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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.
A river rechanneling and tailings recap project on the west end of the Valley Floor has been put in motion this week after a year’s delay.
Originally green-lighted by Telluride Town Council last year, the project was put on hold when abundant winter snowpack made for what town project manager Lance McDonald called “abnormally high flows in June and July.” But this year, conditions are ideal and the project’s first phase — the creation of an access road off the Spur west of Eider Creek — kicked off Tuesday. The ambitious plan includes capping the tailings on the northwest end of the Valley Floor and rerouting the river where it runs near those tailings.
The tailings pile (the Society Turn Tailings Pile No. 1) spans 23 acres and sits south of the abandoned railroad grade on either side of the river. It is subject to a cleanup agreement between Idarado Mining Company and the State of Colorado that calls for capping and revegetating the contaminated area in place. The Remedial Action Plan allows the landowner — the town — to offer an alternative plan, which the town has done….
“It’s very large, on a landscape scale,” [Lance] McDonald said. “It’s not like building a building. It’s working across an entire landscape.”
Remediating the tailings area has long been in the town’s sights, McDonald said.
“It’s been in the works for 25 years,” he said. “It’s great to see it happening now.”
The final BLM plan for managing multiple uses on federal land in the Uncompahgre Plateau unveiled earlier this month did not limit oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley.
For nearly a decade, a group of farmers in the North Fork Valley joined with local tourism businesses and conservation groups to craft a resource management plan that could help the Bureau of Land Management shepherd the multiple uses of the valley’s public lands for the next 20 years.
More than 600 mining jobs disappeared in that decade of planning as the coal industry contracted and mines closed. Entrepreneurs in the lush communities around Paonia and Hotchkiss helped diversify the local economy from reliance on a single, extractive industry to an eclectic mix of organic agritourism and outdoor recreation.
The group’s North Fork Alternative Plan proposed energy development on 25% of the valley’s public lands, with increased protections for water and recreational attractions in the region.
“We put a lot of effort into negotiating with the BLM with what we thought was a pretty constructive way to share our values and how they should consider those values in managing the lands here,” said Mark Waltermire, whose Thistle Whistle farm is among 140 members in the North Fork’s Valley Organic Growers Association.
The final BLM plan for managing multiple uses on federal land in the Uncompahgre Plateau unveiled earlier this month did not limit oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley. And it did not weigh the state’s concerns over energy projects injuring wildlife, habitat and air quality. But as the first resource management plan released under the Trump Administration, it did represent the president’s pivot toward “energy dominance” by reducing regulations and greenlighting exponentially more coal mining.
“I feel betrayed by the system,” said Waltermire this week after spending the day fixing a tractor on his Delta County farm. “Most definitely this is a step backward. Really it’s even worse. We have lived with coal for 100 years and coal has proven to be compatible with the agriculture we practice here. But gas and the oil development is a different beast. It is a much more substantial threat to our economy, with increased traffic and the potential for spills. That could destroy our reputation that we have built for our valley. It could change everything.”
Earlier this month the agency released the final plan for managing the vast swath of the Western Slope, which is an update to the region’s 1989 RMP. Many of the wildlife, habitat and environment-focused objections to the Trump Administration’s “energy dominance” push to loosen regulations around domestic energy production — including those from Gov. Jared Polis, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, county commissioners, conservation groups and local residents — were dismissed.
As Colorado’s local BLM officials honed the preferred alternative — Alternative D — for the RMP last fall, the agency’s higher-ups crafted a new alternative. Alternative E identified energy and mineral development as key planning issues, and promoted access and a reduced regulatory burden alongside economic development as top priorities.
The BLM said the RMP would contribute $2.5 billion in economic activity into the region and support 950 jobs a year for the next 20 years.
The Alternative E plan:
Increased coal available for leasing by 189%, to 371,250 acres from 144,790 acres.
Added 13,020 acres to the region’s 840,440 acres open for mineral development.
Removed more than 30,000 [acres] from development in areas previously identified for leasing.
Cut acres the BLM could sell from 9,850 to 1,930.
Added six special recreation management areas and three extensive recreation management areas, setting aside 186,920 acres for recreation management.
The final draft of the proposed RMP conflicted with new state laws protecting wildlife, recreation access and improving air quality, so Polis last year sent a letter to the BLM’s Colorado director expressing his concerns as part of a consistency review that makes sure the agency’s plan aligned with state policies.
Specifically the state wanted the agency to limit the density of development — including oil and gas facilities — to one structure for every square mile to help protect wildlife corridors. It also asked the agency to develop a comprehensive plan to protect and conserve the Gunnison sage grouse and its habitat. Polis noted that the BLM plan allowed an increase in greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas development that conflicted with last year’s House Bill 1261, which aims to cut those emissions by 90%. The BLM plan also conflicted with Senate Bill 181, which allows the state to consider public health and the environment when regulating oil and gas development.
The BLM’s final plan released this month did not include the state’s push for limiting the density of development or creating a region-wide wildlife and sage grouse conservation plan. But it did agree to protect 33,000 acres of riparian habitat from surface development and initiate a future statewide planning effort to study density on BLM land. The agency also agreed to coordinate with the state over potential development in sage grouse habitat.
“Our issue is that we worked on the preferred alternative, Alternative D and we sent that to Washington for approval. Alternative E was never contemplated and that’s what came back from D.C. We were not able to weigh in on that option,” said Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs, who joined Polis in the only process available for commenting on the final proposal: a protest letter to the BLM over its proposed RMP.
Gibbs said he was happy the agency heard a portion of the state’s protests and the final decision included plans to work more closely with the state on a border-to-border plan for limiting development density…
The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility group uncovered a BLM document summarizing an October 2018 meeting where the agency’s Washington D.C. leaders told Uncompahgre Field Office managers that their preferred alternative “misses the mark” and was “not in line with the administration’s direction to decrease the regulatory burden and increase access.”
San Miguel County, for example, asked the BLM to expand areas of critical concerns in the San Miguel River watershed and remove those riparian areas from mineral leasing. The final plan reduced the size of those areas and kept them open for mineral leasing. Montrose County asked for some areas inside Camelback, Dry Creek and Roc Creek to be managed for wilderness protection, but the final plan did not set aside any land in the county for wilderness protection.
San Miguel County commissioner Hilary Cooper said that while the plan is slightly improved by the promise to work with Parks and Wildlife on a density-limiting plan, “it still feels like the BLM is not a willing partner in the management of our land.”
This month he blasted the plan as “completely inadequate.”
“You see what happened today?” he said this week, after the price of a barrel of oil collapsed to below $0 for the first time as a stalled nation sits at home and oil stockpiles swell.
“That is really good news. I bet they are not going to look to develop new rigs for 10 years now,” Schwartz said. “We seem to have bought ourselves some time. Gas and oil are looking to survive right now. And if they look to fracking in our valley, they know we will fight them tooth and nail every step of the way. They don’t want that.
“And really, who knows what will happen in the future,” he said. “We will have a new administration in a year or four years and this whole thing could change. Either way, we are coming out the end of this solid and safe.”
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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.
According to the figures from SNOTEL and the Colorado Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) this week, the snowpack in the Southwestern Colorado mountains is nothing close to the 700% of normal we experienced last year, although it is well above the low mark set in 2018.
As of Tuesday this week, even with a relatively active snow season on Colorado, it turns out that the most intense snowpack is in the northern part of the state, while the San Juans and other more southern ranges did not fare as well.
There were 39 SNOTEL sites across northern Colorado that received above the 90th percentile of February precipitation on the period of record, with nine of these being the record high. Conversely, 24 SNOTEL sites in the southern half of the state were in the bottom 10th percentile with six sites observing record low precipitation…
As of this week the SNOTEL numbers for the Gunnison Basin are ranging somewhere between the 2018 low and the averages over the past couple of decades.
The basin watershed has an average of about 13 or 14 inches of snow water equivalent and rests at about 103 percent of normal, as opposed to even lower numbers in the Dolores River Basin…
The good news tends to be the level of the reservoirs, like Blue Mesa and Ridgway…
Following the trends of snowpack and precipitation, stream flow forecasts predict considerably higher values across Northern Colorado than in the southern half of the state, with respect to normal. On the low end the average of forecasts in the combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan basins is for 64 percent of normal, followed closely by the Rio Grande at 68 percent.
The Gunnison is doing a little better with all forecast points averaging out to 72 percent of normal. The most plentiful forecasts in the state reside in the South Platte Basin with some exceeding 130 percent of average in the main stem headwaters. The Arkansas, Colorado, and combined Yampa and White basins are forecasted to have near normal runoff volumes with the basin-wide average of forecasts ranging from 96 to 106 percent of normal.
The Dolores Town Board [March 9, 2020] raised rates for water and sewer services, increased funding for the farmers market, and preliminarily approved property transactions and a solar project.
Beginning May 1, the water rate will increase by $5 per month, to $30.84 per month, a 19.3% increase. The sewer rate will rise $2.25, to $30.91, a 7.8 percent increase. Rates were last increased in 2015, 2009 and 2006.
The board and town staff said increases are needed to fund rising maintenance costs and system upgrades to the 50-year old infrastructure. It passed by a 6-0 vote.
The increase will help finance a $650,000 project to replace deteriorating water lines beneath Colorado Highway 145. Nine deteriorating lines need to be replaced before the Colorado Department of Transportation repaves the highway in 2021.
To help pay for the project, the town has applied for a $292,630 grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. To cover the 100% grant match, the town would pull from reserves and take out a 4% interest loan, with payments covered by the monthly $5 water rate increase. Revenues from the increases will also help build water and sewer budget reserves for future maintenance and improvements.
The town board created a task force to research a potential tiered water use billing system that would incentivise water savings.
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.
Each year, the board votes on a new chairperson that is from either location; a town member is appointed to lead on odd years, and a rural member is appointed on even years. The opposite happens for the vice chairperson.
For 2020, the board voted Jim Jensen, who represents the surrounding rural area, as chair. He replaces Finn Kjome, who lives in town limits. Kjome was appointed as the new vice chair at last week’s meeting.
