The latest “The Current” newsletter is hot off the presses from the Eagle River Watershed Council

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

An Ode to Water

It’s easy to forget that fresh water is not a limitless resource. In fact, there isn’t much of it in the world. The precious supply we do have must be protected and preserved. That’s where Eagle River Watershed Council (ERWC) comes in.

The group, comprised of three full-time staff members, a board, a team of about 1,000 volunteers and countless partners and overseers that range from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Town of Vail, considers itself “the watch dogs” of the Eagle River and the Vail Valley’s rare bounty of fresh waterways. The council works to preserve and restore the Eagle and Colorado Rivers, and all of the tributaries that run through Eagle County. It organizes mass trash pickups along the roads that line the waterways, tests water quality levels and makes sure the ecosystems of the rivers and streams are intact and also cleans up areas that have been compromised by pollution. Some of the organization’s bigger cleanup and restoration tasks include the portion of the Eagle River below Gilman that has been declared a Superfund site due to the area’s mining toxins leaking into the water. Another project involves storm and infrastructure work along Gore Creek to restore the diversity of the creek’s insect habitat, which then ensures that it maintains its status as Gold Medal fishing waters.

Ask any member of the ERWC why the organization refers to the Eagle River as the “lifeblood” of the Vail Valley, and the explanations are staggering.

“We call it the lifeblood because it affects every piece of life here in the valley, whether it’s recreation or the ski resorts,” says Brooke Ranney, ERWC’s projects and events coordinator. “We all depend on the river for drinking water, and we make sure we have a good quality water source. Then, there’s getting out on the river and its economic value.”

According to the group, the fly-fishing industry alone is worth $4 billion, to say nothing of the valley’s most prized asset—the ski industry which relies on the Eagle River for snowmaking.

“The Eagle River as well as the Upper Colorado draw a lot of people here, even if that means they came to ski or snowboard. People are using the mountains for skiing and snowboarding, not realizing that the manmade snow comes from water pulled from the river. As people stay here or come to visit in the summer and expand their visitation of Eagle County, the river plays a huge role in their decision to stay or come back again,” says Holly Loff, ERWC executive director.

Lizzie Schoder, the group’s education and outreach coordinator, heads up Watershed Wednesdays, free interactive tours, workshops and presentations centered around the watershed. The group also travels to local schools, teaching students of all ages various components of the watershed, from vegetation, insects and wildlife that comprise the streams’ habitat to ways they can preserve and protect the water supply—being mindful not to litter, turn off water while brushing teeth, pick up after one’s dog and avoid overusing water for landscaping or washing cars.

“We’re noticing people are unaware that storm drains flow directly to the river, so picking up after your dog is a huge one, not mowing lawns all the way to the river, letting native plants grow along it, being mindful of chemicals and pesticides used on the lawn,” Schoder says. “It’s something often forgotten … that we have so little true, fresh water in the world, so the way we allocate it and manage it is vital.”

The council collaborates with numerous local, regional and national entities to protect and preserve the water that runs through Eagle County. Also crucial to keep in mind is that while the rivers are the lifeblood of everything in this valley—the drinking water, snowmaking source and cornerstone of the flyfishing, kayaking and rafting industries—it also trickles down … quite literally.

“It’s important to note that we’re the headwaters of both the Colorado and the Eagle Rivers, so if we do anything to impact water quality here, everybody downstream suffers,” Loff points out. “If our rivers weren’t protected and there wasn’t vegetation there, it wouldn’t have the impact and draw that it does. Our economy would suffer quite a bit. It goes beyond people who are hardcore kayakers and recreationists. Water slows everyone down and reconnects you to nature and things that are really important in life. The EPA is always front and center in protecting clean water nationwide. Although drinking water is critical to all of us, people need to be more vigilant and stand up for clean water.”

Needless to say, the Eagle River Watershed Council is doing its part for the Vail Valley and beyond.

Eagle River Basin

U.S.-Mexico Colorado River deal is close — @JFleck

Colorado River Basin, USBR May 2015

From Inkstain (John Fleck):

With a Senate Hearing [August 2, 2017] and a meeting of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District Thursday, we’re starting to see the public rollout of a Colorado River management agreement between the United States and Mexico that now looks like it’s on track to be signed within the next few months.

The biggest clue that this could really happen is that they’ve changed the name from “Minute 32x” to “Minute 323”. The placeholder “x” meant the agreement would be signed sometime, changing it to a “3” suggest people are confident enough that it’s really going to happen soon that they’ve assigned it a number and put it in the queue.

While the full agreement has not been made public, the negotiating team has put together a detailed set of talking points to be taken to the various water agency boards and state agencies on the U.S. side…

Embedded in the deal are two important pieces.

