Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:
Saturday, January 11, 2020, 8am-4pm
Northside Aztlan Community Center, 112 E. Willow St., Fort Collins, CO 80524
Climate change is one of the greatest threats to birds. At this conference, hosted by Audubon Rockies, learn about climate reduction programs and ways you can take action to create a better world for birds and people. Actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. will remotely deliver the keynote via live video. See the agenda for the full schedule and the speaker bios for information on the presenters.
We have various pricing levels and discounts available. When you register, please choose the ticket type that best applies to you.
Non-student + public transportation/carpool – $55 (available after November 1 for those who pledge to carpool, use public transportation, bike, or walk to the event)
One morning last month, Brad Johnson arrived at a patch of rippling yellow grasses alongside U.S. 24, a few miles south of Leadville in the upper Arkansas River valley. Sandwiched among a cluster of abandoned ranch buildings, a string of power lines and a small pond, it is an unassuming place — except, of course, for its views of 14,000-foot peaks rising across the valley.
But appearances can be deceiving. The rather ordinary-looking property was a fen, which is a groundwater-fed wetland filled with organic “peat” soils that began forming during the last ice age and that give fens their springy feel.
“It’s like walking on a sponge,” Johnson said, marching across the marshy ground, stopping every now and then to point out a rare sedge or grass species.
Johnson was visiting the fen to record groundwater measurements before winter sets in. As the lead scientist for the Rocky Mountain Fen Research Project, Johnson is part of an effort spearheaded and paid for by Aurora Water and the Board of Water Works of Pueblo to study new ways to restore fens.
The research could help facilitate future water development in Colorado, such as the potential Whitney Reservoir project, part of a 20-year water-development plan from Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities for the upper Eagle River watershed. The utilities, working together as Homestake Partners, are looking at building the reservoir in the Homestake Creek valley, south of Minturn, in an area that probably contains fens, which could hinder the project.
Aurora and Colorado Springs are working together on the reservoir project, and Aurora and Pueblo are funding the fens research. Although the Whitney project is not directly tied to the fen project, if the research efforts are successful, they could help Aurora and Colorado Springs secure a permit approval for the reservoir — and maybe alter the fate of an ecosystem.
If you’ve walked through Colorado’s high country, chances are you’ve walked by a fen, which are among the state’s most biodiverse and fragile environments. To protect fens, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency drafted a “fen policy” in 1996. The policy, amended in 1999, determined that fens are irreplaceable resources because their soils take so long to regenerate. “On-site or in-kind replacement of peatlands is not possible,” the policy reads.
Inside the Fish and Wildlife Service, however, a different interpretation emerged. “Irreplaceable” became “unmitigable,” making it difficult or impossible to secure approval for any project that would severely impact fens.
Although Johnson is in favor of fen conservation, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s “unmitigable” interpretation bothered him. Not only was that status not supported by the fen policy itself, he believes saying “no” all the time is not in the best interest of fens.
“My fear is that if we don’t have the means of mitigating our impacts, we’ll just impact them,” he said.
Eventually, Johnson believes, conservationists will have to make some concessions to development. But by researching better mitigation techniques, he hopes he can help preserve fens in the long run.
An organ transplant
For water utilities, fens have been particularly troublesome. Fens like to form in high-alpine valleys, the places best suited for dams and water reservoirs that take water from rivers mostly on the Western Slope and pump it over the mountains to supply the Front Range’s growing population.
But the fen policy has stymied many of the utilities’ plans to develop new water projects. Those defeats helped spur Front Range utilities to start researching new mitigation strategies that would help them comply with environmental regulations — and get around the fen policy.
“They wanted to figure out how to do this right so they could actually permit their projects,” Johnson said.
Through the fen-research project, Aurora and Pueblo saw an opportunity to address the fen policy’s requirement that a project offset unavoidable impacts to a fen by restoring an equivalent amount of fen elsewhere.
Since the fen project began 16 years ago, Aurora and Pueblo have invested $300,000 and $81,500 in the research, respectively. More recently, other funders have joined the effort, including Denver Water, Colorado Springs Utilities at about $10,000 each and the Colorado Water Conservation Board ($100,000).
After a number of fits and starts, Johnson three years ago settled on a design for the research that would test whether it’s ecologically possible to transplant fen soils from one location to another. First, Johnson restored the original groundwater spring at the old Hayden Ranch property. Then, he and a team of helpers removed blocks of soil from another degraded fen site and reassembled them, like an organ transplant, at the “receiver” site, where the restored spring now flows through veinlike cobble bars and sandbars, feeding the transplanted fen.
