#Colorado’s Proposed Stream Restoration Legislation—Part 1 — Audubon

Kawuneeche Valley Ecosystem Restoration Collaboartive Leadership Tour, July 2022. Photo credit: Northern Water

Click the link to read the post on the Audubon Rockies website (Samantha Grant):

Audubon and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have partnered to host a webinar series on important stream restoration legislation. The DNR-led stream restoration legislation is expected to be introduced in mid-February and will provide clarity on where stream restoration projects can occur without being subject to enforcement actions.

Part one of the series showed substantial interest with more than 160 live participants, including legislators, staff/aids, and interested stakeholders. The roster of expert panelists included Senator Dylan Roberts and Representative Karen McCormick—bill sponsors for the stream restoration legislation—Assistant Director of Water Policy for Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources Kelly Romero-Heaney, Colorado State University Professor and renowned Fluvial Geomorphologist Dr. Ellen Wohl, Land and Water Conservation Lawyer Jackie Corday, and was facilitated by Audubon Rockies Western Rivers Regional Program Manager Abby Burk. Here’s a recap of the discussion and what you need to know to support Colorado’s streams and riverscapes. A recording of the webinar is included at the end.

Healthy streams and riverscapes are beneficial to us all—they provide a suite of multifaceted benefits that all Coloradans depend upon. Unfortunately, the majority of our streams have been degraded by more than two centuries of hydrologic modification, agricultural land use practices, roads and development, channelization, mining, and climate-driven disasters. The good news is that case studies of Colorado and other Western states’ stream restoration projects have proven successful to improve human and environmental health and reduce vulnerability to fire, flood, and drought. However, existing Colorado water governance creates substantial uncertainty and even barriers to restoring the valuable natural processes of streams.

Under the direction of Governor Polis, the DNR and associated experts drafted a legislative solution to this challenge. As with many water law issues, there is a need to provide clarity, which is what the legislation will do by setting forth where stream restoration can take place (in the historic footprint of the stream riparian corridor), without being subject to water administration.

Senator Dylan Roberts (6:16) reports, “This bill is a key part in protecting our watersheds, streams, and rivers, and capitalizing on the incredibly unique and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to receive funding from the federal government so that we can have healthy streams and rivers for decades into the future.” He further stated that “by having legal clarity for stream restoration, we can reduce barriers for these important projects to get off the ground and still protect water rights, and draw down some of the federal funding.”

Dr. Ellen Wohl (22:05) led the audience through the changes and challenges our river systems face and the importance of this timely opportunity to steward our rivers back into health. Jackie Corday (32:14) provided a detailed overview of the many benefits that healthy riverscapes offer through a series of successful restoration case studies, including reduced flood risks, improved water quality and resilience to drought and fires, reduction in sedimentation of reservoirs and headgates, and restoration aquatic and terrestrial habitat. All such projects could be in jeopardy in the future without a legislative fix.  

Kelly Romero-Heaney (10:55) spoke to the importance of this unique opportunity for the Colorado General Assembly to “set a vision for the state, and the landscapes that have served us well for generations.” She reminded the audience that “Colorado provides the headwaters for 19 states and Mexico” and that “we have shared responsibility to store water through our landscapes in a way that restores and maintains its environmental benefits.” Both Kelly and Senator Roberts informed the audience that the Colorado General Assembly has invested $45 million in watershed restoration over the last few years. Water providers, conservation organizations, and local governments have also invested millions of dollars in restoring our streams.

Representative Karen McCormick (43:55) recounted the similar policy solutions in neighboring Western states, setting the path for Colorado to take lead. “We want to make sure we’re removing these barriers to stream restoration while protecting the rights of water users. This is an everybody conversation. We need to craft the best solution that brings all voices to the table.”

Healthy riverscapes contribute to healthy forest systems, provide habitat for birds and wildlife, improve water supplies and forage for agriculture, and offer clean and reliable drinking water. Please join us in supporting our streams to ensure they can be restored to their natural function so that we can all thrive. Mark your calendars for a second installment of the series on March 8th. Registration and further details will be released in the coming weeks.

For specific draft stream restoration bill inquiries, please contact Kelly Romero-Heaney or Daphne Gervais. Any further questions about the need and benefits of stream restoration can be sent to Abby Burk or Jackie Corday.

