From The Durango Telegraph (Jonathan Romeo):
“We know who pooped in the river, now we’re trying to figure out where it’s coming from,” Alyssa Richmond said as she took a sample of water recently from the muddy San Juan River, in the blazing high desert outside Farmington.
Richmond is coordinator for the San Juan Watershed Group, a collection of local agencies and volunteers working to improve water quality on the San Juan River as it runs through northern New Mexico. The group’s ultimate goal, Richmond said, is to have the stretch of river meet national water quality standards. But as it stands, it’s not going well.
Among a plethora of water-quality issues that include mine pollution, urban runoff and rising water temperatures amid an increasing drought, is the issue of E. coli contamination. A naturally occurring bacteria that lives in all humans and animal stools, E. coli can contaminate ground and surface water, and lead to health implications.
For at least the past 10 years, researchers have launched a full-scale investigation to better understand E. coli issues up and down the San Juan River watershed, from high up in the San Juan Mountains to its major tributary, the Animas River, to stretches that run into the Navajo Nation.
Early results are not encouraging: the EPA’s standard for acceptable E. coli levels is 126 colony-forming units (CFU) per 100 milliliters. In stretches of the San Juan River through Farmington, water samples taken this summer exceeded nearly 1,500 CFUs. “We didn’t expect it to be as high as it was,” Richmond said on a sampling day in late August. “It was shocking.”
But it’s not all doom and poop. The San Juan Watershed Group’s efforts will ultimately help inform where cleanup projects should be focused to achieve the highest improvement in water health. And, all up and down the watershed, even to the highest reaches of the Animas River around Silverton, there is a concerted push to face E. coli issues head on.
“The good news is everyone agrees there should be no human poop in the water,” said San Juan Citizens Alliance’s Animas Riverkeeper Marcel Gaztambide, who probably never thought he’d have to make so obvious a statement to the local paper. “And it’s an issue of concern, so it’s good we’re talking about it now.”
E. coli is a difficult contaminant to fully contextualize because not only is it naturally occurring, it is also one of the most common bacteria. It can come from livestock as well as wildlife like elk, deer, birds, beaver – pretty much any animal that poops. And to complicate matters further, only some strains of the bacteria are harmful to human health.
In the early 2010s, however, researchers knew high E. coli levels were an issue in the San Juan River in northern New Mexico, but the question was, who was the main culprit? After conducting two years of microbial source testing, which not only shows the level of E. coli but also pinpoints the exact source, the results were not what researches were expecting. It came back that the largest contributors were … drumroll, please … humans.
In fact, test results showed human feces in 70 to 100 percent of samples taken from the Animas River at the Colorado-New Mexico state line down to the border of the Navajo Nation.
With the guilty party exposed, funding was again secured to take the investigation a step further this summer by understanding where exactly the human waste was coming from, Richmond said. It’s a process that’s rather simple, by testing upstream and downstream of suspected source points, and then seeing where the spikes in E. coli levels occur. And already, there are some potential smoking guns: failing septic tanks from homes and development, outdated wastewater treatment plants and illegal RV dumping.
What the sampling has also shown, Richmond said, is the high E. coli levels aren’t necessarily coming from upstream communities in Durango and elsewhere. Instead, early results indicate the highest spikes happen in and around Farmington…
It’s a watershed moment
But that doesn’t necessarily mean upstream communities are swimming in sparkling clean waters.
The Animas River, for instance, has issues all its own. Remember that EPA standard of 126 cfu/100 mL? Well, one study conducted by Fort Lewis College in October 2018 found E. coli levels in the Animas at Santa Rita Park, near the Whitewater Park (close your eyes kayakers and surfers) at 226 CFUs. Bare in mind, this was before the completion of the City’s new water reclamation facility in December 2019…
Over in the Florida River, which runs into the Animas about 18 miles south of Durango, progress is also being made, said Warren Rider, coordinator for the Animas Watershed Partnership, which focuses on water quality issues on the Colorado side of the border.
The Florida River for years has exceeded safety standards for E. coli and accounts for nearly a quarter of the bacteria and nutrients dumped into the Animas River before the state line. In a bit of a shock, the Florida was delisted last year, but that was mostly due to a lack of data, researchers say.
While natural sources do account for a portion of contamination in the Florida, agriculture and livestock operations also contribute a good amount of harmful bacteria. As a result, Rider said the Animas Watershed Partnership has tried to work with landowners to fence off waterways to livestock and reestablish vegetation along stream banks…
Up in the high country
And no one has forgotten about the highest reaches of the watershed atop the San Juan Mountains, where an unprecedented increase in recreation, and therefore human waste, has been well noted and nosed in the past year or so.
This summer, the U.S. Forest Service and Mountain Studies Institute partnered to test heavily trafficked recreation areas for E. coli. Colleen Magee-Uhlik, a forest ambassador with MSI, said areas with high use of recreation showed much higher concentrations than locations with little human impact.
In the obvious case study, South Mineral Creek – that of Ice Lakes fame – water samples taken above the highest areas of recreation tested at about 22 CFUs. Farther downstream, in a location that would catch all the cumulative impacts of recreation and camping, samples were more than four times as high, at nearly 90 CFUs. (And, it should be noted, South Mineral was closed this year because of fire damage, which likely means levels would be even higher if people were in the area)…
Christie Chatterley, Fort Lewis College assistant professor of physics and engineering, said in the popular backpacking spot Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness, a student-led research program also found high levels of E. coli in streams. FLC has plans to conduct microbial source testing to see exactly where the bacteria is coming from, but Chatterley said it’s probably safe to assume hikers and campers…
So what can be done?
For starters, using best practices in the high country, such as burying waste 6 to 8 inches deep and 200 feet away from water, and packing out toilet paper can go a long way. This message is even more important as record numbers of people visit the backcountry, many without a working knowledge of how to protect the very landscape they come to enjoy.
Farther downstream, upgrading septic tanks is seen as another obvious target. Brian Devine, with San Juan Basin Public Health, said new septic regulations require people selling their homes to have septic systems inspected. In 2020 alone, more than 500 systems were inspected, which led to many leeching septic tanks being fixed. “It’s resulting in systems getting repaired,” he said. Richmond, with the San Juan Watershed Group, said agencies are working with New Mexico health officials to tackle failing and outdated septic systems as well.
And, the city of Durango’s Biggs said the Clean Water Act continues to push water quality standards. “The Clean Water Act has really improved water quality, and the Animas would be a testament to that,” he said. “And everyone benefits, including our downstream users.”
So yes, there’s no quick and easy fix to E. coli issues in the Animas and San Juan rivers, but all these efforts are folded into the long history of communities along the watershed, and the responsibilities they have to one another, Biggs said. It’s an issue that dates back to the 1800s when Silverton would send down water contaminated by mining operations to Durango, and a few decades later, when Durango’s uranium pile sat along the banks of the Animas River, only to be swept downstream.
