#Farmington residents urged to conserve water during ongoing drought conditions — The Farmington Daily Times #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

Farmington residents are being asked to voluntarily cut back on their water usage by 10% amid ongoing drought conditions.

The Farmington City Council approved a resolution enacting a stage one water shortage advisory on a 3-0 vote. The meeting was broadcast on Zoom and a recording will be available online at http://fmtn.org/AgendaCenter.

Community Works Director David Sypher said the city has struggled to keep Lake Farmington full.

“We are taking keeping our lake 100% full a little more seriously than we have in the past,” he said, explaining that the city not only provides water to its residents but also delivers water to other water systems.

Lake Farmington was approximately 98% full on Sept. 3, but has been dropping at a rate of 0.15 to 0.3% daily and, as of the meeting on Sept. 8, Sypher said the lake was 97.15% full.

A storm brought precipitation to the region as the City Council discussed the water shortage advisory, but Sypher said current forecasts are calling for 30 to 50% of normal precipitation in the upcoming months and the most liberal projections are anticipating moderate drought.

West Drought Monitor September 1, 2020.

The #GoldKingMine spill 5 years on

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage. Photo via the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

For a few days in August 2015, invisible mining pollutants could be seen by the world

Five years ago today, a breach at the Gold King Mine north of Silverton sent a deluge of water loaded with heavy metals into the Animas River, turning the waterway an electric-orange hue that caught the nation’s attention.

But five years later, and four years into the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup program, there has yet to be meaningful improvements to water quality and aquatic life.

Dan Wall, with the EPA’s Superfund program, said most of the focus since the Bonita Peaking Mining District Superfund site was declared in fall 2016 has been on studying the watershed and the multitude of mines impacting water quality.

The EPA is still in that effort, Wall said, and there’s no time frame for when the agency will present its final work plan for a comprehensive cleanup in the Animas River basin.

The EPA has spent more than $75 million on the site to date.

“It may be slower than what people want,” Wall said. “But we want to make sure our remedy selection is based on science … so the money won’t be wasted and we can be confident to see improvements based on the work we take.”

[…]

The stretch of the Animas River between Silverton and Bakers Bridge, about 15 miles north of Durango, is virtually devoid of aquatic life. Fish populations in the river through Durango are unable to reproduce, in part because of heavy metal contamination. And, years ago, the city of Durango switched its main source of water to the Florida River because of quality issues in the Animas.

The Animas River Stakeholders Group formed in 1994 and brought together a coalition of local, state and federal agencies, as well as mining companies and interested people, who sought to improve the health of the river amid heavy metal loading from legacy mines.

Prior to mining, snowmelt and rain seep into natural cracks and fractures, eventually emerging as a freshwater spring (usually). Graphic credit: Jonathan Thompson

Despite the many Stakeholders Group successes, water quality in the Animas River in recent years has diminished, mainly from the mines leaching into one of the river’s tributaries, Cement Creek.

In 2014, the EPA decided pollution had gotten so bad that it stepped in with a $1.5 million cleanup project of its own…

Despite millions of dollars in claims, no one was reimbursed for their losses after the EPA claimed governmental immunity. A lawsuit still lingers in the federal courts from those seeking to recoup costs.

But ultimately, the Animas River did not appear to be too adversely impacted – the spill did not cause a die-off of fish, and long-term studies have shown little to no effect on aquatic life or the waterway…

The “Bonita Peak Mining District” superfund site. Map via the Environmental Protection Agency

What the spill did accomplish was to highlight the legacy of mines chronically contaminating the Animas River: The amount of metals released from the Gold King Mine spill is equal to that released every 300 days from all the mines around Silverton.

After years of the possibility of the EPA’s Superfund program stepping in, it became official in fall 2016, with the agency singling out 48 mining-related sites set for some degree of cleanup…

Gold King Mine Entrance after blow out on August 5, 2015. Photo via EPA.

Immediately after the Gold King Mine spill, the EPA built a $1.5 million temporary water treatment plant that takes in discharges from the mine and removes metals, which costs about $2.4 million to $3.3 million a year to operate.

But other than some minor projects around the basin, the EPA has focused on studies to better understand the complex mining district, and evaluate what long-term options would be best for cleanup.

The EPA is set, remedial project manager Robert Parker said, to make stronger headway on a quick action plan to address about 23 mining sites over the next few years while longer-term solutions are being examined.

Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter

@EPA proposes permanent mine waste dump site north of #Silverton — The #Durango Herald #AnimasRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

The town of Silverton, Colorado, USA as seen from U.S. Route 550. By Daniel Schwen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10935432

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Project needs approval from Sunnyside Gold, a company potentially on hook for costs

It appears the Environmental Protection Agency has found a place for long-term storage of mine waste near Silverton.

Mayflower Mill

The EPA announced this week it is proposing a waste repository for the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site on top of the existing tailings impoundment near the Mayflower Mill, about 2 miles northeast of Silverton off County Road 2.

The site, EPA officials say, would serve as a long-term option to store waste that is generated from Superfund cleanup actions, as well as sludge from the water treatment plant that takes in discharges from the Gold King Mine.

“It’s going to be there for the long haul to accommodate any waste we’ll need to remove,” said Christina Progess, the EPA’s lead for the Superfund site.

The proposal comes with one caveat, however: The property is owned by Sunnyside Gold Corp. The EPA has asked for approval from Silverton’s last operating mining company and has yet to hear back.

Gina Myers, a spokeswoman for Sunnyside Gold, said in an email to The Durango Herald that “SGC … had previously offered EPA the use of Mayflower ground for storage of sludge from the underutilized treatment plant.”

Myers did not clarify whether Sunnyside Gold will allow EPA access or not.

The need for a centrally located, permanent dump site for mine waste has been an ongoing issue for EPA ever since the Superfund was declared in fall 2016, about a year after the agency triggered a blowout at the Gold King Mine.

The water treatment plant constructed after the blowout generates up to 6,000 cubic yards of sludge a year – or about a football field buried in 3 feet of muck – and there’s little room on-site for storage. And in the future, the EPA will need a place to take waste removed from other projects…

In August 2019, Sunnyside Gold offered the EPA access to its property at the Mayflower tailings repository, a large series of four impoundments of historic mine waste rock that operated until the early 2000s.

“(The site) is an ideal and proven site for a repository for the water-treatment plant, and, in the interest of good faith and improving water quality, SGC has granted EPA access for this evaluative work,” the company said at the time.

Progess said the EPA sent Sunnyside Gold a consent for access request and hopes to hear of a final decision by mid-August…

If access were granted, the EPA would start a phased approach at the Mayflower tailings, Progess said. A liner would be placed on top of the existing piles for the new waste, which would then be capped.

All told, the EPA’s plan would have the capacity to store up to 609,000 cubic yards of mine waste and sludge. Use of the site, however, would vary year to year, depending on current projects and need…

The Mayflower tailings are suspected of leaching heavy metals into the Animas River, which has prompted Sunnyside Gold to conduct its own multi-year investigation into the matter.

Progess said the investigation remains ongoing, and the EPA would use a different, more stable location at Impoundment 1 on the site to store its waste to begin with. She said leaching is suspected at Impoundment 4.

“We feel comfortable starting the work at Impoundment 1,” she said. “That will allow us years of use while the investigation on Impoundment 4 can continue.”

The public can comment on the proposed plan until Aug. 27. A virtual public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. Aug 11.

Progess said the EPA hopes to have the site constructed and ready for use by fall 2021, about the time storage at the water-treatment plant for the Gold King Mine is expected to reach capacity.

The EPA’s wastewater treatment plant near Silverton, Colorado, on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2015 — photo via Grace Hood Colorado Public Radio

June/July 2020 Newsletter is hot off the presses from The Water Information Program

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Basin Implementation Plan Update
Ed Tolen, SW Basin 1st Vice Chair, explained that in January a sub-committee was set up to select a local expert to work with the SW Basin Roundtable on updating the Basin Implementation Plan (BIP). From the proposals received the committee chose Harris Water Engineers to be local expert. Steve Harris (Harris Water Engineering) will no longer participate on the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) or the SW Basin Roundtable, and Carrie Padgett, P.E. of Harris Water will also step down from the SW Basin Roundtable. Roundtable elections will take place in October, Officer elections will take place in July.

There will be a team approach to working on the BIP update that will include the SW Basin Roundtable, the Local Experts (Harris Water Engineers), who work with the General Contractor (Brown and Caldwell) and the CWCB.

Matt Lindberg with Brown/Caldwell, the General Contractor, gave a presentation on next steps regarding the BIP review process. The purpose of the review and update is to improve project data, unpack technical update, revisit goals and objectives and invest in process efficiency.

The timeline for the BIP update is as follows:

  • March – August 2020 – Local Expert Workshops, Work Plans and Project lists.
  • September – December 2020 – Basin Analysis/Study
  • January – December 2021 – Update the Basin Implementation Plan
  • December to March 2022 – Incorporate Updated BIP’s into the Water Plan Update
  • To view the full Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan go here.

    Durango hatchery takes first spawn from rare #cutthroat trout rescued in #416Fire — @COParksWildlife

    Toby Mourning, manager of the Durango fish hatchery for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, takes eggs from a rare San Juan cutthroat trout. Photo credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife

    Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):

    After nearly a two-year wait, Colorado Parks and Wildlife hatchery staff and biologists in Durango have spawned a new lineage of Colorado River cutthroat trout that were rescued from a remote stream during the 416 Fire in 2018.

    This marks a major milestone for CPW’s on-going species conservation work in Colorado, and the result of decades of work by dedicated biologists, researchers and field staff.

    Fertilized eggs of the San Juan cutthroats will hatch by mid-summer; some of the fingerlings will be placed in back-country streams in the southwest area of the state and others will be held at the Durango hatchery to start a sustainable brood stock. Now, the hatchery staff and biologists will continue the long-term effort to restore these native trout to their home waters.

    “I’m thrilled that we’ve gotten a spawn from these fish, it’s been a long process and we’ve got a lot more work to do,” said Jim White, aquatic biologist for CPW in Durango.

    The story of these fish that hold a unique genetic marker goes back nearly 150 years and includes some serious biological detective work. Since the 1970s, CPW aquatic biologists have searched back-country streams looking for isolated populations of cutthroats — Colorado’s native trout. In southwest Colorado in the 1980s and 1990s, biologists found cutthroat trout that were suspected to have unique characteristics in eight small streams. Back then, however, technology to analyze genetics fully was still being developed. The biologists kept their eyes on the fish and made sure non-native trout were not stocked nearby.

    In 2012, researchers from the University of Colorado went to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History looking for preserved specimens of cutthroat trout that had been collected in Colorado. Two of the specimens they found were taken from the San Juan River near Pagosa Springs in 1874.

    An analysis showed that the fish had genetic “fingerprints” specific to the San Juan River Basin. CPW researchers then began a similar analysis of the cutthroats they’d found in southwest Colorado. By this time, genetic-analysis technology had advanced and in early 2018 scientists confirmed that the marker in the museum specimens matched the cutthroat trout recently found in the wild.

    Biologists and hatchery staff then made a plan to start propagating the fish. The 416 Fire helped push the project along.

    The 416 Fire near Durango, Colorado, ignited on June 1, 2018. By June 21, the wildfire covered more than 34,000 acres and was 37 percent contained. Photo credit USFS via The High Country News

    When the fire started north of Durango, biologists worried that ash and sediment run-off could kill the cutthroats in the remote streams. So CPW worked with the San Juan National Forest to go into the area to capture the wild trout and bring them to a special isolation hatchery in Durango. Only 54 cutthroat were recovered from the fire area.

    White and Durango Hatchery Manager Toby Mourning have been concerned because the fish did not produce any spawn last year and some of the fish died. But the turnaround this year is a major milestone for the restoration effort.

    “We’re not getting a lot of eggs, but enough to provide some for a limited amount of stocking and some to start a captive population that will be sustainable,” Mourning said.

    In order to protect the fish, CPW is not providing details on stream locations. Biologists hope, however, that in a few years anglers will be able to find this unique cutthroat trout in the wild.

    White explained that the work on this native is a significant conservation effort. In 2018, after the genetics of the fish were confirmed, he said: “We always ask ourselves, ‘What if we could go back to the days before mining, pioneer settlement and wide-spread non-native fish stocking to see what we had here? Careful work over the years by biologists, finding those old specimens in the museum and the genetic testing gave us the chance, essentially, to go back in time. Now we have the opportunity to bring this native trout back to southwest Colorado.”

    Beautiful San Juan “Cut” May, 2020. Photo credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife

    #Drought/#runoff news: Parts of SW #Colorado slip back into Extreme Drought, #AnimasRiver runoff expected to peak early

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    Extreme drought has crept back into Southwest Colorado…

    “With climate change, we expect to see these really big swings from wet to dry years,” said Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist with Colorado State University. “But the trend is we’re in a mega-drought.”

    For context, Udall said it’s important to look at Colorado’s weather the past three years. In 2018, it was one of the hottest and driest years on record. The next year, however, brought one of the best snowpacks in recorded history.

    For 2020, it appears the pendulum has swung back to hot and dry.

    “It’s not as bad as 2018, but it’s still bad,” Udall said. “Probably within the bottom 10 driest years on record.”

    West Drought Monitor May 5, 2020.

    On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor relisted parts of Southwest Colorado in the “extreme drought” category for the first time since the region was downgraded after the 2018-19 winter…

    Southwest Colorado’s current dry spell began in October 2019 and lasted through the winter. Though high elevation weather stations recorded about normal snowpack levels, researchers estimated snow levels were below average.

    This spring, too, has been all but void of precipitation. April saw just 10% of normal precipitation levels for the region, making it one of the driest months on record. From October to April, the region saw 70% of its average precipitation levels.

    As a result, the Animas River is expected to have 63% of its normal water supply.

    Unusually high temperatures, too, have exacerbated the lack of snow and rain. In April, for instance, the region was 10 to 20 degrees higher than average, according to data from the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center.

    Above-average temperatures this early in the season have caused snowpack to melt and rivers to run higher and earlier than normal. The Animas River, for example, is expected to peak this weekend at around 2,700 cubic feet per second. By comparison, the Animas River usually peaks during the first week of June around 4,700 cfs.

    Most of the snow has already melted off the San Juan Mountains – the Animas, Dolores, San Miguel and San Juan river basins have just 50% of normal snowpack levels for this time of year.

    The hot and dry conditions have elevated concerns about fire danger in the region. Pugh said soil moisture is in the lowest fifth percentile, a sign that fuels on the ground are ripe to burn and would be difficult to put out.

    Hal Doughty, chief of Durango Fire Protection District, said local fire chiefs in the region sent a letter Friday to La Plata County, requesting commissioners implement Stage 1 fire restrictions.

    La Plata County commissioners are expected to vote on the restrictions Tuesday. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe implemented Stage 1 fire restrictions on Friday…

    On April 7, the Forest Service announced a complete fire ban across 24 national forests in the Rocky Mountain region, including the San Juan National Forest.

    Lorena Williams, spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said the agency is expecting above-average fire potential in May and June.

    “Fuel dryness levels have hit critical levels, and above-normal fire potential exists at all snow-free elevations in Southwest Colorado,” she said. “We are preparing for active fire behavior that will be difficult to control. As we’ve seen very recently, any ignitions can lead to rapid fire spread when aided by wind and slope. As fuels dry even more, less wind and less slope will result in the same amount of spread.”

    Udall said there is some connection between dry years and wetter monsoons later in the summer: The sun heats the land more, which pulls moisture-laden air from thousands of miles away.

    “I don’t think there’s any question that happens,” he said. “But it’s just not a guaranteed thing. The odds are just higher.”

    Udall pointed to a scientific study published April 17 in Science that concludes a drought of epic portions is the new reality for the American Southwest, driven in part by climate change…

    Williams and his colleagues, however, found by studying soil moisture content in tree ring records that the region had experienced four periods of more than two decades of severe drought conditions in the past 1,200 years.

    The study found the current drought in the region since 2000 is the second-worst drought experienced in that time span, second only to a dry spell in the 1500s.

    Add complications with climate change, which is expected to move storms farther north and raise temperatures in the Southwest, and concerns about water availability and intensified wildfire seasons begin to mount.

    “I’ve always been worried about Southwest Colorado,” Udall said. “As the planet warms, areas right on the edge of big deserts like Southwest Colorado are really at risk.”

    San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan Basin High/Low graph May 7, 2020 via the NRCS.

    #Runoff news: @USBR is expecting below a normal season on the #AnimasRiver #snowpack

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    “I think, unfortunately, it’s one of those years that’s kind of a bummer,” said Ashley Nielson, a senior hydrologist with the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center. “Everything is going to be below average.”

    Animas River Basin SNOTEL snowpack graph May 3, 2020 via the NRCS.

    Snowpack in the San Juan Mountains this winter hovered near historic averages, according to Snotel sites, which track snow depth.

    But Snotel sites tell only part of the story.

    For one, there are a limited number of sites in the basin. And this year, elevations above most Snotel sites around 11,000 feet didn’t receive as much snow as usual.

