Local plants vow to minimize coal-ash contamination to meet new EPA rules; report finds cases much worse in other states
Since federal regulations kicked in a few years ago, coal-fired power plants are required to monitor and publicly report what happens to the residue from burning coal and determine whether chemicals are seeping from the coal-ash disposal sites into the groundwater.
But the reporting process is inconsistent between facilities and the data collected is often complicated to interpret. So a group of environmentalists culled the data from 265 coal-fired power plants or ash dumps, including seven in Colorado, and found 91 percent had unsafe levels of one or more chemicals in nearby groundwater.
“This is only the beginning of the end,” said Abel Russ, a senior attorney for The Environmental Integrity Project, which published the report as part of a collaboration between the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and other environmental organizations. “If it’s gradually leaking and if you don’t do anything about it now, future generations will have to deal with it. And it’s not any one chemical but a bunch. Most had four different chemicals (contaminating groundwater). The coal-ash rule and our report are looking at drinking water standards, but there’s the whole fish and wildlife (ecosystem) that this doesn’t address.”
My family and I recently moved back to my hometown of Lander, Wyoming. After 15 years of reporting on small town events, politics and happenings in Colorado, I dug into my first Wyoming story — a political piece for the non-profit news site Wyofile. It was a great way to toe my way into the issues, people and landscapes of this beautiful state.
National publicity surrounding a well-known Wyoming family’s political infighting has resulted in an unexpected windfall for Laramie’s free clinic.
According to its director, the Downtown Clinic has received more than $20,000 in donations of cash and medical equipment since a prominent article ran in the Washington Post on Jan. 12. Donations have poured in from across the country and beyond, along with notes of support.
The lengthy piece by Greg Jaffe tracked the story of how the Gosar siblings, originally of Pinedale, came to be at odds with…
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman commended Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming for reaching a consensus on the Colorado River drought contingency plan. Now the states are seeking approval from Congress to implement it.
“It is time for us to work with our congressional delegations to move forward to make sure we can implement DCP this year,” Burman said on a call with reporters.
Under the drought plan, states voluntarily would give up water to keep Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border and Lake Powell upstream on the Arizona-Utah border from crashing. Mexico also has agreed to cuts.
The push for federal legislation comes after the Colorado River Board of California voted Monday to move ahead without a water agency that has the largest entitlement to the river’s water.
The Imperial Irrigation District was written out of California’s plan when another powerful water agency, the Metropolitan Water District, pledged to contribute most of the state’s voluntary water cuts.
Imperial had said it would not commit to the drought plan unless it secured $200 million in federal funding to help restore a massive, briny lake southeast of Los Angeles known as the Salton Sea. The district also accused others in the Colorado River basin of reneging on a promise to cross the finish line together.
“IID has one agenda, to be part of a DCP that treats the Salton Sea with the dignity and due consideration it deserves, not as its first casualty,” Imperial board President Erik Ortega said.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority called Imperial’s refusal to approve the plan “shortsighted” and “manipulative.” Burman has said the drought plan would have no effect on the Salton Sea, and Imperial could choose to join the deal later.
The Bureau of Reclamation had given states until Tuesday to submit comments on what to do next after California and Arizona failed to meet federal deadlines to wrap up their drought plans. The agency received no comments, and Burman canceled the request.
Arizona says it doesn’t expect its remaining work to delay implementation of the drought plan. But the state cannot officially sign on until Congress approves it.
At least two congressional subcommittee hearings on the drought plan are scheduled for later this month…
The latest study shows a shortage might be averted because of above-average snowpack, though the call for 2020 won’t be made until August. In New Mexico, the basin that feeds the Rio Grande is about 135 percent above median levels.
But officials say one good year of snowpack won’t reduce long-term risks for the Rio Grande or the Colorado River.
The drought contingency plan takes the states through 2026, when existing guidelines expire. The states already are preparing for negotiations that will begin next year for new guidelines.
“We all recognize we’re looking at a drier future,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
Arizona and the six other Colorado River Basin states took a big step toward completion of a drought plan by asking Congress to approve it.
The request is an acknowledgment by the states and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that they’ve now finished work on the plan to conserve Colorado River water to keep Lakes Mead and Powell from dropping to critically low levels.
