Starting Oct. 27, officials from the Bureau of Reclamation turned off the water diversion tunnel from the West Slope to the Colorado-Big Thompson Project that feeds many of the lakes and reservoirs in Larimer County. The reservoir levels have also been lowered through the release of water to storage downstream.
According to a news release from the agency, the shutdown has allowed for the inspection of dams at Marys Lake and Lake Estes near Estes Park, and Flatiron Reservoir west of Loveland.
While the reservoirs are at low levels, crews are also looking at the power generation facilities at the Marys and Pole Hill power plants and the Charles Hansen Feeder Canal.
According to agency officials, the work will continue on the reservoirs and facilities throughout November, with water diversions through the Adams Tunnel from the Western Slope slated to resume in mid-December.
In honor of this year’s National Parks Service centennial anniversary, EcoFlight took to the air for four days in late October for combined flights connecting Aspen to Arches and Canyonlands, to the Grand Canyon and finally to Mesa Verde National Park, not to mention the thousands of miles of landscape in between.
EcoFlight, a nonprofit based out of Aspen, takes annual trips with eight college students in six-seat planes to get an aerial perspective on wildland environmental issues. The organization’s president, Bruce Gordon, took similar flights with John Denver, and they had an idea for a trip starting in Alaska, picking up celebrity-pilots along the way and arriving in Washington, D.C. for Earth Day in 2000.
After Denver passed away, Gordon wanted to pursue their shared dream and founded EcoFlight in 2002. Gordon recognized the need to share the first-hand perspective on threats to the environment with the next generation, and began the annual Flight Across America (FLAA) program. This year, eight college students crammed into small planes for a four-day whirlwind tour touching several of the national parks in the west.
“These students have a voice,” Gordon says, sitting with the students in John Denver Sanctuary in Aspen before takeoff. “I want them to see for themselves, and then tell others.”
The participants arrive from near and far, with backgrounds as different as their colleges. Included in the group is an anthropology major from Texas, a Colorado State University freshman in wildlife and conservation biology and a sustainability studies student at Colorado Mountain College in the Roaring Fork Valley. Each student brings their experiences and knowledge from a variety of study areas.
Emilie Frojen, a senior at Colorado College, is writing her thesis about tribal water rights.
“I know a lot about water rights but I want to extend my knowledge into that of public lands and the intersection,” she said, explaining why she wanted to join the FLAA program, adding that she is interested in the social construction of wilderness.
Seeing the connection
Just after departing from Aspen, the students’ headsets crackle to life as Gordon speaks to the three single-engine Cessna 210 Centurion planes flying in formation. Gordon points out geological features and human impacts to the region. Heading toward Moab, Utah, the flight path takes students over mines and natural gas platforms, as well as the mostly roadless Thompson Divide area, the Colorado National Monument and sprawling rock formations in the wilderness.
“We were flying at about 7,000 feet and you can see how it is all connected from the air,” says Caleb Henderson, from University of Texas.
“You can see an obvious line across the land,” adds Cole Rosenbaum, a master’s student studying geological engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, speaking of the infrastructure that connects well pads to roads and pipelines.
The aerial perspective isn’t everything though, and the program includes ample time spent on the ground in key places discussing the issues with experts representing various perspectives.
“It’s important for the students to experience the parks as well,” according to Jane Parigter, EcoFlight’s vice president. Once on the ground in Moab, the students head to Arches National Park. Sitting beneath the iconic Double Arch they listen to Matt Gross, with Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and discuss the proposal for the Bears Ears National Monument, which if designated would protect 1.9 million acres in southeastern Utah that include ancient cave dwellings and sites sacred to Native Americans
The conversation about policy and land management is followed by a more personal connection to the issues the next morning as the planes touch down in Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border. The students sit down with members of the Navajo Nation and Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, discussing what the land means as more than just wilderness.
“We are trying to preserve the land, but also the songs and the stories,” says Jonah Yellowman, a spiritual adviser from the Many Arrows Bitterwater Clan, as he addresses the students telling tribal creation stories and how the land is connected to him. There have been desecrations of sacred cultural places, he added, and the monument designation would help protect them.
“Is it challenging to communicate with people not from this heritage, working with policy makers while you write the proposal?” asks Frojen, the Colorado College senior studying tribal water rights.
“It is hard to translate why this is sacred,” he admits.
This is a theme that is reiterated again that afternoon at Grand Canyon National Park, as locals depict the proposed Escalade development and how it affects their physical and spiritual world. The project would include hotels above the canyon rim and a tram to the Little Colorado River just upstream from its confluence with the Colorado, the place where, according to Navajo tradition, the tribe emerged into the world.