The first is Mexico’s continued participation in the current binational water conservation scheme, in which water users in both the United States and Mexico agree to curtail their water use as Lake Mead drops. This is the follow-on to Minute 319, the historic 2012-U.S.-Mexico agreement that broke down the key barriers to international management on the river.

The second piece is what’s called in the new minute the “Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan”, which is the international flavor of what’s known by the norteños as the “Drought Contingency Plan”. This is the agreement that ratchets up the conservation, making deeper cuts to water use sooner. One of the lawyers in the audience will probably lecture me if I call this piece “contingent” or “trigger” or whatever, but the fact is that this language lays out the details of Mexico’s participation in the new DCP scheme, but it doesn’t take effect until folks on the U.S. side approve the DCP.

Its inclusion here, and the fact that it’s now being made public, is crucial evidence that folks in the United States have settled on the final terms of the deal and we’re not just in the “working out the formalities” part of the process. There’s always been a chicken/egg problem about which would come first, the DCP or the U.S.-Mexico minute, because each depends on the other. The solution has been a contingent minute (don’t scold, lawyer friends) through which Mexican participation is contingent on the separate deal within the U.S. being signed. The only way folks are willing now to go forward with the U.S.-Mexico piece is because they’re confident that the U.S. piece will follow.

These “minutes” (they function kinda like amendments to the U.S.-Mexico treaty, but don’t call them that the lawyers will scold you) part part of a trend away from conflict and toward collaboration as the Colorado River crosses its international border. They add a crucial piece – a joining of water management institutions across the international border in an effort to manage the Colorado River as one river.

Together, these steps demonstrate the extraordinary pivot on the Colorado River from Mark Reisner’s “most litigated river in the entire world” to a system in which the parties stay out of the courts and international tribunals and negotiate mutually beneficial agreements to deal with the Colorado’s problem of overallocation.

@ColoradoClimate: Weekly Climate, Water and #Drought Assessment of the Intermountain West

Upper Colorado River Basin precipitation as a percent of normal July 2017 via the Colorado Climate Center.

Click here to read the current assessment. Click here to go to the NIDIS website hosted by the Colorado Climate Center.

The latest “River Currents” newsletter is hot off the presses from @RiverNetwork

A screenshot from the website for Colorado’s Water Plan.

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

Supporting Stream Management Planning in Colorado

In 2016, the State of Colorado adopted the Colorado Water Plan which sets forth a water management roadmap to achieve a productive economy, vibrant and sustainable cities, productive agriculture, a strong environment, and a robust recreation industry. Specific to protecting and enhancing stream flows, the plan calls for 80 percent of locally prioritized rivers to be covered by Stream Management Plans by 2030. This goal builds upon years of conversation, research and some action to build a methodology to develop data-driven water management and physical project recommendations capable of protecting or enhancing environmental and recreational values on streams and rivers.

A well-developed Stream Management Plan uses biological, hydrological, geomorphological and other data to assess the flows or other physical conditions that are needed to support collaboratively identified environmental and/or recreational values. It uses this assessment to identify and prioritize management actions to maintain or improve flow regimes and other physical conditions at a reach scale.

In 2017, the State of Colorado allocated $5 million to a grant program to develop projects and plans that protect or restore watershed health and stream function. This funding has kick-started local interest across Colorado to develop Stream Management Plans.

A handful of communities have pioneered methodologies, including a collaborative coalition on the Crystal River through the Town of Carbondale, and the City of Ft. Collins’ assessment of the Poudre River. However, to meet the goal in Colorado’s Water Plan of covering 80 percent of locally prioritized streams with plans, much more needs to be done.

River-related recreation on Colorado’s western slope currently accounts for $6.4 billion in annual direct expenditures, and in the six counties that make up the headwaters of the Colorado River and its tributaries, tourism—including fishing and rafting—is the main economic driver. Many communities in the state have an economic interest in maintaining healthy rivers but few have developed strategies to comprehensively protect streamflows.

To address this gap, River Network, with support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Gates Family Foundation and the Nature Conservancy, has launched a two-year project to enlarge the pipeline of local coalitions that are interested, ready and capable of undertaking stream management plans.

The project focuses on three areas:

  • education to a broad constituency on what a stream management plan is, how and why communities undertake them and what lessons they’ve learned;
  • fostering cooperation among Colorado’s water management, NGO, academic, and research and science communities to help meet the capacity and knowledge needs of local coalitions as they initiate stream management planning;
  • and direct support to local coalitions as they scope, write and fundraise for their plan.
  • As more communities come together to examine river health and flow-related management strategies, and as plans are completed, we will share more examples and lessons here.

    #Utah sues over #GoldKingMine spill

    On April 7, 2016, 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

    From The Deseret News (Amy Joi O’Donoghue):

    In a lawsuit filed in federal court Monday, Reyes asserts the contractor, subcontractor and mine owner — Delaware-based Sunnyside Gold Corp. — failed to take a host of proper precautions to avoid the disastrous breach near Silverton that released 3 million gallons of metals-laden sludge.