Moral questions on a standard San Luis Valley farm — Source #NewMexico @sourcenm

Kyler Brown drives a calf on June 21, 2022 as part of a drive that went through downtown Del Norte, Colorado. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

by Danielle Prokop, Source New Mexico
February 3, 2023

Hard calculations and changed practices in the era of drought and global warming

A self-described Midwest import from Missouri, 39-year old Kyler Brown is a cowboy, farmer and philosopher. These days, he feels driven by questions of life and death. 

“Do people feel like they have morality in their occupation? I think people have moral moments, but probably most people don’t question the morality of their profession. And I feel like I come in contact with mine almost daily,” he said, driving over the Rio Grande outside of Monte Vista, Colorado. 

“I see life and death a lot. I got to see baby calves get born in the spring. And then I had to put a cow down” he said. “I see whole cottonwood galleries dying. I just feel my morality is being challenged every day, where other people go through their life and don’t question it.”

Brown lives on his farm in Del Norte with wife Emily, and two kids — Elijah and Olivia. 

Kyler Brown and his son Elijah Brown go over the schedule for the day on June 21, 2022, before Kyler heads to the cattle drive. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

He also works his father-in-law’s farm just outside of Monte Vista. It’s a small operation — two circles of russet potatoes, another two circles of barley and a small herd of cattle.

“A standard San Luis Valley farm,” Brown said, piling pivot sprinkler supplies into the back of a battered white truck. “I’m kind of slowly dragging him towards something different.”

Some of those changes included using a new fungal compost to improve soil health, building 21 pastures on a 600-acre lot to prevent overgrazing — and determining that this will be the last season for growing barley for Coors beer. 

Still, the drought creeps in, ruining best-laid practices. No clover grows in the meadow cultivated for cattle. In early summer, there wasn’t enough rain to grow forage.

Brown credits the institutional knowledge of his in-laws, but also their very senior water rights, for the farm’s endurance. In recent years, there’s a stark visual divide drawn by water rights, he said, watching some neighbors’ fields “grow green, the literal color of money,” while others withe

Cows can be seen amid alfalfa fields during the cattle drive on June 21, 2022. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

A few years before, Brown had an epiphany, realizing his generation “would have to bear the brunt of climate change” and needed to be in the room when tough decisions are made. 

He slowly entered the fray, sitting on the board for a nonprofit conservancy district, meeting with state and national lawmakers as chapter president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.

The conversations have often focused on an urban-rural divide, he said, which ignores a crucial interconnectedness.

“We give them a host of things: food, asphalt for roads, clean air, water, places to recreate. And they give us a tax base, so that we can have police departments, fire stations and school districts,” he said. “We need each other. It is a Faustian bargain, but we both need each other.”

Kyler Brown helps wife Emily Brown put on boots before the cattle drive the morning of June 21, 2022. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

A ballooning population

Growth in Denver and the surrounding metropolitan areas caused tension across the state, including a decades-long effort to build a 200-mile pipeline to pump San Luis water for residential use in Douglas County.

Opposing water exportation, Brown said, rallies the valley and is “fighting the good fight,” but may pull attention away from other threats bearing down on the region. 

“But it also does a good job of distracting us from us being our own enemy,” he said. “Our pumping, our management of water, our management of our land and climate change will have far greater impacts on our valley and our water than an exportation scheme.”

He’s worried about the “tremendous cultural and economic implications” of determining who will have to fallow land — or stop farming altogether in future years as the aquifers and Rio Grande shrink more.

Brown turns the truck into a barley circle, parallel to the pivot sprinkler, green stems and spikes rustling in the summer wind. Grabbing the stepladder from the back of the truck, he acknowledges that the politics feel fraught and toxic, and the solutions aren’t easy. 

Kyler Brown stands atop an irrigation sprinkler on the Monte Vista, Colorado property. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

He describes listening to a public meeting back in April from the irrigation district as he was simultaneously fixing yet another pivot sprinkler, Zoom playing on his speakerphone. An early snowmelt at the headwaters of the Rio Grande meant managers had to scramble to provide water for the upcoming growing season. With an earlier snowmelt, there may not be enough river water for irrigation when crops need it most.  

“I could just tell that this is just the beginning of folks trying to figure out how to do the same thing with far less resources — and being very, very frustrated at their capabilities, their power, or more importantly, their options,” he said. 

