What Has the Administration Meant for #Water? — Circle of Blue #WOTUS

From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):

The fires burning in the American West were the prompt. Turning to the president, Wallace asked Trump what he believed about climate science and what he would do in the next four years to confront carbon pollution. Trump, at first, demurred.

“I want crystal clean water and air,” Trump responded. Then he pivoted to a familiar talking point: railing against cluttered forests as the cause of wildfires in California and other western states.

The initial line — the desire for crystal clean water — is one that the president repeats frequently, even dating to his 2016 presidential campaign. Immaculate water, he has also said. Clear water. Beautiful water. But the focus on appearances is superficial, according to a number of water advocates and analysts. Revisions to environmental rules that the administration has pursued during the first term of the Trump presidency will be detrimental to the nation’s waters, they said.

“President Trump loves to say that he wants crystal clear water,” Bob Irvin, president and chief executive of the conservation group American Rivers, told Circle of Blue. “But his administration has adopted policies that will result in dirtier water across the country.”

Irvin, an environmental lawyer by training, has worked in Washington D.C. for more than three decades, starting out as a trial attorney in the Justice Department during the Reagan administration. He was senior counsel for fish and wildlife for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. He worked for conservation organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and the National Wildlife Federation. His career has spanned Republican and Democratic administrations and there was always at least some common ground for environmental priorities, he reflected.

Not during the Trump administration, though. Irvin could not name any beneficial administration policy for waterways. “It is stunning for me to say that,” he said.

Others interviewed for this story were not as absolute, but they echoed, to varying degrees, Irvin’s thoughts: “This administration has been unrelentingly hostile to the idea of conservation and environmental protection, and has been single-minded in its determination to undermine that protection.”

[…]

Failure to secure a big win for infrastructure was surpassed by an agenda to undo environmental protections.

First under Scott Pruitt and currently led by Andrew Wheeler, who lobbied for fossil fuel industries he now regulates, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took the reins in the administration’s plan to weaken federal authority and relinquish power to the states.

Like his boss, Wheeler made public statements that lifted water to a place of prominence.

“My frustration with the current dialogue around environmental issues is that water issues often take a backseat,” Wheeler told the audience at the Wilson Center on March 20, 2019, in an event to mark World Water Day. “It’s time to change that.”

And yet, many critics and analysts say that the administration did not change that. Regulatory rollbacks not only at the EPA but from the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Department of Energy leave the country’s waters more vulnerable to pollution and development, they say. States, which are enduring budget cuts to their environmental units, are not in a position to be a backstop, argues Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project.

“The assumption that states are going to come in and fill the gap is not warranted,” Schaeffer told Circle of Blue. Schaeffer was the director of EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement from 1997 to 2002. His group released a study showing that 31 states reduced funding for state pollution control agencies from 2008 to 2018. “When EPA leaves the field, it leaves a lot of work undone,” he said.

The list of places where EPA has left the field or stepped back from it is long. The administration gave coal power plants more time to close unlined waste pits and relaxed standards for pollutants in power plant wastewater that is discharged to rivers and lakes. It narrowed the scope of state reviews of pollution impacts under the Clean Water Act. It withdrew a proposal that would have required mining companies to provide more financial assurance that they could clean up future water contamination. Reversing an Obama-era decision, it decided not to regulate perchlorate in drinking water. Draft rules for lead in drinking water appear to give utilities more time to replace lead service lines.

The U.S. Forest Service, for its part, overturned an Obama-era prohibition on mining leases in about 234,000 acres of Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota. The administration is proceeding with an environmental review of the contested Twin Metals mine, a proposed copper-nickel mine that would be located in the national forest some five miles from Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The Bureau of Reclamation, meanwhile, has sought to increase the height of Shasta Dam over the objections of the state of California and the Winnemem Wintu tribe, which do not want higher waters to submerge salmon habitat and cultural sites along the McCloud River. And the Bureau is carrying out an executive order to maximize water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta.

