State looking to increase funding for water projects

A headgate on an irrigation ditch on Maroon Creek, a tributary of the Roaring Fork River.
A headgate on an irrigation ditch on Maroon Creek, a tributary of the Roaring Fork River.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

PUEBLO – To counter a sudden and sharp reduction in severance tax revenue from the oil and gas sector, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) has proposed a five-year, $175 million funding plan for water-supply and river-restoration projects.

If approved by the state Legislature next year, the agency’s plan would bolster the amount of money that regional basin roundtables, and the CWCB board, have on hand to give out as grants in support of water projects and proposals.

Such funding has helped complete a number of projects within or near the Roaring Fork River watershed since 2006, including $40,000 for a feasibility study of a potential 18,000-acre-foot Kendig Reservoir south of Silt, $60,000 for repairs to the East Mesa Ditch irrigation system in the Crystal River watershed, and $100,000 to help the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District improve its water-metering program.

The Colorado basin roundtable, which meets every other month in Glenwood Springs, has approved an average of $820,000 a year in water-project grants through the state’s Water Supply Reserve Account (WSRA), which has been funded with severance tax revenues. In all, the roundtable has approved $8.2 million worth of grants since 2006.

The WSRA program as a whole has approved about $75 million in grants over the past 10 years, and has been funded at about $8 million annually with severance tax revenue. That stream of revenue has come from oil and gas companies in Colorado, but is subject to large year-to-year swings from both the cyclical nature of the industry and how companies choose to take advantage of tax deductions.

One factor in the severance tax equation — tax deductions — changed this spring when the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that oil and gas companies can, in fact, deduct certain expenses that the Department of Revenue had previously ruled against. The ruling means the state has to rebate $125 million, or more, to the industry.

The court ruling came when severance tax revenues were already expected to drop.

The CWCB had been ratcheting down the amount of severance tax revenue it expects to see flow into the WSRA accounts this year, which are divided between the nine basin roundtables and a statewide account administered by the CWCB board.

In January, the roundtables were advised to expect a 25 to 50 percent drop in severance revenues this year. And as of this month, they’ve been told to expect zero money from severance tax dollars next year.

“For this year, ‘16-’17, we’re not looking at any money coming into the WSRA accounts, statewide or basin,” said Brent Newman, a program manager at CWCB who works in a support role with several roundtables.

With the drying up of severance tax revenue, the amounts available to the roundtables for grants are restricted to the money they now have on hand.

The Colorado basin roundtable has $473,327 to spend between now and July 1, 2017, which is when CWCB is hoping its new funding plan will come to fruition.

At its meeting in May, the Colorado basin roundtable members tightened their belts and denied one application for funding and approved three other projects, but only granted half of the requested amounts in each case.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Four buckets of money

The funding plan put forth by the CWCB includes four types, or buckets, of funding.

One $50 million bucket consists of $10 million a year over five years to fund the WSRA program at the level it generally has been funded since 2006.

“We’re trying to make up the deficit in severance tax revenue,” Newman said.

But if severance tax revenues do return to prior levels, the money would still go into the WSRA accounts, along with the newly designated funds. This means funding for the WSRA program as a whole could rise as high as $20 million a year, which would be a dramatic reversal of fortune for the regional roundtables and the CWCB.

A second $50 million bucket — filled at the rate of $10 million a year for five years — would allow the CWCB board to directly make grants to support programs and initiatives described in the 2015 Colorado Water Plan, such as water-efficiency programs and education and outreach efforts.

A third $50 million bucket would consist of a one-time cash infusion into a loan repayment guarantee fund. This money would be used to fund future water-supply projects that have a number of municipal and governmental entities behind them.

The credit ratings of many smaller cities and districts are lower than those of large water providers and cities, and that can increase risk to lenders and make it harder to get big loans for projects. But if the state guarantees that the loans will be repaid, it should make it easier to get new projects built.

Newman said funds from this proposed bucket could help proposals such as the Windy Gap Firming Project, which would allow additional diversions from the West Slope to be stored in a new East Slope reservoir.