Not only is the source of the river sometimes melting early as seasons change, snowmelt also doesn’t result in as much water in a hotter, drier climate thanks to global warming. “You’re literally trying to move the days of a calendar year, which does nothing to make you have more water,” Brown said.

Sprinkler repaired, he drives out of the barley circle, down the highway to another parcel which he calls “just a little nature preserve on the river.”

What once was a gravel pit has been transformed into habitat on the edge of the Rio Grande, with a pond for waterfowl. Bald eagles and owls roost in the trees at its edge. It’s a place for mule deer to gather, too. Another resident, a groundhog, Brown nicknamed “Larry the whistlepig.” 

This haven offers both solace and grief. 

Sitting back in the truck, as the river chuckles by, Brown said he senses there’s been a reckoning, even if just a small one, over the impacts of climate change in the valley.  

“People are really saying ‘Wow, it’s the driest it’s ever been,’ or ‘Man, another bad fire year.’ So they’re seeing the symptoms of the disease,” he said. “And you don’t have to name the disease in order for people to be feeling it intimately.” 

Kyler Brown, a farmer in the San Luis Valley, looks on the cottonwood stands on his father-in-law’s property along the Rio Grande in Monte Vista. “It makes me sad to go through drought, but every other year is drought.” (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Will it be enough?

For water managers, naming the problem offers more clarity for solutions.  

“This is no longer drought. This is aridification,” said Cleave Simpson Jr., a longtime Republican state senator and manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, living outside Alamosa, Colorado. 

Drastic river patterns the last two decades and mostly below average flows — plus two of the worst drought events in recorded history in 2022 and 2018 — are harbingers of the permanent change to agriculture and ways of life in the valley, Simpson said.

“Ultimately, there’s going to be less irrigation,” he said. “If we’re thoughtful, that’ll be a managed, incremental change, versus if we’re not engaged.”

Simpson said it takes both collective decision making from individuals and institutions to build resilience. 

“Look, I raise alfalfa, the most water-consumptive use crop we have here,” Simpson said. “How do I figure out how to raise something else here?”

He and his son raised hemp for fiber, and they found it only consumed half the water compared to the alfalfa crop. 

“I have a 31-year-old son and a 2-year-old grandson,” he explained. “I’m very mindful about being in that space to set this place up for success for being resilient and being able to respond when these water supplies continue to dwindle.” 

Being more efficient, growing crops that require less irrigation — those are just the first steps in finding alternatives to help the community long-term in the valley. 

“It’s worth fighting for,” Simpson said.

Is ‘responsible’ mining possible?:  A conversation with the director of IRMA — The Land Desk @Land_Desk

Mining Monitor

I’ve got to admit that when someone suggested I talk to the director of a global initiative that has developed standards for “responsible” mining, I was a bit skeptical. Conceptually I get it, but whenever I try to imagine an environmentally “responsible” mine, visions of the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah come to mind — the largest human-made excavation on earth where more than 1,000 tons of explosives are used daily to blast loose about 150,000 tons of copper-bearing ore. How can that kind of destruction ever be labeled environmentally or socially “responsible?”

The Bingham Canyon mine in Utah. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

So I hopped onto a Zoom call a few months ago and put the question to Aimee Boulanger, executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, or IRMA, which, according to its mission statement, offers “true independent third-party verification and certification against a comprehensive standard for all mined materials.” 

It turns out Boulanger was initially even more doubtful than me. “I hated the idea when I first heard it,” Boulanger said, and even refused to take part in it. At the time she was working for Earthworks, a mining and oil and gas watchdog group, one stop in a now three-decade-long career in environmental and health advocacy. She thought the global mining industry was so far gone that a certification system would only serve to greenwash bad behavior. 

But, crucially, it wasn’t the mining industry looking to clean up its image that catalyzed the effort, but rather the companies that buy mined materials wanting to do so responsibly. Tiffany, for example, did not want to support or be associated with blood diamonds. So its CEO at the time went to Earthworks, hoping the NGO would be able to direct him to more responsible suppliers. They didn’t, but the request indicated a need for such a service, something analogous to the Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies fisheries.

Such a system, if implemented correctly, helps consumers — or downstream purchasers in this case — make informed choices about sourcing materials for their products. Maybe all mining is somewhat destructive, but if you have to buy copper or gold or lithium to make your business run, wouldn’t it be better to buy it from a more responsible operator? An independent audit can also incentivize mining companies to use best practices rather than running roughshod over the land, water, and communities. 