“In Navajo people don’t need to know why something is sacred, it just is. So I am a translator,” says Jason Nex, with Save the Confluence. “I translate from Navajo to English, from science to Navajo.”
Sitting on the edge of the South Rim, one speaker after another presents a variety of stories about the Grand Canyon, from overcrowding and underfunding to diversity and its inclusion in the national parks system.
“EcoFlight takes a very objective approach, presenting us with different information,” says Rosenbaum, from Mines. “At school we are well trained in the technology and the math, but there has been a push to take a more humanitarian approach.”
Mining for impact
“I am here to get you inspired to save the Grand Canyon, and to not want to drink Uranium water,” says Sarah Ponticello, from the Sierra Club. “Sign the petition to really show your support to get this permanently protected.”
Julianne Nikirk, a student at Colorado State University, was surprised to learn that uranium mining is set to commence on the canyon’s doorstep.
“You just kind of assume it is protected,” she says of the Grand Canyon, as they arrive at Canyon Mine, located near the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. The Canyon Mine is not yet operational, but workers have drilled a shaft over 1,400 feet deep and mining could begin for high-grade uranium in six to eight months.
Donn Pillmore, director of operations for Energy Fuels, which operates the mine, offers a counter point, reminding the students that the U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of uranium.
“And we import 96 percent, from places that are not operating under the same environmental regulations as we are. Not even close,” he says.
Pointing out that 20 percent of all U.S. power comes from nuclear plants, Pillmore adds that when uranium comes out of the ground it is not considered a hazardous material by the Department of Transportation. Mitigation systems and measures to prevent contamination from reaching water, as well as reclamation efforts after mining finishes in as little as five years, will return the site to how it was before mining began, he says.
From the outside of the fence where Pillmore speaks to the students the site seems meager, but as the planes wing over it on their departure from the Grand Canyon they see the large swath of land it includes. As the planes cross over the Four Corners area and into Colorado the ground below becomes a maze-like network of oil and gas operations, just a few miles from Mesa Verde National Park.
Back on land in Durango, another series of experts discuss threats to the national parks, how different land management strategies affect wilderness and how to diversify park users and activists. One speaker reminds them on their next flight to think about how the landscape looks now, but also how current policy on wilderness areas will shape it in the future.
As the whirlwind tour comes to an end the students talk about how the different stops affected both them personally and the world around them. Each participant will head home with a bevy of information to digest and a plan to share their stories with their peers and others.
The participants’ first opportunity comes on the last day of the trip at Durango High School, where they coalesce three days of discussions, debates, viewpoints and seminars into a slideshow. They implore the high schoolers to care, get involved and vote, once they can.
“We take local people up to look at their local communities, with the idea being to educate and advocate,” Gordon explains to the high schoolers. “We want to inspire people to speak out.”
Lauren Fry, from Colorado State University, is committed to spread the word when she returns to Fort Collins.
“I want to really focus on outreach on campus, and not many know about Bears Ears,” she said. “Through campus radio, the local TV station and our student newspaper, I want to call attention to the issue and guide people to the petition to protect Bears Ears.”
That sentiment sounds good to Pargiter, EcoFlight’s vice president.
“We want to empower them to have a voice and get them to reach out to their peers,” she said. “This is their generation that is going to be doing a lot of the work.”
Solar-powered water systems let livestock drink more easily and take pressure off ponds and streams
[Vance Fulton], an engineering technician with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, described the way solar energy provides an effective way for landowners to transport water to their livestock.
“Especially around here, (landowners) have found that solar is a much more efficient way to pump water than the old windmills,” Fulton said.
And now, with the birth of the Sage Grouse Initiative, the solar-powered systems are receiving increasing amounts of federal support. Fulton said the systems have received funding through the Farm Bill for decades — but for the last several years, SGI has targeted more money for the solar-powered projects in places where the sage grouse is affected, such as Moffat County.
Surprising as it may seem at first glance, the creation of multiple water sources for cattle helps sage grouse too.
The system often works this way: A solar panel powers a pump that drives water through an underground pipeline, and the pipeline delivers the water to troughs at various points in the land so that animals can drink. The pump often fills up a storage tank for a backup water supply, as well.
The system, as Fulton explained it, creates an efficient means of supplying water to animals on the land. By creating several water sources, the system also eases stress on the ponds, puddles and streams where animals may gather to drink. That benefits a host of creatures — including the sage grouse.
