Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment:
The state announced the results of a project that tested water statewide for PFAS, pervasive chemicals that originate from toxic firefighting foam and other sources. The state found that none of the treated drinking water tested was above the EPA’s health advisory level, but the state did find higher levels of the chemicals in some groundwater sources.
The results are posted online in a data dashboard. With $500,000 awarded from the state legislature, the department facilitated the sampling of 400 water systems and 15 firefighting districts– as well as 152 groundwater sources and 71 surface water sources like rivers and streams. The sampling included about half of the drinking water systems in the state serving around three-quarters of the population.
“The current results show that no drinking water tested above the EPA health advisory for two chemicals,” said Kristy Richardson, state toxicologist at the Department of Public Health and Environment. “At the same time, we know science is evolving, and we are committed to using the most current and best available information to provide health-based guidance on exposure to the chemicals. As new studies become available, our understanding of health effects in humans — and our recommendations — will continue to be refined.”
Four entities that tested source water had sample results that exceeded the EPA health advisory. Three of the four entities already tested for the chemicals in previous years and have notified the public of those results– Stratmoor Hills Water and Sanitation District and Security Water and Sanitation District located in El Paso County and Sugarloaf fire district located in Boulder County. The entities are either not using that source water or treating the water to remove the chemicals before using it as drinking water. The additional entity is Fourmile Fire District.
Fourmile Fire District, located in Teller County, had not previously tested for the chemicals and found high levels in a well at one of their stations, but the state was informed the firefighters do not drink this well water. The fire district, local public health agency, and state are examining the geographical area to see if any residents living nearby may be impacted. Residents that live near the Four Mile station will be notified of the results and what steps they can take if they are concerned.
The state also sampled rivers and streams. All of the samples collected had some detectable level of the chemicals. The sample collected at the mouth of Sand Creek in Commerce City was above the EPA drinking water health advisory, but the state isn’t aware of anyone directly drinking this affected water. Nonetheless, high levels of the chemicals in streams can impact downstream drinking water supplies since they don’t break down.
The data indicate that industrial entities that have permits to discharge wastewater into rivers and streams may play a large role in the buildup of the chemicals. Sand Creek was sampled twice– one upstream of Commerce City on the east end of Aurora and one downstream before it flows into the South Platte. A number of industries treat and discharge wastewater in that area. The upstream sample result was 13 ppt, and the chemical amount increased downstream to a combined level of 77 ppt for the chemicals, a level above EPA’s drinking water health advisory.
The state recently released a survey that state dischargers are required to fill out providing information about the use and storage of certain products containing the chemicals. This will help the state better understand the risk of the chemicals entering state waters.
The state is also using its hazardous waste authority to require various sites along the Front Range to evaluate potential impacts to groundwater. State inspectors have evaluated three oil and gas facilities in the area of Sand Creek, and found that one facility has significantly impacted groundwater next to Sand Creek. The state will use the groundwater data and the surface water data from Sand Creek to determine if additional measures are needed to protect the creek.
“This is an essential step in filling in the gaps in our understanding of where the chemicals are in the state,” said John Putnam, director of environmental programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “But, our work is not complete — we will continue to work to assess conditions for the other systems not sampled, private wells near areas of contamination, and Colorado’s waters. And, we’ll work to find solutions where the chemicals are found at high levels and to safely dispose of materials before they get to our waters.”
As part of its action plan to address the chemicals, the state will propose a water quality policy to the Water Quality Control Commission in mid-July to enhance its ability to get more data on discharges of the chemicals to state waters and provide guidance on the need for filtration or other treatment. The policy will also help the state set limits on the chemicals from entering our waters.
Additionally, in spite of the shortened session, the legislature passed two important laws regarding the chemicals. There are now restrictions on the use of firefighting foam that contains the chemicals and a fee structure so the state can have the necessary resources to provide guidance on the health impacts and investigate and support communities that may be impacted. The fees will provide critical resources to (1) support additional sampling and health assessment for systems; (2) implement a takeback program to take back and dispose of materials with the chemicals; and (3) assist systems that have found the material in their source water.
Here’s the release from the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Chris Woodka):
The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District applauded state approval of a $100 million financing package for the Arkansas Valley Conduit that will allow construction to begin in the near future.
The Colorado General Assembly passed the annual Colorado Water Conservation project bill which contains the funding earlier this month, and Governor Jared Polis signed the bill into law on Monday.
“The Arkansas Valley Conduit will be a lifeline for the Lower Arkansas Valley for generations to come,” said Bill Long, President of the Southeastern District. “Governor Polis, the General Assembly and the CWCB have all shown vision and foresight with this support of the AVC. This goes beyond just financing a pipeline, because really it’s an investment to assure clean drinking water for the future.”
Long also noted the strong bipartisan support the AVC enjoys from the entire Colorado congressional delegation, and noted in particular the leadership of Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, and Congressmen Scott Tipton and Ken Buck.
“I want to thank the CWCB board and staff for including this funding in their annual bill, and express our sincere gratitude to the legislators from the Arkansas Basin for their leadership and support,” said Kevin Karney, chairman of the District’s AVC committee. “The recognition by the State of Colorado of the benefit of partnering with the Bureau of Reclamation on this project is an enormous boost.”
The AVC is estimated to cost between $564 million and $610 million to complete over a 15-year period. The $100 million in state funding would include $90 million in loans and $10 million in grants over the life of the project. When complete, the AVC will provide clean drinking water to 50,000 people in 40 communities.
The AVC had received funding since 2010 to prepare for construction of the 130-mile pipeline which will deliver a safe drinking water supply to the Lower Arkansas Valley. In February of this year, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that $28 million of FY ’20 funding was being directed to the conduit, in an effort to move from planning and design into construction. An additional $8 million has been requested for FY ’21 and is under consideration by Congress.
“The unanimous approval of this funding package by the CWCB board last November was the absolute catalyst for an improved federal funding picture,” said Southeastern District Executive Director Jim Broderick. “Colorado, like other Western states, recognizes developing a strong partnership with Reclamation allows us to overcome water quality and water supply challenges in rural areas.”
While neighbors of Peterson Air Force Base and the Air Force Academy are still dealing with the effects of chemicals in firefighting foam that got into the environment, Gov. Jared Polis was in Colorado Springs on Monday to sign bills into law that establishes when and how PFAS can be used.
PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, has been linked to detrimental health effects when found in groundwater. The PFAS family of compounds been deemed “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment.
They were created to make products like Scotchgard and Teflon and are used on military installments and airports in firefighting foam.
Until today there were little to no regulations of the dangerous chemicals in Colorado.
The new laws establish testing and use procedures for PFAS; and it also orders the solid and hazardous waste commission to create rules for facilities, fire departments, or others who want to use or store PFAS. The law also prohibits the use of class B firefighting foam that contains PFAS in certain aircraft hangars starting in 2023.
A $25 fee for every petroleum load that enters the state will also go into effect. The money collected will fund PFAS in Colorado…
In the meantime, it’s possible Colorado could create its own limits for the chemicals in drinking water, as other states have.
The public’s chance to comment ends Tuesday in the U.S. Forest Service’s consideration of a permit that would allow the first action in a process which could create a new reservoir in the Homestake Valley near Red Cliff.
The special use permit would allow the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs to build roads and drill holes in an area of the White River National Forest which is near the Holy Cross Wilderness, 6 miles southwest of Red Cliff.
Ultimately, if constructed, a 20,000-acre-foot reservoir would flood a corner of the wilderness area and would also relocate Homestake Road, requiring the removal of 500 acres from the Holy Cross Wilderness area.
But at this time, the Forest Service is only seeking comments on the impacts of the drilling, not the dam. The drilling would give crews information about the feasibility of dam sites, but the drilling in itself would have impacts to the forest as 8-foot-by-22-foot drill rigs could cross wetlands and cut down trees in the path to their drilling destination, where holes of 150 feet would be dug…
In soliciting comments in June, “we are focusing solely on the potential impacts from this preliminary geophysical work,” said Marcia Gilles, acting Eagle-Holy Cross district ranger. “Any further proposals that might be submitted after this information is collected would be evaluated separately.”
“They’re calling this the Whitney Project; I’m calling it Homestake III,” said Mike Browning, a former water attorney in Colorado who is now the chair of the Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance.
The “Homestake III” handle is in reference to the project known as Homestake II, in the early 1980s, which bears a strong resemblance to the Whitney Creek effort. The Homestake II project also sought to build another reservoir beneath the existing Homestake Reservoir, which was constructed in 1964. The Homestake II idea was eliminated in large part to Hern’s efforts.
“(Hern) was really the spokesperson and really the leader of that movement in the 1980s,” Browning said. “The Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund was marshaling the local comments and local opposition.”
In his Sunday letter to the Forest Service, Hern said the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund, which he co-founded In 1982, has not changed its stance on the project.
“The people of Colorado love this wilderness and have supported our efforts for over forty years to establish it and preserve it,” Hern wrote. “You should not underestimate the intensity of these feelings and the attitudes of the public in this matter.”
ERO Resources Corporation and RJH Consultants, Inc., which prepared the technical report for the special use permit application, referenced the memorandum of understanding in its report.
“The objective of this study is to evaluate opportunities to construct reservoir storage to develop a portion of the yield contemplated in the (memorandum of understanding),” according to the report, which was published in November. “Specifically, the subsurface explorations described below would provide valuable information regarding the suitability of the area for reservoir development. The cities are currently considering and evaluating multiple reservoir sizes with potential storage capacities between 6,850 and 20,000 acre-feet.”
The court said that Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser had met the requirements for a temporary injunction to be granted. The decision came as a federal court in California rejected a similar request that was nationwide in scope and backed by several states including California and New York, according to Bloomberg business news.
The decision means the state will have more time to set up a new regulatory program to replace at least a portion of the protections lost under the new Waters of the U.S. rule, or WOTUS, as it is known.
Even in these tumultuous times with significant challenges arising each day – there are some issues that continue to require our attention and effort. One of those issues is water security. Water is becoming increasingly scarce around the United States, particularly in the West. Access to safe and affordable water has become even more critical because of its role in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. In the Colorado River basin — which has a population of roughly 40 million and accounts for 15 percent of the country’s agricultural production — demand already outstrips supply. Climate change could also worsen the situation. Meanwhile, in Washington, the Trump administration is rolling back a number of Obama-era environmental rules that have implications for water quality and water quantity. As Congress tries to respond to the pandemic and rescue the U.S. economy through trillions of dollars in federal aid, there is a push to include water infrastructure improvements as part of the solution.
Join POLITICO on Monday, June 15, at 8:20 AM MT/10:20 AM ET for this virtual deep-dive panel discussion on the policies and legislation needed at the state, regional and federal levels to meet the water needs of Western states and secure long-term solutions at a time when the attention and resources of local and state leaders are consumed by the pandemic crisis.
8:20 AM MT — Opening Remarks
8:30 AM MT — A Conversation with Governor Jared Polis, Colorado
8:45 AM MT — POLITICO Editorial Panel Conversation
Governor Stephen Roe Lewis, Gila River Indian Community
Rebecca Mitchell, Director, Colorado Water Conservation Board
FromThe Denver Post (Judith Kohler) via The Broomfield Enterprise:
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved the rules Wednesday as part of ongoing revisions to oil and gas regulations mandated by Senate Bill 181, approved by the legislature in 2019.
The regulations deal with the well bore, or the hole that’s drilled to access oil or gas as well as the pipes and casings installed to inject fluids to make fractures in rocks and sand and bring up the oil and gas. The casings and cement that are part of the construction are also meant to ensure that no fracking fluids, oil or gas escape and flow into groundwater.
Heading into the hearing, there was general agreement among the parties on the proposed changes. Since the COGCC and the state Air Quality Control Commission began writing new rules, oil and gas industry representatives, community and environmental groups have clashed with each other and with agency staffers in hearings and meetings over how far the regulations should go.
But Julie Murphy, COGCC deputy director, said the agency was able to consider new rules on well bores earlier than expected thanks to a broad consensus among the various parties. She said the “top-line” change is the new requirement that the pressure in all wells across the state be tested annually to ensure that the casings and cement are still in good shape.
The annual testing and regular monitoring approved put Colorado at the head of the pack among oil- and gas-producing states, said Adam Peltz, an attorney with Environmental Defense Fund who has reviewed and worked on similar regulations across the country. He noted that the COGCC has tried to incorporate as many recommendations as possible from a 136-point list put together by a multi-state body of regulators and policy makers.
Another important change is a more precautionary approach to making sure that groundwater no matter, how far down it is located, is protected by isolating the oil, gas and fracking fluids with casings and cement, Murphy said…
The new rule is consistent with Colorado state groundwater standards, Freeman said. The COGCC staff added language saying that groundwater with less than 10,000 parts per million total dissolved solids in it must be protected, Freeman said.
The standard addresses the amount of salt in the water is and is the same one in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and used by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, Freeman said.
Water with 3,000-10,000 parts per million of total dissolved solids is often called “brackish,” or saltier than fresh water, but it can be treated to use for drinking.
FromBloomberg Law (John Dunbar and Christina Brady):
After decades of inaction, the federal government has gotten serious about cleaning up PFAS, a class of compounds known as “forever chemicals” that have been linked to health problems and inhabit the bloodstream of nearly every American.
Congress has introduced dozens of bills mentioning “PFAS” so far in the 2019-2020 Congress, many more than in previous years. The boom in legislation has sparked a major increase in lobbying. In 2017, only four entities mentioned the issue in government lobbying reports. In 2018, the number grew to 35, and by 2019, it rocketed to 164.
More water utilities—which have pushed back against certain provisions to clean up PFAS—have lobbied on regulation of the chemicals than any other group. They rank above the air travel industry, cities, and chemical companies, a Bloomberg Law analysis shows.
“I continue to be shocked that people charged with keeping our water clean have been among the most vocal opponents of getting PFAS out of our water, and are in many respects just as bad as many of the polluters whose mess they are charged with cleaning up,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs with the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization…
One basic question underlies the debate over what to do about what is arguably one of the most pervasive public health threats facing Americans in years: Who is going to pay to clean up this mess?
Under proposed EPA regulation and congressional action, utilities are faced with removing the stubborn compounds from their systems and disposing of them in landfills which could be designated as Superfund sites. Water utilities are already dealing with an aging infrastructure, worries about lead, and costs associated with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact.
Among the tools in the EPA’s toolbox for cleaning up toxic chemicals like PFAS is the Superfund law, enacted in 1980, which gave the agency the authority to force polluters to pay for cleanup of toxic sites…
In July 2019, the Democrat-controlled House approved the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 2500), which contained an amendment by Michigan Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell that would force the EPA to designate PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous” within a year, thus triggering the Superfund designation that would allow the EPA to compel cleanup.
An alliance of water associations wrote to the House and Senate armed services committees in August, saying the Superfund designation could “create liability for communities that encounter PFAS in their water treatment activities.”
The letter was signed by the American Water Works Association, the American Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, the National Association of Water Companies, and the National Rural Water Association.
A coalition of industry groups also argued against the Superfund designation, saying such decisions are “not political questions that Congress is best positioned to address,” in a letter to the House. “EPA should retain its traditional authority to study potentially hazardous substances and to ascertain whether they should be designated under CERCLA.”
The letter was signed by more than a dozen industry associations, including the American Chemistry Council, whose members include 3M, which still manufactures PFAS compounds, and DuPont spinoff, Chemours Co., which now holds most of DuPont’s PFAS liabilities.
Faber, of the Environmental Working Group, said utilities aren’t usually big contributors of PFAS to sites that could be designated under Superfund and subjected to liability. And they don’t have deep pockets. The government usually goes after companies with resources, not “cash-strapped entities,” he continued.
Mehan, from the utilities group, said that EPA doesn’t sue municipalities under Superfund, but other entities—like polluters that have been declared responsible for cleaning up contaminated sites—”have and will. Hundreds of them.”
Mark W. LeChevallier is the former chief environmental officer for publicly traded American Water and is now a consultant. “Any utility has to be worried,” he said. “The ultimate disposal is an issue here. And that might be a concern that some utilities have. Will they have ultimate responsibility?”
In Colorado, where groundwater contamination is a problem thanks in part to the military’s use of firefighting foam at its facilities, state lawmakers proposed testing requirements for drinking water and setting limits for PFAS. But the proposal didn’t survive the bill’s first hearing.
“We had pushback from the utility companies,” said state Rep. Tony Exum Sr., a Democrat who represents a part of the state that has been contaminated with the chemicals. “To mitigate and prevent is very, very expensive, as well as enforcement.”
Similar to the federal level, the groups had liability concerns, which lawmakers sought to address, “but we just didn’t have enough time to move forward,” Exum said.
“We’re going to keep working on it so we can come to an agreement,” he continued. “We can’t take clean water for granted.”
Havasupai Vice Chairman Matthew Putesoy is worried that a federal court decision regarding a uranium mine could lead to environmental catastrophe for his community and surrounding lands.
A U.S. District Court judge ruled May 22 against the tribe and two environmental groups in a seven-year-old lawsuit that sought to close the Canyon Mine, a uranium mine located about 10 miles south of the Grand Canyon’s south rim.
Putesoy said the tribe is not prepared to abandon its fight.
“From Havasu Baaja’s point of view,” he said, using the traditional name of his people, “the Guardians of the Grand Canyon will continue to battle the mining companies and someway, somehow, stop the mine from happening. Once the water is gone there’s no replacing it.”
The Canyon Mine lies within 1 million acres of federal lands surrounding the Grand Canyon that was withdrawn from any new mining for 20 years by the Interior Department in 2012.
