Two companies contact the Dolores Water Conservancy District on potential pump-back hydroelectric power facility at McPhee Reservoir

Pumped storage hydro electric.

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Pump-back storage systems utilize two reservoirs at different elevations. To generate power, water is released from the upper reservoir to the lower, powering a turbine on the way down that is connected to the grid.

In 2014, the Dolores Water Conservancy District released an investor’s memorandum on the potential for a project at Plateau Creek to inform energy companies and investors of the opportunity. The canyon’s steep vertical drop in a short distance makes it a good location.

District General Manager Mike Preston, speaking at Thursday’s board meeting, described pump-back storage plant idea as giant battery that is part of a green energy power grid.

When electric prices are high, the water is released from the upper reservoir through a turbine, and the power is sold to the grid to meet demand. When electric prices are low, the water is pumped back to the upper reservoir through a tunnel, recharging the battery.

Preston recently toured the Plateau Creek site by plane with Carl Borquist, president of Absaroka Energy, of Montana. The company proposed to build a pump-back hydroelectric facility at Gordon Butte, northwest of Billings, Montana…

The Dolores Water Conservancy District holds the water rights for the potential Plateau Creek project, estimated to cost $1 billion, based on the 2014 study. It would require environmental reviews and approval because it would be on San Juan National Forest land. McPhee could be used as the lower reservoir, with a small reservoir built above Plateau Canyon.

The project needs investors before it could get off the ground, but once online, it would generate an estimated $100 million per year in electricity sales. As the holder of the water rights, the district could benefit financially from the deal.

“We have the site, and if we could realize a revenue stream, it would help the district financially,” Preston said.

Shortly after Absaroka Energy’s visit, the district received a letter from Matthew Shapiro, CEO of Gridflex Energy, based in Boise, Idaho, expressing interest in exploring a pump-back storage system at McPhee.

“We recently developed a concept for this site that the district may not have considered before, one which we believe would have greater viability than the prior concept,” he stated. “We believe that the timing for this particular project is promising.”

Pump-back hydroelectric storage is considered a nonconsumptive, green energy power source. Energy companies are potential investors in hydro projects as they expand their portfolios to include green energy. They need supplemental sources to meet demand when the sun does not shine or the wind does not blow.

The Dolores Water Conservancy District had obtained a preliminary permit for a facility at Plateau Creek from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but it was not renewed in 2016 because the project had not moved forward enough.

CDPHE revokes Piñon Ridge uranium mill license

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

The decision to pull the license came after a five-year legal challenge from environmental groups including the Sheep Mountain Alliance, Rocky Mountain Wild and Center for Biologic Diversity. The groups have long opposed a plan hatched in 2009 by Energy Fuels Inc., of Toronto, Canada, to build a uranium mill on 880 acres in Paradox Valley, west of Nucla in Montrose County.

They filed a legal challenge against a key radioactive materials license granted for the project in 2013 by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment.

Energy Fuels has since sold the assets of the mill project, including the radioactive license, a company spokesman said Friday. Documents show the license was being held by Piñon Ridge Resources Corp.

On April 17, District Court Judge Richard W. Dana recommended the proposed mill’s radioactive license be revoked after concluding that Energy Fuels failed to demonstrate adequate environmental protections, including prevention of wind-dispersed radioactive materials, contamination of groundwater and protection of plants and wildlife. The ruling also questioned whether there was adequate water to operate the mill and tailings ponds.

Two days later, in an April 26 letter, the Colorado Department of Health informed Piñon Ridge Corp. CEO George Glasier that its radioactive materials license has been revoked.

“Although the Department believes the original decision on the license application was appropriate, the department has elected not to challenge Judge Dana’s decision. As such, this decision provides the Department with the rationale to revoke the license,” wrote Jennifer Opila, Radiation Program Manager for the health department’s hazardous materials division.

Environmental groups applauded the decision.

