Bonita Peak Mining District superfund site update

The “Bonita Peak Mining District” superfund site. Map via the Environmental Protection Agency

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Driven by desire to know what lies beneath, crews bore deeper every day

EPA crews last week started to bore into the ground in what is expected to be a more than 500-foot journey to reach the American Tunnel in hopes of better understanding a complex network of mines in the upper Cement Creek basin, a tributary of the Animas.

It’s these mines that are considered the worst polluters of heavy metals seeping into the Animas River…

In 1959, however, when Standard Metals announced it was going to reopen the Sunnyside Mine, the now-defunct company also said it was going to extend the American Tunnel from the vast mine network to Gladstone, an old mining community about 10 miles north of Silverton.

Extending the tunnel solved two costly problems for previous mining companies: It allowed for ore to be easily taken out for further processing, and it created a better system for groundwater to exit the mine.

The move led to a three-decade period of prosperity, said Bev Rich, Silverton native and director of the San Juan County Historical Society.

“They discovered some really good gold, and a good reserve of it,” she said.

In 1991, however, the Sunnyside Mine, which had been taken over by Sunnyside Gold Corp., closed as a result of depressed gold prices. What was left behind, in terms of the American Tunnel, was a never-ending pathway for acidic discharges.

Sunnyside Gold initially pulled water coming out of the American Tunnel into a treatment plant, a costly yet effective method that took metals out of Cement Creek and greatly improved the quality of the Animas River.

But, in a move hoping to end its financial involvement in the Animas River basin, Sunnyside Gold entered an agreement in 1996 with the state of Colorado to shut down the treatment plant and instead install three bulkheads that essentially function as plugs to stem the acidic flow.

By 2001, though, it was thought the water had backed up and reached capacity within the Sunnyside Mine network, which has led some researchers and experts familiar with the basin to believe that water is spilling out into adjacent mines, like the Gold King.

Sunnyside Gold, which was purchased by international mining conglomerate Kinross Gold Corp. in 2003, has adamantly denied that its mine pool is the cause of discharge from other mines, saying there is no factual evidence for the assertion…

One thing is clear: After the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site was officially listed in fall 2016, EPA made it a priority to figure out what was happening with water movement underground. This past winter, a helicopter carrying an electromagnetic mapping device made the rounds around Silverton to try to understand the geological makeup of the San Juan Mountains, and hopefully, its groundwater workings.

This desire to know what lies beneath is what ultimately led to EPA drilling into the American Tunnel…

Guy, with the EPA, said it could take almost a month to reach the American Tunnel, boring through 20 to 30 feet of hard rock per day. The intent is to reach a portion of the tunnel between bulkheads 2 and 3, but it’s going to take more wells and more research to form a better grasp on how water moves underground in this geological puzzle…

Butler said the project plays into the larger question surrounding the Bonita Peak Superfund site: What is the ultimate strategy to fix issues in the upper Cement Creek area? EPA, for its part, has said that question warrants further investigation and time before being answered.

For a while in 1983, sheets of plywood were all that kept the mighty Glen Canyon Dam from overflowing — #Arizona Central

1983 – Color photo of Glen Canyon Dam spillway failure from cavitation, via

Here’s an in-depth report about the time the left spillway failed at Glen Canyon Dam from John D’Anna writing for The Arizona Republic. It’s quite a tale. Click through and read the whole thing, here’s a excerpt:

…water in Lake Powell would come within inches of topping the dam’s massive spillway gates as engineers frantically tried everything they could think of, rigging 4-by-8 sheets of plywood to extend the top of the gates and releasing more than half a million gallons per second into the Colorado River.

Before it was over, the force of the water releases would gouge house-size holes in the dam’s crippled concrete spillways. The white water would tinge red from the bedrock sandstone, and ominous rumbling sounds would be heard as boulders the size of cars belched from one of the spillways into the river.

The more water the engineers released, the more damage they did. But they had no choice.

“We were sitting on a pretty good catastrophe waiting to happen,” said Art Grosch, an electrician who worked at the dam and ran electrical cable into the mangled spillways.

“That lake (Powell) is 190 miles long and has something like 2,300 miles of shoreline,” he said. “And it was rising a foot a day.”


“Even if Lake Powell and Lake Mead remain low, megaflood risk persists and is likely to be increasing. Precipitation intensity, and the amount of precipitation falling in the most intense events, are increasing globally and across the United States, in large part because sea surface temperatures and atmospheric water vapor content are both rising, increasing the odds of more extreme precipitation events. These trends will continue as long as emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere continue.”

