Study Session with Karen Bish and Deb Parker

Your Water Colorado Blog

Water Educator Network Member Feature – May 2018 

Names and Positions: Karen Bish, Community Outreach Supervisor; Deb Parker, Public Education Specialist  
Organization: South Platte Water Renewal Partners
Became WEN Members:September 2017
Watershed: South Platte Basin
Favorite River: Karen- The Colorado River; Deb- The South Platte River
Favorite Water-Based Activity: Karen- Swimming; Deb- Kayaking
Our Favorite Quote From Karen:I actually went to the State of Colorado and I have a certified nose. We don’t get very many odor complaints, thankfully.”
Our Favorite Quote From Deb:
My proudest water-related accomplishment was the day that my granddaughter explained to her mommy why we turn the water off when we’re washing our hands… She’s 4 years old and she had her reasons together. It wasn’t just, ‘Mommy, we turn the water off after we get our soap and our hands wet and then we scrub and then we…

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Drones help researchers monitor High Plains wheat — Texas A&M

Drones are being used to monitor weekly growth on the Texas A&M AgriLife Research wheat variety plots near Bushland. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

Here’s the release from Texas A&M (Kay Ledbetter):

The Texas A&M AgriLife Research dryland wheat variety nursery near Bushland is being monitored weekly by drone flights, offering wheat breeders a chance to see changes on a more real-time basis.

Dr. Jackie Rudd, AgriLife Research wheat breeder in Amarillo, said the dryland wheat variety nursery typically has varieties yielding an average of 30 bushels per acre, but some years that can fall to 8-10 bushels per acre due to drought and other environmental conditions.

“This year is undetermined,” Rudd said. “But it looks like it is out of moisture to survive on.”

He said the dryland nursery was planted Oct. 11 into good moisture and it came up and really looked good, but the rain shut off and “we haven’t had rain since then.”

The dryland variety nursery is mirrored across the state with locations in the Rolling Plains, South Plains and further south, all evaluating a large number of different genetic sets to determine how they will do throughout the Great Plains.

“We take advantage of what environments we have,” he said. “It’s been very dry this year, matching close to 2011 when we yielded 8-12 bushels per acre. Some varieties, however, yielded 18 bushels per acre that year. That’s what we are looking at, comparing the genetics here and throughout the state under multiple locations and different conditions.”

Rudd said they have been monitoring the situation to see the difference in color and growth rate, which has varied with how they started in the fall. Varieties with a good root system had a good stand establishment, got their root down and survived through the winter quite well.

“They are surviving entirely on subsoil moisture at this time,” he said. “But the more we dig down and check, there’s not much moisture under it at all. A week of this hot, windy weather, and it won’t be a pretty sight.”

Dryland wheat is suffering from no moisture since it has been planted. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

He said some don’t have much of a root system left. Some might have had roots earlier but those have almost disappeared due to the dry weather.

“Jointing and stem elongation started last week, and things were looking pretty good,” Rudd said. “But when I was walking the field taking notes last week, I kicked some plants and they literally fell over.

The roots of dryland wheat in the Texas A&M AgriLife Research variety plots dried up. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

“Many plants are not rooted at the crown. There may be some variety differences, but it seems to be uniform across the dryland nursery and several nearby dryland wheat fields. My first thought was an insect or a pathogen, but I really think that it is just dry.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this – a decent looking plant with almost no crown roots,” Rudd said. “An observation by our crop physiologist, Dr. Qingwu Xue, is that the plant is surviving on the seedling roots and it was just too dry to form crown roots.

“The seedling roots can get the wheat seedling off to a good start and continue to grow down to deep soil for water uptake. However, a root system without crown roots is very difficult to sustain a large developing above-ground plant.”

Some varieties, however, appear to be doing better than others, Rudd said.

“We need to evaluate these 5,000 plots one at a time,” he said. “Our normal process is to walk around here and go plot by plot and write in the book what we are getting. This year we’ve had 16 flights over the plots using UAVs.”

