The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Legacy Management (LM) is collaborating with Gunnison County, Colorado, to connect more domestic residences with private water wells within the groundwater contamination boundary at the former Gunnison uranium mill site to a municipal water supply.
“This is a major milestone that reflects LM’s mission of protecting human health and the environment,” said Jalena Dayvault, site manager for LM’s Gunnison, Colorado, Site. “Gunnison County Public Works Director, Marlene Crosby, worked diligently to get remaining domestic well users on-board so this project could move forward.”
The Gunnison site is a former uranium ore processing site located about a half-mile southwest of the city of Gunnison. The mill processed approximately 540,000 tons of uranium ore between 1958 and 1962, providing uranium for national defense programs. These ore processing activities resulted in contaminated groundwater beneath and near the site.
In 1994, a water treatment plant, storage tank, and distribution system were partially funded by DOE and installed to supply municipal drinking water to all residences within the contaminated groundwater boundary. This project was part of the remedial action plan at the former uranium mill site and is considered a protective measure in case the contaminated groundwater plume was ever to affect domestic well users within this boundary.
A small handful of homeowners with domestic wells in use before the cleanup continue to use those wells for drinking water. As part of LM’s long-term stewardship activities at the site, the office has monitored these wells annually to verify that mill-related contaminants have remained below U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maximum concentration limits for the groundwater.
Working closely with Gunnison County Public Works, LM made funds available in September 2020 to support Gunnison County Public Works in connecting more residences with domestic wells to the municipal water supply. Excavation work began in November to connect the first residence to the alternate water supply.
“We started putting a game plan together back in early January of this year, reaching out to homeowners to get their buy-in and preparing a scope of work and budget for the project,” said Joe Lobato, site lead for the Legacy Management Support Partner (LMSP). “The LM and LMSP team has a great working relationship with Gunnison County.”
Commissioners want to measure the potential impact of Nestlé’s proposal to pump, truck and bottle up to 65 million gallons of water a year.
After several meetings in the last two months featuring hours of public input — virtually all of it opposing the plan — and executive session discussions with attorneys, the county’s three-member board of commissioners on Tuesday announced a plan to hire an economic analysis firm to study the economic impacts of the water-pumping proposal.
“I want to make the best decision I can with just three people here trying,” Commissioner Greg Felt said on Nov. 10 as he floated the idea of hiring an economist to study Nestlé’s request for a 10-year permit to pump and bottle water from a network of wells on the Arkansas River.
Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage company, began drawing water from the valley in 2009 as part of a 10-year permit. That permit allowed the company to drill wells, build a pipeline and truck water to Denver for bottling under the Arrowhead brand. The company acquires water from the Upper Arkansas River Water Conservancy District every year to augment flows in the river and replace its removal of groundwater.
Last year the company asked for a permit renewal and, after pandemic delays, the county began studying the request in October. Chaffee County’s commissioners have heard from dozens of residents that a lot has changed in the decade since Nestlé first arrived…
Nestlé earlier this year announced a plan to replenish all the water it sucks from watersheds and offset the carbon impact of bottling and transporting water. That “zero environmental impact” sustainability plan was followed by news that the international conglomerate was exploring the sale of bottling operations in the U.S. and Canada. The possibility of a sale troubled Chaffee County commissioners. The board drafted new permit rules that, if approved, would require local approval of a new owner to operate under the Nestlé permit.
Nestlé Waters North America was amenable to the new requirement. And the company earlier this month, in response to local input, crafted new conditions for the permit that would direct more Nestlé money into the local community…
The new conditions divide the company’s contributions to the county into two tiers based on how much water is extracted for bottling.
When the company pumps less than 125 acre-feet, or roughly 41 million gallons a year, the school districts in Buena Vista and Salida would get $15,000 a year for the length of the 10-year contract and up to $10,000 more a year for each school district depending on matching funds…
The commissioners will meet again on Dec. 8 to discuss a contract with an economic advisory group — the cost of which will be covered by Nestlé Waters North America — as well as the possible extension of the company’s permit during the analysis.
When Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill, it included provisions tailored specifically to help Western farmers, ranchers, tribes—and for the first time, irrigation districts—transition to water-efficient practices. The new programs help meet several important needs for farmers, irrigators, and the environment. Unfortunately, many potential applicants are too busy handling the day-to-day challenges of their farming operations to learn about the funding and other assistance.
That’s where Kim Mitchell, Western Resource Advocates’ Arizona-based senior water policy advisor, comes in.