Chris Yarbrough, formerly a biologist with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, who is now regional habitat biologist for Idaho Fish and Game, explained how a water system such as this can help sage grouse. If there’s only one pond on a ranch, he said, that’s where the cows will congregate.
“That area will probably get overgrazed, and you’ll probably get a lot of weeds — things that aren’t good for wildlife,” he said.
But water troughs scattered throughout the land can attract animals to different spots, easing the pressure on a pond or a stream.
“The grasses and (other plants) then have a chance to grow,” he said — something that’s good for sage grouse and lots of other species, as well.
Yarbrough said much of the funding to install solar pumping systems in Moffat County is generated by the SGI, launched by the Natural Resources Conservation Service in 2010.
Fulton said the NRCS works with about 20 landowners in Moffat County on solar watering systems, and he noted there may be others using solar power, as well. It’s a number that’s far larger, he said, than it was about a decade ago, before the SGI.
One of the Moffat County landowners who uses solar-powered system is Doug Davis, who has a ranch called Davis Family Farm LLC that lies in the eastern part of the county.
“We discovered a very good water source up high, and because it’s up high you can use gravity flow,” Davis said.
Davis explained that the solar panel on this ranch pumps water from the well into a storage tank — and from that storage tank, gravity allows the water to flow through pipes to troughs throughout the property. Davis said that, on another property, he uses the solar-powered pump to push water directly to the troughs.
Either way, Davis said he’s glad to be using solar energy. He used to use windmills, which could be tough to maintain and less reliable.
“Windmills are much higher maintenance, and the wind does not blow as consistently as the sun shines,” he said. “Solar, which has turned out to be a low-maintenance, relatively low-cost proposition for us, is a winner.”
As Fulton walked through Davis’s land on that sunny July day, he pointed to some small nuances in the equipment, including strategically placed fencing to protect the plumbing from the animals drinking from the troughs, and a “small animal escape ramp” to let otherwise trapped animals climb to safety.
Fulton said the solar-powered system works without batteries, which means that energy is transferred directly to the pumps. It also means that the amount of energy may vary from day to day, depending on the supply of sunlight at a given time. That’s where the agility of the pumps comes into play.
“These pumps are able to work on variable voltage,” he said. “They’ll even continue to pump on a slightly cloudy day.”
Storing water during the sunny days, Fulton said, creates a water supply to use on the cloudy ones.
“You store water instead of storing electricity,” he said.
Fulton said, too, that advances in technology — in the pumps and the solar panels — have made the system even better than it used to be.
“It got more dependable, more efficient through the years,” he said — a sign that the sun soaking ranches throughout the county will be put to good use for many more years to come.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):
The possibility that it would prove beneficial to send more water from Lake Powell downstream to Lake Mead is muddier than the Colorado River through the Grand Valley in springtime, said a Utah State University professor who has studied the reservoirs.
The “fill Mead first” idea is lacking in significant science and “could do more harm than good to the Grand Canyon,” said Jack Schmidt, watershed sciences professor at Utah State.
The idea of filling Mead before Powell — the two largest lakes on the Colorado River, each of them containing about 27 million acre-feet of water — has gained currency as annual runoff has slackened and demands have increased for restoration of Glen Canyon, which now is filled by Lake Powell.
One study has said that some 300,000 acre-feet of water could be saved by filling Mead first.
There are, however, “enormous uncertainties with the estimates of water savings,” Schmidt said in an interview at the Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center’s sixth-annual Upper Colorado River Basin Forum at Colorado Mesa University, which is continuing today.
Schmidt was one of a group of scientists who promoted the idea of controlled flooding below dams to restore ecosystems. He served three years as chief of the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center in Flagstaff, Arizona.
One of the major unknowns that underlie questions about the “fill Mead first” idea is the still unresolved issue about which reservoir suffers greater water loss to evaporation.
It’s generally considered that Mead, with apparently greater surface area and lower elevation, would suffer more losses from evaporation, but there are no state-of-the-science studies to confirm that, Schmidt said.
Another unknown lies in the silt at the bottom of Lake Powell, he said.
Tons of silt have been trapped at the bottom of the lake on what otherwise would be their sedimental journey down the river.
“Sediment really matters,” Schmidt said.
Lake Powell has trapped the sediments that would have been carried by the Colorado through the Grand Canyon and into Lake Mead. The effects of those lost sediments aren’t well studied, he said.
Uranium mining opponents got some good news when Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff indicated last week that a proposed new uranium extraction technology may be less safe than proponents indicate.
