The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) has ensured the safety of public drinking water supplies throughout the nation. As part of the federal program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards for drinking water quality, and periodically requires the testing of public drinking water systems that serve more than 10,000 people to examine potential emerging contaminants to determine the need for future regulation.
In October 2015, water samples taken from public water sources in Security, Widefield and Fountain, Colorado, showed elevated quantities of Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs). PFCs are manmade compounds that can be found in non-stick cookware, stain-resistant sofas and carpets, food packaging, as well as Aqueous Film-Forming Foam, used to fight petroleum fires. The military airfields at Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado Springs, are the suspected source of PFC contamination; however, further water and soil testing is necessary to determine the definitive origin.
Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Coleman Cornelius):
The seed herd of 10 American bison released one year ago on northern Colorado public lands has expanded to 16 healthy animals, and the project has contributed valuable heirloom genetics to two other bison conservation efforts – with more growth ahead.
The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd galloped onto 1,000 acres at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space on Nov. 1, 2015.
Since then, the project that began as a simple concept – returning an iconic species to its native landscape – is producing profound conservation and cultural rewards, both in northern Colorado and across the country.
“To see such a tremendous animal, an American icon, have its hooves touch the ground in this area again, is just beautiful,” said Ty Smith, director of the Colorado State University Native American Cultural Center.
Project partners celebrated the herd’s significance, discussed highlights from the past year, and described plans for the years ahead during a gathering in Fort Collins on Nov. 1 to kick off Native American Heritage Month.
The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd is unique for representing the wellspring of heritage genetics found in and around Yellowstone National Park. With help from a scientific workaround, collectively known as assisted reproductive technologies, the herd is free from brucellosis, a worrisome infectious disease that plagues bison in the Greater Yellowstone Area and typically prevents the animals and their diverse genetics from moving beyond those geographic confines.
“I have a great amount of pride for everything we’ve accomplished as a team,” said Jennifer Barfield, a reproductive physiologist with the CSU Animal Reproduction and Biotechnology Laboratory. “This is exactly what we wanted to happen, and hopefully it will continue on a larger scale.”
Bison reintroduction was conceived during planning for public lands managed by the City of Fort Collins and Larimer County about 25 miles north of Fort Collins. The U.S. Department of Agriculture joined the effort to rehome Yellowstone bison held in quarantine on CSU’s Foothills Campus.
Barfield and her laboratory team, representing the fourth core partner agency, joined the project to contribute reproductive techniques that could propagate original bison genetics without disease. These include cleansing infected sperm cells and embryos in the laboratory, followed by in vitro fertilization or embryo transfer to produce healthy bison calves born naturally on the prairie.
A home where the bison roam
To the delight of collaborators, the bison have adapted well to their home at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space – proved when six fuzzy bison calves were born unassisted under the prairie stars last spring and early summer. The newborns, three males and three females, arrived just as the American bison was declared national mammal of the United States in May 2015.
“The success of the calves, that was really a milestone that was fantastic to see,” said Daylan Figgs, senior environmental planner for City of Fort Collins Natural Areas.
“On the surface, this was a very simple idea,” continued Figgs, who helped develop plans for bison reintroduction in northern Colorado. “What has transpired, and what has become the strength of this project, is the partnership that came together for the conservation of a species, for the prairie ecology, and for research.”
It has been rewarding to see bison regain a foothold after an absence of 150 years, said Meegan Flenniken, resource program manager for the Larimer County Department of Natural Resources.
“It’s becoming a proven project,” said Flenniken, another originator. “We really feel a sense of pride to see that happen.”
Milestones during the first year
Partners in the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd have marked several key steps during the past year:
Six calves were born in the bison pasture at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space.
Disease-free bison embryos with complete Yellowstone genetics were transferred into a total of 10 surrogate mothers in bison conservation projects overseen by the Minnesota Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo.
Embryos likewise were transferred into 10 bison cows overseen by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service on the CSU Foothills Campus.
A disease-free bison bull, originally from Yellowstone and held in quarantine by USDA-APHIS Veterinary Services, joined the northern Colorado herd in spring 2016 to father as many as eight calves, whose birth is expected in spring 2017. The bull will likely move on to a conservation herd at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois.
Bison conservationists with the American Prairie Reserve in Bozeman, Mont., are expected to visit this fall to discuss potential collaborations.
A research project involving CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources and Denver Zoo is assessing ecological and cultural impacts of the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd.
“It’s a dream in progress,” Matt McCollum, a wildlife biologist with USDA-APHIS Veterinary Services, said of the bison project. “We’ve been working on this for years, and this is the first year we’ve had hooves on the ground, so it’s very cool.”