From The Farmington Daily Times (Mike Easterling):
While monsoon season does not conclude officially until the end of September, it is clear the summer weather pattern that typically brings a good deal of moisture to the Southwest has helped ease the drought’s grip on much of New Mexico.
Chuck Jones, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said the agency will not have figures on monsoon rain totals until early October, after the season has drawn to a close.
But a look at the U.S. Drought Monitor map for New Mexico — and the rest of the Southwest — shows substantial improvement over the past two and a half months. Many parts of the state that were bone dry at the beginning of summer have emerged mostly, or even entirely, from the drought.
Nowhere has that change been more dramatic than in the southeast corner of the state. According to the Southwest and California Drought Status Update issued June 24 by the federal government’s National Integrated Drought Information System, parts of seven counties in that corner of New Mexico were characterized as being in exceptional drought — the worst category — and every county in that region was suffering from severe, extreme or exceptional drought, the three worst categories.
Now, two and a half months later, the picture there is much different, as portions of six of those counties are now characterized as normal. Much of the remaining territory in the southeast corner of the state is classified as being only abnormally dry or experiencing moderate drought.
While other parts of the state also saw marked improvement — portions of 13 counties in New Mexico now are drought free, compared to parts of just two counties on June 24 — others have not been so fortunate. Many parts of central, southwest and northwest New Mexico that were locked in drought at the beginning of the summer remain that way, even though their status has improved, as well.
The drought continues to take a heavy toll on San Juan, McKinley, Rio Arriba, Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Las Alamos, Catron, Grant, Hidalgo and Luna counties, with each of those counties still showing substantial territory characterized as being in extreme drought, the second-worst category.
That’s not to say those locations are as bad off as they were even a month ago, when large portions of all those counties were experiencing exceptional drought. In fact, the percentage of the state that is classified as being in exceptional drought has declined from more than 50% at the start of 2021 to approximately 33% three months ago, 4.5% on Aug. 10 and 0% on Sept. 9. And while 21.2% of New Mexico was in extreme drought on Aug. 10, that percentage declined to 19.1% by Sept. 7.
According to drought.gov, this was the 32nd wettest August in New Mexico over the last 127 years. Las Cruces has enjoyed an especially good monsoon so far, having racked up 5.06 inches of precipitation over that period, the third-wettest monsoon on record, according to drought.gov.
San Juan County has not seen that kind of bounty, but it has experienced a relatively good monsoon season, at least by the paltry standards of recent years. Jones said Farmington has received 1.6 inches of moisture at Four Corners Regional Airport over the three-month period, a figure that nearly matches the 30-year average of 1.62 inches.
For the year, Farmington has drawn 4.31 inches of precipitation, which comes close to matching the figure of 4.68 inches the city has received on average through the end of August for the last 30 years. Over the last three decades, Farmington has averaged a total of 7.76 inches annually.
As of Sept. 7, the vast majority of San Juan County was still characterized as being in extreme drought, with only slivers of the southwest and southeast corners in severe drought. But on Aug. 10, approximately half the county was in exceptional drought, and now none of it is.
From The Associated Press via The Colorado Sun:
Todd Hennis claims the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has occupied part of his property near the Gold King Mine but hasn’t compensated him for doing so
The owner of an inactive southwestern Colorado mine that was the source of a disastrous 2015 spill…has filed a lawsuit seeking nearly $3.8 million in compensation for the federal government’s use of his land in its ongoing cleanup response…
Todd Hennis claims the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has occupied part of his property near the Gold King Mine but hasn’t compensated him for doing so since the August 2015 spill, The Durango Herald reports. He also claims the EPA contaminated his land by causing the spill, which fouled rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah with a bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals.
Hennis is seeking nearly $3.8 million in compensation in the suit filed [August 3, 2021] in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. He contends EPA actions have violated his Fifth Amendment rights to just compensation for public use of private property.
From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Seth Boster):
A new coalition aims to re-shape the way people think about Colorado’s Gold Medal fisheries while also rally support for preserving and expanding signature waters around the state.
The coalition is “still very much a work in progress,” said Scott Willoughby, the Colorado field organizer with Trout Unlimited. But the campaign called Colorado Gold has added muscle with dozens of major business partners that include Patagonia and Fishpond, along with angling groups and towns centered around the state’s streams and lakes with the sport’s greatest distinction.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife manages some 322 river miles and three lakes with Gold Medal designations, based on those locations producing “the highest quality cold-water habitats.” The designation is reserved for fisheries producing a variety of trout 14-plus inches.
“When we talk about these Gold Medal waters, people seem to associate them with trophy trout fishing,” Willoughby said. “I think it’s time we shift that thinking from trophy trout to trophy trout habitat.”
With the sport’s growing popularity, Trout Unlimited has identified over-fishing as one threat to those habitats. Colorado Gold has a bold mission to conserve enough habitat to merit a 30% increase in Gold Medal fishing waters by 2030.
Doing this “will help safeguard more Colorado fisheries while redistributing pressure on a currently limited resource,” reads a coalition statement. Colorado Gold’s website adds: “We can’t afford to simply sit back and watch (Parks and Wildlife) do all the heavy lifting.”
Bigger and hotter fires of recent years have been another threat to prized streams. In 2019, officials reported the 416 fire near Durango effectively killed 80% of the fish population along the Gold Medal Animas River…
“Obviously, (climate change) will take federal action, as well as local action,” Willoughby said. “That’s why it’s so important that we continue to broaden this coalition.”
Here’s the release from the New Mexico Office of the Natural Resources Trustee (Elysia Bunten):
The New Mexico Office of the Natural Resources Trustee (ONRT) is in the preliminary stages of soliciting ideas for projects that will restore natural resources in New Mexico injured by the 2015 Gold King Mine release.
We welcome stakeholder engagement in our process and invite you, as a stakeholder who was affected by the contamination, to participate in this process. Please see the attached letter containing details about ONRT’s funding, process, upcoming information session, and timetable.
From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):
Fish and wildlife leaders say they have their eye on potential closures of the Animas and San Juan rivers as well.
Devastating drought and disappearing runoff in far southwestern Colorado have prompted state officials to seek voluntary fishing restrictions on the Dolores River for the first time, and fish and wildlife leaders say they have their eye on potential closures of the Animas and San Juan rivers as well.
Intense rain over the weekend — generating eye-opening but perhaps deceptive coverage of flash floods and mudslides — are not nearly enough to bring Colorado’s Western Slope out of a 20-year drought that has drained rivers and desiccated pastures.
Conservation groups, meanwhile, say they are also worried about low river levels in more visible, main-stem branches of waterways usually popular with anglers and recreators in July, including the Colorado River…
Voluntary fishing closures on prime stretches of the Colorado are “imminent,” too, as soon as state weather warms up as expected in a few days, said Kendall Bakich, aquatic biologist for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife division in the Glenwood Springs area. Portions of the Colorado are seeing water temperatures above 70 degrees and related fish stress a month earlier than in a usual year, Bakich said.
Moreover, sediment from the heavy rains and mudslides that make some Front Range residents hear “drought relief” are actually making things harder on trout and other species, Bakich said. The murky water makes it harder for them to find food.
