The latest Intermountain West Climate Dashboard is hot off the presses from the Western Water Assessment

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

Latest Monthly Briefing – February 12, 2016


  • January saw wetter-than-average conditions for most of Utah, with Colorado split between wet and dry, and Wyoming more on the dry side. February had a very wet start for most of the region.
  • Snowpack conditions have improved in most basins, and are near or above normal in all of Utah and Colorado, and southern and far western Wyoming. Conditions in the rest of Wyoming are lagging well behind normal.
  • The current El Niño event has peaked but remains very strong. El Niño conditions are nearly certain to continue through the spring, which is reflected in a wet tilt for Colorado and Utah in the seasonal forecasts.
  • Westwide SNOTEL February 14, 2016 via the NRCS.
    Westwide SNOTEL February 14, 2016 via the NRCS.

    Obama’s budget benefits environmental causes in Colorado — The Durango Herald

    From The Durango Herald (Edward Graham):

    More specifically, the $4.1 trillion budget for 2017 would restore funding to land and water conservation, funnel more money toward water sustainability efforts and impose new fees on hardrock mining.

    In a win for conservationists, the budget proposes $900 million toward fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund for the 2017 fiscal year, which will start Oct. 1. The LWCF, a 50-year-old program that works to conserve public lands and waters across the U.S. for recreational use and preservation, received a three-year reauthorization in last year’s omnibus spending bill.

    In a news release announcing the president’s effort to fully fund the LWCF in the 2017 fiscal year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the president would also push toward permanently reauthorizing the fund in 2018. The president sent his proposed budget to Congress on Tuesday…

    The Department of Interior’s proposed 2017 budget calls for the implementation of a fee on hardrock mining, with the monetary returns used by various states, tribes and federal agencies toward remediating abandoned mine sites. The budget calls for the royalty fee to be imposed on certain hardrock-mined minerals, such as silver, copper and gold.

    Aaron Mintzes, policy advocate with Earthworks, said the process would be similar to the Abandoned Mine Lands fund already in place for coal producers.

    “By requiring the hardrock mining industry to pay a royalty for public minerals taken from public lands like the oil and gas industry does, and to pay an abandoned mine reclamation fee like the coal mining industry does, the president’s budget would raise almost $2 billion over the next decade for mine cleanup,” Mintzes said.

    According to the Interior Department, the proposed budget also “includes a total of $98.6 million for WaterSMART programs, with $61.5 million for water sustainability efforts through (the Bureau of) Reclamation, an increase of $3.4 million from 2016 enacted.” The program works to improve water conservation and maintain a ready supply of clean and potable water for continued use.


    Lake Pueblo operations update

    Pueblo dam releases
    Pueblo dam releases

    From the La Junta Tribune-Democrat (Bette McFarren):

    The abundance of water has caused the Pueblo Reservoir to make plans to start limited spills to control the water level. The top of the active conservation surface elevation is 4,880.38 feet or 245,373 acre-feet. The reservoir is, as of Tuesday, at or above 259,000 a.f. The level must be down to the active conservation number by April 15, so the reservoir will start 2,000 cubic feet per second controlled releases sometime in April, currently projected to be April 12.

    The normal end of the winter water season is March 15. Ditches were encouraged to start taking winter water on March 1, if possible, to reduce the total acre-feet in the reservoir. If the farmers are able to take the water early, they will offset the possibility of losing some of their winter water in the required spills. First week of March, most ditch companies will be looking at pre-irrigating so they don’t lose their carry-over winter water from last year, said Jeanette Myers of the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

    Unlike Flint — The Pueblo Chieftain

    Water infrastructure as sidewalk art
    Water infrastructure as sidewalk art

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    Just 40 years ago, Pueblo Water would track complaints from customers about “red water” coming out of the faucets.

    It stained clothes so badly that cases of heavyduty laundry cleaner were part of the utility’s routine supplies.

    “The water wasn’t harmful to customers, but it had an iron taste,” said Terry Book, executive director. “We have very few complaints now.”