Such a flood would be a longshot, what’s called a “black swan” event — something so incredibly rare as to be almost unimaginable. But the thing about a black swan is that you never see one until you see one, and in the late spring of 1983, the engineers at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation were about to get a close-up look…

The 1982-83 El Niño was the strongest ever recorded at the time. The tales of its fury were recounted in newspaper headlines of the day — and later in books and scientific journals — as it unleashed disaster on virtually every continent, from searing droughts in Australia, Africa and south Asia, to violent floods in South America…

In a normal spring, the last major snowfall in the Rockies occurs around the end of March. As temperatures rise in the lower elevations, the snowpack melts slowly and creates a steady stream of runoff as temperatures rise into the higher elevations.

But there was nothing normal about the spring of 1983.

The late-winter snowfall of January and February was actually below normal, but in early March it accelerated and didn’t quit until May. And then, instead of increasing gradually, temperatures skyrocketed.

Instead of a slow, steady flow down from the mountains, the runoff gushed…

In the Rockies, every tributary of the Colorado River was running high and fast, and the Colorado itself was running at 100,000 cubic feet per second — enough water to cover the entire 517 square miles of Phoenix in 6 inches of water in less than a day.

And all that water was barreling into Lake Powell toward a choke point only a quarter of a mile wide. The only thing in its way was Glen Canyon Dam, which had only been completed 20 years before and had only been filled close to capacity once…

Gamble and his team were already releasing the maximum amount of water possible, about 40,000 cfs, through the eight massive turbines in the dam’s power plant. But as more and more water gushed into Lake Powell, Gamble knew he would have to begin releasing water through the dam’s two spillways, two massive tunnels bored into the sandstone on either side of the dam and running parallel to the river.

The spillways are 41 feet in diameter — picture the height of a Boeing 737 from the runway to the tip of the tail — and extend more than half a mile, beginning about 600 feet upstream of the dam and emptying out a few hundred feet on the downstream side.

Each tunnel is lined with concrete 3 feet thick and is controlled by colossal steel gates at the top — 52 feet tall and weighing 350,000 pounds — that control how much water is released. At the bottom of each is a “flip bucket,” a sort of 40-foot ski jump that sends the water into the air before it hits the river, dissipating its energy and controlling erosion.

The first third of each spillway tunnel drops more than 500 feet in elevation from lake level at a 55-degree angle beforeintersecting with horizontal tunnels that were originally drilled to divert water around the dam while it was being built.

The upstream portions of the diversion tunnels, which connected directly with the reservoir, were sealed with giant concrete plugs more than 150 feet long. Using the original diversion tunnels allowed the bureau to save time and millions of dollars by not having to drill thousands of more feet and line the new tunnels with concrete.

When the spillways are wide open, they are capable of releasing 276,000 cubic feet of water per second, more than 2 million gallons a second, from the reservoir. That number was based on detailed studies of peak flows down the Colorado through history, both the 100 years of recorded history by man and the eons of geologic history recorded in the strata of the canyon walls.

According to a design report from 1961, the 276,000 cfs number was 1.7 times the highest flow ever recorded on the river. In other words, the spillways were built to handle 70 percent more water than had ever been seen before on the Colorado.

It was little wonder then that Tom Gamble’s faith in his dam was unshakable…

On June 2, as the water surged toward the dam, it was just inches below the spillway gates.

Engineers opened the left gate and began releasing 10,000 cfs, enough to fill 450 backyard swimming pools every minute, but still only a fraction of capacity. Three days later, they doubled the flow to 20,000 cfs and planned to open the gates even more.

But early the next morning, on June 6, engineers began to hear strange rumbling noises from somewhere deep in the dam works…

As the sun came up, Gamble stood on a platform above the spillway, which for two days had been sending an elegant arc of white water into the river below.

But in the early morning light, Gamble could see large chunks of something — probably rocks or chunks of concrete the size of office chairs — being ejected into the river. And the white water had taken on a reddish tint, a hint that the spillway’s 3-foot concrete lining had somehow been breached and the native red sandstone that gave the Colorado its name was washing into the river.

Update: Post corrected to include the link to my Coyote Gulch post.

Here’s a Coyote Gulch post from a while back with video that tells the story about the spillway failures in 1983. I also include Seldom Seen Smith’s prayer from the, “Monkey Wrench Gang.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife seeking applications for projects that will restore wetland habitat — #Colorado Parks & Wildlife

US 36 wetland mitigation photo via Western States Reclamation, Inc.

From Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Travis Duncan):

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) is seeking applications for wetland and riparian restoration, enhancement, and creation projects to support its Wetlands Program Strategic Plan.

CPW will award up to $1.3 million in funds from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) to projects in Colorado that support the Wetlands Program Strategic Plan’s two main goals:

1. Improve the distribution and abundance of ducks, and opportunities for public waterfowl hunting.
2. Improve the status of declining or at-risk species.

The Colorado Wetlands for Wildlife Program is a voluntary, collaborative, and incentive-based program to restore, enhance and create wetlands and riparian areas in Colorado. Funds are allocated annually to the program and projects are recommended for funding by a CPW committee with final approval by the Director.

“Wetlands are so important,” said CPW Wetlands Program Coordinator Brian Sullivan. “They comprise less than two percent of Colorado’s landscape but provide benefits to over 75 percent of the species in the state, including waterfowl and several declining species. Since the beginning of major settlement activities, Colorado has lost half of its wetlands.”

Since its inception in 1997, the Colorado Wetlands Program has preserved, restored, enhanced or created almost 220,000 acres of wetlands and adjacent habitat and more than 200 miles of streams. The partnership is responsible for almost $40 million in total funding devoted to wetland and riparian preservation in Colorado.

The application deadline for this year’s funding is Friday, August 9, 2019. The Wetlands Funding Request for Applications (RFA) is available on CPW’s website.

Reducing the impacts of a big expansion — News on TAP

See how Denver Water is addressing neighbors’ concerns about the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project. The post Reducing the impacts of a big expansion appeared first on News on TAP.

via Reducing the impacts of a big expansion — News on TAP

Denver Water asks EPA for rare exemption from Safe Drinking Water Act — @WaterEdCO

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Denver Water is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a rare exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act, the latest move in the utility’s long-running legal dispute with state health officials over how best to keep lead out of its customers’ tap water.

In exchange for the exemption, the water utility, which serves 1.4 million people in metro Denver, is offering to spend more than $300 million replacing up to 90,000 lead service lines.

Though lead isn’t present in Denver’s treated water, it can leach into water as it is delivered to homes via these older, customer-owned water pipes. The contaminant, even in small amounts, is considered unsafe, especially for children.

In addition to replacing the lines, Denver Water has also offered to alter its water treatment protocols, conduct an extensive public education campaign, and provide free lead filters to customers whose water supplies are at risk of contamination.

The EPA will begin public hearings next month to consider the utility’s request and determine whether its proposed approach is as good or better than using an additive called orthophosphate to control corrosion from lead pipes. The state health department, backed by the EPA, ordered the utility to use orthophosphate as a corrosion-control measure last year and gave the utility until March of 2020 to implement the new treatment process.

Within weeks of the state’s order, which came in March of 2018, the City of Aurora, the Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District, and the Denver Greenway Foundation sued to stop the order, saying that the addition of orthophosphate to drinking water could cause millions of dollars in damage to the South Platte River watershed and would cause wastewater treatment costs to rise. Denver Water eventually joined the suit. Settlement talks since then have failed to yield an agreement.

Denver Water said it believes the alternate approach it is proposing has merit.

“We would attack the source of the problem and ultimately, at the end of the day, we believe that this could be a more effective approach than adding orthophosphate,” said Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead.

Graphic via Denver Water

Thousands of Denver-area homes built prior to 1951 are at risk of having lead-contaminated water due to aging service lines. A map compiled by Denver Water shows more than a dozen neighborhoods, including parts of Berkeley, Washington Park and Montclair, as being most at risk. Dozens of other neighborhoods on the map are less likely to face contamination, based on an analysis Denver Water has done which looks at such variables as the years in which neighborhoods were constructed and results of past water sampling.

Denver Water has been monitoring and testing customers’ tap water since 2012, when a routine sampling project showed lead in some taps that exceeded allowable levels.

Since then, the utility has conducted a series of studies to determine the best method for ensuring its water is not corrosive, and had previously offered to adjust the PH balance of its water to mitigate the problem. Up until now, it had also offered to replace a few hundred lead lines a year as maintenance on its system required, leaving any other replacement activity to homeowners and developers.

At that rate, it would have taken up to 50 years before all of Denver’s lead service lines were replaced.

The issue is complex for water providers. Adding orthophosphate is a highly effective way to eliminate lead because it dramatically reduces the corrosion in pipes, making it more difficult for lead to leach into drinking water. But as drinking water is used and then flushed into the wastewater treatment system, the phosphorous must be removed because it causes algal blooms and other environmental issues in waterways. Wastewater treatment operators are required to remove it before they return treated wastewater to streams.