Even if you release a caught trout and it survives, Bakich said, this year’s far earlier than normal heat stresses are threatening the sperm and egg health in the species…
Bakich said she has worked the waters from Glenwood Springs upstream to State Bridge since 2007, and has not seen Colorado River temperatures rise this fast, this early…
Ranchers are seeking alternate pasture and culling herds. Fruit orchards south and east of Grand Mesa predict smaller crops. Reservoir managers told the Ute Mountain Ute tribe and other growers they will see only 10% of their usual water allotment.
Flow in the Dolores River is controlled almost completely by McPhee’s dam. Normally at this time of year, the stream is running at 60 to 80 cubic feet per second. Last week, it ran at 9 cfs, White said. Managers believe it will be down to 5 cfs later in the summer, barely a trickle in the wide stream bed.
So Parks and Wildlife is asking Dolores anglers to stop fishing by noon each day. Water comes out the bottom of McPhee at a chilly, trout-friendly 45 degrees, White said. In typical weather, anglers have a few miles of river to work below the dam before the water heats up to 75 degrees, a temperature band that starts weakening fish survival rates. Those 75-degree stretches have moved much closer to the dam this summer, he said.
The same is happening on the Animas and San Juan rivers in the southwest corner of the state, and voluntary closures are close on the horizon there, White said.
“We anticipate probably asking anglers to refrain from fishing at some point later in the summer if water temperatures start to get high, which we do anticipate this year,” he said.
The Colorado River sections could see some relief, from engineering if not from the weather.
Wildlife and conservation leaders said they are in talks with Front Range water diverters, who have rights to send Western Slope river water under the Continental Divide for urban and suburban household water, to release more flow west from their healthy reservoirs on the Colorado and its tributaries.
From The Durango Telegraph (John van Becay):
The American West is stricken by drought. That is not news. For the past 20 years, moisture levels have been abnormally low in the region. Shriveling crops, raging wild fires and diseased forests are just some of the fallout. Now scientists fear we may be on the verge of a megadrought – a long-lasting period of greatly reduced moisture. The last megadrought was in the 1500s and lasted some 50 years. Past megadroughts were naturally occurring. Their causes are complex and not completely understood. What scientists do understand is that the present drought has been worsened by anthropogenic (human caused) warming. That’s right, our old friend global warming has worsened our present drought by 30-50 percent. How bad could it get? The past 20 years contends with any 20-year period in the last 1,200 years for the severity of drought. That is some bad news.
The San Juan Basin drainage has been especially hard hit. The Animas River shows decreased flow not for the past 20 years, but for the past 30 years, since the early 1990s. In fact, discounting the abnormally wet 1980s, the Animas River has been steadily losing flow since the beginning of record keeping in the 1890s. The history of a single river graphed on a chart is notoriously hard to plumb for trends. Too many years buck the norm presenting a confusing welter of peaks and troughs. But dive deep enough and the evidence is there. The Animas River is not doing well.
On Oct. 5, 1911, after days of heavy rain, the Animas River came roaring out of its banks. It peaked at 25,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) which was 11 feet deep measured at the station near the power plant. The water reached the top of the arches on the Main Avenue Bridge. The monster runoff of 1911 set the record –since records have been kept – for peak run off of the Animas. Jump ahead to 1927 – a freakish combination of late snow melt and an early monsoon rain June 27, 1927, lashed the river to its second-highest historical level: 20,000 cfs and 9.65 feet…
Peak flow is flashy. It makes stunning photographs. It puts people on the river and pictures in the paper. But it’s a flighty thing, much like spring itself. Peak flow does not water crops or nurture cities. That measurement is annual discharge – which is measured in thousand acre feet, or k/a/f…from 1913-25, the average annual discharge was 750 k/a/f, that’s three-quarters of a million acre feet per year.
Our second period of increased annual discharge is 1941-1950 when the average annual discharge was 665 k/a/f. In our third period, 1979-88, average annual discharge ticked upward to 700 k/a/f, a period that has not been matched for the last 80 years.
For comparison, from 2010-19 the average annual flow of the Animas dropped to 496 k/a/f, a staggering 34 percent decline from the average flow a century ago. If scientists are correct – and we are entering another megadrought, aided and abetted by global warming – the future of the Animas appears grim.
In the past Durango survived the loss of its smelter. A present controversy over the coal-fired train continues to tear at the town. What is Durango’s future with an Animas River reduced to the size and ferocity of an irrigation ditch? How does that impact Durango’s self-image? Where then will lie the soul of el Rio de las Animas Perdidas? Along a dry river bed?
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Southwestern Water Conservation District Hires New General Manager
Southwestern Water Conservation District (SWCD) is pleased to announce the hiring of its newest General Manager, Steven W. Wolff.
Board President Jenny Russell expressed the board’s enthusiasm in naming Wolff as General Manager for the Southwestern District. “Steve immediately stood out in an impressive pool of candidates for the GM position,” said Russell.
Wolff is currently Administrator of the Interstate Streams Division within Wyoming’s State Engineer’s Office in Cheyenne. The Interstate Streams Division oversees Wyoming’s rights and responsibilities outlined in the seven interstate water compacts and three interstate water decrees the state is signatory to. Wolff is also responsible for the development of technical and policy recommendations on inter- and intra-state water issues. The Southwestern board was also pleased and impressed with Wolff’s work with river basin planning efforts of the Wyoming Water Development Commission for each of Wyoming’s seven major river basins. He will be winding down his representation of Wyoming over the next month.
Wolff’s interstate experience will be invaluable to the Southwestern District in its involvement in complex interstate negotiations on the Colorado River, state and federal water policy advocacy, local water planning efforts, water education, and other critical, water-related matters.
“I am honored to be offered this opportunity to contribute to the District’s leadership on West Slope water issues and look forward to becoming an active part of the Southwestern community. I thank the board for their confidence in me,” Wolff said. “We are undoubtedly entering a critical period in providing a reliable water supply for all uses, and no place is more significant than the Colorado River basin. Water management is challenging at a local, regional, and national scale. I look forward to working with the Southwestern District board and the many stakeholders to define and implement a vision for sustainable water resources in southwest Colorado,” added Wolff.
Wolff currently serves as gubernatorial appointee representing Wyoming to the Western States Water Council, the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Forum, and the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program. He also currently serves as chair of the Upper Colorado River Commission’s Engineering Committee and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program’s Management Committee.
“We look forward to Steve’s long and productive leadership with the Southwestern District,” concluded Russell.
The Southwestern Water Conservation District was created by the Colorado legislature 80 years ago to protect, conserve, and develop the water resources of the San Juan and Dolores River basins and to safeguard for all of Colorado the waters of the Colorado River basin to which the state is entitled.