    “And most of the time, it’s the smell coming from the pea trap (on sinks), that they mistake for coming from the waterlines,” adds Matt Trujillo, director of operations.
    Pueblo is not remotely in danger of seeing the same types of problems that Flint, Mich., has experienced recently despite demographic similarities.

    Flint experienced increased lead and other contaminants in its water after switching its source of supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. Within six months, bacteria was found in the water and a boil order was issued. General Motors stopped using municipal water in October 2014 because it corroded car parts.
    The Environmental Protection Agency found high levels of lead in the water in February 2015, and elevated levels of lead in blood tests of children in August.

    Under state and federal orders, Flint optimized corrosion controls, then switched back to using Detroit’s water supply.

    Finally, in December, the city declared a state of emergency, confirmed by President Barack Obama in January.

    Like Pueblo, Flint is a relatively poor community of about 100,000 people with aging infrastructure.

    Unlike Flint, Pueblo recognized the need to upgrade old waterlines decades ago.

    “Since 1978, we’ve concentrated on removing undersized or unlined pipes,” Book said. “Problems like Flint’s have occurred elsewhere. Older communities haven’t had the money to fix problems.”

    The Pueblo Board of Water Works anticipated the need back in the 1960s, when it revised its rate structure to include repairs and maintenance.

    By the time Book came to work for Pueblo Water in the late 1970s, a waterline replacement program had started. Each year, about $1.5 million is spent on replacing or repairing lines.

    At one time most Pueblo waterlines were cast iron, and some dated back to the late 1800s.

    There were a few asbestos- cement pipe installations in the mid-1900s.

    There were even some wooden waterlines up until a few years ago.

    Today, almost all of the delivery lines in Pueblo are PVC or at least ductile iron lined with cement to prevent leaching metals. The exception is an area around North Greenwood Street, with unlined pipes that will be addressed in the near future, Book said.

    Pueblo has had relatively little trouble with lead in water because there aren’t many
    lead pipes in Pueblo. Only 32 service lines, which connect to individual customers from the mains, are known.

    “With the service line repair program (started last year), we’ve replaced one already,” Book said. “They aren’t a big problem because we have hard water, and the calcium coats the inside of the pipes.”

    Copper and lead are also monitored each year for the Consumer Confidence Report that is posted on Pueblo Water’s website. The numbers are derived from testing of 50 households — the 32 which have lead pipes leading into the homes and 18 others that have brass fittings that contain lead (no longer allowed under building codes), explained Don Colalancia, water quality manager.

    The number reported is the 90th percentile, which is the fifth highest household in the sample. In 2014, 9.3 parts per billion were found, compared with more than 300 parts per billion in Flint.

    The report, which is scheduled to be updated next week for 2015 measurements, also provides information about other contaminants, how Pueblo’s water is treated and how facilities such as water tanks are maintained to prevent contamination.

    Another factor in water quality safety is the source of supply. Pueblo gets nearly all of its water from Lake Pueblo, completed in 1975 as part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project.

    “The raw water from a reservoir is generally of better quality and less expensive than taking it from a river,” Colalancia said. “Pueblo Reservoir has high-quality water.”

    By using the South Outlet Works at Lake Pueblo, Pueblo Water can take advantage of a manifold that is capable of drawing water from four elevations.

    “The reservoir will ‘turn’ at certain times and that affects water quality,” Book explained.

    Finally, politics play a minor role when it comes to Pueblo’s water.

    In Flint, state and local politics reportedly played a big part in the city’s decision to attempt to save money by switching sources. That led to ineffective efforts to use chemicals to correct the problem, and ultimately more expense to deal with the outcome.
    In Pueblo, the Pueblo Board of Water Works consists of five members who are elected for staggered six-year terms. The board makeup has been more consistent than other Pueblo County governments, with most members serving multiple terms. Mike Cafasso, the junior member of the board, has served since 2007. Kevin McCarthy, the senior member, was first elected in 1988.

    “It’s a dedicated board,” Book said. “And they’ve always supported the staff.”

