arnold Paul/Gralo via Wikipedia.
Emissions trading is one example of a market-based solution to an environmental problem. Image credit: Arnold Paul/Gralo via Wikipedia.

The Economics of Earth Science

So how does earth science fit in with the idea of environmental markets? The answer is information. Markets function most efficiently when buyers and sellers have as much information as possible. In the realm of environmental markets, that takes the form of scientific information about ecosystems, habitats, animals and plants, and other ecological players that help the environment operate.

USGS, then, is perfectly situated to provide information along those lines to emerging environmental markets. From water levels, use, and quality data from thousands of streamgages across the country to bird surveys that have spanned decades, USGS can provide important materials for these markets to function as effectively as possible. Agencies like the USDA’s Office of Environmental Markets can then take USGS data and use it to help foster and coordinate environmental markets.

However, that then raises the question of what kind of markets are being implemented and how do they work? Pindilli and Casey decided to take that on, using the lens of biodiversity to frame their investigation.

Sagebrush landscapes are important habitat for maintaining biodiversity in much of the United States. Image credit: Steve Knick, USGS.
Sagebrush landscapes are important habitat for maintaining biodiversity in much of the United States. Image credit: Steve Knick, USGS.

In the Market for a Solution

Biodiversity is under increasing threat, both in the United States and all around the world. Species are going extinct at a rapid rate, which is an indication of the larger issue of biodiversity and habitat loss. Biodiversity and habitat provide important ecosystem functions and their loss represents a significant risk to the stability of these systems.

So how can environmental markets help protect biodiversity? A first, and significant, step is to understand the economic values associated with biodiversity. Even more important is to align those values with reasons to actually protect and restore biodiversity. Enter the concept of environmental markets. These markets are designed to allow environmental goods and services to be produced and traded similar to goods and services in traditional markets.

A good example of a created environmental market is the sulfur dioxide trading market. Here, a set number of sulfur dioxide credits are issued which caps sulfur dioxide emissions at a certain level each year. These credits can be traded between parties, with the idea being that some facilities can reduce emissions at a lower cost than others. Those facilities can then sell those credits to facilities who would otherwise have to pay even more money to reduce emissions. By making money from the sale of the credits, those facilities that could most cost-effectively reduce emissions have a good reason to do so. This is a win-win, whereby the environmental goal is attained and it is accomplished at the lowest cost.

In the United States, there are a number of other developing environmental markets and similar mechanisms that seek to leverage market forces to achieve environmental goals. There are emerging markets in water quality, carbon emissions, wetland preservation, and for species and habitat protection. Among these are a number of market-based or market-like approaches that can benefit biodiversity. The USGS has recently evaluated the status and potential of the following mechanisms:

Bats provide important pest control by eating insects, and threats to their biodiversity imperil that ecosystem service. Photo credit: Paul Cryan, USGS.
Bats provide important pest control by eating insects, and threats to their biodiversity imperil that ecosystem service. Photo credit: Paul Cryan, USGS.

Getting What You Pay For

The first approach is known as “Payments for Ecosystem Services.” Here, a “buyer” pays a “seller” for the ecosystem service of biodiversity. The “buyer” may be anyone, such as the Federal government, a State agency, a local community, a non-profit, or even a business, while the “seller” is the individual or business that will supply protections for species and their habitats. An example of this approach might be a conservation stewardship program that pays farmers to set some land aside for wildlife, or maintain the riverbanks with trees to shelter fish. The least like a traditional market, payments for ecosystem services are essentially contracts that provide incentives to potential biodiversity suppliers with payments that don’t necessarily reflect a market-value.

The Ohlone Reserve Conservation Bank in California, one of the many conservation banks run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo credit: Robert Fletcher, Ohlone Preserve Conservation Bank
The Ohlone Reserve Conservation Bank in California, one of the many conservation banks run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo credit: Robert Fletcher, Ohlone Preserve Conservation Bank

Conservation Banking

The next approach is explicitly market-based: regulations are set up that lay the foundations for a market that includes property rights to an environmental amenity and the ability to trade. One of the best examples for biodiversity is the Conservation Banking Program run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Conservation banks are areas of habitat that are protected and managed to meet the needs of one or more threatened species in perpetuity. These banks must be approved by the FWS under stringent protocols. With this approval, the banks can sell ‘habitat’ or ‘species’ credits. Demand for credits comes from developers that are required to mitigate actions like building roads that may negatively affect threatened species and their habitats under the authority of the Endangered Species Act.

When planning suburban neighborhoods, for instance, a developer might buy land to set aside as habitat in exchange for encroaching on existing habitat. Image Credit: Roger Auch, USGS.
When planning suburban neighborhoods, for instance, a developer might buy land to set aside as habitat in exchange for encroaching on existing habitat. Image Credit: Roger Auch, USGS.

Beyond the Bank

Taking the concept of the conservation banks even further, there’s the idea of habitat exchanges. The concept of a habitat exchange is to extend the conservation banking approach to protect species or habitats that are not currently federally listed as threatened. Habitat exchanges also seek to streamline the conservation bank approval process by developing and implementing Habitat Quantification Tools. These tools are used to standardize the evaluation of the number of credits on a given plot of land and increase certainty and transparency for landowners. Habitat exchanges are an emerging concept and demonstration on the landscape has yet to be fully implemented.

Organic labeling is one such example of using a label to educate consumers.
Organic labeling is one such example of using a label to educate consumers.