    To make matters worse, drought conditions last summer and fall caused the ground to dry up significantly, so soil likely will absorb more snowmelt than normal, at the expense of rivers and streams.

    As a result, the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center predicts the Animas River will receive about 70% of the water it usually does in spring, Nielson said.

    The forecast center also predicts the Animas River likely will hit a peak flow of 2,300 to 2,500 cubic feet per second, though as much as 3,000 cfs is possible…

    As of Friday, Snotel records show Southwest Colorado’s snowpack is melting at an accelerated rate: Snowpack in the San Juans is 70% of normal historic averages for this time of year.

    Jarrod Biggs, assistant utilities director for the city of Durango, said a heavy snowpack year in the winter of 2018-19 provided good storage for the town’s reservoir, which should help water reserves during a below-normal runoff.

    The city of Durango gets most of its water from the Florida River and supplements supply from the Animas River when demand increases…

    Water is not being pulled from the Animas River to Lake Nighthorse this year, said Russ Means, general manager of the reservoir, as crews work on the intake structure across from Santa Rita Park.

    On Friday, the Animas River was running at 1,700 cfs, which is 25% higher than average for this time of year, said Frank Kugel, director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.

    San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

    The Spring 2020 Headwaters Magazine: Pursuing Water Justice is hot off the presses from @WaterEdCO

    Please enjoy the article below and then Click here to become a member at Water Education Colorado.

    From Water Education Colorado (Laura Paskus and Caitlin Coleman):

    Interstate 70 and a Nestle Purina pet food factory loom above northeast Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods. By Matthew Staver

    When Water Justice is Absent, Communities Speak Up

    Two years ago, a company that analyzes property data crunched the numbers on more than 8,600 zip codes in the United States and found that America’s most polluted neighborhood was in northeast Denver. The study, from ATTOM Data Solutions, shows that Denver’s 80216 zip code, which includes Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and River North, topped its “environmental hazard index.” As of 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory reported that 22 facilities were still releasing toxic chemicals in 80216, chemicals such as nickel, lead, methanol, creosote and more.

    “The neighborhood is parked between gas refineries, the former airport, and then, also, what was at one time an Army base making mustard gas,” says University of Denver law professor Tom Romero, II, who has spent his career dissecting the factors behind environmental injustices in Colorado. There are two Superfund sites and six brownfield sites in 80216, plus the knot of Interstate 70 and Interstate 25 severs the neighborhood from the rest of Denver and increases pollution from highway traffic. The area is also home to a predominantly low-income, Hispanic and Latinx community, says Candi CdeBaca, Denver City Councilwoman for northeast Denver’s District 9.

    Last year, CdeBaca became the first person from the neighborhoods to represent on the Denver City Council, ever. She points to an opposition campaign to the Central 70 Project as the beginning of the neighborhood rallying to achieve representation against environmental inequities.

    The Central 70 Project broke ground in 2018 to widen the highway through Denver. It will demolish the viaduct that carries I-70 over Elyria-Swansea, replacing it with a below-grade highway. Residents had a list of worries: losing their homes to eminent domain, living even closer to the highway, and unearthing a Superfund site, which they feared would re-expose harmful heavy metals and increase health risks, CdeBaca says.

    Their opposition campaign didn’t stop the highway work, but the community came together and won in one sense—the Colorado Department of Transportation will pay for a long-term health study, collecting data to determine whether toxins in the air, soil and water are making residents sick. They also gained a louder voice. “Those losses were the first start of me galvanizing some community power around environmental racism,” says CdeBaca. “Now we have this amplification of groups who never had representation in our government from the neighborhoods that were polluted.” She points to the importance of local voice and representation in all issues, particularly for communities that want to bring about environmental justice. “There is nothing that I support more than activating people power,” CdeBaca says.

    With water affordability, access and quality challenges—all of which can translate into health impacts—the role of water in Colorado isn’t always one of fostering healthy communities, yet it could and should be. What contributes to these less-than-whole communities? And what does it take to recognize the issues and how they evolved, address power imbalances, engage the community, and restore equity where it’s been missing?

    What is Environmental Justice?

    Environmental injustices in Colorado, or anywhere, can span cities and suburbs, sovereign tribal lands, and rural communities. They have their roots in narratives of immigration, development and industry, and political power dynamics, further influenced by evolving legal and regulatory frameworks.

    In 1990, EPA Administrator William Reilly created an Environmental Equity Workgroup to assess evidence that “racial minority and low-income communities bear a higher environmental risk burden than the general population.” The agency, which went on to establish an Environmental Equity office in 1992, later changing its name to the Office of Environmental Justice in 1994, defines environmental justice as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” It has since expanded to offer a range of programs that provide services from grant funding to technical assistance and training. It also runs a National Environmental Justice Hotline.

    Another early definition of environmental justice came from University of Michigan professor Bunyan Bryant, who said it refers to places “where people can interact with confidence that the environment is safe, nurturing and productive. Environmental justice is served when people can realize their highest potential.”

    Scholars add additional layers to the term—it’s not just about identifying who is or isn’t harmed but includes some form of restitution, says Kelsea MacIlroy, an adjunct professor and PhD candidate in the sociology department at Colorado State University.

    “There are a lot of different ways to talk about justice that aren’t just about who and how but also about a long-term social justice component,” MacIlroy says. “Does the community actually have an authentic seat at the table in addressing the ills?”

    80216 may feel it all. “Denver was segregated, and that segregation manifested itself in a variety of ways in terms of water,” Romero says. “It meant that Denver’s communities of color, particularly African Americans and Mexican Americans, were living in close proximity to the areas with heavy industry, where the affordable housing is.” That’s a pattern and practice, he says, that was established in the 20th century and continues today. Many environmental justice cases have similar roots, as repeated practices that ultimately create winners and losers.

    When Government Fails

    Americans watched one of the most high-profile environmental justice cases unfold in Flint, Michigan, in 2015 and 2016 when corroded lead pipes poisoned the population.

    To save money, in April 2014, the city switched its drinking water source and began supplying residents with Flint River water that wasn’t treated under federal anti-corrosion rules. The population was predominantly black, and more than 40 percent of residents were below the poverty threshold. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, no level of lead exposure is safe but higher lead exposure leads to more health challenges including anemia, kidney and brain damage, heart disease, decreased IQ and more. In children, the impacts are especially toxic.

    In 2016, labor and community activists in Lansing, Michigan, called for Governor Rick Snyder to resign over the Flint water contamination crisis. The former governor did not step down—his term lasted through 2019. Photo by Jim West

    Residents began noticing a rusty tint to their tap water in the summer of 2015, but it wasn’t until October 2015 that the governor ordered Flint’s water source switched. By then, though the new water was safe, the plumbing wasn’t—corroded pipes continued to leach lead into drinking water. Bottled water and free faucet filters to remove lead at the point of use were distributed.

    More than five years after the crisis in Flint began, the city and its residents are still recovering. The city’s FAST Start program is removing and replacing lead and galvanized steel service lines across the city, but it’s a big, expensive job. FAST Start has been funded with $25 million from the State of Michigan and $100 million allocated by Congress through the Federal Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act of 2016. As of December 2019, less than 40 percent of the city’s pipes had been replaced, with many residents still relying on faucet filters or bottled water.

    Fifteen state and local officials were charged with various crimes, including involuntary manslaughter—some took plea deals and most cases were dropped. Residents now mistrust their water and water providers. That mistrust has flooded the nation, with many more communities now coping with elevated lead levels and lead pipe replacement.

    According to the independent Flint Water Advisory Task Force’s final report, released in 2016, breakdowns in protocol, dismissal of problems, and failure to protect people occurred at nearly every level of government. Not only were customers supplied with unsafe drinking water, government officials were slow to acknowledge the problems and rectify the issue by providing safe water. According to the 2016 report, the Flint water crisis is a “story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental justice.” Had there been local control of resources and decisions, they write, the problems wouldn’t have occurred in the first place.

    Coping with Forever Chemicals

    Flint’s toxic water is not unlike the water quality issues discovered in 2016 in the Colorado towns of Fountain and Security-Widefield. That’s when water providers and residents learned that PFAS chemicals, short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, were detected at levels above EPA’s new 2016 health advisory levels. The source of the chemicals: firefighting foam used for decades to extinguish training fuel fires at the U.S. Air Force’s Peterson Air Force Base. The Air Force now uses a replacement foam at the base, and in 2019, the Colorado Legislature enacted restrictions and bans on PFAS foam, but the damage has been done. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they bioaccumulate and remain in the environment for a long time, with half lives (the amount of time it takes the chemical to decrease to half its original value) in humans of two to eight years, depending on the chemical. They have been linked to cancers, liver and kidney damage, high cholesterol, low infant birth weight, and other ailments.

    “We ended up having 16 family members that lived within that area that had cancer, and five of them died of kidney cancer,” said Mark Favors, during a public event on PFAS at Colorado School of Mines in January 2020. Favors is a former resident of Security, a U.S. Army veteran, a PFAS activist, and member of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition. “A lot of [my family] are military veterans. One of my cousins, while he was doing two combat tours in Iraq, the Air Force was contaminating their drinking water. That’s the crazy part. How they’ve admitted it and it’s just hard to get any type of justice on the issue,” Favors says.

    Concerned members of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition took a bus to Colorado School of Mines in January 2020 to hear fellow coalition member Mark Favors speak alongside experts about PFAS. Panelists included Dr. Christopher Higgens, an engineering professor working on PFAS cleanup at Colorado School of Mines; Rob Bilott, the attorney who fought DuPont on PFAS contamination in West Virginia; and others. Photo by Matthew Staver

    These southern El Paso County towns aren’t home to what are often considered disadvantaged populations—the poverty rate is between 8 and 9 percent, slightly less than the statewide average; about 60 percent of residents are white, and about 20 percent are Hispanic or Latinx, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. However, census numbers don’t represent military personnel who temporarily reside in the area. According to El Paso County’s Health Indicators report, published in 2012, four military bases in the county employ 40,500 military personnel and about 21,000 contract personnel.

    When EPA tightened its health advisory levels in 2016, they were 10 times more restrictive than what the agency had previously advised, and water providers realized they had a problem. They acted quickly to provide residents with free bottled water and water filling stations while they suspended use of the aquifer, then worked to broker deals to purchase clean water from other municipalities. Some of those deals were only temporary. Since June 2018, the City of Fountain has worked to get back on its groundwater supply, treating the groundwater with granular activated carbon units provided by the Air Force. Now it is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct a full, permanent groundwater treatment plant. The story in Security is similar—the Security Water and Sanitation District has been importing water, primarily from Pueblo Reservoir, to meet the needs of its residents since 2016, which involved building new pipelines and purchasing extra water from Colorado Springs Utilities—an added cost. Security avoided raising water rates for a time, paying those costs out of its cash reserves. By 2018, residents had to absorb a 15 percent rate increase, with another 9.5 percent increase in 2019.

    The Army Corps of Engineers is constructing a treatment facility in Security, too, which should be complete by the end of 2020. Once the plant is finished, Security will switch back to a combination of groundwater and surface water, and rates should stabilize once the costs of those pipelines are recovered, says Roy Heald, general manager at Security Water and Sanitation Districts.

    Who pays to protect the health of those who rely on this water? “What responsibility did [the Air Force] have in rectifying this? What about the local sanitation districts? They have to deal with this. It’s not their fault but they’re tasked with giving clean water,” says MacIlroy at Colorado State University.

    “The Air Force really has stepped up,” Heald says. But they may have to step up further—in 2019, the Security Water and Sanitation Districts and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, another affected entity, sued the Air Force to recoup the costs of purchasing and piping in clean water. Their lawsuit cites negligence for disposal of chemicals, remediation of contamination, and breaching a responsibility to prevent dangerous conditions on the defendant’s property. Heald wouldn’t comment on the pending lawsuit, but says, “As long as [cash] reserves are at an adequate level, if we received a windfall there would be no place else for it to go besides back to our customers.” Those recouped costs would likely take the form of lower or stabilized rates.

    Residents are also pushing for justice through a class-action lawsuit brought by the Colorado Springs-based McDivitt Lawfirm, which has teamed up with a personal injury law firm in New York to file against 3M, Tyco Fire Products, and other manufacturers of the firefighting foam.

    “There’s going to have to be some sort of accountability and justice for these people who unknowingly, for years, drank colorless, odorless high amounts of PFAS,” says Favors. He calls for better oversight and demands that polluters are held accountable.

    As for coping with PFAS-related health challenges, there are still a lot of unknowns, but El Paso County was selected to participate in two national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies to better assess the dangers of human exposure to PFAS, and to evaluate exposure pathways.

    Locally, the study and lawsuits might help recoup some financial damages—but PFAS-related water contamination isn’t isolated to these Colorado communities. In July 2019, the Environmental Working Group mapped at least 712 documented cases of PFAS contamination across 49 states. Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives, hoping to implement a national PFAS drinking water standard, estimate the number is even higher: 1,400 communities suffer from PFAS contamination. A U.S. Senate version of a PFAS-regulating bill has yet to be introduced. But in February, EPA released a draft proposal to consider regulating PFOS and PFOA, just two of the thousands of PFAS.

    Justice through Water Rights

    Environmental justice isn’t exclusively an urban issue. Injustices involving pollution, public health, access, affordability and water can be wrought anyplace—including rural and suburban areas. For rural communities, the issue comes to a head when people, organizations or entities in power seek more water for their needs at the cost of others.

    In southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, acequia communities fought for years to protect their water rights and way of life. Acequias are an equity-based irrigation system introduced by the original Spanish and Mexican settlers of southern Colorado. “What it means is that the entire community is only benefitted when all resources are shared,” says Judy Lopez, conservation project manager with Colorado Open Lands. There, Lopez works with landowners to preserve wildlife habitat, forests, culturally significant lands, and ag lands—including those served by acequias.

    The Town of San Luis, the heart of Colorado’s acequia community, is one of the most economically disadvantaged in the state. It’s in Costilla County, where more than 60 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latinx—more than any other county in Colorado—and 25 percent of the population live in poverty, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. But the people there are long-time landowners, never separated from the land their ancestors settled, four to seven generations back, Lopez says. They have the state’s original water rights to match, including Colorado’s oldest continuously operated water right, the San Luis People’s Ditch, an acequia established in 1852.

    Prior to statehood, the territorial government recognized acequia water rights. But when the Colorado Constitution established the right of prior appropriation, the priority scheme of “first in time, first in right” became the law, challenging communal rights.

    “It was very difficult for [acequias] to go to water court and say, ‘This guy is taking my water,’” Lopez says. “It was very difficult to quantify the use and who was using it.”

    In southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, Judy Lopez with Colorado Open Lands and landowner Dave Marquez discuss upcoming restoration work on the Culebra River, which
    traverses his property. Marquez irrigates from the Francisco Sanchez Acequia to grow alfalfa-grass hay. The acequia worked with Colorado Open Lands and the bylaws
    project to develop bylaws that preserve their oral traditions. Photo by Christi Bode

    It wasn’t until 2009 that the Colorado Legislature passed the Acequia Recognition Law. The law was developed by Rep. Ed Vigil with the help of the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, an entity that represents more than 73 acequias and 300 families who depend on them. Amended in 2013, the law solidifies the rights of acequia users. According to the Colorado Acequia Handbook, it allows “acequias to continue to exercise their traditional roles in governing community access to water, and also strengthens their ability to protect their water.”

    In order to be recognized under the Acequia Recognition Act, acequias needed bylaws. Over the past six years, Colorado Open Lands, the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, and the University of Colorado Boulder have partnered to help 42 acequias write bylaws, thereby protecting their water. “The bylaws were still based, in large part, on those oral traditions,” Lopez says, “and included protective language that said, ‘If a water right is sold, or a piece of land is sold, that acequia gets the first right to purchase those rights.’”

    Even having water rights doesn’t guarantee water access: Over the past few decades, the federal government has settled longstanding water rights cases with sovereign tribes, in many cases backdating tribal water rights to the dates of their reservations’ establishment. Although the tribes now have the nation’s oldest established water rights, they haven’t always, and they still come up against structural and financial barriers that prevent them from developing water and getting the real benefit of those rights.

    Of the more than 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States, as of 2019 only 36 tribal water rights settlements had been federally approved. The Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes in Colorado are among that small number, but despite their long journey, the tribes still don’t have access to all the water they own.

    Tribal water rights have their roots in the Winters Doctrine, a 1908 case which established tribal water rights based on the date the federal government created their reservations—thereby moving tribal water rights to “first in line” among users.

    In the 1970s and ‘80s, the U.S. government filed and worked through claims on behalf of the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes to surface waters in southwestern Colorado. In the 1980s, Congress approved a settlement between the tribes, the federal government and other parties; in 2000, the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act was amended, entitling tribes to water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s proposed Animas-La Plata Project (A-LP), as well as from the Dolores Project’s McPhee Reservoir. Construction on A-LP began in 2001, and the project’s key feature, Lake Nighthorse—named for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell—began filling in 2009.