Other water commission board members are Mike Grafmyer, Jim Wells, Ron Gabbett and John Owens.
Tim Lippert, the town’s public works director and operator, gave the board several updates. The first item was the repair work needed on a town vehicle and the possibility of purchasing a new vehicle as a replacement. Lippert said the repairs would cost approximately $1,000.
He also presented new raw water data to the board, as they’d requested information on how the new system was impacting the town’s reserves. However, the water data is based on only the first year of operation and study for Norwood’s new system. The board agreed that additional data over several years is needed to ensure data collected on the raw water system is accurate.
Lippert informed the board of a state program, which is offering free testing of municipal water for the chemical Teflon, a substance dangerous to drinking water and frequently found in fire-fighting foam.
Lippert told the board that the testing is not mandatory, but could possibly be in the future.
Teflon testing has been occurring across the nation since 2013 and has recently started in Colorado. The test looks for Teflon in amounts as small as 70 parts per trillion.
Norwood’s board expressed willingness to do the Teflon testing if the tests are paid for by the state program. Board members said they don’t want to have to pay for the testing with the town’s money.
Currently, the state has roughly $500,000 in funding for the free testing. Lippert said on Monday the Town of Norwood did apply for funds and will know in the near future if the test will be conducted locally.
At the same time, board members also said they don’t believe that the chemical will be found in Norwood’s water, because of the lack of forest fires that have occurred on the Lone Cone. Still, they said they are open to running the test to be certain.
The main injection well for salinity control in the Paradox Valley is hearing the end of its useful life, prompting a draft document spelling out actions to take.
Montrose County commissioners, who met on Wednesday afternoon with several representatives of the Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Land Management, raised concerns over scenic and recreational values, seismic activity and energy use that would come into play, depending on which of four scenarios the Department of Interior selects to address salt loading.
“Some of the concerns I have is the aesthetics of it,” Commissioner Roger Rash said, referring to an alternative in the agencies’ draft environmental impact statement that calls for several large evaporative ponds.
Commissioner Sue Hansen, meanwhile, was concerned about private land bordering the proposed sites for new salinity control facilities, as well as seismic activity…
Agencies offer strategies
The first alternative in the Dec. 6 draft EIS is no action: salinity control would stop in the Paradox Valley.
Alternative B calls for a new deep injection well, under which brine would be collected and piped to the existing surface treatment facility and, from there, piped to a new deep injection well and injected into unpressurized sections of the Leadville Formation.
Two proposed areas were analyzed as possible locations for the new well. One includes a combination of BuRec land and BLM-administered land on Skein Mesa.
The second area is on BLM-administered land on Monogram Mesa or Fawn Springs Bench.
Each site would require rights of way or withdrawals of BLM land and a variety of infrastructure; additionally, the Monogram Mesa site would require BuRec to acquire 49 acres of private land.
Potential Gunnison sage-grouse habitat implications were noted, although the draft EIS did not deem these to be significant.
If Alternative B is selected, new seismic investigations would be completed to determine the final site of the well; this would require additional analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Alternative C would control salinity through several evaporation ponds and piping. It would require a 60-acre landfill that could be as tall as 100 feet above ground…
The draft EIS acknowledges the ponds and landfill would “negatively affect the visual landscape of the Paradox Valley” and would not conform with the BLM Uncompahgre Field Office’s resource management plan, so an amendment to that plan would be required…
Alternative C would also have the most indirect effect on cultural resources and on wildlife, particularly migratory birds…
Rash said the proposed mitigation itself wasn’t visually appealing, either, particularly putting netting over the evaporative ponds; McWhirter said that would only be feasible for one of the ponds.
The draft EIS also looked at zero-liquid discharge technology, Alternative D.
Under it, brine would be piped to a treatment plant consisting of thermally driven crystallizers to evaporate and condense water from brine, resulting in a solid salt and freshwater stream. The salt would also go to a 60-acre landfill.
There would be 80 acres of permanent surface disturbance, requiring the withdrawal of 267 acres of BLM-administered lands, further, 56 acres of private land would have to be obtained.
Alternative D would also use the most energy — 26,700 megawatts per hour for electrical energy use and 4.2 million CCF (hundreds of cubic feet) of natural gas per year.
Hansen asked about seismic activity related to injection activities and was told it’s not usually significant — although there was a 4.5 magnitude earthquake close to the current injection well — and that seismic activity is indeed associated with the injection drilling…
Summary of alternatives
• A (no action): 95,000 tons of salt per year no longer removed from Dolores and Colorado Rivers; induced seismicity; increase in downstream salinity numeric criteria.
• B (new injection well): removal of up to 114,000 tons of salt per year; induced seismicity; drilling under Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area (if sited on Skein Mesa location); 22-mile pipeline and pumping stations to transport brine with high hydrogen sulfide concentration (if sited on Monogram Mesa location).
• C (evaporation ponds): Removal of up to 171,000 tons of salt annually; 540-care surface evaporation ponds; wildlife mortality; non-conformance with BLM’s Resource Management Plan; 60-acre salt disposal landfill…
• D (zero-liquid discharge technology): Removal of up to 171,000 tons of salt annually; significant energy requirement; 60-acre salt disposal landfill…
Comments may be submitted until 11:59 p.m., Mountain Time, Feb. 4. Those interested may submit comments by email to email@example.com or to Ed Warner, Area Manager, Bureau of Reclamation, 445 West Gunnison Ave, Suite 221, Grand Junction, CO 81501.
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.
The Dolores Town Board approved a $1.5 million budget for 2020 that funds a variety of services, and includes infrastructure upgrades and recreation projects…
The budgeted expenditures are $618,572 for the General Fund, $378,066 for the Street Fund, $285,584 for the Water Fund, $199,526 for the Sewer Fund, and $41,500 for the Conservation Trust Fund. Capital improvements total $278,000 for 2020 for all departments…
A major expense for 2020 is a $645,000 project to replace 50-year-old water lines beneath Colorado Highway 145. Nine deteriorating lines need to be replaced before the highway is repaved in 2021 by the Colorado Department of Transportation.
To help pay for the project, the town is seeking a $322,000 grant from the Department of Local Affairs, and may consider taking out a low-interest loan.
“Both water and wastewater treatment plants are in good condition, but repairs are necessary,” states the budget report…
The Water Fund budget includes $58,000 for a new chlorinator treatment system required by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment…
Dolores officials will be researching options for solar power in 2020 to offset electric costs, which represent nearly 6.5% of operations in all funds.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Justin Liff, Lesley McWhirter):
The Bureau of Reclamation is seeking public input on alternatives to reduce salinity in the Colorado River from sources in the Paradox Valley in western Colorado. Currently, the Paradox Valley Unit (PVU) in Montrose County, Colorado, is intercepting naturally occurring brine and injecting it 16,000 feet underground via a deep injection well. The PVU began operating in 1996 and is nearing the end of its useful life. The United States has a water quality obligation to control salt in the Colorado River, in compliance with the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Act, the Clean Water Act, and a 1944 treaty with Mexico.
“The Paradox Valley Unit is a cost-effective salinity control project in the Colorado River Basin as it prevents 95,000 tons of salt annually from reaching the Dolores River and eventually the Colorado River—that’s approximately 7% of total salinity control occurring in the basin,” said Area Manager for Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area Office Ed Warner. “Reducing salt in the rivers improves water quality, crop production and wildlife habitat in the basin.”
Reclamation is preparing an Environmental Impact Statement and has released a draft for public review and comment. Alternatives analyzed in the draft EIS include a new injection well; evaporation ponds; zero liquid discharge technology; and no action, which would result in no salinity control in the Paradox Valley.
The public is invited to attend public meetings to learn more, ask questions and provide comments. Two public meetings will be held on:
– Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020 in Paradox, Colorado at the Paradox Valley Charter School, 21501 6 Mile Rd., at 5 p.m. – Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020 in Montrose, Colorado at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites, 1391 S. Townsend Ave., at 6 p.m.
Reclamation will consider all comments received by 11:59 p.m. Mountain Standard Time on Feb. 4, 2020. Those interested may submit comments by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Ed Warner, Area Manager, Bureau of Reclamation, 445 West Gunnison Ave, Suite 221, Grand Junction, CO 81501.
Here’s the release from the Utah Department of Natural Resources (Kim Wells:
After reviewing and incorporating over 330 public comments, the Utah Division of Water Resources has finalized regional water conservation goals. Goals were established for nine regions around the state for municipal and industrial (M&I) water conservation. M&I includes residential, commercial, institutional (for example, schools and parks), and industrial water use, and excludes agriculture, mining and power generation.
“We appreciate all those who took the time to review the goals and share their opinions,” said Division of Water Resources Director Eric Millis. “There were some insightful comments, which were incorporated into the report. There is always value in soliciting public input.”
Although the numbers did not change, the comments improved the readability of the report including text clarifications that make the report better. All 334 comments and the division’s response to them are included in Appendix J of the report. The comments were collected during a 30-day comment period that ran from Aug. 27-Sept. 25.
The goals vary by region. When every region reaches its goal, a 16% water use reduction will be realized by 2030. This approach allows the goals to be tailored to each region’s characteristics.
“When you look at the amazing variety we have in our great state – from southern Utah’s red rocks to the Alpine mountains in the north – targeting goals for a specific region allows the goals to account for things like climate, elevation, growing season and specific needs,” said Millis. “It’s a more local and customized approach.”
“The regional goals replace the ‘25% by 2025’ goal. They also build on the previous statewide goal and will require everyone to do their part to conserve this precious resource,” said River Basin Planning Manager Rachel Shilton. “Every step counts and water conservation needs to become a way of life for all Utahns.”
Utah’s previous statewide conservation goal of reducing per-capita use 25% by 2025 was introduced by Gov. Gary Herbert during his 2013 State of the State address. (Gov. Mike Leavitt first set a target to use 25% less water by the year 2050 back in 2000.) Utahns were making great progress on the water conservation front, so Herbert challenged Utahns to cut the time in half. The regional goals are designed to continue to improve the state’s conservation efforts.