Help the herd!
The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd is funded by partner agencies and private giving. Contributions help pay for fencing, animal-handling facilities, supplies, veterinary are, and laboratory staff. To donate, visit our Giving website.
The sight of a drilling rig on an Air Force base may seem unusual. The work to drill 17 wells is part of an effort at Peterson to understand how use of a firefighting foam with perfluorinated chemicals may have seeped into the groundwater…
A preliminary assessment on base identified six specific points — former training sites, fire department sites, and hangers — where fire fighting foam with PFCs could have entered the environment. Now the military is investigating each of those sites in depth, with a full report expected in mid 2017.
The firefighting foam in question is known as A-FFF: Aqueous Film Forming Foam. The Air Force began to use it in the 1970s to put out fires from lots of gasoline or jet fuel.
At a news conference, the Air Force confirmed details of one practice that could have had an impact to nearby groundwater. Col. Douglas Schiess said the base released PFC laden water about three times a year into the Colorado Springs sewer system. Those releases happened from a fire training system from 1990 to August of 2016.
“The last time that we discharged water into the sewer system was early August,” he said.
Col. Schiess said soon after that release, the Air Force tested water in its system for PFCs and found high concentrations. The decision was made to no longer “discharge [the water] into the sanitation system.”
The practice spanned 26 years. Schiess clarified that reports of a more recent discharge of 150,000 gallons in October were made in error by the Air Force.
Peterson isn’t the only base grappling with these issues.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety and Infrastructure Mark Correll called the PFC contamination issue “a really big deal.” He said there are investigations at 183 sites across the country. The inspections alone are estimated to cost $250 million, with another $2 billion needed for cleanup.
Meantime, the Air Force has already started phasing out the PFC-laden firefighting foam at Peterson with something more environmentally friendly. The move — expected to take 14 months, Correll said — will eventually happen across all Air Force installations.
In honor of this year’s National Parks Service centennial anniversary, EcoFlight took to the air for four days in late October for combined flights connecting Aspen to Arches and Canyonlands, to the Grand Canyon and finally to Mesa Verde National Park, not to mention the thousands of miles of landscape in between.
EcoFlight, a nonprofit based out of Aspen, takes annual trips with eight college students in six-seat planes to get an aerial perspective on wildland environmental issues. The organization’s president, Bruce Gordon, took similar flights with John Denver, and they had an idea for a trip starting in Alaska, picking up celebrity-pilots along the way and arriving in Washington, D.C. for Earth Day in 2000.
After Denver passed away, Gordon wanted to pursue their shared dream and founded EcoFlight in 2002. Gordon recognized the need to share the first-hand perspective on threats to the environment with the next generation, and began the annual Flight Across America (FLAA) program. This year, eight college students crammed into small planes for a four-day whirlwind tour touching several of the national parks in the west.
“These students have a voice,” Gordon says, sitting with the students in John Denver Sanctuary in Aspen before takeoff. “I want them to see for themselves, and then tell others.”
The participants arrive from near and far, with backgrounds as different as their colleges. Included in the group is an anthropology major from Texas, a Colorado State University freshman in wildlife and conservation biology and a sustainability studies student at Colorado Mountain College in the Roaring Fork Valley. Each student brings their experiences and knowledge from a variety of study areas.
Emilie Frojen, a senior at Colorado College, is writing her thesis about tribal water rights.
“I know a lot about water rights but I want to extend my knowledge into that of public lands and the intersection,” she said, explaining why she wanted to join the FLAA program, adding that she is interested in the social construction of wilderness.
Seeing the connection
Just after departing from Aspen, the students’ headsets crackle to life as Gordon speaks to the three single-engine Cessna 210 Centurion planes flying in formation. Gordon points out geological features and human impacts to the region. Heading toward Moab, Utah, the flight path takes students over mines and natural gas platforms, as well as the mostly roadless Thompson Divide area, the Colorado National Monument and sprawling rock formations in the wilderness.
“We were flying at about 7,000 feet and you can see how it is all connected from the air,” says Caleb Henderson, from University of Texas.
“You can see an obvious line across the land,” adds Cole Rosenbaum, a master’s student studying geological engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, speaking of the infrastructure that connects well pads to roads and pipelines.
The aerial perspective isn’t everything though, and the program includes ample time spent on the ground in key places discussing the issues with experts representing various perspectives.