    Prior to the Dolores Project, many people living in Towaoc, on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, did not have running water and instead trucked it in to fill water tanks at their homes, says Ernest House, Jr., senior policy director with the Keystone Policy Center and former director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. His late father, Ernest House, Sr., was pivotal in that fight for water. “I was fortunate, my father was able to see A-LP completed. I think he probably, in his own right, couldn’t believe that it would have been done and could be done,” he says. But even today, some Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute communities still lack access to water, and aging infrastructure from the 1980s needs updating and repairs.

    “Our tribes as sovereign nations cannot maintain or move forward without access to water,” House says. “We have to remind people that we have tribal nations in Colorado, and that we have other tribes that continue to call Colorado home, that were removed from the state, either by treaty or forced removal,” he says, adding that acknowledging the difficult past must be a part of conversations about the future.

    Those conversations include state, regional, and federal-level water planning. The Colorado tribes are engaged in Colorado’s basin roundtable process, with both tribes occupying seats on the Southwest Basin Roundtable, says Greg Johnson, who heads the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Water Supply Planning Section (and serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees). Through the roundtables, local stakeholders conduct basin-wide water planning that is eventually integrated into the statewide Colorado Water Plan. However, until recently, tribal involvement in regional Colorado River negotiations between the seven U.S. basin states and federal government has been nonexistent. Change is brewing—a 2018 federal Tribal Water Study highlighted how tribal water resources could impact Colorado River operations, while a new Water and Tribes Initiative is working to build tribal capacity and participation in water negotiations throughout the basin.

    “The Utes have been in what we call Colorado for the last 10,000 to 12,000 years,” House says. “It would be a shame if we were left out of the conversations [about water].”

    The External Costs of Industry

    Government is vital to addressing the legacy of environmental injustice, and preventing future problems, but finding solutions also demands reconsidering how business is done.

    Consider Colorado’s relationship with the extraction industry, visible in the 19th-century mines that pock mountain towns, uranium-rich communities like Nulca, and the escalation of oil and gas drilling today. Colorado is an “epicenter” of extraction and environmental justice issues, says Stephanie Malin, associate professor at Colorado State University and a sociologist who studies energy development and extraction.

    Lack of local control in the past has been especially frustrating, Malin says, since private corporations earn profits off the resources but then outsource the impacts. In the end, extractive industries have a track record of leaving communities and governments to bear the costs of cleanup.

    Take Gold King Mine as one high-profile example. In August 2015, wastewater from an abandoned mine in San Juan County contaminated the Animas River between Silverton and Durango. Contractors hired by EPA accidentally caused 3 million gallons of mine waste, laden with heavy metals, to wash into the Animas. New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation all filed to sue EPA, with farmers reporting that they couldn’t water their crops and others saying they had to truck in alternative water supplies. But those responsible for the contamination were long-gone. Like tens of thousands of other mines in the region, the Gold King Mine was abandoned in the early 20th century.

    In August 2015, wastewater from the Gold King Mine was flowing through a series of retention ponds built to contain and filter out heavy metals and chemicals about a quarter of a mile downstream from the mine, outside Silverton, Colorado. Photo by Blake Beyea

    The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)—more commonly called Superfund—which Congress passed in 1980, was originally set up as a “polluter tax” on oil, gas and chemical companies at risk of contaminating communities or the environment. But Congress never reauthorized the tax, which expired in 1995. By the early 21st century, the fund was bankrupt. Today, these cleanups are funded entirely by taxpayers.

    “It’s part of a bigger pattern of privatizing profit and nationalizing, or socializing, risk,” Malin says. “Then, communities and the environment are left holding the ‘external’ costs.” Those external costs, she says, are nearly unquantifiable: “The intergenerational impacts in particular are so hard to gauge, in terms of what the communities are absorbing.”

    While these problems can seem intractable, there are solutions, Malin says. For example, the bond amounts companies are required to pay up-front should better reflect the actual cost of cleanup, she says. Last year, Colorado lawmakers made strides to unburden taxpayers in just that way, with an update to Colorado’s old mining law.

    The new Colorado law, HB19-1113, makes sure water quality impacts from mining are accounted for and long-term impacts are avoided. The law says that the industry can no longer self bond—a practice that allowed mine operators to demonstrate they had the financial resources to cover clean-up costs rather than providing the resources up front. Without self bonding, taxpayers won’t be left paying for remediation if the company goes bankrupt. It also requires mine operators to factor water quality protection costs into their bond—and requires most to develop a water quality treatment plan. This means that reclamation plans must include a reasonable end date for any needed water quality treatment, hopefully ensuring Colorado will avoid new perpetually polluting mines.

    State lawmakers are currently looking at a more encompassing environmental justice bill, HB20-1143, introduced in January 2020. At press time the bill was still under consideration. If it moves forward as introduced, the bill would increase the maximum civil fine for air and water quality violations—from $10,000 per day to $47,357 per day, which would be adjusted annually according to the consumer price index—reallocating some of the financial burden back on polluters. It would also authorize the use of the money in the state’s water quality improvement fund, which is where those water quality violation fines go, to pay for projects addressing impacts to communities. The bill would also bolster the state’s environmental justice efforts, with a new environmental justice advisory board and environmental justice ombudsperson who would run the advisory board and advocate for environmental justice communities.

    Speaking up for Tomorrow’s Climate

    Environmental justice can’t be about a single issue, says Lizeth Chacón, executive director of the Colorado People’s Alliance, a racial-justice, member-led organization based in Denver and Pueblo. That means looking at water-focused environmental justice alongside related issues such as climate change, racial justice, inequities, poverty, housing, power dynamics, and more.

    “When we are talking to our members, we are talking to them about the fact that they are working two jobs and still cannot put dinner on the table in the week, talking that they live in fear of being deported and being separated from their families, talking about the fact that they are sick, or have headaches, or have to spend money on water because they can’t drink the water coming out of their tap like other people can,” she says. “It can’t be seen as one issue … This work has to be holistic.”

    Lizeth Chacón is the executive director of the Colorado People’s Alliance, a racial justice organization that is working on a climate justice campaign.
    Chacón, a first-generation immigrant from Mexico, emphasizes the importance of engaging and creating opportunities for disadvantaged communities to lead. Photo by Matthew Staver

    Currently, the Colorado People’s Alliance is working on a climate campaign directed by its members in Commerce City. “They said, ‘This is something that’s impacting all of us, regardless of where we’re from, whether we’re undocumented or documented, what our economic status is,’” she says. The Alliance is focused on greenhouse gas emissions, which have immediate health impacts and long-term water effects.

    Another approach in northeast Denver is proceeding thanks to an EPA environmental justice grant, in which organizers will convene youth, local leaders, and scientists to create a community science project that leads to a more fishable and swimmable Denver South Platte River. The river flows through Elyria-Swansea and Globeville, but it used to be a dumping ground, with a landfill beside its banks. Clean ups and improved recreational access, much of which has been spearheaded by the nonprofit Greenway Foundation since its founding in 1974, have created opportunities for kayakers downtown, but river access in northeast Denver, beyond the popular Confluence Park, is limited. In addition, E. Coli levels are often high, making swimming inadvisable. Access to a healthy waterway makes communities more vibrant and whole, supporting health, wellbeing, recreation, and cultural and spiritual practices, but also connection. This may be the only recreational water access available to some urbanites.

    “Rivers are one of the major pathways to healing the environment and healing ourselves,” said Jorge Figueroa at an initial workshop for this project in December 2019, where they began to establish a youth advisory board. Figueroa runs El Laboratorio, an organization that brings people together from different disciplines and cultures to creatively solve environmental challenges. (He is also on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.) He’s working on this project with Lincoln Hills Cares, a nonprofit that provides outdoor education, recreation and experiences to youth who may not otherwise have these opportunities; and Colorado State University, which is developing a new campus at the National Western Center, called Spur, in the neighborhood. The partners expect to have a plan ready by the end of 2020, and the project should begin in 2021.

    Figueroa, who grew up and has family in Puerto Rico, also witnessed, up close, the wave of climate refugees who left his home state after Hurricane Maria devastated it in 2017.

    “It’s critical for us to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure and in the reliability of our municipal potable water systems,” Figueroa says. “But from an equity perspective, we need to ensure that the more than a trillion dollars that will be invested in the nation’s public water systems provide the most benefit to the most people.” His suggestion to build climate resiliency in an equitable way: water conservation. “Water conservation can be a supreme water equity tool: It provides cheaper water for the community and more resiliency and reliability for the system. It’s not only an ideal climate change adaptation strategy but also is one of the top, by far, equity water strategies.” When you don’t consider equity in water decisions, you can make vulnerable communities more vulnerable, he says.

    Whether working to improve environmental justice structurally and physically through conservation and resiliencies, or politically and financially through new regulations, bonding or taxation, there are many opportunities to do better. But there are also social justice elements to work on. Chacón recommends involving community members at the beginning of a process—not at the end. She says it’s important to listen—and to not dismiss people when they disagree.

    Looking forward, it’s up to everyone in positions of power to actively create space for disadvantaged communities to lead, says Chacón. “To us, the people who are closest to the pain are the ones closest to the solution because they know what’s happening in their community best of anyone.”

    Some of the principles of engaging communities in these situations are “almost universal,” says Colorado’s Michael Wenstrom, an environmental protection specialist in EPA’s Environmental Justice Program. Wenstrom worked in Flint over the course of a year following the water emergency, “assisting them to connect with processes, in understanding what their rights are, and helping them learn how to raise their voices effectively,” he says.

    He says that where communities and families are already overburdened—with poverty, crime, racism—they often don’t have time, expertise or resources to recognize the problems, nevermind address them. “In addition, people in low-income communities may be less inclined to raise their voices for various reasons,” Wenstrom says. Reasons could include racism, job discrimination, or, for some, the fear of being identified as an illegal resident.

    He says officials like him who come into communities as outsiders must be careful, persistent, and work to build trust. “As trust builds, we can then start pointing people toward tackling issues related to pollution or public health,” he says. But, Wenstrom cautions, if people don’t believe they can make a difference, they won’t raise their voices in the first place.

    Laura Paskus is a reporter in Albuquerque N.M., where her show, “Our Land: New Mexico’s Environmental Past, Present and Future,” airs on New Mexico PBS. Caitlin Coleman is editor of Headwaters magazine.

    Animas Valley gravel mine plans to close, go commercial — The Durango Herald

    Lake Nighthorse and Durango March 2016 photo via Greg Hobbs.

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    Public worries about access point on Animas River

    An inactive gravel mine in the Animas Valley plans to formally shut down and repurpose the land for a large-scale commercial development. The move has some in the rafting community wondering what will become of a popular river put-in along the Animas River.

    For the past few years, the nearly 50-acre gravel mine owned by Four Corners Materials, Inc. at 876 Trimble Lane (County Road 252), near Trimble Crossing and along the Animas River, has sat idle.

    On Thursday, however, the owners requested a change in land-use designation for the property, from industrial to commercial, which would allow a range of new developments on the land…

    The main issue at a La Plata County Planning Commission meeting Thursday was the fate of the river access point to the Animas River, just downstream of the Trimble bridge.

    The boat ramp is privately owned by Four Corners Materials, but for years, the company has allowed the public to access the Animas.

    During public comment, residents worried future development plans would close off the access point.

    Kent Ford, a professional kayaker who lives in Durango, stressed the importance of the boat ramp, which is the only take-out for boaters who run the Animas down from Bakers Bridge, and the only put-in for river runners traveling to Oxbow Park or 32nd Street.

    Sedimentation problems necessitate diversion structure overhaul for Lake Nighthorse intakes

    From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

    No water will be pumped from the Animas River into Lake Nighthorse this year.

    That is because the headgates at the dam southwest of Durango, Colorado, have to be destroyed and replaced, according to Animas-La Plata Project Operations, Maintenance and Repair Association General Manager Russ Howard.

    Howard told the San Juan Water Commission on March 4 that the $6.5 million project is needed because the design was not appropriate for the location. This work is being done by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

    He said work was also done prior to choosing to replace the gate. Howard said $1.5 million was spent “over the years trying to put a Band-Aid on something that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”

    When asked about the gate, Howard said the design, known as an Obermeyer, gate is not a bad design, but it was not appropriate for the Animas River.

    Lake Nighthorse and Durango March 2016 photo via Greg Hobbs.

    U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Justyn Liff agreed with Howard that the design was a good design but was not compatible with the Animas River’s conditions. She said on another river it would have worked fine, but the bureau had not realized how muddy the Animas River is.

    The amount of mud in the Animas River caused problems and filled the pipes with mud.

    In addition to the $6.5 million replacement of the headgates, Liff said the the gate’s original construction, retrofits to keep them operational and engineering studies and design cost about $6.2 million.

    Southwestern Water Conservation District: 38th Annual Water Seminar, April 3, 2020

    Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

    The 2020 Annual Water Seminar is titled “Wading into Watershed Health,” and there’s plenty to talk about. Water supply and water quality are inextricably linked to the health of our watersheds–from forest to valley floor. Irrigators, municipalities, tribes, and fish populations are among those impacted by recent wildfires. Efforts to bring significant financial support to southwest Colorado for forest management and wildfire mitigation have been successful. Also, the regional forest products industry is gaining momentum as economic incentives shift.

    Farmington: #ClimateChange: What it means for us, March 27, 2020

    Global CO2 emissions by world region 1751 through 2015.

    Click here for all the inside skinny:

    Description
    San Juan County Climate Awareness Coalition
    Presents

    CLIMATE CHANGE: WHAT IT MEANS FOR US

    SAVE THE DATE! Friday March 27th
    8:30 am – 5:00 pm

    Cost: $5 donation encouraged at the door, no charge to register

    Location: San Juan College, Farmington, NM

    Workshops include:
    * Agricultural sustainability: climate change in our backyard
    * Insect migration
    * Disease re-emergence
    * Environmental racism and the impact on Native communities
    * Transitioning our energy economy
    * Plastics
    * What we can do: the personal and the political
    * Film festival

    And much more!

    Fri, March 27, 2020
    8:30 AM – 5:00 PM MDT

    San Juan College
    4601 College Boulevard
    Farmington, NM 87402

    Owner of #GoldKingMine not happy with proposed cleanup solution — The Durango Herald

    Bulkheads, like this one at the Red and Bonita Mine, help stop mine water discharges and allow engineers to monitor the mine pool. Credit: EPA.

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    Local groups call for plugging of discharging mines

    Todd Hennis, owner of the Gold King Mine, is not happy about the proposed Superfund cleanup around Silverton, saying the suggestion to plug more mines only redistributes potentially toxic water and doesn’t solve the problem…

    In December, two community groups formed to help guide the Superfund process – the Citizens Advisory Group and the Silverton-San Juan County Planning Group – submitted letters to the EPA with a similar recommendation.

    The main message: focus on the sites – namely the Gold King, American Tunnel, Mogul and Red & Bonita – which are contributing the most amount of contaminated metals into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.

    According to data from the now-defunct Animas River Stakeholders Group, almost half of all metal loading from the 120 draining mines sampled around Silverton comes from these four sources.

    And the suggested solution? Place more bulkheads.

    “While currently the (Bonita Peak) enjoys high-priority status as a Superfund site, the (community group) is quite concerned its priority could change in the future,” the CAG wrote. “… Bulkheads can be funded with manageable, annual budgeting, unlike a large water treatment facility, which may need a big financial infusion all at once.”

    Hennis, for his part, has long maintained that the original bulkheads placed on the American Tunnel caused his mines to start to discharge mine wastewater. Sunnyside Gold has adamantly denied the Sunnyside Mine is connected geologically to Hennis’ mines.

    Regardless, Hennis said he was “shocked and appalled” to learn the community groups were in favor of more bulkheads as a main treatment option.

    “Bulkheading doesn’t work,” Hennis wrote. “It appears all they accomplished in the long term was to re-distribute acid mine water flows elsewhere, and in the same volume as the original problem.”

    Hennis says that if the Gold King and Red & Bonita are plugged, it could shift water back into the American Tunnel, where bulkheads there could be overwhelmed.

    “Rolling the dice on a potential catastrophic failure of the American Tunnel bulkheads makes no sense whatsoever,” he said. “If a release of 3 million gallons of mine water from the Gold King raised absolute havoc downstream, a potential release of billions of gallons from the Sunnyside Mine Pool would have unthinkable consequences.”

    Hennis instead said the only long-term solution would be to drain the Sunnyside Mine pool, treat the water and shut off spots where water gets into the Sunnyside Mine network.

    But this could be costly.

    Richard Mylott, spokesman for EPA, said the agency is working to understand the impacts that bulkheading would have on water quality and water levels within the Cement Creek area…

    Mylott said EPA has installed several wells to monitor the groundwater system when it tests the closure of the Red & Bonita.

    Prior to mining, snowmelt and rain seep into natural cracks and fractures, eventually emerging as a freshwater spring (usually). Graphic credit: Jonathan Thompson

    City of Durango plans temporary fix for dangerous rapids at Whitewater Park — The Durango Herald

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    The city of Durango plans to get back into the Animas River this winter to fix human-made rapids at the Whitewater Park that drew criticism for posing too great a risk to boaters during high water last summer.