There are 13 different entities on the northern Front Range that are supporting the Windy Gap project.

“Some have an awful credit rating, some have a great credit rating,” Newman said, speaking in general terms about water projects with various entities involved. “By guaranteeing these bonds from a state fund, it brings everyone up to the same credit rating, and makes it a lot easier for multiple partners to work together on a project. And it actually cuts out millions of dollars in costs.”

Alan Hamel, a CWCB board member representing the Arkansas River basin, supports the proposed funding plan, including the loan repayment guarantee fund.

“It will really help smaller communities with their projects,” he said.

Newman and Hamel made their remarks on June 8 in Pueblo at a meeting of the Arkansas roundtable’s executive committee. That roundtable is especially interested in CWCB’s funding proposal because it only has $185,000 in its account for the next 12 months, and it has approved an average of $1.2 million a year in water projects and plans over the past decade.

The fourth bucket in the CWCB’s funding plan includes $25 million, at $5 million a year for five years, to fund projects and plans designed to improve the environment, and recreational values, of the state’s rivers and streams.

This funding, up from about $1.5 million a year over the past two years, will go to help fund river management and restoration efforts, such as the recently completed Crystal River management plan and the forthcoming Roaring Fork River management plan.

In all, it adds up to $175 million being put forth over five years to move forward on the projects and ideas described in the Colorado Water Plan.

“All of this is very conceptual,” Newman said. “The [CWCB] is going to be beating this up for the next couple of months before we have a final funding plan in place.”

Gears on the top of the dam that forms Lost Man Reservoir, part of the diversion system on the upper Roaring Fork River headwaters.
Gears on the top of the dam that forms Lost Man Reservoir, part of the diversion system on the upper Roaring Fork River headwaters.

Money in hand

The money for the project is coming from the CWCB itself, which has been loaning money to various entities to build water projects for years. As those loans have been repaid over the years, the CWCB has kept the money in a fund. Now it plans to tap that pool of money to fill the four buckets described above.

Newman said the CWCB was in a unique position of having funds to work with “because of the good stewardship of our loan funds over the past several decades.”

“We’re in this position of having, and it’s weird to say this in public, too much money to loan out,” Newman said in Pueblo. “We have a really healthy loan program, and it’s not just dependent on severance tax. We’ve given out some really big loans that are starting to be paid back in installments every year now. So we have these perpetual funds that are cycling back.”

Since it has the funds on hand, and is watching severance tax revenue dry up, CWCB board members in May asked staff to put a plan together that would help implement the ideas in the Colorado Water Plan and in the various regional basin plans developed over the past two years.

The authorization to spend the money in CWCB’s proposed funding plan has to come from the state Legislature as part of its annual review and approval of the CWCB’s “projects bill.”

If the Legislature approves the funding plan, the funds would not be available until July 2017, at the start of the state’s next fiscal year, which means many of the nine basin roundtables are looking at a lean 12 months ahead.

Between now and the end of the year, the CWCB staff and board will continue to discuss and fine-tune the conceptual $175 million plan. The CWCB will next discuss the plan at its July meeting in Steamboat.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News, and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water in Colorado. The Daily News published this story on Wednesday, June 15, 2016.

#ColoradoRiver: Why drought alone does not explain Lake Mead’s expanding bathtub ring #COriver

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

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

It’s been a good runoff this year in the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River still swelling in size last weekend as it flows out of Rocky Mountain National Park, flexing muscle as the Eagle, the Gunnison and other tributaries augment its flows on the way toward Utah.

So why is Lake Mead continuing to decline? The giant storage reservoir, located near Las Vegas, in May dropped to its lowest level since 1937, the year after Hoover Dam was completed.

“Drought” is the usual answer. “Over-appropriation” is another. But an increasing body of evidence points to a more complicated story: the water is literally going up into the air.

