Waldo Canyon fire scar restoration update

Waldo Canyon Fire

From the Associated Press via the The Denver Post:

The Forest Service picked this valley as a place to send heavy equipment and fight against the flooding that caused havoc below in the months after the fire. Five years later, the images of cars floating away in Manitou Springs remain unforgettable. Here in this sparse forest, water runs controlled thanks to those excavators, which stacked logs to form dams and sculpted the channel, filled with flow-slowing objects such as rocks and charred branches.

And all along it, willows were planted with the design of further stabilizing the banks. Also, the willows could provide shade. Perhaps with cooler waters, plant and animal habitats will make a suitable home again…

The hydrologist based in Colorado Springs calls this “a pilot site” — the beginning stage for a recovery tactic that could work at riparian areas across the scar. Along with the 2,000 willows planted last month in Waldo Canyon itself, thousands more seedlings could be spread in the barren landscape beyond.

The site showcases other revegetation trends across the scar: the erosion-mitigating grasses that RMFI planted over wiped-out hillsides, accompanied by the Forest Service’s dump of mulch from a helicopter. And Shipstead expects other human action here: biocontrol by releasing bugs which crave the invasive weeds that took root after the fire.

The group steps over the plant henchmen remaining — the spiky thistle and fuzzy mullien. They continue their willow count silently, nervously, it seems…

Five years after the devastation, land managers maintain a hopeful narrative. The Forest Service calls the burn scar 70 percent revegetated — a figure that does not allude to the return of the previous conifer-covered state, but to a transformed one.

The area is taking on a look it likely had centuries ago, says Pikes Peak District Ranger Oscar Martinez. Mother Nature has “reset the clock,” he says, by pulling up the aspens that long lay dormant beneath the now-destroyed pines and firs that dominated for generations in forest time. Also covering the slopes now are tangles of scrub oak; they, like aspens, were eager to make their presence known soon after the conifers departed…

A fire of Waldo Canyon’s magnitude heats the ground to a point of hydrophobicity, where instead of water being absorbed, it is repelled. Further complicating the conifers’ return is the forest’s unique soil — “calling it a soil is kind of a generous term,” Martinez says. Conservationists call Pikes Peak granite “kitty litter,” for its pebbly, porous condition, which rain had no problem moving in the days after the burn, washing the sediment into the canyon and piling it up to heights of grown men.

That phenomenon made portions of the Waldo trail disappear along its 7-mile loop. The Forest Service continues to take questions as to when the trail will reopen, and land managers say people should refine their questions, considering the trail no longer really exists. Realignment seems more than likely…

Back at the recovery site, the willow count continues. Reflecting on the restoration here and at areas across the scar going forward, RMFI’s Peterson wonders about human’s role. “We can jump-start the process,” she says, “but nature is smarter and stronger. Nature will always find a way.”

Fountain Creek: CDPHE has stopped testing of Widefield aquifer plume

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

“Pueblo County has not been notified by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), Environmental Protection Agency or the Air Force that they have stopped monitoring, testing or sampling groundwater to track the plume,” county commissioner Terry Hart said. “If they have indeed stopped, we would most definitely be interested in learning why they stopped.

“Pueblo County is concerned about any and all groundwater contaminants. We are working aggressively to ensure that any waterway, but particularly Fountain Creek, is clean so they can be assets to our community instead of being a problem.”

State tests for PFCs in drinking water have not been done since November 2016, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment records show. And CDPHE hasn’t measured PFCs in groundwater since February, the records show.

It’s unclear how far the PFCs contamination has moved in groundwater. Back in April 2016, groundwater samples taken south of Fountain, along Hanover Road north of Pueblo, showed PFC contamination higher than 100 parts per trillion — well above the federal EPA health advisory limit of 70 ppt.

CDPHE officials on Thursday confirmed they stopped sampling water and told The Denver Post that’s because EPA funding that enabled the tests ran out. They could not say whether the agency is still monitoring other contaminated groundwater plumes, such as those spreading PCE from dry cleaning.