The seven basin states’ representatives signed the letter to Congress at a ceremony Tuesday in Phoenix.
At a media teleconference held afterward, officials expressed hope for relatively speedy approval, and noted that both the U.S. House and the Senate are scheduled to hold hearings on the drought plan next week.
But the plan leaves behind a key player — Southern California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which controls by far the largest share of river water in the basin…
Congressional approval of the drought plan will kick in a series of gradually escalating reductions in river water use by the Lower Colorado Basin, first mostly by Arizona but eventually by California with lesser reductions incurred by Nevada.
The most serious reductions may well be forestalled for a year if not longer because of unusually heavy snows falling upon the colder Upper Basin states in February and early March.
Because of the snowpack those storms left behind, the Bureau of Reclamation dramatically raised its forecast for expected Lake Mead levels in 2020 to the point where a major shortage is no longer likely then.
Through Tuesday, snowpack in the Upper Basin was 136 percent of normal.
The predicted April-July runoff into Lake Powell, a key benchmark of the river’s health, is now at 133 percent of normal, which would be the 14th highest total on record.
By contrast, last year’s April-July runoff was 36 percent of normal, the fifth lowest on record…
But since this year would get only the river’s sixth year of above-average runoff since the drought started in 2000, state officials at Tuesday’s teleconference stressed the need for continued vigilance and conservation of river water.
“What we do know is that as temperatures increase, that should reduce the river flows” from evaporation, said Terry Fulp, director of the bureau’s Lower Colorado Region. “If we look at this particular drought, we believe that is due in part to increased temperatures.
“The real question is what about the future? The drought plan is a really good step toward insuring, ourselves, that the two reservoirs don’t reach critical elevations.”
Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said she’s pleased to see that the seven basin states’ work is finished for now.
She said she’s halting work on her previous plan to take written suggestions from the seven states on how to manage the river because of their then-unfinished business on the drought contingency plan, or DCP.
“This is the best path forward,” Burman said. “The DCP will reduce the risks that the Colorado River Basin is facing.”
Even if Lake Mead doesn’t fall into the shortage trigger level of below 1,075 feet at the end of 2019, the new drought plan once approved will require Arizona to reduce its take of Central Arizona Project water from the Colorado by 192,000 acre-feet. That’s well below one-third of the entire CAP’s annual delivery.
Once Mead drops below 1,075, the cuts will gradually escalate, starting at about 20 percent of the total CAP supply and topping off at nearly half the total supply, at about 700,000 acre-feet.
The Imperial district’s participation in the drought plan wasn’t needed for its approval by the seven states. That’s because Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District recently agreed to conserve the water that Imperial decided not to leave in Lake Mead, thus boosting California’s total share of conserved water to the minimum required.
Imperial District officials said the $200 million in federal funds requested for the Salton Sea would match more than $200 million of state funds already approved. They said it would not only help boost the sea’s shrinking habitat for birds and fish, but prevent toxic dust from the drying sea from hurting surrounding air quality and causing human health problems.
“That money is not for us. It’s that Salton Sea in our backyard,” said Robert Schettler, an irrigation district spokesman, in a telephone interview. “We have citizens, lands and crops around the Salton Sea that are all suffering from the sea’s declines.”
Burman acknowledged the district’s concerns and said the federal government supports the Salton Sea restoration effort.
But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which controls the funding for such drought-related agricultural projects, is only now ramping the program up after Congress last year authorized such projects, and it’s impossible to say when the money will be forthcoming, officials said.
FromThe Arizona Republic (Ian James and Janey Wilson):
The set of agreements would prop up water-starved reservoirs that supply cities and farms across the Southwest and would lay the groundwork for larger negotiations to address the river’s chronic overallocation, which has been compounded by years of drought and the worsening effects of climate change.
The states’ delegates met in Phoenix and signed their joint letter to Congress alongside federal Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, who had set a Tuesday deadline for the states to complete the agreements.
“Today is a very important day in the history of the Colorado River,” Burman said after the signing. “Congratulations to all for a job well done.”