He said they are using the flights to visually measure how fast the stand established in the fall, how well it did when the cold temperatures hit – some lost a lot of leaf area while others kept right on growing — and the spring green-up.

Drones help researchers monitor leaf color and growth rate between varieties. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

“Some varieties started greening two weeks ago [March 12, 2018] and some started last week and some are really just now starting to green up,” Rudd said.

“With drones flying over weekly, we can actually plot that through the year, the biomass or the leaf area collection, and measure the color differences with the camera and also spectral reflectance and what the greenness pattern really is,” he said. “We are measuring by ground and by air, and that’s very important information we can get in a short amount of time by drone.”

To walk this dryland field, it would take three to four hours of walking and writing notes in the notebook, Rudd said. With the drone, it takes 10-15 minutes.

“It’s a big change from having to walk the field, although we are still doing that now to ground-truth and make sure everything the drones are recording is correct,” he said. “But I’m gaining more confidence in the drone information, and I think it’s going to give us efficiency and a lot more data to make our selections. We can see plant development through the year and adjust what groups of material we are going to focus on at harvest.”

Rudd said the same breeding lines growing in the dryland nursery are also in the irrigated nursery, which is on track for yields over 100 bushels per acre.

“Comparing yields and drone data from the dryland plots with those collected from irrigated plots will provide an outstanding look at drought resistance,” he said. “Once harvest comes, we will know for sure how valuable the data we have been collecting really is, and most importantly this year, to visualize drought tolerance in each individual breeding line and variety.”

Native Waters at Risk: Learning to Listen

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 Stanford University: Water in the West (Sibyl Diver):

In 2015, 3 million gallons of drainage water came rushing out of the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, spewing 190 tons of heavy metals and other contaminants into a tributary of the Animas River, which flows into the San Juan River. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which had been doing some excavation of the passage leading into the mine during an investigation at the site, had triggered pressurized water stored behind a plug at the mine portal. The damage was significant, taking a heavy toll on one community in particular: the Navajo Nation.

“When the spill occurred, it was economically devastating to the region, which is the bread basket of the Navajo Nation,” said Karletta Chief, Assistant Professor of Soil, Water, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Arizona. “It also had a traumatic impact on people. They view the river as the male deity of the Navajo homeland. Seeing it turn yellow really devastated the people.”

Indigenous Knowledge and Water Science

Chief, a hydrologist and a member of the Navajo Nation herself, has spent her career integrating rigorous scientific study with Indigenous knowledge to address urgent water quality problems. Raised in a remote community of Black Mesa, Arizona, where she often served as a translator for her family, Chief went on to receive undergraduate and master’s degrees from Stanford and a PhD from the University of Arizona. Her work on the Navajo Nation on water issues has earned her a place in Stanford’s Multicultural Alumni Hall of Fame.

“I grew up in a tribal community where we were taught to just listen to elders,” says Chief. “When I came to Stanford I had to unlearn that. You were expected to debate your issue, and we are trained to do that as western scientists. You want to interject. A lot of times this is for good reason. Scientists are curious and interested. But it’s important to sit back and just listen.”

Working closely with Navajo Nation community members, Chief focuses on spill response, water quality testing, and supporting local decision-making on key water resource issues.

Water quality is an important issue for the Navajo people, yet access to clean water is a real challenge. More than 8,000 homes on the Navajo reservation do not have access to potable water. Navajo people on the reservation travel an average of 24 miles each way to haul their drinking water. Groundwater contamination and depletion on native lands from mining activities is also a serious concern.

After the Gold King Mine spill, many local Navajo farmers either couldn’t irrigate their fields due to the closure of irrigation intakes or chose not to for fear of contamination. As a result, crop yields were seriously impacted. As many as 2,000 Navajo farmers and ranchers are estimated to have been affected by the spill. Chief, who has been an active force in understanding the Gold King Mine disaster and its impacts, developed a study with tribal members on short-term exposure to mining contaminants.