    Tweaks have been made to the Whitewater Park, which flows along Santa Rita Park, as early as the 1980s. But a full-scale $2.6 million project to enhance the park and build a series of rapids began in 2014 and was finished in 2018.

    The most recent issue, which requires the city to get back in the river in the coming months, started three years ago and is considered separate from the Whitewater Park, which was led by the Parks and Recreation Department.

    In summer 2016, the city’s Utilities Department spent $1 million to build several new features in the river, just above the Whitewater Park, for the sole purpose of diverting more water into the city’s water intake for municipal use on the east side of the river.

    Since then, some members of the boating community have said the new features, which span the entire width of the river, function like low-head dams, one of the most dangerous hazards on a river because of the strong, recirculating water that can flip and trap boats, as well as people.

    And if people fall out at the new drops, they have a long, cold swim through the actual Whitewater Park, which includes several major rapids and water temperatures in the low- to mid-40s…

    This past summer, [Shane] Sigle said the only way to permanently fix the rapids would be to use grout to cement boulders in the river to ensure a safely designed flow. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which issues permits for work in any waterways) and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, however, oppose using grout on river bottoms because it can adversely affect aquatic life.

    City officials have said it’s unrealistic, and costly, to get back into the river every year to move boulders and rocks. But without being able to use grout, options are limited.

    As a result, while long-term solutions are sought, it appears smaller maintenance projects are the city’s only way to make the river safer.

    Jarrod Biggs, assistant utilities director, said the plan is to get in the Animas River as early as February to start the project, which could cost around $140,000 to $160,000.

    Without grouting, though, the river will eventually move the boulders and nullify the improvements the city plans to make this year.

    Durango whitewater park plans

    Lake Nighthorse changing the game for annual bird count — The Durango Herald

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    …volunteers with the National Audubon Society’s annual bird count, which has been ongoing since 1949, say they are starting to see the impact the new body of water is having on different species of birds around Durango in winter months.

    “Lake Nighthorse has created a different habitat,” said John Bregar, a member of the Durango Bird Club. “It’s attracting water fowl and fish-eating birds we didn’t use to get so much of before. It’s pretty cool to be monitoring that.”

    […]

    A group of about nine eared grebe, a water bird, which is a rare sight on the Christmas count, were spotted on Lake Nighthorse last year. Double-crested cormorant, a seabird, used to leave Southwest Colorado for warmer pastures but have taken up at the reservoir during the winter.

    And two horned grebes, another water bird, which Bregar said were never recorded on a Christmas count and are not common in Southwest Colorado in general, are now wintering on Lake Nighthorse…

    Bregar said aside from the rare finds, all kinds of birds take advantage of the waters and fish of Lake Nighthorse, such as bald eagles, loons and mergansers.

    “It’s a deep body of water with a lot of fish,” he said, “so fish-eating birds are quite prevalent.”

    In all, 31 volunteers counted 6,279 individual birds and 82 different species Dec. 15.

    For reference, 2017 was seen as a good year for the bird count, with volunteers finding 85 species and 7,452 individual birds.

    And in 2018, the count, which was conducted Dec. 16, found a strong number of diverse species – 82 – but the number of individual birds was down to 6,732…

    Some interesting observations from the count include:

  • Bird counters noted a near record high number of northern harriers, a raptor, at 19. In a previous year, 20 were spotted
  • The bird count broke the record for white-winged doves. Only twice before has the count recorded that species, and each time, it was just one dove. “This year we recorded six white-winged doves, five near the upper Animas River and one along Florida Road,” Bregar said. “Durango has had a small population of white-winged doves hanging out in the northern portions of our city for years, but they seldom stray far enough south to get counted in our Christmas bird count.”
  • A flock of 21 snow geese was spotted flying above the skies in Durango. The birds usually are not seen in Southwest Colorado.
  • The most abundant bird spotted was the Canada goose at almost 1,200. Second place goes to juncos, a medium-sized sparrow, at around 1,000.
  • Lake Nighthorse and Durango March 2016 photo via Greg Hobbs.

    Southwest #Colorado remains in severe #drought — The Cortez Journal

    West Drought Monitor December 24, 2019.

    From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

    Much of Southwest Colorado remains listed in a severe drought although it has accumulated 130% of average snowpack.

    According the U.S. Drought Monitor as of Dec. 24, all of Montezuma County and all but the northern edge of La Plata County and the eastern edge of Archuleta County remain listed in severe drought. Virtually all of Dolores, Montrose and Ouray counties were designated in a severe drought.

    As of Dec. 30, the severe drought designation remained despite an above-average snowpack for Southwest Colorado.

    San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan Basin High/Low graph December 30, 2019 via the NRCS.

    A SNOTEL map showed 130% of the 30-year average snowpack for the San Juan, Animas, Dolores and San Miguel river basins as of Dec. 30.

    The reason the region remains in the drought category is because the drought monitor tracks precipitation over many previous months, said Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District that manages McPhee Reservoir.

    July through October was very dry, with below-average moisture. It will take continued average, to above-average moisture to knock the area out of drought, he said…

    A large part of Colorado’s Western Slope remains in severe or moderate drought.

    In fact, only the northeast section of the state, including the Denver metro area and the northern mountains around Steamboat Springs, are not under some kind of drought listing.

    In all, nearly 70% of Colorado is abnormally dry or in moderate or severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. A year ago, roughly 85% of the state had some kind of drought status, including 11% that was listed as being in exceptional drought.

    Despite the continued dry conditions, forecasters said things are better than they were last year at this time when exceptional and extreme drought – the worst categories – had set in. Over the last three months, parts of southern Arizona and New Mexico recovered but portions of Utah and Colorado dried out…

    Purgatory Resort was reporting a 54-inch base depth Monday, Telluride Ski Area was reporting a 43-inch base, and Wolf Creek Ski Area was reporting an 81-inch midway base depth.

    Colorado Statewide Snowpack basin-filled map December 30, 2019 via the NRCS.

    A look back at Navajo Tribe environmental issues in the “teens” — The Navajo Times #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #ClimateChange #ActOnClimate

    From The Navajo Times (Cindy Yurth):

    The other big story of the decade was the environment. As the drought steadily worsened in the early teens, President Ben Shelly found himself between a rock and a hard place. A proposed settlement of the water rights on the Little Colorado River, which would have included the Nation sacrificing a portion of its water rights in exchange for infrastructure, proved so wildly unpopular that he was forced to back down, leaving the Nation to take its chances in court.

    A plan to round up Dinétah’s feral horses, which ranchers accused of drinking up and fouling the ever-scarcer watering holes, stirred an international uproar from humane organizations and even actor Robert Redford. It was eventually abandoned and the animals remain a problem, now numbering in the tens of thousands with few natural predators.

    Water issues continued in 2015 as an estimated several hundred Navajos — including President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer — joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in protesting the construction of an oil pipeline beneath the tribe’s main water source, braving sub-zero temperatures, tear gas and rubber bullets.

    The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)

    In the summer of that year, the Diné had their own water issue to contend with, watching in amazement as the Animas River ran orange with dissolved metal compounds from an abandoned gold mine near Silverton, Colorado — the result of a botched containment effort by the US. Environmental Protection Agency.

    The Navajo Nation joined the states of New Mexico and Utah in suing the agency and its contractor. As of this writing the litigation is still pending.

    Then there was Bears Ears National Monument, created by President Barack Obama on Dec. 28, 2016, and reduced by 85 percent by President Donald Trump less than a year later. That’s also slogging through the courts.

    But by far the biggest environmental story was the rapid dethronement of King Coal, which for decades had propped up state, local, and tribal economies in the Four Corners.

    As prices for natural gas and renewable energy declined, power plant owners beat a hasty retreat from the dirty fossil fuel that had sustained generations of Navajo miners and a good chunk of the Navajo and Hopi tribes’ budgets.

    In 2013, the Navajo Nation managed to stave off the closure of BHP Billiton’s Navajo Mine by creating a company to buy it, but there was no stopping the demise of the Navajo Generating Station and the two mines on Black Mesa that fed it.

    Environmentalists had for years been pressuring the tribal government to create a plan to replace the revenue that would be lost when the plant closed, preferably by converting it to a sustainable energy producer, but as the last coal shovelful of coal was turned this past November, the only plan was to dig into the Permanent Trust Fund former President Peterson Zah had created in 1985 for just this eventuality.

    Meanwhile the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, the tribal enterprise created to buy the Navajo Mine and then lead the Nation into a more sustainable energy future, purchased three more coal mines in Wyoming and Montana — a move that shocked not only environmentalists but the president and Council.

    Navajo Generating Station and the cloud of smog with which it blankets the region. Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson via The High Country News

    The San Juan Generating Station in Waterflow, New Mexico, is next on the chopping block, slated to close in 2022 unless the state’s Public Regulation Commission approves a plan to convert it to a carbon capture facility.

    We’re reporters of the news, not prognosticators. But it’s not too risky to predict that all these environmental issues will extend into 2020 and most likely beyond, joined by ones no one has even thought of yet as irreversible climate change takes hold.

    Judge’s recommendation: Lawsuit against D&SNG for 416 Fire costs should proceed — The Durango Herald

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    In what could be a major blow to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a federal judge has recommended a district court throw out the train’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit in which the U.S. government is seeking $25 million for fighting the 416 Fire.

    In July, the U.S. government named the D&SNG as the cause of the 416 Fire, which started along the train’s tracks north of Durango in summer 2018 and went on to burn more than 54,000 acres of mostly national forest lands in the Hermosa Creek watershed.

    After eyewitness accounts and months of speculation, federal investigators determined a cinder emitted from a smokestack from a D&SNG coal-burning locomotive, which was running at a time of extreme drought in Southwest Colorado, sparked the fire.

    At the same time, U.S. officials said the D&SNG denied starting the fire, prompting a lawsuit that seeks $25 million from the railroad for damages and fire-suppression costs.

    In September, the D&SNG filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, saying there is no federal law that allows claims to recover fire suppression costs, and the only Colorado law on the issue allows for recovering actual damages from a fire on property – but not firefighting costs.

    The judge overseeing the case – U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Blackburn – asked for a recommendation from U.S. Magistrate Judge N. Reid Neureiter on interpreting the law and on whether to dismiss the case.

    On Friday, Neureiter filed his recommendation, which supported the U.S. government.

    “First, I reject the (D&SNG’s) argument that, as a public entity providing a civic service by fighting a forest fire, the United States is not entitled to recover fire suppression costs,” he wrote.

    “The United States was protecting its own property, the National Forest, and acting like a property owner in fighting and attempting to suppress the fire … the United States is entitled to whatever protection is afforded to other landowners in Colorado – including entitlement to recovery of fire suppression costs.”

    Mining company included in #GoldKingMine lawsuit receives environmental excellence award — The Farmington Daily Times

    Prior to mining, snowmelt and rain seep into natural cracks and fractures, eventually emerging as a freshwater spring (usually). Graphic credit: Jonathan Thompson

    From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

    Sunnyside Gold Corporation, the last mining company to actively operate in the Silverton caldera, was recognized for “five years of responsible mining and 30 years of successful remediation and reclamation,” according to the award announcement provided to The Daily Times by Sunnyside Gold Corporation.

    This award comes as Sunnyside faces continued litigation alleging the bulkheads it installed in the Sunnyside Mine’s American Tunnel led to changes in water levels. The suit claims this eventually created a buildup of water in the Gold King Mine that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contractors later accidentally released when they breached a collapsed portal into the mine.

    “The primary purpose of the engineered concrete bulkheads was to isolate the interior workings of the Sunnyside Mine, and to prevent water flow from the interior workings to the Animas Basin,” said Kevin Roach, Sunnyside’s director of reclamation, in an email to The Daily Times.

    Roach said that while Sunnyside owns mines near the Gold King, it never owned or operated the Gold King Mine. He said the company was not involved in the Gold King Mine spill and has no responsibility for it.

    “There is no physical man-made connection between the Sunnyside and Gold King mine workings,” Roach said.

    And Roach stood by the decision to install bulkheads in Sunnyside’s mine workings.

    “One of the most important lessons that can be derived from SGC’s successful reclamation is that, in appropriate circumstances, bulkheading of closed mines can be an effective method to improve water quality,” he said.

    Sunnyside has maintained the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which triggered the spill, bears the responsibility. Roach further highlighted studies showing the water quality in the Animas River returned to pre-spill conditions shortly after the incident…

    The award also comes after Sunnyside refused to comply with an order the EPA sent the company to install groundwater wells and meteorological stations as part of the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund Site remediation work. The Superfund site includes 48 mine sites believed to have impacted water quality in the Animas River. Some of these mine sites were related to Sunnyside’s operations…

    Working to reclaim land

    Over the past 30 years, Sunnyside has spent $30 million on reclamation work. Roach said much of Sunnyside’s work occurred at sites it does not own. In addition to installing bulkheads, this work included relocating or removing mine tailings from several sites, including near the Animas River and its tributaries.

    Sunnyside Gold Corporation was a latecomer to the mining activity in the Silverton caldera, entering the region in 1985 when it acquired the Sunnyside Mine, which it operated until 1991. The mine itself dates back to 1873 and includes two tunnels for hauling ore and drainage, one of which is the American Tunnel.

    Following the installation of bulkheads in the American Tunnel, the Sunnyside Gold Corporation was released from liabilities in 2003 when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment concluded it had completed its obligations laid out in a consent decree.

    In terms of the future, Sunnyside does not have plans to resume mining in the Silverton caldera. However, that does not necessarily mean mining is gone from the caldera forever.

    #GoldKingMine documents and map unearthed — RiverOfLostSouls.com (@jonnypeace) #AnimasRiver

    From RiverOfLostSouls.com (Jonathan Thompson):

    While going down a wormhole the other day, I stumbled across a variety of documents on the Gold King Mine on the wonderful Mountain Scholar site. It was an exciting find for me because:

  • I had never seen these documents before, and I’ve seen a heck of a lot of Gold King documents; and,
  • These date back to between 1917 and 1925 — long after the mine’s heyday. Because the mine was struggling during this time, there wasn’t a lot of press in the local newspapers about it; and,
  • They contain the best mine cross-section diagram that I’ve seen from the days that the mine was still active.
  • In other words, it’s just an additional handful of esoteric ore to add to the pile. But more than that, these documents are important because they could help answer the enduring question: From where does the water now draining from the Gold King Mine originate? To understand why the answer to that question is critical — and why it’s so hard to come by — you’ll have to read my book.

    What we do know is that prior to the plugging of the American Tunnel by the Sunnyside Gold Co. with three bulkheads placed in 1996, 2001, and 2003, the Gold King Mine Level #7 was dry. Sometime after the bulkheads were placed, the Gold King adit (opening to the mine) began draining increasing amounts of acidic, metal-loaded water. It was this same water that came gushing out on that fateful day in August 2015.

    It may seem like an open-and-shut case in which Sunnyside’s bulkheads are causing water that had drained from the American Tunnel to back up inside the mountain and enter into the Gold King Mine. And it is. But what is not known is which bulkhead(s) is/are causing the problem. And only when we know that will we know whose water is ending up in the Gold King Mine. Is it leaking in from the Sunnyside Mine pool? Or is it water that would have ended up in the Gold King Mine prior to the construction of the American Tunnel in the early 1900s?

    It’s complicated, in other words, and explaining all of the intricacies would take, well, a book.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t find the answer in these new (to me) documents, although there were a few small clues. I did managed to glean a few nuggets from the reports, however, such as:

  • I had read in other documents that the Gold King folks had drilled the American Tunnel into Bonita Peak some 6,225 feet before work was halted. But the pictured map from 1918 says the tunnel was 7,000 feet deep at the time (which would have put it directly under the Gold King).
  • Colorado mining reports indicated that the mine last produced ore in 1924 before shutting down altogether. But among these papers was a receipt apparently showing a shipment in December 1925.
  • And, finally, the clue to the aforementioned mystery. Though it’s a bit tangled, the text pictured below (from 1923) indicates that there was a lot of water encountered in Level #7 at one time, and that the water, instead of draining out of the Level #7 adit, was apparently “deep drained” by the American Tunnel. This lends more support to the notion that the water now draining out of the Gold King is “Gold King water,” rather than “Sunnyside water.”
  • Pick up your copy of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster (Torrey House Press, 2018) today, and get the full story of the Gold King Mine and a whole lot more.

    “(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”

    — Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer, in The Gulch magazine.

    #NM Environment Department: Silver Wing Mine incident summary — No hazard to human health or the environment in New Mexico

    #NM Environmental Department: Silver Wing Mine incident did not harm Animas River water quality in New Mexico — The Farmington Daily Times

    Location map for abandoned mine near Silverton. The Silver Wing is in the upper right corner of the aerial.

    From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

    The additional discharge from the Silver Wing Mine into the Animas River did not have a negative impact on water quality, according to the New Mexico Environment Department.

    The Silver Wing Mine discharged a larger amount of water than usual last week, causing some discoloration in the Animas River near Silverton, Colorado.