It’s still too early to know whether the project could eventually serve as a fen-mitigation strategy for a new reservoir, but Johnson is optimistic about the results thus far. In 2017, after just one growing season, he was shocked to discover 67 different plant species growing at the transplanted fen site — compared with just 10 at the donor site. He was thrilled by the news. The data showed that the transplanted fen ecosystem is thriving.
That’s good news for utilities such as Aurora, too.
A week after Johnson visited the Rocky Mountain Fen Project site, Kathy Kitzmann gave a tour of the wetland-filled valley formed by Homestake Creek where Aurora and Colorado Springs are planning to build Whitney Reservoir.
Kitzmann, a water resources principal for Aurora Water, drove down the bumpy, snow-covered road that winds along the valley bottom, pointing to the two creeks that would — along with Homestake Creek and the Eagle River, near Camp Hale — help fill the reservoir. A pump station would send the water upvalley to the existing Homestake Reservoir and then through another series of tunnels to the Front Range.
In the lower part of the valley, Kitzmann stopped at the first of four potential reservoir sites — ranging in size from 6,000 acre-feet to 20,000 acre-feet — that the utilities have identified for the project and the wetlands it would inundate.
“You can sort of see why it wouldn’t be the best, just given the vastness of the wetlands,” Kitzmann said.
Farther along, the valley becomes more canyonlike, with higher rocky walls and fewer wetlands — probably offering a better reservoir site, said Kitzmann, although the permitting agencies won’t know for sure until they complete their initial feasibility studies.
In June, Aurora and Colorado Springs submitted a permit application to the U.S. Forest Service to perform exploratory drilling and other mapping and surveying work, but the agency has not yet approved the permit.
Potential fen impacts are just one of several environmental hurdles facing the project. One of the Whitney alternatives would encroach on the Holy Cross Wilderness. Aurora and Colorado Springs have proposed moving the wilderness boundary, if necessary, to accommodate the reservoir.
It’s also likely that the wetlands in the Homestake Valley contain fens, but until the utilities conduct wetland studies around the proposed reservoir sites next summer, the scope of the impacts remains uncertain.
Environmental groups including Colorado Headwaters, a nonprofit, oppose the Whitney Reservoir project, arguing that it would destroy one of the state’s most valuable wetlands, as well as an important habitat for wildlife and rare native plants.
In the meantime, Aurora is hopeful that Johnson’s research might one day help solve some of the environmental problems around new water development. “We are excited about proving that you can restore and rehabilitate fens,” Kitzmann said.
But is a transplanted fen as good as not touching one in the first place?
A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson said fens are still designated a “Resource Category 1,” which means that the appropriate type of mitigation is avoidance, or “no loss.”
White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams echoed the spokesperson’s statement, noting that land managers place a high emphasis on protection for fens: “It’s really hard to replace a wetland in these high elevations.”
Johnson, asked whether he was worried that his research into fen mitigation might end up facilitating the kinds of projects that are most damaging to fens. He sighed. “I’m sensitive to that,” he said.
But like it or not, Johnson believes that more impacts to fens are inevitable. As Colorado’s population grows, water utilities will have to build new reservoirs, the state will need new roads and ski resorts will want to expand.
“I can’t argue with whether they should get built,” he said. “I’m just a wetlands guy.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with the Vail Daily and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Nov. 18 print edition of the Vail Daily.
[November 13, 2019] Colorado’s snowpack is shrinking as a dry spell has hit the state.
According to Denver CBS4, the average statewide snowpack has dropped below the typical norm due to recent lack of precipitation across parts of the state. The southwest portion of the state is far below the norm, with the San Juan Mountains dropping to 20% of the average snowpack median and Upper Rio Grande Region dropping to 49% of the median for mid-November. The South Platte River basin has the highest snowpack in the state right now, with 137% of the typical median.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Chavez to Take the Lead at UGRWCD
Sonja Chavez has been selected to serve as the General Manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. When asked about her new role, Ms. Chavez said, “I look forward to working with my local community and our Upper Gunnison Board of Directors and staff to continue to ensure that all water needs within the Upper Gunnison basin are being addressed, with other regional water users to speak with one voice on water resource issues affecting west slope communities, and with other state and federal entities to make informed decisions and have respectful dialogue around our current and future water use.”