The ban’s intent was to allow the U.S. Geological Survey to study the effects of such mines in the area to determine if environmental damage was likely to occur. The U.S. Forest Service determined that Canyon Mine, owned by Canadian firm Energy Fuels, could still operate because it could show a profit, as theMining Law of 1872 requires for a valid claim to be honored.
The White River National Forest opened a public comment period last week concerning the next phase of a would-be reservoir project dubbed the Whitney Reservoir. Water authorities in Colorado Springs and Aurora plan to divert water near the Vail Valley — normally destined for the Colorado River — to the Front Range by way of pumps and tunnels.
For comparison, Cherry Creek Reservoir stores more than 134,000 acre-feet.
Aurora Water and its southern counterpart, Colorado Springs Utilities, applied for a Special Use Permit to do so. Geologists would conduct ground-level seismic analyses of the ground below and also drill up to 150 feet below the surface. Currently, the operation proposes ten drilling sites.
The water could help Aurora meet the needs of a rapidly-expanding city while capturing water rights Aurora already holds, Baker said. He estimated the reservoir could be completed in 25 years if key steps were met, including a geological analysis.
The Whitney Reservoir project drew early attention from Colorado River conservationists and a fishing association concerned for the health of local fish habitats and the river system. Prolonged drought and existing diversions have already diminished Colorado River flows in recent decades.
The project could also impact pristine wetland ecosystems and would also require cutting near 500 acres from the Holy Cross Wilderness.
Members of the public can find more information about the project on the U.S. Forest Service website. Comments can be made any time but will be “most helpful” if submitted before June 30, 2020, the Forest Service said in an information release…
FromColorado Politics (Marianne Goodland) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:
A bill on toxic firefighting chemicals that have contaminated water supplies in southern El Paso County won unanimous support Thursday from the House Finance Committee.
[HB20-1119] was approved by the House Energy and Environment Committee on March 9, before the General Assembly shut down for 10 weeks due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
According to bill co-sponsor Rep. Lois Landgraf, a Colorado Springs Republican, the measure is a fix of sorts for legislation that passed in 2019 which banned the use of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, known collectively as PFAS.
The 2019 law banned Class B firefighting foams that contain “intentionally added” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Those chemicals were used for decades at Peterson Air Force Base in El Paso County and have been found in the Widefield aquifer, which serves Security, Widefield and Fountain, communities near the base…
Last year’s bill created the clean water process for PFAS, Landgraf said. “What we didn’t realize is that it also eliminated the ability of the airports to stay in business. United could not get their insurance because we banned any use of PFAS. They have to practice with it a couple of times every year to keep their insurance in place,” Landgraf said.
This year’s measure allows the testing to take place in airline hangars. The runoff will be captured in catch basins and then disposed of.
The bill also requires a the state’s solid and hazardous waste commission to come up with a certificate for any facility — like an airport — or firefighting department that shows PFAS is present on the premises.
Landgraf said the certificate will help the state track PFAS. “Right now we don’t know who’s using it and not using it,” she said.
The Colorado Aviation Association backs the bill in its current form, according to lobbyist Kelly Sloan, who pointed out that the use of PFAS is on its way out. The Federal Aviation Administration is planning to phase out the use of PFAS at airports, but for now, airports still have to comply with those federal regulations, he said…
The bill now heads to the House Appropriations Committee.
On behalf of the State of Colorado, Attorney General Phil Weiser today filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Denver to protect Colorado’s streams and wetlands from a dangerous federal rule that would leave them vulnerable to pollution under the Clean Water Act.
By radically changing how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers define “waters of the United States” that are protected under the Clean Water Act, the new 2020 rule will leave a substantial portion of Colorado’s streams and wetlands without federal protection and jeopardize the integrity and quality of Colorado’s waters.
“The federal government’s new definition of ‘waters of the United States’ violates the Clean Water Act, contravenes controlling U.S. Supreme Court precedent, and ignores sound science,” Weiser said. “This illegal action shirks the federal government’s responsibility to implement this law and thrusts on Colorado the responsibility of protecting water quality with limited warning and with no support to do so. We are bringing this lawsuit to stop this new rule and reckless action from taking effect.”
The Clean Water Act protects U.S. streams, wetlands, and rivers from pollution. Previously, under Supreme Court precedent, the rule included ephemeral streams—streams that run because of melting snow or precipitation—and wetlands that aren’t connected on the surface to larger bodies of water.
“We need to challenge this action to avoid a bigger problem for our economy at a time when our state is already hurting from COVID-19. Some flood control, stormwater erosion, transportation, and other important projects may not be able to move forward because the new rule takes away the permitting path needed to ensure environmental protection and project development. That’s a problem that we need to fix,” said John Putnam, Environmental Programs Director, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The new 2020 rule does not include many ephemeral streams or wetlands without a surface connection. The lawsuit states that the new, narrower definition of the types of water protected under the Clean Water Act eliminates federal jurisdiction over a significant number of Colorado’s tributaries, adjacent waters, and wetlands that affect downstream waters, without providing any rational basis for the rule. This leaves Colorado’s snowmelt streams and wetlands vulnerable to pollution, which would negatively impact our state’s agriculture and outdoor recreation economy.
Through the lawsuit, Colorado is asking the court to maintain the definition in place since the 1980s and to stop the new, unlawful rule from going into effect. In so doing, Colorado is following up on its comment to the agencies, which praised earlier 2008 guidance as legally sound and grounded in science. Maintaining the status quo will also protect important agriculture exemptions, respect state authority to administer water rights, and provide the appropriate level of federal partnership.
A Saturday morning stroll through your local farmers market, is there anything like it? It’s a popular way that many Front Range people decide to spend their weekends, where you get to peruse the abundance and score some of the best food you can buy.
They fill their baskets with organically grown produce, chat with a farmer, walk over to a food truck for a coffee and a pastry and head home with their bounty. These brief interactions allow people to connect with where their food is grown, and put a face to the people who run these farms. But those interactions are threatened, and no, not because of COVID-19.
I am the Board President of the Valley Organic Growers Association (VOGA), representing over 125 farmers, ranchers, vineyard owners and related business operators in the North Fork Valley of western Colorado, many of whom travel to the Front Range to provide food to residents, restaurants, and breweries.
We take pride in being able to grow high-quality food, carefully tended and responsibly grown without additives or chemicals.
We also take pride in providing that food to Coloradans throughout the state. For many of us farmers, the food we grow is an extension of our personalities and represents us and our businesses.
VOGA’s vision is to create a vibrant community of prosperous, local farms that sustain the land and provide healthy agricultural products. To achieve this vision, we are dependent on our public lands.
Earlier this month, the Trump Administration approved a plan that puts the farms in our watershed at serious risk. The Bureau of Land Management’s final plan for the North Fork Valley opens our public lands to oil and gas drilling while removing protections for everything else that matters to us in the North Fork Valley.
For the past 10 years, the Bureau of Land Management has been rewriting a plan to manage the public land in the North Fork Valley. Our area is approximately 40% public land, which includes the headwaters of streams, rivers and ditches that supply irrigation water to our local farms.
VOGA has been participating and commenting on the BLM’s plan every step of the way. We even helped write our own proposal, called the North Fork Alternative, for how public land should be managed in our watershed.
The North Fork Alternative represents a locally grown vision for the North Fork Valley that would keep energy development away from sensitive areas and fosters a diverse, resilient economy. We were glad to see that the BLM included the North Fork Alternative in the planning process in 2016.
In the name of energy dominance, however, the Trump Administration completely dismissed our proposal last week and opened the entirety of our watershed to oil and gas development, without proper restrictions to protect our farms, our food or our livelihoods.
If resource extraction takes off in our watershed, our waterways may become polluted, ruining our region’s model for farm-to-table community agriculture.
Earlier this year, VOGA received a grant to conduct a study on our member’s economic impact within Delta County. For the 167 members of our association, we found the estimated total market value of our farms to be $50-60 million, with estimated annual gross sales to be $4.1 million.
If we want to maintain these numbers and build upon them to support a sustainable, resilient local economy, we need strong protections for our lands, air and water. And that begins with stipulations set forth in the BLM’s plan.
Luckily, Sen. Michael Bennet is on our side. Time and again, his commitment to working with local farmers, ranchers, business owners and conservationists has shined through in the face of this terrible plan.
And now it is no different. Sen. Bennet, thank you for your commitment to protecting the North Fork Valley, and we hope to work with you on a path forward, as farmers and as the local community.
Here’s the release from the University of California Riverside:
Grasslands across the globe, which support the majority of the world’s grazing animals, have been transitioning to shrublands in a process that scientists call “woody plant encroachment.”
Managed grazing of drylands is the most extensive form of land use on the planet, which has led to widespread efforts to reverse this trend and restore grass cover due to the belief that it results in less water entering streams and groundwater aquifers.
A new study led by Adam Schreiner-McGraw, a postdoctoral hydrology researcher at the University of California, Riverside, modeled shrub encroachment on a sloping landscape and reached a startling conclusion: Shrub encroachment on slopes can increase the amount of water that goes into groundwater storage. The effect of shrubs is so powerful that it even counterbalances the lower annual rainfall amounts expected during climate change.
Until now, researchers have thought that because woody plants like trees and shrubs have deeper roots than grass, woody plant encroachment resulted in less water entering streams and groundwater aquifers. This belief stemmed from scientists performing their related studies on flat ground.
“It is striking that ecosystem composition is what controls projected future changes to groundwater recharge,” Schreiner-McGraw said. “This does not mean that climate change is not important, but that vegetation change is potentially more important and something that scientists and land managers should focus more effort on understanding.”
Co-author Hoori Ajami, an assistant professor of groundwater hydrology at UC Riverside, said the paper looks at the combined effects of climate and vegetation change on groundwater-recharge processes in arid environments.
“Most studies to date have looked at these changes in isolation,” Ajami said. “Here we illustrate that the combined effects of vegetation change and climate change could be greater or less than the sum of its parts.”
The intrusion of shrubs into grasslands is often considered a problem because it reduces the amount of forage available for livestock grazing and can lead to more bare ground patches and subsequent increase in soil erosion. This process of creating more bare ground is called “xerification.” Climate change contributes to xerification, but fire suppression and overgrazing play the biggest roles.
It makes sense that shrubs, which have deep root systems along with thick stems and many leaves, capture more water than grass does as it percolates down through the soil, leaving less available water to replenish the underground aquifers. Research on “diffuse recharge,” the process by which water replenishes groundwater supplies over a large area, seems to bear this out for flat landscapes. Xerification of grasslands has thus been viewed as bad for both livestock and the water cycle.
“We approached this research with a simple premise that topography plays a role in redistributing available water, and this should affect the outcomes of xerification,” said co-author Enrique R. Vivoni, a professor at Arizona State University.
The group looked at focused recharge, which occurs when hillslopes funnel water into concentrated areas, such as streambeds. Streambeds often have sandy bottoms, which allow water to quickly infiltrate and prevent the deep-rooted shrubs from sucking it up.
Data from a highly monitored desert mountain slope in New Mexico was used to simulate the effects of woody plant encroachment and climate change on water resources. The team discovered that not only did the shrubs increase focused groundwater recharge, but that they did so even under conditions where climate change reduced the amount of rainfall.
They also modeled a more extensive form of shrub encroachment called thicketization, in which plants grow in dense stands with no bare patches, and found, as in prior flat landscape research, the shrubs reduced the amount of groundwater recharge on slopes as well.
On hillslopes, bare soil in between patches of shrubs is necessary to drive water into streambeds. Increased runoff increases focused groundwater recharge.
“We were surprised to find that a transition from grassland to shrubland can increase sustainability of groundwater aquifers,” said Schreiner-McGraw. “The best way to increase focused recharge in this system is to increase the amount of runoff from hillslopes that gets concentrated in the streambeds.”
Climate change will most likely increase groundwater recharge by making rainstorms larger, but less frequent. Larger storms increase the amount of runoff that reaches sandy-bottom channels and increases groundwater recharge. Findings from this study suggest vegetation will also play an important part in groundwater recharge in the future.
Though the study took place in New Mexico, Schreiner-McGraw said it applies to similar environments. Large parts of California are also desert savannahs. Southern California and the Central Valley have landforms similar to those found in the New Mexico study site. These areas could experience similar hydrological processes, though atmospheric rivers create storms very different from monsoon storms, so more research is required.
“The study highlights the role of long-term monitoring in understanding water balance dynamics of watersheds, and the role that process-based modeling plays in understanding system dynamics,” Ajami said.
A fast-growing Douglas County city has filed a new claim for water on the South Platte River, a move that could allow it to boost its future water supplies by some 60 percent.
But the action could also undermine SPROWG, an innovative, collaborative effort by more than a dozen Front Range communities to capture and reuse water on the South Platte River near the Nebraska state line and return it to Eastern Plains farm communities, northern Front Range cities, and the metro area.
Parker’s legal move to claim water rights in the same region, in partnership with the Sterling-based Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, is unfolding just as SPROWG completed a major feasibility study indicating its project could be built for roughly $3.2 billion to $4.2 billion.
Parker’s project, slated to be done in about 10 years, would add 20,000 acre-feet to the city’s current supply of 34,400 acre-feet…
Though SPROWG’s feasibility study has been completed, years of planning lie ahead before the cooperative effort is ready to deliver water, with a completion date yet to be set.
“We are light years ahead of them,” said Ron Redd, manager of the Parker Water and Sanitation District. “We’ve offered to partner on anything they want to do. I hope, especially when it comes to storage, they will want to partner. But we are just way ahead of them.”
The Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, whose boundary encompasses much of the northern Front Range and extends out to the Nebraska border, is alarmed by Parker’s $500 million proposal, saying it violates the spirit of collaborative water planning embodied in SPROWG and that it could dramatically shrink the amount of water available for others at the table.
“It’s disappointing to me,” said Brad Wind, general manager of Northern Water. “SPROWG was initiated as a community effort. We were going to share the good, the bad and the ugly. When one entity files, it’s a much different process to look at community involvement and decide how to share the yield.”
Parker and the Lower South Platte district plan to develop at least 20,000 acre-feet of water for urban use, a number that rises to 30,000 acre-feet when the agriculture component is added in, according to Joe Frank, manager of the Lower South Platte district.
Frank also said Parker’s project is important to northeastern Colorado because it won’t result in a permanent dry-up of farmland and will give farmers in his district a more reliable source of water, helping stabilize farm communities that are already struggling.
Parker’s Redd said he’s hopeful, given the similarities between the two proposals, that a partnership can be developed with the existing SPROWG collaboration.
“I like the idea of controlling our own destiny,” he said. “And right now we’re assuming we’re going it alone. But my hope is they will join us.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Colorado and other Western states will be hard pressed to shield their rivers and streams under a new federal Clean Water Act rule finalized last month, largely because hundreds of shallow Western rivers are no longer protected, and writing new state laws and finding the cash to fill the regulatory gap will likely take years to accomplish, officials said.
“We are pleased the final rule protects important agriculture exemptions and provides continued assurance that states retain authority and primary responsibility over land and water resources…However, the federal government’s decision to remove from federal oversight ephemeral waters, certain intermittent streams, and many wetlands is based on flawed legal reasoning and lacks a scientific basis,” Weiser said in a statement.
Whether Colorado will seek an injunction to stop the new rule from being enforced and whether it will join other Western states in a legal challenge isn’t clear. Weiser and Pfaltzgraff declined to discuss their legal strategy, other than vowing to take action.
The Colorado Water Congress, which represents hundreds of water agencies and agricultural interests, had been largely supportive of the new rule before it was finalized. But Executive Director Doug Kemper said the group hasn’t finished its analysis of the final version.
Formally adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency April 21, the move to significantly revise the WOTUS rule began after President Trump took office and vowed to reverse policies established under the Obama Administration.
The new rule has already triggered a handful of lawsuits seeking to stop the EPA from enforcing them. One was filed by cattle growers in New Mexico alleging that the rule is still too onerous, and at least two others have been filed by environmental interests in South Carolina and Massachusetts, who say the rule leaves too many streams unprotected.
And more are expected.
The Clean Water Act (CWA) has been legally hamstrung for years over murky definitions about which waterways fall under its jurisdiction, which wetlands must be regulated, what kinds of dredge-and-fill work in waterways should be permitted, what authority the CWA has over activities on farms and Western irrigation ditches, and what is allowable for industries and wastewater treatment plants to discharge into streams.
One rule never fits all
Administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA, the CWA, now nearly 50 years old, is credited with making U.S. waters some of the cleanest in the world. But it has also been, at times, fiendishly difficult to administer, in part because of the nation’s widely different geographies.
Go to the East or Midwest, and massive rivers, such as the Ohio and Missouri, are filled with barge and shipping traffic and are clearly “navigable.” That was the term early courts used to determine how water would be regulated. If a stream was considered navigable, it was subject to federal law.
But Colorado and other Western states rely on shallow streams that don’t carry traditional commercial traffic. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates 44 percent of Colorado’s streams are intermittent, meaning they are sometimes dry, and 24 percent are ephemeral, meaning they can be dry for months or years and appear only after extraordinary rain or snow. Just 32 percent of Colorado streams are classified as being perennial, meaning they flow year round.
Under the new rule, only perennial and intermittent streams, or those deemed navigable, will be regulated, meaning that thousands of miles of streams in Colorado and other Western states would no longer be protected under the law.
A financial quandary
And that worries state water quality officials who are responsible for protecting Colorado’s streams.
They warn that writing state rules and finding millions of dollars in new cash to enforce water quality protections will be difficult, especially as the COVID-19 budget crisis unfolds. Officials of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), which includes the Water Quality Control Division, say that until state rules are in place, new housing developments and other projects could be stopped because there is no mechanism yet to issue the permits that were once issued by the federal government.
