#AnimasRiver: Rebecca Thomas appointed remedial project manager for the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

First priorities are water sampling, public outreach

Water sampling and community coordination will be the first items of business for Rebecca Thomas, the Environmental Protection Agency’s newly appointed remedial project manager for the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.

Thomas has done remedial work on Superfund sites in Libby, Montana, which endured asbestos contamination, and the California Gulch and Kennecott Copper Mine projects, which were both affected by mine pollution similar to the Bonita Peak site.

With a team that includes ecological risk assessors and a community involvement coordinator, Thomas said she will be working not only with the communities of Silverton and San Juan County, but also Durango, La Plata County and the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian tribes.

“We’ll be explaining what Superfund is all about and getting consensus on paths forward,” Thomas said. “We want to take full advantage of sampling season to continue our investigation and answer some of the questions we have.”

The Bonita Peak Mining District, which encompasses about 48 properties around Cement Creek, Mineral Creek and the Upper Animas, will be listed on the federal register and likely receive official Superfund designation next month.

The EPA spends an average six years on research before remedial action is taken at Superfund sites. But some smaller, less-complex mining properties may be eligible for early action, Thomas said.

Sampling will start as early as next month, and the EPA will coordinate with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Most existing data addresses risks associated with Cement Creek; Thomas said her team will be digging deeper into human health and ecological risk assessment for Mineral Creek and the Upper Animas.

“We’ll also be working with the BLM to conduct cultural resource surveys for historic sites and wetland inventory,” she said…

Thomas made rounds in Silverton earlier this week, introducing herself to the community, and plans to be a regular presence – in Silverton at least one week out of the month, she said. There are tentative plans for public meetings in both Silverton and Durango in late April.

“At this point, I’m not sure,” said Animas River Stakeholders Group co-coordinator Peter Butler, when asked how the organization will be working with the EPA throughout the process. The group has invested decades on regional mine cleanup projects and supplied the federal agency with data sets after the spill.

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage
Bonita Mine acid mine drainage

No “Buy and Dry” and sprawl for Berthoud area farm

Berthoud Auto Storage back in the day
Berthoud Auto Storage back in the day

From the Berthoud Surveyor (John Gardner):

The property will continue to be farmed by a lease agreement with proceeds going back to the county’s Open Lands Department. This deal satisfies the sister’s dream of keeping the property a working farm.

“We just couldn’t stand to see it developed,” [Peggy] Malchow Sass said. “Knowing that it’s going to stay a farm is really satisfying to us.”

The water for the property fills the Handy Ditch that gets water from the Big Thompson River, Malchow Sass said, adding that it’s positive to keep the water with the land, not only for the farm, but for all the other nearby ranches and farms that utilize the Handy Ditch water.

“By leaving the water in the ditch enables many farmers along the way to get their water more easily; the more water there is in the ditch the more easily it is for farmers to get their water,” she said. “That’s a benefit directly to the Berthoud area.”

Per the agreement, the water will continue to be used on the property seven out of 10 years but will also be available to local municipalities during times of drought. Acquiring the water rights is an innovative aspect of the purchase, according to Larimer County Commissioner Tom Donnelly.

“I think this is a great opportunity to really talk about what we want to do with water and how we want to see water addressed,” Donnelly said. “The last thing we want to see is a lot of irrigated farm land bought then dried up. We want to make sure that we keep some of those resources with the land so that they can be used in perpetuity.”

Craig Godbout, program manager for the Colorado Water Conservancy Board’s Alternative Transfer Methods grant program, agreed with Donnelly, saying the CWCB’s mission is to help preserve irrigated Ag land. And this is one of the first agreements that will have the water available for use by municipalities during time of drought.

“[Agriculture] is our second biggest industry contributing to our economy here in the state, and this project fits in really well with the state water plan because it helps close that municipal-industrial gap without permanent Ag dry-up,” Godbout said.

This is only the second alternative transfer of water agreement that’s been completed, according to Godbout, and it also creates a new mechanism that can be used as a model for future projects. It’s also an innovative way for the county to explore partnerships with municipal partners and some local farmers, Donnelly said.

“I think we’re doing some groundbreaking work here,” Donnelly said.

The property consists of high quality agricultural soils, with approximately 188 irrigated, 18 pastures and five farmstead acres, according to a natural resources department report. Two homes remain on the property; one built in the 1860s and the other built in 1947. There’s also the scenic red barn, once used to milk cows, located at the farm’s entrance, and a beat shack that was built in the late 1800s.