The first cuts in water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada could begin as soon as next year under the terms of the deal…
Tuesday’s meeting was held behind closed doors at the office of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Doug MacEachern, a department spokesman, said that due to limited space, “we simply cannot reasonably accommodate public access to these meetings.”
While the signing was underway in Phoenix, a veteran board member of the IID spoke angrily at a meeting on the shore of the Salton Sea, condemning his counterparts for writing his district out of the deal and suggesting they were sipping champagne while ignoring an urgent “environmental and public-health disaster” at the shrinking lake.
Burman and other officials said the drought plan was designed in a way that will avoid causing further declines in the Salton Sea, which has been receding as water has increasingly been transferred from the farmlands of the Imperial Valley to urban areas in Southern California.
Burman said IID decided not to join the plan but can sign on later if the district chooses.
In their letter, the states’ representatives asked Congress to promptly pass legislation authorizing the Interior secretary to implement the agreements. Hearings have been scheduled in the Senate and the House next week. Once the legislation is passed, the agreements still need to be signed by representatives of the states…
During a meeting on the shore of the Salton Sea on Tuesday, IID officials lashed out at those gathering to sign on to the drought deal without them in Arizona.
“I have six grandchildren who live on the Salton Sea and five of them have asthma. On behalf of them, I say, ‘Damn them. Damn them,’” said IID board member Jim Hanks.
“As we gather here today on the shore of the Salton Sea strewn with bleached bones, bird carcasses and a growing shoreline,” Hanks said, “and as champagne is being prepared for debauched self-congratulation in Phoenix, remember this: The IID is the elephant in the room on the Colorado River as we move forward. And like the elephant, our memory and rage is long.”
Hanks spoke at a meeting of California’s State Water Resources Control Board, where regulators received an annual update on the lack of progress on Salton Sea projects. Water board Chair E. Joaquin Esquivel said both the drought contingency plan and the Salton Sea are important, but that efforts can proceed on separate tracks…
Some conservation groups voiced concerns that fast-tracking the drought plans could mean that environmental laws are ignored.
Kim Delfino of the group Defenders of Wildlife noted that while the proposed legislative language sent to Congress had explicitly protected water rights, it did not mention environmental protections. Instead, the proposed legislation includes the exact language from an earlier court decision regarding the All-American Canal, part of the river delivery system, that allowed environmental reviews to be bypassed.
State officials said the intent from the beginning was for the new plans to abide by existing decisions on environmental compliance. They noted the drought plans rely on the seven states voluntarily leaving more water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell and not breaking ground on any new water projects.
Delfino said she understands that but still worries about the inclusion of the language in the legislation and what it might mean.
“They’ve actually made it worse than the original version by protecting water rights but not anything else,” Delfino said.
Audubon California raised similar concerns. Other environmental groups, including Environmental Defense Fund and Trout Unlimited, applauded the completion of the drought plans.
Here’s the release from Governor Polis’ office:
The seven Colorado River Basin States of Colorado, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming signed a letter to Congress today requesting legislation to implement a negotiated contingency plan that responds to the historic dry conditions and the effects of climate change on the Colorado River.
“Water is the lifeblood of the West. We all have a vested interest in the management of the Colorado River,” Governor Jared Polis said. “Thanks to the excellent work from each of the Basin States, we are in position to ensure lasting success for the Colorado River, its environment, economy, and future.”
The announcement comes on the deadline set by the Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman for the Basin States to address the situation or provide her agency with input as to Colorado River operations and management.
Gov. Polis’s principal representative on Colorado River negotiations, James Eklund, echoed the call for action, “As we finish this race, we begin another… and our pace needs to quicken. Our exceptional snowpack this year merely signals that the more extreme swings in precipitation and the warmer temperatures of climate change require effective and efficient implementation of the tools we are creating in the contingency plan.”
While the state of California chose to join Colorado and the other Basin States in signing the letter to Congress, an important water user, the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California unfortunately could not move forward at this time due to an outstanding request for federal assistance. “We support regional, state and local stakeholders in their efforts to obtain federal funding through existing and future programs to help address impacts to the Salton Sea. However, as negotiated, the DCP is not linked to and does not result in adverse impacts to the Salton Sea. The flexible tools found in the DCPs are needed now,” said Eklund.