That’s the thesis of Brad Udall, a senior water and climate scientist at the Colorado Water Research Institute. “Climate change is water change,” he said in a presentation at the Martz water conference held last week at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Brad Udall via CSU Water Institute
Brad Udall via CSU Water Institute

The Colorado River Basin has had horrendous droughts this century. The summer of 2002 toppled records hundreds of years old. There have been big snow years, too. Taken altogether, the period from the 2000 to 2015 had lower snowpack, meaning drought.

Still, this drought was only a little worse than those of earlier periods, such as in the late 40s and the 1950s, said Udall. Yet the water flowing down the river is significantly less.

“What is making these droughts so much worse?” he asked. Rising temperatures, he answered. Rising temperatures increase the evapo-transpiration rate. Things get hotter, and more water evaporates. It gets hotter, and planets need more water.

“It’s really pretty simple,” he said.

This has important implications for the Colorado River and its tributaries, as well as the roughly 40 million people who derive at least part of their water from the basin. Colorado River Basin waters also irrigate 5.5 million acres of farmland and, thorough hydroelectric turbines at Hoover, Glen Canyon and other dams, has generating capacity of 4,200 megawatts.

Those statistics came from Lawrence MacDonnell, senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment. He painted a picture of a river system being asked to do more than it is capable of. “Our allocation exceeds our supply,” he said in explaining the various compacts and entitlements governing withdrawals form the river by the states, Mexico and Native American tribes.

The various dams on the river have the capacity to store four times the Colorado River’s annual flow, but the flows have been decreasing.

“We have climate scientists telling us that we will have a reduced supply of water in the future, even as there are others who say they will use more water from the Colorado River Basin,” he said. “Where is the reality?”

Eagle River June 17, 2015 via Allen Best
Eagle River June 17, 2015 via Allen Best

MacDonnell pointed to conservation as critical. “Some impressive work has been done, particularly by cities to manage urban water demand through conservation,” he said.

As agriculture remains the dominant use of water in all states, MacDonnell sees reduced ag water as inevitable. “No doubt about it, there will be some retirement of agriculture,” he said.

A “structural deficit” is often mentioned in Colorado River discussions. The deficit is inherent in the allocations of water out of Lake Mead, said Amy McCoy, of the University of Arizona. Again, the idea is that more water is assumed in allocations than actually exists.

While deliveries have been made, Lake Mead is being drawn down by 1.2 million acre-feet per year. Measured on the walls of Hoover Dam, that means a decline in the water level of 12 feet per year.

A giant slice of water from the Colorado is transferred to Phoenix-Tucson areas via the Central Arizona Project. Unlike most areas of the West, agriculture in that delivery project has lowest priority. But curtailment of water deliveries would also affect Native American tribes and even cities.

Taylor spoke of the inevitability of curtailed water deliveries, a shrinking of the circle, and the need to “share the burden, share the water.”

Caption: Imperial Valley, Salton Sea, CA / ModelRelease: N/A / PropertyRelease: N/A (Newscom TagID: ndxphotos113984)     [Photo via Newscom]
Caption: Imperial Valley, Salton Sea, CA / ModelRelease: N/A / PropertyRelease: N/A (Newscom TagID: ndxphotos113984) [Photo via Newscom]

In a way, that’s what Udall was also talking about. He alluded to a Bureau of Reclamation report from earlier this year that predicted substantially the same amount of water in the Colorado River through the 21st century.

“Do you believe that? I don’t,” he said. Again, he drew attention to the 16 years of drought that can only partially be explained by reduced snowfall and other precipitation.

What is needed, he suggested, is a proper appreciation of risk when making decisions about water—including, as climate scientists have warned, that much hotter temperatures will mean even less water in the Colorado for the 40 million people who depend upon it.

Nobody really knows whether the changing climate will produce more water or less. The growing evidence is that the climate is already changing and, as Udall demonstrated, the upshot is less water.

lakemeadesince200002292016capviaallenbest

Eagle River Water & Sanitation District issues bonds for wastewater improvements

Vail Colorado via Colorado Department of Tourism
Vail Colorado via Colorado Department of Tourism

Here’s the release from the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District (James Wilkins):

The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District issued $23.3 million of new bonds to fund required improvements to its wastewater treatment system. The bond issuance was authorized in May 2014, when district voters passed a ballot measure (70 percent in favor) approving the new general obligation debt, to be paid back by property tax within the district boundaries.