    The Utah Department of Environmental Quality is continuing to take water samples from the San Juan River, which was impacted, and Lake Powell, where most of the sludge was deposited.

    While Utah agencies and other entities, such as San Juan County, were compensated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency $464,000 for costs related to the initial response, Reyes’ suit asks for punitive damages for the ongoing environmental impacts, stigma associated with the spill and interference with the public’s ability to enjoy the waterways.

    The suit asserts the EPA’s on-site team:

    • Assumed that because the mine was draining it was not under pressure from the contaminated water behind it

    • Didn’t believe it was necessary to test the level or volume of contaminated water from the blockage

    • Did not take a measurement to determine the pressure of the water against the blockage of the adit, or horizontal mine entrance

    Additionally, Reyes’ suit says the on-site team failed to take the precaution of installing a secondary containment system to prevent large quantities of toxic wastewater from reaching the Animas River and did not develop or implement an emergency response plan.

    Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as EPA, requires a health and safety plan in conjunction with hazardous waste site operations, the plan in place failed to meet those requirements, the suit asserts.

    On Aug. 5, 2015, the day of the spill, the EPA’s on-site team was performing work on the Level 7 adit, where none of the proper measurements or precautions were taken, according to the lawsuit.

    “Members of the EPA on-site team have given conflicting reports regarding their work. Some believed the objective was to excavate the adit to create an opening. Others believed the objective was to use a backhoe excavator to scratch the earth around the adit,” the suit reads. “On information and belief, this conflict was caused by miscommunication among the EPA on-site team.”

    The suit says the mine blowout continues to pose environmental, economic and other damages to Utah that are not inconsistent with a “national contingency plan,” that will require additional investigation and remediation that will include soil and water testing.

    Although the defendants named in the lawsuit should have known the Gold King Mine presented a “high risk of significant harm to the state of Utah and other downstream communities,” they acted in disregard of those risks, the suit says.

    New Mexico and the Navajo Nation brought lawsuits against the EPA for the spill, and New Mexico also sued Colorado, asserting negligence.

    In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear arguments related to the dispute between the states.

    The EPA in January said it would not pay $1.3 billion in claims related to the spill because it is protected by a federal tort law.

    In addition, the agency’s inspector general concluded there was no wrongdoing with the Gold King Mine spill, but also conceded there were no specific standards in place for dealing with a collapsed mine portal.

    Daniel Burton, a spokesman for the Utah Attorney General’s Office, said the state is continuing to negotiate with the EPA to see if a settlement can be reached without the need for litigation.

    The mining district that includes where the breach happened was declared a Superfund Site nearly a year ago, which will accelerate cleanup efforts.

    From the Associated Press (Lindsay Whitehurst) via The Durango Herald:

    Utah wants cleanup compensation and unspecified damages in the 3-million-gallon Gold King Mine spill that was accidentally trigged by EPA contractors in 2015, Utah Attorney General’s Office spokesman Dan Burton said Tuesday.

    Utah hasn’t named a damages amount because it’s still investigating how much it will ultimately cost to clean up its portion of spill that left as much as 880,000 pounds of metals in rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, Burton said. The metals have settled into riverbeds, where they can get stirred up any rainstorm or heavy snowmelt, state officials have said.

    Total damages from farmers, business owners and residents along the spill’s path have been estimated at $420 million.

    Though Utah was farther away from the epicenter of the spill, contaminants from the blowout have been transported through the San Juan River in southeastern Utah to the vast reservoir of Lake Powell, the lawsuit states…

    The Utah lawsuit filed Monday doesn’t name the EPA. The agency has taken responsibility for the spill and given Utah agencies $464,000 so far to help pay for the cleanup. The state hopes to come to a final settlement with the agency out of court, Burton said.

    Gold King Mine entrance after blowout August 2015

    CPW: Native trout return to Woods Lake

    Woods Lake photo credit Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

    Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:

    Native cutthroat trout are returning to a corner of the San Juan Mountains as part of a conservation project by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

    On Sept. 20, Parks and Wildlife biologists stocked more than 250 native cutthroat trout in Woods Lake southwest of Telluride. This location was selected because it will provide excellent quality cutthroat habitat: the area is isolated, the water is pristine and barriers protect the lake from non-native fish that live downstream. Once the population is established, the lake will provide the broodstock which will eventually assist in cutthroat conservation efforts throughout the Dolores and Gunnison river basins.

    “This area was populated with native trout before settlers arrived in Colorado, but the fish haven’t been present in, probably, over a half a century,” said Dan Kowalski, an aquatic researcher with Parks and Wildlife in Montrose. “This is one of the few spots in southwest Colorado suitable for this type of restoration project and it will provide a great refuge for this important native fish. This project will help give the cutthroat a long-term foothold in the area, expand their numbers and range, and benefit native trout conservation throughout southwest Colorado.”