“It’s important for the students to experience the parks as well,” according to Jane Parigter, EcoFlight’s vice president. Once on the ground in Moab, the students head to Arches National Park. Sitting beneath the iconic Double Arch they listen to Matt Gross, with Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and discuss the proposal for the Bears Ears National Monument, which if designated would protect 1.9 million acres in southeastern Utah that include ancient cave dwellings and sites sacred to Native Americans
The conversation about policy and land management is followed by a more personal connection to the issues the next morning as the planes touch down in Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border. The students sit down with members of the Navajo Nation and Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, discussing what the land means as more than just wilderness.
“We are trying to preserve the land, but also the songs and the stories,” says Jonah Yellowman, a spiritual adviser from the Many Arrows Bitterwater Clan, as he addresses the students telling tribal creation stories and how the land is connected to him. There have been desecrations of sacred cultural places, he added, and the monument designation would help protect them.
“Is it challenging to communicate with people not from this heritage, working with policy makers while you write the proposal?” asks Frojen, the Colorado College senior studying tribal water rights.
“It is hard to translate why this is sacred,” he admits.
This is a theme that is reiterated again that afternoon at Grand Canyon National Park, as locals depict the proposed Escalade development and how it affects their physical and spiritual world. The project would include hotels above the canyon rim and a tram to the Little Colorado River just upstream from its confluence with the Colorado, the place where, according to Navajo tradition, the tribe emerged into the world.
“In Navajo people don’t need to know why something is sacred, it just is. So I am a translator,” says Jason Nex, with Save the Confluence. “I translate from Navajo to English, from science to Navajo.”
Sitting on the edge of the South Rim, one speaker after another presents a variety of stories about the Grand Canyon, from overcrowding and underfunding to diversity and its inclusion in the national parks system.
“EcoFlight takes a very objective approach, presenting us with different information,” says Rosenbaum, from Mines. “At school we are well trained in the technology and the math, but there has been a push to take a more humanitarian approach.”
Mining for impact
“I am here to get you inspired to save the Grand Canyon, and to not want to drink Uranium water,” says Sarah Ponticello, from the Sierra Club. “Sign the petition to really show your support to get this permanently protected.”
Julianne Nikirk, a student at Colorado State University, was surprised to learn that uranium mining is set to commence on the canyon’s doorstep.
“You just kind of assume it is protected,” she says of the Grand Canyon, as they arrive at Canyon Mine, located near the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. The Canyon Mine is not yet operational, but workers have drilled a shaft over 1,400 feet deep and mining could begin for high-grade uranium in six to eight months.
Donn Pillmore, director of operations for Energy Fuels, which operates the mine, offers a counter point, reminding the students that the U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of uranium.
“And we import 96 percent, from places that are not operating under the same environmental regulations as we are. Not even close,” he says.
Pointing out that 20 percent of all U.S. power comes from nuclear plants, Pillmore adds that when uranium comes out of the ground it is not considered a hazardous material by the Department of Transportation. Mitigation systems and measures to prevent contamination from reaching water, as well as reclamation efforts after mining finishes in as little as five years, will return the site to how it was before mining began, he says.
From the outside of the fence where Pillmore speaks to the students the site seems meager, but as the planes wing over it on their departure from the Grand Canyon they see the large swath of land it includes. As the planes cross over the Four Corners area and into Colorado the ground below becomes a maze-like network of oil and gas operations, just a few miles from Mesa Verde National Park.
Back on land in Durango, another series of experts discuss threats to the national parks, how different land management strategies affect wilderness and how to diversify park users and activists. One speaker reminds them on their next flight to think about how the landscape looks now, but also how current policy on wilderness areas will shape it in the future.
As the whirlwind tour comes to an end the students talk about how the different stops affected both them personally and the world around them. Each participant will head home with a bevy of information to digest and a plan to share their stories with their peers and others.
The participants’ first opportunity comes on the last day of the trip at Durango High School, where they coalesce three days of discussions, debates, viewpoints and seminars into a slideshow. They implore the high schoolers to care, get involved and vote, once they can.
“We take local people up to look at their local communities, with the idea being to educate and advocate,” Gordon explains to the high schoolers. “We want to inspire people to speak out.”
Lauren Fry, from Colorado State University, is committed to spread the word when she returns to Fort Collins.
“I want to really focus on outreach on campus, and not many know about Bears Ears,” she said. “Through campus radio, the local TV station and our student newspaper, I want to call attention to the issue and guide people to the petition to protect Bears Ears.”
That sentiment sounds good to Pargiter, EcoFlight’s vice president.
“We want to empower them to have a voice and get them to reach out to their peers,” she said. “This is their generation that is going to be doing a lot of the work.”