“We were extremely concerned with the impacts that a new uranium mill would have on the delicate sagebrush ecosystem of the Paradox Valley and the impacts downstream to endangered Colorado River fish,” said Matt Sandler, staff attorney with Rocky Mountain Wild. “Those impacts were simply unacceptable, and we’re happy to know that corporations who want to revive the uranium industry in Colorado will be required to fully comply with the laws aimed at protecting the environment.”

[…]

Lexi Tuddenham, executive director or Sheep Mountain Alliance, based in San Miguel County, said the decision helps to resolve the uncertainty about the project in the community and encourages a more diversified economic future that does not rely on the toxic uranium industry.

“The decision is a long time coming,” she said. “The impacts to the ecosystem and public were unacceptable. The mill was really a pipe dream, more speculation that contributes to the historic boom and bust cycle of mining that has been difficult for this area’s economy.”

The region is turning to hemp farming and outdoor recreation because they are more sustainable and do not pollute the environment, she said.

This is the second time the CDPHE granted, then revoked the radioactive license for Piñon Ridge. After it was granted in 2011, environmental groups challenged it, pointing out that the state had not held a public hearing as required. A judge agreed and invalidated the permit. After a five-day hearing in Nucla, the state reapproved the license in 2013, which was again revoked this week.

Travis Stills, an attorney with Energy and Conservation Law in Durango, represented the environmental groups in the case.

He said Dana’s ruling was based on community testimony and scientific evidence that indicated the mill plan questionable.

“The project plan had big holes in it and did not protect water, life and air,” he said. “Experts testified that micro-climates and inversions would have caused the valley to be socked in with industrial emissions.”

The towns of Telluride and Ophir also objected to the mill, fearing that prevailing winds would carry radioactive pollution onto the local snowpack and San Miguel watershed, Stills said.

Down ‘The River Of Lost Souls’ With Jonathan Thompson — Colorado Public Radio

From Colorado Public Radio (Nathan Heffel). Click through to listen to the interview:

A new book puts the Gold King Mine spill within the long history of mining and pollution in Southwest Colorado.

Jonathan Thompson will be at the Book Bar tonight. I wonder if Denver is a bit of a shock to his system even though he’s a sixth-generation Coloradan?

I am so happy to finally get to finally meet Jonathan. His new book, River of Lost Souls, is an important read. Understanding the industrialization of our state over the years will help us chart a less destructive course.

I loved the passages where Jonathan reminisces about spending time around the Four Corners and in the San Juans. He transports you to those times in your life spent next to the river or exploring what sights the land has to offer. He connects you to the Four Corners in a way that only a son of the San Juans could.

Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter

Telluride Regional Wastewater Treatment Master Plan

Dolores River watershed

From The Telluride Daily Planet (Justin Criado):

Gugliemone explained that the price tag is a “conservative” (aka “likely high”) estimate, and the engineering team is looking into alternative wastewater-treatment technologies that could possibly cut the cost by $20 million. (“That would be nice,” she said about the possible price reduction during her presentation.)

Stantec Inc. — a design and consulting company headquartered in Edmonton, Alberta — is the engineer under contract, Gugliemone said. The company’s slogan is “We design with community in mind,” according to its official website (stantec.com).

Gugliemone added that the towns of Telluride and Mountain Village recently tabbed Financial Consulting Services to complete a financial analysis, along with a Financial Analysis Task Force and the town councils. The analysis will “lay out how the community might best meet the financial obligations before us,” she said.

Water and wastewater projects are covered through separate enterprise funds, which use taxes and service fees to raise capital. At a June 2017 wastewater treatment plant update, Telluride Councilman Todd Brown theorized there most likely would be a utility rate increase to help with project costs.

At Monday’s meeting, Mountain Village Mayor Laila Benitez pondered whether setting up a special taxing district for the treatment plant would be another funding option. Gugliemone said the financial consulting company is looking into that, but nothing has been suggested — let alone decided — yet.

The current wastewater treatment plant at Society Turn serves the communities of Telluride, Mountain Village, Eider Creek, Sunset Ridge, Aldasoro and Lawson Hill.

The plant is reaching its originally designed capacity, officials have explained. Plus, Department of Public Health and Environment regulations through the Colorado Discharge Permit System have been altered over the years. (Colorado Water Quality Control Division stipulations regarding acceptable metal levels in the water also changed in 2017.)