    However, the discoloration was not visible downstream, and NMED does not see any evidence of negative impacts to water quality…

    NMED has been monitoring water quality data for both turbidity and pH in the Animas River in Colorado and New Mexico. According to the slides, the Silver Wing Mine has not, to date, caused potentially harmful changes in turbidity or pH in the Animas River as it flows from Colorado into New Mexico at Cedar Hill.

    Sliver Wing Mine: Photo credit: San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad

    Southwestern Water Conservation District’s Annual Water Seminar: Friday, November 1, 2019

    Swim class on the San Juan River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Click here for all the inside skinny:

    The 37th Annual Water Seminar will be kicked off by SWCD’s new executive director, Frank Kugel. He has a strong track record of building partnerships and leveraging local resources for collaborative water solutions. Frank will speak to some of the challenges SWCD sees facing water management in southwestern Colorado, and opportunities for our communities to proactively address them.

    Anxious for winter storms? First, we’ll hear about the forecast from KKTV meteorologist Brian Bledsoe, and cutting-edge methods for snowpack measurement from Jeff Deems of the National Snow & Ice Data Center.

    No water seminar in 2019 would be complete without a discussion of the state’s current feasibility investigation of a demand management program. Mark Harris, Grand Valley Water Users Association, will moderate a panel of heavy hitters on the topic: Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Becky Mitchell, The Nature Conservancy Water Projects Director Aaron Derwingson, and Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller.

    Further expanding on the subject, we’ll hear a proposal from local economist Steve Ruddell and consultant Dave Stiller which challenges the notion that a successful *and* voluntary, temporary, compensated demand management program would be impossible. State Senator Don Coram and State Representative Marc Catlin will react to this proposal and provide their thoughts more generally on funding water management in Colorado.

    And if you haven’t heard the latest results of the West Slope Risk Assessment, John Currier, Colorado River District, will be summarizing the report for southwestern Colorado and taking questions. Jayla Poppleton, Water Education Colorado, will also preview several exciting programs and content making waves across the state. Watch your inbox for the final program, coming soon!

    Reserve your seat now. Registration includes catered breakfast and lunch. Click here to register or call 970-247-1302.

    Southwestern Water Conservation District Area Map. Credit: SWCD

    @EPA: Mine spilling waste into Animas River returns to normal — The Durango Herald

    From the San Juan County Sheriff’s office via The Durango Herald:

    The Environmental Protection Agency said Friday it would continue to monitor a mine that spilled wastewater into the Animas River and added sampling results should be available next week.

    Crews with the Bureau of Land Management notified the EPA on Wednesday night the Silver Wing Mine, north of Eureka, was releasing mine wastewater into the Animas River, discoloring the waterway.

    The mine is in the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund, but the EPA has not begun cleanup work there, agency officials said. The Silver Wing Mine historically has discharged wastewater, but the spill is thought to have released more wastewater than normal.

    Andrew Mutter, a spokesman for the EPA, said field crews that visited the site Thursday reported the discharge flow rate from the Silver Wing Mine was similar to past flow rates and the water in the Animas River downstream of the Silver Wing was running clear.

    Sliver Wing Mine: Photo credit: San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad

    Another mine spills into Animas — The Navajo Times

    Location map for abandoned mine near Silverton. The Silver Wing is in the upper right corner of the aerial.

    From The Navajo Times (Cindy Yurth):

    Both the New Mexico Environment Department and the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management reported today that they were notified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of a wastewater spill from the Silver Wing Mine in the area of Eureka Gulch, north of Silverton, Colorado, which occurred Wednesday afternoon.

    According to the San Juan OEM, the spill was the result of a “burp” from the mine and is unrelated to either the Gold King Mine or the Bonita Peak Superfund site.

    The source is 10 miles from the Animas River and the spill was expected to dilute by the time it reached Silverton. The spill was moving slowly and was expected to reach the San Juan River.

    So far, “Data do not currently indicate any evidence of water quality impacts that could affect human health and the environment,” stated NMED in a press release, adding that the department will continue to monitor the situation.

    Although the EPA has not issued a notice to close municipal drinking water supplies, the cities of Farmington and Aztec, New Mexico and the Lower Valley Water Users Association have shut off water intakes to municipal drinking water supplies “out of an abundance of caution.”

    Neither the volume of the spill nor the contents of the water were known as of 4 p.m. Thursday. EPA officials were conducting tests to learn more.

    Yolanda Barney, program manager for the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency’s Public Water Supply Program, said Thursday NNEPA is aware of spill and is still gathering information.

    Sources in Durango, Colorado, reported Thursday the river appears normal.

    Colorado abandoned mines

    Fort Lewis College home to the new Four Corners Water Resources Center

    Here’s the release from Fort Lewis College:

    Fort Lewis College is now home to a new collaboration between regional water leaders and academics. The Four Corners Water Resources Center, housed in Reed Library under the leadership of Director Gigi Richard, will be a space where students and community members can work together to address water issues in the Four Corners.

    Richard has been a visiting instructor in Geosciences for the last year at FLC, and prior to that was a professor of Geosciences at Colorado Mesa University, where she taught for 16 years and co-founded and directed the Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center. Most colleges in Colorado have a water center with a specific geographic focus. The Four Corners Water Resources Center will have a Southwest and Tribal focus, with collaborations with other colleges possible.

    “A water center at FLC creates an exciting opportunity for the college to be a part of solutions to some of the challenging issues facing the region and to help develop the next generation of water leaders,” says Richard. “Water underpins everything in the Southwest, including our agriculture, economy, ecosystems, recreation, spiritual values, and cultural history.”

    Students across all majors will be able to engage with the center, from courses to campus projects and events. The center will connect students to the broader water community and expand student opportunities for internships and careers. As Richard states, water touches everything and everyone, and the greatest global challenge is having both clean water and enough water.

    “Students are interested in water! So many aspects of water are urgent for present and future grand societal challenges in the Southwest and globally. The new water center will strive to leverage FLC’s existing strengths to develop coherent water-related curricular and co-curricular opportunities for students,” says Richard.

    The water center serves as an interdisciplinary information hub to harness the expertise of faculty and enhance or facilitate new relationships between campus and the region. Water leaders, professionals, and other entities will be able to bring data and initiatives under one roof, to generate greater impact and access to regional water issues.

    “Fort Lewis is uniquely poised to play a leadership role in facilitating the development of solutions to the challenging water issues facing the Southwest,” says President Tom Stritikus. “FLC already possesses faculty expertise in water-related fields across disciplines, from science, policy and engineering, to the humanities.”

    Located in the middle of the San Juan River basin, which is a major tributary to the Colorado River, the water center will be able to engage with both major Western water issues and local water issues. The first undertaking for the center will be to form an advisory council of local and regional water leaders to develop the mission of the center. Richard will be focused on developing an online database of the rivers of the Four Corners, beginning with the Dolores River. The interface will be user-friendly to the general public, and those who are interested can dig in for more technical information, too.

    “Many opportunities for partnerships exist both on campus and in the local and regional community. We are looking forward to collaborating with existing groups and building new connections for Fort Lewis students and faculty,” says Richard.

    Community events, public talks and tours, and more information about the water center are at https://www.fortlewis.edu/water.

    San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

    Zink Ranch receives permission to expand wetlands north of Durango

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo) via The Cortez Journal:

    Last week, the Zinks officially announced they received approval from a consortium of government agencies – including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, La Plata County government, among others – to expand the wetlands project by 15 acres…

    Before Western settlement reached Colorado, the best estimates show there were probably around 2 million acres – about 3% – of wetlands across the state, which provide some of the most biologically diverse habitats for wildlife and serve as a natural filter for water.

    It’s estimated that about 80% to 90% of all wildlife rely on wetland habitats.

    But development and other human-related impacts over the decades have caused many wetlands, about half, to disappear. In recent years, though, there has been a push for restoration projects to bring back the instrumental ecosystems when possible.

    At the Zinks’ ranch, for instance, a bird count in 2009 tallied 26 species. This year, after more acres of wetlands have returned, that number has jumped to more than 110 species. Patti Zink, Ed’s wife, said other wildlife, too, like deer, are frequenters on the property.

    And though the Zinks’ effort is voluntary and self-funded, it is likely they will see some returns for their project, Ed Zink said.

    The Clean Water Act of 1974 requires any new development that will destroy wetlands to find new land to restore back to a wetland.

    Zink said his property could be used for this purpose.

    As an example, he said if the Colorado Department of Transportation ever sought to expand U.S. Highway 160 between Durango and Bayfield, about 20 acres of wetlands could be affected. In turn, CDOT could reimburse the Zinks for their restoration project…

    [Patti Zink] said the wetlands will enhance the environment, as well as conserve the land forever as open space.

    “We’re really glad we’ve done it,” she said. “It will be a family legacy for us.”

    Ed Zink said he has heard some of his neighbors express interest in wetland projects, which would provide more robust and expanded habitat for wildlife and improving water quality.

    Ed Zink Animas River wetlands. Photo credit: The Durango Herald (Deep link not working)

    Southwest #Colorado is getting hotter, experts say — The Durango Herald #ActOnClimate

    Graphic credit: The Washington Post (Note: NOAA does not provide data for Alaska or Hawaii for this time period.)

    From The Durango Herald (Bret Hauff):

    Rising temperatures mean less ground water, changing plants

    On Colorado’s Western Slope, the average temperature has increased at least 2.7 degrees since 1895, based on 123 years of weather records, NOAA scientists estimate.

    Darrin Parmenter, director for the Colorado State University Extension Office in La Plata County, said the region’s average low temperature during the winter – a measure the United States Department of Agriculture calls “hardiness” – has increased significantly.

    The hardiness statistic is measured on a scale of 1 to 13; the higher the number, the warmer the average low temperature. In the 1990s, Parmenter said Durango was classified in Zone 4. The city is now in Zone 6…

    A Washington Post investigation and analysis of nationwide climate found Southwest Colorado is just south of one of the fastest-warming regions in the country. Grand Junction; Moab, Utah; and Montrose form the corners of a triangle of average annual temperature increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, since 1895.

    Global climate data may be difficult for people outside the science community to appreciate, said Heidi Steltzer, professor of biology and environmental science at Fort Lewis College. Humans don’t experience time on the scales climate is measured…

    Colorado has historically had shorter growing seasons because of extended snowpack, and high-snow winters in the 1930s through the 1960s typically led to a lot of rain in the summer, Steltzer said. The 2018-19 winter snowpack filled the San Juan Mountains and nourished the San Juan Basin much like it did in the mid-1900s.

    Steltzer said she was excited for the opportunity to study the effects of late snow in the Alpine environment – she hadn’t seen snow like there was this spring in more than 20 years living in Colorado and studying the Rocky Mountains’ climate.

    But what she saw took her by surprise. The snow melted in the high country sooner than expected, she said. Her field work in the San Juan Mountains this summer showed that plants at high elevations are “experiencing drought conditions” despite snow burying the region late into the spring.

    Steltzer suspects that below-average rainfall and higher average temperatures this summer may have robbed the high country of valuable water storage and replenishment. Both can be attributed to a changing climate, she said…

    Durango City Council committed earlier this year to reduce greenhouse gas emissions citywide by 80% and encourage the use of 100% renewable electricity in Durango by 2050. That includes transforming public energy usage for government buildings and activities while also crafting policies to encourage renewable electricity for residents and businesses.

    FLC cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 58% from 2011 to 2018 and aims to be 100% carbon neutral by 2050.

    @USBR advances water delivery project for Navajo and Jicarilla Apache Nations #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Survey work begins for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project on the Navajo Nation. Photo credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation via The High Country News

    Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Justyn Liff, Marc Milller):

    The Bureau of Reclamation invites members of the press and public to a meeting to continue negotiations with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. The purpose of these negotiations is to agree to terms for an operations, maintenance and replacement contract for the federally-owned Cutter Lateral features of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, located near Bloomfield, New Mexico.

    This operations, maintenance and replacement contract for Cutter Lateral will facilitate water delivery to the Navajo and Jicarilla Apache Nations. The negotiations and subsequent contract provide the legal mechanism for delivery of the Navajo Nation’s Settlement Water in the state of New Mexico. WHAT: Public meeting to negotiate the Cutter Lateral operations, maintenance and replacement contract.

    WHEN: Friday, September 13, 2019, at 9:00 a.m. at 1:00 p.m.

    WHERE: Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, Walter F. Wolf Conference Room 2nd Floor GM Suite, Indian Navajo Route 12, Fort Defiance, AZ 86504

    WHY: The contract to be negotiated will provide terms and conditions for the operation, maintenance and replacement of specific project features. All negotiations are open to the public as observers and the public will have the opportunity to ask questions and offer comments pertaining to the contract during a thirty-minute comment period following the negotiation session.

    The proposed contract and other pertinent documents will be available at the negotiation meeting. They can also be obtained on our website at: http://www.usbr.gov/uc/wcao/index.html, under Current Focus or by contacting Marc Miller at 185 Suttle Street, Suite 2, Durango, Colorado, 81303, 970-385-6541, mbmiller@usbr.gov.

    The Water Information Program August/September 2019 Newsletter is hot off the presses #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

    Southwestern Water Conservation District Hires New Executive Director

    Southwestern Water Conservation District (SWCD) is pleased to announce the confirmation of their new Executive Director, Frank Kugel.

    Frank Kugel. Photo credit: Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District

    Kugel was the General Manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District for almost 13 years, and is a registered Professional Engineer with a Civil Engineering degree from the University of Colorado – Denver. Frank was involved in construction engineering in the Denver area before joining the Colorado Division of Water Resources as a Dam Safety Engineer. He served in the Denver and Durango offices of DWR before moving to Montrose where he ultimately became Division 4 Engineer for the Gunnison, San Miguel and lower Dolores Basins. Frank joined the UGRWCD upon leaving DWR in 2006. He was a member of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable since its inception and chair of its Basin Implementation Planning Subcommittee.

    WIP had a brief chat with Frank to give you a bit more information. Here are a few questions and answers from our conversation.

    WIP: What experience and knowledge do you bring to the District?

    Frank: I have been the General Manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District for the past 13 years. During that time I worked on local and statewide water issues and reported to an 11-member board. Prior to that, I was Division Engineer for Water Division 4, encompassing the Gunnison, San Miguel and lower Dolores River basins. As Division Engineer, I frequently attended SWCD board meetings and the SW seminar. Before that, I lived in Durango for 11 years while inspecting dams for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

    WIP: As the new Executive Director of SWCD, what is your vision for the district?

    Frank: My vision as Executive Director is to build upon the many successes accomplished by the Southwestern Water Conservation District. I intend to work closely with the board of directors in developing policies that will help guide the district. Instream flows and drought contingency planning are two of the areas that could benefit from policy guidance.

    WIP: What are some of your top priorities with/or within the district?

    Frank: A top priority for me is to reach out to the local communities. I plan to attend a county commissioner meeting in each of the nine counties within my first year at the district. Working on Colorado River issues will also be a high priority.

    WIP: What do you foresee being challenges?

    Frank: Facing a future with reduced water supplies due to climate change, coupled with increasing population, is a challenge for all of Colorado. The Southwest District can play a lead role in educating our constituents about this pending gap between water supply and demand and how the District can mitigate its impact.

    We welcome Frank Kugel to SWCD and wish him all the best in his new position!

    Southwestern Water Conservation District Area Map. Credit: SWCD

    After a wildfire, a Colorado town’s residents reluctantly sue a historic railway — The Los Angeles Times

    The 416 Fire near Durango, Colorado, ignited on June 1, 2018. By June 21, the wildfire covered more than 34,000 acres and was 37 percent contained. Photo credit USFS via The High Country News

    Here’s a report about the lawsuit against the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad from David Kelly that’s running in The Los Angeles Times. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

    …the federal government and others are pointing the finger at a local icon — the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which carries hundreds of thousands of passengers a year through the San Juan Mountains.

    Claiming cinders from the coal-fired, steam locomotive ignited brush along the tracks during a time of heightened fire restrictions, the U.S. attorney’s office filed a suit against the train’s owners last month seeking $25 million to cover the cost of putting out the fire. Another two dozen or so citizens and businesses are also suing for damage to their properties.

    Nobody wants the train to go out of business, but many fear the suits could eventually drive the railroad into bankruptcy, destroying a historic landmark and badly damaging the local economy…

    “The responsible decision of train management would have been to not run the train in those super-dry conditions,” said Thomas Henderson, a Denver lawyer whose firm is representing individuals and businesses suing the train. “The train has started fires for years that the feds have had to put out. They should not get a free pass simply because they are big player in town. That’s not how democracy works.”

    […]

    Few businesses are as tied to the railroad as the historic Strater Hotel, built in 1887. Roderick Barker’s family has owned it for 93 years, and he figures at least 50 to 60% of his guests ride the train.

    “The train is the lifeblood of this whole town,” he said. “If it were to fail it would certainly be one of the most significant things to happen in the history of Durango.”