The Colorado River provides water to approximately 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of irrigated agriculture in the Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and Lower Basin (Arizona, California and Nevada). The river originates in Colorado and Colorado contributes approximately 70 percent of its flow. Since 2000, the Basin has experienced historically dry conditions and combined storage in Lakes Powell and Mead has reached its lowest level since Lake Powell initially filled in the 1960s. Last year’s runoff into the Colorado River was the second lowest since 2000, and there is no sign that the trend of extended dry conditions will end any time soon even if 2019 provides above average runoff. Lakes Powell and Mead could reach critically low levels as early as 2021. Declining reservoirs threaten water supplies that are essential to the environment, economy, and overall health of the Southwestern United States.
Las Vegas could face up to a 10 percent cut in its water right if Lake Mead falls below a shortage elevation, a reduction water managers said they are prepared for…
In a statement, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, called Imperial’s decision “shortsighted, manipulative and simply not supported by any reasonable view of the facts.”
As always, the congressional process could spark debate on other issues. Last week, the trade publication E&E News reported that there was some concern that some proposed legislation could override laws that require federal agencies to conduct environmental reviews.
Congress is expected to begin discussing the plan in a Senate hearing on March 27. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is the ranking member of the subcommittee that will review the plan.
“I look forward to discussing the drought contingency plan at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee hearing next week and will continue to collaborate with my western state colleagues to solidify a plan that protects Lake Mead, the Colorado River and the water resources of those who live in Nevada and across the west,” Cortez Masto said in a statement.
John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, is scheduled to testify at the hearing. On Tuesday, he called agreement on the drought plan a “historic” day. He said negotiators have briefed their delegations and see a nonpartisan path through Congress…
John Fleck, the director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, said he had mixed feelings about the approval of the drought plan. He said the plan is necessary. At the same time, he said it was concerning the river’s largest water user was left out.
“There is the moral problem of poor people whose health is being impacted by these decisions being left out of the decision-making process,” he said. “And there is the practical problem of the largest water users with senior water rights being left out of the process.”
“That could really bite us in the long-run,” he added.
The district had planned to cut its use under the drought plan, with the condition that it received a commitment for $200 million in Farm Bill funding to restore the Salton Sea. The Metropolitan Water District, a powerful wholesale water provider for Southern California cities, said that it would cover the district’s cuts to allow the drought plan to move forward by March 19.
It is possible that funding could still come in the future through U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that are still being developed. However, those programs will likely be competitive.
During the call, Entsminger noted that the states had written a letter one week ago, emphasizing the importance of finding a solution to the Salton Sea crisis. But he also said that the plan would not worsen the problem and needed to move forward. Once implemented, the states can begin leaving more water in critical reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, to prevent shortages on a binational river system that supports agriculture and about 40 million people in the Southwest.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority released a statement after the call, saying that the the drought plan was of “critical importance” and that the district’s claims were unfounded.
“The Imperial Irrigation District’s refusal to approve the plans supported by every one of its counterparts in the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basin is shortsighted, manipulative and simply not supported by any reasonable view of the facts,” the water authority said, adding that the plan complies with environmental laws. “The DCPs have no effect on the Salton Sea, a fact acknowledged by [the district’s] own Board of Directors during a September 2018 meeting.”
The disagreement in California comes after months of infighting between water users in Arizona, the state would require to take the sharpest cuts under the drought plan. Many of Arizona’s issues have been resolved, although the state is still finalizing some agreements.
Peter Nelson, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, said Tuesday at the press conference that he was disappointed California could not move forward in complete consensus. But he said that the drought plan would not make the impacts to the Salton Sea worse.
“It is my feeling we would have been better served with the Imperial Irrigation District participating with the state of California, but that was unable to happen,” Nelson said.
The water in Lake Mead, the vast reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam that supplies the lower basin, has dropped to levels not seen since it began to fill in the 1960s. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, another reservoir on the river, are essential sources of water for Southern California and Arizona, and sit at less than 40 percent full…
By the beginning of March, the water level in Lake Mead had dropped to 1,088 feet above sea level. At 1,075 feet, under guidelines agreed to in 2007, the federal government would declare a shortage on the lower Colorado River, and mandatory water restrictions would go into effect.