As a native Coloradan, Sonja’s passion for water and agriculture is deeply rooted in her family’s ranching heritage. She grew up in a small community in southwestern Colorado along the banks of the Purgatoire River.
Ms. Chavez received a BA in Environmental Biology and an MA in Limnology (study of freshwater systems) from the University of Colorado. Her areas of expertise are in water quality, water resources management, funding acquisition, environmental and natural resource sciences, and policy and planning.
Early in her career Sonja worked in both the private and public sectors in Colorado (Water Quality Control Division, Department of Transportation and Summit County Government). In 2002, she moved to the Gunnison community and started her own consulting firm, assisting west slope water providers and water users planning and implementation of over $38 million dollars of water-quality and agricultural efficiency improvement and hydro-electric projects.
In 2015, she left the consulting world to join the Colorado River Water Conservation District as a Water Resource Specialist where her responsibilities included the management of off- and on-farm agricultural efficiency, system optimization and water-quality improvement projects, environmental compliance, funding acquisition, and grant management, and drought contingency planning and demand management including the evaluation of water banking.
No matter where you are in the world, Professor Karl Linden wants you to be able to turn on a tap and receive clean drinking water. It’s a basic, but vital, necessity that’s still missing from large swathes of the U.S. and low- and middle-income countries.
“People deserve reliable, trusted technology when it comes to something as essential as water,” said Linden, the Mortenson Endowed Professor in Sustainable Development at CU Boulder. “Water resources are getting scarcer and we need to be thinking about the next generation of efficient, affordable treatment options.”
The World Health Organization estimates that some 785 million people lack access to even basic drinking water filtration, leaving them vulnerable to pathogens such as cholera and dysentery. The problem is expected to grow in coming decades due to population growth and increased stress on water availability.
Treatment technology, meanwhile, hasn’t changed much in over a century. Sand- or carbon-based filtration and disinfectant chemicals are commonly employed in both municipal facilities and everyday life, from household Brita filters to chlorine tablets. Both methods have their limitations, however: Filtration is expensive to deliver to rural communities at scale and chemicals can add an unpleasant taste.
Linden, a member of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering who has been researching water treatment for decades, is focused on a different solution: ultraviolet disinfection. UV rays can eliminate harmful pathogens like E. coli and Giardia on a scale of seconds compared to minutes, without harmful side effects. And while it’s not a new idea—large cities like New York already use UV in their utilities—it is one that has been historically difficult to bring down to the individual consumer level.
“UV has been around for decades, and is used in municipal and industrial water treatment around the world, but its potential for further innovation and application has been slowed due to the use of hazardous, bulky mercury vapor lamps,” Linden said. “But we’re interested in new UV sources with unique architectures that will allow us to advance this promising technology.”
In recent years, Linden and his colleagues have focused research on UV light emitting diodes, which are smaller (millimeters wide), nimbler and more durable. UV LEDs can be rigged in parallel, with multiple-emitting wavelength diodes to allow for a range of streamlined applications.
Another benefit: The UV LEDs are “instant-on” and don’t require any warm-up time before they start zapping contaminants, allowing users to save money by only running the devices when they need to. Water pulled from a well, for example, would be drinkable immediately after a quick UV treatment without the off-putting taste of chlorine.
Linden and his students recently completed a first-of-its-kind year-long study in Jamestown, Colorado, comparing UV LED disinfection to the town’s established chlorine treatment. They found that for a town of around 500 people without a large water plant, the UV technology provided equally effective disinfection capabilities without the added chemicals. The new technology only cost a few dollars a month in electricity and can run directly off solar power.
“Small-scale, rural systems are a natural place to start with this,” Linden said. “They have the majority of health violations because they typically don’t have engineers and dedicated water treatment staff. They might be relying on a system that’s not always operating correctly. So we feel this tech is a great solution because it can be operated remotely, autonomously and powered by solar to reduce energy draw.”
Earlier this year, Linden earned the Water Research Foundation’s Dr. Pankaj Parekh Research Innovation Award for his achievements in the advancement of water science.
Treatment that lasts
In the coming years, next steps could involve integrating UV LEDs directly into infrastructure. Linden envisions faucets with the diodes built right in to the taps, activating instantly when you turn on the water. His lab group has started looking at ways to build diodes into pipes to create a system-wide network of disinfectant points, mitigating biofilm growth in high-risk settings like hospitals.