    He believes the train caused the fire and needs to change its operations. But given its contribution to the economy, he questions why any local business would sue the railroad…

    Bobby Duthie, an attorney, grew up on 33rd Street in Durango. The train whistle woke him each morning. He’s ridden it more than 50 times. Now he’s working with Henderson in representing those suing the train.

    “I was initially reluctant to get involved because I love the train. But I also know that their decision to run it that day was reckless,” he said, sitting in his downtown office. “They had started fires on the tracks the month before and it was just a matter of time until it got out of control.”

    According to the federal lawsuit, the wildfire, dubbed the 416 fire, began on Shalona Hill where the grade is steep. As the train climbed, it cast off sparks and cinders. A metal screen on the smokestack caught many but not all.

    “I talked to eyewitnesses,” Duthie said. “I know the train started the fire. I’m sad they chose to run it on June 1, 2018.”

    Debris flow from 416 Fire. Photo credit: Twitter #416Fire hash tag

    Kristi Nelson’s home escaped the fire but suffered major damage in the mudslides.

    “They took 23 dump-truck loads of mud from my property,” she said. “It was devastating. I still have a mortgage on top of $116,000 worth of damages. Let’s say I don’t want to do this work. Can I sell it?”

    She said people have urged her not to ruin the train. That stings for the former vice president of sales and marketing for the railroad.

    “It is with a heavy heart that I entered into this lawsuit because I love the train,” she said. “But if I crashed my car into the train depot they would expect my insurance to pay. The train’s insurance should do the same.”

    #AnimasRiver: #GoldKingMine update

    From The Albuquerque Journal (Therasa Davis) via The Farmington Daily Times:

    [After the August 5, 2015 spill]…The EPA paid state and tribal governments for emergency water tests, but initially denied 79 economic damage claims.

    In August 2017, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt – who resigned in July 2018 – visited the spill site and said the agency would reconsider the claims. The New Mexico Environment Department said Friday that it was unaware whether any of those payments have been made.

    Animas River at the New Mexico/Colorado State line August, 2015.

    NMED chief scientist Dennis McQuillan said there is ongoing monitoring to determine long-term effects of the spill.

    “Dozens of mines are leaking acid mine water into the watershed,” McQuillan said. “Gold King was just one of those.”

    Under new administrator Andrew Wheeler, the federal agency, its contractors and mining companies asked for dismissal of the lawsuits, arguing the EPA had immunity and was already working on cleanup.

    Environment Department general counsel Jennifer Howard said a federal judge in Albuquerque rejected that argument in March, so the lawsuits “should definitely start proceeding at a faster pace.”

    A November 2018 EPA report showed fish had elevated metal levels in the weeks after the spill, but returned to pre-spill levels by spring 2016.

    Gold King Mine Entrance after blow out on August 5, 2015. Photo via EPA.

    Research by the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, New Mexico Game and Fish, Mountain Studies Institute, San Juan Basin Public Health and Colorado Parks and Wildlife echo that claim.

    “The farming industry is still hurting,” McQuillan said. “I’ve talked to farmers who said their sales are down 25% from before the spill because people say they won’t buy food grown on the San Juan. But our agriculture products are safe. The fish are safe to eat. The river is safe for irrigation.”

    McQuillan said the federal WIIN Act (Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation) will provide money for the Navajo Nation to test fish in the spill area and start outreach to address the misconception that the river water is unsafe.

    In 2016, the EPA designated the area around the spill site as the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site, which opens up money for cleanup and places the site on a priority action list. Howard and McQuillan agreed that was a positive development, but Superfund cleanup is a slow process.

    “It was a significant issue four years ago and remains a significant issue,” Howard said. “The motivation for our lawsuit is to have EPA step up to the plate and address the economic impact this (spill) had on agriculture and tourism for our state.”

    The “Bonita Peak Mining District” superfund site. Map via the Environmental Protection Agency

    Court ruling could expedite cleanup of long-dormant uranium mines — @COindependent

    Old uranium sites in Colorado via The Denver Post

    From The Colorado Independent (John Herrick):

    The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled companies must reclaim uranium mines that sit idle for more than 10 years

    Recent images of the Van 4 uranium mine show a dark rig towering above a sagebrush and juniper mesa. Beside the scaffolding sit piles of loose white rocks and two metal buildings, one of which drips insulation from its ruptured ceiling. The site is one of western Colorado’s active uranium mines. But it looks deserted.

    The operator, Piñon Ridge Mining, LLC, a subsidiary of Western Uranium & Vanadium Corp., is waiting for the price of uranium to rebound before firing up the mine again. The last time that happened was 30 years ago.

    Just how long mines like the Van 4 should be allowed to remain open — but idle — has long been a point of contention in Colorado between environmentalists and mine owners.

    Environmentalists argue the site should have been cleaned up and restored to sagebrush scrub decades ago.

    But the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board, an eight-member panel appointed by the governor that enforces the state’s mining laws, has allowed mining companies to delay tearing down their operations by granting mine owners reclamation exemptions, known as “temporary cessation” permits.

    This delay has frustrated environmental advocates. They see the unremediated sites as threatening wildlife habitat, water quality and a new West End economy based on recreational opportunities. They believe companies have relied on temporary cessation permits to sidestep environmental regulations requiring them to close and clean their all-but-shuttered mining operations.

    And last week, the Colorado Court of Appeals agreed with them.

    The court ruled state regulatory board “abused its discretion” by granting two five-year temporary cessation permits to Piñon Ridge Mining, which owns the Van 4 site. After 10 years of sitting idle, the court said, the Van 4 operation must be terminated and the owner must fully comply with reclamation requirements, restoring the site closer to its natural condition.

    Phone messages left for the operator of the Van 4 mine seeking a response to the ruling were not returned Wednesday. But the president of the Colorado Mining Association argued it’s important to consider national security risks when deciding whether to close mines.

    The court’s opinion could have far-reaching consequences. Owners of the state’s 29 active uranium mines — 16 of which have been granted temporary cessation permits, according to state data — may have to begin tearing down rigs and buildings and testing for radiation. The state does not yet know how many mines are past due for reclamation, according to the court’s interpretation. But it knows there are several.

    “Those sites will very likely need to be reclaimed in accordance with this order,” said Ginny Brannon, director of the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

    The state estimates the federal Department of Energy holds about $14.5 million in bonds that companies front to ensure resources are available to restore closed mining operations.

    View of Durango, CO, Remediated Processing Site (1991) via US Department of Energy.

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    Radioactive material used for roads, foundations, landscaping in mid-1900s

    It turns out more than 100 properties in Durango were missed during a massive, multi-million dollar cleanup in the 1980s of radioactive waste that was once used for the construction of homes, buildings and roads.

    Now, more than three decades later, the state of Colorado’s health department says these hot spots that slipped through the cracks need to be cleaned up.

    “We’re now looking to raise the awareness of this potential issue in Durango,” said Tracie White, a remediation program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “It’s been on our radar for a while, and we’ve been laying the groundwork. Now, it’s coming into place.”

    A cheap and easy material
    Durango is no stranger to the issues left behind from the town’s legacy with uranium mining.

    In the 1940s, the U.S. government built a mill on the northeast side of Smelter Mountain, now the Durango Dog Park, to reprocess uranium tailings for sale to the Manhattan Project, which produced the world’s first atomic bomb.

    After extracting uranium, though, what’s left behind is a gray, sand-like waste product that can be filled with radioactive components, like radium and radon. In Durango, this pile grew to 1.2 million cubic yards, enough to fill nearly 400 Olympic-size swimming pools.

    Over the years, people freely used the uranium mill tailings in construction around town, said Duane Smith, a local historian and former Fort Lewis College professor. It was as easy as driving your truck up to the waste pile and taking a load…

    The uranium tailings were a cheap, easy material to work with and were used for the foundation of buildings and homes, driveways and roads, including sections of Camino del Rio. The radioactive waste was even used as a substitute for sand in gardens and sandboxes.

    The practice went unchecked until the tailings became a major public health concern in the 1970s, which prompted Congress to pass the “Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act” in 1978 to tackle the 24 worst uranium sites around the country.

    Durango ranked in the top four.

    In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated 122,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste had been used in and around Durango homes, businesses, public buildings, roads and parks, and that it would take years and millions of dollars to remove it all.

    Greg Hoch, the city of Durango’s longtime planning director, now retired, said federal government officials went up and down Durango streets surveying for hot spots. In the end, most of the high-risk sites were removed and cleaned up, he said…

    But properties were missed, not just evidenced by this recent announcement from the state health department. In 1997, it was discovered that even more hot spots beneath Durango homes and streets remained contaminated by tailings, a discovery that “unsettled” the city at the time, according to The Durango Herald archives.

    Records identify 115 properties at risk
    This time around, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is trying to spread the word that uranium mill tailings contamination potentially still exists on about 115 properties in and around Durango, but at this point, it’s still a bit of a guessing game.

    White, with the state health department, said surveys in the 1980s estimated approximately 915 properties in Durango were believed to have the uranium waste byproduct. While most were cleaned up, there has always been an understanding that some likely escaped the effort, she said.

    Recently, however, CDPHE was able to home in on which properties may still pose a risk after records from the 1990s were digitized.

    “Now that the records are more easily accessible and searchable, we are able to identify properties that may still have tailings remaining,” White said.

    Health officials suspect properties have been passed over for a number of reasons: tailings could have been relocated, properties could have been partially but not fully cleaned or, in some cases, the homeowner at the time refused to take part in the project.

    Home buyers and sellers are not required to test for radon or uranium issues. However, if a seller is aware of an issue, he or she would legally have to share that information, said John Wells with the Wells Group.

    But ultimately, state health officials can’t say for sure whether there’s a contamination problem until crews can conduct gamma radiation surveys. And in yet another wrinkle, that cannot happen until a disposal site is secured to take the waste – and there’s no telling when that will happen.

    @USBR advances water delivery project for Navajo and Jicarilla Apache Nations with contract negotiations for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project’s Cutter Lateral

    Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Justyn Liff, Marc Miller):

    The Bureau of Reclamation invites members of the press and public to a meeting where it will begin negotiations for an operations, maintenance and replacement contract with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority for operation of federally-owned Cutter Lateral features of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, located near Bloomfield, New Mexico.

    This operations, maintenance and replacement contract for Cutter Lateral will facilitate water delivery to the Navajo and Jicarilla Apache Nations. The negotiations and subsequent contract provide the legal mechanism for delivery of the Navajo Nation’s Settlement Water in the state of New Mexico. WHAT: Public meeting to negotiate the Cutter Lateral operations, maintenance and replacement contract.

    WHEN: Wednesday, July 31, 2019, at 1:00 p.m.

    WHERE: Navajo Engineering and Construction Authority, 1 Uranium Blvd, Shiprock, New Mexico

    WHY: The contract to be negotiated will provide terms and conditions for the operation, maintenance and replacement of specific project features. All negotiations are open to the public as observers and the public will have the opportunity to ask questions and offer comments pertaining to the contract during a thirty-minute comment period following the negotiation session.

    The proposed contract and other pertinent documents will be available at the negotiation meeting. They can also be obtained on our website at: http://www.usbr.gov/uc/wcao/index.html, under Current Focus or by contacting Marc Miller at 185 Suttle Street, Suite 2, Durango, Colorado, 81301, 970 385-6541, mbmiller@usbr.gov.

    Installing pipe along the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project. Photo credit: USBR

    USFS has embarked on a bit of a science experiment to see if trees, willows and other vegetation are able to take root on a mine waste pile

    USGS scientist measuring pH, Specific Conductance and dissolved oxygen in a remediation ditch constructed with local volcanic rock possessing some acid neutralizing capacity. Brown’s Gulch is below the Brooklyn Mine, a few miles north of Siverton, Colorado, in the Mineral Creek basin. (Credit: Douglas Yager , USGS. Public domain.)

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    The U.S. Forest Service has embarked on a bit of a science experiment this summer, to see if trees, willows and other vegetation are able to take root on a waste pile near the Brooklyn Mine, located on a mountainside northwest of Silverton, said Gretchen Fitzgerald, a forester with the agency.

    “Not much has been done with this waste rock,” Fitzgerald said. “But I wanted to try this.”

    If successful, the project could have beneficial effects on water quality and set a precedent for the future restoration of toxic areas.

    “It’s an experiment,” Fitzgerald said…

    Because the Brooklyn Mine is located on the San Juan National Forest, the Forest Service is taking the lead on the cleanup there, said Ben Martinez with the San Juan National Forest. But it’s possible previous mining companies could be on the financial hook.

    “The EPA along with its federal and state partners are coordinating on site-wide efforts to identify potentially responsible parties at the (Bonita Peak) site,” Martinez said.

    In the meantime, federal agencies are going ahead with the cleanup. Martinez said the site is being investigated to find out just how much contamination the Brooklyn Mine is contributing to the headwaters of the Animas, and what the possible right steps are for long-term remediation.

    South Fork Mineral Creek, Silverton photo via hhengineering.com

    Peter Butler with the Animas River Stakeholders Group said the Brooklyn Mine was included in a list of the top 33 polluting mine sites created by the stakeholders group years ago. He said the wastewater coming out of the mine, especially, poses a problem, leeching heavy metals into Mineral Creek, a tributary of the Animas River…

    While the big picture cleanup is being figured out, projects like Fitzgerald’s tree planting could help with issues associated with the waste rock pile.

    For the project, seeds were collected from Engelmann spruce trees right next to the pile, and native flowers were taken from Ophir, a small mountain town 13 miles west of Silverton.

    The seeds were sent to a nursery and matured for two years. This summer, interns with Mountain Studies Institute, Southwest Conservation Corps and Outward Bound took on the task of planting 900 spruce trees, 300 flowers and 30 willows.

    There’s a bit of technique and skill involved if you want reforested plants at an elevation of 11,000 feet to survive, Fitzgerald said…

    Fitzgerald said she’s never undertaken a project quite like this, but if the plants take hold, it could stabilize the hillside and keep the waste rock out of the watershed, acting as a sort of filter.

    There is some precedent for trying to grow on mine waste in Southwest Colorado.

    According to a Mountain Studies Institute report, some of the most significant and enduring problems of the legacy mining in the San Juan Mountains are soil and water quality degradation associated with abandoned mine tailings and waste rock piles.

    And a major impediment to reducing the amount of pollution from these sites, according to the report, is the difficulty of reestablishing vegetation.

    How biochar works. Graphic credit: The High Country News

    Mountain Studies Institute tried a few years ago to test the effectiveness of biochar (a charcoal used as a soil alternative, rich in carbon) and straw compost at abandoned mine sites around Silverton…

    The results were encouraging: The addition of biochar resulted in a nearly 200% increase in biomass on sites with levels of high acidity. On areas where soil acidity was low, however, biochar increased vegetation by only 6% to 11%.

    That’s why the Forest Service’s experiment at the Brooklyn Mine is a little more of a test trial: Fitzgerald said the mine waste rock at the site has low acidity. But, the fact some plants are naturally starting to creep out of the ground nearby is encouraging.

    Frank Kugel will likely be the next executive director of the Southwestern Colorado Water Conservation District

    Frank Kugel. Photo credit: Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District

    From The Crested Butte News (Mark Reaman):

    One the region’s foremost water experts is being offered another job in the industry that would take him back to Durango. Frank Kugel, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District, is in negotiations with the Southwestern Water Conservation District for the top job.

    According to the SWCD website, “on July 15, pursuant to C.R.S. § 24-6-402(3.5), the Board of Directors of the Southwestern Water Conservation District selected Frank J. Kugel as the finalist under consideration for the position of Executive Director.” The SWCD board plans to approve a conditional offer employment at its August 6 meeting and formally make the offer on August 7.

    Kugel confirmed the situation and said if all goes well and the SWCD board accepts the terms of employment, he would begin the new position on September 3.

    Kugel has led the UGRWCD for almost 13 years. “The Southwestern Water Conservation District serves all of nine counties, as opposed to three with the UGRWCD, so it is a higher profile position for me,” Kugel explained in an email this week. “I have worked with the SWCD for 18 years, 11 of which were while inspecting dams while living in Durango. The other seven years were while I was Division 4 Engineer in Montrose and dealing with water administration in the San Miguel and lower Dolores River basins.

    “The Southwestern District shares a number of common challenges with UGRWCD, namely Colorado River issues and drought contingency planning and demand management,” Kugel continued. “They also face a challenge of having nine separate river basins, most of which individually flow out of the state.”

    […]

    The SWCD board unanimously chose Kugel as the top finalist for the executive director job as the previous executive director had retired in April. Board president Robert Wolff explained there is a two-week public notice period before a formal job offer is made, so that will happen after the August meeting.

    “For me personally, several things about Frank stood out,” Wolff said. “He is fluent with all the Western Slope water issues we are dealing with, and he lived in Durango back in the 1990s. He is well thought of in the water community as a whole and he seems to know how to manage a district.”

    Kugel said he is fortunate to have this new opportunity and also lucky to have been in the Gunnison Valley for a dozen years. “I have been blessed with a supportive board and top-notch staff over these past 13 years,” he said. “We have done great things to develop and protect the quality and quantity of our precious water resources. The Upper Gunnison basin is a very special place and I will always hold it, and its people, near and dear to my heart.”