The mill levy associated with the new debt will begin in 2017, after an existing mill levy expires. According to finance director James Wilkins, the district is paying off a 1998 bond this year. “The mill levy assessed for the ‘98 bonds for the 2015 property taxes, which are paid in 2016 by real property owners within the district’s boundaries, was 0.621 mills,” said Wilkins. “With the new bonds’ annual payment, that mill would drop just a bit – based on last year’s valuations – to 0.619 mills, so it’s a slight tax decrease.” Similar to the mill levy expiring this year, the new one is tied to an annual debt service payment, so the mill levy may fluctuate up or down to generate the exact amount needed each year.

Prior to the 2014 election, the district indicated to the public that the new bond issue’s repayments would be timed with the payoff of the 1998 bond, such that the impact to property taxes would be nominal. “With the payment on the new bonds almost matching the ones paid off this year, the taxes paid to the district for general obligation bonds will be almost identical,” stated Wilkins.

The 2014 ballot language restricted spending of the bond proceeds to capital expenses related to the district wastewater master plan, which was developed to meet newly enacted statewide regulations that limit the discharge of nutrients from wastewater treatment facilities to waterways. That plan is being implemented in phases, with the first large project at the Edwards wastewater treatment facility scheduled for completion this fall.

The current low interest rate environment allowed the district to finance the improvements at an average interest rate of 3 percent. Additionally, due to the current market appetite for high quality municipal bonds, Wilkins said the district received a coupon discount of nearly $2 million, which covered the issuing costs and allowed the district to realize a full $25 million in proceeds.

Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services assigned its ‘AA-’ rating to the bonds, noting the district’s “favorable service area economy, extremely strong wealth and very strong income levels, and strong liquidity position” as well as “relatively stable utility operations, strong underlying economy, and favorable debt profile” in its ratings report.

The bond sale closed March 31; Wilkins noted its success was due in part to buyers wanting bonds from well-managed local governments. The proceeds will fund a substantial component of the next phase of the wastewater master plan, which is closely evaluated at each step, so the district meets the nutrient regulations goal of improved stream water quality in a fiscally responsible manner.

For more information, go to http://www.erwsd.org or contact Wilkins at 970-477-5442.

Mesa County authorities downgrade alert level at the West Salt Creek slide area

Grand Mesa mudslide May 2014 via The Denver Post
Grand Mesa mudslide May 2014 via The Denver Post

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

Mesa County authorities have downgraded the alert level for residents near the West Salt Creek landslide area near Collbran because of recent warm temperatures and lower creek levels.

Homeowners were put on notice to evacuate May 27 after a water surge at the landslide area prompted by spring runoff.

Officials say that while the immediate threat seems to have diminished, the site remains unsafe and that people should not venture near it…

Water that has collected in a depression near the top of the slide has created a “sag pond,” which continues to spark fears among geologists. In October 2015, the Colorado Geological Survey said conditions remain at the West Salt Creek area that could prompt another disaster of comparable magnitude.

However conditions have stabilized since late last month when the alert level was raised, authorities say.

“The amount of snow left above the West Salt Creek landslide is no longer at a level where experts feel it necessary for residents to remain on heightened alert,” the county sheriff’s office said in a Tuesday news release.

#Runoff news: Streamflow peaking around #Colorado

nwsboulder06132016

From CBS Denver (Justin McHeffey):

Peak water runoff is being recorded on most Front Range streams as temperatures climb across the state. Just in the past five days, more than half of our mountain snow has melted at higher elevations. Although we’re expecting even warmer temps through the weekend, streamflow is expected to decrease in the coming days.