This land adds to the county’s open space catalog. The county’s interest in this particular parcel grew from its updated 2015 Open Space Master Plan that included citizens’ request for preserving irrigated farm and agriculture land according to Kerri Rollins, Open Lands Program manager.

“When we looked at our inventory across the board, we’ve done a whole lot of ranchland, we’ve done a really good job with ranchland; we’ve bought a few irrigated farms and conservations easements that we own, but they are certainly much smaller,” Rollins said. “So this opportunity happened to come along at the right time and at the time of updating our master plan. We’re excited to be moving forward with it.”

Donnelly credited the county’s Agricultural and Natural Resources Department for its work on making this deal happen and said that this deal has a wealth of opportunities. One of those opportunities could include an educational site for the Thompson School District’s resurrected Future Farmers of America program, where students who could use the land for a hands-on approach to agriculture, or using the farm as an incubator for organic farmers.

The Malchow family has worked with the Berthoud Historical Society to preserve some of the property’s historic features, including the beet shack and a pioneer grave.

One of the oldest ditches in Larimer County, the Eaglin Ditch, is located on the property. And the property also is located within the medium-to-high regional trail priority area for the Berthoud to Carter Lake Regional Trail Corridor…

The county’s Open Lands Department is actively pursuing grant funding to reimburse a portion of the county’s investment to the conserve this property and has already received a $178,425 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to develop the Alternative Transfer Mechanism and water-sharing agreement.

The county will pay $8.4 million for the land and its water shares with the intent of keeping it an active farm and making the water available to municipal providers in drought years. The land is valued at $1.6 million while the water rights are valued at nearly $6.9 million.

Rollins attended Tuesday’s Berthoud Board of Trustees meeting and requested a $100,000 contribution from the town’s Open Space Tax Dollar fund to help pay for the land acquisition. Trustees advised town staff to see what could be done to participate in this partnership.

The county is also seeking contributions through Great Outdoors Colorado and a private foundation, according to a report from the Department of Natural Resources. The land purchase will be finalized in April.

Crumbling Antarctic ice sheets could speed sea level rise

Summit County Citizens Voice

Fifty feet in 500 years?

Mountains of the Antarctic Sound. New climate modeling suggests more significant melting of the Antarctic ice sheets and ice shelves driven by atmospheric warming. @bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

The edges of Antarctic ice sheets may crumble and collapse much faster than most existing climate models suggest, potentially raising global sea level by as much as 50 feet in the next 500 years, according to researchers from Penn State and University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The scientists added new, previously underestimated processes to their projection after studying the role of Antarctic ice melting during the warm Pliocene era, about 3 million years ago when sea level rose by as much as 30 to 60 feet.

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Entertainment, with a splash of water education

Mile High Water Talk

Teaching sixth-graders about water is no small feat. It took a group of talented actors to pull it off.

By Matt Bond

A few times a year, I get together with my fellow education managers at two other utilities: Aurora Water and the city of Boulder. We compare notes, toss around new ideas and generally pontificate on the best ways to develop the next generation of water citizens.

We call ourselves The Three Amigos.

At one of our sessions in 2012, we talked about finding new ways of reaching audiences bigger than a classroom. How could we reach students more efficiently? Was there a better way to hold the attention of 300 sixth-graders than standing and talking at them?

After all, just getting them to pay attention at that age, let alone learn anything, can be like herding three-legged, blind mountain lions. Surely it was be possible, but how?

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#Drought news: D0 expands in Four Corners

Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

Summary

The bulk of the precipitation that occurred during the 168-hour (March 22-29) monitoring period did not fall in areas experiencing dryness (D0) or drought (D1 or worse). Some of the heaviest precipitation soaked non-drought areas of the lower Southeast and the Pacific Northwest. And, a late-season snowstorm from the central Rockies into northern Lower Michigan also fell mostly “between the drought lines.” However, some of the Southeastern rain chipped away at D0 across southern Georgia and northern Florida. And, stormy weather in the Northwest pushed far enough inland to further dent lingering drought. In contrast, breezy, mostly dry weather covered the central and southern Plains and the Southwest, leading to further expansion of D0 and D1. On the southern High Plains, a combination of weather extremes—including developing drought, hard freezes, and large temperature oscillations—led to an increase in stress on rangeland, pastures, and winter wheat…

Southern and Central Plains

Development of short-term dryness (D0) and moderate drought (D1) continued across Kansas, Oklahoma, northern and western Texas, eastern New Mexico, and southeastern Colorado. On March 22-23, the Anderson Creek fire rapidly spread across Woods County, Oklahoma, and Comanche and Barber Counties in Kansas, destroying 16 residences and more than two dozen structures, and charring an estimated 367,620 acres of grass, brush, and other vegetation. Cooler, more humid weather arrived by March 24, aiding wildfire containment efforts.