    Bonita Peak Mining District superfund site update

    The “Bonita Peak Mining District” superfund site. Map via the Environmental Protection Agency

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    Driven by desire to know what lies beneath, crews bore deeper every day

    EPA crews last week started to bore into the ground in what is expected to be a more than 500-foot journey to reach the American Tunnel in hopes of better understanding a complex network of mines in the upper Cement Creek basin, a tributary of the Animas.

    It’s these mines that are considered the worst polluters of heavy metals seeping into the Animas River…

    In 1959, however, when Standard Metals announced it was going to reopen the Sunnyside Mine, the now-defunct company also said it was going to extend the American Tunnel from the vast mine network to Gladstone, an old mining community about 10 miles north of Silverton.

    Extending the tunnel solved two costly problems for previous mining companies: It allowed for ore to be easily taken out for further processing, and it created a better system for groundwater to exit the mine.

    The move led to a three-decade period of prosperity, said Bev Rich, Silverton native and director of the San Juan County Historical Society.

    “They discovered some really good gold, and a good reserve of it,” she said.

    In 1991, however, the Sunnyside Mine, which had been taken over by Sunnyside Gold Corp., closed as a result of depressed gold prices. What was left behind, in terms of the American Tunnel, was a never-ending pathway for acidic discharges.

    Sunnyside Gold initially pulled water coming out of the American Tunnel into a treatment plant, a costly yet effective method that took metals out of Cement Creek and greatly improved the quality of the Animas River.

    But, in a move hoping to end its financial involvement in the Animas River basin, Sunnyside Gold entered an agreement in 1996 with the state of Colorado to shut down the treatment plant and instead install three bulkheads that essentially function as plugs to stem the acidic flow.

    By 2001, though, it was thought the water had backed up and reached capacity within the Sunnyside Mine network, which has led some researchers and experts familiar with the basin to believe that water is spilling out into adjacent mines, like the Gold King.

    Sunnyside Gold, which was purchased by international mining conglomerate Kinross Gold Corp. in 2003, has adamantly denied that its mine pool is the cause of discharge from other mines, saying there is no factual evidence for the assertion…

    One thing is clear: After the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site was officially listed in fall 2016, EPA made it a priority to figure out what was happening with water movement underground. This past winter, a helicopter carrying an electromagnetic mapping device made the rounds around Silverton to try to understand the geological makeup of the San Juan Mountains, and hopefully, its groundwater workings.

    This desire to know what lies beneath is what ultimately led to EPA drilling into the American Tunnel…

    Guy, with the EPA, said it could take almost a month to reach the American Tunnel, boring through 20 to 30 feet of hard rock per day. The intent is to reach a portion of the tunnel between bulkheads 2 and 3, but it’s going to take more wells and more research to form a better grasp on how water moves underground in this geological puzzle…

    Butler said the project plays into the larger question surrounding the Bonita Peak Superfund site: What is the ultimate strategy to fix issues in the upper Cement Creek area? EPA, for its part, has said that question warrants further investigation and time before being answered.

    #GoldKingMine update: Interview with Jonathan Thompson @jonnypeace #AnimasRiver

    Here’s an interview with Jonathan Thompson author of, “The River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster,” from Colorado Public Radio (Andrew Villegas):

    What’s the latest?

    The EPA recently ordered the Sunnyside Gold Corp. to do some drilling work to investigate where the water originates to help with cleanup. But just a few days ago, Sunnyside Gold sent a letter to the EPA essentially saying, “No, we’re not going to do it.”

    What’s their rationale for refusing?

    Back in 1992 when Sunnyside Gold Corp. closed the mine and started cleaning up, the company came to an agreement with Colorado that they would plug the mine and do a certain amount of cleanup.

    Sunnyside Gold also agreed to clean up unrelated, neighboring mines to offset the pollution in the river. In a way, they were like pollution credits.

    The company spent well over $20 million on clean-up. Now they’re basically saying, “Look, we came to this agreement with the state — the EPA signed off on the agreement — and we did everything that we were supposed to do.”

    So what’s the next step?

    We’ll it’s going to be another court battle, likely. So far, it has been the subject of a number of ongoing lawsuits. This is just going to add to that legal quagmire. In the meantime, it’s just going to delay progress on the superfund cleanup.

    Do you foresee the cleanup will eventually finish?

    It will take place, it’s going to take a long time. And that’s not totally surprising. Superfund designations tend to be very long, drawn out processes. Don’t expect them to wrap up the cleanup any time in the next 10 years, maybe not the next 20.

    What are the detrimental effects to the environment?

    Mostly it’s to aquatic life: bugs and fish. It’s bad for them. We’ve seen that dramatically on the Animas River, where the mine spilled into. The number of species of fish downstream for maybe 40 miles downstream has declined.

    Are people threatened by these kinds of spills?

    Not necessarily. People were certainly affected because they had to close the river and they had to shut off irrigation ditches. And it was also emotionally and psychologically traumatic for people, to see the river turn that color. As far as health effects go, there wasn’t enough lead or mercury in the spilled water to really affect human health, and many wastewater treatment facilities downstream are able to clean these things out.

    Prior to mining, snowmelt and rain seep into natural cracks and fractures, eventually emerging as a freshwater spring (usually). Graphic credit: Jonathan Thompson

    #AnimasRiver: “@EPA has a clear conflict of interest and has wrongfully targeted SGC (Sunnyside Gold Corp.) … (and) SGC will no longer be a pawn in this never-ending science project” — Kevin Roach

    Prior to mining, snowmelt and rain seep into natural cracks and fractures, eventually emerging as a freshwater spring (usually). Graphic credit: Jonathan Thompson

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    Sunnyside Gold Corp. is refusing to carry out work ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of the Superfund cleanup of mines around Silverton.

    “Enough is enough,” Kevin Roach, with Sunnyside Gold, wrote in an email to The Durango Herald. “EPA has a clear conflict of interest and has wrongfully targeted SGC (Sunnyside Gold Corp.) … (and) SGC will no longer be a pawn in this never-ending science project.”

    In June, the EPA ordered Sunnyside Gold to install five groundwater wells and two meteorological stations at mining sites around the headwaters of the Animas River as part of the investigation into the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site…

    Sunnyside Gold has denied any responsibility but has been willing to work with the EPA in limited ways during the past three years. On Tuesday, however, Roach sent a letter to EPA staff saying Sunnyside Gold “declines to undertake the work,” arguing the company no longer has any liability for mining pollution issues in the Animas River watershed.

    Peterson said Wednesday morning that EPA has not yet received the complete letter from Sunnyside Gold…

    In 1996, Sunnyside Gold entered an agreement with the state of Colorado to install three plugs to stem the flow of acid drainage out of the American Tunnel, which served as the transportation route for ore, as well as mine runoff, from the Sunnyside Mine to facilities at Gladstone, north of Silverton.

    By 2001, however, it was thought the water had backed up and reached capacity within the Sunnyside Mine network. Now, several researchers and experts familiar with the basin believe water from the Sunnyside Mine pool is spilling into adjacent mines, like the Gold King.

    Sunnyside Gold, which was purchased by international mining conglomerate Kinross Gold Corp. in 2003, has adamantly denied that its mine pool is the cause of discharge from other mines, saying there is no factual evidence for the assertion.

    Much of the work EPA ordered Sunnyside to do, however, seeks to gain more insight into the issue. EPA, too, intends to drill into the American Tunnel this month to better understand groundwater conditions in the area.

    Earlier this year, Sunnyside Gold called for the EPA to be recused from leading the Superfund cleanup, arguing it is a conflict of interest for the agency to do so after it caused the blowout at the Gold King Mine in August 2015.

    EPA’s Peterson said at the time the agency “will continue to require the company to take actions to ensure that financial responsibility for cleanup is not shifted to taxpayers.”

    Update on #AnimasRiver water quality, Gold Medal Waters status

    Screen shot of Animas River debris flow July 2018 aftermath of 416 Fire (CBS Denver).

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo) via The Cortez Journal:

    Colorado has more than 300 miles of streams with Gold Medal status, which is intended to highlight the state’s rivers and creeks that provide outstanding fishing opportunities.

    To qualify, a waterway must meet two criteria: have a minimum of 60 pounds of trout per acre and at least 12 trout measuring 14 inches or longer.

    In 1996, a 4-mile stretch of the Animas River from the confluence of Lightner Creek down to the Purple Cliffs by Home Depot gained the Gold Medal tag and, ever since, has been marketed as a premier destination for fishing…

    The water quality issues in the Animas are complex, said Jim White, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife based in Durango.

    A combination of factors – heavy metals leeching from abandoned mines in the Animas headwaters around Silverton, above-average water temperatures, sediment loading and urban runoff – have had a detrimental impact on aquatic life.

    As a result, fish in the Animas River are unable to naturally reproduce, and the waterway must rely on annual stocking of rainbow and brown trout by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

    In 2014, the Animas River started showing signs it was not meeting Gold Medal criteria, when a fish survey found a disappearance of large, quality-size trout in the stretch.

    It was thought aquatic life would take a devastating hit from the Gold King Mine spill in 2015, which sent an estimated 3 million gallons of mine wastewater down the Animas River. Ultimately, however, subsequent studies showed the tainted waters had no effect on fish.

    But in 2018, “everything went to hell,” White said.

    Fish and other aquatic life were already stressed from low flows and high water temperatures when torrential rains in July 2018 hit the burn scar of the 416 Fire, sending a torrent of black mud and ash down the Animas River, which killed most of the fish in the waterway downstream of Hermosa Creek.

    White said it may take up to four years to again meet Gold Medal standards in the Animas as the river recovers. Still, there’s been no discussion about delisting the impaired waterway, he said…

    …Scott Roberts, an aquatic biologist with Mountain Studies Institute, has said it generally takes one to 10 years for a watershed to recover after a wildfire, but because only a small percentage of the 416 Fire burned at high intensity, he expects the timeline for recovery to be on the short end.

    And, many wildlife officials, like Japhet and White, are hopeful the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup of mines around Silverton will help with metal contamination issues. EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Peterson said the work in the Bonita Peak Mining District will reduce the frequency of elevated metals in the Animas River, as well as the pulses of metals the agency suspects are being released from the mines.

    White said this year’s high runoff will do wonders for aquatic life in the long run. He said wildlife officials plan to stock the Animas this summer and early fall.

    U.S. Attorney’s office files lawsuit against the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad over #416fire

    From the Associated Press via The Greeley Tribune:

    A company that operates a historic railroad that carries tourists through southwestern Colorado’s mountains and forests was accused Tuesday in a lawsuit of causing one of the largest wildfires in state history.

    Federal investigators found that a coal-burning engine operated by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and American Heritage Railways threw cinders or other hot material onto brush near its track and started a fire on June 1, 2018, according to the office of U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn.

    Flames eventually consumed about 85 square miles (220 square kilometers) of land near Durango, prompting evacuation orders affecting hundreds of people. Much of the damage occurred in the San Juan National Forest and on other federal land…

    Officials had not disclosed a cause of the fire before Dunn’s office filed the lawsuit, which says multiple eyewitnesses told federal investigators that one of the trains passed through the area immediately before the fire began…

    Residents and businesses have filed their own lawsuit against the railroad company, arguing that it knew or should have known about drought conditions that summer.

    A statement released by Dunn’s office said federal authorities estimated damage and fire suppression involving the blaze could hit $25 million.

    “This fire caused significant damage, cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and put lives at risk,” Dunn said in a statement. “We owe it to taxpayers to bring this action on their behalf.”

    @EPA: Bonita Peak Mining District Human Health Risk Assessment

    On April 7, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
    Eric Baker

    Click here to read the report. Here’s the introduction:

    The Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund Site (Site) is located in southwestern Colorado. The Site consists of 48 historic mines or mining-related sources where ongoing releases of metal- laden water and sediments are occurring within the Mineral Creek, Cement Creek, and Upper Animas River drainages in San Juan County. Drainages within the Site contain over 400 abandoned or inactive mines, where large- to small-scale mining operations occurred. San Juan County is comprised of 10 historic mining districts (Colorado Geological Survey 2017). Historic mining districts within the Mineral Creek, Cement Creek, and Upper Animas River drainages include Animas, Animas Forks, Cement Creek, Eureka, Ice Lake Basin, and Mineral Point. Hereafter, the term “mining districts” or “Site” is used to refer to the mining districts within these three drainages. This document is a baseline human health risk assessment (HHRA) for the mining districts. The purpose of this document is to characterize the potential risks to humans, both now and in the future, from exposures to contaminants that may be present in the mining districts, assuming that no steps are taken to remediate the environment or to reduce human contact with contaminated environmental media. The mining districts are primarily used by humans for recreational, occupational, and tribal purposes. The receptor populations of interest for the risk assessment included campers, hikers, hunters, recreational fishermen, all-terrain vehicle (ATV) guides, ATV recreational riders, and county road workers. An addendum to this risk assessment will be developed to evaluate tribal exposures once the necessary exposure data are available.

    The results of this assessment are intended to help inform risk managers and the public about current and potential future health risks to humans that may occur as a result of exposure to mining-related contaminants due to recreational and occupational activities, and to help determine if there is a need for action to protect public health at the Site. Site managers will also consider the results of the ecological risk assessment and any regulatory requirements in determining appropriate remedial actions for the Site. As appropriate, discussions and recommendations on how to manage potential risks will be provided in the Feasibility Study. The identification of remedial action levels, which will guide future remediation efforts, will be provided in the Record of Decision.

    The methods used to evaluate risks in this HHRA are consistent with current guidelines for human health risk assessment provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for use at Superfund sites (EPA 1989, 1991a, 1991b, 1992, 1997, 2002a, 2002b, 2002c, 2004, 2009a).

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    Despite findings, agency says cleanup remains a priority

    A new study has found no serious risk to human health stemming from mines included in a Superfund site around Silverton, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

    “This is a good news story,” said Christina Progess, Superfund remedial project manager. “And it’s a really important milestone for the project that paints a more full picture in terms of what cleanup work needs to be done.”

    […]

    As part of the Superfund process, the EPA must evaluate the risks contamination slated for cleanup has on human health. In the case of Bonita Peak, exposure to mine waste through incidental ingestion and inhalation stood as the highest possibilities for people who visit the area.

    But, for the most part, the study showed there doesn’t seem to be much risk to human health…

    “Overall, there’s a lot of good news in here,” Progess said. “It doesn’t impact the local tourism industry, and folks working out in the district aren’t at risk from a human health standpoint. But (the study) also helps us highlight there are some areas that people come in contact with it.”

    While Superfund sites with clear and significant human health risks receive priority within the EPA for funding, Progess said she doesn’t expect the study’s findings to affect Bonita Peak.

    “Bonita Peak has always been and continues to be one of the administration’s top priority Superfund sites in the nation,” she said. “I don’t anticipate (funding) being a concern.”

    In April, the EPA released a study assessing risks to aquatic habitats, which showed that in areas where water had low pH and elevated metals, fish and other aquatic life populations were highly impaired or nonexistent.

    The study helped EPA identify four areas where the agency would like to improve water quality in the Animas River watershed to the point where restoration of aquatic life could be achievable.

    Additions to [Durango] Whitewater Park draw concern, criticism from boaters — The Durango Herald

    Durango whitewater park plans

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    As the Animas River approaches peak flow, concerns are being raised that the city of Durango created a hazard when it added two new rapids to the Whitewater Park, resulting in many rafting companies choosing to bypass the park for safety reasons.

    “It’s an unnatural hazard at the entry of the park, and it creates a rafting experience we’re not selling to our guests,” said Alex Mickel, owner of Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours. “It’s just been unfortunate.”

    […]

    Since the 1980s, the city has made tweaks to the Whitewater Park, which flows alongside Santa Rita Park.

    But in summer 2016, the city spent $1 million to create two new features just above the park with the sole purpose of diverting more water into the city’s water intake for municipal use.

    It’s these new features that are drawing criticism and concern as the Animas River rises to higher-than-normal flows for the first time since the ledges were built. As of Friday, the river had usurped 6,000 cubic feet per second (the Animas usually peaks at around 4,700 cfs).

    “They’re manmade nightmares,” said James Wilkes, co-owner of Mountain Waters Rafting. “They’re just not natural, and it’s very difficult for a raft to pass through it.”

    #Runoff news: Flood advisories issued for the Dolores, Animas, and La Plata rivers, #LakePowell elevation moving up #ColoradoRiver #COriver

    From The Durango Herald:

    The National Weather Service on Saturday issued flood advisories for the Mancos, Animas and La Plata rivers, and residents reported flooding along the Dolores River about 10 miles north of town.

    “We have major flooding on Road 37, Dolores, 10 miles north of Dolores,” Jeffrey L. Jahraus told The Journal. Eight to 10 properties were getting water, he said.

    The flooding began Tuesday and has continued intermittently, Jahraus said. About a half-acre of his neighbor’s property was under water.