Those variables, in conjunction with an increased waste stream and new treatment options, make updating and eventually expanding the current plant paramount within the next decade. (A 1.5-percent annual population growth has been used to calculate increased wastewater loads until 2047. Basically, if the plant isn’t expanded, the San Miguel River would run with waste, which is a disgusting, vile thought.)

Dolores River: Water district lawsuit against in-stream flows fails

Photo via the Sheep Mountain Alliance

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

In 2015, the state water board appropriated an in-stream flow standard of 900 cubic feet per second on the Dolores River during spring, between the confluence of the San Miguel River and Gateway.

It is intended to support river health including three species of native fish: the flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker and roundtail chub.

The Southwestern Water Conservation District filed a legal challenge to the new minimum flow standard, arguing that the flows were too high and could not be met in drought conditions. They further claimed that Colorado Water Conservation Board improperly concluded it could not adopt a 1 percent depletion allowance on the in-stream flow to accommodate future developments as a condition.

But the Colorado water court rejected the lawsuit claims, and confirmed the newly designated in-stream flow for the Dolores in a ruling Thursday.

District Court Judge J. Steven Patrick said the water board has the authority to appropriate in-stream flows and that it followed proper procedures.

“The Court finds nothing in the record to support a finding that CWCB’s action was unreasonable,” the judge wrote in the decision. “The CWCB did not abuse its discretion in refusing to consider … the proposed depletion allowance.”

Environmental groups applauded the decision. Durango-based San Juan Citizen’s Alliance, Western Resource Advocates and Conservation Colorado had joined the water board in defending the board’s new Dolores in-stream flows.

“We believe this decision not only protects the beautiful Dolores River, but affirms the use of in-stream flow water rights as a vital tool to leave a legacy of healthy rivers throughout Colorado,” said Jimbo Buickerood, land and forest protection manager for San Juan Citizen’s Alliance.

The court ruling secures up to 900 cubic feet per second of water during spring peak flows, as well as essential winter flows, for a 33-mile stretch of the river. Environmentalists say the flows will help prevent at-risk native fish species from becoming listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The river anchors a remote desert oasis and has plentiful recreation opportunities, they said…

The reach slated for the largest in-stream flow protection on the Dolores River is near the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway between Gateway and Uravan, Colorado.

New in-stream flows are junior to existing water rights, but senior to future water right claims.

The Dolores Water Conservancy District also objected to the new Dolores in-stream flow, and urged that it should at least have a condition to allow for some future development needs. The district manages McPhee Reservoir and dam, which are upstream from the new appropriation.

During a previous hearing on the matter, DWCD attorney Barry Spear, said the proposed 1 percent depletion proposal was to “set aside an amount that the small water developer could use to keep the water in the state.”

[…]

The new in-stream flows for lower Dolores River begin below the San Miguel confluence are as follows: minimum flows of 200 cfs from March 16 to April 14; 900 cfs from April 15 to June 14; 400 cfs from June 15 to July 15; 200 cfs from July 16 to Aug. 14; and 100 cfs from Aug. 15 to March 15.

Rico scores $60,000 from @CWCB_DNR for source water study

Rico photo via WesternMiningHistory.com

From The Telluride Daily Planet (Heather Sackett):

During a recent meeting in Broomfield, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) approved a $60,000 grant from its Water Reserve Supply account for the town to conduct a water system analysis. Half of the grant money will come from the Southwest Basin Roundtable account, while the other $30,000 will be from the CWCB statewide fund. Rico and Southwestern Water Conservation District will contribute an additional $30,000 each for a project total of $120,000.

The town will hire a water engineer to conduct the study, which will find ways to increase water efficiency, quality and productivity for residents.

Kari Distefano, who became Rico’s town manager in May 2017, said one of the first things she did was to hold a community meeting to assess residents’ priorities regarding the town’s infrastructure.

“Water rose to the top,” she said. “Our water system is problematic. I looked in our reserves and decided we needed some help.”