According to USDA, nearly half of the topsoil moisture was rated very short to short on March 27 in Kansas (48%) and Oklahoma (43%). In Texas, statewide topsoil moisture rated very short to short increased to 40% on March 27, up from 24% the previous week. And, topsoil moisture ranged from 68 to 70% very short to short in Texas’ three westernmost regions: Northern High Plains, Southern High Plains, and Trans-Pecos.

Amid the expanding D0 and D1, snow fell in some areas on March 26-27, totaling 3.5 inches in Wichita, Kansas, and 1.3 inches in Amarillo, Texas. However, the snow melted within hours, followed by a return to warm, windy conditions late in the drought-monitoring period.

In addition, D0 crept eastward into the middle Mississippi Valley. In areas where little precipitation has occurred since the beginning of 2016, signs of short-term dryness are becoming more apparent in the form of reduced streamflow, shrinking stock ponds, and dry topsoil. In Missouri, parts of which experienced record flooding as recently as late December, USDA reported that “some producers expressed concern about the lack of rain and dry conditions.” Missouri’s topsoil moisture was rated 20% very short to short on March 27…

Northern Plains

Significant precipitation remained mainly south of existing areas of dryness (D0) and moderate drought (D1) across the northern Plains. As a result, the depiction was mostly unchanged. However, there was a slight increase in D0 coverage in northeastern and south-central South Dakota, reflective of precipitation deficits at time periods out to 3 months. In Aberdeen, South Dakota, year-to-date precipitation through March 29 was less than half of normal (0.98 inch, or 47% of normal)…

California

A little more trimming of dryness (D0) and moderate drought (D1) occurred across northwestern California, where water-storage and streamflow indicators continue to show that drought has been sharply scaled back or eliminated. For the remainder of the state, the return of dry weather meant that the drought depiction was effectively unchanged from last week as the traditional peak snowpack date of April 1 approaches. According to the California Department of Water Resources, the average water content of the high-elevation Sierra Nevada snowpack currently stands at 24 inches, about 87% of average. However, the snowpack is 97% of average in the northern Sierra Nevada, but just 72% of average in the southern Sierra Nevada, reflective of the “northern” storm track that has been a hallmark of the 2015-16 winter wet season…

Northwest

Widespread storminess ended as the drought-monitoring period began. However, on the strength of earlier precipitation and diminishing drought impacts, the drought situation further improved across Oregon and environs. Specifically, drought was completely removed from Washington for the first time since December 31, 2013, whiles severe drought (D2) was significant scaled back across southeastern Oregon.

Late in the drought-monitoring period, stormy weather returned to portions of the interior Northwest. Small reductions in the coverage of dryness (D0) and moderate to severe drought (D1 to D2) were noted across the northern Rockies. However, much of the storm unfolded across Wyoming and environs after the monitoring period ended on the morning of March 29 and will be reflected on next week’s map. On March 28, daily-record snowfall totals in Nevada included 13.0 inches in Ely and 6.8 inches in Reno. The following day in Wyoming, record-setting snowfall totals for March 29 reached 15.3 inches in Lander and 8.8 inches in Riverton…

Southwest

Dry weather dominated the Southwest, although some rain and snow showers fell across the northern half of the Four Corners States (e.g. portions of Colorado and Utah). Following last week’s large increases in coverage of Southwestern dryness (D0) and moderate drought (D1), changes were mostly limited to a slight D0 expansion in the Four Corners region and some new D0/D1 coverage in southern and eastern New Mexico. Before being mostly (90%) contained, the Baker Canyon fire northeast of Douglas, Arizona, scorched nearly 8,000 acres of vegetation near the Arizona-New Mexico line. In addition, periods of wind weather continued to raise Southwestern dust, especially on March 22-23 and 29…