Laura Ziemer, the senior counsel and water policy advisor for Trout Unlimited, said that there is a lot of opportunity for the Bureau of Reclamation to invest in drought and climate preparedness in the western states through certain forms of natural water storage and irrigation efficiency. But projects like the Shasta Dam raise are not that…

Rewriting WOTUS

Out of all these deregulatory actions, one stood out. Most people interviewed for this story singled out the administration’s changes to the scope of the Clean Water Act — the definition of what counts as a water of the United States, or WOTUS — as the most damaging policy for water.

“It’s going to have consequences that are irreversible and far-reaching,” Kyla Bennett, New England director and science policy director at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told Circle of Blue.

Photo credit from report “A Preliminary Evaluation of Seasonal Water Levels Necessary to Sustain Mount Emmons Fen: Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests,” David J. Cooper, Ph.D, December 2003.

Written by the EPA and Army Corps, the WOTUS rule reduces protections for wetlands and ephemeral streams that only flow after rainfall. Agency staff used national hydrological datasets to calculate that as many as half of the nation’s wetlands and 18 percent of streams would be excluded under the new rule. That means developers will not have to seek permits to fill in wetlands and stream segments that formerly had protection. It also means that requirements to minimize damage and offset unavoidable impacts by restoring wetlands elsewhere have been stricken.

Ziemer noted that western rivers are particularly vulnerable to the removal of protections for ephemeral streams…

Watersheds that are connected from headwater channels to floodplains absorb high flows and retain that water through drought periods. “If we allow all of our hydrologic function to be paved over, we are going to expose ourselves to both flood and drought risk moving forward,” Ziemer said.

The EPA press office declined requests from Circle of Blue for interviews with Wheeler and David Ross, head of the Office of Water. It is the agency’s position that no existing map depicts accurately the boundaries of federal regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act. Several federal agencies are now working to publish such a guidepost.

Tipping the Balance of Power

What is the effect of this overhaul? In most cases, it is too early to say. Narrowing the scope of the Clean Water Act took effect this June for every state but Colorado. “It takes a while between the time you push the lever on a new policy or decision and the time the impacts show up in water quality,” Schaeffer said.

The administration touts other steps it has taken to secure the nation’s water: a national plan to coordinate the reuse of water, orders to speed up reviews and permitting of things like the management plan for federally managed dams on the Columbia River, and formalizing a water “subcabinet” of department heads who will coordinate policy, a determination that it will regulate two toxic PFAS substances in drinking water. FEMA, to the pleasure of green groups, also quietly advanced new guidance that allows greater use of federal flood prevention funds for natural infrastructure such as wetlands.

In general, the administration’s rules have tipped the balance of power to users of water: mining companies, energy developers, farmers, homebuilders. Even as it moves to regulate two PFAS in drinking water, the EPA is allowing the chemical industry to produce and sell new PFAS substances.

Among the president’s most ardent supporters is the American Farm Bureau Federation. Don Parrish, senior director of regulatory relations for the Farm Bureau, told Circle of Blue that the administration has assisted in three ways: collaborating with states on nutrient pollution, encouraging market-based systems for trading pollution credits, and simply listening to farm groups.

“One of our biggest priorities coming into this administration was a more realistic definition of waters of the United States,” Parrish told Circle of Blue. Narrowing the scope of the Clean Water Act accomplished that, Parrish said, though the Farm Bureau did not get everything it wanted in the revised rule.

The Utility Water Act Group, a coalition of energy utilities and industry groups that sued to overturn Obama-era coal ash regulations and to support the Trump administration’s environmental policies, declined to comment for this story.

It’s not just the policies that have drawn ire. The Trump administration has sought to transform the process by which those decisions are made: by sidelining scientific evidence and shrinking the environmental review process.

According to a survey of federal scientists, political appointees in the Trump administration raised barriers to using science in policy decisions. More than 4,200 federal scientists responded to the survey, which was conducted in 2018 by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Iowa State University. Half of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that political considerations outweighed scientific conclusions.

The legacy of these four years is still being written. The administration’s policy changes have fared poorly in court. Many have been overturned because of procedural missteps and hastily written justifications. Other rules like the definition of waters of the United States are in the early stages of litigation.