“While the specific impacts of this rule still are being determined, there’s no question this rollback removes huge swaths of Colorado’s waters from federal jurisdiction—the most of any administration since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. The state will need to put in significant resources to determine how to continue to protect these waters and to determine how this rule will be implemented as the rule is unclear as written,” the CDPHE said in an email.
“Specific construction projects and associated permitting processes that were originally covered…won’t be able to move forward without doing so illegally and harming the environment,” the CDPHE said.
Melinda Kassen, general counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said it would make sense to pursue an injunction to give the state time to set up its own regulations and find a way to fund them.
“If you read the economic analysis that accompanies the rule, there are assumptions that the states will step up and take this over. The potential is for it to be really dysfunctional. We’ve got to get something set up,” Kassen said.
EPA officials have said they don’t expect federal funding to enforce the Clean Water Act will be reduced, even though the new WOTUS rule is smaller in scope and governs fewer waterways.
Still the CDPHE and most opponents of the new rule believe millions of dollars will be needed to fill in any regulatory gap.
How far Colorado will go to challenge the new rule isn’t clear. The CDPHE’s Pfaltzgraff said his agency is still analyzing its next steps.
“It is now up to the state to provide the necessary protection of both Colorado’s economy and the environment,” Pfaltzgraff said in a statement. “We are going to do everything we can, while also addressing the impacts from COVID-19, to ensure Coloradans live in the healthy state they deserve.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
This guide discusses how groundwater is formed, regulated and used in Colorado. It explores the factors threatening groundwater supplies in some areas and illuminates how the role of groundwater could be expanded in Colorado’s water future.
From The Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project via The Valley Courier:
Over the past several years, the Restoration Project has worked with five ditch companies and diverse stakeholders to improve irrigation infrastructure on the Rio Grande between Alamosa and Del Norte, while also benefiting the river as a whole. The project’s founding document, the 2001 Study, found that changes in hydrology and aging, failing diversion structures were causing sediment deposition, erosion, loss of riparian habitat, and inefficient diversion of water.
The Five Ditches Project addressed these issues by replacing diversion dams and head-gates for five ditches and restoring surrounding streambanks. These efforts have resulted in a multitude of benefits, including improved diversion efficiency and irrigation operations, enhanced fish and wildlife habitat, reduced erosion and increased community safety. As the Five Ditches Project wraps up, those involved wanted to once again acknowledge the incredible collaboration that made this project possible and give an overview of everything that has been accomplished together.
If you haven’t seen it already, check out the film made by Moxiecran Media about the Five Ditches Project…
Rio Grande #2
Ditch The Rio Grande #2 Ditch irrigates 250 acres northeast of Del Norte. It suffered from an inefficient diversion dam and high maintenance due to trash and sediment. In Winter 2017, the diversion dam and headgate were removed and replaced with a fish-passable stacked rock cross vain diversion structure and a steel headgate. The surrounding channel and streambanks were also reshaped and stabilized, and aquatic and riparian habitat improvements and a rock deflector were added.
Consolidated and Pace Ditches
The Consolidated Ditch irrigates 6,849 acres, and had a crumbling, century-old concrete headgate with a difficult to maintain push-up diversion dam. To remedy these issues, the headgate was replaced with a new concrete structure with trash rack and automation, and a new concrete diversion dam was constructed featuring a fish ladder and two Obermeyer gates for fine control and sediment flushing. The adjacent banks have also been reshaped and revegetated, improving habitat for wildlife and channel stability. The Pace Ditch is a smaller diversion irrigating 107 acres, and is located directly adjacent to the Consolidated Ditch. Both ditches share the new diversion dam, and the Pace headgate was replaced at the same time as the Consolidated headgate, with a manual slide gate and pipe to convey water to the ditch. San Luis Valley Canal The San Luis Valley Canal provides water for 20,200 irrigated acres. Its headgate was redesigned to replace the existing hundred-year-old structure. Over time the river had moved away from the headgate structure, resulting in a static pool in front of the headgate that caused sediment deposition. The new concrete headgate is situated closer to the river and features automated gates. The banks were reshaped around the new structure, and a severely eroding bend in the vicinity of the diversion was reshaped, stabilized, and revegetated. The project also includes a trash deflector and rock weir check structure.
Supplying water to 8,500 acres, the Centennial Ditch had a degraded concrete diversion that was dangerous to maintain. In order to divert water at certain flows, the ditch rider would have to wade into the river to put boards across the dam and raise the water level. In Winter 2017, the old diversion structure was removed and replaced with a grouted rock dam. The new structure also includes an Obermeyer gate in the low flow channel for fine control and sediment flushing. By request from CPW, the dam is a fish barrier to prevent the passage of nonnative species. Nearby streambanks were also stabilized.
Thanks again to each of the five ditch partners!
Centennial Irrigating Ditch Company
Consolidated Ditch and Headgate Company
Cooley & Sons Excavating
Rio Grande #2 Ditch Shareholders
San Luis Valley Canal Company National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS)
Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB)
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW)
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW)
The Five Ditches Project made great strides toward meeting agricultural, environmental, and recreational needs on the Rio Grande, however aging infrastructure and bank erosion is still a significant challenge across the Rio Grande headwaters. Your support will allow them to continue working with irrigators, landowners, and partners on the Rio Grande and Conejos River to complete infrastructure improvement and river restoration projects!
Two separate coalitions of environmental advocacy groups filed litigation on Wednesday against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers challenging the Trump Administration’s rollback of the Clean Water Act.
At the core of the litigation is the definition of federally protected waterways, as recent changes in regulatory language have reduced legal protections for huge numbers of streams, especially around the arid West…
“This regulation is plainly unlawful. It violates the simple but powerful mandate of the Clean Water Act to protect the integrity of our nation’s waters,” Jon Devine, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s director of federal water policy, said in a statement announcing one of the legal petitions.
The NRDC — joined by seven other environmental groups from Wisconsin, New Mexico and elsewhere — filed a challenge in a federal district court in Massachusetts.
The other lawsuit was launched by more than a dozen national and local environmental organizations in the federal district court in South Carolina. It claims that the EPA and the Army Corps “neglected fundamental rulemaking requirements meant to constrain whimsical agency action.”
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Army published April 21 in the Federal Register the final replacement rule defining what waters are federally regulated under the Clean Water Act. The rule, which is set to take effect June 22, had been met with both support and promises of legal action.
The EPA and Department of the Army have 60 days to respond to the lawsuit.
The groups that joined in the legal challenge include the North Carolina Coastal Federation, which publishes Coastal Review Online, along with American Rivers, Charleston Waterkeeper, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Clean Water Action, Defenders of Wildlife, Environment America, Friends of the Rappahannock, James River Association, National Wildlife Federation, North Carolina Wildlife Federation, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Roanoke River Basin Association and South Carolina Coastal Conservation League.
“We are particularly concerned that many wetlands along our coast will no longer be regulated by the federal government,” said Todd Miller, executive director of the Coastal Federation.
“These areas include pocosins, Carolina Bays and other forested wetlands. These wetlands protect water quality in our coastal estuaries and reduce floods during storms. Current wetland rules, that have been in place for decades, balance the needs of landowners with these environmental and economic benefits,” he continued. “Losing this oversight by adoption of these new rules will result in more water pollution, less fish, and more costly disasters in coming years.”
The administration’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule is the second step in revising the definition of the scope of waters subject to federal regulation under the Clean Water Act and repeals the 2015 Clean Water Rule: Definition of “Waters of the United States,” often called “WOTUS.” The final rule “recognizes that waters of the United States are those within the ordinary meaning of the term, such as oceans, rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, and wetlands, and that not all waters are waters of the United States,” according to the April 21 document.
The final rule specifically states that waters of the United States do not include groundwater; ephemeral, or impermanent, streams, swales, gullies, rills and pools made by rain; diffuse stormwater runoff, which is rainwater that spreads across the landscape, and features that control stormwater; previously converted croplands; ditches that are not traditional navigable waters, tributaries, or that are not constructed in adjacent wetlands; and other exclusions.
Environmental activists got an unwelcome gift from the federal government on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, when officials with the Environmental Protection Agency revoked clean-water protections for thousands of streams across Colorado. Now advocates and state officials are taking President Donald Trump’s administration to court.
One of many bedrock environmental laws targeted for rollbacks by the Trump administration, the Clean Water Act has protected the “waters of the United States,” including rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands, since its passage in 1972. But a rule change announced by the Trump administration on April 21 would dramatically narrow the definition of those “waters,” removing protections for many wetlands and smaller, intermittent streams, and potentially threatening ecosystems and drinking water supplies…
The EPA’s decision will hit especially hard in Colorado and other Western states where water is already a precious resource. The new rule excludes all “ephemeral” streams, which only flow after rainfall or snowmelt, and some “intermittent” streams, which only flow for part of the year. An estimated 55 percent of streams in Colorado are classified as intermittent or ephemeral, according to conservation group Trout Unlimited…
Under the new rule, which will formally take effect on June 20, developers and industrial interests will be able to build in many wetland areas or near ephemeral streams without applying for Clean Water Act permits. That could dramatically speed up construction of projects like oil and gas pipelines, while environmental-review processes are significantly weakened.
“Lobbyists for corporate agribusiness, developers, and the oil and gas industry have long demanded that federal protections be removed for streams and wetlands,” says Hannah Collazo, director of Environment Colorado. “This is just plain wrong. Clean water is vital for our health, our way of life, and for nature itself.”
Environmental groups have already announced plans to sue over what they call Trump’s “Dirty Water Rule,” and so has Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, who said in a statement that the administration’s decision is “based on flawed legal reasoning and lacks a scientific basis.”
The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday upheld an agreement that would allow a water conservation subdistrict in Southern Colorado to import water to the Rio Grande and use the entirety of its own imported water under long-standing legal doctrine.
The Closed Basin is a watershed in the San Luis Valley with a physical separation between itself and the Rio Grande. Surface water, therefore, does not flow into the river, and is imported through canals. However, a study revealed that pumping from an underground aquifer in the Closed Basin was causing depletion to the waters of the Rio Grande.
In 2010, a water court judge approved a plan for the Special Improvement District No. 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District that proposed a way to restore river flows otherwise lost to irrigation-related pumping. The subdistrict would have to replace the river depletions, and consequently it contracted with Santa Maria Reservoir Company to lease water from its supply in two reservoirs.
The company, however, had to amend its bylaws to allow for the water to go toward replacement of flows, not just for irrigation. The idea was to release water from a reservoir and have it flow down the Rio Grande, with no diversions for irrigation to the Closed Basin.
By April 2016, all affected parties had withdrawn objections except for one rancher, Jim Warner. He owned property in the Closed Basin and needed the subsurface water created as a byproduct of the importation to stay at a certain level. Warner opposed the change out of a suspicion that he could no longer use flood irrigation of his hay crops.
During the trial, SMRC argued that its importation scheme would not harm other water users in the Closed Basin. Warner did not provide any evidence to support his claim, as well as for his allegation that the Closed Basin and the Rio Grande were not separate water systems after all.
The water court found acceptable the arrangement for SMRC to replenish the Rio Grande and for the subdistrict to use the entirety of its imported water into the Closed Basin for its own irrigation purposes…
Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice Carlos A. Samour Jr. found that the water court was correct to approve the Closed Basin arrangement based on cases as early as 1907.
“We have repeatedly said that when water is introduced into a stream system from an unconnected stream system, it is imported,” he wrote. There was plainly a divide between the Closed Basin and the river, and the SMRC’s actions would not cause Warner injury.
Attorney General Phil Weiser released the following statement regarding the final Waters of the United States rule that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers released today:
“The federal government’s final Waters of the United States rule is too limited and excludes a significant percentage of Colorado’s waters from Clean Water Act protections. The final rule threatens to create unacceptable impacts to the state’s ability to protect our precious state water resources, and, in the absence of extraordinary state efforts to fill the gaps left by the federal government, will harm Colorado’s economy and water quality.
“We are pleased the final rule protects important agriculture exemptions and provides continued assurance that states retain authority and primary responsibility over land and water resources that are important to Colorado. However, the federal government’s decision to remove from federal oversight ephemeral waters, certain intermittent streams, and many wetlands is based on flawed legal reasoning and lacks a scientific basis.
“We are going to take legal action to protect Colorado waters and prevent the harmful aspects of the final rule from taking effect here.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers published the new rule Tuesday in the Federal Register, after announcing its components in January. It takes effect June 22.
Much of the ongoing dispute surrounds how “waters of the United States” are defined in implementing the Clean Water Act.
The Trump administration says its new rule applies to territorial seas and traditional navigable waters, perennial and intermittent tributaries to those waters, wetlands adjacent to waters falling under the rule’s jurisdiction, and some lakes, ponds and impoundments. Groundwater, ephemeral streams that flow only due to rainfall, many ditches and prior converted cropland are among waters exempted from the rule.
Weiser and the administration of fellow Democrat Gov. Jared Polis don’t totally oppose the new rule, praising its agricultural exemptions and saying it recognizes state authority…
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says the rule eliminates many federal protections and almost 70% of Colorado waters could be impacted by the rule.
Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Mary Guiden):
For decades, scientists have thought that changes in snowmelt due to climate change could negatively impact agriculture. Now, a new study reveals the risks to agriculture around the world from changes in snowmelt, finding that farmers in parts of the western United States who rely on snowmelt to help irrigate crops will be among the hardest hit in the world by climate change.
In a study published April 20 in Nature Climate Change, an interdisciplinary team of researchers analyzed monthly irrigation water demand with snowmelt runoff across global basins from 1985 to 2015. The goal was to determine where irrigated agriculture has depended on snowmelt runoff in the past and how that might change with a warming climate.
Researchers then projected changes in snowmelt and rainfall runoff if the Earth warms by 2 or 4 degrees Celsius – about 3 ½ or 7 degrees Fahrenheit – which will potentially put snow-dependent basins at risk.
The findings pinpointed basins around the world most at risk of not having enough water available at the right times for irrigation because of changes in snowmelt patterns. Two of those high-risk areas are the San Joaquin and Colorado river basins in the western United States.
Nathan Mueller, senior author on the study and an assistant professor at Colorado State University, said that the study reveals how many of our important agricultural regions rely on snowmelt for irrigation. “Our research shows how efforts to halt climate change could benefit farmers and the food supply by preserving snowmelt as a vital water resource for agriculture,” he added.
Yue Qin, lead author and an assistant professor of geography at The Ohio State University, said that in many areas of the world, agriculture depends on snowmelt runoff happening at certain times and at certain magnitudes. “But climate change is going to cause less snow and early melting in some basins, which could have profound effects on food production,” she said.
Under the 4-degree Celsius warming scenario, the researchers project that the share of irrigation water demand met by snowmelt in the San Joaquin Basin decreases from 33 percent to 18 percent. In the Colorado Basin, the share of water demand met by snowmelt decreases from 38 percent to 23 percent.
Other basins in which agriculture is at particular risk because of changes in snowmelt are located in southern Europe, western China and Central Asia.
Depending on both the magnitude and the timing, rainfall runoff may be able to compensate for declines in snowmelt runoff in meeting irrigation water demand – but only for some basins, the researchers calculated.
“In many basins, future changes in rainfall do not compensate for the lost snowmelt during crop growing seasons,” Mueller said.
The San Joaquin, for example, is one basin where increases in rainfall runoff won’t be able to make up for snowmelt decline when irrigation is most needed.
The researchers evaluated the potential availability of reservoir storage and groundwater to help satisfy the additional irrigation need created by less snowmelt and early melting. In some basins, those additional requirements would pose great challenges in trying to make up for changing snowmelt patterns.
“Irrigation demands not met by rainfall or snowmelt currently already represent more than 40 percent of reservoir water storage in many Asian and North American basins,” said Steven Davis, a co-author and associate professor of earth system science at University of California, Irvine. “And in a warming world, agriculture won’t be the only added demand on reservoirs and other alternative water supplies like groundwater.”
In the San Joaquin Basin, findings suggested that 14 percent of irrigation water demand must be met by new alternative sources under a 4-degree Celsius warming scenario. In the Colorado Basin, the figure would be 9 percent.
The study also examined which crops globally were at most at risk because of snowmelt changes resulting from climate change. Findings showed that rice and cotton in northern hemisphere summer, as well as wheat and managed grassland in spring, were particularly snow-dependent.
For the study, researchers used data on monthly rainfall and snowmelt runoff globally from 1985 to 2015 from a dataset called TerraClimate. They then calculated monthly irrigation water consumption for a variety of crops.
Comparing historical runoff and total surface water consumption, they estimated monthly snowmelt and rainfall runoff consumption as well as demand for alternative water sources in each major river basin.
They then used climate models to project snowmelt and rainfall runoff in each basin if global mean temperatures rise 2 degrees or 4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial conditions.
Mueller, who is a researcher in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability and the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, notes that the results of the study can help prioritize research and policy attention to identify possible ways to adapt within at-risk basins. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges created by changes in snowmelt, and many adaptation options incur tradeoffs,” Mueller said. “Strategies need to be developed regionally in the context of the unique challenges facing each basin at risk.”
The study was supported by the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, the U.S. National Science Foundation and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.
Other co-authors on the study were from University of California, Irvine; University of California, Merced; University of Idaho; University of Göttingen; Dartmouth College; and Columbia University.
Colorado River Basin farmers will be hardest hit by climate warming, along with food growers in Central Asia and the southern Andes, due to high dependence on shrinking snow as a source of irrigation water, new research has found.
