2016 #coleg Sen. Sonnenberg hopes to set limits on state agency fines

Colorado Capitol building
Colorado Capitol building

Here’s an in depth look at proposed legislation from Jerry Sonnenberg that would set limits for fines levied by state agencies, from Marianne Goodland writing for The Fort Morgan Times. Here’s an excerpt:

State agencies shouldn’t have free rein to charge exorbitant fines, especially to small communities that may not be able to pay them. That’s according to Jerry Sonnenberg, a state senator from Sterling whose district includes Morgan County, anyway.

He’s the state Senate sponsor of a proposal that would limit the ability of a state agency to fine people for violating state law or agency rules, particularly when an agency hasn’t notified an alleged violator in writing or given at least 20 business days to fix the problem.

Sonnenberg, a fan of reducing bureaucracy wherever possible, is pushing a bill to address situations like the kind faced by the city of Burlington, which was last year slapped with a nearly six-figure fine for violating the state’s clear water regulations.

According to a news release from the state Department of Public Health and Environment, which regulates water quality, the city was cited for violating 2,109 drinking water regulations in 2014, and it’s the second time the Burlington has been cited for violations related to nitrate levels in public drinking water.

Nitrates come from fertilizer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Once ingested, they convert to nitrite, which can have serious health consequences for infants, young children and pregnant or nursing mothers.

Burlington’s nitrate levels in its drinking water have been higher than the state standard since 2009. Once regulators discovered that violation in 2014, the Department of Public Health and Environment required the city to notify residents that the nitrate levels exceed the standard for safe drinking water. According to the department, the city reported its drinking water had exceeded safe levels only once, in 2010, and never notified the public of the problem.

In November, according to the Burlington Record, the city completed negotiations with the department on the fine, which was reduced to $150,000, along with an agreement to implement a project to reduce nitrate levels back to safe standards.

Sonnenberg’s plan to rectify all this — and to make sure other municipalities, individuals and businesses in Colorado don’t end up in the same situation — comes with a three-tiered structure for fines. Cities, counties or other governments, for instance, would have to pay 5 percent of its tax revenue from the most recent fiscal year. Businesses could be hit for as high as 10 percent of their operating revenue for the past fiscal year. Individuals would have to pony up to 10 percent of their taxable income based on the most recent state income tax return.

This proposed legislation at the Statehouse doesn’t apply to criminal violations.

One of the biggest problems for the plan, though, is its cost. A fiscal review produced by nonpartisan economists at the state Capitol estimate it will cost the state about $40 million per year because of lost revenue. The bill also carries a $1 million price tag for implementation. That cost, which would impact the 2016-17 budget that just passed the statehouse, will make it a tough sell in the Democratically controlled House.

The bill drew heated discussion in the state Senate Wednesday between the Republican Sonnenberg and Democratic Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood.

The plan “quits having us balance the budget on the backs of people, by using a hammer to levy fines against citizens and businesses,” Sonnenberg told the Senate. “If there’s a problem on water or air quality, or filing of paperwork, let’s figure out how to fix it rather than allowing government to be heavy-handed.”

He cited Burlington as an example, noting how the city faced a nearly $1 million fine but has only a budget of $3 million. But he didn’t mention that the city had negotiated the fine down to $150,000, a point Kerr raised during the debate.

Kerr said the bill would put the 2016-17 state budget out of whack by $41 million.

“That’s a heavy hammer on the citizens of Colorado,” Kerr said, adding that the only place to cover that hit to the state budget is to increase the K-12 shortfall by $41 million. “That’s balancing the budget on the backs of our students.”

#Snowpack is melting fast, despite April storms — The High Country News #runoff

Westwide SNOTEL map April 23, 2016 via the NRCS.
Westwide SNOTEL map April 23, 2016 via the NRCS.

From The High Country News (Paige Blankenbuehler):

Throughout late March and into April, much of the West experienced unseasonably warm days. Then, in late April, temperatures plummeted in Southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and more than 2 feet of wet, heavy spring snow fell. Suddenly, ski boots were out again and for a day or two, it felt like winter was back.

But those storms have only helped a small fraction of the West, with much of the moisture buoying snowpack levels along the Eastern Rockies in Colorado and Wyoming. Meanwhile, the rest of the region is on the opposite trajectory, losing snowpack at record-breaking rates.

At the beginning of April, snowpack levels across the region were “near normal,” says Cara McCarthy, deputy director for the National Water and Climate Center in Portland, under the Natural Resource Conservation Service. The season was off to a slow start with sporadic storms in October through December, but January winter precipitation increased levels across all states, according to NRCS SNOTEL sites, which measure snow depth at thousands of stations nationwide. For months, most of the region hung on to above-normal snowpack measurements.

But in just the few short weeks since, that snow is melting faster than climate hydrologists have seen in nearly four decades, bringing the snowpack far below normal in most states in the West…

Temperature has been a major factor in the accelerated melting, although minimal snowfall has also played a role. According to the NRCS and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, much of the Pacific Northwest, California, Idaho and Montana have experienced abnormally high temperatures between the beginning throughout April — in some places departing from historical averages by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Colorado and parts of New Mexico and Arizona have been more or less normal.

The quickly diminishing snowpack, which acts as a natural water-storage system for Western cities that depend on winter snow for water, portends a more variable future at the whims of a changing climate, says Noah Diffenbaugh, associate professor at Stanford and a research at the Woods Institute for the Environment.