Black Range Minerals, now owned by Western Uranium of Canada, initially started exploring for uranium in the Taylor Ranch area northwest of Canon City in 2008 and got approval from the Fremont County Commission in 2010 to expand exploration on an additional 2,220-acre site. Residents concerned about the potential impact of renewed uranium mining formed the opposition group Tallahassee Area Committee.
The opponents weighed in during a public comment period hosted by state health department officials last summer as they considers what regulatory requirements should be put in place for a new proposed practice called “ablation technology.” Ablation uses finely crush particles of uranium ore and water in a pressurized manner to extract the uranium.
State health department officials also asked for input from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“The NRC staff responded with a bombshell completely rejecting the Black Range Minerals/Western Uranium position that ablation is merely a continuation of mining,” said Lee Alter, who monitors government for the Tallahassee Area Committee. “They concluded that ablation technology is a uranium milling activity and should be licensed as such.”
In responding to the state’s request for information, Paul Michalak, from the office of nuclear material safety, said, “It is our understanding that no current NRC regulation explicitly addresses uranium ablation. To the best of our understanding, commercial-scale uranium ablation activities are being proposed solely in Colorado at this time.
“Given this, we believe Colorado would have the flexibility to adopt and implement program elements within the state’s jurisdiction that are not addressed by NRC,” Michalak said.
In addition, Michalak indicated that, “Since uranium ablation technology involves the extraction or concentration of uranium or thorium from any ore processed, then any wastes produced by the process would be byproduct material as defined in the Atomic Energy Act.”
Michalak offered his help to state health officials as they go forward in trying to decide how to deal with the new technology.
About 500,000 solar panels were installed every day last year as a record-shattering surge in green electricity saw renewables overtake coal as the world’s largest source of installed power capacity.
Two wind turbines went up every hour in countries such as China, according to International Energy Agency officials who have sharply upgraded their forecasts of how fast renewable energy sources will keep growing.
“We are witnessing a transformation of global power markets led by renewables,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the global energy advisory agency.
Part of the growth was caused by falls in the cost of solar and onshore wind power that Mr Birol said would have been “unthinkable” only five years ago.
Average global generation costs for new onshore wind farms fell by an estimated 30 per cent between 2010 and 2015 while those for big solar panel plants fell by an even steeper two-thirds, an IEA report published on Tuesday showed.
The Paris-based agency thinks costs are likely to fall even further over the next five years, by 15 per cent on average for wind and by a quarter for solar power.
It said an unprecedented 153 gigawatts of green electricity was installed last year, mostly wind and solar projects, which was more than the total power capacity in Canada.
This was also more than the amount of conventional fossil fuel or nuclear power added in 2015, leading renewables to surpass coal’s cumulative share of global power capacity, though not electricity generation.
A power plant’s capacity is the maximum amount of electricity it can potentially produce. The amount of energy a plant actually generates varies according to how long it produces power over a period of time.
Because a wind or solar farm cannot generate constantly like a coal power plant, it will produce less energy over the course of a year even though it may have the same or higher level of capacity.
Coal power plants supplied close to 39 per cent of the world’s power in 2015, while renewables, including older hydropower dams, accounted for 23 per cent, IEA data show.
But the agency expects renewables’ share of power generation to rise to 28 per cent by 2021, when it predicts they will supply the equivalent of all the electricity generated today in the US and EU put together.
It has revised its forecasts to show renewables’ capacity will grow 13 per cent more between 2015 and 2021 than it had thought would be the case just last year, mostly because of stronger policy backing in the US, China, India and Mexico.
Paolo Frankl, head of the IEA’s renewable energy division, said efforts to address climate change were only part of the reason for this policy drive.
Air pollution worries were also spurring growth in countries such as China, a renewable energy juggernaut that alone accounts for close to 40 per cent of capacity growth.
From Reclamation via the Estes Park Trail-Gazette:
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has announced that it will begin shutting down this week the Colorado-Big Thompson Project east slope system for winter maintenance and system inspection.
Peter Soeth, a Bureau spokesperson, said in an e-mail that beginning Oct.27 diversions will first be stopped through the Adams Tunnel followed by the draining of Marys Lake and Lake Estes by the morning of October 31.
Flatiron Reservoir will be drained by November 4.
Maintenance activities include annual maintenance for Marys and Pole Hill powerplants, as well as the Charles Hansen Feeder Canal.
The inspection and maintenance is expected to last through the middle of December. Once complete, the system will begin diversions through the Adams Tunnel and preparing for the 2017 water year.