Century-old practices of anticipating drought by monitoring mountain snowpack will be increasingly precarious, researchers also found.
And western agricultural leaders on Monday warned, in letters to President Donald Trump and Congress, that deteriorating pipelines, canals, reservoirs and other water infrastructure threaten the U.S. food supply.
“The western United States is in a tough spot with climate change and changes in snowmelt affecting water resources,” said Colorado State University environmental scientist Nathan Mueller, author of one snowmelt study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.
“But the agriculture in the West is really important for our nation’s food supply. It is imperative to try to adapt to these changes as best we can — and try to limit warming.”
On Monday, a Western Growers coalition of 150 agricultural groups — including the Colorado Farm Bureau, the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Association and several water districts — urged Trump and Congress to address aging western water infrastructure using coronavirus stimulus funds.
Coalition leaders pointed to changing water flows in the West that imperil food production, advising swift repairs and replacements of head gates, pipelines, canals and reservoirs to help producers endure dry times.
FromThe High Country News [April 14, 2020] (Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss):
Since time immemorial, the Havasupai have lived inside the natural wonder. We face yet another peril.
If you were one of the 6.3 million people who visited Grand Canyon National Park last year, chances are you stood on the rim and noticed a green ribbon of trees thousands of feet below you. The National Park Service calls it “Indian Garden.” And it was truly a garden, once: Our Havasupai relatives, the Tilousi family, lived and gardened there a century ago, until the National Park Service kicked them out. The Bright Angel Trail hikers use to reach this area today is an old Havasupai trail. When the Fred Harvey Company set up its hospitality industry on the South Rim near the turn of the 20th century, they hired Havasupai and created a work camp for them called Supai Camp.
Last year, the park celebrated its centennial. There were special events, but I doubt you heard anything about us, the Havasupai — the Guardians of the Grand Canyon. You may not even know about Canyon Mine, the proposed uranium mine that threatens Havasu Creek, the entire water supply of the Havasupai Reservation. Historical erasure has made us invisible. Now, our very survival is at stake, and we are asking for your help.
Inside what you call Grand Canyon National Park, the Havasupai have lived since time immemorial. We still live here. Fred Harvey and the Santa Fe Railway reached the Grand Canyon in 1901, and thousands of tourists came in their wake. Billy Burro was the last Havasupai to live in Indian Garden, a place that had been enjoyed by our people for centuries. But industry began to dictate where Indians could and couldn’t be, and public areas were forbidden because it was considered bad for business. Discrimination was rampant. At the Grand Canyon, we Havasupais were no longer welcome on our own land, because now it was reserved for tourists. Eventually, it was taken away altogether. Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919, and Billy, together with all Havasupais, were kicked out of Indian Garden. The people were relocated to the Indian work camp, with little option but to work for the railway. These were heartbreaking times for us, as our home became a tourist attraction. We had to endure constant racism; people like Billy were given the last name “Burro,” for example, as if we were no more than pack animals.
It’s time Grand Canyon officials took some responsibility and helped educate visitors about our history, land and water. The South Rim was taken by the federal government to create Grand Canyon National Park, and Havasupai voices were ignored when we pleaded for our homeland. In the early 1930s, the Park Service burned Supai Camp to the ground, and our people, including elders and children, were loaded into covered wagons in the snow, taken to the canyon’s rim and forced to walk down a grueling 17-mile trail to Supai Village. That is where the Havasupai Reservation was created in 1880. Before that, however, Supai Village was used as our summer home. Our longtime winter home had always been the newly designated park, but now we had lost it forever. In the 1970s, the park hired a new superintendent, who shut off our food, septic and water supply. Fortunately, we already relied on the springs in the canyon, and so we weathered the assault.
Now we have a new threat to deal with. Fifteen miles from the park boundary is a uranium mine that threatens the entire water supply for the 426 permanent residents of the Havasupai Reservation. The mine shaft at Canyon Mine is 1,470 feet below the surface, and if it leaks, it will contaminate the Redwall-Muav aquifer, which discharges into Havasu Creek — our only source of water. We have been fighting uranium mining for 40 years, but we cannot do it alone, especially if we continue to be erased.
Havasuw’ Baaja means the people of the blue-green waters. Those waters are the waters of Havasu Creek, and we are the original Guardians of the Grand Canyon. Thousands of more recent arrivals have since settled this land, built homes and raised families on our ancestral lands, and we know they love the canyon, too. Like us, they’ve come to know the names of the mountains, trails and waters in the region. The Grand Canyon has called them here, to make their lives in this incredible corner of the world. We are not so different after all.
And now it’s time for them — and for everyone who loves the Grand Canyon — to stand with us, to get to know who we are, and to work with us toward a just and shared vision for the next 100 years of this national park. We want the park to recognize our histories and to share that story permanently at the visitor center — to find a place for us in all their exhibits and in permanent signage throughout the park. Let us rechristen the landscape here, changing the names of places, trails and springs back to the Indigenous names, the ones the tribes are comfortable sharing with the public. All park rangers, personnel, outfitters and river runners should receive cultural sensitivity training, so they can teach visitors about the true history of the land.
Congress should pass S.3127 – the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act. This law will protect the 1 million acres of public land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park from the catastrophic impacts of uranium mining; it will also protect our homes in Supai Village.
Often, we gather at Red Butte, one of our sacred sites, to protest the project. There, we educate people about the many efforts to shut down the Canyon Mine, which is just three miles away. We invite you to join us here.
You are invited to stand strong with us and help us protect this landscape we all love, which is also the place we call home — the Grand Canyon. We have been trying to do this for many years, and we will continue to do for all generations to come. Please join us.
Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss is a Havasupai tribal councilwoman. Email High Country News at email@example.com.
From the Great Basin Water Network (Kyle Roerink):
Today, after more than 30 years of fighting to defeat SNWA’s ill-conceived Las Vegas Pipeline, the Great Basin Water Network responded to the news that the Southern Nevada Water Authority will not appeal litigation addressing water rights applications and corresponding 3M plans to the Nevada Supreme Court. The litigation was another flash point in the fate of the pipeline – the 300-mile, $15.5 billion project that would drain Eastern Nevada’s groundwater supply.
“Residents of the Great Basin breathed a great sigh of relief today after learning of SNWA’s decision,” said Kyle Roerink, Executive Director of the Great Basin Water Network. “Our attorneys, White Pine County officials, tribes, and front-line communities in Nevada and Utah have all said this project was illegal for more than three decades. Today’s news vindicates their long-held fierce opposition and years of fighting a David-vs-Goliath battle. But there is still hard work that must be done. SNWA must revoke both sets of its remaining water rights applications in places like Snake Valley and withdraw its application for the pipeline’s right of way with the BLM. We have been in discussion with the SNWA over these matters and look forward to seeing what comes next. The proof of SNWA’s intent will show itself in the coming months when they take the proper next steps to nullify all of the water grab applications.”
“Judge Estes’ recent ruling completed an unbroken line of seven victories that opponents of SNWA’s Pipeline Project have won over SNWA in both state and federal court going back to 2009,” said Simeon Herskovits of Advocates for Community and Environment, lead attorney for the broad coalition of pipeline opponents. “In his March 9 Decision Judge Estes authoritatively dismantled all of SNWA’s legal arguments and their persistent misrepresentations of the facts. Over the years, water officials throughout Nevada and the West have dismissed any chance of us succeeding in this long fight and others have pleaded with us to accept the inevitability of this ill-conceived project. Instead, we have completely defeated SNWA in court. The water they’ve wanted to grab since 1989 never was there for the taking and never will be.”
FromThe Associated Press (Ken Ritter) via The Las Vegas Sun:
The Southern Nevada Water Authority said in a statement it won’t appeal a judge’s order for the authority to recalculate the amount of water that might be available below ground to supply the project.
The authority will instead update its 50-year water plan to focus on water conservation and solidifying ties to other states that, like Nevada, rely on water from the Colorado River.
That makes Judge Robert Estes’ March 9 decision the final word on the authority’s bid for state approval to use water rights obtained when SNWA bought ranch land in the 1980s in arid valleys in White Pine and Lincoln counties near the Utah border…
Opponents maintained that tribal nations’ due process rights were denied and the pumping plan did little to prevent possible damage to cultural areas including a grove of swamp cedars that area Shoshone tribes consider sacred in the uncommonly wet Spring Valley area in White Pine County.
The authority initially won approval from the state’s top water official, then-State Engineer Jason King, to draw enough groundwater to supply some 170,000 new homes per year in Las Vegas. The authority planned to build a 250-mile pipeline for the project.
In 2010, the state Supreme Court ordered King hold new hearings, and King in 2011 again approved the authority plan.
Estes in 2013 labeled King’s decisions “arbitrary and capricious” and ordered the recalculation. The state high court backed Estes and King grudgingly rejected the authority’s proposal in 2018.
Las Vegas currently gets about 90% of the water used by most of its 2.2 million residents and more than 40 million tourists a year from the Lake Mead reservoir behind Hoover Dam. The lake was last full in 1983. After 20 years of drought, it is now less than half-capacity. Officials had cast the pipeline plan as key to ensuring a reliable supply.
Patrick Donnelly, of the Center for Biological Diversity in Nevada, said opponents know the water authority still has pumping rights applications pending and still seeks right-of-way approvals from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for the 250-mile pipeline route.
The decision means the water agency is shelving a development project that has long inflamed tensions between rural and urban Nevada, from the Legislature to the courts, and eclipsed nearly all other water issues in the state. The water authority first applied for the water rights in 1989, worried about water scarcity on the Colorado River and a growing population.
The project set off a firestorm of controversy, with environmentalists, tribes and ranchers worried that the project would dry springs, harm wildlife habitat and irreparably alter ecosystems.
Because of increased conservation, the water authority held off on the project for decades, despite pursuing entitlements for the project in state and federal court, as well as in the Legislature.
According to a statement from the water authority, it will reassess its water supply portfolio “after the current pandemic passes and normal operations are restored.” The agency plans to present an update focusing on “strengthening beneficial partnerships with other Colorado River states as well as further advancing Southern Nevada’s world-recognized water conservation efforts.”
In recent months, the water authority has discussed the possibility of investing in a Southern California reuse project, in exchange for additional water from the Colorado River, where Las Vegas gets about 90 percent of its water. It also has increased its efforts to boost conservation across the Las Vegas Valley, and investing in a desalination project remains on the table.
Although the decision ends the pipeline project in its current formation, it does not preclude the water authority from developing an importation project in the future. The water authority still owns Eastern Nevada ranches with associated water rights. It also has applications for other water rights that, if awarded by state regulators, could be tapped by Las Vegas in the future.
Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, called the decision not to appeal the court case “a great first step,” but he said he still had concerns about the water rights applications and a federal right-of-way from the Bureau of Land Management. He said the water authority must take the legal steps to relinquish those entitlements associated with the pipeline.
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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.
A new analysis confirms drinking water or groundwater contamination at 328 installations across the country that have levels of “forever chemicals” that never break down and pose health risks.
Three of those incidences of contamination were confirmed in Utah including at Hill Air Force Base, Camp Williams and the Salt Lake City International Airport…
While these water samples may be confined to groundwater, the organization emphasized concerns over the adequacy of treatment for private wells and noncommunity providers that deliver water to a variety of facilities that include campgrounds.
Another four sites in Utah — all military — are suspected of having levels of forever chemicals because of the Pentagon’s use of a particular type of firefighting foam…
Testing of drinking water systems in Utah showed no levels of the chemicals above the EPA standard and there is no history of the chemicals being manufactured in Utah, according to the agency.
The environmental nonprofit’s analysis found more than 100 sites in California that were potentially discharging PFAS into air or water in the process of manufacturing sheet metal for planes, paint, semiconductors, petroleum products and numerous other goods.
Many of these sit clustered in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Several sites that are believed to be releasing PFAS were found farther east near Riverside and San Bernardino.
EWG and some politicians accused the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of falling asleep at the wheel and failing to police industries that have been producing these chemicals since the 1940s.
“We’ve seen a systematic approach by the Trump administration to decimate the EPA’s obligations under the legislation that has previously been passed,” Rouda said.
In February 2019, the EPA unveiled its PFAS Action Plan to begin addressing contamination. This February, the EPA published an update, which said it was partnering on cleanup efforts in 30 states and Washington, D.C., and that it was making $15 million available for more research.
Arizona is sinking. The combination of groundwater pumping and warmer temperatures is shrinking aquifers and lowering water tables. And as the land subsides, fissures open, 2-mile wounds that devour infrastructure and swallow livestock. Four of Arizona’s five economic pillars — cattle, cotton, citrus and copper — use huge amounts of water, while the fifth, the state’s climate, is changing, making water scarcer. Development and growth are intensifying the problem, despite relief from state laws and the existence of the Central Arizona Project, which began delivering Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson in the 1980s.
Today, where subsidence is worst, groundwater pumping isn’t even monitored, and big agricultural and anti-regulatory ideologues try to stymie any efforts to keep tabs on how much water is being pumped. Big corporate farms are sprouting in areas without CAP water and virtually no regulation on groundwater pumping. More and more farms produce alfalfa, one of the thirstiest crops on Earth; the number of acres in hay production more than doubled between 1987 and 2017, and tonnage nearly tripled. Meanwhile, Arizona is getting even hotter.
That kind of heat, according to a recent study published in Nature Communications, strains groundwater reserves, too. The study “Evapotranspiration depletes groundwater under warming over the contiguous United States” found that warming also stresses plants, forcing them to suck up more groundwater and further lowering water tables. “These changes show that even the most moderate warming projection can shift groundwater surface water exchanges and lead to substantial and persistent storage losses,” the study notes, adding that with just 1.5 Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) warming, the nation’s groundwater reservoirs collectively will lose about four times the total volume of Lake Powell over four years.
Warming stresses plants in the same way in the arid West, Laura Condon, an assistant professor of hydrology at the University of Arizona and one of the study’s authors, said. Since the water tables here are deeper, however, the effect on groundwater is less pronounced — at least under natural conditions. But when crops are stressed by warming, more groundwater pumping is needed. “Humans are short-circuiting the natural system,” Condon said.
In other words, Arizona is sinking, getting hotter and getting thirstier. Groundwater pumping is increasing, water tables are plummeting, and many rural residents are watching their wells go dry, according to a recent investigation by Rob O’Dell and Ian James for the Arizona Republic. Not long ago, the football field at western Arizona’s Salome High School was reduced to dust thanks to water restrictions at the groundwater-dependent town, which has a number of large corporate alfalfa farms nearby.
Here’s a guest column from Max Ciaglo that’s running in The Colorado Sun:
Sandhill cranes have been migrating through the San Luis Valley of Colorado for thousands of years. The Rio Grande River likely attracted the first cranes to the Valley, providing the ideal habitat and abundant food resources that they required to complete their migration.
Early settlers brought agriculture to the San Luis Valley with them. To irrigate fields to grow hay, farmers diverted water from rivers onto the land, mimicking natural wetlands and effectively expanding habitat for cranes to thrive. When wheat and barley farming began in the valley in the 1900s, it also provided a high-calorie food resource that buoyed crane populations that were dwindling throughout North America.
More than 50% of land in the valley is now publicly owned, but over 90% of existing wetlands are on private farmlands. Although these lands and the water on them are managed as part of private business operations, they provide critical habitat for sandhill cranes.
However, we in Colorado relate all too well to the sentiment that “whiskey’s for drinking; water’s for fighting.”
The battles are fought on many fronts: agricultural versus municipal users; rural towns versus urban centers. Water often flows towards money.
Water in Colorado’s rivers and streams is sometimes diverted from one river basin to meet the demands of another. These exports take water from once-productive agricultural lands and dry them up in the process, and the wildlife that depend on these lands are often left out of the discussion entirely.
In the San Luis Valley declining groundwater and extended drought have already left the land thirsty for water. But even now, as Colorado knocks on the door of a third decade of consistent drought conditions, other interests are eyeing water from the valley’s underground aquifer to export to growing cities on the Front Range of Colorado.
Farmers and ranchers across the valley have been working together with partners like Colorado Open Lands and other local coalitions for decades to protect and conserve their water. As they come together once again to fight the threat of water export, they are fighting to make sure that there is a future for agriculture in the Rio Grande Basin. And as long as there is a future for agriculture there will be a future for sandhill cranes.
Max Ciaglo is the Grain for Cranes Fellow at Colorado Open Lands, a statewide land and water conservation nonprofit. The Grain for Cranes program aims to support sandhill crane habitat by supporting agriculture in the San Luis Valley. Find out more at ColoradoOpenLands.org.
Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Jennifer Dimas):
The 2020 Ogallala Aquifer Summit will take place in Amarillo, Texas, from March 31 to April 1, bringing together water management leaders from all eight Ogallala region states: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota and Wyoming. The dynamic, interactive event will focus on encouraging exchange among participants about innovative programs and effective approaches to addressing the region’s significant water-related challenges.
“Tackling Tough Question” is the theme of the event. Workshops and speakers will share and compare responses to questions such as: “What is the value of groundwater to current and future generations?” and “How do locally led actions aimed at addressing water challenges have larger-scale impact?”
“The summit provides a unique opportunity to strengthen collaborations among a diverse range of water-focused stakeholders,” said summit co-chair Meagan Schipanski, an associate professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at CSU. “Exploring where we have common vision and identifying innovative concepts or practices already being implemented can catalyze additional actions with potential to benefit the aquifer and Ogallala region communities over the short and long term.”
Schipanski co-directs the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project (CAP) with Colorado Water Center director and summit co-chair Reagan Waskom, who is also a faculty member in Soil and Crop Sciences. The Ogallala Water CAP, supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, has a multi-disciplinary team of 70 people based at 10 institutions in six Ogallala-region states. They are all engaged in collaborative research and outreach for sustaining agriculture and ecosystems in the region.