The reason streamflow will decline is because there simply isn’t much snow left to melt. Flood Advisories are still active for the Poudre River near Greeley and the canyon mouth near Fort Collins, as well as the South Platte River near Kersey. These are notorious high water zones this time of year, but only minor flooding is expected in low lying areas. Careful around the bike paths that cross under bridges — some of these will remain closed around Ft. Collins until the water recedes.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Arkansas River flows should continue to be heavy for a while longer, although water levels have dropped a little since reaching a high point last week.

“I think we’ll know whether we’ve hit a peak by the end of the week,” said Roy Vaughan, manager of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project for the Bureau of Reclamation. “I think we should be strong through the weekend.”

Looking at the mountains from afar, it would be easy to assume all the snow was quickly melting, but visitors to the backcountry report there is still more available as spring runoff continues. More rain in the next few weeks could create more pressure on the water storage system.

“I don’t think it’s over yet,” said Steve Witte, Water Division 2 engineer. “With the warm weather to come, there’s still a lot of snow up there.”

Flows in the Arkansas River at Parkdale west of Canon City briefly topped 4,000 cubic feet per second last week, then plunged below 3,000 cfs later in the week before leveling out at around 3,500 cfs early this week.

Flows are above average all along the river, but nowhere near last year’s high levels.

“There’s still quite a bit of snow on the spine of the Continental Divide,” said Alan Ward, water resource manager for Pueblo Water.

The Fry-Ark Project has brought in about 28,500 acre-feet of water, about 40 percent of the projected 65,000 acrefeet. (An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons.) “We’ve got a ways to go, but Boustead has been impressive,” Vaughan said. The Boustead Tunnel brings water into Turquoise Lake from the Fryingpan River for use in the Arkansas River basin.

Several factors could tighten storage by mid-July, including how much water is brought over in the Fry-Ark project and other transmountain diversions; how long the river stays at high flows; and how soon farmers need water that is stored in Lake Pueblo.

Some excess-capacity accounts that were drawn down to avoid a spill this spring, such as Aurora’s contract in Lake Pueblo, have begun to refill.

From The Estes Park Trail-Gazette (David Persons):

“We are probably getting past the time for a snowmelt flood,” said Todd Dankers, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Boulder.

Drip your way to a healthy, water-wise garden — Steamboat Today

Drip irrigation graphic via Sonoma County Nurseries Resource
Drip irrigation graphic via Sonoma County Nurseries Resource

From Steamboat Today (Jackie Buratovich):

Thinking about changing your garden from a traditional sprinkler system to drip? Dazed and confused in the irrigation aisle at the garden center? No budget for an irrigation contractor? Fear not, drip irrigation is easier than it looks.

First, draw a plan of your yard. Use one corner of the lot or the house as your “control point,” measure the distance to all features from this point and transfer the measurements to paper, using 1/4 inch to represent 1 foot in the field.

Locate big things first — the house, other structures, trees, shrubs, driveway and walkways. Then locate the exterior faucets and water supply to any existing irrigation system. Measure and draw existing and planned flower and vegetable beds and turf areas. When complete, make a couple copies of the drawing for planning purposes.

Next, group plants with similar water requirements into single zones and consider how often each plant grouping/zone needs water. Turf should be irrigated with traditional sprinklers on its own zone(s) — avoid mixing drip lines and sprinklers in one zone.

Shrubs and trees need deep watering infrequently. In general, shady areas need water less often than those in full sun. Vegetables have higher water needs than flowers. Tomatoes are finicky so you may want to water those by hand. New plantings, even xeric, will need more water until established.

If you have a traditional sprinkler irrigation system, you can convert whole zones to drip. Most sprinklers are connected to water supply piping with a ½-inch threaded nipple. Simply remove the sprinkler and replace it with an adapter purchased from your local home center. From this adapter, run the larger, usually ½-inch, plastic piping along one side or in the middle of the zone; this line can be mulched over after the installation is complete.

Note: there are several brands of drip irrigation equipment and, in general, their piping and parts are not interchangeable. Select a brand that is available near you and stick with it. “Professional grade” materials seem to last longer.

There are three basic types of “drip” devices: drip emitters, micro-sprinklers and misters. Your plants’ watering needs will determine the type of drip device you install.