“The Water Quality Control Division is not conducting any further PFC sampling. ​We expended the funds from the EPA to complete sampling,” CDPHE spokeswoman Jan Stapleman said.

EPA officials in Denver said state water sampling stopped but that the U.S. Air Force still is monitoring PFCs contamination as part of a military investigation at Peterson Air Force Base. That base is strongly suspected as a source of PFCs, a family of chemicals found in aqueous film-forming foams that firefighters use to douse fuel fires.

Fountain Creek: @EPA lawsuit costs mount for #Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs with the Front Range in background. Photo credit Wikipedia.

From The Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

The city hired Ryley Carlock & Applewhite in February 2016 after the EPA and the other plaintiff, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, delivered to the city a notice of intent to sue, Mayor John Suthers says in an email.

Since the suit was filed, the case has cost taxpayers $431,890 from Nov. 10, 2016, through June 2, records show. That means the city has so far shelled out a total of $724,427 to the Denver law firm for the lawsuit, which alleges the city violated the federal Clean Water Act and Colorado Water Quality Control Act by failing to meet requirements of its stormwater discharge permit, known as an MS4.

That legal bill isn’t even half of what legal bills could amount to, however.

While the original engagement capped spending with the law firm at $200,000, it’s since been amended twice. After the initial limit was exceeded by August 2016, the agreement was changed to add another $200,000. It was again amended in December 2016 after it became clear that January’s billings would top the $400,000 limit.

The new limit is $1.9 million.

But the news isn’t all bad. Ryley Carlock & Applewhite, whose attorneys command rates up to $485 per hour, are discounting their fees to the city by 15 percent, according to city records. The firm’s top three lawyers listed on the city’s agreement are James Sanderson, Britt Clayton and Richard Kaufman. Sanderson lists his areas of expertise as environmental litigation, specifically dealing with the Clean Water Act. Clayton also has experience in environmental law, while Kaufman is a litigation and public policy expert.

The lawsuit in question was actually filed seven months after Suthers and City Council approved an agreement with Pueblo County to deal with runoff. That mid-April 2016 deal requires the city to spend $460 million on storm drainage projects in the next 20 years in exchange for Pueblo County allowing the Southern Delivery System water pipeline to be activated. The city has a construction permit in Pueblo County for the pipeline containing strict guidelines for matters ranging from funding for Fountain Creek drainage projects to controlling noxious weeds.

The city flipped the switch for SDS in late April 2016.

Suthers recently told a reporter the city’s legal bills in the EPA case have averaged $100,000 a month. That’s not the case; billings so far average $45,277 a month. Asked about that, Suthers says his statement was based on the City Attorney Wynetta Massey’s estimated cost “when the case got rolling.”

Suthers says Ryley Carlock & Applewhite has handled environmental matters for the city previously.

Fountain Creek: #Colorado Springs budget calls for reestablishment of stormwater enterprise

Fountain Creek photo via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Jakob Rodgers):

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers pitched a sweeping vision Friday of bolstering the city’s short-staffed police force by 100 officers and modernizing its aging and increasingly-decrepit vehicle fleet.

It hinges, however, on voters agreeing to resurrect the city’s controversial and defunct stormwater enterprise fee in November.

Calling it “basic to our financial viability,” Suthers pitched the fee’s return during his annual summit with City Council – framing it as a means to restore several flagging or aging city services while offering Colorado Springs a powerful bargaining chip in battling a federal lawsuit over years of neglected stormwater needs.

“We have a legal obligation (to fund stormwater projects),” Suthers said. “The question is whether we’re going to fund it at the expense of other things, or are we going to fund it separately.”

Even if a fee is approved by voters in November, the outcome would not be legally binding. But, it would provide a political mandate for future Colorado Springs leaders and lawmakers to follow, Suthers said.

From KRDO.com (Mike Carter):

“Every other large city in America has a stormwater enterprise where they charge a fee to property owners and that money is what’s used for stormwater,” said Mayor Suthers.