From New Mexico in Depth (Elizabeth Miller):
Early this year, five of Gallup, New Mexico’s 16 water wells stopped producing water, including two of its biggest. After a few days of maintenance, two worked. The other three were out of commission for more than a month. Had it happened in summer, the city might have asked residents to dramatically reduce use…
The shortage isn’t wholly surprising — 20 years ago, the city decided it could limp along on aging groundwater wells with dropping water levels until a new water project began delivering San Juan River water in late 2024. The project is also connecting nearby Navajo communities, where many residents lack running water, an issue the Navajo Nation says is long past due and in need of a fix. But now a potential four-year delay could force a growing number of people to rely on these strained groundwater sources. A plan to keep taps from running dry will come with a price tag.
The situation highlights how precarious water has become for this city of almost 22,000 in western New Mexico and offers a peek inside the complicated mix of relationships, creativity and familiarity with multiple government agencies that’s required to manage water in the 21st century.
Gallup sits in the high desert along the red sandstone mesas of the Colorado Plateau. For much of its history, it has functioned as an industrial town and a bustling commercial center. Named in 1881 after railroad paymaster David L. Gallup, freight trains and Amtrak still rumble through, in addition to a steady flow of semi-truck traffic around the exits for Interstate-40. Surrounded by the Navajo Nation, on the first weekend of the month the town swells by 100,000 as people stream in for supplies. Those with no running water at home fill water containers. People do laundry, wash cars, go out to eat.
For decades, the Navajo Nation bordertown has relied on groundwater stored in sandstone layers deep underground. With no nearby rivers, wells tapping that water have been the city’s only option. But because annual rain and snowfall don’t replenish the water, levels have dropped over recent decades. In the 1990s, the city projected shortages by as early as 2010.
“Not only was Gallup running out of water, everybody was running out,” said Marc DePauli, owner of DePauli Engineering and Surveying, which the city has hired to work on the water systems. About 20 smaller surrounding water systems had “straws in the same bucket,” all leaning on dwindling reserves.
Help is coming in the form of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, the result of a historic agreement that settled Navajo Nation claims to water in this arid region of the Southwest after decades of discussions.
Consisting of two major pipelines that run through Navajo communities in western New Mexico, the project will bring water from the San Juan River to within reach of some of the one in three homes without it on the Navajo Nation. One of the pipelines, the Cutter Lateral that branches to northwest New Mexico, is complete. The other, the San Juan Lateral, will move 37,700 acre feet of water each year for 200 miles along the western edge of the state, up to 7,500 acre-feet of which will come as far south as Gallup. In the future, the city will rely largely on water from the San Juan…
The water was supposed to flow by 2024, but a new design proposed by the Bureau of Reclamation will now likely push that date back by three to four years, putting Gallup in a tight spot, monetarily and water-wise. The construction delay coupled with the city shouldering more demand will require new wells to supply everyone until water from the San Juan arrives.
From The Durango Herald ( Shannon Mullane):
Snowpack has already peaked, and remains below average
Snowmelt season is in full swing, but one may not know that by looking at the Animas River, which this week more closely resembles a slow trickle through Durango than a roaring, muddy torrent more common for this time of year.
The river’s flow Monday was about 328 cubic feet per second, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. By comparison, the average flow for April 26, based on 109 years of data, is 1,180 cfs. For reference, 1 cfs equals about 7.5 gallons flowing by a particular point in one second.
The Animas River’s peak runoff is still to come, but on average, the river’s flow is expected to be lower than usual through July, according to the National Weather Service. In fact, the river is expected to see about 45% of the volume it normally sees between April and July, said Aldis Strautins, National Weather Service hydrologist…
There are multiple reasons why the river is lower than average and projected to stay that way, Strautins said.
First, the region is in drought. Almost all of La Plata County was categorized as “extreme” or “exceptional” drought as of April 22, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Those are the most severe of five drought rankings.
Below-average precipitation and a poor monsoon season contributed to a dry summer and fall for Southwest Colorado, Strautins said.
Dry conditions led to low soil moistures. What precipitation the region did receive was immediately absorbed into the soil instead of running off.
As of Tuesday, the snowpack was at 57% of the basin’s average. It also peaked earlier than usual, March 28 instead of April 6, according to provisional Snotel data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The snowpack started melting after a warm spell in early April, then the melt slowed because of winter storms and some cloudy, cool days.
From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):
A small crowd gathered to watch as Jim Dunlap pressed a control button. Moments later, the people inside the small building could hear the sound of water from Lake Nighthorse rushing through a pipe and out of the dam.
It was a simple move, but one that had been decades in the making for Dunlap. It was the first time water from the reservoir had been released into the Animas River at the request of the San Juan Water Commission.
While the Animas-La Plata Operations, Maintenance and Replacement Association has released water from the dam as part of maintenance operations and to ensure everything is properly functioning, this was the first time it had been released based on an official request.
Lake Nighthorse stores water for municipal use for the San Juan Water Commission as well as other water users, including Navajo Nation and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Tribe. Filling of the reservoir began in 2009, and there was a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2018…
Drought management plans for the San Juan County Commission include using water stored in Lake Nighthorse, but little is known about what would happen to the water once it is released.
The commission hopes one day there will be a pipeline to transport the water from Colorado to New Mexico, but, until then, the water must be released into the Animas River. The March 15 release will help gather data that can be used in the future to predict how much water could be lost from the time it is released from Lake Nighthorse to the time it reaches pump stations for water users downstream.
From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):
The San Juan Water Commission continues to monitor conditions around the Animas River, including flow and snowpack, to decide if it will request a release from Lake Nighthorse this month.
San Juan Water Commission Director Aaron Chavez said the decision will likely be made later this week…
The City of Farmington initially requested a possible release from the reservoir as a way to test the water delivery from Lake Nighthorse to entities in San Juan County. The City of Aztec has expressed interest in also taking some of the water released if it does occur…
The release depends on the water levels in the river remaining low because the test release will be a way to gather data for a drought scenario…
A test release could help provide data about water loss as the water would flow down the Animas River channel. Because the irrigation ditches are closed for the winter, it would also provide data about water flow and downstream recovery in the river without any of that water being diverted for agriculture.
On the morning of March 8, the Animas River was flowing at 138 cubic feet per second in the Cedar Hill area near the state line, according to the U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge. A stream gauge in Farmington was registering 175 cubic feet per second. These readings are about half of what would typically be seen on the Animas River in a normal year.
From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):
A fresh face was appointed to the Southwestern Water Conservation District to bring new ideas to decades-old problems surrounding water in the arid Southwest – at least that’s the hope of La Plata County officials.
In January, La Plata County commissioners Gwen Lachelt and Julie Westendorff, in their last meeting before leaving office, along with commissioner Clyde Church, appointed local water attorney Amy Novak Huff to the district.
The move ousted longtime board member Bob Wolff, who has represented La Plata County on the commission for more than 10 years.
Lachelt, speaking to The Durango Herald, said commissioners will sometimes replace people who have served long bouts of time to bring in new perspectives about various issues facing the county…
Huff was raised in Southern California, but went to school at the University of Colorado-Boulder and never looked back. After teaching high school in Durango and Mancos, she went to law school at the University of Denver while working at Denver Water, where she became drawn to water law.