Rico has two water sources — an alluvial well just north of town and Silver Creek, which flows into the east side of town and is a tributary of the Dolores River. The Silver Creek system is currently offline because it does not meet the Colorado Department of Health and Environment turbidity standards for surface-water filtration and is only used as an emergency backup system.

The well, which has junior water rights, only provides .178 cubic feet per second because it must comply with instream flow requirements on the Dolores River. That amount of water is adequate for Rico’s current population of roughly 200 year-round and 500 summer residents, but would not be enough if the town were to grow. The well provides water to 31 commercial and 242 residential taps, respectively.

The study will determine what it would take to re-establish Silver Creek as a water supply.

“I’m hoping (the study) will tell us what it’s going to cost to upgrade the filtration system,” Distefano said. “The ultimate goal would be to combine the two systems and have a redundant source of water. To allow more growth, Rico needs a little more volume.”

[…]

The water analysis also aims to find a way to relocate the aging outdoor water meter boxes to inside residences, making them less vulnerable to damage from the elements.

Pat Drew, a Rico water consultant for Rico, has been helping the town with regulatory compliance issues. He said the water study also will evaluate weaknesses and leaks in the system…

The project also will meet some of the goals laid out in Colorado’s Water Plan, which Gov. John Hickenlooper unveiled in late 2015, as well as goals identified by the Southwest Basin Roundtable Basin Implementation Plan. Those goals include providing safe drinking water to southwest Colorado’s citizens and visitors, promoting wise and efficient water use through municipal conservation, and supporting water reuse strategies.

@CWCB_DNR: The latest “CWCB Confluence” newsletter is hot off the presses

Dolores River watershed

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

Collaboration in the Dolores River Watershed (Celene Hawkins):

About one year ago, I was backcountry skiing into some of the highest elevations of the Dolores River watershed near Lizard Head Pass. I was appreciating the above-average snowpack that Mother Nature blessed the basin with, which covered the always-spectacular beauty of the San Juan Mountains.

Over the course of 2017, I got to visit and revisit that snowpack as it melted and flowed down the upper portions of the Dolores watershed, filled McPhee Reservoir (where it would serve important municipal, industrial, agricultural, and Tribal uses), and provided enough water for a rare and large managed release from McPhee Reservoir into the lower Dolores River.

Because the Dolores River watershed has experienced so few recent years of abundant water, the abundant 2017 water year provided cause for local and regional celebration. Local farmers had full supplies of water from the Dolores Project to support their agricultural operations, recreational users of the Dolores River below McPhee Dam enjoyed a whitewater boating season of 63 days, and the entire ecology of the Dolores River benefitted from the longest and highest flows experienced in a decade.

Yet, now, in January 2018, I’m watching one of the driest and warmest early winters in recent history, reflecting on local water work in 2017. The bigger and more interesting story in the Dolores River watershed is not one about the snowpack or water supplies, but is instead one about collaborative water and resource management work in the watershed.

Collaborative work can take a significant amount of time and resources from already-taxed governmental agencies and non-profit groups. Collaborative work around water and watershed management requires a delicate balance of a proper respect for important private property interests in the use and delivery of critical water supplies, and the ability to find creative solutions and projects to protect the wider public and resource management interests, as well as private industry, that rely on the same river and watershed. On the Dolores River, water managers; federal, state, local, and Tribal governmental agencies; non- profit groups; local industry; private citizens; and others are working throughout the watershed to address important and often difficult water and natural resource management challenges.

Two major collaborative efforts on the Dolores River saw significant growth and success in 2017, and it is worth celebrating now and continuing to watch and support in 2018.

The Upper Watershed—Dolores Watershed Resilient Forest Collaborative

In 2015, Firewise of Southwest Colorado and the Dolores Water Conservancy District launched a new effort to form a collaborative network in the Dolores River watershed to address community wildlife and post-fire risks at a watershed scale. This new collaborative effort recognizes that droughts, beetle infestation, and a perennially longer fire season are all setting the stage for a broad-scale natural disaster in the forested upper Dolores River watershed. The potential for such a natural disaster puts at risk community lives, property, and public and natural resources (including the water in McPhee Reservoir that supports cities, farms and ranches, industry, and rural areas in the Montezuma Valley).