    The reintroduced trout were captured from a small stream on the Uncompahgre Plateau earlier in the day and transported by horseback and then by truck to the lake. Wild fish from the small stream will also be spawned in the spring of 2013 so that larger numbers of fish can be introduced to Woods Lake and tributaries, Muddy Creek and Fall Creek, next summer.

    “We’ll do that to give us multiple age classes of fish and to provide good genetic diversity,” Kowalski said.

    Anglers can expect to start catching some cutthroat trout in the summer of 2018 but it will be a couple of years before there are large numbers of older-age fish to catch. Anglers are encouraged to release all fish they catch for the next couple of years to allow the population to grow. Fishing in the lake and streams above is restricted to artificial flies and lures only.

    Cutthroat trout have been eliminated from many rivers and streams in western Colorado due to habitat loss, water quality impacts and the introduction of non-native. The native fish, which has been petitioned for listing as an endangered species, can now be found in only about 14 percent of its historic range in the Rocky Mountain West. This reintroduction project is an effort to restore the native trout to its former habitat, expand the fish’s range and prevent the need for an endangered species listing.

    “Restoring these native fish should be important to all citizens and water users in the basin that depend on our rivers for irrigation and drinking water because a federal listing could affect the state’s management of the species and water use in the basin,” Kowalski said.

    Colorado Parks and Wildlife worked cooperatively with the U.S. Forest Service during the last two summers to remove the non-native fish from Woods Lake and the tributaries.

    Elsewhere in southwest Colorado — and only about 20 miles as the crow flies southeast of Woods Lake — another cutthroat restoration project is ongoing in the upper Hermosa Creek drainage near the Purgatory ski resort in San Juan County. When that project is completed in about five years, more than 20 miles of Hermosa Creek and feeder streams will be home to native cutthroats.

    “Colorado Parks and Wildlife has been working on native trout restoration throughout the state for nearly 30 years and our work will continue,” said John Alves, senior aquatic biologist for the southwest region. “This is truly a long-term effort.”

    To learn more about efforts by Colorado Parks and Wildlife to restore native trout, see:

    Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

    Larimer County approves ATM IGA with Broomfield for C-BT shares

    Colorado-Big Thompson Project east slope facilities

    From The Longmont Times-Call (Pamela Johnson):

    Following the lead of citizens who, in recent public outreach, expressed an interest in the county preserving agriculture and water, the Larimer County Department of Natural Resources spent $8.4 million in 2016 to buy the Malchow family farm and its associated water. The county is now calling the land the Little Thompson Farm because of its proximity to the river of that name.

    The goal was to preserve the land as a working farm and to offset the cost of doing so with a water-sharing agreement, which is also a method the Colorado Water Plan endorses to stop simple “buy and dry” of farmland by municipalities that need the water to handle growth.

    Extensive negotiations and studies by experts in agriculture, finance and water led to partnership agreement between Larimer County and the city and county of Broomfield. Experts made sure the farm could stay viable under the agreement by looking at water supply, economics and historic weather patterns.

    That agreement, which was approved by Larimer County on Tuesday, basically sells Broomfield 115 shares of the farm’s Colorado-Big Thompson water outright, allows the municipality to use another 80 during three dry years out of every 10, and preserves 45 shares for the farm use.

    The water that will stay on the farm — a mix of Colorado-Big Thompson and additional shares of Handy Ditch water — will be enough to keep the farm profitable and in production, growing corn and sugar beets in wet years and dryland crops in dry years, according to information from extensive studies.

    For its part of the agreement, Broomfield will pay the county $3.7 million for the water. The price includes paying market value for the 115 shares that it will buy outright and 40 percent of market value for the 80 units that it can use only three out of every 10 years…

    The municipality will be able to pull the 80 units of water in three dry years out of every 10, and the rest of the time, the water will remain on the farm to irrigate crops. During the years that the water leaves the farm, Broomfield agreed reimburse the farmer that is leasing the land from the county the cost of that farm lease to help keep the farm profitable in dry years.

    Under the agreement, Larimer County will receive another $100,000 from a grant from the Gates Family Foundation and $52,750 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

    This type of water sharing agreement is encouraged by the Colorado Water Plan as a way to protect farmland from the typical “buy and dry” that is occurring with growing municipal need across Colorado.

    In fact, Larimer County officials noted that if the Malchow family had not wanted to sell to Larimer County to keep their family farm in production, buyers were lined up to pay top dollar just for the water…

    A team of experts looked at historic weather data, financial models and water supply to determine if the farm could stay viable under this agreement, and deemed that it could.

    With this model in place, Larimer County and state water officials hope this agreement, the first of its kind in the state, will result in more farmers and cities following suit instead of simply selling the water and taking the land out of production.