    #AnimasRiver: #Colorado counts on #GoldKingMine to spur cleanup of leaking old mines — The Denver Post

    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 (Bruce Finley):

    Of the 230 inactive mines the state recognized six months ago as causing the worst damage to Colorado waterways, state officials say 148 have not been fully evaluated.

    The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has cobbled together $300,000 for an “inventory initiative” to round up records and set priorities. The agency is enlisting help from the Colorado Geological Survey at the Colorado School of Mines.

    Colorado officials hope attention on the Animas River after the EPA-triggered spill at the Gold King Mine in August will spur action at scores of other inactive mines contaminating waterways. After the disaster, the state identified the worst 230 leaking mines draining into creeks and rivers.

    There are an estimated 23,000 inactive mines in Colorado and 500,000 around the West. State officials estimate mining wastewater causes 89 percent of the harm to thousands of miles of waterways statewide.

    State records reviewed by The Denver Post reveal numerous examples of day-by-day degradation, but state mining regulators lament they are too poor to launch cleanups and few individual sites qualify for federal Superfund intervention.

    “We don’t know what funding is going to be available,” said Bruce Stover, state abandoned mines program director, who has worked on this issue for two decades.

    Meanwhile, the EPA is shooting for a lead role on Cement Creek. Here’s a report from Jesse Paul writing for The Denver Post. Here’s an excerpt:

    The Environmental Protection Agency has sent a letter to Silverton’s leaders formally proposing a Superfund cleanup of the area’s abandoned mines and full of promises about the controversial remedy.

    The memo comes as the town is in the final stages of deciding whether to embrace the Superfund program and seeks assurances about what the federal dollars would mean.

    The letter, from the top EPA official overseeing Superfund in Colorado, quells fears about the name of a national priority site and says the remediation would include the development or study of new mine cleanup technologies.

    “The EPA is committed to early and meaningful community participation during the entire Superfund process,” wrote EPA official Bill Murray.

    The letter, made public Friday, says the town and San Juan County have agreed to call the project area the “Bonita Peak Mining District Site.” Silverton’s leaders worried that naming the cleanup after their community would scare away visitors and destroy their tourism-based economy.

    “We received the letter shortly before it was made public,” said Mark Eddy, spokesman for Silverton and San Juan County. “We have made good progress in our discussions with the EPA regarding a Superfund listing. We are reviewing the letter to determine the full impact of the commitments the EPA has made.”

    The EPA also promises to actively include local input in the remediation and be open to shrinking the site’s boundaries depending on the amount of contaminants found.

    Also, the EPA official in charge at the Gold King Mine knew about the blowout risk, according to this report from Jesse Paul writing for The Denver Post: Here’s an excerpt:

    The Environmental Protection Agency employee overseeing work at the Gold King Mine was aware of blowout danger at the site before a massive August wastewater spill, according to a report released Thursday.

    The revelation, in findings by congressional Republicans, comes in contrast to the EPA’s claims that the risk was underestimated ahead of excavation at the mine’s collapsed opening. That work ultimately led to the disaster.

    Hays Griswold, the agency’s on-scene coordinator, wrote in an October e-mail to other EPA officials that he personally knew the blockage “could be holding back a lot of water and I believe the others in the group knew as well.”

    “This is why I was approaching (the mine) as if it were full,” he wrote of the day of the Aug. 5 release at the Gold King.

    The note provides more indications the EPA probably had knowledge of the potentially looming disaster at the mine long before workers accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of contaminants. The Oct. 28 e-mail came in response to an independent Bureau of Reclamation report about the spill released six days earlier.

    #Snowpack news: Flat-lined SWE, where’s Ullr?

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

    Meanwhile, here’s what it looks like across the West.

    Westwide SNOTEL February 14, 2016 via the NRCS.
    Westwide SNOTEL February 14, 2016 via the NRCS.

    The Week That Was, February 7-13, 2016 — Chance of Rain

    Burlington Ditch back in the day.
    Burlington Ditch back in the day.