Mitchell is a native Arizonan and hydrologist who has worked to solve some of Arizona’s biggest water challenges. She knows how important water efficiency is to revitalize the Colorado River and benefit farmers struggling with more frequent drought brought on by climate change. She saw that by connecting farmers and irrigators with the Farm Bill’s new funding and programs, she could help growers and advance WRA’s goal of keeping more water in the river.
Mitchell assembled a fact sheet about the Farm Bill programs and started reaching out to state agriculture officials, decision makers, irrigation districts, producers, and Arizona’s tribal communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit just as Mitchell was starting her outreach, so she moved some of her meetings to Zoom. Still, she’s been able to have a few—socially distant—field visits to learn more about how to help growers connect the resources in the legislation with their everyday challenges.
For example, she visited an Indigenous community interested in improving water conservation by transitioning from flood furrow irrigation to sprinklers or drip and adding other infrastructure improvements.
Mitchell is talking to other growers who are considering changing cropping patterns or transitioning to less water-intensive crops—like substituting cotton or alfalfa with wheat that uses about one-third less water. This can be unaffordable because such lower-value crops often bring in less income. The Farm Bill provides financial incentives, but growers have to know about the programs to take advantage of them. That’s one reason Mitchell’s outreach is so valuable.
La Niña strengthened over October, with both the tropical Pacific Ocean and the atmosphere clearly reflecting La Niña conditions. Forecasters estimate at least a 95% chance La Niña will last through the winter, with a 65% chance of it hanging on through the spring.
The October sea surface temperature anomaly (departure from the long-term average) in the Niño 3.4 region of tropical Pacific was -1.3°C according to the ERSSTv5 dataset, substantially cooler than the La Niña threshold of -0.5°C. This is the eighth-strongest negative October value in the ERSSTv5 record, which dates back to 1950. I’ll talk more about feats of strength (vis-à-vis La Niña, that is) later.
Let’s count our chickens
First, we’ll check in with the tropical Pacific ocean-atmosphere system. One of the ways we monitor the atmospheric response to ENSO is through satellite images of the amount of thermal radiation leaving the Earth’s surface. Clouds block this outgoing long-wave radiation, so when the satellites see less outgoing long-wave radiation than average, it means more clouds and rain than average. Conversely, when the satellite picks up more OLR, the skies are clearer than average.
During La Niña, we’d expect to see less rain than average over the central tropical Pacific and more rain over Indonesia—the strengthened Walker circulation, La Niña’s atmospheric response. The OLR map for October 2020 shows this pattern clearly.
Another component of the strengthened Walker circulation is stronger Pacific trade winds, the near-surface winds that blow from east to west near the equator, and stronger west-to-east winds high up in the atmosphere. Both strengthened wind patterns were observed during October, providing more evidence that the ocean-atmosphere coupling we expect during both phases of ENSO is present.
As Michelle discussed just a couple of weeks ago, this coupling is a feedback mechanism that strengthens ENSO. In the case of La Niña, cooler-than-average waters in the tropical Pacific mean the difference between the warm western Pacific and the cooler central Pacific is greater than average. This greater difference leads to the stronger Walker circulation, and the stronger trade winds further cool the surface water in the central Pacific and also pile up warm water in the west. For more details on this feedback, and a whiff of fresh-baked bread, check out Michelle’s post.
Eggs in baskets
Several computer models are suggesting that this La Niña is likely to be a stronger event, with a Niño 3.4 anomaly during November–January cooler than -1.5°C.
The substantial atmospheric coupling supports these predictions, as does the amount of cooler water under the surface. These cooler subsurface waters, which are also evidence of the coupled system, will provide a source of cooler-than-average water for the surface over the next few months. October’s average subsurface temperature was the 7th-coolest October since 1979.
The Climate Prediction Center is now providing a probabilistic outlook for the strength of El Niño and La Niña events. Tom described this new technique in a blog post a little while back—it’s too much to get into here, so please check out his post for the details. While forecast probabilities are provided for every season, it is the November–January season that has the largest chance (54%) of Niño-3.4 being below -1.5°C. This would make it a strong event; of the 23 La Niña events since 1950, seven have had maximum Niño 3.4 cooler than -1.5°C.
What came first
As we’ve observed in a few earlier posts about this La Niña, it appears to be relatively rare in our observed record (starting in 1950) for La Niña to develop following a neutral or slightly warm winter like we had in 2019–2020. I got curious about this, so I thought I’d exercise my newfound Python skills a bit and look at the data. (Python is a computer programming language. I’m not a snake wrangler…yet!)