Typical environmental assessment methodologies do not adequately account for the social and cultural impacts of mining nor integrate Indigenous ways of knowing. “The elders gave us guidance and asked us to incorporate the fundamental Diné (Navajo) philosophy of hózhó,” Chief explains. Sa’ah Naaghái Bik’eh Hózhóón has to do with harmony, restoration, and healing, as well as following the Navajo approach to problem solving.

“I don’t think the EPA considered traditional knowledge in their approach,” says Chief. “In ours, we did this through listening sessions and allowing people to talk and write down their experiences. We had the help of the traditional cultural experts and elders that were involved when we were writing the proposal. This is important because it raises the need to have more accurate ways to do these risk assessments, particularly with Indigenous communities where they use rivers in many more ways than recreation. They revere the river in spiritual ways.”

Community-engaged research also requires communicating scientific findings back to communities in a language and format that is accessible. “When we reported back, we needed the help of cultural experts to make sure that we were doing that effectively,” says Chief. The goal for this work is to support tribal members in using research to make their own assessments, draw their own conclusions, and determine how to heal their community and environment. “Not everyone has gone back to farming,” explains Chief. “But [the research] has definitely helped in answering some questions.”

Communicating the details of spill response to non-English speakers was a challenge. When the Navajo language lacked a word to describe a water contaminant like manganese, Chief and her team worked with traditional knowledge holders and medicine people to name the element. The community outreach “really helped in terms of people understanding what we’re doing and the results that we share; coming back to restoring harmony and healing for the people as a result of this traumatic event,” explained Chief.

To share their results, Chief’s team participated in teach-ins organized by community environmental organizations. They broadcasted their findings over radio forums in Navajo language and presented at various chapter meetings, representing different parts of Navajo Nation.

More recently, Chief has co-organized a conference on Indigenous perspectives on water, with community leaders taking a prominent role. Chief has also developed short 1-2 minute videos that can be streamed in the waiting rooms of hospitals. “When you’re engaging tribes, not everybody is the same. There are different sectors of the tribal community that need to be considered,” says Chief. “It is not always the young people. There are health experts and elders. It is not always the tribal leaders.”

“I am still learning about how to report back to the community,” Chief explains. “There is such a large number of people in different sectors of the Navajo population, so it is a really daunting task to reach out to everybody.”

Responding to the Gold King Mine Spill

Chief is continuing her community-based research with tribal partners. This includes the Navajo Gold King Mine Exposure Project, a household-level biomonitoring initiative to investigate biological accumulation of toxins in community members over time. Initial findings have shown no significant evidence of long-term health impacts from the spill, although the research team did find slightly elevated arsenic levels for Navajo people compared to the general U.S. population. It remains to be seen what these results will look like as time goes on.

Recent investigation by the EPA has also detected elevated lead levels at sites near the mine up to 100 times higher than the danger level for wildlife. There are approximately 5,105 abandoned mines in Colorado, 3,989 in New Mexico, 10,697 in Utah, and 24,183 in Arizona.

“It’s a sleeping giant, and a wake-up call for everybody to act quickly on stabilizing the area and reducing risk in the future,” cautions Chief. “There are thousands of abandoned mines in the region and the risk of a spill like this is really high.”

In 2016, about one year after the Gold King Mine disaster, the EPA added the Bonita Peak Mining District as a Superfund site. The district is made up of 48 mining-related sites including Gold King.

Although the EPA has declared Superfund cleanups a priority the Gold King Mine cleanup remains lingering in the study stages. Meanwhile, the legal fight for fair compensation for the Navajo Nation continues. A ruling in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico against Environmental Restoration, LLC. (the contract company that excavated the mine and caused the spill) upheld the Nation’s claims of negligence and also upheld their right to seek punitive damages. All of which harkens back to the importance of Chief’s meaningful engagement with Indigenous knowledge in her research. The issue in seeking damages for the Navajo is keeping accurate records and receipts, which may not fully reflect their losses in terms of the cultural importance of the river and surrounding lands.