Some Ogallala Water CAP research and outreach results will be shared at the 2020 Ogallala Summit. The Ogallala Water CAP has led the coordination of the event, in partnership with colleagues at Texas A&M AgriLife, the Kansas Water Office, and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service-funded Ogallala Aquifer Program, with additional support provided by many individuals and organizations from the eight Ogallala states.
The 2020 Summit will highlight several activities and outcomes inspired by or expanded as a result of the 2018 Ogallala Summit. Participants will include producers; irrigation company and commodity group representatives; students and academics; local and state policy makers; groundwater management district leaders; crop consultants; agricultural lenders; state and federal agency staff; and others, including new and returning summit participants.
“Water conservation technologies are helpful, and we need more of them, but human decision-making is the real key to conserving the Ogallala,” said Brent Auvermann, center director at Texas A&M AgriLife Research – Amarillo. “The emergence of voluntary associations among agricultural water users to reduce groundwater use is an encouraging step, and we need to learn from those associations’ experiences with regard to what works, and what doesn’t, and what possibilities exist that don’t require expanding the regulatory state.”
The summit will take place over two half-days, starting at 11 a.m. Central Time (10 a.m. MDT) on Tuesday, March 31 and concluding the next day on Wednesday, April 1 at 2:30 p.m. The event includes a casual evening social on the evening of March 31 that will feature screening of a portion of the film “Rising Water,” by Nebraska filmmaker Becky McMillen, followed by a panel discussion on effective agricultural water-related communications.
Visit the 2020 Ogallala summit webpage to see a detailed agenda, lodging info, and to access online registration. Pre-registration is required, and space is limited. The registration deadline is Saturday, March 21 at midnight Central Time (11 p.m. MDT).
This event is open to credentialed members of the media. Please RSVP to Katie.firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
FromThe New Mexico Political Report (Kendra Chamberlain):
The Ogallala aquifer is rapidly declining.
The large underground reservoir stretches from Wyoming and the Dakotas to New Mexico, with segments crossing key farmland in Texas, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. It serves as the main water source for what’s known as the breadbasket of America — an area that contributes at least a fifth of the total annual agricultural harvest in the United States.
The U.S. Geological Survey began warning about the aquifer’s depletion in the 1960s, though the severity of the issue seems to have only recently hit the mainstream. Farmers in places like Kansas are now grappling with the reality of dried up wells.
In New Mexico, the situation is more dire. The portions of the aquifer in eastern New Mexico are shallower than in other agricultural zones, and the water supply is running low.
In 2016, the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources sent a team to Curry and Roosevelt counties to evaluate the lifespan of the aquifer. The news was not good. Researchers determined some areas of aquifer had just three to five years left before it would run dry given the current usage levels, potentially leaving thousands of residents and farmers without any local water source.
The news left local decision-makers in the region weighing options to balance farmland demand for irrigation and community needs for drinking water while a more permanent solution is put into place.
“There’s no policy in place to provide for that scenario,” David Landsford, who is currently mayor of Clovis and chairman of the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority told NM Political Report.
Climate researchers and hydrogeologists agree these types of water scarcity issues will likely become more commonplace in the southwest and beyond as the climate further warms.
“Climate change, especially in the west and southwest, is already impacting us,” said Stacy Timmons, associate director of hydrogeology programs at the Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, at a National Ground Water Association conference in Albuquerque.
“There’s some places where we’re seeing some pretty remarkable declines in water availability that are, in some ways, reflecting climate change,” Timmons said. “You can see, just over the last twenty years, there’s been some pretty significant drought impacts to New Mexico, specifically.”
Timmons has assembled a team to head up a new initiative to help the state better track water use, quality and scarcity. The program revolves around data: aggregating all the water data that’s collected across different sectors, government agencies and research organizations in the state. The idea is that by collecting that data in one central location and making it available to everyone, policy makers will have a better understanding not only of current water resources, but also how to shape water management policies moving forward to reflect that reality.
“There’s a huge shift globally and nationally in how we’re looking at water,” Timmons said. “Here in New Mexico, we are really on the cutting edge of actually accessing some of this technology, and we’re starting to modernize how we manage our water and our water data.”
Water Data Act
New Mexico became only the second state in the country to prioritize water data management in statute when the Legislature passed the Water Data Act in 2019. The legislation garnered support from ranchers, farmers, environmentalists and, ultimately, state lawmakers. It passed both the House and Senate unanimously.
The Water Data Act aims to develop a modern, integrated approach to collecting, sharing and using water data. The act also established a fund to accept both state funds and grants and donations to support improvements to water data collection state-wide.
“It’s a tool in the tool box that’s going to help New Mexico as a whole manage our water,” said Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, one of the bill’s sponsors. “If it’s all kept in one place and is readily available, that becomes a tool for management.”
The program is just now getting off the ground, Timmons said. Part of the work has been to secure additional funding to run the program effectively, after much of the budget appropriation for the initiative was stripped from the legislation in committee.
“We have $110,000 to launch this effort — which is not enough, I will say,” Timmons said, but added that her team was able to leverage that money to receive additional grants and philanthropic funds.
The program will only be as effective as its data is descriptive — and getting all the data into the same place, in the same format, is a challenge. While government agencies and departments, including the USGS, the Interstate Stream Commission, the Office of the State Engineer and the New Mexico Environment Department, all collect and manage water data, they do so in different ways.
“There’s four or five or ten different agencies that have data about one location, but right now we don’t have one unifying way to coordinate all of those data sets,” Timmons said. “Everyone has their own way of managing it.”
And the team is also identifying where there are gaps in water data collection that can be addressed in the future.
“A lot of our rural parts of the state, there’s not a whole lot of data on them,” Timmons said. “There’s huge swaths of land where there are some water resources, there are some people on private domestic wells, and we just don’t have a great deal of information to evaluate what the water resources might be in those areas, or where there’s water quality concerns.”
“There’s very little useful information in the realm of metering of how much groundwater use is happening around the state,” she added.
Her team is working to locate, extract and codify the water data sets from those groups and aggregate that data into one central online database. The team has already set up an initial web portal where anyone can browse the data that’s already been uploaded.
Informing water policy
So how will that data help decision makers?
Timmons said that by better understanding how much water is left in our aquifers, and how that water is being used, communities will be better positioned to make decisions about how to craft water policy as the resource becomes more and more scarce.
“By sharing our data, it’s going to be more easily put towards operational decisions and broader state-wide decision making,” Timmons said. “We’re working over the next several years to bring in additional data providers and start pilot studies to utilize that data.”
Back in eastern New Mexico, communities in and around Clovis, Portales, Cannon Air Force Base and Texico are now tackling how to manage what’s left of Ogallala aquifer while securing a new water source.
The Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority broke ground on a project that officials believe will sustain the region and its agricultural demand for water. The plan is to build a pipeline to transport water from the Ute Reservoir north of the area to the water-scarce communities in Curry and Roosevelt counties. The project includes new wells being drilled in segments of the aquifer where there’s more groundwater to help support those communities while the rest of the pipeline is built.
The $527 million project will take years to complete, but Landsford said he expects portions of the pipeline to be operational and delivering water to customers in the next five to six years.
“It’s a step plan,” Landsford said. “Connect the communities, reserve some water, and then once you have additional groundwater secured in the interim, you can supply groundwater to the customers and spend the rest of the time getting to the reservoir, where the renewable supply is located. That’s the general blueprint for where we’re going.”
That type of thinking is emblematic of what Timmons’ described as a shift towards resiliency among communities and policymakers in the face of climate change and water scarcity.
“I’m beginning to see that there’s a paradigm shift happening, and there’s reason to be optimistic about the future, despite some of the doom and gloom data that we have,” Timmons said at the conference. “There’s really a new shift happening in how we think about water, especially here in the southwest. We acknowledge that, in many places where we’re using groundwater, we’re mining the aquifer. We need to be thinking about how we can increase the flexibility of that, and increase the redundancy in where we have water resources.”
“The term ‘sustainability’ has been used — especially when thinking about groundwater — it’s really out the window now,” she said. “We’re starting to think about it more in terms of resilience.”
…there’s a risk that [Robin Andrews] and other people with illnesses linked to the chemicals could end up with no compensation for their health problems. That’s because a major manufacturer, DuPont, recently unloaded its PFAS obligations to smaller companies that do not have the money to pay for them.
For decades, DuPont manufactured PFAS-type chemicals in a plant close to Andrews’ home in this tiny South Jersey town on marshy land near the Delaware River. Her grandfather and father both worked at the sprawling plant, known as the Chambers Works, which covers 1,400 acres of riverbank in the shadow of the bridge to Delaware.
In 2017, after she developed unexplained high liver enzymes, her well water tested positive for PFAS; she now runs it through a large filtration system in her basement and has it monitored every three months.
DuPont “could have been a great company and a very good thing for this area had they chosen to take care of people and to be responsible with the way they disposed of these toxins,” Andrews told NBC News. “But they weren’t. I believe it was an economic decision to put people at risk.”
Jeff Tittel, senior chapter director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, has watched DuPont’s moves with concern. “They are setting up other companies to take the fall on liabilities that won’t have enough money, so even if people win lawsuits, they will get nothing or very little,” he said.
On Wednesday, the EPA disclosed it “has multiple criminal investigations underway concerning PFAS-related pollution.” The agency did not identify the entities being investigated and it could not be determined if DuPont is one of them.
Daniel Turner, reputation and media relations manager for DuPont, said the company had not received an information request from the EPA related to a criminal investigation…
In 2015, as problems associated with PFAS were becoming clearer, DuPont began a series of complex transactions that transformed the company’s structure. As a result of the transactions, responsibility for environmental obligations associated with the chemicals shifted onto other entities.
The first shift by DuPont occurred in 2015, when it assigned the great majority of liabilities associated with PFAS to The Chemours Company, a new entity containing DuPont’s chemicals business that was spun off to its shareholders…
In a statement provided to NBC News, DuPont spokesman Turner denied that the Chemours spin-off was an attempt to evade environmental and legal liabilities associated with PFAS. “The reason for the spin-off,” Turner said, was that DuPont “was seeking to transform itself into a higher growth, higher value company” and “saw more growth opportunities in its other businesses.”
A second spin-off was Corteva Inc., in 2019, an agriculture science company that holds other legacy DuPont operations and some PFAS liabilities.
The third transaction occurred last June when so-called new DuPont was created. Formerly known as DowDupont, its businesses include electronics, transportation and construction. Because of the two other spin-offs, new DuPont is two steps removed from PFAS obligations…
Chemours, with primary responsibility for the estimated tens of billions of dollars in PFAS obligations, does not have anywhere near the money or assets to cover them. Chemours’ net worth — its assets minus liabilities — stood at just $695 million as of Dec. 31, 2019.
If Chemours becomes insolvent, Corteva Inc. will be responsible, corporate filings show. Corteva does not have the funds to cover tens of billions in estimated PFAS costs either. Turner declined to say whether PFAS responsibilities would ultimately revert to DuPont if Chemours and Corteva are unable to pay them. A lawyer for Chemours declined to comment.
Corporate spin-offs like DuPont’s that transfer liabilities associated with problematic businesses are becoming more common, analysts say, especially in the energy and chemical fields.
“You’re seeing it again and again,” said Clark Williams-Derry, an analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “Spinning off your legacy liabilities into a separate corporation and to some other responsible party appears to be part of the standard playbook in these industries.”
DuPont is not the only PFAS manufacturer under scrutiny. Another is 3M, headquartered in Minneapolis. Both companies stopped making PFAS over a decade ago. 3M is fighting the suits and says it is cooperating with government investigators.
DuPont and 3M both face lawsuits over problems allegedly linked to PFAS. But DuPont’s shift of its PFAS liabilities to Chemours has drawn its own raft of litigation. In a complaint filed last year against DuPont by Chemours, it contended that the 2015 deal was fraudulent. DuPont knew and intentionally hid the scope of the liabilities when it dumped them into Chemours, the company alleged.
In response, DuPont says Chemours executives were well aware of the PFAS problems at the time of the spin-off and could not have been duped. Next up is the judge’s ruling on oral arguments in the case…
Legal filings allege DuPont knew for decades that PFAS posed a threat to humans…
In early PFAS cases, lawyers for plaintiffs found internal, undisclosed DuPont documents showing toxicity in PFAS. While the company has acknowledged the findings in court filings, it argued that they were either inconclusive or applicable only to employees working with the chemicals, not to people drinking tap water near DuPont facilities.
The New Jersey lawsuit alleges that DuPont began to recognize toxicity in the most common PFAS chemical in the 1960s but did not tell the state or local communities about the problem.
DuPont has not answered the New Jersey complaint but in previous lawsuits, DuPont has denied that it hid PFAS risks. DuPont spokesman Turner declined to say how long DuPont knew about the toxicity of PFAS, but said the company has provided extensive information over the years to the EPA about potential harm related to the chemicals.
The New Jersey suit also says DuPont hid the results of a 1981 blood sampling study of pregnant employees who worked with the chemicals that found one-quarter had children with birth defects…
The potential that shareholders will take on undervalued liabilities is greater in spin-offs, merger experts say. That’s because the kind of in-depth due diligence that a third-party buyer would do to to determine possible liabilities is not typically done by new owners in a spin-off. Those owners are essentially trusting the parent company to be forthcoming about the obligations.
Had DuPont instead sold its legacy chemicals businesses to another company, the buyer would have dug into the obligations associated with its PFAS production prior to the purchase. Any resulting deal would take those potential liabilities into account, resulting in either a lower sale price, an insurance policy or a right by the buyer to recover costs from DuPont later.
Because DuPont’s existing shareholders took on the liabilities in the Chemours and Corteva spin-offs, that detailed assessment was not done. The Chemours lawsuit alleges that DuPont pursued the spin-off so it “could control the transaction structure and economics” after concluding that “no rational buyer” would accept the liabilities associated with PFAS.
DuPont spokesman Turner disputed this, saying that multiple firms submitted proposals to acquire Chemours before the spin-off. He declined to provide specifics about those companies, however, or their bids.
Back in 2015, when DuPont was preparing to spin off Chemours, the parent company made insufficient disclosures about the environmental liabilities to be shouldered by the new shareholders, the Securities and Exchange Commission found. The company had to provide more details, regulatory filings show.
One Year After EPA Pledged to Act on PFAS Exposure, Key Parts of the Strategy Have Yet to Be Implemented
Today, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet joined a group of senators in a letter to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler requesting he provide an updated timeline for when the EPA will implement commitments made in the agency’s plan to combat exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The EPA released its PFAS Action Plan one year ago today and has yet to implement many of the commitments outlined in the strategy. Bennet, who raised concerns about flaws in the EPA’s initial plan, is an author of the PFAS Action Plan of 2019 and has long worked to address contamination issues across Colorado.
“As you are aware, communities across the country are struggling to respond to the widespread issue of PFAS contamination. The human health risks from this class of chemicals, which include birth defects, various forms of cancer, and immune system dysfunction, are still being examined, and the uncertainty has caused great concern among our constituents,” wrote Bennet and the senators in the letter.
The lawmakers went on to underscore that the PFAS Action Plan alone is insufficient to address the full scope and urgency of the problems associated with PFAS exposure, which is why failure to take an initial step to implement this plan is particularly concerning. They also highlighted that the EPA committed to establish federal drinking water standards last year for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), two of the most prevalent PFAS chemicals, but have also failed to follow through on that pledge.
In their letter, the senators also addressed other parts of the plan that have not been prioritized, including important remediation efforts to help expedite cleanup of PFAS contamination under the EPA Superfund law.
“Yet, despite then-Administrator Scott Pruitt committing the EPA to designating these materials [PFOA and PFOS] as hazardous substances in May 2018, the EPA has not even sent a proposal to the Office of Management & Budget for interagency review, let alone published it for public comment,” wrote Bennet and his colleagues.
The senators closed their letter with a request that the EPA provide an update on the status of every commitment made in the PFAS Action Plan, as well as an update on the timeline for executing the priorities included in the strategy.
Bennet has long worked to address the health effects, cleanup, and reimbursement issues associated with PFAS, chemicals used in firefighting foams that have contaminated drinking water sources near military bases across the country, including at Peterson Air Force Base (AFB) in Colorado Springs.
Bennet pushed for a nationwide study on the health effects of PFAS and for additional funding for remediation and clean up.
Bennet secured $10 million for the nationwide Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study in the 2018 omnibus package.
Bennet secured an additional $44 million in funding for Air Force environmental restoration and remediation in the 2018 omnibus package. A significant amount of that funding was used for remediation around Peterson AFB in Colorado.
Bennet supported a provision in the Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that required a plan on how the Department of Defense might reimburse state or municipal agencies that expended funds to provide alternative water supplies.
Bennet wrote to the CDC to ask that the nationwide study include communities in Colorado near Peterson AFB.
Bennet visited communities around Peterson AFB to receive an update on remediation efforts. There, Bennet also received an update on the challenges water districts are having receiving reimbursement for steps they took to clean up drinking water.
Bennet demanded the Trump Administration (CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)) release the results of a study regarding what levels of certain chemicals are safe in drinking water. According to news reports at the time, the EPA had been working to block the release of results from a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) study on the toxicity of certain PFAS.
Bennet passed an amendment to provide funding for the Department of Defense to reimburse state and municipal water authorities for actions they took to clean up and mitigate PFAS in drinking water. The amendment was included in the Department of Defense-Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations bill, which passed the Senate in 2018. The provision was not included in the final version of the bill that was signed into law.