To formulate the regional water conservation goals, the Division of Water Resources first gathered public input. During fall 2018, over 1,650 people participated in a water conservation survey, and eight open houses across the state were held. After public input was tallied, a team consisting of water providers, members from the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, and Water Resources staff worked with a third-party consultant to provide input on the region-specific goals. Public input was gathered during a 30-day comment period, reviewed and incorporated.
“These goals will help guide the state’s water managers in planning future infrastructure, policies and programs consistent with Utah’s semiarid climate and growing demand for water,” said Millis. “They will also be used to plan conservation programs.”
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.
Longtime district engineer Ken Curtis has been appointed the new general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
Curtis replaces Mike Preston, who is retiring after leading the organization that manages McPhee Reservoir for the past 12 years. Preston will stay on during a transitional period serving in external relations.
The two have worked closely together as a management team, said DWCD board president Bruce Smart.
Curtis served as chief of engineering and construction during the 12 years that Preston was general manager…
Preston informed the board in February his intention to retire, and recommended Curtis as his successor. The board agreed to the transition plan in order to facilitate a smooth change over…
Curtis has been involved in all aspects of water management, including delivering water to customers, oversight of project maintenance and upgrades, and invasive mussel prevention program. He also monitors reservoir levels and Dolores River inflows, conducts water policy research and community outreach, and helps coordinate the downstream fishery release and whitewater boating spill.
The new Four Corners Water Resource Center at Fort Lewis College aims to help educate professionals and bring the community together to make good water management decisions, Director Gigi Richard said.
“(Water) is a problem that is not going to go away as the population grows, as the climate warms, as we place greater demands on our existing systems and our infrastructure ages,” she said.
Richard co-founded the water center at Colorado Mesa University and is launching a similar center at FLC that will focus on the Dolores and San Juan river watersheds.
“We have called it the Four Corners Water Center because we don’t want to stop at the state line; the rivers don’t stop at the state line,” she said.
The center expects to educate students, convene community discussions and create an online data hub collected on the Dolores and San Juan river watersheds, she said.
Richard hopes to help highlight FLC water research and connect students with water-related classes, projects, research opportunities, internships and careers, she said. Fifteen FLC faculty are involved in water-focused research…
Richard also plans to assess the college’s water-related courses over the next year and determine how the school could expand its water-related curriculum. The school could offer minors, majors or certificates related to water studies…
The center also plans to create an online hub for data on the San Juan and Dolores river watersheds, such as native fish, sediment and channel morphology. She would like some of the data to be made into graphs that could be accessible to decision-makers, she said.
The center also hopes to convene forums that could promote education and discussion, Richard said.
For example, on Sept. 13, the center will host a forum called “Burned, Buried and Flooded: Water Resources Excitement in Southwest Colorado.” Panelists will discuss water topics including how the 416 Fire may affect the watershed, reservoirs and avalanches.
The center expects to work with many of the groups already working on water issues in the region such as Mountain Studies Institute and the Water Information Program.
Kugel was the General Manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District for almost 13 years, and is a registered Professional Engineer with a Civil Engineering degree from the University of Colorado – Denver. Frank was involved in construction engineering in the Denver area before joining the Colorado Division of Water Resources as a Dam Safety Engineer. He served in the Denver and Durango offices of DWR before moving to Montrose where he ultimately became Division 4 Engineer for the Gunnison, San Miguel and lower Dolores Basins. Frank joined the UGRWCD upon leaving DWR in 2006. He was a member of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable since its inception and chair of its Basin Implementation Planning Subcommittee.
WIP had a brief chat with Frank to give you a bit more information. Here are a few questions and answers from our conversation.
WIP: What experience and knowledge do you bring to the District?
Frank: I have been the General Manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District for the past 13 years. During that time I worked on local and statewide water issues and reported to an 11-member board. Prior to that, I was Division Engineer for Water Division 4, encompassing the Gunnison, San Miguel and lower Dolores River basins. As Division Engineer, I frequently attended SWCD board meetings and the SW seminar. Before that, I lived in Durango for 11 years while inspecting dams for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
WIP: As the new Executive Director of SWCD, what is your vision for the district?
Frank: My vision as Executive Director is to build upon the many successes accomplished by the Southwestern Water Conservation District. I intend to work closely with the board of directors in developing policies that will help guide the district. Instream flows and drought contingency planning are two of the areas that could benefit from policy guidance.
WIP: What are some of your top priorities with/or within the district?
Frank: A top priority for me is to reach out to the local communities. I plan to attend a county commissioner meeting in each of the nine counties within my first year at the district. Working on Colorado River issues will also be a high priority.
WIP: What do you foresee being challenges?
Frank: Facing a future with reduced water supplies due to climate change, coupled with increasing population, is a challenge for all of Colorado. The Southwest District can play a lead role in educating our constituents about this pending gap between water supply and demand and how the District can mitigate its impact.
We welcome Frank Kugel to SWCD and wish him all the best in his new position!
Coming out of extreme drought, water releases a pleasant surprise
For 51 days this spring and summer, water managers opened the spigots on McPhee Reservoir, sending millions of gallons of water down the Dolores River – a boon to fish, farmers and boaters.
During the last 20 years, only 10 years have been boatable. But this year was remarkable for the number of boating days after extreme drought conditions in 2018.
McPhee Reservoir started 2019 with one of the poorest water levels in its history, but extraordinary snowfall allowed the Dolores Water Conservancy District to fill the reservoir and release 135,000 acre-feet of water.
The high-flow days will benefit the ecology of the entire corridor, said Mike Preston, general manager of the district. The big releases occurred between Memorial Day weekend and the first week of July, with a short intermission after Memorial Day.
The district met with stakeholders, such as boaters and biologists, weekly to determine water management strategy, Preston said.
“So far, everybody is pretty happy,” he said.
The Dolores River Boating Advocates were pleased with the number of boating days. While it was not the longest season ever, it was a good run, said Sam Carter, program and outreach coordinator for the group…
The high levels in the reservoir will allow the district to provide irrigators all the water they have rights to and hold over water in the reservoir for next season, Preston said. The releases from the reservoir will also have lasting benefits for native fish and trees along the river, experts said.
The high flows help maintain and improve habitat for three species of native fish: roundtail chub, bluehead sucker and flannelmouth sucker, said Jim White, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The bluehead and flannelmouth sucker populations are both depressed in the Dolores. Their populations have been hurt by non-native fish and changes in habitat because of the dam, he said…
This summer, White said he may have observed benefits of the last big water year on the Dolores, which was in 2017. He was surveying fish in Slick Rock Canyon and found an abundance of young flannelmouth suckers possibly from 2017 or 2018, he said. Higher water helps support spawning…
The large amount of spring runoff released from McPhee also kept the water district from needing to tap into water set aside specifically for fish, Preston said. So now the same amount of water can be released over a shorter period of time, which will be beneficial for fish.
The high-water year will also have lasting benefits for trees, such as cottonwoods and willows, because it will recharge the groundwater in the floodplain, said Cynthia Dott, a biology professor at Fort Lewis College. Dott specializes in studying the floodplain forest habitat and has worked on the Dolores River with her students.
Rainwater does not provide enough water to recharge the water table, and when the table drops too low, it can hurt large cottonwoods, she said. But there should be plenty of groundwater for the trees to tap into next year, she said.
“They will have plenty of water to keep their feet wet,” she said.
The high flows were also traditionally needed to scour the banks of rivers and leave open, muddy areas for young cottonwood seedlings to get established, she said.
However, because there have been so many years of low flows on the Dolores, willows have established themselves along the banks and high flows now are not enough to rip them free, she said.
One the region’s foremost water experts is being offered another job in the industry that would take him back to Durango. Frank Kugel, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District, is in negotiations with the Southwestern Water Conservation District for the top job.
According to the SWCD website, “on July 15, pursuant to C.R.S. § 24-6-402(3.5), the Board of Directors of the Southwestern Water Conservation District selected Frank J. Kugel as the finalist under consideration for the position of Executive Director.” The SWCD board plans to approve a conditional offer employment at its August 6 meeting and formally make the offer on August 7.
Kugel confirmed the situation and said if all goes well and the SWCD board accepts the terms of employment, he would begin the new position on September 3.
Kugel has led the UGRWCD for almost 13 years. “The Southwestern Water Conservation District serves all of nine counties, as opposed to three with the UGRWCD, so it is a higher profile position for me,” Kugel explained in an email this week. “I have worked with the SWCD for 18 years, 11 of which were while inspecting dams while living in Durango. The other seven years were while I was Division 4 Engineer in Montrose and dealing with water administration in the San Miguel and lower Dolores River basins.
“The Southwestern District shares a number of common challenges with UGRWCD, namely Colorado River issues and drought contingency planning and demand management,” Kugel continued. “They also face a challenge of having nine separate river basins, most of which individually flow out of the state.”
The SWCD board unanimously chose Kugel as the top finalist for the executive director job as the previous executive director had retired in April. Board president Robert Wolff explained there is a two-week public notice period before a formal job offer is made, so that will happen after the August meeting.
“For me personally, several things about Frank stood out,” Wolff said. “He is fluent with all the Western Slope water issues we are dealing with, and he lived in Durango back in the 1990s. He is well thought of in the water community as a whole and he seems to know how to manage a district.”
Kugel said he is fortunate to have this new opportunity and also lucky to have been in the Gunnison Valley for a dozen years. “I have been blessed with a supportive board and top-notch staff over these past 13 years,” he said. “We have done great things to develop and protect the quality and quantity of our precious water resources. The Upper Gunnison basin is a very special place and I will always hold it, and its people, near and dear to my heart.”
“You’re all here at a momentous time,” guide Trey Roberts said before the drop. “You’re about to raft a big, famous, rare river.”
Jeanette Healy of Utah had been waiting 10-plus years for this chance on the Dolores. Doug Nie, a kayaker from Albuquerque, had been waiting even longer. Also here were Rick and Beverly Anderson, a young couple from Albuquerque as well.