“We find that as warming continues, there’s a robust response of the climate in the West toward more rain and less snow,” Diffenbaugh says…

Water infrastructure has been built around the assumption that a reasonable quantity of water will remain as snow at higher elevations until the temperature warms. As warming occurs earlier in the season and snowpack diminishes faster, it runs into reservoirs prematurely and resource managers may need to release water to make space available to prevent floods…

From a water management perspective, the snowpack readings so far this year are troubling, but they may start to feel normal in coming decades. According to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, the climate is on track to warm 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. If that happens, what we consider “extreme” now — rapid, early spring snowpack melt — “will happen more like 40 to 80 percent of the time,” Diffenbaugh says.

From 9News.com (Matt Renoux):

By early May, Denver Water will start sending water out of the Dillon Reservoir to make room for the spring runoff. The Lower Blue River will go from 100 cubic feet per second potentially up to 1,800 CFS at a time when other rivers and steams will also start flowing much faster as well.

#Colorado Springs, three other cities one vote away from [improved] water-supply security — The Colorado Springs Gazette

Here’s an in depth look at the new Southern Delivery System which is about to go online from Billie Stanton Anleu writing in The Colorado Springs Gazette. Click through and read the whole article and to check out the photos. Here’s an excerpt:

The launch of the long-awaited SDS hinges on a vote by Pueblo County commissioners Monday to approve a stormwater deal with Colorado Springs, thus freeing the SDS 1041 permit the commissioners granted in 2009.

The start of the SDS will culminate 20 years of planning, years of quarreling between Pueblo County and Colorado Springs, and six years of building 53 miles of huge pipelines, three pump stations and a 100-acre water treatment plant.

The $825 million project will pump 5 million gallons of water a day – and up to 50 million when needed – to Colorado Springs, Pueblo West, Fountain and Security.

The project was a figment in 1996, when the Colorado Springs City Council approved a Water Resource Plan to explore how best to sate the thirst of a rapidly growing population.

In July 2009, the council approved the SDS as the best of seven alternatives – just as the recession struck. So the project was used as “our own stimulus,” says SDS Program Director John Fredell.

Workshops in Pueblo, El Paso and Fremont counties showed contractors how to work with Colorado Springs Utilities.

The only Colorado company that could build the huge pipes, of 66- and 90-inch diameter, competed against out-of-state bidders but got more than $100 million in business with the SDS.

And that firm wasn’t alone. A contract goal said 30 percent of business should go to Colorado firms. Contractors who failed to meet that threshold were penalized. And the goal was exceeded, Fredell said.

More than 430 Colorado companies have worked on the SDS. Of the $711 million spent through December, $585 million worth of work has stayed in Colorado – about $287 million in El Paso County, $75 million in Pueblo County and $222 million elsewhere in the state.

Meanwhile, what Fredell calls the toughest part of the whole project ensued.

His team spent five years creating a 3,000-page Environmental Impact Statement and obtaining the 1041 permit from Pueblo County. It also had to get about 350 other permits, 200 of them major. Even the Federal Aviation Administration had to OK the plan, as the water treatment plant off of Colorado 94 is in the Colorado Springs Airport flight line.

When construction commenced in 2010, the first challenge was connecting to the Pueblo Dam.

Water flowing from the dam’s North Outlet Works into the Arkansas River was rechanneled so the square outlet channel could get a round pipe fitting to connect to the liner pipe through the dam to the river outlet, said Dan Higgins, chief water services officer for Utilities.

A 0.3-mile pipe segment also was installed from the valve house to the Juniper Pump Station, to link Pueblo West to the SDS and carry water for the other users. Juniper is the first of three pump stations needed to move the water 53 miles uphill. El Paso County became home to the Williams Creek and Bradley pump stations.

The water is being moved through massive pipes buried 85 feet beneath Interstate 25, Fountain Creek and two sets of railroad tracks. One mile of that stretch is a tunnel about 20 miles south of downtown Colorado Springs.

The destination? The Edward W. Bailey Water Treatment Plant, named for “one of the real geniuses of the 1996 water master plan,” said City Council President Merv Bennett.

That 100-acre plant can purify 50 million gallons of water a day, which then goes through a pump station for treated water and more pipelines to reach customers.

The Bailey plant’s developed area could contain 77 football fields, said Kim Mutchler, of Utilities government and corporate affairs.

Utilities water customers are paying for this project. But they’re paying a lot less than projected, as cost-cutting measures shaved the project’s predicted $985 million price tag.

In 2009, Utilities predicted seven consecutive years of 12 percent water rate increases, followed by two years of 4 percent hikes. Instead, rates rose 12 percent in 2011 and 2012 and 10 percent in 2013 and 2014.

The project is needed for many reasons, community leaders agree.

Because Colorado’s second-biggest city isn’t near a major river, it has relied on water brought over the Continental Divide. But those pipelines are nearly 50 years old.

With another 350,000 residents expected to move to El Paso County over the next 30 years – while industry and businesses need water, too – the Southern Delivery System is seen as a move to secure the city’s future.

If water demand increases, SDS will add two reservoirs, increase the raw water delivery capacity, and expand the water treatment plant and pump stations to deliver more than 100 million gallons a day – double the maximum available starting Wednesday.

Southern Delivery System map via Colorado Springs Utilities
Southern Delivery System map via Colorado Springs Utilities