Chief’s next project supported by a million dollar grant through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Traineeship program is to develop a new training program at the University of Arizona. The program, which is currently accepting applications for graduate students, will include learning the fundamentals of energy and water efficiency and a project-based class working with Indigenous communities. The emphasis is on interdisciplinary thinking to encourage “a holistic view of problem solving that is needed to bring water to Native American communities,” says Chief.

One of the principles that the program will cover is the importance of understanding the diversity of Native American tribes. “Across hundreds of tribal communities, they are diverse in many ways,” Chief explains. “Within a tribal community, there are many more ways that the tribal community is diverse. It’s not one size fits fit all. So, when scientists are working with tribal communities it’s important to remember that. We need to make sure that we do not apply other tribal experiences to the tribes we’re working with,” says Chief. “More and more it is really about listening, and especially working with grassroots organizations that are the movers and shakers.”

Montezuma, Dolores counties renew debate over conservation status for Dolores River

Dolores River watershed

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:

Dolores and Montezuma County commissioners are debating whether a National Conservation Area designation for the Lower Dolores River is worth pursuing.

In the lively meeting at Bubba’s Restaurant in Lewis, commissioners juggled arguments about water rights, oil and gas revenue, environmental issues and federal influence. The complex land, fish, boating and water-management issues on the river below McPhee dam have been a topic of spirited debate for decades.

The Lower Dolores flows through both counties, but commissioners disagree on the merits of an NCA. Dolores County is willing to consider it, but Montezuma County is adamantly opposed to it.

A Natural Conservation Area is a federal land designation passed by Congress to protect sensitive lands. It creates a long-term plan for environmental protections plus preservation of multiple-use recreation, water rights, agriculture and industry.

The NCA idea for a stretch of the Dolores River below the dam was floated in 2013 as a negotiation tactic between environmental groups and McPhee Reservoir officials.

The goal was to add some long-term protection to the landscape in exchange for dropping the Dolores River’s long-time “suitability” status for a National Wild and Scenic River designation, which typically comes with a federally reserved water right.

“Suitability” for a Wild and Scenic River has not been designated by Congress, but federal land agencies must preserve the natural qualities that make it potentially eligible for the protectionist status.

The worry for farmers and water managers is that if the river did get congressional approval for a National Wild and Scenic River, a federally reserved water right could draw from upstream McPhee Reservoir…

NCA language can protect water rights, countered Dolores Commissioners Julie Kibel and Steve Garchar. But Ertel said “nebulous language” in NCA draft documents could be interpreted by lawyers to mean additional water flows down the road…

Dolores County Commissioner Steve Garchar said an NCA offers far more flexibility than a potentially Wild and Scenic designation in the future.

“We have Kinder Morgan interested in a possible pipeline across the river in the future,” Garchar said. “That type of development could be allowed for under NCA legislation, but maybe not under Wild and Scenic.”

Dolores Commissioner Julie Kibel agreed that an NCA was worth considering.

“Wild and Scenic is what scares me to death. With an NCA, we are able to put language in there protecting water rights,” she said, citing protection of a key pump station on the river that provides water for Dove Creek.

Don Schwindt, a board member for the Dolores Water Conservancy District that manages McPhee, was critical of earlier proposed NCA language.

He said it did not provide enough specifics to protect McPhee water rights.

Protection of native fish struggling in the lower Dolores River is seen as catalyst for conservationists to lobby the federal government for more water to improve habitat, officials said. If they became listed as endangered, it could also force more water from McPhee.

Rain or shine: New yurt open for business – News on TAP

Gross Reservoir Expansion team engaging with Boulder County community for feedback to incorporate in planning process.

Source: Rain or shine: New yurt open for business – News on TAP

Denver Water’s 21st century modus operandi: Collaboration – News on TAP

Water Resources Center poised to unite Colorado interests on both sides of the divide.

Source: Denver Water’s 21st century modus operandi: Collaboration – News on TAP

Restored stretch of Fraser River opens for public fishing – News on TAP #ColoradoRiver #COriver

New fishing spot marks successful start of collaborative push to improve Grand County streams.

Source: Restored stretch of Fraser River opens for public fishing – News on TAP