It’s a plan that was rejected by springs voters in 2009, but as the city continues its legal battle with the EPA and the state health department, city council members like Bill Murray say continuing to fund stormwater improvements through the city’s general fund simply won’t work.

“It’s taken a big bite out of our general fund. And I’m sure that the citizens, once they’re given the opportunity, to understand it’s either the EPA or us, that they’ll select us because we actually have the solution and they don’t,” Murray said.

The city pays $17 million a year out of its general fund for storm water obligations.

“And that means we have less money available for police officers,” Suthers said. “We need as many as a hundred additional police officers probably over the next 5 to 10 years.”

Suthers says snowplow equipment also comes out of the general fund, leaving the city strapped for cash in three crucial areas.

The stormwater fee based under the previous stormwater enterprise was based in part on a percentage of total impervious area on a property—think sidewalks and driveways. But the city says that can change over time and what used to be a front law under one homeowner change to a concrete driveway under another.

“And so you would have a residential, a tiered residential structure and it would be based on the size of the lot would equate to a specific monthly fee,” said Springs Public Works Director Travis Easton.

Lower Ark pens letter to @EPA chief Pruitt in support of lawsuit

The Fountain Creek Watershed is located along the central front range of Colorado. It is a 927-square mile watershed that drains south into the Arkansas River at Pueblo. The watershed is bordered by the Palmer Divide to the north, Pikes Peak to the west, and a minor divide 20 miles east of Colorado Springs. Map via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Jon Pompia):

The lower district recently submitted a letter to EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, reminding him that far from “picking on” Colorado Springs — as Lamborn and Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers contend — the “EPA is carrying out its statutory responsibility to enforce the Clean Water Act against a permittee that district has sought for nearly a decade to get to live up to its stormwater obligations.”

The dispatch comes on the heels of letters sent by the Pueblo County commissioners to members of the state’s federal congressional delegation, urging the EPA to follow through on its suit, which was filed in conjunction with the state in U.S. District Court in November 2016.

Signed by Lynden Gill, the lower district’s board chair, the letter goes on to highlight efforts, dating back to at least 2008, in getting Colorado Springs to comply with its stormwater permit. Those efforts extended to the lower district filing a notice of intent to file a citizen’s suit pursuant to the Clean Water Act in November 2014.

The lower district, along with Pueblo County, became parties of interest along with the EPA and the state in the lawsuit charging Colorado Springs with illegally discharging pollutants into Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River.

“In short,” the letter continues, “the lower district appreciates EPA’s enforcement action against the city, action the lower district had felt compelled to undertake on its own before EPA sued the city, and can now jointly pursue with EPA and the State of Colorado.”

The letter concludes with a plea for EPA not to abandon the lower district but pursue enforcement of Colorado Springs’ stormwater violations.

Jay Winner, general manager of the lower district, expressed hope the letter will serve its purpose…

Winner said that while the EPA may choose to withdraw from the lawsuit, it cannot halt it.

“That’s why Pueblo County, the lower district and the state intervened — because if they withdraw, we’re still in,” Winner said.

Newly identified chemicals in fire-fighting foam pose filtration challenge

Photo via USAF Air Combat Command

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Jakob Rodgers):

An Air Force-supplied filter being given to Fountain to strain out toxic chemicals from drinking water appears susceptible to a host of newly discovered compounds, a new study shows.

That type of device – called a granular activated carbon filter – wasn’t too effective at removing more than two dozen chemicals derived from a toxic firefighting foam used for decades at Peterson Air Force Base.

That means cities relying on those kinds of filters – in this case, Fountain – must replace them more often if they choose to account for the growing list of perfluorinated chemicals, some of which have only been discovered in the last year, said Christopher Higgins, a Colorado School of Mines researcher and the study’s author.

And that could mean higher costs for ratepayers.

“The carbon filters will work – you just have to change them more frequently,” Higgins said.