It turns out that the previous La Niña events we’ve observed so far (dots below the blue line) have all been preceded by either El Niño or La Niña. 2020 stands out, following a winter where tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures were slightly warm, but not quite El Niño. Since we only have about 70 years of observations, it’s hard to say exactly how unusual this is—we’d need to do more studies with climate models to find out, but that’s a lot for my monthly ENSO Blog post, to say nothing of my Python skills!
When the conditions come home to roost
We pay so much attention to ENSO because it affects global weather and climate; a stronger La Niña event means these effects are more likely. We’ve already seen hints of some of the weather and climate patterns we’d expect during La Niña. The most obvious one of these is the extraordinarily active Atlantic hurricane season. La Niña leads to reduced shear (the change in wind from the surface to the upper levels) in the atmosphere over the Atlantic, allowing hurricanes to grow and strengthen.
Although October is a little early for clear La Niña impacts, global precipitation and temperature patterns during the month did give some hints of a La Niña effect, including more rain in Indonesia, drier conditions in southeastern China and the U.S. Southwest, and cooler weather in Canada and into the U.S. Northern Plains. I wrote about potential impacts in more detail last month, so check that out if you missed it.
Nat will cover the winter outlook for North America in his post later this month. And of course, we’ll be here, brooding over La Niña and keeping you up-to-date.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt (Elaine Chick):
The Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District (ALPWCD) Celebrates Final Water Purchase from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority
The Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District (ALPWCD) celebrates the Districts final purchase of the water from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority.
On Saturday, October 17th the ALPWCD held a celebration at the Tribute Gardens at Lake Nighthorse commemorating the final payment option of their incremental purchase from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority (CWR & PDA) for their share of 700 AF of depletion purchased as part of the Animas La Plata Project.
First authorized by the U.S. Congress on September 30, 1968 (Public Law 90-537), the Animas-La Plata Water Project experienced a few decades of delays due in part to political concerns, farming claims, environmental challenges, cost overruns and government funding issues. A breakthrough to the delays came with the Colorado Ute Settlement Act Amendments in December 2000 (Public Law 106-554).
Christine Arbogast, Kogovsek & Associates, lobbyist at that time with ALPWCD for the project, stated, “Advocacy is all about relationship. This project would not have happened if all of the partners for the project had not stuck together in that family relationship that is ALP.”
The Bureau of Reclamation began construction in 2003, with the reservoir filling to capacity on June 29, 2011 at a total cost of $500 million. Lake Nighthorse is named in honor of former United States Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo. The reservoir is part of the Animas-La Plata Water Project, providing water storage for tribal and non-tribal water right claim-holders on the Animas River in both Colorado and New Mexico.
The Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District was one of the seven original sponsors of the ALP Project: The other sponsors included the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, State of Colorado, La Plata Conservancy District in New Mexico, and San Juan Water Commission in New Mexico.
The general purpose of the District includes, but is not limited to: “acquire and appropriate waters of the Animas and La Plata rivers and their tributaries and other sources of water supply by means of ‘works’ as defined in the ‘Water Conservancy Act’ and to divert, store, transport, conserve and stabilize all of said supplies of water for domestic, irrigation, power, manufacturing and other beneficial uses within and for the territory to be included in the District.”
The ALPWCD Statutory Project Allocation was purchased in advance on behalf of local entities by the Colorado Water and Power Resource Development Authority. ALPWCD being one of those entities, worked for many years to make that incremental purchase from the Authority, and now that water is in local hands and is being put to use. ALPWCD has made subsequent sales of their portion of the original allocation of that water that provides multiple benefits to the community. One of ALPWCD’s principle missions is to develop water for the benefit of the local community, and that has happened!
The City of Durango has purchased the remaining amount of the original ALPWCD Project Allocation from the Authority to firm up their future water supplies, and the La Plata West Water Authority and Lake Durango Water Authority have made subsequent purchases of water from the Animas-La Plata District which is being put to use for rural domestic water in the western part of La Plata County.
The Animas-La Plata Project is managed by the ALP Operations, Maintenance and Replacement, Association, and includes representatives from the project participants. (ALPOM&R Association). Recreation at Lake Nighthorse is managed by the City of Durango in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation.
Water projects can take decades to come to fruition, but after many years of hard work by countless individuals and organizations uses are occurring from this reservoir and associated project facilities. This is one more step in making the water in Lake Nighthorse of beneficial use to local communities!