Momentum for establishing and growing capacity in the Dolores Watershed Resilient Forest Collaborative (known by the charming acronym of the “DWRF Collaborative”) has been tremendous over the last two and a half years. By the end of 2017, over 40 different public and private entities were participating at some level in the collaborative.

Some example partners include: the Dolores Water Conservancy District, Montezuma and Dolores counties, the towns of Dolores and Dove Creek and the City of Cortez, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, San Juan National Forest, Colorado State Forest Service, Tres Rios BLM, representatives of the local timber industry (including Aspen Wall Wood, Findley Logging, Montrose Forest Products, and Stonertop Lumber), conservation organizations (including Mountain Studies Institute, San Juan Citizens Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, and Trout Unlimited), and private citizens.

The DWRF Collaborative has also successfully garnered resources to support capacity building within the organization, including the impressive coordination work of Rebecca Samulski, Assistant Director for Firewise of Southwest Colorado. She says, “The stakeholders continue to show up each month and share the workload. It is inspiring to see the conversations that continue after each stakeholder meeting, then to hear about the efforts that have emerged among participants because the DWRF Collaborative has gotten them in a room together.”

The group has already undertaken an impressive mix of “on the ground” forestry and fire- adaptive treatment projects, planning work, and engaging on key issues in the upper Dolores watershed. In 2016 and 2017, the DWRF Collaborative implemented forestry and fire- adaptive treatment projects near Joe Moore Reservoir (Lost Canyon tributary) and on Granath Mesa, which sits directly above McPhee Reservoir and the Town of Dolores.

The DWRF Collaborative has allowed the San Juan National Forest to establish Good Neighbor Authority projects with the Colorado State Forest Service (bringing additional capacity and resources to accomplish cross boundary projects on private lands and adjacent national forest lands).

The DWRF collaborative has also completed modeling of wildfire risk and post-fire flooding and erosion risk that will inform a Watershed Wildfire Protection Plan with a better understanding of how wildfires are likely to affect key community values (such as public safety, structures, infrastructure, and water resources) and how to target future treatment projects.

Finally, the DWRF collaborative has launched into key local issues in the Dolores River watershed through professional background presentations to the stakeholders and working groups. These efforts include engagement and support of the local timber industry to explore opportunities that will make forest restoration for watershed protection more cost effective.

An emerging bark beetle epidemic in the Dolores River watershed is another key issue that the collaborative is developing local strategies for, such as an identification and management workshop series to launch in 2018.

Below McPhee Dam—Dolores River Native Fish Monitoring and Recommendation Team

Water managers and diverse groups of stakeholders have been engaged in collaborative work on the Dolores River below McPhee Dam for more than a decade. For example, the Dolores River Restoration Partnership (a public-private partnership) has been working hard and successfully since 2009 to restore the riparian corridor of the Dolores River below McPhee Dam. They have worked to control invasive plant species and restore riparian vegetation.

Since the Dolores River Dialogue (DRD) re-initiated discussions about the Dolores River downstream ecology in 2004, water managers and a large and diverse group of stakeholders have been working to address some of the toughest land, resource, and water management challenges facing McPhee Reservoir and the Dolores River below McPhee Dam.

In 2017, the Dolores River Native Fish Monitoring and Recommendation Team (M&R Team), tasked with monitoring changes to the downstream river ecology, really stepped up to provide guidance and monitoring work on the largest managed release from McPhee Reservoir in more than a decade. The M&R Team was formed during a multi-year, science-driven collaborative planning process around the needs of the sensitive, native warm-water fisheries in the Dolores River that resulted in the finalization of the Lower Dolores River Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation Plan for Native Fish (2014) (“2014 Plan”). Both the 2014 Plan and the M&R Team’s work to help implement opportunities identified in the plan are guided by the DRD purpose statement, which is “. . . to explore management opportunities, build support for and take action to improve the ecological conditions in the Dolores River downstream of McPhee Reservoir while honoring water rights, protecting agricultural and municipal supplies, and the continued enjoyment of boating and fishing.”