In the seven years since Denver Water became aware of the problem, thousands of Denver residents have continued to be exposed to lead, but the extent of the problem isn’t clear. As part of its monitoring program, the utility has processed 5,600 customer requests for lead testing, with 2,000 of these showing lead levels of at least 1 part per billion, indicating the likely presence of lead service lines, according to Denver Water spokesman Travis Thompson. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires education and treatment when levels exceed 15 parts per billion.

What Denver is experiencing is much less severe than in some cities, such as Flint, Mich., where lead levels in tap water were hundreds of times higher before being discovered in 2015. Still, like other older urban areas, such as New York City and Washington, D.C., Denver must find a way to eliminate the lead or face legal action from the state and federal government.

Tyson Ingels, lead drinking water engineer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said his agency would consider the evidence Denver Water presents to the EPA in August before it makes a decision about whether to support Denver’s exemption request. The EPA has so far supported the state’s orthophosphate order.

“Denver is seeking to demonstrate that this alternative is as good or maybe better at reducing lead at customers’ taps. The CDPHE is going to evaluate the evidence when it is submitted,” Ingels said.

Whether the utility will win the exemption isn’t clear. According to the CDPHE, just two exemptions in this area have been granted by the EPA.

“It’s going to be difficult,” said Alan Roberson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. “It would have been tough before Flint, and it’s tougher now.”

Denver public health officials said they are supportive of the utility’s exemption request because it offers a more holistic solution to the problem, one that encompasses public health and the environment.

Elizabeth Scherer, air and water manager at the Denver Department of Public Health, said education and follow-up on the problem are a critical part of what Denver Water is proposing. “Denver Water and the city understand that education is a big component of the process and that outreach to non-English speakers and low-income communities will need to occur to make sure folks are comfortable with this approach.”

The EPA will hold hearings next month to gather the public’s input on the issue and is slated to make a decision by October. If the EPA does not grant the variance, then Denver will proceed with adding orthophosphate to its drinking water.

Wildfires in All Seasons? — @USDA

From the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Deb Schweizer):

In recent decades the number, severity and overall size of wildfires has increased across much of the U.S. In fact, the 2018 wildfire season in California recorded the largest fire in acres burned, most destructive fire in property loss and deadliest fires in the state’s history.

But for many USDA Forest Service employees, fire season is something they remember from the start of their careers, when they quickly learned there were five seasons: winter, spring, summer, fall and fire season. However, wildfire is year-round for much of the United States and the Forest Service is shifting to the concept of a fire year.

Wildfire season has become longer based on conditions that allow fires to start and to burn—winter snows are melting earlier and rain is coming later in the fall. What was once a four-month fire season now lasts six to eight months. For example, fires in recent years have burned well outside of the typical fire season throughout California, Arizona, New Mexico, Tennessee and New Jersey. Fires in the winter months are becoming part of the norm.

Other factors contributing to longer fire seasons include extended drought, tree mortality from pine beetles and invasive species such as cheat grass that allow fire to ignite easily and spread rapidly. Added to all this were policies that encouraged aggressive fire suppression for more than a century. These policies had the effect of allowing fuels to accumulate, leading fires to grow in size and intensity.

All these conditions are making wildfires harder to control and allowing forests to hold fire longer. For years, agencies relied on seasonal firefighters for summer months, but now that wildfires are burning into the winter, they need to reevaluate their hiring plans. Wildland firefighting agencies also need to evaluate the way they conduct training for year-round fire, as well as how to handle the inevitable workforce fatigue.

Forest Service crews plan for wildfire year-round. They know that it isn’t a matter of if there will be a fire, but when. They proactively pursue fuel reduction treatments like mechanical thinning and prescribed fires. When conditions are favorable, options such as these reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. Even in a year like this, which has been unusually wet and cool, fire managers see opportunities to prepare for wildfires. The Forest Service is committed to an all-lands response and works with state and local agencies in mutual aid and to reduce risk.

Residents who live in fire-prone areas must also plan and live in fire adapted communities. Defensible space, structure hardening and family plans for a possible evacuation, including pets, should be part of living in the wildland-urban interface. Nearly 90% of wildfires are human-caused, so preventing wildfire is important.

Now that we must plan for a fire year, we all have roles to play. What are you doing to help?

Prescribed fires are conducted in specific areas under desired conditions to reduce hazardous fuels build-up and restore the natural role of fire on the landscape. USDA Forest Service photo