    Flooding has happened at their property once or twice before, he said, but never like this. The Jahrauses live along Road 37, right by where the now-famous rock slide happened on Memorial Day Weekend…

    At the gauge in Dolores, the river was flowing Saturday morning at 4,200 cubic feet per second, about 256% the average June 8 rate of 1,604 cfs. Saturday afternoon, it reached 6.7 feet at the gauge, more that a foot shy of the 8-foot flood stage…

    Meanwhile, flood advisories continued Saturday until further notice for the Mancos, Animas and La Plata rivers.

    Mancos River
    The river flow along the Mancos River was expected to remain near to slightly above bankfull, and minor lowland flooding was possible. Saturday morning, the river was at 5.3 feet – several inches above bankfull – and flood stage was at 6 feet. The river was expected to rise to about 5.4 feet around midnight Sunday.

    La Plata River
    A flood advisory also continued Saturday for the La Plata River at Hesperus. The flows along the La Plata River were expected to remain slightly above bankfull, and flooding is possible, the National Weather Service said. Bankfull stage is 5 feet, and flood stage is 5.5 feet. Saturday morning, the river was at 5.1 feet and expected to rise to nearly 5.3 feet by Monday morning.

    Animas River
    The Animas River was flowing Saturday at 6.6 feet. The National Weather Service said the river was expectd to reach 6.93 feet by Sunday morning, a foot shy of the flood stage of 8 feet. Moderate flooding would occur at 9 feet, and major flooding at 10.5 feet. The record height of the Animas is 11 feet, the weather service says.

    San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

    From the Brigham Young University The Daily Universe (Josh Carter):

    Lake Powell is benefitting considerably from this year’s runoff following a strong snow year in the Rocky Mountains. The lake has risen 16 feet in the last month and is experiencing an inflow of 128% the average. While water levels are expected to continue to rise until the peak month of July, there is still a long way to go before the lake reaches full capacity.

    “This year definitely helps,” said Bureau of Reclamation Public Affairs Officer Marlon Duke.
    “But people need to keep in mind that when we came into this season Lake Powell was about 140 feet low. Even after this year, we’re going to be about 100 feet below full pool. So what we really need is three or four years just like this in a row.”

    Lake Powell is currently stuck in the worst drought of its 56-year history. Its water levels and inflow have dropped significantly since the summer of 1999 — the last time Lake Powell was essentially full at 97% of capacity. The lake hit an all-time low in 2005 when its elevation sank to 3,555 feet, 145 feet below full pool.

    The lake did experience a spike during the summer of 2010, when its levels got within 40 feet of full capacity. The drought has since continued, however, affecting not only Lake Powell but its sister reservoir Lake Mead as well.

    “In 2000, when the drought started, Lake Powell and Lake Mead were both full,” Duke said. “Today Lake Powell is about 42% full and Lake Mead is even lower than that. Before we can start talking about whether or not the drought is over we need those reservoirs to be full again.”

    Lake Mead was formed in 1935 and Lake Powell in 1963 after the completion of the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, respectively, along the Colorado River. They were created in hopes to store and provide water for the Colorado River Basin states during times of drought. Lake Powell predominately serves the Upper Basin states of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico, while Lake Mead provides for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and Southern California.

    The Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963 and subsequently caused the formation of Lake Powell. Photo credit: Esri Photo Library/Flickr via Brigham Young University

    While both man-made reservoirs have served their purpose throughout the current drought, experts are thankful for this year’s runoff after a particularly low year in 2018.

    “We’re coming off of 2018 which was the second-driest year ever since we’ve been keeping records in the Basin,” Duke said. “We were worried because if we had another year like 2018 then that would have really put us in some trouble.”

    The drought hasn’t been the only threat to the lake’s water levels in recent years. A couple different proposals and campaigns are calling for Lake Powell to be drained and to distribute its water to Lake Mead and elsewhere.

    “Fill Mead First” is a campaign first started in 1996 to encourage conversation about restoring the dammed Glen Canyon to its natural state. As the drought continued, the campaign has gained traction, arguing that Lake Mead needs more water from Lake Powell to ensure big cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego have enough. The campaign also argues that Lake Powell loses water through both rapid evaporation and water seeping into the porous sandstone walls.

    BYU geology professor Gregory Carling talked about the potential benefits that could come from restoring Glen Canyon to what it once was.

    “When the Glen Canyon Dam was built, it not only flooded one of the most beautiful canyons in the world but also thousands of archeological sites and side canyons,” Carling said. “Also, the way it is now with Lake Powell and Lake Mead half-full, both are losing lots of water through evaporation. So there probably is some sense in looking into what the benefits would be of draining Lake Powell and filling Lake Mead.”

    Carling added, however, the proposal would have to go through a lengthy legislative process in order for anything to change.

    “There are a lot of legal requirements and bureaucracy behind that, so it’s not just as easy as saying, ‘let’s drain one and fill up the other,’” Carling said. “You’d have to go back through a hundred years of the law of the river.”

    Those opposing the “Fill Mead First” campaign argue that Lake Powell, one of the most popular boating and camping spots in Utah, supports the local economy through both recreation and tourism. The lake saw over 4 million visitors during each of the past two years for the first time in its history. Lake Powell supporters also argue the lake ensures a steady water supply to Lake Mead and the Lower Basin states.

    Lake Powell attracts millions of boaters and tourists every year. Photo credit:Bernard Spragg/Flickr via Brigham Young University

    The Lake Powell Pipeline is another proposal aimed at transferring water from Lake Powell to nearby Kane and Washington Counties in southern Utah. The proposed pipeline would run approximately 140 miles underground and deliver over 82,000 acre-feet of water per year to Washington County and 4,000 acre-feet of water per year to Kane County.

    The proposal did take a hit last year when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled it would need greater oversight from other federal land agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service. Officials expect a final decision to be made on the project by 2020.

    Even amid the recent controversies experts hope the Colorado River Basin can take full advantage of its water resources, especially in times of drought. Representatives from all seven Colorado River Basin states recently met to sign drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basins.

    “This brings us one step closer to supporting agriculture and protecting the water supplies for 40 million people in the United States and Mexico,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. “Working together remains the best approach for all those who rely on the Colorado River.”

    From The Farmington Daily Times (John R. Moses):

    “The City of Farmington has temporarily closed sections of trails in Berg Park due to rising water levels.” City spokesperson Georgette Allen said in a press release June 7. “Trails on the north side of the Animas River near the All Veterans Memorial Plaza will be closed throughout the weekend.”

    @EPA to drill into the American Tunnel to assess water levels and underground interconnections #AnimasRiver

    American Tunnel Terry Portal via MinDat.org

    From the Associated Press via Colorado Public Radio:

    The EPA said it will drill into the American Tunnel next month to measure water levels and investigate how the passage is connected to other shafts.

    The agency is looking for ways to stop or treat contaminated water pouring into rivers from old mine sites in the Bonita Peak Superfund area north of Silverton…

    The EPA said it would follow strict safety guidelines when drilling the test well into the American Tunnel.

    On April 7, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
    Eric Baker

    #Runoff news: The melt is on, La Plata, Animas, and Gunnison rivers merit advisories

    From The Durango Herald:

    A flood advisory has been issued for the La Plata River near Hesperus as rising temperatures and increasing snowmelt have pushed the river toward flood stage.

    The National Weather Service in Grand Junction said flows along the La Plata River will remain near to slightly above the bank throughout the rest of the week, with the possibility for minor lowland flooding.

    As of 7 a.m. Tuesday, a river gauge measured the flow of the La Plata River at 5 feet. A flood stage for the waterway is considered 5½ feet…

    The Animas River in Durango was flowing at about 1,500 cubic feet per second Saturday. As of Tuesday morning, the river had reached more than 5,000 cfs and is expected to peak around 7,000 cfs later in the week.

    Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Management, said Monday that the Animas River begins to spill out onto some areas of the Animas Valley around 7,000 cfs.

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    The Animas River…was at about 1,500 cubic feet per second Saturday. On Tuesday, the river was running at more than 5,000 cfs and is expected to keep rising.

    By the end of the week, the Colorado River Basin Forecast Prediction Center is calling for the Animas to hit nearly 7,000 cfs. (The Animas River usually hits a peak flow of about 4,700 cfs in early June at the height of spring runoff.)

    […]

    If the Animas does reach 7,000 cfs, it would mark the largest peak since 2005 in the April-to-July snowmelt window, when the river hit 8,070 cfs on May 26. The last big water year was in 2015 when the Animas peaked at 6,210 cfs on June 12.

    The Animas River at 7,000 cfs starts to spill out on the low-lying areas and fields in the lower Animas Valley north of Durango, Knowlton said. At 8,000 cfs, areas around Trimble Lane start to flood.

    The water flow for the Animas River to be considered in a flood stage is about 10,500 cfs, Knowlton said. While the river may not hit that mark this year, there is a wild-card type scenario that has emergency managers concerned.

    From KJCT8.com (Matt Vanderveer):

    The National Weather Service has issued a river flood advisory for the Gunnison River in Mesa County. Water flows are expected to increase throughout the week.

    “Some may start to get above bank full by this weekend. But it’s just something we’re monitoring. It’s not a sharp increase where we expect to see flooding in a couple of days. We are starting to see runoff and an increase in higher flows and higher levels,” said Matthew Aleksa, National Weather Service Grand Junction.

    @EPA finalizes near-term plan for cleanup at the Bonita Peak Superfund site: This summer’s work aims to reduce the flow of acid mine drainage

    Prior to mining, snowmelt and rain seep into natural cracks and fractures, eventually emerging as a freshwater spring (usually). Graphic credit: Jonathan Thompson

    From The Associated Press (Dan Elliott) via The Denver Post:

    The work includes dredging contaminated sediment from streams and ponds, diverting water away from tainted mine waste piles and covering contaminated soil at campgrounds.

    The agency first outlined the plan last June and finalized it Thursday.

    This summer’s work is aimed at reducing the volume of toxic heavy metals that escape from mining sites and into rivers while the EPA searches for a more comprehensive solution under the Superfund program…

    The Gold King is not on the list of 23 sites chosen for this summer’s work. The EPA installed a temporary treatment plant below the Gold King two months after the spill, and it’s still cleaning up wastewater flowing from the mine.

    Two of the 23 sites are campgrounds, and three are parking areas or places where people meet for tours. The EPA plans to cover contaminated rocks and soil at those sites with gravel or plant vegetation to reduce the chance of human exposure and keep contaminants from being kicked into the air.

    Besides the dredging work, the EPA will dig ditches and berms to keep rain, melting snow and mine wastewater from reaching piles of contaminated waste rock and carrying pollutants into streams.

    The initial project will cost about $10 million and take up to five years, the agency said.

    The EPA said last year the initial cleanup would include 26 sites. But three mines were removed from the list because work will be done there later.

    What the #AnimasRiver can learn from the #ArkansasRiver — Trout Unlimited

    Headwaters of the Arkansas River basin. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journlaism

    From Trout Unlimited (Kara Armano):

    Let’s take a minute to daydream. Close your eyes and envision beautiful mountain scenery and cold, clean water drifting through the valley floor, bugs flitting through the clear, blue sky, and the possibility of sighting wildlife around every bend. Listen to the birds chirping and the sound of water running over the backs of logs and rocks. Now picture over 100 miles of this river stacked with browns and rainbows. This is not a dream. This is the Arkansas River in central Colorado.

    At one point in history, not too long ago, this was not the Arkansas we now know. It was severely contaminated from hardrock mining to the degree of needing a Superfund designation to clean it up. But clean it up they did. After years of remediation work, the Arkansas has rebounded better than imagined, becoming the Gold Medal river we know today.

    Chaffee County Commissioner Greg Felt said, “When I first began fishing the Arkansas in 1985, one could catch a lot of fish, but they were small and in poor condition due to water quality issues. With the successful effort to improve that, we began to see fish live much longer and healthier lives, and the diversity of our aquatic entomology really flourished. While a Superfund project is not a quick nor easy process, the payoff for the fishery, and for anglers, local businesses, residents, and visitors has been phenomenal.”

    This is also the hope for the Animas River just a few hundred miles to the southwest. Named a Superfund cleanup site in 2016, the Animas headwaters have a similar storied past of hardrock mining. Since the mining boom of the 1880s, the Upper Animas has seen massive heavy metal loads flowing through a wilderness section and into the town of Durango. Luckily, the metals dissolve significantly to leave the lower reaches valuable for anglers with its four miles of Gold Medal designation through Durango. But just imagine what could happen with the remainder of the river after the Superfund cleanup is complete.

    We’ve already seen glimpses of rehabilitation on the Animas River. During a brief period when a wastewater treatment plant was in place at the headwaters, trout numbers in the upper reaches were about 400 fish per mile. Once that treatment plant was removed in 2004, numbers dropped to 100 fish per mile in 2010 and a dismal 73 fish per mile last year. The same is true for macroinvertebrates. The celebrated pale morning dun was once a character of the river landscape, but since the closure of the plant, they have been nonexistent. Clearly, remediation of any level is beneficial to trout and trout food.

    If the Animas River Valley, its citizens and businesses, anglers and recreationists can learn anything from the Arkansas River success story, it’s this: hope is not lost. It will take time, but the Animas River will return to a healthy habitat for our beloved trout.

    On April 7, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
    Eric Baker

    May 1 San Juan #snowpack update — Jonathan Thompson (@JonnyPeace) #runoff

    Westwide SNOTEL May 5, 2019 via the NRCS.

    From RiverOfLostSouls.com (Jonathan Thompson):

    Snow levels have presumably peaked in the San Juan Mountains and, as expected, they look pretty darned healthy. That said, it’s not quite the biggest snow year on the books. How 2019 ranks depends on which SNOTEL station you’re looking at.

    …as of May 1, this year’s snow levels were the second highest at Red Mountain Pass and Columbus Basin, fourth highest at the lower elevation Cascade station, and fifth at Molas Lake (which seems off to me).

    But whether it was a record year or not, it’s clear that it has been — and continues to be — a good year for water supplies and river flows in the whole region. At every station the snowpack remains far above average, and three to four times what it was at this time last year. Also, one only needs to look at all the snow slide debris in the high country to determine that it was a historic avalanche cycle…

    But that was past. What about the near future? How high will the Animas River get this year?

    It’s already hit 3,000 cubic feet per second in Durango, which is plenty of flow for some good kayaking and rafting (albeit a bit chilly). And it’s fair to bet that it will top 5,000 cfs before the runoff is over. But whether it will shoot up past 8,000 cfs as it did in 2005 (which saw a smaller snowpack at most stations in the watershed) or not is anyone’s guess.

    Just because the snowpack is bigger than 2005 doesn’t mean the runoff will hit a bigger peak. A cool spring will result in a slower melt, and that will mean a higher average flow and a longer rafting season, but not necessarily a bigger peak.

    Either way, the reservoirs are likely to get a bit of a boost, and the smaller ones will likely get topped off. As for Lake Powell rising back up to its former glory? Don’t get your hopes up.

    Animas River at Durango March 1 through May 6. 2019 via USGS

    #AnimasRiver: The @EPA hopes to improve aquatic life in four reaches

    Silverton, Colo., lies an at elevation of 9,300 feet in San Juan County, and the Gold King Mine is more than 1,000 feet higher in the valley at the left side of the photo. Photo/Allen Best

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    The Environmental Protection Agency has named four areas in the Animas River basin where it plans to focus on improving water quality for aquatic life.

    The EPA recently released a study assessing risks in aquatic habitats, a result of years of sampling and testing water quality in the Animas River basin around Silverton.

    Andrew Todd, an aquatic toxicologist for the EPA, said the study confirmed many suspicions throughout the watershed: In areas where water had low pH and elevated metals, fish and other aquatic life populations were highly impaired or non-existent.

    But the study also helped inform the EPA about what areas the agency could focus on with cleanup projects, he said, where marked benefits, such as restoring aquatic populations, could be achievable.

    The areas include:

  • The Animas River just below the confluence of Elk Creek, about 5 miles downstream of Silverton.
  • The upper Animas River from Howardsville to just above the confluence with Cement Creek.
  • The south fork of Mineral Creek.
  • Upper Mineral Creek from Mill Creek to just above the confluence with the middle fork of Mineral Creek.
  • […]

    Christina Progress, Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site manager, said a final decision on the EPA’s quick-action plan that seeks to address 26 mining sites over the next five years or so should be announced in the next month or two.

    Progress said the cleanup projects in the proposed plan are in line with the EPA’s four identified priority areas.

    Weather permitting, Progress told The Durango Herald, the EPA plans to conduct four or five projects this summer. The low water year in 2017-18 and the high water year in 2018-19 are also allowing the EPA to get a better idea of the hydrology of the mountains.

    Because Cement Creek has never been known to support aquatic life, it was not considered in this part of the EPA’s process, Progress said. The mines draining into upper Cement Creek are considered some of the worst loaders of heavy metals in the basin.

    “We need a lot more understanding of the groundwater system to understand how best to address those (mine) sources,” she said. “We know it’s a significant area of contamination and prohibitive to our overall success.”

    Progress said the EPA’s human health risk assessment should also be released in the next month or so. A terrestrial health risk assessment is expected this fall, she said.