“We figured we could do the Las Animas and Arkansas out in (Buena Vista) any year,” Rick said. “But this is our one chance to do Dolores.”
Chances have been tough to come by since the 1980s, when the McPhee Dam began trapping the water that Dominguez and Escalante found to be rushing during their 1776 expedition. El Rio de Nuestra Señora de Dolores, they called it — the River of Our Lady of Sorrows…
Most joyful now are the boaters who had hoped this year’s snowpack would grant McPhee’s occasional controlled “spills.” As of last week, the Dolores Water Conservancy District expected releases to remain at or above 1,200 cubic feet per second through June 23, keeping the river fun until then at least.
That would mean a rafting season of almost one month here, which seems a short window. But longtime river rats regret to say that’s long for the Dolores.
Bill Dvorak, who’s frequented the state’s rivers since the ’60s, can’t recall a longer season. He ran the Dolores in 2017; his last time before that was 2009. “Every six to eight years is about when I get on it,” he said.
And he gets on it almost every floatable opportunity. The Dolores, after all, is easily his favorite river in Colorado…
Provisions are still vague. Releases are indeed unpredictable, said Michael Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District. The Bureau of Reclamation factors in current reservoir levels with never-perfect forecasts. Then there’s juggling ever-increasing demand: Farmers combine for the largest allocation of the supply, recent spreadsheets show, followed by the downstream fishery, tribe and municipalities.
“McPhee is a hard-working reservoir,” Preston said. “We use every inch of our active storage capacity to take care of things.”
The height of that arch is reached at Snaggletooth, the legendary Class IV rapid aptly named. Swirling eddies are like mouths ready to inhale, the jumble of rocks like jaws ready to chomp.
From an embankment, we stopped to analyze the beast. And yes, [Christian] Wright was scared. “If someone says they’re not scared, don’t get in their boat,” he said.
The National Weather Service on Saturday issued flood advisories for the Mancos, Animas and La Plata rivers, and residents reported flooding along the Dolores River about 10 miles north of town.
“We have major flooding on Road 37, Dolores, 10 miles north of Dolores,” Jeffrey L. Jahraus told The Journal. Eight to 10 properties were getting water, he said.
The flooding began Tuesday and has continued intermittently, Jahraus said. About a half-acre of his neighbor’s property was under water.
Flooding has happened at their property once or twice before, he said, but never like this. The Jahrauses live along Road 37, right by where the now-famous rock slide happened on Memorial Day Weekend…
At the gauge in Dolores, the river was flowing Saturday morning at 4,200 cubic feet per second, about 256% the average June 8 rate of 1,604 cfs. Saturday afternoon, it reached 6.7 feet at the gauge, more that a foot shy of the 8-foot flood stage…
Meanwhile, flood advisories continued Saturday until further notice for the Mancos, Animas and La Plata rivers.
The river flow along the Mancos River was expected to remain near to slightly above bankfull, and minor lowland flooding was possible. Saturday morning, the river was at 5.3 feet – several inches above bankfull – and flood stage was at 6 feet. The river was expected to rise to about 5.4 feet around midnight Sunday.
La Plata River
A flood advisory also continued Saturday for the La Plata River at Hesperus. The flows along the La Plata River were expected to remain slightly above bankfull, and flooding is possible, the National Weather Service said. Bankfull stage is 5 feet, and flood stage is 5.5 feet. Saturday morning, the river was at 5.1 feet and expected to rise to nearly 5.3 feet by Monday morning.
The Animas River was flowing Saturday at 6.6 feet. The National Weather Service said the river was expectd to reach 6.93 feet by Sunday morning, a foot shy of the flood stage of 8 feet. Moderate flooding would occur at 9 feet, and major flooding at 10.5 feet. The record height of the Animas is 11 feet, the weather service says.
From the Brigham Young University The Daily Universe (Josh Carter):
Lake Powell is benefitting considerably from this year’s runoff following a strong snow year in the Rocky Mountains. The lake has risen 16 feet in the last month and is experiencing an inflow of 128% the average. While water levels are expected to continue to rise until the peak month of July, there is still a long way to go before the lake reaches full capacity.
“This year definitely helps,” said Bureau of Reclamation Public Affairs Officer Marlon Duke.
“But people need to keep in mind that when we came into this season Lake Powell was about 140 feet low. Even after this year, we’re going to be about 100 feet below full pool. So what we really need is three or four years just like this in a row.”
Lake Powell is currently stuck in the worst drought of its 56-year history. Its water levels and inflow have dropped significantly since the summer of 1999 — the last time Lake Powell was essentially full at 97% of capacity. The lake hit an all-time low in 2005 when its elevation sank to 3,555 feet, 145 feet below full pool.
The lake did experience a spike during the summer of 2010, when its levels got within 40 feet of full capacity. The drought has since continued, however, affecting not only Lake Powell but its sister reservoir Lake Mead as well.
“In 2000, when the drought started, Lake Powell and Lake Mead were both full,” Duke said. “Today Lake Powell is about 42% full and Lake Mead is even lower than that. Before we can start talking about whether or not the drought is over we need those reservoirs to be full again.”
Lake Mead was formed in 1935 and Lake Powell in 1963 after the completion of the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, respectively, along the Colorado River. They were created in hopes to store and provide water for the Colorado River Basin states during times of drought. Lake Powell predominately serves the Upper Basin states of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico, while Lake Mead provides for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and Southern California.
While both man-made reservoirs have served their purpose throughout the current drought, experts are thankful for this year’s runoff after a particularly low year in 2018.
“We’re coming off of 2018 which was the second-driest year ever since we’ve been keeping records in the Basin,” Duke said. “We were worried because if we had another year like 2018 then that would have really put us in some trouble.”
The drought hasn’t been the only threat to the lake’s water levels in recent years. A couple different proposals and campaigns are calling for Lake Powell to be drained and to distribute its water to Lake Mead and elsewhere.
“Fill Mead First” is a campaign first started in 1996 to encourage conversation about restoring the dammed Glen Canyon to its natural state. As the drought continued, the campaign has gained traction, arguing that Lake Mead needs more water from Lake Powell to ensure big cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego have enough. The campaign also argues that Lake Powell loses water through both rapid evaporation and water seeping into the porous sandstone walls.
BYU geology professor Gregory Carling talked about the potential benefits that could come from restoring Glen Canyon to what it once was.
“When the Glen Canyon Dam was built, it not only flooded one of the most beautiful canyons in the world but also thousands of archeological sites and side canyons,” Carling said. “Also, the way it is now with Lake Powell and Lake Mead half-full, both are losing lots of water through evaporation. So there probably is some sense in looking into what the benefits would be of draining Lake Powell and filling Lake Mead.”
Carling added, however, the proposal would have to go through a lengthy legislative process in order for anything to change.
“There are a lot of legal requirements and bureaucracy behind that, so it’s not just as easy as saying, ‘let’s drain one and fill up the other,’” Carling said. “You’d have to go back through a hundred years of the law of the river.”
Those opposing the “Fill Mead First” campaign argue that Lake Powell, one of the most popular boating and camping spots in Utah, supports the local economy through both recreation and tourism. The lake saw over 4 million visitors during each of the past two years for the first time in its history. Lake Powell supporters also argue the lake ensures a steady water supply to Lake Mead and the Lower Basin states.
The Lake Powell Pipeline is another proposal aimed at transferring water from Lake Powell to nearby Kane and Washington Counties in southern Utah. The proposed pipeline would run approximately 140 miles underground and deliver over 82,000 acre-feet of water per year to Washington County and 4,000 acre-feet of water per year to Kane County.
The proposal did take a hit last year when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled it would need greater oversight from other federal land agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service. Officials expect a final decision to be made on the project by 2020.
Even amid the recent controversies experts hope the Colorado River Basin can take full advantage of its water resources, especially in times of drought. Representatives from all seven Colorado River Basin states recently met to sign drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basins.
“This brings us one step closer to supporting agriculture and protecting the water supplies for 40 million people in the United States and Mexico,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. “Working together remains the best approach for all those who rely on the Colorado River.”
“The City of Farmington has temporarily closed sections of trails in Berg Park due to rising water levels.” City spokesperson Georgette Allen said in a press release June 7. “Trails on the north side of the Animas River near the All Veterans Memorial Plaza will be closed throughout the weekend.”
Karen Guglielmone, the Town of Telluride’s environment and engineering division manager, presented the yearly water audit to Town Council in a Tuesday work session, which emphasized the importance of conservation, despite the town’s abundant water supply.
“We are a steward to our water resources,” she told council. “We are stewards for what we need now and into the future.”
The annual report has been produced since 2014, when the town adopted a Water Efficiency Plan, which was subsequently approved by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) late that year. The annual report reveals figures such as overall municipal water use — and losses — and indicates trends that can help officials modify the plan.
Water losses are attributed to a number of factors including leaks, unauthorized consumption, faulty metering and data errors.
Leaks, Guglielmone explained, are common in municipal water systems as they age. One such leak occurred under East Columbia Avenue in 2018, which officials then said had likely been a progressive event due to pressure from a rock. Directly on the waterline. There are more of those, Guglielmone said.
“We can expect a slow increase of leaks over time,” she said. “We have others we can’t locate precisely.”
Despite the challenges of controlling losses, in 2018 the loss rate dipped by 13.5 percent when compared to the last five years of collecting data. Last year’s losses were calculated to be 26 million gallons, down from 2017’s 37 million gallons. Telluride’s losses are still high compared to other municipalities.
“We’re high on our water loss,” she said. “Fifteen percent is the goal, though 25-30 percent is more the reality,”
Residential water use is holding steady, according to the report. The fact that it stayed about the same (118 million gallons) is “pretty cool,” Guglielmone said…
Town Attorney Kevin Geiger noted that overall the town is in good shape as far as its supply is concerned.
“Our water portfolio is robust,” he said. “(Blue Lake) is a very large reservoir for our town. It is the envy of municipalities in Colorado.”