Bennet wrote to the CDC/ATSDR to voice disappointment that the CDC will not include military and civilian firefighters in its investigations of the human health effects of PFAS contamination pursuant to Section 316 of the FY19 NDAA.
Bennet and his colleagues introduced the PFAS Action Plan of 2019, legislation that would mandate the EPA, within one year of enactment, declare PFAS as hazardous substances eligible for cleanup funds under the EPA Superfund law, and enable a requirement that polluters undertake or pay for remediation.
Bennet introduced an amendment to the NDAA to authorize the U.S. Air Force to reimburse local water districts, like those around Peterson AFB, for actions they took to treat and mitigate PFAS contamination.
Following Bennet’s 2018 letter calling on the CDC to include Colorado communities near Peterson AFB in the nationwide study on the health effects of PFAS, Bennet praised the agency’s decision to include these communities.
More than 12,000 El Paso County water users have been impacted by the chemical, which tainted the Widefield aquifer.
In 2016 the EPA lowered its health advisory levels for the compounds, vastly expanding the number of southern El Paso County residents considered at risk for exposure. A subsequent study tied the contamination to the decades-long use of a firefighting foam at Peterson Air Force Base.
Water districts in the towns of Security, Widefield and Fountain have either tied into uncontaminated water from Colorado Springs Utilities, or installed filtering systems to eliminate the chemicals.
In the letter, the senators say they believe the agency has not acted quickly enough to make water safe…
The lawmakers are asking for the EPA to prioritize the establishment of a maximum contamination level for drinking water and to allow cost-recovery for cleanup by labeling PFAS as hazardous substances.
Here’s the release from the Kansas Water Office (Katie Patterson-Ingels, Amy Kremen):
8-State Conversation to Highlight Actions & Programs Benefitting the Aquifer, Ag, and Ogallala communities
The 2020 Ogallala Aquifer Summit will take place in Amarillo, Texas, from March 31 to April 1, bringing together water management leaders from all eight Ogallala region states: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota and Wyoming. The dynamic, interactive event will focus on encouraging exchange among participants about innovative programs and effective approaches being implemented to address the region’s significant water-related challenges.
“Tackling Tough Questions,” is the theme of the event. Workshops and speakers share and compare responses to questions such as: “What is the value of groundwater to current and future generations” and “how do locally-led actions aimed at addressing water challenges have larger-scale impact?”
“The summit provides a unique opportunity to strengthen collaborations among a diverse range of water-focused stakeholders,” said summit co-chair Meagan Schipanski, an associate professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at CSU. “Exploring where we have common vision and identifying innovative concepts or practices already being implemented can catalyze additional actions with potential to benefit the aquifer and Ogallala region communities over the short- and long-term.”
Schipanski co-directs the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project (CAP) with Colorado Water Center director and summit co-chair Reagan Waskom, who is also a faculty member in Soil and Crop Sciences. The Ogallala Water CAP, supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, has a multi-disciplinary team of 70 people based at 10 institutions in 6 Ogallala-region states, engaged in collaborative research and outreach aimed at sustaining agriculture and ecosystems in the region.
Some Ogallala Water CAP research and outreach results will be shared at the 2020 Ogallala Summit. The Ogallala Water CAP has led the coordination of this event, in partnership with colleagues at Texas A&M AgriLife, the Kansas Water Office, and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service-funded Ogallala Aquifer Program, with additional support provided by many other individuals and organizations from the eight Ogallala states.
The 2020 Summit will highlight several activities and outcomes inspired by or expanded as a result of the 2018 Ogallala Summit. Participants will include producers, irrigation company and commodity group representatives, students and academics, local and state policy makers, groundwater management district leaders, crop consultants, agricultural lenders, state and federal agency staff, and others, including new and returning summit participants.
“Water conservation technologies are helpful, and we need more of them, but human decision-making is the real key to conserving the Ogallala,” said Brent Auvermann, Center Director at Texas A&M AgriLife Research – Amarillo. “The emergence of voluntary associations among agricultural water users to reduce ground water use is an encouraging step, and we need to learn from those associations’ experiences with regard to what works, and what doesn’t, and what possibilities exist that don’t require expanding the regulatory state.”
The summit will take place over two half-days, starting at 11:00 a.m. Central Time on Tuesday, March 31 and concluding the next day on Wednesday, April 1 at 2:30 p.m. The event includes a casual evening social on the evening of March 31 that will feature screening of a portion of the film “Rising Water,” by Nebraska filmmaker Becky McMillen, followed by a panel discussion on effective agricultural water-related communications.
Visit the 2020 Ogallala summit webpage to see a detailed agenda, lodging info, and to access online registration. Pre-registration is required, and space is limited. The registration deadline is Saturday, March 21 at midnight Central Time.
This event is open to credentialed members of the media. Please RSVP to Katie.firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
More than 365 parties in Elbert County have filed statements of opposition with the Colorado Water Court, in District 1, against a request by Independence developers to amend the uses for 75 acre-feet of water per year to include domestic, municipal, industrial, commercial, stock watering, fire protection and exchange and augmentation purposes, both on and off the subject property. Original decreed uses are for in-house and irrigation on the subject property.
A public notice published in the Elbert County News Dec. 19 raised concerns from citizens that developers would be allowed to take water off the property and sell it, and the increased uses would affect the water in their wells, which draw from the Upper Dawson aquifer.
Elbert County citizens rallied and held public meetings to share information about how to address the concerns, with some expressing mistrust of county commissioners and Craft Companies, the developers of Independence. Concerned residents had until Jan. 31 to file a statement of opposition with the water court, if they felt the change would affect their wells. More than 365 did so, with some residents combining their statements and hiring an attorney, and others filing individually.
“I’ve entered about 365 parties so far, and I’m not done,” said water court clerk Connie Coppes on Feb. 3.
Jill Duvall, who helped organize the public meetings, said residents have filed out of a need for self-preservation, since the majority of residents in Elbert County rely on well water.
“More than 90 percent of us out here are on wells. If they run dry we’re done,” said Duvall. “I think the main concern for all of us is them taking the water off the property. And we would like to see them take the water from the lower aquifers for construction.”
The water in question comes from five bedrock aquifers in the Denver Basin aquifer system, with Upper and Lower Dawson being in Elbert County. Other aquifers include Denver, Arapahoe and Laramie-Fox Hills, all of which have their eastern extent in Elbert County.
Susan Schick, a member of Independence Water Warriors, agreed that the potential to take water off site is a big concern, but also said many don’t trust county commissioners to stop it from happening if the time comes.
“Primarily we don’t want the water to go off site,” said Schick. “The county commissioners have confirmed that a public hearing would be needed before that could happen, but we don’t trust that they would respect the wishes of the public if that time came. I don’t think our commissioners are planning for those of us who are already out here.”
Commissioner Chris Richardson has maintained that no water will ever leave the county.
“Bottom line is that there is to be no transfer of water out of the county, and any use/sale off the development but within the county can only be approved in a public hearing with the BOCC,” Richardson stated in a previous interview.
With so many statements of opposition filed with the water court, it could be quite a while before Craft’s request for a water amendment could be approved, or denied…
Craft representatives have expressed a willingness to speak with concerned citizens, both during public meetings and in previous Elbert County News stories. They issued this statement regarding the filing of statements of opposition.
“We have repeatedly offered to answer any questions regarding the Upper Dawson amendment by listing our outreach representative’s contact information (Peter Wall) on social media and in two local community articles (Elbert County News and Ranchland News). To date, our representative has not received a single inquiry from those opposing this amendment. As we’ve stated, we used standard language in the Upper Dawson amendment — language that is well within our rights. In fact, the language we used is the same language that has also been used in many of our opposers’ decrees.
Crops need water. And in the central United States, the increasing scarcity of water resources is becoming a threat to the nation’s food production.
Tsvetan Tsvetanov, assistant professor of economics at the University of Kansas, has analyzed a pilot program intended to conserve water in the agriculture-dependent region. His article “The Effectiveness of a Water Right Retirement Program at Conserving Water,” co-written with fellow KU economics professor Dietrich Earnhart, is published in the current issue of Land Economics.
“Residential water use is mostly problematic in California, and not so much here in Kansas. However, people don’t realize that residential use is tiny compared to agricultural use,” Tsvetanov said.
“I don’t want to discourage efforts to conserve water use among residential households. But if we want to really make a difference, it’s the agricultural sector that needs to change its practices.”
That’s the impetus behind the Kansas Water Right Transition Assistance Program (WTAP).
“If you’re a farmer, you need water to irrigate. If you don’t irrigate, you don’t get to sell your crops, and you lose money. So the state says if you reduce the amount of water you use, it’s actually going to pay you. So it’s essentially compensating you to irrigate less,” he said.
But this is not a day-to-day solution. The state recompenses farmers to permanently retire their water rights. The five-year pilot program that began in 2008 offers up to $2,000 for every acre-foot retired.
This benefits the High Plains Aquifer, the world’s largest freshwater aquifer system, which is located beneath much of the Great Plains. Around 21 million acre-feet of water is withdrawn from this system, primarily for agricultural purposes.
Tsvetanov and Earnhart’s work distinguishes the effectiveness between two target areas: creek sub-basins and high-priority areas. Their study (which is the first to directly estimate the effects of water right retirement) found WTAP resulted in no reduction of usage in the creek areas but substantial reduction in the high-priority areas.
“Our first thought was, ‘That’s not what we expected,’” Tsvetanov said.
“The creeks are the geographic majority of what’s being covered by the policy. The high-priority areas are called that for a reason — they’ve been struggling for many years. Our best guess is that farmers there were more primed to respond to the policy because there is awareness things are not looking good, and something needs to be done. So as soon as a policy became available which compensated them for the reduction of water use, they were quicker to take advantage of it.”
Of the eight states sitting atop the High Plains Aquifer, Texas is the worst in terms of water depletion volume. However, Kansas suffers from the fastest rate of depletion during the past half-century.
“Things are quite dire,” Tsvetanov said. “The western part of Kansas is more arid, so they don’t get as much precipitation as we do here in the east. Something needs to change in the long run, and this is just the first step.”
Tsvetanov initially was studying solar adoption while doing his postdoctoral work at Yale University in Connecticut. When visiting KU for a job interview, he assumed the sunny quality of the Wheat State would be a great fit for his research. He soon realized that few policies incentivized the adoption of solar.
“At that point, I thought, ‘I can’t really adapt solar research to the state of Kansas because there’s not much going on here.’ And then I started getting more interested in water scarcity because this truly is a big local issue,” he said.
A native of Bulgaria who was raised in India (as a member of a diplomat’s family), Tsvetanov is now in his fifth year at KU. He studies energy and environmental economics, specifically how individual household choices factor into energy efficiency and renewable resources.
The state of Kansas spent $2.9 million in the half decade that the WTAP pilot program ran. Roughly 6,000 acre-feet of water rights were permanently retired.
“Maybe it’s a start, but it’s not something you would expect to stabilize the depletion,” Tsvetanov said. “This is just a drop in the bucket. Essentially what we need is some alternative source of income for those people living out there, aside from irrigation-intensive agriculture.”
Here’s some of the history of the Sacramento-San Joaquin deltas from Matt Weiser writing in The High Country News, [February 27, 20214]:
When Padre Juan Crespi first sighted the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in 1772, he thought he would be able to walk around it.
The Spanish missionary and his party of 15 soldiers had been dispatched to find a land route from Monterey to Point Reyes, where Spain hoped to build a port. But 10 days into their journey, in the heart of Alta California, Crespi and his men encountered a maze of water, mud and swamp, instead of solid ground. It was the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.
Crespi expected the estuary to function like others he had seen, fragmenting into dozens of small braided channels fanning out toward the sea. Upstream, he figured, they would find a single channel to cross.
But this estuary did the opposite. As Crespi traveled upstream, the water spread out, and his hopes thinned. On foot and horseback for three days in March, he and his companions searched fruitlessly for a way through the tangle of channels.
“Crossing these rivers by boat or canoe would be apt,” a chastened Crespi wrote in his diary. “Because if you do not, it’s (necessary) to climb the mountains to the southeast and seek the path of the large river. To climb such a high pass certainly requires a greater number of soldiers and more provisions, which is why I withdrew.”
Crespi was the first European to glimpse this odd California landscape, and the first of many to be confounded by it.
Sixteen rivers and hundreds of creeks converge from all over California on the Delta’s vast central plain – all mud, tules and marsh – finally forming one mighty river that drains the state’s whole churning belly. It’s called an “inverted” estuary because its waterways unite before reaching the sea. The only place comparable is the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
When Crespi encountered the estuary, its floodplain extended 100 miles north and south, filling the Central Valley with a wealth of snowmelt, all of it destined to squeeze through the land gap later called Golden Gate. Within a century of Crespi’s expedition, European settlers were trying to engineer their own logic into the place, trenching new channels and building levees to create some of the world’s richest farmland. Today, the Delta is crossed by three state highways and hundreds of miles of railroad tracks and county roads. There are 1,100 miles of navigable channels, and 72 islands ringed by levees. Modern charts detail where to anchor, where to catch the best striped bass, where to find the most convenient bridges and ferries.
But the levees may be vulnerable to earthquakes. If they fail, the water supply would be compromised by a flood of salty water from San Francisco Bay. And rising sea levels could taint the water supply permanently.
The Delta, which still covers an area the size of Rhode Island, provides half of all the freshwater consumed by a thirsty state, serving 3 million acres of farmland and 25 million Californians from Silicon Valley to San Diego. Gov. Jerry Brown hopes to better serve them by spending $15 billion on a new water-diversion system. If approved this year, it would shunt a portion of the Sacramento River out of the estuary into two giant tunnels, 30 miles long and 150 feet underground. The intent is to divert freshwater in a way less harmful to imperiled native fish species, while protecting those diversions from floods, earthquakes and a rising sea. The tunnels would serve existing state and federal canal systems that begin in the south Delta, near Tracy, and divert water to cities and farms, mostly in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. Another $10 billion would go to wildlife habitat improvements, in part to breach levees and restore tidal action to some islands. The state believes the proposed tunnel intakes would be far enough upstream to protect the water supply from disaster, at least under present climate-change scenarios. The intakes would also include modern fish screens, potentially preventing the extinction of the native Delta smelt, spring-run chinook salmon and other species that are being killed by the current water export system.
But after seven years of study, state officials acknowledge that removing so much freshwater upstream may cause “unquantifiable” water-quality changes. Meanwhile, critics say taking so much freshwater from the estuary could harm Delta farms and perhaps concentrate pollutants in a way that hurts the same fish that state officials hope to restore. The Delta continues to confound.
Forty-five years after Crespi turned back, Padre Narciso Durán came through with two small boats on an expedition led by Lt. Don Luis Arguello. They left the Spanish presidio, or fort, at San Franciso, which was established three years after Crespi’s visit. Their trip through the watery maze began on May 13, 1817, and lasted two weeks. Durán, who kept a journal, came along to baptize Indians.
His party had a hard time from the start: They set out in a storm, and the boats became separated at the confluence. The storm blew Arguello onto the shore of the San Joaquin River, near its mouth. Durán and a second padre, in the other boat, took refuge for the night on a soggy mound of tules in the middle of the Sacramento.
When the storm finally quit and the boats were reunited, another challenge arose. It was snowmelt season, and the downstream current in the Sacramento River was so strong that it nearly halted their progress. Without wind, days of brutal rowing followed, with little upstream progress to show for it.
On top of that, the men experienced a condition that plagues Delta visitors to this day: They became disoriented.
Seeking to remain on the Sacramento River, the party soon encountered a variety of branching side-channels. They could not be sure which one was the river itself. Because the Delta was in flood, the true riverbanks and many of the natural islands were submerged. A gap in the trees that looked like a river channel might turn out to be a flooded island where a boat would quickly run aground. “The thick leafiness makes the whole river like a tree-lined promenade,” Durán remarked.
The next day, May 16, they traveled only four leagues upriver. They also took a wrong turn and left the Sacramento on a side channel – a serious mistake, as any detour meant more labor for the rowers. Eventually, though, they got lucky and recovered their course.
Familiarity with this labyrinth benefitted the locals, who fled on rafts as soon as they spotted the expedition boats. The Europeans found two villages vacated, either because of the spring flood or because word had spread that the Indians might be conscripted as laborers in the Spanish missions.
Occupants of a third village “fled at the noise of the launches, leaving only two old women, more than 60 years old.”
Durán felt obliged to baptize both women, “because it seemed to us that they could die before Divine Providence could arrange another convenient time when we could baptize them in one or another of the missions.”
Durán, who was no naturalist, made no effort to identify important land features or tree species, and does not mention sighting any animals. But the Delta was teeming with wildlife in a way that is difficult to imagine today: Vast herds of elk and pronghorn antelope roamed here, hunted by wolf and grizzly bear. Giant tidal marshes, packed with tules and cattails, hosted millions of waterfowl. The maze of curving sloughs was a nursery for one of the world’s most productive fisheries.
The Delta remains the most important salmon fishery on the West Coast, producing most of the wild-caught king salmon in the Lower 48 states. Yet it may not survive. There are 57 endangered species here, including steelhead trout and two runs of salmon.
Modern-day Californians are as oblivious to the region’s natural wealth as Durán seemed to be. A January 2012 survey found that 78 percent of California residents don’t know where the Delta is, or even what it is.
The day after baptizing the two women, Durán and his party reached their turnaround point. They hoped to find a place to erect a cross, “and there to end our quest and retreat downriver.” After rowing upriver three more leagues, they pulled ashore to rest, where, by chance, they spotted some rafts in the tules and a village of Natives, “who came out at them armed with their customary fierce clamor.”