It’s all in the Label

The last market-based approach evaluated goes in a different direction: the idea of eco-labeling, similar to the concepts of organic and fair-trade labeling currently seen in grocery stores. Farmers, ranchers, and others can take actions that help protect biodiversity, and in so doing receive an accreditation and label their products to signify that they are protecting biodiversity. People can then reward these businesses by selecting these ‘green products’ over comparable items, even if they cost a bit more. That extra cost compensates the farmers, ranchers, and others for implementing biodiversity protecting practices. Eco-labelling is the most like a traditional market.

Read More:

  • Biodiversity and habitat markets: Policy, economic, and ecological implications of market-based conservation,” by Emily Pindilli and Frank Casey
  • USGS Science and Decisions Center
  • USGS Social Values for Ecosystem Services
  • #AnimasRiver: Feds Stand Behind Report That Colorado Agreed to Mine Plan — ABC News

    The confluence of Cement Creek, at right, and the Animas River, left, as seen September 2015 in Silverton, Colo. This is where the plume of contaminated water from the Gold King Mine entered the Animas River. (Jon Austria — The Daily Times)
    The confluence of Cement Creek, at right, and the Animas River, left, as seen September 2015 in Silverton, Colo. This is where the plume of contaminated water from the Gold King Mine entered the Animas River. (Jon Austria — The Daily Times)

    From the Associated Press (Dan Elliot) via ABC News:

    A federal agency on Monday stood behind its assertion that Colorado officials signed off on a cleanup project that led to a 3 million-gallon toxic waste spill from an inactive gold mine.

    The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s statement was the latest twist in a dispute between state and federal agencies over what role Colorado officials had in the spill.

    The federal agencies have said two state mining experts endorsed the project and agreed with federal officials from the scene that there was little threat of a massive spill. But in a letter made public last week, Colorado officials denied those claims…

    In separate reports, the EPA said the state experts agreed the water inside the mine was under little or no pressure, and the Bureau of Reclamation — which conducted an outside technical review of the spill — said the state experts signed off on the plan to insert the drain pipe.

    The state experts were from the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, part of the state Department of Natural Resources. Natural Resources Director Mike King wrote in a Sept. 2 letter to the EPA’s inspector general that the state experts didn’t make any determination of the water pressure and didn’t approve or disapprove of the drain pipe plan.

    The Associated Press obtained the letter last week through an open records request.

    The Bureau of Reclamation had not previously commented on King’s letter. On Monday, bureau spokesman Peter Soeth said the information in the report came from the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety. He said he couldn’t be more specific.

    EPA officials have said they’re reviewing King’s letter.

    Study: Doubling of CO2 may warm Earth by 3 degrees Celsius

    Summit County Citizens Voice

    asdf New data shows climate may be more sensitive to CO2 than previously thought.

    New chemical analysis sends climate warming signal

    Staff Report

    A study of ancient carbonate crystals in Colorado suggests that the Earth’s climate is more sensitive to changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide than believed.

    Based on the chemical analysis of rocks from the Green River formation, scientists think that a doubling of CO2 from pre-industrial times could raise the global temperature by a whopping 3 degrees Celsius.

    View original post 271 more words

    #COWaterPlan: “I’ve heard through staff members that they’ve taken our comments to heart” — Joe Frank

    From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Jeff Rice):

    Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, was involved in writing the plan. He was on one of two South Platte Basin roundtable committees — the other represented the interests of the Denver metro South Platte users — that helped the IBCC formulate the plan.

    Frank said while he hasn’t yet seen the final draft of the plan — no one will until it’s unveiled later this week — he’s happy with the direction it is taking. He said he thought a previous draft, on which the public has been commenting for several months, didn’t put enough emphasis on new storage projects.

    “I’ve heard through staff members that they’ve taken our comments to heart,” Frank said. “The state has written a whole new chapter on storage (for the final draft.) Of course, funding is a big question on that, but at least now there is a direction.”

    Frank said the importance of the comprehensive water plan can’t be overstated.

    “It’s out there, and it’s a living document, and I hope stakeholders in water will take a piece of it and say, ‘I’m interested in that,’ and go out and implement it,” he said.

    While the plan signals a new direction in cooperation, especially among the state’s eight river basins, it can’t replace necessary water litigation.

    “Litigation is necessary to protect water rights, but with the plan out there, hopefully this is the new norm of groups getting together and negotiating it and not just fighting over it,” he said.

    Don Ament, former Colorado Agriculture Commissioner who has represented Colorado in water negotiations with Nebraska, Wyoming, and the Department of the Interior in developing a recovery plan for the South Platte River, said he likes the plan because it dovetails with his group’s work.

    “I like it because the governor has said we’re not going to make agriculture the default for our shortages,” Ament said. “We have shortages, primarily for municipalities, and they’ve bought water and will continue to (buy water) if we don’t harness some of that leaving the state. We’re faced with buy and dry on ag land.”

    Ament referred to the practice of municipalities buying agricultural land with senior irrigation water rights and using the water to supplement domestic water use. Cities like Parker and Sterling have bought thousands of acres of river-irrigated farmland in Logan County for the purpose of using the water and allowing the land to “go dry.”

    Ament said current management practices have allowed 4 million acre feet of water to run out of Colorado on the South Platte in the past six years. Only 500,000 acre feet was attributed to flooding in 2013.

    “The water plan asks each basin to come up with their own plans on how to make up shortages in their own basins,” Ament said.

    The water plan will be delivered to Gov. Hickenlooper Thursday morning at a press conference at 10 a.m. at History Colorado in downtown Denver.

    Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013
    Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013