“Discourses of #climate delay” spells out almost all the problems we are having now when it comes to climate actions and sustainable development issues Christine Lian Ho #ActOnClimate

Local groups want mitigation, public hearing on marble quarry water issue — @AspenJournalism

Vehicles and machinery were parked outside the entrances to the marble galleries of the Pride of America Mine in January. Local governments and environmental groups want the quarry operators to undertake mitigation projects to compensate for moving a creek, which violated the Clean Water Act. Photo credit: EcoFlight via Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Local governments and environmental groups don’t think a proposal submitted by a mining company goes far enough to restore the damage done when the company diverted a section of creek near Marble, and they are asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to hold a public hearing to address various concerns.

They also say the company, which was found to have violated the Clean Water Act for moving the section of Yule Creek without first applying for a permit, should undertake river restoration projects elsewhere in the Crystal River basin as compensatory mitigation for damage the company caused when it moved the waterway to construct a road to better access its marble quarry.

The quarry site and Yule Creek are in Gunnison County, but the creek is a tributary of the Crystal River, which flows through Pitkin County.

In separate comments submitted to the Army Corps, Pitkin and Gunnison counties, the Crystal River Caucus, the Roaring Fork Conservancy and the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) are asking for monitoring, restoration, mitigation and a chance for the public to weigh in about the situation at the Pride of America Mine above the town of Marble.

“I think this is an activity of significant interest for those living in the Crystal River Valley,” said Pitkin County Assistant Attorney Laura Makar.

In its comment letter, CVEPA requested that the Army Corps hold a public hearing in the Crystal River Valley to “allow impacted residents a meaningful opportunity to engage in this decision-making process, and to better understand the situation that has transpired in our local watershed.”

In the fall of 2018, mine operator Colorado Stone Quarries (CSQ) diverted a 1,500-foot section of Yule Creek from its natural channel on the west side of Franklin Ridge, a rock outcropping, to the east side of the ridge so it could build a road. Operators piled the streambed with 97,000 cubic yards of fill material, including marble blocks.

In March, the Army Corps determined that these actions, which were done without the proper permit, violated the Clean Water Act. CSQ is now retroactively applying for that permit, known as a 404 individual permit. Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, a project requires a permit from the Army Corps if it includes the discharge of dredged or fill materials into waters, such as rivers, streams and wetlands.

In its permit application, CSQ proposed making the creek relocation permanent by leaving it where it is on the east side of the ridge. The company says this is the most efficient and environmentally sound option, and it results in the closest return to pre-diversion stream conditions. But that analysis doesn’t sit well with some local groups.

The Crystal River Caucus, which represents Pitkin County residents downstream of the site, said in its comment letter that the company’s proposed solution focuses too much on practicability above environmental factors.

“CSQ’s illegal activities have severely reduced, if not eliminated, many viable alternatives which could have been considered if the mining company had complied with the state and federal laws intended to regulate its activities,” the caucus wrote in its comment letter. “CSQ should not be rewarded for its violation of those laws.”

These marble blocks stamped with quarry owner’s name, Red Graniti, and operator’s initials, CSQ, line the banks of the Crystal River near the company’s load-out area in the town of Marble. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering whether to issue the operator a retroactive permit to allow it to move a stream. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Mitigation projects

In its comment letter, Pitkin County said CSQ has not demonstrated that it has a plan that eliminates its detrimental impacts. In addition to a public hearing, the county wants the mining company to restore the riparian habitat, conduct water-quality monitoring at multiple sites in the basin and compensate for any damage by doing restoration projects in other areas.

Pitkin County and the Healthy Rivers board identified eight projects that could provide compensatory mitigation in the Crystal River basin, including restoration of Filoha Meadows streambanks, Thompson Creek riparian restoration and Crystal River streambank stabilization.

“These projects could provide the following types of benefits to the watershed: riparian zone improvement, floodplain connectivity, erosion control, habitat for aquatic life and water quantity increase,” the letter reads.

The Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy, in its letter, said it is interested in assisting with developing and implementing a long-term water-quality monitoring plan. According to the conservancy’s 2016 Crystal River Management Plan, the areas near Marble were some of the most ecologically intact prior to the recent mining activity on Yule Creek.

“RFC strongly encourages the applicant to undertake significant efforts, through a qualified and independent organization(s) to design and implement restoration projects and related long-term monitoring to restore the necessary and lasting ecological function in this severely impacted reach of Yule Creek,” the letter reads.