After she passed the bar exam, Huff was selected for a judicial clerkship in Division No. 1 Water Court and then worked for a water law firm in Denver. All those years on the Front Range, where water is scarce, allowed her to experience firsthand the contentious water issues…
Huff said she has now been practicing water law for 18 years, the majority of which has been in Southwest Colorado where water issues abound, exacerbated by drought, increasing demand and tricky multi-state compacts…
Huff, for her part, will take a seat at her first board meeting Tuesday. She said she understands the gravity of the moment and how important local decisions will affect water availability and people’s way of life.
“We’re going to be faced with water restrictions, changing landscapes and people are going to be forced to learn (about water issues),” she said. “It’s a lot more complicated than people think.”
From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):
The San Juan Water Commission authorized Director Aaron Chavez to request a release from Lake Nighthorse in an attempt to capture that water for San Juan County residents — if the conditions are right.
The San Juan Water Commission hopes to someday have a pipeline that can reduce the losses from the river if a release from Lake Nighthorse is requested. However that pipeline does not yet exist.
That means the only way to deliver water from Lake Nighthorse to the City of Farmington is through the Animas River, and that has never been tried before.
The City of Farmington requested the action as it hopes to gather data while the river levels are low and the irrigators are not pulling water out of the river, the city’s Community Works Director David Sypher explained during the Feb. 3 meeting…
The proposed release would either be 40 cubic feet per second or 53 cubic feet per second. The release would last for five days and the City of Farmington would draw the water out of the Animas River using its pump at the Penny Lane diversion…
Chavez said during low flows he anticipates it could take 103 hours for the water to reach Penny Lane and there will likely be loss along the way. The water commission is projecting that 30 cubic feet of water per second would reach Penny Lane if 40 cubic feet per second was released. One reason Farmington hopes to do the release is to get better data about the amount of water lost.
If this release occurs, it will likely happen in March and it would cost $4,500 to $6,000 to replace the water in Lake Nighthorse. Sypher and Chavez would work together to ensure none of the water released from Lake Nighthorse passes the diversion at Penny Lane, where the pump station would take the water to Lake Farmington…
Multiple organizations would need to be notified, requiring two weeks of notification. These include the Colorado and New Mexico offices of the state engineer as well as the Animas-La Plata Association…
There has never been a release from Lake Nighthorse upon request of the San Juan Water Commission…
Sypher said the current drought forecasts are awful for the region. If the Animas River was to go dry, the water commission would likely need water released from Lake Nighthorse.
From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):
The San Juan Water Commission is considering asking for a release of Animas-La Plata Project Water. This water is stored in Lake Nighthorse in Durango, Colorado.
If the commission chooses to move forward with the release, it would be the first time that water is released from Lake Nighthorse upon the request of the San Juan Water Commission.
During the drought of 2018, the San Juan Water Commission took steps to request a release on behalf of the City of Farmington. However that release was cancelled as storms brought rain to the Four Corners region.
The water commission has been discussing a release from Lake Nighthorse as a test run that would allow it to address potential issues that could emerge. For example, making sure the water released from the reservoir reaches its intended destination.
The San Juan Water Commission meets at 9 a.m. Feb. 3 via Google Meets. A link is available on the agenda posted at sjwc.org.
Other agenda topics include legislation and long-term water development opportunities.
From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo) via The Cortez Journal:
Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for CPW, said the Durango Fish Hatchery, along the banks of the Animas River near Main Avenue and 16th Street, receives its water from three natural springs near the Durango High School.
Typically, at this time of year, about 1,000 gallons of water per minute flows into the hatchery. Currently, however, because of a long-term drought that has gripped the region, only 700 gallons of water per minute is flowing…
Winter is the time when the hatchery holds the most fish in anticipation of stocking in spring and summer. Currently, there are about one million fish on site, mostly fingerlings two to three inches in size…
But because there is less water coming into the hatchery, CPW was forced last week to stock an estimated 28,000 mature rainbow trout throughout Southwest Colorado to make room at the hatchery.
For example, CPW went through the ice to stock nearly 5,000 9-inch rainbow trout into Summit Reservoir and another 1,400 or so into Joe Moore Reservoir, both north of Mancos.
In 2021, CPW expects to stock an estimated 100,000 catchable rainbow trout throughout Southwest Colorado…
As a result of the risks posed to the hatchery because of drought conditions, CPW intends to drill a test well to determine if another water source in the area is available.
“The test-drilling will be done this year,” Lewandowski said.
From The Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan) via The Colorado Sun:
Under the settlement with the Navajo Nation, Sunnyside Gold Corp. — a subsidiary of Canada’s Kinross Gold — will pay the tribe $10 million
The Navajo Nation’s Department of Justice announced Wednesday it has settled with mining companies to resolve claims stemming from a 2015 spill that resulted in rivers in three western states being fouled with a bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals.
Under the settlement with the Navajo Nation, Sunnyside Gold Corp. — a subsidiary of Canada’s Kinross Gold — will pay the tribe $10 million…
The tribe said the toxic water coursed through 200 miles (322 kilometers) of river on Navajo lands…
The tribe’s claims against the EPA and its contractors remain pending. About 300 individual tribal members also have claims pending as part of a separate lawsuit…
The state of New Mexico also confirmed Wednesday that it has reached a settlement with the mining companies. Under that agreement, $10 million will be paid to New Mexico for environmental response costs and lost tax revenue and $1 million will go to Office of the Natural Resources Trustee for injuries to New Mexico’s natural resources…
The settlement was not an admission of liability or wrongdoing, but Sunnyside agreed to it “as a matter of practicality to eliminate the costs and resources needed to continue to defend against ongoing litigation,” Myers said in an email…
In August, the U.S. government settled a lawsuit brought by the state of Utah for a fraction of what that state was initially seeking in damages.
In that case, the EPA agreed to fund $3 million in Utah clean water projects and spend $220 million of its own money to clean up abandoned mine sites in Colorado and Utah.
After the spill, the EPA designated the Gold King and 47 other mining sites in the area a Superfund cleanup district. The agency still reviewing options for a broader cleanup.
From the Land Desk newsletter (Jonathan Thompson):
Whether the company [Kinross] is at all culpable for the spill is a question the courts have yet to answer. But there is definitely a connection, both hydrological and historical.