“We really feel like this technology is sustainable and poised to revolutionize this field,” Linden said. “We want to work directly with more water managers to think about these improvements, try new things and ultimate bridge the research to the practical applications.”
Nationwide, momentum around the issue is building. This fall, the U.S. Department of Energy announced the creation of the $100 million Energy-Water Desalination Hub, an interdisciplinary partnership that will focus on early-stage research and development for energy-efficient and cost-competitive water treatment. The effort will be led by the National Alliance for Water Innovation, of which CU Boulder is a founding academic partner.
Linden, who will lead the CU Boulder efforts under the Hub, says that the prestigious award underscores a renewed interest in addressing water security, which has always been his calling.
“I feel like I’m on a mission to push society into the next generation of treatment approaches,” he said. “Some innovations have already taken hold and gotten traction. But we’ve had so many advances in society and technology like remote sensing, data analytics and real-time monitoring that we haven’t taken full advantage of yet for water security.”
“In many low resourced countries we see a handpump or water system get put in and the treatment gets set up and it works for a while, but then eventually it breaks and the progress is lost,” Linden said. “So why is that, and what can be done about that? That’s when we need to think more holistically about the system that is available to support long term sustainable water services, and improved, integrated and innovative technology, like what we are working on in the Mortenson Center, is one aspect of the solution.”
The end goal? Bringing water solutions into everyday life seamlessly all around the globe.
“You turn on the tap and the water comes out and it’s already been treated and you don’t even have to think about it,” he said. “That’s the holy grail.”
The city is assembling a war chest to ward off an “existential crisis” stemming from a politically connected company, Rocky Mountain Resources, that wants to expand a limestone mine just above Glenwood Springs’ famous hot springs
The historic resort city has directed $250,000 toward the fight to stop the expansion of the Mid-Continent Limestone Quarry and put another $1 million in a reserve war chest. And Glenwood Springs leaders have gathered unprecedented support for its first public affairs campaign targeting a business, with council members, trustees and commissioners from every municipality in Pitkin and Garfield counties unanimously backing the fight to block the mine expansion.
The resolutions the city has gathered in recent months come from the Pitkin County commissioners as well as trustees and council members from Rifle, Silt, New Castle, Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Basalt, Aspen and Snowmass Village. Every community vote was unanimous…
Garfield County’s commissioners have not formally issued a resolution opposing the mine, but the board is defending lawsuits filed in both state and federal court by the mine’s owner, Rocky Mountain Resources, which argues the county’s enforcement of the mine’s county permit conflicts with state and federal permitting. The resolutions passed by Glenwood Springs’ neighbors demand that RMR comply with those local regulations.
“It’s really cool and it’s really wonderful that these other municipalities are coming to help us,” said Steve Beckley, the owner of the Iron Mountain Hot Springs and Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, which is adjacent to the proposed expansion of the Mid-Continent Limestone Quarry. “When a mine owner sues a county and says you don’t have jurisdiction over us even though we are in your backyard, I hope that everybody in this state stands up and takes notice. This could be a precedent that impacts everywhere in Colorado.”
RMR, which has owned the Mid-Continent Limestone Quarry since 2016, wants to expand its federal permit with the Bureau of Land Management from 15.7 acres to 447 acres, with mining of chemical-grade limestone and dolomite on 320 acres within that boundary.
The proposal calls for RMR to increase its now-seasonal operations, which are prohibited from Dec. 15 to Apr. 15 and produce up to 60,000 tons of limestone products a year, to a 20-year, year-round operation that would produce 5 million tons of limestone products a year. The proposal seeks BLM permission to use as many as 30 semi-trucks, each making 15 to 20 daily round-trips from the mill down the unpaved Transfer Trail road to a riverside railyard.
The BLM is pursuing an intensive Environmental Impact Statement review of the Mid-Continent expansion plan, but the likely years-long process is just beginning and public comment is months away.
But the communities around the mine are preparing residents for that comment period, hoping the public campaign can sway the BLM to reject the proposal.
In addition to concerns over visibility, truck traffic and potential disruption of the flow of geothermal water that feeds the town’s hot springs, opponents of the mine fret that RMR’s owner, Chad Brownstein, has deep political connections that could greenlight the expansion despite opposition.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt once lobbied on behalf of oil and gas clients for Brownstein’s father’s influential Denver law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
The ultimate decision for the mine expansion will fall to Bernhardt, who is under investigation for influencing policy that benefited California’s Westlands Water District, which was his largest client as a lobbyist.