Telluride’s water rights are also strong…
Incorporating the Blue Lake reservoir and the Pandora water treatment plant became necessary when the town’s growth overtook what Mill Creek could provide, Geiger explained. Past water usage reports, which reflected peak days such as those that occur during the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, necessitated the work to bring Blue Lake into the fold…
Council member Geneva Shaunette said she liked the idea of the stricter irrigation practices that the town imposed during last year’s parched summer.
“I’m a fan of every other day irrigation,” she said. “Maybe grass isn’t the best thing.”
Unfortunately, even though low maintenance buffalo grass uses half the water, many landscapers’ clients prefer water-hungry Kentucky bluegrass, Guglielmone said. “We can’t police everything.”
FromThe Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:
A 10-day whitewater boating release is planned for the Dolores River below McPhee dam and reservoir, managers said this week.
The recreational water flows will be let out from Tuesday to May 30 and are scheduled to accommodate boaters over Memorial Day weekend.
“Timing the release early for the three-day holiday was a big interest for the boating community,” said Mike Preston, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
Beginning Tuesday, the managed “spill” will increase at a rate of 400 cubic feet per second per day to achieve a 1,200 cfs flow by the morning of May 24. The high flow will be maintained through May 27, then ramp down to 800 cfs through noon May 30. A gradual ramp down over a few days will follow.
However, the managed release is expected to continue after May 30, but to what extent has not yet been determined, water officials said.
Winter snowpack that reached 140% of normal is enough to fill McPhee Reservoir and provide the boating release below the dam. Recent cooler and rainy weather in Southwest Colorado has slowed the snowpack runoff, creating uncertainty about the final timing…
The inflow rate will depend on hard-to-predict temperatures and potential rain in the coming weeks. McPhee is expected to reach full capacity by mid-June, said district engineer Ken Curtis, and all irrigators will get a full supply for the season…
The 97-mile stretch of the Dolores River below the dam from Bradfield Bridge to Bedrock is revered by boaters for its challenging rapids and remote, red-rock canyon wilderness.
The three- to five-day Slick Rock-to-Bedrock section through winding Slick Rock Canyon offers a pristine river running experience. The 18-mile, one-day Ponderosa Gorge has convenient access and fills with locals and tourists when the river runs. No permit is required to boat the Dolores River.
The expert Snaggletooth Rapid is especially notorious for drenching boaters and occasionally flipping boats. A road along the river accessed from Dove Creek is a popular spot to spend the day watching boaters negotiate the wild hydraulics created by the rapid’s “fangs.”
Also this week, temperature suppression flows of 100 cfs were released from the dam to benefit the downstream native fishery. The strategy is to delay the spawning of the bluehead and flannelmouth suckers and roundtail chub until after the whitewater release.
t’s been about 35 years since the mill at Uravan closed and about 33 since the former West End town was designated a Superfund site, eventually to be bulldozed, burned and buried. But roughly 2 miles away is the Ballpark at Historic Uravan, Colorado, which was never contaminated by uranium and vanadium mining — and the one place people who grew up there still have to gather and remember.
The ballpark, with its primitive camping, has also attracted its share of hobbyist gold miners who access the San Miguel River from there. But when some began showing up with machinery, locals sounded the alarm and on Thursday, Montrose County passed an ordinance prohibiting unauthorized, mechanized mining along the river acreage it owns there. The ordinance can go into effect May 28…
A problem reared its head, though, when she discovered a video on the Facebook page of a hobbyist prospecting group. Thompson said the video showed compressors and a hose that was pumping the river — plus the site was promoting the location to other hobbyists, as was a prospecting book, which has since delisted the location.
“There was a big group that was going to come. They were all going to bring their machinery and have a big weekend there. We decided we probably better let the county know what was happening,” Thompson said.
Although it’s one thing to pan for gold in the river, or put up a small sluice box — that’s still allowed under the new ordinance — mechanized mining imperils the river and the habitat it provides.
“We contacted the group and told them … it belongs to the county. We lease it to the historical society. They have spent many countless hours down there and have turned that into a beautiful little park we encourage people to use. We don’t want it destroyed,” said Montrose County Commissioner Roger Rash, a former Uravan resident.
The county also put up a sign barring machinery in the river.
“But we needed to have some teeth,” Rash said. “We don’t want mechanized mining going on in our park.”
The new ordinance allows panning within the river channel, as long as it occurs at least 2 feet from the bank. Among other provisions, the ordinance prohibits motorized mining activities, including motorized suction dredging.
It also bars activity that undercuts or excavates banks and the ordinance further restricts access to the channel to existing roads and trails.
People cannot disturb more than 1 cubic yard of soil per day and anything that cannot be removed by hand must remain undisturbed.
All digging has to be filled in and the work area must be cleaned up before departure.
Violations are treated as a petty offense, which carry fines between $100 on first occurrence and up to $1,000 for repeat offenses.
If the county property, river or surrounding area sustains damages in excess of $100, violators can be charged with a class-2 misdemeanor punishable by stiffer fines and up to a year in county jail.
Thompson said she and other Rimrockers didn’t understand why anyone would be mining the river with machinery to begin with. The park is open to the public — although it relies upon donations to sustain the picnic structures and fire pits former residents paid for — and has had only minor vandalism issues prior to the mechanized mining.
Aquatic biologist Jim White, of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, spoke at a community meeting in Dolores about planned fish surveys, population data and survey techniques.
Parks and Wildlife works with McPhee Reservoir managers to manage downstream flows for three native species that reside in the Lower Dolores – the roundtail chub, bluehead sucker and flannelmouth sucker. The first several miles below the dam to Bradfield Bridge is managed as a cold-water fishery for brown and rainbow trout.
“Roundtail populations have been good,” White said, “and bluehead and flannelmouth are not as abundant.”
The reservoir holds a 33,500 acre-foot reserve for the native fish needs. The “fish pool” is released gradually throughout the year base on biologists’ input. In the winter, flows below the dam are 20-30 cubic feet per second. During summer, they reach 60-80 cfs if there is no whitewater release.
During low water years, the fish pool and farmers share in shortages. When there is a recreation dam release like this year, it is not counted against the fish pool, and the higher flows are managed for ecological benefits such as channel scouring, timing to benefit the fish spawn, and flood plain sedimentation that replenishes nutrient rich sediment on the banks for new seedlings…
Fish counts and surveys are done each year at Slick Rock Canyon, Dove Creek Pump Station, Pyramid Mountain and below the San Miguel confluence.
White explained how a “pit-tag array” installed in 2013 to monitor native fish on the Lower Dolores River works. It is just upstream from the Disappointment Creek confluence.
Native fish captured throughout the Lower Dolores are inserted with a electronic tag, and when they move past the “array” wire above the river, the movement and fish identification is recorded.
So far, 1,421 fish have been tagged. Of those, 38 percent were flannelmouth suckers, 35 were roundtail chubs, and 23 percent were bluehead suckers. Four percent were smallmouth bass, a non-native species biologists are trying to get rid of because they prey on young native fish.
Since installed, 157 tagged fish have been recorded passing under the pit-tag array. In 2018, 14 fish were detected, including eight flannelmouth that arrived after April 8. Five of the flannelmouth were tagged in Slick Rock Canyon, two in the Pyramid Mountain Reach and one tagged in 2014 in the San Miguel River.
The first native fish of 2019 passed under the array on April 5. It was last detected on Oct. 18. On April 16, two flannelmouth were recorded.
On Monday, 30 officials and residents attended an informational meeting at the Dolores Fire Station hosted by Montezuma County emergency manager Mike Pasquin.
The town has not experienced a major flood from the river since 1911, which filled the town valley with up to 3 feet of water.
But there is potential this year because of the heavy snowpack, warming weather, and wet El Niño weather pattern.
The Dolores River peaks from snowmelt between May 15 and June 15, officials said. How much comes down and at what rate depends on snowpack levels, temperature, rain and soil moisture. Runoff forecasting is an educated guess, and possible flood levels require ground truthing as well.
There are some trigger points to watch for, officials said.
Flood stage for the Dolores River in town is 8 feet. A safe maximum flow of the Dolores River is about 6,000 cubic feet per second in town, said Ken Curtis of the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
Increased flows from a hot spell or rain event in the upper valley takes time to reach town and usually arrives at night, said town board member Val Truelsen, “so there should be some nighttime monitoring of the banks.”
Residents should stay tuned to the National Weather Service for regional and local flood watches and warnings.
Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin said the community will be given warnings about predicted flooding conditions through media outlets, town reports, reverse 911, Nixle and social media. The town has recently repaired emergency siren that would also be activated as a warning.
Bridges up the valley are being monitored for debris accumulation and to ensure boaters can safely get under them. Collapsed mines in Rico that collect runoff have automated sensors that warn emergency personnel if the pressure and levels are too high, triggering relief valves.
Community sandbagging projects are happening in some flood-prone towns in the state, said Karen Dixon, emergency manager for the county health department. Local agencies said they are ready to respond to a flood emergency with equipment and staff.
If needed, sand is available at the county shop on County Road 30, said county road manager Rob Englehart.
Officials said severe flooding could compromise utility systems such as water, sewer and natural gas lines, and cause them to be shut down until the water recedes and repairs are made.
Potential shelter areas for evacuees discussed were the Dolores Community Center, Dolores High School, county fairgrounds, House Creek and McPhee campgrounds, and Canyons of the Ancients Museum and Visitor’s Center.
The Bureau of Reclamation will host the 2019 operations meeting for the Dolores Project on Thursday, April 18, at 7 p.m. The meeting will be held at the Dolores Community Center, 400 Riverside Avenue in Dolores, Colorado.
“This meeting is a great opportunity for our partners and the public to find out how the 2019 water year is shaping up and to have any related questions answered,” said Western Colorado Area Office Manager Ed Warner.
Meeting topics will include a review of 2018 operations, projected water supplies and runoff for 2019 and the forecasted possibility of a boatable release to the Dolores River below McPhee Dam in 2019.