Here’s the short(ish) bulleted explanation:
The Gold King Mine workings are on one side of Bonita Peak (in the Cement Creek drainage) and the Sunnyside Mine workings are on the other side of Bonita Peak (in the Eureka Creek drainage). If you look at the two mines in a cross-section of the peak, they sit side-by-side, separated by a lot of rock. In the early 1900s the owners of the Gold King started drilling the American Tunnel straight into Bonita Peak below the Gold King. The plan was then to link up with the Gold King in order to provide easier access. More than one mile of tunnel was dug, but the link was never completed, prior to the Gold King’s shutdown in the 1920s. Photographic and other evidence suggests that prior to the construction of the American Tunnel, water drained from the Gold King Mine. However, after the tunnel’s construction the mine was said to be dry, suggesting that the tunnel hijacked the hydrology of the Gold King. In 1959 Standard Metals continued drilling the American Tunnel through the mountain in order to provide a better access (from the Cement Creek side) to the then-defunct Sunnyside Mine. After the Sunnyside shut down, the parent company at the time (Echo Bay), reached an agreement with the state to plug the American Tunnel with huge bulkheads to stop or slow acid mine drainage. They placed three bulkheads, one at the edge of the workings of the Sunnyside Mine (1996), one just inside the opening of the American Tunnel (2003), and another in between (2001). Shortly after the bulkheads were placed, the Gold King ceased being a “dry” mine, and drainage resumed, eventually flowing at more than 250 gallons per minute. After the ceiling of the adit collapsed, water began backing up behind it until it was finally released in one catastrophic swoop in August 2015.
It seems pretty clear that one or more of the bulkheads caused water to back up inside the mountain and enter the Gold King Mine workings, eventually leading to the blowout. At this point, however, no one knows which bulkhead is the culprit, so no one knows whether the water is coming from the Sunnyside mine pool, or whether it is actually coming from the part of the American Tunnel that is still on Gold King property. Until that is determined, the root cause of the Gold King blowout will remain a mystery.
For the longer explanation of the Gold King saga, read my book, River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. And for more maps showing the relationship between the Sunnyside and the Gold King, check out my River of Lost Souls reading guide.
From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):
The water treatment plant, however, is located on a site known as Gladstone, about 8 miles north of Silverton up County Road 110, owned by the same person who owns the Gold King Mine, Todd Hennis.
Hennis, an entrepreneur based in Golden, has long had an interest in the mines that dot the San Juan Mountains around Silverton, and over the years, has been buying up old mine sites with the hopes of revamping the industry…
After the spill, Hennis agreed to let the EPA use the Gladstone property for a temporary water treatment plant, albeit somewhat begrudgingly.
“When the Gold King event happened, I gave the keys to (the EPA) for Gladstone, and said ‘Go ahead, use anything, just return it after you’re done,’” Hennis said in October 2015. “That rapidly changed into having the hell torn out of my land.”
The water treatment plant continues to operate to this day, and is seen by some invested in the cleanup of mines around Silverton as a possible long-term solution to improving water quality in the Animas River.
Since 2015, the EPA has operated on the Gladstone property through a “general access order,” though the agency has not paid Hennis for use of the land, said EPA spokeswoman Katherine Jenkins.
The EPA has, however, worked for years to come to a long-term lease agreement with Hennis that would include payments for use of the land based on fair market value, but those efforts have not been successful.
“Mr. Hennis has declined EPA’s multiple requests for long-term access and has rejected a long-term lease agreement for EPA’s use of the Gladstone property,” Jenkins said.
Because, in part, of the resources and staff time required to send Hennis monthly general access orders, the EPA on Jan. 6 sent him an “administrative order” that requires him to give the EPA full access to the Gladstone property.
An administrative order, according to the EPA website, is an enforcement tool under the Superfund program.
“We want to have consistent access to the water treatment plant so we can maintain and provide water treatment, that’s the reasoning,” Jenkins said.
When contacted, Hennis said, “I cannot comment on this development, other than to say the EPA currently has access to the site.”
Indeed, Jenkins said that while Hennis has refused to come to a long-term lease agreement, he has not blocked access to the site.
The long-term future of the water treatment plant is an issue high atop the list of priorities in the Superfund around Silverton, known as the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.
Some local officials and members of the public have called to expand the operating capacity of the plant to take in discharges from other mines around Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.
But questions have loomed about this prospect, namely who would be financially on the hook to operate the plant in perpetuity.
But for Hennis, all this is a moot point. He’s still adamant that there are plenty of metals, like gold and tellurium, to be mined in the mountains around Silverton.
“Some of you have government pensions to rely on when you retire,” Hennis said at a public meeting in October 2015. “My retirement is Gladstone. Sitting here, listening to people say Gladstone would make a perfect site for a remediation laboratory, having my land cavalierly dealt with, is not a happy feeling.
“I know you wouldn’t want your backyard or your retirement stolen from you,” he continued. “This is not going to happen. I’ve tried to be very reasonable.”
The EPA’s Jenkins said the administrative order would terminate if a lease agreement is signed or if access to the property is no longer needed by the EPA to conduct response activities at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.
From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):
1913 record is broken amid prolonged drought
Records show the Animas River recently broke the all-time low flow set on the water gauge behind the Powerhouse Science Center, which has collected data for 109 years.
The previous record low flow at the U.S. Geological Survey’s water gauge was set March 2, 1913, when the Animas River was running at 94 cubic feet per second…
On Dec. 21, flows on the Animas dipped below 94 cfs and continued to fall. At its lowest point, the river was running at 79.6 cfs on Christmas Day, as well as the day after.
As of Tuesday, the Animas was running around 120 cfs, nearly half the historic average on the more than century-old water gauge.
“It’s one of the oldest gauges in Southwest Colorado,” said Steve Harris, with Harris Water Engineering…
A few years ago, the USGS, looking to cut costs, floated the idea of decommissioning the gauge by the Powerhouse Science Center. In response, local stakeholders banded together to form a partnership to help with funding…
The fact the Animas recorded an all-time record low in 109 years of records is a testament to the prolonged drought hitting the region.
As of Tuesday, the U.S. Drought Monitor had Southwest Colorado listed in an “exceptional” drought – the highest category of drought…
And snowpack, so far, in Southwest Colorado is behind – federal records show snowpack is just 74% of historic averages as of Tuesday.
From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:
Sorry skiers, ranchers and kayakers: Weather observers see no relief in sight for a persistent drought that has gripped the Four Corners.
A strong La Niña weather pattern has helped shift the jet stream farther north, which keeps storms from reaching the Four Corners, officials said.
“It’s the strongest La Niña in 10 years,” said Jim Andrus, a weather observer for the National Weather Service. “Even when we do get storms that dip down our way, they are weak at most.”
The long-term forecast for the Four Corners is below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures, said Norv Larson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
High pressure and a dry air mass are generally blocking storms from reaching and forming in the area, he said…
Snowpack is well below average in Southwest Colorado.
Snotel stations in the mountains that measure snowfall, show the Dolores and San Miguel river basins are 48% of normal as of Dec. 7.
The Animas River Basin is at 38% of normal, and the Gunnison River Basin is at 53% of normal.
The Telluride Ski Resort reports a 21-inch base, and Purgatory Resort has a 16-inch base.
As of Dec. 3, Southwest Colorado and most of the Western Slope were in “exceptional” drought, the worst level out of five, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Most of Utah and Arizona also were in exceptional drought.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt (Elaine Chick):
The Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District (ALPWCD) Celebrates Final Water Purchase from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority
The Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District (ALPWCD) celebrates the Districts final purchase of the water from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority.