“Are we worried about the failure of the BLM to listen to the concerns of the community and follow the law? Yes we are and we should be. Some of the lawyers and lobbyists at the Brownstein firm working on this plan are former BLM officials. The revolving door is spinning wildly on this one,” said Matt Ward, an environmental lawyer whose Washington, D.C.-based Sustainable Strategies DC is helping Glenwood Springs plan its campaign…
In April, Garfield County’s commissioners held a public hearing and found RMR was not in compliance with the county’s special-use permit last amended in 2010, citing five issues:
* The mine’s federal, state and county permits authorized chemical-grade limestone dust, but RMR was supplying road base and construction materials.
* The quarry operated between Dec. 15 and April 15, when operations are not permitted.
* The mine’s operators expanded to almost 21 acres but the county permit allows operations on only about 16 acres.
* The mine’s exploratory drilling, allowed under a BLM permit, was not authorized by the county permit.
* Mine traffic on Transfer Trail was violating conditions of the county permit.
The commissioners gave RMR until June 1 to correct the permit violations. (The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety has approved the operation’s boundary of 38 acres and in 2017 reported the mine was in compliance with its rules.)
The lawsuits urged both courts to stop the county’s permit enforcement, saying the county’s Notice of Violation conflicted with not just federal and state permits, but the General Mining Act of 1872. The fight hinges on that 147-year-old legislation. RMR says it is mining “locatable minerals,” which federal law dating to 1872 encourages with lesser regulation, smaller taxes and easier access to public lands. But RMR’s Mid-Continent mine has historically produced minerals the legislation describes as “common,” like basic limestone and aggregate, which requires stricter regulation and bigger severance tax payments to the federal government and local communities.
Last week the company’s attorneys replied to the division, noting the lawsuits and saying the county “has not acknowledged preemption of state and federal law.” RMR’s attorney David McConaughy, with Garfield & Hecht, said Garfield County won’t act on its list of violations until the federal case is resolved and since the federal case has been stayed, the county’s Notice of Violation “will not be enforced and will have no impact on RMR’s operations for at least several months.”
McConaughy also said RMR is applying for a new special-use permit from Garfield County…
The required Air Pollutant Emissions Notice applications detail air quality mitigation plans for blasting, crushing, screening and moving as much as 3.9 million tons of limestone products for 10 hours a day, 250 days a year. The air quality permit request documents mitigation efforts for 64 daily round-trips by 34-ton trucks on unpaved roads for 10 hours a day, 365 days a year. The request included a check for $573.39 for processing the notice applications.
50 truck trips an hour
The potential for as many as 600 truck trips up and down the unpaved Transfer Trail between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day of the year — that’s 50 trips an hour, according to the BLM application — ranks among the most troubling issues for residents of Glenwood Springs.
Equally troublesome is RMR’s more recent request for the BLM to allow drilling of five wells — between 125- and 250-feet deep — to study water quality and hydrology around the mine as part of a baseline to anchor the BLM’s environmental review of the proposed expansion. RMR is asking the BLM to exclude the monitoring wells from more intensive environmental review.
That proposal drew 250 comments that the BLM is reviewing, agency spokesman David Boyd said.
Glenwood Springs residents fear the wells could disrupt the delicate geothermal network that feeds the historic Glenwood Hot Springs Pool and the newer Iron Mountain Hot Springs, two of the city’s top tourist attractions…
Garfield County’s three commissioners want the BLM to include the drilling of the water-monitoring wells in a comprehensive environmental review to safeguard the hot springs, which they described in a letter to the BLM sent last month as “the lifeblood and economic engine” of the community…
More than 200 Roaring Fork Valley businesses have signed a petition protesting the planned expansion, Peterson said…
Mining for highly valuable, or “locatable” minerals is regulated less tightly and allows for smaller severance taxes paid to local communities. That part of the 1872 mining law was designed to encourage mining for valuable minerals on public land. RMR is arguing its mining of chemical-grade limestone for high-end concrete and dolomite falls under the 1872 legislation’s “locatable minerals” protections.
But opponents of the plan say the mine is producing common minerals, which require stricter regulation and heftier payments. Residents and city leaders have collected sales receipts showing the company is selling aggregate, or road base, for local projects, like Glenwood Springs’ new bridge spanning the Colorado River.