Arguello mustered his soldiers to confront the Indians, who “calmed down, to everyone’s relief, and said they had armed themselves believing we were hostile people.” The travelers were invited to visit a larger village one league upriver, where they were promised fish.
But Durán and his cohorts, possibly disoriented, never found the second Indian village, and never got the promised fish. Exhausted and frustrated, they were ready to turn back. Amid the flood, they could find no solid ground to erect a cross. So they carved one on an oak tree.
The exact location of that cross is unknown today. But according to Durán’s diary, they carved it about 80 miles upstream from the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, or approximately near today’s state capital, Sacramento, where Gov. Brown weighs the fate of the Delta today.
Matt Weiser covers environmental issues for The Sacramento Bee and has written about the Delta and California water for 15 years.
The contemporary translation of Crespi and Durán’s journals is by Alexa Mergen.
Click here to download the paper. Here’s the executive summary:
The Northern High Plains aquifer underlies about 93,000 square miles of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming and is the largest subregion of the nationally important High Plains aquifer. Irrigation, primarily using groundwater, has supported agricultural production since before 1940, resulting in nearly $50 billion in sales in 2012. In 2010, the High Plains aquifer had the largest groundwater withdrawals of any major aquifer system in the United States. Nearly one-half of those withdrawals were from the Northern High Plains aquifer, which has little hydrologic interaction with parts of the aquifer farther south. Land-surface elevation ranges from more than 7,400 feet (ft) near the western edge to less than 1,100 ft near the eastern edge. Major stream primarily flow west to east and include the Big Blue River, Elkhorn River, Loup River, Niobrara River, Republican River and Platte River with its two forks—the North Platte River and South Platte River. Population in the Northern High Plain aquifer area is sparse with only 2 cities having a population greater than 30,000.
Droughts across much of the area from 2001 to 2007, combined with recent (2004–18) legislation, have heightened concerns regarding future groundwater availability and highlighted the need for science-based water-resource management. Groundwater models with the capability to provide forecasts of groundwater availability and related stream base flows from the Northern High Plains aquifer were published recently (2016) and were used to analyze groundwater availability. Stream base flows are generally the dominant component of total streamflow in the Northern High Plains aquifer, and total streamflows or shortages thereof define conjunctive management triggers, at least in Nebraska. Groundwater availability was evaluated through comparison of aquifer-scale water budgets compared for periods before and after major groundwater development and across selected future forecasts. Groundwater-level declines and the forecast amount of groundwater in storage in the aquifer also were examined.
Aquifer losses to irrigation withdrawals increased greatly from 1940 to 2009 and were the largest average 2000–9 outflow (49 percent of total).
Basin to basin groundwater flows were not a large part of basin water budgets.
Development of irrigated land and associated withdrawals were not uniform across the Northern High Plains aquifer, and different parts of the Northern High Plains aquifer responded differently to agricultural development.
For the Northern High Plains aquifer, areas with high recharge and low evapotranspiration had the most streamflow, and most streams only remove water from the aquifer.
Results of a baseline future forecast indicated that groundwater levels declined overall, indicating an overdraft of the aquifer when climate was about average and agricultural development was held at the same state as 2009.
Results of two human stresses future forecasts indicated that increases of 13 percent or 23 percent in agricultural development, mostly near areas of previous development, caused increases in groundwater pumping of 8 percent or 11 percent, and resulted in continued groundwater-level declines, at rates 0.3 or 0.5 million acre-feet per year larger than the baseline forecast.
Results of environmental stresses forecasts (generated from two downscalings of global climate model outputs) compared with the baseline forecast indicated that even though annual precipitation was nearly the same, differences in temperature and a redistribution of precipitation from the spring to the growing season (from about May 1 through September 30), created a large (12–15 percent) decrease in recharge to the aquifer.
For the two environmental stresses forecasts, temperature and precipitation were distributed about the same among basins of the Northern High Plains aquifer, but the amounts were different.
Peterson, S.M., Traylor, J.P., and Guira, M., 2020, Groundwater availability of the Northern High Plains aquifer in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1864, 57 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/pp1864.
From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):
WESTERN WATER Q&A: FORMER JOURNALIST NANCY VOGEL EXPLAINS HOW THE DRAFT CALIFORNIA WATER RESILIENCE PORTFOLIO CAME TOGETHER AND WHY IT’S EXPECTED TO GUIDE FUTURE STATE DECISIONS
Shortly after taking office in 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom called on state agencies to deliver a Water Resilience Portfolio to meet California’s urgent challenges — unsafe drinking water, flood and drought risks from a changing climate, severely depleted groundwater aquifers and native fish populations threatened with extinction.
Within days, he appointed Nancy Vogel, a former journalist and veteran water communicator, as director of the Governor’s Water Portfolio Program to help shepherd the monumental task of compiling all the information necessary for the portfolio. The three state agencies tasked with preparing the document delivered the draft Water Resilience Portfolio Jan. 3. The document, which Vogel said will help guide policy and investment decisions related to water resilience, is nearing the end of its comment period, which goes through Friday, Feb. 7.
In an interview with Western Water, Vogel acknowledged that every governor seeks to put their stamp on solving the state’s water resource issues. The hope with the Water Resilience Portfolio, she said, is that it can be a catalyst for progress because California’s next drought or flood is never far away and the time to act is now.
Western Water: How would you describe the purpose of the portfolio?
NANCY VOGEL: It’s a high-level policy planning document, much like the Water Action Plan was for the Brown administration. It sets forth our priorities and it’s the blueprint for state agencies working on water. I’ve been impressed with just how much time and energy people have put into providing us input and making sure that it’s on the scale we need.
WW: You have been presenting the portfolio around the state. What’s the response been?
VOGEL: Its generally positive. People say they feel as if they’ve been heard. A lot of people say ‘I can see my comments reflected in the Portfolio, but I’m going to send you another set of comments because I have a quibble with this or that or you forgot X, Y or Z,’ and that’s a good opportunity for us to take another look.
WW: The Sierra Club wrote that the document ‘suffers from an unprioritized list of actions and is ultimately a restatement of water policy depending heavily on a few large-scale and outdated water fixes.’ How do you respond to that?
VOGEL: We’ll have to agree to disagree on that. I do not think the draft portfolio depends on a few big projects. Our approach is diversified, as a portfolio should be. As for the criticism that this is a restatement, we have momentum coming out of the 2012-2016 drought and we want to continue to make progress without massive new mandates on local water districts or attempts at drastic reforms that would unleash uncertainty and stall progress.
WW: What’s the relevance of the portfolio to the average Californian?
VOGEL: We all need water and food and want our grandkids to experience spring-run chinook salmon and snow geese. Nobody wants a California where fellow residents lose their homes to flood or tap water to drought. It takes a lot of planning and investment to maintain water supplies and natural systems in a state with such big geographic and timing imbalances in its water resources. This is a document that tries to steer state resources and efforts toward helping the very diverse regions of California be ready for more extreme conditions — drought and flood — and to be able to supply water to communities, the economy and the environment into the future despite climate change and increasing population.
WW: How does the portfolio address the land use changes that are anticipated to occur as a result of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act?
VOGEL: The draft portfolio acknowledges that local planners face changes in their tax rolls, workforce and land uses, and the state can help local governments anticipate and adjust to those changes with funding and resources for planning. Land uses will change in some places, and that’s going to have a ripple effect on communities and county budgets.
WW: The portfolio says a new emphasis on cooperation across state agencies and with regional groups and leaders is needed. How does that occur?
VOGEL: Our approach to the draft Portfolio embodies cooperation — we asked for extensive input. We wanted to hear about local concerns and what water managers think the state can best do to support them as they address those concerns. I think it’s a mindset. Sometimes people forget how much [Integrated Regional Water Management] has accomplished in terms of the way we look at collaboration on a watershed scale. And it’s easy to focus on the things that IRWM isn’t doing or isn’t doing as well as we’d like. But we’re in a much different place now in 2020 than we were in 2000 because of IRWM and we want to build on that. There are lots of other ways for regions to collaborate on a watershed scale and we’re open to that and we want to support that too. But we don’t want to take everything that’s been accomplished and all those human relationships forged in the planning efforts under IRWM — we don’t want to just toss that aside and start over. We want to build on that. And we need to improve the way we coordinate at the state level, too.
WW: How do you make sure this just doesn’t end up another book on a shelf and that there is follow through?
VOGEL: That will take sustained, high-level focus from Secretaries [Wade] Crowfoot, [Jared] Blumenfeld and [Karen] Ross [from Natural Resources, Cal EPA and Food and Agriculture, respectively] and I know they’re committed to that. We also task ourselves with doing an annual update on progress, in which the public will hold us accountable for what we’ve accomplished and have yet to accomplish. We get the resources, the right people in the right places, and we make progress.
WW: How did your experience in journalism prepare you for this task and to be an advocate for this portfolio?
VOGEL: A journalist learns to listen and to absorb information quickly and to organize it. We had a lot of information coming in quickly as we began to prepare the portfolio and I think my experience with organizing information in a way that I could then disseminate to people who needed to make decisions helped. Journalists get to interview everybody who cares about an issue and so they end up with a unique perspective on a problem that’s valuable. And I felt like I got to do that in some ways as the person who was herding cats on the portfolio. I got to hear everybody’s concerns and that was a privilege. It’s hard to do justice to all the experience and knowledge and often conflicting but heartfelt values reflected in the input we got. We did our best. It was a team effort across the departments and the agencies. It’s been a lot of hours but so worthwhile. I just want to improve the document now and make it the best it can be.
Reach Gary Pitzer: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @gary_wef. Know someone else who wants to stay connected with water in the West? Encourage them to sign up for Western Water, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
On Jan. 23, the Trump administration finalized a rule that would remove protections for waterways throughout the country, and as much as 70% of Colorado’s water, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment…
The new Navigable Waters rule specifies four protected types of waterways: territorial seas and large rivers and lakes; tributaries that flow year-round; lakes and ponds that are connected to larger bodies; and adjacent wetlands. In the West, where many tributaries don’t flow in warm months, and are being drained and diverted due to infrastructure projects, the amount of impacted waterways is likely to be large…
In the face of the Navigable Waters rule and the NEPA rollbacks, it will be up to Western states to ensure appropriate environmental protections are enacted to mitigate the new rules’ impact.
The Trump administration is proposing to redefine a key term in the Clean Water Act: “Waters of the United States.” This deceptively simple phrase describes which streams, lakes, wetlands and other water bodies qualify for federal protection under the law.
Government regulators, landowners, conservationists and other groups have struggled to agree on what it means for more than 30 years. Those who support a broad definition believe the federal government has a broad role in protecting waters – even if they are small, isolated, or present only during wet seasons. Others say that approach infringes on private property rights, and want to limit which waters count.
The Trump proposal goes completely against scientists’ understanding of how rivers work. In my view, the proposed changes will strip rivers of their ability to provide water clean enough to support life, and will enhance the spiral of increasingly damaging floods that is already occurring nationwide. To understand why, it’s worth looking closely at how connected smaller bodies of waters act as both buffers and filters for larger rivers and streams.
Parts of a whole
The fact that something is unseen does not make it unimportant. Think of your own circulatory system. You can see some veins in your hands and arms, and feel the pulse in your carotid artery with your finger. But you can’t see the capillaries – tiny channels that support vital processes. Nutrients, oxygen and carbon dioxide move between your blood and the fluids surrounding the cells of your body, passing through the capillaries.
And just because something is abundant does not reduce each single unit’s value. For example, when we look at a tree we tend to see a mass of leaves. The tree won’t suffer much if some leaves are damaged, especially if they can regrow. But if it loses all of its leaves, the tree will likely die.
These systems resemble maps of river networks, like the small tributary rivers that feed into great rivers such as the Mississippi or the Columbia. Capillaries feed small veins that flow into larger veins in the human body, and leaves feed twigs that sprout from larger branches and the trunk.
Microbes at work
Comparing these analogs to rivers also is apt in another way. A river is an ecosystem, and some of its most important components can’t be seen.
Small channels in a river network are points of entry for most of the materials that move through it, and also sites where potentially harmful materials can be biologically processed. The unseen portions of a river below the streambed function like a human’s liver by filtering out these harmful materials. In fact, this metaphor applies to headwater streams in general. Without the liver, toxins would accumulate until the organism dies.
As an illustration, consider how rivers process nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which are essential for plant and animal life but also have become widespread pollutants. Fossil fuel combustion and agricultural fertilizers have increased the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus circulating in air, water and soil. When they accumulate in rivers, lakes and bays, excess nutrients can cause algal blooms that deplete oxygen from the water, killing fish and other aquatic animals and creating “dead zones.” Excess nitrogen in drinking water is also a serious human health threat.
River ecosystems are full of microbes in unseen places, such as under the roots of trees growing along the channel; in sediments immediately beneath the streambed; and in the mucky ooze of silt, clay, and decomposing leaves trapped upstream from logs in the channel. Microbes can efficiently remove nutrients from water, taking them up in their tissues and in turn serving as food for insects, and then fish, birds, otters and so on. They are found mainly in and around smaller channels that make up an estimated 70 to 80 percent of the total length of any river network.
Water does not necessarily move very efficiently through these small channels. It may pond temporarily above a small logjam, or linger in an eddy. Where a large boulder obstructs the stream flow, some of the water is forced down into the streambed, where it moves slowly through sediments before welling back up into the channel. But that’s good. Microbes thrive in these slower zones, and where the movement of dissolved nutrients slows for even a matter of minutes, they can remove nutrients from the water.
Flood control and habitat
Other critical processes, such as flood control, take place in small upstream river channels. When rain concentrates in a river fed by numerous small streams, and surrounded by bottomland forests and floodplain wetlands, it moves more slowly across the landscape than if it were running off over land. This process reduces flood peaks and allows more water to percolate down into the ground. Disconnect the small streams from their floodplains, or pave and plow the small channels, and rain will move quickly from uplands into the larger channels, causing damaging floods.
These networks also provide critical habitat for many species. Streams that are dry much of the year, and wetlands with no surface flow into or out of them, are just as important to the health of a river network as streams that flow year-round.
Marvelously adapted organisms in dry streams wait for periods when life-giving water flows in. When the water comes, these creatures burst into action, with microbes removing nitrate just as in perennially flowing streams. Amphibians move down from forests to temporarily flooded vernal wetlands to breed. Tiny fish, such as brassy minnows, have waited out the dry season in pools that hold water year-round. When flowing water connects the pools, the minnows speed through breeding and laying eggs that then grow into mature fish in a short period of time.
Scientific sleuthing with chemical tracers has shown that wetlands with no visible surface connection to other water bodies are in fact connected via unseen subterranean pathways used by water and microbes. A river network is not simply a gutter. It is an ecosystem, and all the parts, unseen or seen, matter. I believe the current proposal to alter the Clean Water Act will fundamentally damage rivers’ ability to support all life – including us.
After results late last year showed water wells in three out of 18 homes in a mountain community west of Boulder had elevated levels of polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, the county and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment plan to test the water at 10 additional properties this year.
Ron Falco, safe drinking water program manager for the state of Colorado, said the department and county are in the process of finalizing an a $8,000-contract to continue testing in the Boulder Heights subdivision. The cost will be covered by the CDPHE. Falco said officials hope more water samples will provide answers on the extent of the contamination and bring awareness to residents…
Testing is anticipated to begin mid-February. Results could be ready sometime in March. The testing follows an announcement last year that contaminated water was found in a well at the Boulder Mountain Fire Protection District’s Station 2.
Joe Malinowski, the environmental health, division manager for Boulder County Public Health, said it still is unknown what the source for contamination is…
The three homes that tested above the health advisory of 70 parts per trillion last year, showed combined levels of perfluorooctanic acid, PFOA, and perfluorooctane sulfate, PFOS, at 2,057 parts per trillion, 416 parts per trillion and 200 parts per trillion…
Homeowners who live in the mountain community depend on wells as a source of water…
Many PFAS chemicals found in water have been traced to a type of fire suppressant, called Class B firefighting foam, according to the CDPHE. The foam is used to fight industrial and chemical fires. Benson emphasized in a September meeting that the station does not use this type of foam. Last year, state legislature passed House Bill 19-1279, calling on state health departments to conduct surveys every three years of fire departments to determine use and disposal of the foam.
The CDPHE, county and fire department have worked together to determine which homes should be tested, Falco said. The properties are near the fire station or slightly outside the 1,500-foot radius, according to Malinowski.
Click here to read the January 2020 Western Water News from Audubon. Here’s an excerpt:
Western Water News
UPDATE: New Federal Rule Reduces Protections for Water in the West, Harming People and Birds
The Trump Administration’s revised Waters of the United States rule shrinks the number of waterways protected under the Clean Water Act.
UPDATE (1/23/2020): Today, the Trump Administration announced finalization of rollbacks to the Clean Water Rule. The newly published Navigable Waters Protection Rule removes Clean Water Act protections for many rivers, streams, and wetlands, which could allow them to be altered, degraded or filled without first seeking a federal permit. For example, a large number of streams and wetlands that only flow or are wet for part of the year are now exempt from Clean Water Act protections. Some 138 species and subspecies of birds in the U.S. are designated as “wetland dependent” and many more are threatened by the new rule.
At Audubon, we know the value that wetlands, rivers, lakes, and streams provide to birds. These waterways are critical habitat for the lifecycle of millions of birds, not to mention the millions of people who rely on clean water to drink, bathe, wash, and grow our food.
Riverside forests and wetlands—fed by both continuous and intermittent water sources—are essential for birds, particularly in the arid Southwest.