On Saturday, October 17th the ALPWCD held a celebration at the Tribute Gardens at Lake Nighthorse commemorating the final payment option of their incremental purchase from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority (CWR & PDA) for their share of 700 AF of depletion purchased as part of the Animas La Plata Project.
First authorized by the U.S. Congress on September 30, 1968 (Public Law 90-537), the Animas-La Plata Water Project experienced a few decades of delays due in part to political concerns, farming claims, environmental challenges, cost overruns and government funding issues. A breakthrough to the delays came with the Colorado Ute Settlement Act Amendments in December 2000 (Public Law 106-554).
Christine Arbogast, Kogovsek & Associates, lobbyist at that time with ALPWCD for the project, stated, “Advocacy is all about relationship. This project would not have happened if all of the partners for the project had not stuck together in that family relationship that is ALP.”
The Bureau of Reclamation began construction in 2003, with the reservoir filling to capacity on June 29, 2011 at a total cost of $500 million. Lake Nighthorse is named in honor of former United States Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo. The reservoir is part of the Animas-La Plata Water Project, providing water storage for tribal and non-tribal water right claim-holders on the Animas River in both Colorado and New Mexico.
The Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District was one of the seven original sponsors of the ALP Project: The other sponsors included the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, State of Colorado, La Plata Conservancy District in New Mexico, and San Juan Water Commission in New Mexico.
The general purpose of the District includes, but is not limited to: “acquire and appropriate waters of the Animas and La Plata rivers and their tributaries and other sources of water supply by means of ‘works’ as defined in the ‘Water Conservancy Act’ and to divert, store, transport, conserve and stabilize all of said supplies of water for domestic, irrigation, power, manufacturing and other beneficial uses within and for the territory to be included in the District.”
The ALPWCD Statutory Project Allocation was purchased in advance on behalf of local entities by the Colorado Water and Power Resource Development Authority. ALPWCD being one of those entities, worked for many years to make that incremental purchase from the Authority, and now that water is in local hands and is being put to use. ALPWCD has made subsequent sales of their portion of the original allocation of that water that provides multiple benefits to the community. One of ALPWCD’s principle missions is to develop water for the benefit of the local community, and that has happened!
The City of Durango has purchased the remaining amount of the original ALPWCD Project Allocation from the Authority to firm up their future water supplies, and the La Plata West Water Authority and Lake Durango Water Authority have made subsequent purchases of water from the Animas-La Plata District which is being put to use for rural domestic water in the western part of La Plata County.
The Animas-La Plata Project is managed by the ALP Operations, Maintenance and Replacement, Association, and includes representatives from the project participants. (ALPOM&R Association). Recreation at Lake Nighthorse is managed by the City of Durango in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation.
Water projects can take decades to come to fruition, but after many years of hard work by countless individuals and organizations uses are occurring from this reservoir and associated project facilities. This is one more step in making the water in Lake Nighthorse of beneficial use to local communities!
From The Durango Herald (Emily Hayes):
Persistent dry conditions, rising land prices force change
After living out his dream of running 400 head of cattle on a ranch straddling Montrose and Gunnison counties, Barnes now works with ranchers in Montezuma County and beyond to help manage their rangeland and cattle with the new challenges and pressures ranchers face.
Cattle is Colorado’s top agricultural product, bringing in $4 billion per year. But with exceptional drought conditions and development driving up land prices, it is harder to be a rancher in this corner of the state.
In September, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis pushed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expedite disaster aid payments to farmers and ranchers.
“We need to regard drought as the new normal,” Barnes said, but the “ranching community as a whole doesn’t accept climate change.”
In the bigger picture, subdivision development is increasing in Western Colorado.
Demographics are shifting, and agriculture has fallen behind the tourism and service industries as the leading employer.
And in Southwest Colorado, rent is high – it is difficult to rent a place for less than $1,000 per month. So sprawling ranches have been subdivided into smaller parcels that can be developed to increase the housing stock and lower prices of rentals and single-family homes…
New generations not taking over
The changing landscape of the West is “one of the elephants in the room” for most ranchers, Barnes said.
Children are less likely to take over a ranch now.
By the time their parents retire and hand the ranch over, the children have developed a career and are making more money than they would in ranching, he said…
There are four times as many producers older than 65 in Colorado as there are younger than 35, according to a report from the American Farmland Trust.
In the ranching industry, the work doesn’t pay by the hour, and there isn’t much room for vacations. A century ago, this lifestyle worked because there “wasn’t much to compete with,” Barnes said.
Now, young Coloradans can get a construction job that pays more and is “less complicated,” he said…
Between 2001 and 2016, 112,400 acres of Colorado’s best land for farming and ranching was converted for development uses, according to a report from the American Farmland Trust. And the number of farms and ranches in Colorado in 2019 totaled 38,700, down 200 from 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (The data are not available for more localized regions such as Southwest Colorado.)
But McAfee is working to replenish the land on his family’s ranch through regenerative grazing. With a combination of native and introduced grasses, there is little wind erosion and water runoff, he said.
Cattle graze the same paddock for a year and then move on to the next one, he said. The number of cattle ranges from 200 to 400 head on 100 acres at a time.
McAfee said ranchers in the area are hesitant to change their grazing system because there is a risk that it might not work. But old systems like summer fallow cause erosion and are hard on the soil, he said.
The transition for McAfee was “weird and scary,” but with the drought there wasn’t an alternative.
Adapting instead of succumbing
Most ranchers in Southwest Colorado do it because they enjoy it, which is partly why more outsiders are becoming involved, Barnes said.
“They are well-educated 20-somethings with a laptop in one hand and a shovel in the other,” he said.
Cachuma Ranch in Dolores raises Criollo cattle, which Barnes describes as the closest thing to wild cattle you can get in Southwest Colorado.
Criollo are descended from Spanish stock imported to the Americas. They weigh less, and calves are smaller than commercial Angus breeds, but they’re suited to the area.
They survive part of the year in Disappointment Valley, browsing for greasewood instead of depending on grass year-round, said Kathryn Wilder, mother of the family operation.
Drought also affects small desert shrubs, but Wilder said the Criollo cattle can forage a larger range of shrubs and grasses than commercial cattle, and they eat less of it…
Kay and David James with the James Ranch north of Durango saw their children migrate back to the ranch to rear their families here and improve the land, according to their website.
Their direct-to-customer model and a demand for local food creates support for the ranch and positions it as a tourist attraction…
James Ranch has 400 irrigated acres along the Animas River, with early water rights. The James’ cattle are scattered in different parts of the Four Corners, but they run cattle on irrigated pastures in the summer when there is enough water. They finish about 175 head of cattle for slaughter per year.
But the drought still affects the ranch through higher hay prices, said Joe Wheeling, son-in-law of David James.
Less water means lower hay production, and the price for hay goes up. In the past five or six years, Wheeling said hay prices have escalated primarily because of the drought.
Land prices have gone up as well, especially near Durango, Wheeling said. The direct-to-customer model has been important to the family’s ranching legacy because it means more customers, he said…
Keeping it small and local
Andrew and Kendra Schafer shifted the focus of Cedar Mesa Ranch in Montezuma County from cattle to sheep in 2009. They also run goats because they eat things like weeds, shrubs, knapweeds and invasive Russian olive plants.