Without sacrifices by the states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the upper basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada in the lower basin — the reservoir could reach the trigger point next year, though recent heavy snowfall in the mountains that feed the river may help for a time…
The federal government regulates the water, but the states own the rights to it, said Jennifer Pitt, an expert on river issues with the Audubon Society. “So there’s a tension there,” she said. “The federal government’s consistent approach is to use that authority as a stick, but not ever go so far as to have to claim it.”
The river is important to the people who use its water, but also to “all of nature that depends on the river in the arid landscape of the Southwest,” Ms. Pitt said.
Another big risk is that Lake Mead could eventually drop below 950 feet, when water could no longer turn the dam’s turbines, or even 895 feet, when the lake would reach “deadpool” status and no water could flow out. That, said Patricia Aaron, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation, need never happen. “That’s what the drought contingency planning on the river is about,” she said.
Brad Udall, a senior scientist at Colorado State University and an expert on water supplies in the West, told a congressional panel last month that the lower basin uses about 10.2 million acre-feet of water from the river each year, while upstream flows provide just nine million. (An acre-foot is the volume of one foot of water over one acre, about 325,000 gallons.)
Beyond that drain, climate change is bringing on a long-term crisis. “The Colorado River, and the entire Southwest, has shifted to a new hotter and drier climate, and, equally important, will continue to shift to a hotter and drier climate for several decades after we stop emitting greenhouse gases,” he said in his testimony.
In an interview, Mr. Udall said the influence of climate change was already apparent in the West. “Climate change is not some distant process,” he said. “It’s here, it’s now, it’s in our faces. It’s creating messes we have to deal with.”
Jonathan T. Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, said that politicians and policymakers needed to factor climate change into their plans. Lack of river water will lead people to pump more groundwater, which was deposited in the ice ages. “We’re using this fossil groundwater in unsustainable ways,” he said.
In a warming world, Dr. Overpeck said, less water in rivers and lakes is inevitable, whatever relief a wet season might bring. But for the most part, Western political leaders “don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “It is the disaster that’s over the horizon, if we don’t talk about it.”
In a teleconference from Phoenix announcing the plans’ completion, Wyoming State Engineer Pat Tyrrell said the general intent of the plans and the subsequent legislation will be to protect water levels at both Lake Mead and Lake Powell by incentivizing additional conservation of water…
A generous snowpack in the West is sitting at nearly 140 percent of average and may actually stave off an anticipated water shortage declaration in 2020 for the lower basin states.
But Burman warned Tuesday that one wet year doesn’t erase 18 years of the driest period on the river in 1,200 years.
“It takes years to recover from the type of intense drought this region has experienced,” he said.
Eric Millis, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said the plans are the culmination of years of hard work.
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“The significance is that it provides protection to the upper basin uses and the state of Utah, and the entire basin and helps us deal with drought and climate change. It offers us that security and protection.”
The components of the plans for the upper and lower basin states have to work in tandem, he added. For the upper basin, the magic number is keeping Lake Powell at 3,525 elevation, or 25 feet above the power pool elevation, Millis said.
Take a helicopter ride with the Colorado Department of Transportation and see for yourself what they are up against on Red Mountain Pass.
US 550 Red Mt. Pass is a major mountain highway in southwest Colorado. The high-country mountain corridor links the mountain communities of Silverton and Ouray. The highway is part of the San Juan Skyway (scenic byway) and is also known as the “Million Dollar Highway.”
Footage of US 550, Red Mt. Pass, traveling north from Silverton to Engineer Pass Rd., then views of the highway returning back, south to Silverton.
Severe snowstorms and epic avalanche activity have closed this highway, located in southwest Colorado, since Sunday, March 3, 2019.
This video was captured on March 15, immediately following avalanche mitigation operations intended to knock down potential existing avalanches and snow slides that have kept road maintenance crews from working on the highway. Mitigation efforts were successful, and crews can now work safely (from avalanche danger) to clear snow and debris from the roadway.
Operations are expected to be slow-going because many of the snow slides are “dirty,” containing rocks, limbs and even trees brought down from the mountain sides.