However, under the 2019 Proposed Revised Definition for Waters of the United States (WOTUS) many waterways that flow for only portions of the year would be excluded from Clean Water Act protections. This means ephemeral waterways like the Rio Puerco in New Mexico, Centennial Wash in Arizona, Milpitas Wash in Southern California’s Imperial County and Chemehuevi Wash in San Bernardino County would no longer be protected. Without WOTUS protections, developers can build in these areas without federal permits, and the waterways and their surrounding environments would be unprotected from potentially harmful discharges. In the past, industrial operators used these dry washes as disposal sites for pollutants, only to end up contaminating the groundwater below.
Along many of the dry washes in the desert Southwest, trees like mesquite, palo verde, and ironwood thrive. When water occasionally flows through these normally dry washes, these thrifty trees take advantage. Along these washes, trees grow tall and into dense desert forests. They support abundant avian life, especially Lucy’s Warblers, Bell’s Vireos, Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Phainopeplas, and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. These woodlands comprise only five percent of the acreage in the desert regions of the Southwest but support 90 percent of the bird life, according to A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert. For these habitats to be stripped of their protections under the Clean Water Act means a serious risk of habitat loss in areas of outsized importance for birds.
On the human side of the equation, excluding dry washes and ephemeral streams and rivers risks damage to property through flooding. In Arizona, for example, drainages coming off local mountain ranges flow infrequently. However, when they do flow due to rain or snow events, floodwaters can overwhelm the normally dry channels. Clean Water Act protections can require that developers mitigate impacts to these washes, or mandate that development keep the washes intact in order to act as drainages for storm events. As part of the urban fabric, these washes serve as flood protection for communities during storm events and as corridors for wildlife when dry.
Losing protections on thousands of stream and river miles because they only flow seasonally or after rain events or snowmelt will negatively impact the birds and people who rely on these important water resources throughout the Southwest. Audubon will submit formal comments on the proposed WOTUS definition to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers by the April 15, 2019 deadline, and we invite you to do the same.
Jan. 23, 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the improved definition for “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) with the Navigable Waters Protection Rule. “ The Navigable Waters Protection Rule ends decades of uncertainty over where federal jurisdiction begins and ends. For the first time, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers are recognizing the difference between federally protected wetlands and state protected wetlands. It adheres to the statutory limits of the agencies’ authority. It also ensures that America’s water protections – among the best in the world – remain strong, while giving our states and tribes the certainty to manage their waters in ways that best protect their natural resources and local economies.”
In March 2014, the Obama administration released a regulation that would assert Clean Water Act jurisdiction over nearly all areas including those with undiscernible connections to water resources and man-made conveyances. Specifically, the Obama WOTUS rule expanded agency control over 60 percent of the country’s streams and millions of acres of wetlands that were previously non-jurisdictional. In September 2019, the Trump administration, EPA and Army Corps of Engineers repealed the controversial 2015 WOTUS rule and proposed a new Clean Water rule clarifying which level of government, federal or state, would oversee water features and dry land that is sometimes wet.
The revised WOTUS definition identifies four clear categories of waters that are federally regulated under the Clean Water Act: the territorial seas and traditional navigable waters; perennial and intermittent tributaries; certain lakes, ponds and impoundments; and wetlands that are adjacent to jurisdictional waters. The final action also details what waters are not subject to federal control, including features that only contain water in direct response to rainfall; groundwater; many ditches, including most farm and roadside ditches; prior converted cropland; farm and stock watering ponds; and waste treatment systems.
Leaders of the National Potato Council (NPC) welcomed the announcement that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized its proposed rule defining the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule with the Navigable Waters Protection Rule. EPA’s action also defines what waters are not subject to federal control, including most farm and roadside ditches, prior converted cropland, and farm and stock watering ponds.
“Potato farmers are committed to protecting the nation’s waters,” said Britt Raybould, President of the National Potato Council. “However, the imposition of unnecessary federal burdens, such as regulating ditches on private farms that are generally dry throughout the year, undermines that overall mission by creating uncertainty and increasing costs. EPA’s newly issued rule avoids those negative outcomes and provides increased clarity regarding the responsibilities of farmers under the Clean Water Act in protecting our nation’s surface water resources.”
Contrastingly, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment stated, “The EPA’s announcement today is alarming as it puts our precious waters at risk. Every Coloradan, and so many others from neighboring states, are dependent on Colorado’s healthy waterways. At the department, regardless of what happens at the federal-level, we’ll always be committed to the health of our waters. Healthy waters mean healthy Coloradans,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“In the absence of federal leadership, we are going to do everything possible to protect streams and wetlands in Colorado. It’s sad that we have to step up in contrast with our federal government on something so basic as protecting our water, but we must. The rollback removes huge swaths of Colorado’s waters from federal jurisdiction, waters used by 19 states and Mexico. It’s estimated that almost 70 percent of our Colorado Waters could be impacted by this rule. Additionally, the change will impose significant burdens upon the State of Colorado,” said Patrick Pfaltzgraff, director, Water Quality Control Division.
Earlier in the year, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Colorado Department of Natural Resources, and Colorado Department of Agriculture collectively rebuked the EPA’s proposed rule change.
When Wendy Rash was diagnosed in 2005 with a thyroid disorder, chronic fatigue and other ailments, her doctor couldn’t explain her suddenly failing health.
Soon, other family members became ill. Her brother-in-law contracted fatal kidney cancer. Her father-in-law developed esophageal cancer. Then her 32-year-old son began having severe kidney problems.
It wasn’t until 2016 that scientists tested the tap water they had been drinking and found it was contaminated with man-made chemicals known as per-fluorinated compounds, part of a family of chemicals called PFAS. The chemicals were traced to firefighting foam from a nearby military airfield, one of hundreds of Pentagon bases nationwide that for decades may have contaminated drinking water used by tens of thousands of people.
“We had no clue,” said Rash, 58.
The role played by PFAS in the family’s illnesses is not known. Studies have shown a link between the chemicals and a range of health problems, including an elevated risk for some cancers, but they have not established a clear cause-and-effect relationship.
Rash’s family history of illnesses is common in Fountain, a Colorado Springs suburb flanked by mountains and military bases. And the scientific uncertainty about how much risk residents face has only worsened the anxiety many feel, as Fountain and surrounding towns have become a center of the growing national furor over the possible health effects of ingesting PFAS.
Congress is trying to expand regulation of the chemicals. Earlier this month, the House voted 247 to 159 in favor of a bill requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to designate PFAS as hazardous substances, which would free up funds for the cleanup at contaminated sites.
But the Trump administration has threatened to veto the bill, saying in a Jan. 7 statement that such a move would force high compliance costs on businesses and states, and that the EPA, not Congress, should make the decision.
Dominion, a wholesale district, has the vision to develop a renewable water and centralized wastewater system for northwest Douglas County. Dominion’s system provides options where none have existed before.
To create a water system that is built to last, we leveraged location, infrastructure and partnerships to create a regionally integrated network. As we grow, our values remain the same: dependability, water quality, environmental stewardship and innovation.
Dominion began this journey by partnering with other water providers to leverage regional assets to most economically and efficiently serve our customers. We continually engage our regional partners and prioritize cooperation within the water and wastewater community.
Currently, we have agreements with South Metro WISE (Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficient Partnership), Aurora and Castle Rock for renewable water. These agreements, along with Dominion’s other water supplies, give us the flexibility to provide water to Sterling Ranch and potentially new customers within our 33,000-acre service area.
Dominion will continue to grow and strengthen its portfolio. In addition to our water supply agreements with regional partners, in 2019, Dominion’s board approved the purchase of 500 acre-feet of storage in the Chatfield Reallocation Project from the state of Colorado. With this storage, shared with nine other water providers, Dominion will expand its ability to efficiently utilize its renewable water.
In 2020 Dominion’s long-term investments will connect northwest Douglas County to the largest water providers in Colorado. At the heart of Dominion’s system is the new Eastern Regional Pipeline that will bring 1,325 acre-feet of renewable WISE water to our region and add to Dominion’s already robust and reliable water supply portfolio.
This pipeline is the key to bringing renewable water to northwest Douglas County, giving those on unsustainable groundwater an exciting opportunity. The pipeline will not only carry the WISE supply but also future supplies to serve prospective customers and firefighting capabilities for much of the region. The new pipeline is nearly complete and is expected to connect this summer, completing a loop the south metro water providers have been working toward for over a decade.
Dominion also continues to stay in the forefront of innovative solutions to support and develop water technology, sustainability and management. We are developing rainwater harvesting through the only state-approved pilot project. In late 2019, thanks to a long-running relationship between Vanderbilt University and Sterling Ranch, Dominion, Aurora and South Metro partners are working with Vanderbilt on water-treatment technologies that would address water quality challenges faced broadly by Colorado and nationwide.
The Trump administration formally proposed a rule last week that strips away protections that have been in place 50 years for waters all across the U.S. In what is seen as a victory for fossil fuel producers, farmers, and real estate developers, the proposed rule retains protections for large bodies of water, rivers, and streams—but removes safeguards for many wetlands, intermittent streams, and groundwater.
E & E News reports that a group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, made up of current and former EPA scientific advisers, has filed a complaint calling for an investigation into the process leading to the new rule, charging that it was based more on politics than science. They claim that the final rule contradicts the overwhelming scientific consensus on the connectivity of wetlands and rivers and streams. They add that officials instructed staff not to submit comments for the record.
The new rule, which will be implemented in 60 days, is sure to be challenged in court by environmental groups and some state attorneys general. The outcome, if it makes it to the Supreme Court, is not certain. One environmental law expert told Politico that conservative justices on the Court may not like the way the Trump administration ignored both science and the experts it picked to advise the EPA.
Elected officials and advocacy groups in Colorado responded to a change to a federal rule on water protections.
The previous rule, called “Waters of the United States,” or WOTUS, was established in 2015 by the Obama administration. That rule, however, was under intense scrutiny by Republicans, property rights groups, and several industries for what they perceived as federal regulatory overreach, citing it’s expansive interpretation.
That rule was repealed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Army in September.
The new rule, called the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, was announced on Thursday at a builders’ industry trade show in Las Vegas.
The Trump administration says the new rule will still protect navigable waters from pollution but also will provide regulatory relief and more certainty for development.
“EPA and the Army are providing much needed regulatory certainty and predictability for American farmers, landowners and businesses to support the economy and accelerate critical infrastructure projects,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. “After decades of landowners relying on expensive attorneys to determine what water on their land may or may not fall under federal regulations, our new Navigable Waters Protection Rule strikes the proper balance between Washington and the states in managing land and water resources while protecting our nation’s navigable waters, and it does so within the authority Congress provided.”
The new rule creates four different categories for bodies of water to be federally regulated under the Clean Water Act, and excludes certain types of bodies of water such as ditches.
The new rule drew broad criticism from Colorado Democrats and environmental groups that work in the state.
“In Colorado, we value our clean water. Our rivers, streams, and lakes serve as the lifeblood of our communities and help support our thriving outdoor and agriculture industries,” Gov. Jared Polis said. “Our administration will continue to reject attempts by the Trump administration to gut proven ways to protect our health and environment.”
U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., tweeted that the new rule “removes protections for smaller bodies of water & rolls back federal protections for smaller headwaters that have been protected for almost 50 years – including the Colorado River.”
Western Resource Advocates, an environmental advocacy group headquartered in Boulder, in a tweet urged state lawmakers “to stand w/ their communities & lead where the federal government won’t. We’re calling on our leaders throughout the West to come together & safeguard healthy rivers & clean water.”
Republicans and some industry groups praised the rule change for reducing regulations.
“The uncertain interpretation of the term ‘navigable waters’ created by WOTUS has left farmers, ranchers and private land owners unprotected from federal land and water grabs,” U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., said “Over the last three years, President Trump’s administration has worked to repeal unnecessary and burdensome regulations with updated versions that better suit the needs of our agricultural communities.”
Don Shawcroft, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, which advocates for agricultural interests, said the new “rule provides clarity and stability for farmers and ranchers everywhere, ensuring that farmland remains healthy and productive, and our waters protected. It is a major win for Colorado agriculture.”
Both the Colorado Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business-Colorado supported the rule change.
In response to proposed PFAS regulations, cities and water managers are raising concerns over their financial liability
In the summer of 2018, Lucy Molina, a 45-year-old mother of two who lives in Commerce City near the Suncor oil refinery, said a city council member told her that her tap water was contaminated with toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, also known as PFAS. At the time, she said, she didn’t know what the chemicals were. It was just one more reason to not drink the water in the heavily industrial north Denver area…
The city’s water utility, South Adams County Water and Sanitation District, put out a news release in July 2018 saying the water was safe to drink because the PFAS concentrations fell below the Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion. One part per trillion is about equal to one grain of sugar in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
But in the wake of growing public concern over PFAS, a group of chemicals used in a range of products, including firefighting foam, non-stick cooking wear and Gore-Tex waterproof outdoor gear, Colorado’s health agency is questioning whether that concentration limit is in fact safe.
“If I ask the state toxicologist and I ask experts in the field, they will never use terms like ‘safe’ with respect to PFAS,” said John Putnam, the director for environmental programs at the Department of Public Health and Environment. “Because we don’t really know, since there are limits to all these studies.”
New research has linked exposure to PFAS to health issues including cancer and immune, reproductive, and hormonal dysfunction. But the EPA’s advisory level, which is not enforceable, hasn’t changed since 2016 and seems unlikely to be revised any time in the near future. The Trump administration’s EPA has been rolling back water protections. And Congress has failed to pass comprehensive PFAS regulations, in part because Republicans, including those in Colorado’s delegation, have concerns about how much it will cost cities and water managers to comply. Compliance could include more frequent testing of water supplies costing thousands of dollars per week and upgrades to water treatment facilities that could cost millions of dollars.
That’s left Colorado in the unprecedented position of scrambling to set a drinking water standard — and then trying to enforce it. Putnam said this is a task the state doesn’t have the money or staff to handle yet. And any effort it takes to cut corners to hold polluters accountable or mandate cleanup could be challenged in court by cities, water managers and other groups concerned about their own financial liabilities…
But some residents in Colorado are tired of waiting. Since 2016, the state has known the toxic, mostly non-biodegradable “forever chemicals” have been found in Colorado’s drinking water supplies above the federal advisory limit. The chemicals have been found in groundwater within fire districts in Boulder County and near Front Range military bases, airports and other industrial sites that use PFAS-laced foam to extinguish fires. The cities of Security, Widefield and Fountain, which share a watershed with military bases and the Colorado Springs Airport, are ground zero for PFAS contamination in Colorado. A well at the Peterson Air Force Base tested at 88,000 parts per trillion for a PFAS compound. El Paso County, home to the three cities and four military sites — Air Force Academy, Fort Carson Army Base, Peterson Air Force Base and the Schriever Air Force Base — was selected by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry as the site to take blood samples from residents and study the health effects of PFAS. The chemicals are less likely to be found in high levels in water supplies in other areas of the state, but given the chemicals’ omnipresence in modern life, they’re likely found in nearly everyone’s blood…
In response to public demand and inaction at the federal level, Colorado’s health department is asking the state legislature for legal permission to write drinking water standards for PFAS and is working on separate rules that could hold water polluters accountable by setting a groundwater standard and new permit permit requirements for how much PFAS is allowed to be released into the water.
The bill also could require fire departments and facilities that use PFAS to inform the state how much they have stockpiled, and if used, require that the PFAS be captured and disposed of properly.
Separate from the bill authorizing the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to write drinking water standards, the health department’s Water Quality Control Commission has been working on a new PFAS policy that would allow the state to regulate the chemicals through updated groundwater rules. The regulations could also set new conditions on water pollution permits.
Denver is among the cities raising concerns about the proposed regulations. The city has fire departments that use PFAS chemicals and owns the Denver International Airport, which is required by Federal Aviation Administration to use PFAS in its firefighting foam for safety certifications, and it faces financial liability for any regulations adopted. In a written comment to the state’s PFAS Action Plan, a representative for Denver said the state could be legally liable if it moves too fast with PFAS regulations, citing Colorado’s Administrative Procedures Act.
To set such standards under the state’s Administrative Procedures Act and other laws, the state will have to study health research, exposure potentials, and the cost-effectiveness of requiring utilities to meet such guidelines. That will take time and money, Putnam said. In many ways, Putnam said, Colorado’s law was written to slow the pace of regulation…
In September, lawmakers approved $500,000 so that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment could subsidize drinking water testing and pay a third party to analyze the samples. As of Jan. 16, of the 891 water providers and private well owners the state notified, 132 have applied for funding to test their supplies. In the 2020-2021 state budget, the department is requesting $250,000 to hire two new toxicologists to help study PFAS exposure and another $500,000 to continue the drinking water testing program.
It’s unclear whether lawmakers will approve the additional money…
Some environmentalists and water utility managers say polluters should be paying the price for cleanup and monitoring. States like New York have sued companies like DuPont and 3M, which manufacture PFAS chemicals. Scott, of the South Adams County Water and Sanitation District, said the state should focus on identifying the source of the pollution “so the cost of having to do the treatment is not passed on to our customers.”
Scott said PFAS contamination in his district could be coming from any number of industrial sources in the area. Suncor, an oil refinery located along Sand Creek, has acknowledged it has released PFAS into the water. The facility uses firefighting foam to put out petroleum-based fires…
Commerce City resident [Lucy] Molina said people should at least be given more information about their water quality. She said many of the area’s residents, nearly half of whom are Latino, speak only Spanish. The latest water report is in English. And it doesn’t mention the cancer risks of PFAS exposure.