#Drought news: D0 (Abnormally Dry) introduced in NW #Colorado, SW #Wyoming, NE #Utah

Click on a thumbnail graphic below to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.

Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor Website. Here’s an excerpt:

This Week’s Drought Summary

The far western United States was dry this week while monsoonal thunderstorms were scattered about parts of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Widespread precipitation fell from northeast Colorado to southwest South Dakota to northeast Minnesota, and in Missouri and southwest Iowa. Widespread rainfall took place in Florida, southeast Georgia, and North Carolina and Virginia. Meanwhile, dry weather encompassed much of Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, and the central and southern Great Plains. Generally, below-normal temperatures occurred from the southern Plains to the mid-South to the Southeast, while warmer than normal temperatures were common in the Southwest, particularly in California, Arizona, and New Mexico…

High Plains
During the past week, rain fell in a band roughly from northeast Colorado through the Nebraska Panhandle and across central and southeast South Dakota. Otherwise, dry weather prevailed in the High Plains during the last week of July. Temperatures were warmer than normal in the Colorado high plains, southeast Wyoming, and northeast North Dakota, while cooler than normal temperatures occurred in southwest North Dakota, western South Dakota, eastern Nebraska, and southeast and south-central Kansas. Warmer than normal temperatures in northern North Dakota were putting stress on soil moisture conditions, resulting in a slight expansion of short-term moderate drought to the southeast. Otherwise, the region remained free of drought. Abnormal dryness developed in parts of central Kansas and northeast Nebraska, where short-term precipitation deficits were developing…

West
During the last week of July, above-normal temperatures were widespread in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado. Below-normal temperatures occurred in eastern Montana and eastern Washington. Precipitation was widespread in New Mexico, but was generally spotty or nonexistent elsewhere. No changes were made to the ongoing drought areas across the West, though an area of abnormal dryness was introduced in northwest Colorado, southwest Wyoming, and far northeast Utah, where short-term precipitation deficits combined with above-normal evaporative demand over the past few months…

South
With the exception of the northwest Texas Panhandle and southwest Texas, below-normal temperatures occurred during the last week of July across the South, particularly in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and eastern and central Texas. Widespread moderate to heavy precipitation fell across the southern half of Louisiana and northwest Mississippi. Meanwhile, Texas and Oklahoma were quite dry again, continuing a recent drying trend here. In response to the dry weather and growing short-term precipitation deficits and associated surface water and soil moisture concerns, widespread degradations occurred in Texas and Oklahoma. Moderate drought was introduced from the southern Texas Panhandle into southwest Oklahoma and in west Texas. Short-term moderate drought expanded northward through parts of southern Texas. In response to recent rainfall, a small area of severe drought was reduced in southern Texas. Elsewhere across the South, no changes were made in this week’s map…

Looking Ahead
Temperatures will be variable across much of the country next week, but generally, expect warmer than normal temperatures in the Intermountain West, near to below normal temperatures in the south-central United States, and variable conditions elsewhere. Over the next week, the NWS forecast calls for scattered rain to continue over Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, and for heavier rain from eastern Nebraska southward to Louisiana. Rain is also forecast for much of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic region.

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending July 30, 2019.

Happy #ColoradoDay!

Every March, thousands of Sandhill cranes stop in #GreatSandDunes National Park & Preserve on their way to their northern breeding grounds. The fields and wetlands of #Colorado’s San Luis Valley provide excellent habitat for these majestic #birds. With the dunes and mountains nearby, they dance and call to each other. It’s one of nature’s great spectacles. Photo @greatsanddunesnps by #NationalPark Service.

Court ruling could expedite cleanup of long-dormant uranium mines — @COindependent

Old uranium sites in Colorado via The Denver Post

From The Colorado Independent (John Herrick):

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled companies must reclaim uranium mines that sit idle for more than 10 years

Recent images of the Van 4 uranium mine show a dark rig towering above a sagebrush and juniper mesa. Beside the scaffolding sit piles of loose white rocks and two metal buildings, one of which drips insulation from its ruptured ceiling. The site is one of western Colorado’s active uranium mines. But it looks deserted.

The operator, Piñon Ridge Mining, LLC, a subsidiary of Western Uranium & Vanadium Corp., is waiting for the price of uranium to rebound before firing up the mine again. The last time that happened was 30 years ago.

Just how long mines like the Van 4 should be allowed to remain open — but idle — has long been a point of contention in Colorado between environmentalists and mine owners.

Environmentalists argue the site should have been cleaned up and restored to sagebrush scrub decades ago.