The meeting will also include presentations and representation from several agencies, including: Reclamation, Bureau of Land Management, United States Forest Service, Dolores Water Conservancy District, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Dolores River Boating Advocates, American Whitewater and Fort Lewis College. There will be opportunities for questions, comments, and discussion during the meeting.
For more information, please contact Robert Stump at 970-565-7232 or email@example.com.
At a local level, Cortez adopted a conservation plan in November that seeks to reduce per capita water consumption from 200 gallons per day to 180 gallons per day. The plan includes metering water users and rebates for water-efficient appliances.
“Luckily, we had a great year this year, but if we have another couple of dry years, 2020 might be when it gets a little closer,” Padgett said. “But for right now, we’re fine.”
There might not be an immediate threat, but she said the variable hydrology and declining storage at Lake Powell pose real and immediate concerns. She said it’s best to take a proactive approach to planning to avoid getting into sticky situations.
“If we do fall out of compact compliance, it’s a pretty catastrophic event, so we always want to be prepared for that worst-case scenario,” Padgett said. “These recent droughts have really made everyone aware that we need to start planning more for that uncertain future.”
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Marlon Duke):
The U.S. Geological Survey reported that an earthquake occurred at 10:22 a.m. MST, on Monday, March 4, 2019, near Reclamation’s Paradox Valley Salinity Control Facility near Bedrock, Colorado. Reclamation maintains a comprehensive network of seismic monitoring instruments in the area, which indicated a preliminary magnitude 4.1 for this earthquake. The quake was felt by employees at the Reclamation facility and residents in surrounding areas.
The Paradox Valley Salinity Control Facility injects highly pressurized, concentrated salt water (brine) into a 16,000-foot-deep well, preventing the brine from entering the Dolores River. The well was not operating at the time of the earthquake due to routine maintenance. Operations will not resume until Reclamation completes a thorough assessment of the situation.
High-pressure brine injection has been known to trigger small earthquakes in the past, and today’s event was within the range of previously induced earthquakes. Reclamation’s seismic network in the area monitors the location, magnitude and frequency around the Paradox Valley Salinity Control Facility. Reclamation will continue using that network to monitor earthquakes in the area.
The Paradox Valley Salinity Control Facility substantially benefits downstream water quality in the Colorado River Basin, and helps the United States meet treaty obligations with Mexico for allowable salinity levels in the river. Historically, the Dolores River picked up an estimated 205,000 tons of salt annually as it passed through the Paradox Valley. Since the mid-1990s much of this salt has been collected by the Paradox Valley Salinity Control Unit in shallow wells along the Dolores River and then injected into deep subsurface geologic formations. The deep well injection program removes about 95,000 tons of salt annually from the Dolores and Colorado rivers.
The Dolores River shows us what’s at stake in the fight to protect the American West — Conservation Colorado
Photo via the Sheep Mountain Alliance
Dolores River watershed
Dolores River south of Lizard Head Pass
Dolores River near Bedrock
Dolores River above Dolores
Dolores River Canyon near Paradox
FromThe Walton Family Foundation (Peter Skidmore):
In the Colorado River Basin, RiversEdge West leads a coordinated effort to restore critical habitat
Doug King’s family has been ranching the lands around the Dolores River in Southwest Colorado since the 1930’s. “It’s beautiful−I call it John Wayne country,” Doug says, proudly. “I’m the third generation on the land, my son will be the fourth generation, and his son will be the fifth.”
Over the decades, Doug experienced firsthand the steady, relentless creep of invasive plant species like tamarisk and Russian olive and its impact on the land he has cared for his whole life. The damage has been extensive, threatening the larger riparian—or river bank—habitat that in the Colorado River Basin ultimately supports more than 40 million lives across two nations.
As the unwelcome vegetation pressed in on essential farmland and fish and wildlife habitat, Doug and many others in the region understood it was time to lock arms and push back.
Originally conceptualized in 1999 to discuss strategies for addressing invasive plant species along rivers in western Colorado, the then-named Tamarisk Coalition was fueled by a desire to shape a landscape-scale solution. The group had observed that conventional site-by-site eradication simply wasn’t able to move quickly enough.
“People were getting grants to do five acres or half a mile” of tamarisk removal, recalls Tim Carlson, the coalition’s first executive director. “That wasn’t going to solve the problem. We started with a bold approach: If we were going to solve this problem, it’s got to be a regional solution.”
The introduction of the tamarisk is a story of unintended consequences. Long thought to prevent erosion along the banks of western rivers, its presence was so valued in earlier days that Boy Scouts would receive badges for planting it. But the persistent shrub with scale-like leaves took to its adopted habitat like a parasite, displacing native vegetation.
Restoring and sustaining the overall health of the Colorado River Basin has been a primary goal of the Walton Family Foundation’s Environment Program since its inception nearly a decade ago. And, the program’s first grant to the Tamarisk Coalition in 2009 supported its restoration efforts along the San Miguel and Dolores river systems. Gradually, the foundation expanded its support to also include work along the Escalante, Verde and Gila systems.
“We have a great relationship with the foundation where we present innovative ideas, and they help us scale up these efforts. The investment affects a vast landscape, bolsters our work and has helped us promote best practices to other organizations,” says Cara Kukuraitis, outreach and education coordinator for the organization now known as RiversEdge West.
The organization changed its name in 2018 to reflect its broader work in Western riparian areas and the surrounding communities. But it retains its unique and core operating model—to facilitate collaboration and information-sharing across diverse groups and individuals to accomplish riparian restoration at a larger scale than any one partner can attain on its own. As a result, RiversEdge West now supports 20 ambitious multi-stakeholder partnerships encompassing federal, state, and community organizations throughout the American West, teaching best practices to over 300 local public and private restoration organizations and successfully restoring some 11,500 acres—and counting—of riparian habitat.
The state of Colorado is among the group’s core partners.
“Our relationship with RiversEdge West has allowed Colorado Parks and Wildlife to more effectively meet our mission of improving the wildlife habitat within the state,” explains Peter Firmin, manager of the James M. Robb-Colorado River State Park.
“The networking and training opportunities provided by RiversEdge West allow us to leverage intellectual and financial resources to improve habitat along the Colorado River. As a group, we are able to accomplish more than we could as individuals.”
The work of RiversEdge West and its growing network is bolstered by an array of technical tools. For example, a multi-partner geodatabase stores and shares data with land managers, so they can see how their projects connect and positively impact the landscape over time.
“The data helps us establish and measure progress against quantitative goals, so the project can jump from removing tamarisk by just cutting trees to collecting data on the extent of the problem and promoting ways to encourage the ecosystem’s overall health,” says Cara.
It is a testament to the organization’s enduring value that its annual conference attracts upwards of 200 representatives from Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, California, Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Utah and Mexico to connect on riparian restoration science.
The organization also is working to convey the broad importance of these efforts through its ongoing “Riverside Stories” web series, which tells the personal stories of people who call this land home and are working to restore this habitat for future generations. Among them is Doug and his family.
“I have a theory that we should leave the land better than how we got it,” Doug notes in sharing his story. “The Colorado River is soon going to be the most important resource in the West. We are just caretakers. You are only going to be here 50-60 years, and then somebody else is going to have this land.
Narraguinnep and Groundhog reservoirs are at their lowest level in 16 years, said Brandon Johnson, general manager for the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co.
The limited water supply caused a reduction in allocations for MVIC shareholders Thursday to 36 inches, or 3 acre-feet per share. Shareholders who have reached that allocation will be shut off on Friday…
During normal snowpack years, a full allocation is 48 inches, or 4 acre-feet per share…
Groundhog Reservoir has a capacity of 21,700 acre-feet, but is at 11,000 acre-feet right now, Johnson said. It is expected to be drawn down to the minimum level of 4,000 acre-feet that is required for the fish pool.
During normal years, Groundhog is kept at 13,000 acre-feet going into winter.
“It will take two to three years of normal winters to refill Groundhog,” Johnson said.
MVIC owns Groundhog and Narraguinnep and also has storage and water rights in McPhee Reservoir. MVIC officials are releasing water from Groundhog, via the Dolores River, into McPhee to be delivered into the MVIC canal system.
As a result, the Dolores River is running at 182 cubic feet per second, but 150 cfs of that is coming from the Groundhog Reservoir release.
The irrigation supply in McPhee Reservoir is also running low, but the system is still delivering water, said engineer Ken Curtis.
Farmers had shortages this year, and the season was reduced from the usual three cuttings of alfalfa to two cuttings for most farmers.
During average years, irrigation supply in McPhee is 240,000 acre-feet of water, but this year, only 150,000 acre-feet was available, or 60 percent of normal. And most of the supply was carried over from the previous above-average winter.
There will be no carryover going into next year’s water season.
FromThe Norwood Post (April 19, 2018) by Regan Tuttle:
For decades, town officials have wondered if a raw water system might be possible. Now — after three years of study, group collaboration, grant applications and awards, engineering, numerous public meetings, and more — Norwood will complete its raw water system by end of summer. That means next spring, many people (those that purchased raw water taps for their residences) will be running a sprinkler, watering a garden, planting vegetable patches and growing flowers. And the system, officials say, also has other benefits…
Experts say that for farming and gardening, raw water is ideal. Raw water attracts pollinators, like bees and butterflies, and plants and flowers flourish quite well with the microbes and other naturally occurring particles present in it.
“Putting treated water on a plant, we take out the ingredients that a plant likes, the things that are good for them,” Norwood’s Public Works Director Tim Lippert said. “Using treated water on plants and vegetation isn’t a good thing. Raw water already has the nutrients in it.”
Because it doesn’t go through the treatment process, it’s a cheaper utility to deliver than potable water. Lippert said that in addition to being affordable, raw water is easy to manage, because no regulation of it is needed (other than making the pipe it comes out of purple, to distinguish it from treated water). Raw water is a seasonal product, available only during the growing season…
HOW NORWOOD’S SYSTEM CAME TOGETHER
It’s taken a community of people and organizations coming together to make Norwood’s raw water system possible. From the beginning, officials in the Norwood Water Commission and the Public Works Department had wondered if the town could make the project plausible. Lippert said the town explored the idea some 20 years ago, but citizens weren’t ready for it then.