Looking Ahead

A storm system will cross the Great Lakes region on March 29, producing a mix of rain and snow. The storm’s trailing cold front will reach the Atlantic Seaboard on March 30, but should stall across the lower Southeast. Precipitation totals associated with the storm (and its cold front) could reach 2 to 5 inches—in the form of heavy showers and locally severe thunderstorms—across the Southeast, and 1 to 2 inches along and north of the path of the low-pressure system. During the first few days of April, warm, dry weather will dominate the West, while a blast of cold air and snow showers will engulf the Great Lakes and Northeastern States. During the next 5 days, the southern Plains will remain mostly dry with rapid temperature fluctuations.

The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for April 5 – 9 calls for the likelihood of above-normal temperatures from the Pacific Coast to the Plains, while colder-than-normal conditions will dominate the eastern U.S.—especially the Northeast. Meanwhile, near- to below-normal precipitation in many areas of the country will contrast with expectations for wetter-than-normal weather across the Great Basin and neighboring areas, as well as the Great Lakes region and the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic States.

#ColoradoRiver: Business of Water Conference Day 1 recap

From Cronkite News (Travis Arbon):

U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, said he believes there is a chance the U.S. Congress will move forward with legislation addressing drought in the West, but any federal response to water shortages must not overrule state policies or rely on federal funding.

Flake spoke at the 2016 Business of Water Summit in Phoenix, where local government and business leaders convened to discuss the future of water sustainability in the Southwest. Attendees from Colorado, Arizona and California streamed into the Hyatt Regency Phoenix hotel for the two-day conference…

Flake said he has been working on federal legislation to address the issue, but those measures remain trapped in congressional gridlock. One proposal would extend the Colorado River system’s conservation pilot program and allow the Department of the Interior to make voluntary agreements with water users to limit use. Flake said he is pushing for the Senate to advance a western drought bill this year, but the probability of passage remains low.

“I would say it’s somewhere around 40 percent chance right now,” Flake said. He added that there may not be enough time remaining in the legislative session to tackle the drought.

Ellen Hanak, the director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California, said the federal government can do more to address western drought and water shortages. Her organization published a report in February on suggested federal responses.

The report recommends the federal government use its influence to resolve water conflicts, improve monitoring and data collection of water systems and develop plans to protect endangered species, among other reforms.

“A piece of the solution is reducing some of that (agricultural) water use, but to do that in a way that is not causing the kinds of problems you see,” Hanak said. “There are ways in which both local agencies and the federal government programs through (Department of Agriculture) can help to encourage more creative ways to do that.”

Flake said funding for federal legislation is complicated, because he would want to find ways to cut spending in other areas to pay for drought programs.

He said he would prefer to find a solution that honors previously negotiated water rights, including contracts that are nearly 100 years old, despite the potential for increased drought in the Colorado River Basin going forward due to climate change. A 2011 report by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projects temperatures in the Colorado River Basin to increase by 5 to 6 degrees fahrenheit during the century.

Although many of the contracts were negotiated decades ago, Flake said they have a provision for handling droughts – a shortage declaration – that would force states to reduce water use…

Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District, said the basin is entering a “new era” of water management.

“Today, we’re entering into a new era of uncertainty, and that uncertainty is because of the math,” Kuhn said. “We’re using too much water in the wrong ways. … I don’t want to say right or wrong from a moral standpoint, but from an economic standpoint.”

The math doesn’t work, Kuhn said, because the Colorado River in the 1920s was experiencing an unusually high flow. Water planning at the time did not take into account future supply decreases. But now, with rising population and changing climate, water use exceeds what the river replenishes.

Kuhn said excess usage is draining water stores built up over decades, and basin reservoirs have declined from 60 million acre-feet to 30 million acre-feet.

Marco Ugarte, sustainability manager at brewing company MillerCoors, said he doesn’t believe the lack of a federal response creates uncertainty for businesses – like his employer – that use high amounts of water, but he hopes policymakers listen to the concerns of the business community when making decisions about water reduction.

Some businesses, he said, might be more capable of making quick water use reductions than others, and each industry is different.

“Policymakers need to be aware of what is feasible, what is technically feasible, of the companies,” Ugarte said.

Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam December 2015 via Greg Hobbs.
Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam December 2015 via Greg Hobbs.