“Imports lost their ability to harvest from this land,” Andrew Schafer said. But his Navajo-Churro sheep, originally obtained by Native American nations during the Spanish conquest, are known for their hardiness and adaptability to extreme climates.
Kendra Schafer shears the sheep to make yarn for weaving and knitting, supporting a local textile industry as well…
The Colorado Department of Agriculture is mapping an increase in smaller farm plots in La Plata and Montezuma counties, with 30- or 35-acre plots dedicated to a variety of fruits, vegetables and animals. A push for local food systems can lead to smaller plots.
For the Schafers, a localized market is in the same frame of mind as their holistic grazing management. They are constantly moving their sheep and goats between quarter-acre sections of pasture. About 150 animals graze 1% of the land per day while the rest grows back…
“Think about it this way: If you’re out there with a lawnmower every day, it’s never going to grow back,” Schafer said.
There has to be animals on the land, he said, but the grazing system has to be viable for both the land and the animals in a time of drought.
From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):
A decades-long effort to restore the Colorado River cutthroat trout to the upper reaches of Hermosa Creek has been completed, resulting in the largest continuous stretch of waterway for the native fish species in the state…
The upper reaches of Hermosa Creek were instantly recognized as an ideal place for a restoration project, both for its outstanding water quality as well as easy access through a Forest Service road that runs behind Purgatory Resort.
Over the years, barriers have been installed to isolate certain stretches of water and an organic poison known as rotenone has been used to clear out invasive species, like brown, brookie and rainbow trout.
All this to clear the path for cutthroat reintroduction.
Last weekend, CPW stocked an estimated 4,000 cutthroat fingerlings and an additional 475 mature cutthroats in the final stretch of the Hermosa Creek project, giving the waterway back to the native fish for the first time in 100 years.
And now, the project to restore 23 miles of cutthroat habitat is finally complete…
For the stretches of upper Hermosa Creek that have been restocked with cutthroats, populations are showing encouraging signs. White said there’s about 400 to 600 fish per mile, which he called a “nice, healthy population.”
Because the area is a popular draw for anglers, there is a strict catch-and-release policy. Local fish-guiding companies have said in the past that anglers come from all over the country to fish native cutthroats.
The Hermosa Creek project was a collaboration between CPW, the U.S. Forest Service and Trout Unlimited.
From The Fort Lewis College Independent (Jackson Zinsmeyer):
On July 31, 18 miles north of Grand Junction, Colorado, lightning struck starting what would become Colorado’s largest wildfire at 139,000 acres burnt.
According to the Incident Information System, Inciweb, the fire is 95% contained as of Sept. 11.
Despite being nearly four hours away from Durango, this fire, as well as the many other fires in Colorado such as the Cameron Peak and Glenwood Springs fires, will impact Durango’s community and environment as the fires continue to burn.
Much like the 416 fire Durango experienced just over two years ago, the Glenwood Springs fire is burning into the watersheds suffocating fish and river-life, Dr. Gigi Richard, director of the Four Corners Water Center and instructor of geosciences at Fort Lewis College said.
“Sixty percent of fish in the Animas river were killed from sediment caused by short, high intensity fires,” Richard said.
Forest fires have the ability to decimate crucial parts of an ecosystem by destroying animal habitats, driving animals into nearby cities and towns and destroying natural sources of food for these animals making it harder for them to return to nature, Dr. Jared Beeton, assistant professor of environmental studies at Fort Lewis College, said.
The fires taking place in Colorado are likely to displace animals throughout the state, Beeton said.
These displaced animals will come into cities looking for shelter, food and water, and as long as these animals are left alone, no issues should be caused by them, he said.
Richard notes that in 2002, during the Hayman Fire, former Gov. Bill Owens said, “It looks as if all of Colorado is burning today.” Many tourists were afraid to travel into Colorado because of this statement, Richard said.
Richard said the Durango train and the San Juan National Forest were closed because of fire hazards during the 416 fire.
The closure of the forest and train were seen by tourists as a reason not to travel into Durango and Colorado as a whole, making it difficult for many small businesses that rely on tourism, Richard said.
The fires that are burning around the state of Colorado will continue to impact the communities, wildlife, and business’ for years to come as the state and cities recover from the price of fighting fires, Richard said.
From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):
All week, the Animas River has recorded record lows at a gauge station in Durango, which has been tracking flows on the river for 107 years.
On Thursday, for instance, the Animas River was reportedly running at 117 cubic feet per second – under the previous record low of 138 cfs in 1957 and far below the average of 447 cfs for this time of year.
The low flows on the Animas River come as no surprise as the region has been gripped by a prolonged drought.
Since January, a weather station at Durango-La Plata County Airport has recorded just 5 inches or so of precipitation, a 7-inch departure from historic averages at the site.
On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor released a report that showed all of La Plata County engulfed in the “extreme” and “exceptional” drought categories, the center’s highest listings for dryness in a region.
And, several weather stations in the headwaters of the Animas River recorded the lowest precipitation levels in August and September based on about 40 years of record keeping.
“The combination of an extremely dry spring, lack of a monsoon and above-average summer and fall temperatures has resulted in very low flows on the Animas River,” said Ashley Nielson, a senior hydrologist with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center…
Becky Bollinger, a research associate with the Colorado Climate Center, said 2020’s water year was the third-driest on record, behind only the infamous drought years of 2002 and 2018…
The high country of the San Juan Mountains received about normal snowpack this winter, but it melted fast and early. On top of that, soils were so dry they absorbed more water than usual.
One issue that concerns Bollinger is that the atmosphere is so dry, it is causing rapid evaporation of what little moisture there is – called evaporative demand…
Bollinger wonders whether a lack of monsoons in Colorado is the new normal.
“This is the fourth year in a row we have not gotten the benefits of monsoon moisture,” she said. “It’s concerning to think that might be a trend. Or is it just really bad luck? I don’t know the answer to that right now.”
As of this week, Vallecito and Lemon reservoirs were at about 24% and 27% capacity. Ken Beck, superintendent of the Pine River Irrigation District, said in an email to constituents that outflows were reduced to 5 cfs on Thursday…
The main concern for water managers is whether the upcoming winter will bring enough snowpack to replenish reservoirs. In previous drought years, such as 2018, the next winter brought heavy snowfall.
But meteorologists say the region may be stuck in a La Niña cycle, which typically means less snow for Southwest Colorado. That could result in less water for livestock and municipalities, and spell disaster for next year’s wildfire season.
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.
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.
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…
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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From Water Education Colorado (Laura Paskus and Caitlin Coleman):
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Click here for all the inside skinny:
San Juan County Climate Awareness Coalition
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
* Agricultural sustainability: climate change in our backyard
* Insect migration
* Disease re-emergence
* Environmental racism and the impact on Native communities
* Transitioning our energy economy
* 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.