But the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board, an eight-member panel appointed by the governor that enforces the state’s mining laws, has allowed mining companies to delay tearing down their operations by granting mine owners reclamation exemptions, known as “temporary cessation” permits.

This delay has frustrated environmental advocates. They see the unremediated sites as threatening wildlife habitat, water quality and a new West End economy based on recreational opportunities. They believe companies have relied on temporary cessation permits to sidestep environmental regulations requiring them to close and clean their all-but-shuttered mining operations.

And last week, the Colorado Court of Appeals agreed with them.

The court ruled state regulatory board “abused its discretion” by granting two five-year temporary cessation permits to Piñon Ridge Mining, which owns the Van 4 site. After 10 years of sitting idle, the court said, the Van 4 operation must be terminated and the owner must fully comply with reclamation requirements, restoring the site closer to its natural condition.

Phone messages left for the operator of the Van 4 mine seeking a response to the ruling were not returned Wednesday. But the president of the Colorado Mining Association argued it’s important to consider national security risks when deciding whether to close mines.

The court’s opinion could have far-reaching consequences. Owners of the state’s 29 active uranium mines — 16 of which have been granted temporary cessation permits, according to state data — may have to begin tearing down rigs and buildings and testing for radiation. The state does not yet know how many mines are past due for reclamation, according to the court’s interpretation. But it knows there are several.

“Those sites will very likely need to be reclaimed in accordance with this order,” said Ginny Brannon, director of the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

The state estimates the federal Department of Energy holds about $14.5 million in bonds that companies front to ensure resources are available to restore closed mining operations.

View of Durango, CO, Remediated Processing Site (1991) via US Department of Energy.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Radioactive material used for roads, foundations, landscaping in mid-1900s

It turns out more than 100 properties in Durango were missed during a massive, multi-million dollar cleanup in the 1980s of radioactive waste that was once used for the construction of homes, buildings and roads.

Now, more than three decades later, the state of Colorado’s health department says these hot spots that slipped through the cracks need to be cleaned up.

“We’re now looking to raise the awareness of this potential issue in Durango,” said Tracie White, a remediation program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “It’s been on our radar for a while, and we’ve been laying the groundwork. Now, it’s coming into place.”

A cheap and easy material
Durango is no stranger to the issues left behind from the town’s legacy with uranium mining.

In the 1940s, the U.S. government built a mill on the northeast side of Smelter Mountain, now the Durango Dog Park, to reprocess uranium tailings for sale to the Manhattan Project, which produced the world’s first atomic bomb.

After extracting uranium, though, what’s left behind is a gray, sand-like waste product that can be filled with radioactive components, like radium and radon. In Durango, this pile grew to 1.2 million cubic yards, enough to fill nearly 400 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Over the years, people freely used the uranium mill tailings in construction around town, said Duane Smith, a local historian and former Fort Lewis College professor. It was as easy as driving your truck up to the waste pile and taking a load…

The uranium tailings were a cheap, easy material to work with and were used for the foundation of buildings and homes, driveways and roads, including sections of Camino del Rio. The radioactive waste was even used as a substitute for sand in gardens and sandboxes.

The practice went unchecked until the tailings became a major public health concern in the 1970s, which prompted Congress to pass the “Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act” in 1978 to tackle the 24 worst uranium sites around the country.

Durango ranked in the top four.

In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated 122,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste had been used in and around Durango homes, businesses, public buildings, roads and parks, and that it would take years and millions of dollars to remove it all.

Greg Hoch, the city of Durango’s longtime planning director, now retired, said federal government officials went up and down Durango streets surveying for hot spots. In the end, most of the high-risk sites were removed and cleaned up, he said…

But properties were missed, not just evidenced by this recent announcement from the state health department. In 1997, it was discovered that even more hot spots beneath Durango homes and streets remained contaminated by tailings, a discovery that “unsettled” the city at the time, according to The Durango Herald archives.

Records identify 115 properties at risk
This time around, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is trying to spread the word that uranium mill tailings contamination potentially still exists on about 115 properties in and around Durango, but at this point, it’s still a bit of a guessing game.

White, with the state health department, said surveys in the 1980s estimated approximately 915 properties in Durango were believed to have the uranium waste byproduct. While most were cleaned up, there has always been an understanding that some likely escaped the effort, she said.

Recently, however, CDPHE was able to home in on which properties may still pose a risk after records from the 1990s were digitized.

“Now that the records are more easily accessible and searchable, we are able to identify properties that may still have tailings remaining,” White said.

Health officials suspect properties have been passed over for a number of reasons: tailings could have been relocated, properties could have been partially but not fully cleaned or, in some cases, the homeowner at the time refused to take part in the project.