Because the 2014 Plan was finalized in the middle of a tough span of especially dry years on the Dolores River, the M&R Team was not able to use the 2014 Plan to help guide the management of any significant releases of surplus water from McPhee Dam for ecological and other purposes for several years. However, in 2017, the combination of an above-average snowpack in the San Juan Mountains in the Dolores River basin and good carry-over storage from 2016 in McPhee Reservoir provided water managers and the M&R Team with the opportunity to shape the largest managed release of surplus water from McPhee Dam in more than a decade.

Armed with the 2014 Plan (and a diverse team that includes the Dolores Water Conservancy District, Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Tres Rios Field Office, Bureau of Land Management, San Juan National Forest, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Dolores, Montezuma, San Miguel, and Montrose counties, American Whitewater, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, and San Juan Citizens Alliance) the M&R Team was able to help water managers begin to make decisions about how to plan for the large managed release as early as February of 2017.

Sample hydrographs and ecological targets developed in the 2014 Plan were adapted for use with the specific forecasting for the Dolores River Basin’s 2017 water year to help shape a release plan that included a “peak flow” release of 4,000 cfs to support fish habitat maintenance on the Dolores River. Recreational and conservation interests from the M&R Team (American Whitewater and The Nature Conservancy), Colorado Parks & Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Dolores River Boating Advocates all worked closely with the Dolores Water Conservancy District and the Bureau of Reclamation to assist the water managers with necessary adjustments to the release plan as the water managers addressed a wildly-fluctuating forecast and runoff pattern on the Dolores River in the spring of 2017.

In addition, flow hypotheses and measurable benchmarks from the 2014 Plan allowed members of the M&R Team to set up and deploy field monitoring along the Dolores River below McPhee Dam. Armed with years of scientific research and the 2014 Plan, Colorado Parks & Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy were able to develop an ecological monitoring plan and pull together a collaborative group of researchers to set up monitoring sites on the river within a few weeks of the first M&R Team meeting and notification from the Bureau of Reclamation about the potential magnitude of the 2017 managed release. American Whitewater and the Dolores River Boating Advocates launched a boater survey to evaluate recreational use of the Dolores River below McPhee Dam. Colorado Parks & Wildlife also deployed several fish monitoring crews on the Dolores River during the managed release, including undertaking a challenging fish survey in the remote Slickrock Canyon (which had last been surveyed in 2007) that provided important information on the status of the sensitive, native warm-water fisheries in that stretch of the river.

The collaborative research team is continuing to work on analyzing the results of this monitoring work over the winter of 2017-2018 to provide information to the M&R Team and water managers that may help inform future releases and other management efforts on the Dolores River.

“In 2017 we finally had the snowpack we needed to conduct and monitor a large managed release. In addition to the snowpack, mother nature also provided March warming driving early release, declining forecasts and wide temperature swings.

The fact that all ecological and water supply goals were met is due to the flexibility of the researchers working closely with reservoir managers. We shared in the responsibility for keeping all constituencies informed. Providing large and extended ecological releases with the assurance that all water obligations would be met and McPhee reservoir filled could only happen with this level of cooperation. Having this level of information and communication in managing and assessing a multiple- objective release was a water manager’s dream.” — Mike Preston, General Manager, Dolores Water Conservancy District.

Collaboration into 2018 and Beyond

The grim SNOTEL report for southwestern Colorado (sitting at 36 percent of average and just 21 percent of what we had in 2017 as of the end of January) and the current spring forecasts have many water managers and interests planning for a year of “famine” in 2018, after the relative water “feast” that occurred just a year ago in 2017. The increasing uncertainty around snowpack, water availability, and the timing of runoff that we are experiencing in southwestern Colorado, as well as other drivers of wildfire risk, will continue to be powerful motivators for collaborative work in the Dolores River watershed.

I look forward to supporting these continued collaborative efforts, through feast and famine, in this iconic Colorado watershed.