He said that in the last few years, officials began to revisit the idea and wondered if the town’s existing water shares could be put to use as a raw water utility service for residents. The town does own 119 shares of Gurley water (managed by Farmer’s Water Development).
In 2015, town officials reopened the conversation with members of the Norwood Water Commission, Farmers Water and other regional water groups.
The first step included the Colorado Water Board Conservancy awarding a $47,000 grant to the Town of Norwood in 2016 to support a feasibility study on the project. (SGM, of Durango, did the study and continued with the engineering work.)
Along the way, the Norwood Lawn and Garden Group, spearheaded by Clay Wadman, who owns a home in Norwood and who wanted to see the project succeed, worked on education and outreach in town. The garden group worked to help the town sell residential raw water taps and supported Norwood in the fundraising process.
Soon, grants began rolling in from the Southwest Water Conservation District ($175,000), San Miguel Water Conservancy ($5,000), the Telluride Foundation ($5,000) and San Miguel County ($25,000). In 2017, the Department of Local Affairs made a decision to give Norwood’s project around $690,000 in a matching grant to make raw water in Norwood a reality.
The Town of Norwood also put money in — around $68,000 for final engineering — from the town’s reserves to move the project along. In 2017, town officials also budgeted $25,000 for the project; they’ve earmarked another $200,000 from the capital improvement fund if those funds are needed.
Norwood’s Town Administrator Patti Grafmyer said seeing the raw water system come to fruition is quite an accomplishment for the town.
“The idea of a raw water system has been discussed for many years, but with the help of a grant from CWCB, Norwood was able to complete a feasibility study. From the feasibility study came the grassroots Norwood Lawn and Garden Group, which became the public outreach group that assisted the Town of Norwood and Norwood Water Commission in this project,” she said. “There are so many people who were key players in this project. This project is the product of teamwork. So many people have shown their support for the raw water system.”
OTHER BENEFITS OF UNTREATED WATER
While it’s true that utilizing raw water makes flower and vegetable gardening possible, officials say it offers additional benefits, such as helping to increase property values.
The Kurtex Management Company, which owns Norwood’s Cottonwood Creek Estates, purchased 31 residential taps for raw water. Wadman has said the system there will no doubt transform the look of the neighborhood: rocky areas that comprise the lots can be replaced with landscaping, and raw water at each residence will sustain the lawns. At the same time, Cottonwood Creek Estates’ residents will have the option of gardening and producing their own food.
From email from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):
To assist federal and local agencies during the current dangerous fire conditions and recently enacted public land closures, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced that some State Wildlife Areas in southwest Colorado are now closed to all public access. But in addition, several other water-based wildlife areas and two state parks remain open to the public.
In and near Durango the Bodo, Perins Peak, Haviland Lake, Devil Creek and Williams Creek state wildlife areas are closed until further notice. In Bayfield the Lion’s Club shooting range, managed by CPW, is also closed.
West of Durango in Dolores and Montezuma Counties, Lone Dome and Fish Creek State Wildlife Areas are also closed.
“We regret having to enact these closures, but we do so in an effort to protect the public and protect natural resources. These measures will also help with compliance to the recent closures enacted by the U.S. Forest Service and La Plata County,” said Adrian Archuleta, a District Wildlife Manager with CPW.
CPW also wants area residents and visitors to know that there are several other State Wildlife Areas and State Parks that remain open for recreation. CPW asks that people comply with any current local fire restrictions so that these areas can remain open for recreation.
The areas that are open include: Echo Canyon SWA in Archuleta County; Pastorious SWA in La Plata County; in Montezuma and Dolores counties — Summit, Puett, Narraguinnep, Totten, Twin Spruce, Dolores River, Joe Moore and Ground Hog Reservoir state wildlife areas.
Also open are Navajo State Park in Archuleta County; and Mancos State Park in Montezuma County. Both parks offer campsites, hiking, fishing and other water recreation.
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.
Mcphee Reservoir construction
Western San Juans with McPhee Reservoir in the foreground
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.
FromColorado 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Making lemonade in Telluride during a winter of very little natural snow
It finally snowed during the last week in Telluride, 23 inches in five days, enough to whiten the landscape and cloak some of the grass. At least for a bit, the lab experiment is on hold.
That unwitting experiment being tested at Telluride and a good many other resorts this winter has been whether a ski resort can operate and have great success without snow falling from the heavens?
Snow surveys conducted last week in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado found snow depths 22 percent of normal. To the north in Colorado, they were reported to be 65 percent of normal. Aspen got nine inches over the weekend, hardly worth mentioning in most years. This year it’s the equivalent of a man biting a dog.
In Telluride, the chief executive of the community’s promotional arm reports no grim hits to the community tourism economy—not yet at least. “It’s not all about snow,” says Michael Martelon, of VisitTelluride. “But if we had it, it would make everything else better.”
Martelon is quick to note that Telluride differs from resorts close to cities in that its customers mostly come from long distances. Denver is six hours away, Phoenix eight. Snow is somewhat less important to its visitors than weekend skiing customers on Colorado’s I-70 corridor or those from Utah’s Wasatch Front.
Telluride still has skiing, thanks in part to $15 million in snowmaking investments in the last six years. But for many visitors, skiing is not the end all, be all. There are galleries, restaurants, and even the Jud Wiebe Trail. Located on the south-facing slopes above Telluride, it was still accessible even after the first storm in the recent sequence.
Christmas was strong, and the only repercussion so far has been a softening in bookings for spring break. Lodges require 45-day advance payment, he notes. But for the moment, bookings are pacing to be ahead of last year.
Martelon sees lemonade when others, especially locals accustomed to daily blasts of powder, see lemons. “It might be a blessing in disguise,” he says. “Taking care of the guest becomes the absolute priority, because the snow isn’t doing it for you.”
That said, he suggested checking back in May, to see if his optimism was fully justified.
Elsewhere in the West’s ski towns, Ketchum and Sun Valley reported a lucrative holiday season, better in most cases than the year before. Before, there was powder to ski in the morning. This year, there was little compelling reason to arise, so people stay out at night, explained the Idaho Mountain Express.
At the foot of the ski area, the Ketchum Ranger Station had no measurable snow on the ground on Jan. 1. That’s a first since record-keeping began in 1938, according to the National Weather Service.
But on Wednesday, the Mountain Express proclaimed that the valley “finally looks like winter.”
In Aspen, there was optimism that snowmaking—helped by cold nights—will save the day for the X Games Aspen on Jan. 25-28.
“It really is impressive what the snowmaking and grooming teams have been able to do,” Jeff Hanle, spokesman for the company, told the Aspen Daily News.
In California, an early January snow survey near the entrance to the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski area revealed an average depth of 1.3 inches of snow. The water in that snow is 3 percent of the long-term average for the location, at about 6,640 feet (2,020 meters) in elevation, reported Lake Tahoe News.
Will this change? “There is still a lot of winter left,” Frank Gehrke, who conducts the survey, said. “January, February and into March are frequently productive.”
That said, there are concerns about whether the warming Arctic could in coming decades produce changes in the Pacific Ocean that will more frequently create the high-pressure ridges that have plagued California in recent years. This same high-pressure ridge was blamed for the lack of snow across the West until this past week. See Dec. 7 story in Mountain Town News.
The San Miguel and Dolores rivers are both southwestern Colorado waterways that begin high in the San Juan Mountains.
Both carve through narrow, red sandstone canyons. Eventually, the two rivers become one when the San Miguel merges into the Dolores and the Dolores with the Colorado River in eastern Utah.
But there is one major difference: The Dolores is dammed at McPhee Reservoir near the town of Dolores, while the San Miguel is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the West.
A study of plant traits on these two rivers may provide clues about how riparian habitats will respond to climate change, not just in southwestern Colorado, but across the state and the West.
Researchers from Colorado State University recently completed a two-year study on the Dolores and San Miguel rivers, the results of which were presented at the Upper Colorado River Basin Forum in Grand Junction in November.
The study compared two sites on the Dolores (Rico and Bedrock) with two sites on the San Miguel (Placerville and Uravan) by documenting different plant traits at each of the four sites. A “trait” is simply a measureable feature of a plant, such as leaf area, root depth, and height. The more diverse these traits are, the higher something called “functional diversity.”
For both of the upstream sites, Placerville and Rico, functional diversity was higher than it was at the downstream sites, which scientists expected because the downstream sites receive less rainfall. But the Bedrock site, downstream from McPhee Reservoir, had a much lower functional diversity than its sister site of Uravan. This is likely due to the changes in the river’s flow as a result of the dam. With lower functional diversity comes a decreased resistance to invasive species or climate change.
“Dams really do have a huge impact on the downstream ecosystem, and it’s not always talked about,” said Erin Cubley, one of the researchers on the project and a Ph.D. candidate in ecology at Colorado State University. “Dams hold sediments and seeds, they change the flow; they change the processes that are essential in maintaining these ecosystems.”
The dam across the Dolores River that forms McPhee Reservoir is downstream from the small town of Dolores. It forms the fifth biggest reservoir in the state and holds back about 381,000 acre-feet of water. McPhee Reservoir supplies the agricultural irrigation needs of farmers and ranchers south of the Dolores River Basin. The resulting decreased flow below the dam has big impacts on the downstream ecology, Cubley said. A smaller river channel cuts deeper, not wider, and this lowers the groundwater that riparian plants depend upon for survival.
“Riparian species have a big taproot and can access water a few feet down, but if they can’t access groundwater, they die,” Cubley said. “That is what we are seeing at Bedrock.”
By measuring traits and functional diversity instead of specific plant species (which may vary depending on the river and location in the watershed), the study has implications for many of the state’s rivers.
“By using traits, we can look at how similar their traits are and put them into groups and say, ‘OK, we can transfer our findings across rivers that have different species compositions,’” Cubley said.