Home buyers and sellers are not required to test for radon or uranium issues. However, if a seller is aware of an issue, he or she would legally have to share that information, said John Wells with the Wells Group.

But ultimately, state health officials can’t say for sure whether there’s a contamination problem until crews can conduct gamma radiation surveys. And in yet another wrinkle, that cannot happen until a disposal site is secured to take the waste – and there’s no telling when that will happen.

July 31, 1976 Big Thompson Flood — @USGS

Big Thompson Flood, Colorado. Cabin lodged on a private bridge just below Drake, looking upstream. Photo by W. R. Hansen, August 13, 1976. Photo via the USGS.
Big Thompson Flood, Colorado. Cabin lodged on a private bridge just below Drake, looking upstream. Photo by W. R. Hansen, August 13, 1976. Photo via the USGS.

Click here to go to views the poster from the United States Geological Survey:

In the early evening of July 31, 1976 a large stationary thunderstorm released as much as 7.5 inches of rainfall in about an hour (about 12 inches in a few hours) in the upper reaches of the Big Thompson River drainage. This large amount of rainfall in such a short period of time produced a flash flood that caught residents and tourists by surprise. The immense volume of water that churned down the narrow Big Thompson Canyon scoured the river channel and destroyed everything in its path, including 418 homes, 52 businesses, numerous bridges, paved and unpaved roads, power and telephone lines, and many other structures. The tragedy claimed the lives of 144 people. Scores of other people narrowly escaped with their lives.

The Big Thompson flood ranks among the deadliest of Colorado’s recorded floods. It is one of several destructive floods in the United States that has shown the necessity of conducting research to determine the causes and effects of floods. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) conducts research and operates a Nationwide streamgage network to help understand and predict the magnitude and likelihood of large streamflow events such as the Big Thompson Flood. Such research and streamgage information are part of an ongoing USGS effort to reduce flood hazards and to increase public awareness.

After the September 2013 floods Allen Best wrote about being part of the disaster response in The Denver Post. It’s a good read. Here’s one passage:

I was at the Big Thompson disaster. I was living in Fort Collins then and was among scores of young men (sorry, women, those were different times) with strong backs who could be summoned in case of forest fires. My only fire was at an old sawmill site in the foothills. The joke was that one of us had set the fire because we were so desperate for minimum-wage work.

Then came July 31. It was hot that night in Fort Collins. It hadn’t rained a drop.

I was living above Gene’s Tavern, just two blocks from the Larimer County Courthouse. When the call came, I was at the sheriff’s office almost immediately. It was 9 p.m.

Being among the first at the command center at the Dam Store west of Loveland, near the mouth of Big Thompson Canyon, I was assigned to a pickup dispatched to look for people in the water near the turnoff to Masonville. Already, the river was out of its banks. From the darkness emerged a figure, dripping and confused. “I went fishing at Horsetooth (Reservoir) and was driving home and then there was all this water,” he sputtered. He was befuddled. So were we.

Our leader decided we’d best get out of there. From what I saw the next morning, that was an excellent decision. Water later covered the road there, too. I spent the night at the Dam Store as the water rose. Helicopters were dispatched, but there was little that could be done. Our lights revealed picnic baskets, beach balls and propane bottles bobbing in the dark, roiling water that raced past us, but never any hands summoning help.

In the morning, we found those hands. The bodies were stripped of clothing and covered with mud. The first I saw was of a woman who we guessed was 18, not much younger than I was then. This thin margin between life and death was startling in my young eyes.

Eventually, 144 people were declared victims of the flooding that night (although one turned up alive in 2008 in Oklahoma).

Estes Park got some rain, but not all that much. The larger story was partway down the canyon, in the Glen Haven and Glen Comfort areas, where the thunderstorm hovered. In just a few hours, it dropped 10 to 14 inches of water.

Downstream in the canyon, just above the Narrows, some people were unaware that anything was amiss until they went outside their houses and saw the water rising in their yards. It hadn’t even rained there. One cabin I saw a few days later was stripped of doors and windows but stood on its foundations, a mound of mud 5 or 6 feet high in the interior. I seem to recall a dog barking as we approached, protecting that small part of the familiar in a world gone mad.

At the old hydroelectric plant where my family had once enjoyed Sunday picnics, the brick building had vanished. Only the turbines and concrete foundation remained. In a nearby tree, amid the branches maybe 10 or 15 feet off the ground, hung a lifeless body.

The river that night carried 32,000 cubic feet per second of water at the mouth of the canyon, near where I was stationed. It happened almost instantaneously — and then it was gone. It was a flash flood.