At issue is the danger posed by a military-grade firefighting foam that is suspected of fouling the Widefield aquifer – a key source of drinking water for the Security, Widefield and Fountain areas…

None of the area’s three largest districts still use untreated water from the aquifer.

But Higgins and other researchers across the nation have identified more than two dozen other similar chemicals derived from the firefighting foam – 13 of them in last six months.

And granular activated carbon filters are quickly overwhelmed by those other chemicals, according to Higgins’ study published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

“This study basically is a way of confirming what we suspected,” Higgins said. “Which was that some of those compounds, if they get out into the environment, will likely come through carbon filters much more quickly than PFOA and PFOS do.”

The danger posed to residents by these additional chemicals remains unclear, said Jamie DeWitt, a toxicologist at East Carolina University. They include similar chemicals to those touted by the Air Force as safe for replacing its decades-old toxic foam.

“I think the first question anybody should ask is: ‘Are these truly safe for me to drink at these concentrations?’ ” DeWitt said. “And honestly, I don’t think anybody at this point can really answer that.”

After-hours calls by The Gazette to Peterson and Air Force Civil Engineer Center spokespeople were not returned.

Higgins’ study comes as Fountain leaders work to install two Air Force-supplied granular activated carbon filters this summer.

The research hasn’t changed those plans, said Curtis Mitchell, Fountain’s utilities director.

“We’ll certainly work with him (Higgins) on how long the filter run times will be, and just look at what his data is showing,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell downplayed concerns about moving forward with installation, because the Air Force’s filters can be easily substituted for a different type of treatment system – such as ion-exchange devices.

Widefield Water and Sanitation District recently became the first water district in the nation to use an ion-exchange system to treat water for perfluorinated compounds.

A six-month pilot program showed promise over the winter, and recent test results on the system after it began servicing houses in May showed no trace of six types of perfluorinated compounds, said Brandon Bernard, the Widefield district’s general manager.

“This stuff’s pretty effective,” Bernard said.

Higgins, however stopped short of endorsing such devices. They have yet to undergo the same tests as those Higgins just finished on granular activated carbon filters.

“I don’t know how well they work at removing all of these other chemicals,” he said.

@RepDLamborn’s help with @EPA Fountain Creek lawsuit not welcome by all

Fountain Creek erosion via The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Peter Roper):

Pueblo County Commission Chairman Terry Hart said Lamborn has played no role in the years of negotiations between Colorado Springs and county officials over stormwater controls, adding: “He should stay the heck out of it.”

Lamborn, from Colorado Springs, told a Denver newspaper last week that he’s spoken to new EPA Director Scott Pruitt twice about dropping the agency’s 2016 lawsuit that claims the city isn’t adequately monitoring Fountain Creek for contaminated stormwater runoff…

Lamborn argues that recent agreements between Colorado Springs and Pueblo County calling for $460 million in stormwater improvements is proof the lawsuit is unnecessary.

Hart countered that Lamborn is ignoring the importance of the lawsuit in forging a better relationship between Pueblo County and Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and that city’s council.

Hart said Suthers’ support for spending $460 million over 20 years is a fragile commitment between Pueblo County and the current leadership in Colorado Springs.

“The threat of that lawsuit was critically important in our reaching an intergovernmental agreement with Colorado Springs,” Hart said Tuesday. “We joined that lawsuit to protect our interests and right now, Colorado Springs is doing a good job of honoring its commitment. But the lawsuit would nail down the agreement to withstand the political winds that blow back and forth.”

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also is a party to the lawsuit, as is Pueblo County.

State health officials confirmed Tuesday they joined the suit because of very real concerns that Colorado Springs continues to violate water quality standards.

“We believe that these significant violations need to be corrected in order to protect the state’s water quality,” the department said in a statement.

If Lamborn is hoping to use political clout to stop the lawsuit, Pueblo County officials are looking for help in the nation’s capital, too.

Hart said the county sent letters of concern in April to Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., and the state’s two senators, Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Cory Gardner.

Hart said the issue then was urging continued congressional support for EPA enforcement.