    From Chance of Rain (Emily Green):

    “How do you get a farmer’s attention? Humbly, and with a thick wad of money.” — Hedge fund manager Disque Deane Jr, Can Wall Street solve the water crisis in the West?, ProPublica/Atlantic, 2/9/16

    Individual farmers selling water away will crash their whole district. — A close look at water markets in practice, On the Public Record, 2/9/16

    “We’re in a new territory for everyone where the BLM and public are gong to mix in [on oil and gas exploration]” — Nada Culver

    Montezuma Valley
    Montezuma Valley

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    A Master Leasing Plan doesn’t sound provocative, but bitter lines have been drawn as a result of the Bureau of Land Management planning the future use of its federal land in Southwest Colorado, 92 percent of which is open to gas and oil development.

    Debate now lingers over whether the BLM should engage in such a plan to further analyze when and where new wells should be drilled.

    Conservationists and recreationists in support of a master plan say the study will give natural resources and recreational uses the same level of priority as gas and oil development, which the BLM has historically favored.

    Energy companies and those dependent on the industry argue the BLM already has protections in place, and the call for additional review is a cheap attempt by those who wish to see fuels remain in the ground.

    The BLM falls somewhere vaguely in between.

    Leveling the playing field

    Around 2010, the Tres Rios BLM office estimated up to 3,000 new wells would be drilled over the next 20 years for federally controlled minerals in western La Plata County and eastern Montezuma County.

    And within the 820,000-acre area of minerals, only 62,000 acres would be closed to drilling.

    The plan caught the ire of some community members who felt the boundaries come too close and adversely impact naturally valued lands, including the corridors into Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, around the mountain biking destination Phil’s World and on the edge of two wilderness study areas.

    In February 2015, the BLM released an updated Resource Management Plan, outlining guidelines for land use, including future exploration and development of new well pads in the region.

    But environmentalists say the resource plan fell short of keeping oil and gas in check, leaving too many areas of discretion and loopholes for over-development.

    Concerned with effects on wildlife migration, cultural resources, water quality and air quality, the groups pressured the BLM to consider a master plan, which could tighten restrictions in the two-county area.

    “We’re not going to make the entire area on the map a park,” said Nada Culver, director and senior counsel for the Wilderness Society. “The idea is to get more balanced with oil and gas. (A master leasing plan) takes resources like wildlife, recreation, agriculture – and evens the playing field.”

    Bringing together interests from across the board, the BLM set up and assigned an advisory committee to draft a recommendation on whether a master leasing plan is warranted. A sub-group of that committee is holding public hearings in Durango and Mancos on Thursday.

    Delay tactics?

    But not all are in favor of a second look at resources and interests on BLM lands.

    “This is being done for political reasons,” said Eric Sanford, operations and land manager for SG Interests, which is representing the energy industry on the sub-committee…

    BLM has final say

    BLM officials pointed to the $247 million the state of Colorado received in 2015 from royalties for all federal minerals, including oil and gas, as well as the more than 22,900 jobs tied to the industry’s operations on public land.

    The BLM Tres Rios Field Office will receive the advisory committee’s recommendation in August, but ultimately, the federal agency has the final say whether it will undertake a master leasing plan project.

    “We haven’t taken a stance one way or the other,” said Justin Abernathy, assistant field manager for the BLM’s Tres Rios office. “We’re a multiple-use agency, and in my experience with BLM – the people, the employees really try to balance their approach on how we manage public lands we’re responsible for.”

    The BLM ceased all gas and oil leasing on the area in question until the matter of a master leasing plan is resolved. Still, the federal agency has 35 previously authorized leases covering about 13,500 acres within the master plan’s boundaries.

    Between the 3,740-square-mile area that covers La Plata and Montezuma counties, the most recent data show nearly 6,000 gas wells dot the countryside.

    Throughout the mineral-rich San Juan Basin, the total number of drilling operations are hard to pin down, yet some reports reach into the tens of thousands.

    And numbers like those make the battle for the landscape of the West worth fighting for, the Wilderness Society’s Nada said.

    “This is a new culture,” Nada said. “The BLM has historically left it up to the oil and gas industry to decide when and where they drill.

    “We’re in a new territory for everyone where the BLM and public are gong to mix in.”