Another way dams alter the natural flow of the river has to do with spring runoff. Many dams are managed solely with maximum storage capacity in mind, said David M. Merritt, a riparian ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service National Stream and Aquatic Ecology Center. There are easy tweaks water managers can make that will not compromise the power or storage needs of the dam that can also improve the ecological functioning downstream.
For example, one of the most important components of river health is peak flows and flooding with spring runoff. Some species, such as the cottonwood tree, time the release of their seeds to coincide with peak flows. The fluffy white fibers use the river to carry them downstream to hopefully take root in the riverbank. But when dams control the river and don’t allow for this peak flow to happen, it can have a negative effect on cottonwoods, as well as the whole downstream ecosystem.
“If you are a dam operator, it might be easy for you to time a spike that coincides with that historic timing,” Merritt said. “The timing of peak flow is reliant on temperatures with a little variability annually. A dam operator would have tremendous flexibility on when that would occur.”
Effects of climate change
Assuming that the future of the American West will be warmer and drier than it currently is, the research team can model what a future ecosystem might look like: At what point will more drought-resistant plants move in? If you change the flows of a river, then how will the vegetation respond? What would happen if water managers changed dam operations?
“What if climate change is twice as bad or what if it’s not as bad?” Merritt said. “We are scientists who predict change. … We will be able to show predictions of what the vegetation will look like. It’s a model and a technique that can be used on any river anywhere.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Vail Daily, the Summit Daily, The Aspen Times, and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. The Vail Daily published this story on Jan. 2, 2017. The Summit Daily published it on Jan. 3.
This re-engineering along headwaters of the Dolores River requires replanting wetlands with native grasses and laying in soil to mimic natural processes — an innovative approach that may be deployed more widely across the water-challenged West, where tens of thousands of toxic mines foul rivers and streams. So far, the experiment is working, removing fish-killing zinc, manganese linked to birth deformities and cancer-causing cadmium from muck flowing from the Argentine Mine complex uphill from Rico.
“Mining is what brought communities to life at the turn of the 19th century, but now residents and visitors would like to see these scars restored as much as possible — especially focusing on water cleanup,” San Miguel County commissioner Hilary Cooper said from her perch in Telluride, 22 miles north of the mess. “For many of these areas, human intervention is required to initiate the cleanup. But planning, which ultimately allows native vegetation, restored natural floodplains and the engineering skills of beavers to assist with the cleanup is generally preferred when possible. In the end, we will find it is more effective.”
Wildlife, including river otters, may be reviving in Rico because multiple factors favor environmental recovery.
First, federal agencies enforced laws. The Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 issued an emergency order compelling action to stop contamination of Dolores headwaters after state regulators and mine owners failed to get a grip. Then, EPA officials swiftly identified and enlisted a private company legally responsible for the mess — something agency officials haven’t done at other sites, including the Gold King Superfund district, where a potentially responsible corporation is fighting the EPA in court.
And the company, Atlantic Richfield — now owned by global energy giant BP — resolutely embarked on a cleanup, investing tens of millions of dollars. This compares with less than $5 million that the EPA has mustered for cleanup of the 48-site Gold King district above Silverton. For another Superfund disaster that the EPA declared in 2008 in Creede, federal funds have been so scarce that cleanup has barely begun.
In 2012, Atlantic Richfield contractors at Rico faced rising water inside mine tunnels that threatened a ruinous blowout. The St. Louis Tunnel, within a few hundred yards of the Dolores River, had collapsed and was oozing as much as 1,300 gallons a minute of toxic muck. A lime water treatment plant installed to neutralize sulfuric acid in the flow, churning out thousands of cubic yards a year of waste solids, wasn’t working. (The acid, private contractors later determined, is mostly neutralized by natural calcium deposits inside the tunnel before the muck flows out.) Cleanup crews also had to deal with eroding, unlined tailings ponds where rain and melting snow leached toxic metals into the river…
The innovative cleanup by Atlantic Richfield modernizes the standard approach of installing water treatment plants in the high country along with bulkhead plugs to try to control leaks. Contractors scooped out and lined the old ponds, planted grasses interspersed with stones and put in a sediment mix of manure, hay, alfalfa and woodchips — all aimed at filtering out toxic metals…
This massive experiment now covers 55 acres, closed inside fences and berms, below the newly dammed St. Louis Tunnel. The toxic muck still flows at rates fluctuating from 700 to more than 1,000 gallons a minute but now is channeled through three black tubes that carry the muck through the engineered ponds and wetlands.
In one pond, the toxic mine water seeps down vertically 2.5 feet through sediment, where chemical reactions help break out the manganese, zinc and cadmium. Native sedge and rush grasses are starting to grow atop that sediment layer. In other ponds, water is pushed through wetlands created using stones and grasses that grow naturally in the San Juan Mountain to filter out and chemically extract toxic metals.
Once contractors figure out which method or combination works best, they say they’ll seek EPA approval and then fully install engineered wetlands, eventually removing fences and roads.
A coalition of local government agencies that formed to prevent an invasive mussel contamination at McPhee Reservoir can claim victory in its first year.
A test in October showed no sign of the dreaded quagga or zebra mussels, which proliferate rapidly and can attach in suffocating layers to irrigation and municipal infrastructure.
“With the help of the community, we have avoided contamination and protected our water source,” Ken Curtis, an engineer with the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said during a recent community meeting to gather public comment.
The success is credited to stringent new rules that require all motorized and trailered boats to go through mussel inspection stations at either the House Creek or McPhee boat ramps during open hours. Mussels are carried in standing water of engines and ballasts.
Restricted access changed the culture of McPhee access.
The High Desert Conservation District has teamed up with farmer Brian Wilson and Teeter Irrigation, of Johnson City, Kansas, to determine if the company’s trademarked Dragon-Line system will work for this area.
Instead of using the nozzles on the center pivot to irrigate, a row of drip lines are attached that drag behind the sprinkler watering the crop at its base instead of from above.
“It saves water and reduces evaporation, erosion and runoff,” said Travis Custer, agricultural consultant with High Desert. “It is the first trial of the technology in the area.”
To compare crop yields, one section of the center pivot irrigates a field of wheat normally from spray nozzles, and an adjacent section utilizes a series of drip lines attached to the nozzles. After harvest, the yields will be compared. Soil moisture monitors have also been installed in areas watered by the drip and nozzle sections of the sprinkler.
The hybrid center pivot and drip line technology was created by Teeter Irrigation, and launched in 2015. The technology has proven effective in Kansas and other plain states that irrigate from an underground aquifer, Custer said.
But since local farms use surface water delivered via ditches and pipelines that carry more debris, a filter system had to be installed on the center pivot being used on the Pleasant View trial…
Farmers have switched to center-pivot sprinkler technology because it is less labor-intensive than side-roll sprinklers, which must be moved by hand. Center pivots are automated, and move in a circular pattern, watering from a row of nozzle heads. Water flow and speed are adjustable and can be controlled remotely.
But center pivots work best on flatter ground. On undulating farmland and fields with steeper slopes, center pivots can cause water to pool in low spots and run off the field or drain into the sprinkler’s wheel tracks, creating muddy conditions.
What’s exciting is that the drip-system attachment to the center-pivot could eliminate those problems because the water is delivered at ground level, said Steve Miles, board member of the High Desert Conservation District…
It appears to be working in the test plots. The lower areas of the drip-line section are not getting waterlogged, and there is less runoff the field. How often the filter-system has to be flushed is also part of the experiment.
After more than a decade, the River Protection Workgroup, tasked with drafting a region-wide approach to land and river management in Southwest Colorado, has decided to disband after divided interests could not reach a compromise.
“Water in the West is complicated and there are many, many interests,” said Marsha Porter-Norton, a facilitator for the group. “I think people left in a civil way … and agreed to disagree.”
Wanting to start a community-wide conversation, the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a Durango-based environmental group, proposed forming a workgroup to look at what sort of management plan may work for the region.
As a result, representatives from various interest groups partnered to form the River Protection Workgroup, including SJCA, the Wilderness Society, Trout Unlimited, and the Southwestern Water Conservation District – the entity tasked with developing water resources in the Southwest basin.
Over the past decade, the group embarked on an extensive public outreach effort, holding up to 24 meetings in each river basin to get a sense of how nearby residents and water users would like to see the land and water managed.
The group’s most notable success was in 2014, when after six years of negotiations, the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act was signed into law, designating 37,400 acres as wilderness area and 70,600 acres as a Special Management Area in the San Juan Mountains, north of Durango…
But as negotiations came down to the wire, the group was unable to reach agreement on a region-wide package.
The Southwestern Water Conservation District offered to place Hermosa Creek on the Wild and Scenic list, which would have been the second river in Colorado to carry such a designation, but only if the other rivers were dropped from consideration.
However, SJCA argued that Hermosa Creek is already highly protected through the 2014 act, and conservation efforts would be giving up a lot to have all those other segments taken out of the Wild and Scenic designation.
The final blow was the language in the draft legislation concerning new water projects. SWCD agreed to no new “major impoundments” on the Animas and Piedra within a quarter mile of the river corridor.
But conservation groups wanted more of a concrete definition of “major impoundment,” fearing there could be loopholes for large-scale construction projects, which could possibly impact the wild quality of the rivers.
Trout Unlimited was on board with the deal, but SJCA and the Wilderness Society were ultimately unsatisfied.
“One of the reasons to do this (workgroup) was to avoid litigation,” said Jimbo Buickerood, with SJCA. “Because there was no concrete definition (of major impoundments), we didn’t see it as progress, and that there could be litigation in the future.”
Bruce Whitehead, executive director of SWCD, said it’s the water district’s responsibility to ensure existing and future water needs, and that some of the environmental group’s demands would have conflicted with that mission.
“It’s critical for us to maintain those balances,” Whitehead said. “(The group) just kept coming back around and talking about the same issues and eventually it ran its course.”
On May 19, members of the River Protection Group decided to part ways.