So in 2006, representatives from NGOs, including Earthworks, companies that purchase minerals, affected communities, mining companies, and labor unions came together to form IRMA. By the time Boulanger — having come around to the idea — joined up in 2011, the disparate group was still arguing over the meaning of “responsible mining.” They wouldn’t even bother with designing a logo or building a website until they found consensus on the basic principles. Most members assumed it would be impossible to get environmental groups on the same page as mining companies. 

But with Boulanger’s help they were able to create 10 principle points of engagement, which enabled them to formulate a draft charter laying out what “responsible” means when applied to a mining operation. In 2014, they sent out their standards internationally and field tested them at the Stillwater platinum and palladium mine in Montana. They began actual audits shortly before the coronavirus pandemic hit and paused everything. Now they’re back at it.

By this point in the conversation I had become convinced that with enough buy-in, IRMA could push for major improvements in the way mining companies do business, especially in areas where government regulations are weak — like on U.S. public lands. But I was still a bit blurry on one big point, so I asked Boulanger: “What, exactly, does responsible mining look like?”

There isn’t a simple or short answer. IRMA’s Standard for Responsible Mining is now more than two-dozen chapters and hundreds of pages long. “Here’s this 26 chapters, that span everything from resettling community, to pre-informed consent with Indigenous communities, to water and waste management,” Boulanger said. It covers noise and vibration, mercury and cyanide management, worker safety, and cultural heritage.

To even get on the scoring board, so to speak, the mine must meet 40 critical requirements. Dumping waste into natural bodies of water is a virtual deal-killer. Getting consent from the community is mandatory. Then the mine — not the company — is scored based on how many additional standards it achieves. Anglo American’s Unki platinum mine in Zimbabwe, for example, met the 40 requirements plus 75% of the additional standards and received an IRMA score of 75

Initially the organization worked on a pass-fail system, as do most analogous organizations in other industries. This proved problematic when dealing with existing, legacy mines, which might find it easier to get a passing grade by constructing a new mine rather than upgrade the existing one — which isn’t the goal, obviously. So IRMA shifted to a scoring system, instead, because it leaves room for a mine to improve. 

“If you’re a new mine, you should be able to demonstrate that you’re 100%,” Boulanger said. “But if you’re a legacy mine like Bingham Canyon? It’s better to make Bingham Canyon better than cutting a new hole that is perfect.”

Not all mines are eligible for consideration. IRMA members from the labor sector wanted thermal coal to be included, because the average coal miner has been left behind and underground and in the dark. But the environmental sector pushed back, saying that labeling even the best coal mine “responsible” would further enable coal burning, which is fundamentally irresponsible. Same goes for uranium, Boulanger said. “There are too many ‘risk points’ between cradle and grave,” she added. “Even if you say it (nuclear power) is a low greenhouse gas emissions source, it doesn’t count all of the other stuff.”

Coal and uranium mining companies can use IRMA’s self-assessment tool internally to grade themselves and find areas to improve. But they can’t make their score public or use IRMA’s name to burnish their image. And Earthworks’ continued involvement in the Initiative helps ensure industry can’t hijack the certification process for their own ends.

Since its inception, IRMA’s focus has shifted toward so-called “green metals” — e.g. graphite, lithium, rare earths, nickel, and cobalt — that are used in electric vehicles, batteries, and other clean energy applications. Six carmakers have now joined IRMA as members as they look to source these materials more responsibly. 

A large-scale evaporation pond at the Silver Peak lithium mine on Oct. 6, 2022. The evaporation process can take a year and a half to complete. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Some of the new lithium mining proposals may have a tough time getting on IRMA’s scoreboard, however. Consent from the community, especially the Indigenous community, is paramount. And tribal nations are opposing some of the largest lithium proposals — Thacker Pass in Nevada, for example. “Let’s say you have an average of 68% in all the chapters but did not have Indigenous consent,” Boulanger said. “You’re not going to get the IRMA 50 award.”

“It’s a train wreck right now,” she said. “You’ve got all these industries looking for materials and you’ve got these communities saying, ‘Hell no!’” 

Today is International Day of Women and Girls in Science #WomenInScience