Drip emitters include soaker hoses, tubing with emitters embedded every 6 to 12 inches, laser-drilled tubing, adjustable emitters on stakes and single drippers rated at various flows. Micro-sprinklers are usually mounted on stakes with varying areas of coverage and flow rates. Misters are used to humidify an area or to start seeds but are not great for watering mature plants. These devices connect directly to the larger supply line or at the end of ¼-inch plastic tubing, routed to the base of plants.

Many drip systems use micro-sprinklers positioned at regular intervals; however, emitters and soaker lines do not wet the plant leaves and spread disease, or use precious water on areas with no plant roots, thereby encouraging weeds. Simply place an emitter or two at each plant or shrub, or snake a soaker hose throughout your perennial bed.

Remember that drip irrigation is very flexible and adjustable and parts can and should be changed as your landscape matures. You may start greens from seed with a micro-sprinkler, but as they emerge and become little plants, you then switch to an emitter line, reducing the chance of powdery mildew and leaf burn.

Other essential drip irrigation parts include various fittings that connect drip lines to supply lines or drip emitters/sprayers to drip lines. There are good manufacturers’ installation guides at home centers or online, and most centers have knowledgeable staff available to answer questions.

Drip irrigation uses less water at lower pressures than traditional turf sprinkler systems. Key to the success of your drip system is an adjustable pressure-reducing valve and pressure gauge on the system water supply that adjusts the outlet (system) pressure to 25 to 35 psi.

Additionally, plumbing code requires a backflow prevention device be installed. These two devices should be located on the irrigation supply line, downstream from where it connects to the house water system.

#AnimasRiver: Is the EPA faithfully reporting water test results?

A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 -- photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin
A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 — photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin

From the Associated Press via NewsChannel10.com:

The Latest on the reaction to the Colorado mine waste spill (all times local):

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is defending water tests it conducted after a massive mine spill in southwestern Colorado that tainted rivers in three states.

The EPA issued a statement Tuesday saying the tests were thorough and science-based.

Earlier Tuesday, New Mexico officials accused the EPA of misrepresenting test results to make water quality look better than it was.

They also criticized the EPA for saying the water met recreational standards after the spill instead of using the more stringent residential standard…

New Mexico’s criticisms were included in the state’s official comment on an EPA proposal to use the Superfund program to clean up the Gold King and nearby sites…

An agency spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to an after-hours request for comment. Previously, the agency has defended its handling of the aftermath.

Meanwhile the EPA supervisor who was in charge last August 5 is retiring from the agency. Here’s a report from The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

EPA on-scene coordinator Steve Way was away on vacation Aug. 5 when contractors led by fellow EPA coordinator Hays Griswold triggered a blowout at the Gold King. But after the disaster, Way faced questioning about EPA activities around the Gold King.

Way, who worked for the EPA for 32 years, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Colleagues confirmed his departure, as did Silverton town administrator Bill Gardner, who added that Way was knowledgeable and effective.

“It would be fair to say the intense criticism of him at the congressional level could not have helped,” Gardner said. “He really had been put through terrible scrutiny.”

EPA officials declined to discuss the situation.

“The agency doesn’t comment on personnel matters,” spokeswoman Nancy Grantham said in an e-mail.

Two other EPA officials with extensive experience — Joyel Dhieux and Kerry Guy — will manage mine waste removal at the Gold King and adjacent Red and Bonita Mine and the temporary water treatment plant below the mines at Gladstone, according to an EPA notice sent to congressional, state and tribal leaders.

Dozens of EPA and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment employees last week began testing water and soil along the Animas. The feds also have been moving heavy equipment above Silverton. Two toxicologists are part of the effort.

EPA officials did not respond to questions about current work. A Denver-based “community involvement coordinator” referred queries to headquarters in Washington, D.C. EPA officials in Washington also did not respond. CDPHE spokesman Warren Smith said the state agency would defer to the EPA. State health officials are involved in work around the mines.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Steve Way, the Environmental Protection Agency’s on-scene coordinator for activities around the Gold King Mine, has announced his retirement, the federal agency confirmed Tuesday.