Yule Creek can be seen from a small viewing area at the entrance to the Pride of America Mine, three miles up County Road 3C from the town of Marble. The creek now flows on the east side of Franklin Ridge because mine operators moved it without a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Next steps

In a prepared statement, CSQ said it is awaiting guidance from the Army Corps on next steps in the process.

“Once CSQ has received all of the public comments and the Corps’ response, it will review all of this information and consider the best course of action,” said CSQ senior consultant Katie Todt, who is with Lewicki & Associates.

The Army Corps will now decide whether to issue a permit after the fact — an unusual situation. CSQ did not submit any compensatory mitigation plans as part of its application, but the Army Corps could require them if it determines that CSQ can’t minimize all its impacts.

“The applicant is currently considering various options to conduct compensatory mitigation, if needed,” says the Army Corps’ public notice of the application from October. “Discussions thus far have included wetland enhancement and preservation near the confluence of Yule Creek and the Crystal River in effort to improve water quality within the watershed, among other options that seek to improve the ecological function of the Yule Creek watershed. CSQ is amenable to receiving information related to additional compensatory mitigation options.”

According to its public notice, the Army Corps says it will use the public comments received to prepare an environmental assessment of CSQ’s activities.

The public comment period closed Dec. 16, a deadline that had been extended by a month at the request of the Crystal River Caucus. According to Susan Nall, chief of the Colorado West Section of the Army Corps, it is the Army Corps’ goal to issue a decision on a permit within 120 days after receiving the application.

The Pride of America Mine, known locally as the Yule Quarry, is owned by Italy-based Red Graniti. The quarry has been the source of marble for many well-known monuments, including the Lincoln Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Colorado Capitol building. In 2016, the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety granted the quarry a permit for a 114-acre expansion for a total of 124 permitted acres. CSQ officials say there is enough marble in its quarries to continue mining at the current rate for more than 100 years.

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Dec. 21 edition of The Aspen Times.

Map of the Roaring Fork River watershed via the Roaring Fork Conservancy

Denver Water delivers in 2020 – News on TAP

2020 was an incredible year for Denver Water, full of challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires and record-breaking weather.

Source: Denver Water delivers in 2020 – News on TAP

A ‘lost’ reservoir and a hike into history – News on TAP

Hiking in Colorado’s Pike National Forest, and finding pieces of Denver Water’s history in the Lost Creek Wilderness.

Source: A ‘lost’ reservoir and a hike into history – News on TAP

Pagosa Area Water & Sanitation District customers will see rate increases in 2021 — The #PagosaSprings Sun

From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Simone Mounsamy):

At a public hearing in Septem- ber of 2018, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors approved changes to the rates for water ser-vice customers.

According to information provided by PAWSD, the following changes will be implemented in 2021.

Water charges

Monthly service charges (per equivalent unit) are set to increase from $26.40 to $27.98.

Volume charges (rates per 1,000gallons) are as follows:

  • For 2,001 to 8,000 gallons of usage, the charge will increase from $4.74 to $5.02.
  • For 8,001 to 20,000 gallons of usage, the charge will increase from $9.48 to $10.05.
  • For over 20,001 gallons of us- age, the charge will increase from $11.90 to $12.61.
  • Water fill station charges per 1,000 gallons are slated to increase from $10.23 to $10.84.
  • The water availability of service charge will remain at $14.30.
  • The wastewater availability of service charge will remain at $12.50.
  • Changes to the rates for water service customers will increase the volume rate charges by 6 percent annually through 2023.

    PAWSD Manager Justin Ramsey explained that these volume rate charge increases began in 2019 and were based on a rate study done in 2018.

    These increases will equate to a 33.74 percent cumulative increase over the five-year period.

    The capital investment fees for both water and wastewater will increase by 3 percent per year.

    Wastewater charges

    The changes to wastewater service charges include a 2.5 percent annual rate increase beginning in 2024 and ending in 2027.

    These increases will equate to a 10.38 percent cumulative increase over the four-year period.

    Pagosa Springs. Photo credit: Colorado.com