Way spent 32 years working for the EPA, and the last two in the area north of Silverton known as Gladstone, where the largest concentration of heavy metals discharge from inactive mines into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.

However, on Aug. 5, Way was on vacation when his EPA-contracted crew breached the loose pile of dirt and rock collapsed over the Gold King Mine, releasing a massive mustard yellow-colored plume of heavy metal sludge.

Regardless of his absence and clear orders not to touch the entrance of the mine, Way became the center of intense criticism.

“Sadly, it appears that Mr. Way is going to be the sacrificial lamb here and that is very disappointing,” state Rep. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose, wrote to the Daily Sentinel.

“Mr. Way has had an exemplary career, having worked with the Washington, D.C. anthrax mitigation project, and the Hurricane Katrina and World Trade Center recovery efforts. Mr. Way and his field team are well qualified and experienced mine reclamation officials, but it seems the bureaucratic EPA leadership ignored their concerns for a potential blowout.”

[…]

In 2014, the EPA decided that metal-laden discharges from the Red and Bonita and the Gold King mines had gotten so bad, it would begin a $1.5 million remediation project.

The plan, originally, was to place a bulkhead on the Red and Bonita mine, which at the time, was pouring out 500 gallons of acid mine drainage per minute, accounting for about 18 percent of the heavy metals in the Animas River.

Knowing that plugging the mine might have the same effect as the American Tunnel (Sunnyside Gold Corp.’s bulkhead, which is considered the culprit for increased discharges out of Red and Bonita and Gold King), Way laid out a monitoring plan that would allow the agency to open and close the valve as needed.

In late July 2015, crews began exploring the Level 7 adit of the adjacent Gold King Mine, which was well documented for its potential of a blowout. Way, aware of this risk, postponed further work on the mine pending further preparation and study.

But while he was on vacation, his replacement, Hayes Griswold, ordered crews to clear the dirt blocking the tunnel to install a pipe to divert the contaminated water.

The contractors, St. Louis-based Environmental Restoration LLC, dug too far, causing the massive blowout on Aug. 5. The actions of that day remain a source of suspicious speculation.

The EPA has claimed Griswold’s orders were “completely consistent” with the direction set by Way prior to his leave. Yet, emails released after the spill clearly show Way said to not excavate the adit until a series of tasks were completed to prepare for its opening – tasks an investigatin found Griswold did not complete.

In a Feburary report, the House Committee on Natural Resources flogged Griswold for veering from Way’s instructions, and said Griswold’s post-spill testimony raised “serious questions about nearly everything …. about the EPA’s work at the Gold King Mine and the disaster caused by the EPA.”

“EPA needs to come clean on who gave the order to proceed as the contractors did on August 5, 2015 at Gold King #7 level,” local filmmaker Tom Schillaci wrote in a public comment. “Who gave Hays Griswold the order to use an excavator to open that portal that day?”

EPA officials confirmed that Griswold still works for the EPA.

Despite the spill, Way is regarded among colleagues as an apt, sharp manager when it comes to mine remediation. Peter Butler, coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, said the longtime volunteer coalition agreed with many of Way’s decisions in the mining district.

“We supported putting a bulkhead in Red and Bonita, and opening up the Gold King,” Butler said. “I think he was a very capable person.”

Butler also commended Way for the quick cleanup of mine waste left behind from the blowout in a nearby gulley, as well as the speedy installment of a temporary water treatment plant for Gold King discharges before the hazardous winter weather set in on the remote area.

Speculation on whether the spill would have occurred had he not gone on vacation remains just that: speculation.

“It’s 20-20 hindsight at this point,” Butler said.

The EPA said in a prepared statement, that in Way’s place, “Joyel Dhieux will manage removal activities at the Gold King and Red and Bonita Mines, and Kerry Guy will manage the interim water treatment plant at Gladstone. Paul Peronard will serve as backup OSC and provide technical support to the team.”

On April 7, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear. Eric Baker
On April 7, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
Eric Baker