Aspen City Council reviews report about using network of tunnels and adits as storage

Smuggler Mine back in the day via GregRulon.com

From The Aspen Daily News (Curtis Wackerle):

Building concrete bulkheads in 130-year-old mine tunnels and stopes that connect Aspen and Smuggler mountains underneath town could form storage vaults capable of holding between 1,000 and 2,000 acre feet of water, according to a report from Deere and Ault Consultants of Longmont, presented in a work session to Aspen City Council last week.

The report listed pros and cons of using underground mines, which are an alternative approach to water storage the city is investigating as it looks for options other than 150-plus-foot tall dams creating reservoirs on upper Castle and Maroon creeks. Council also heard a presentation on Monday from Deere and Ault about a preliminary review of “in situ” storage — meaning in lined storage vaults underground where water mixes with gravel and is then covered. The golf course was identified as a site that could lend itself to such a reservoir, the consultants told council.

Deere and Ault’s review of underground mine storage, resulting in a 20-page report, found that the pros of using Aspen’s underground mines for storage — such as proximity to water rights and infrastructure, usefulness as drought hedging and good baseline water quality — to be outweighed by the potential cons.

“Maintaining dominion and control” of stored underground water is first among those concerns, according to consultants. Even with a complex system of bulkheads at virtually every level in the mines, “water could still potentially leak out through the natural faults, shear zones and fracture zones,” the report says.

Constructing the vaults would be hazardous, since water that collects naturally in the tunnels would have to be pumped out. When water is pumped out of old mines, “that’s when collapses occur,” Victor deWolfe, with Deere and Ault, told the council.

Raising the water table — hard to avoid with underground storage — also carries risk. It could create more surface landslides and exacerbates flooding issues. And while water occurring in the limestone layers has tested for good quality overall, raising it and lowering it above the water table could “exacerbate metal leeching and acidification.” That contaminated water could then leak into neighboring freshwater streams.

The city would also have to build an expensive pumping and pipeline system to connect the vaults to the water treatment plant near the hospital. New treatment techniques and infrastructure may also be needed to deal with alternative water storage method.

“We noted that there is no real precedence in Colorado for storing raw water in underground hard rock mines for municipal use,” the report says.

The consultants did envision a possible system, however, where water from the Salvation Ditch is used to fill the Molly Gibson Shaft. Or, bulkheads could be installed to raise water levels beneath Aspen Mountain, and the city could tap water flows coming out of the Durant Tunnel at the base of the mountain, where it owns a 3 cubic feet per second water right.

Aspen’s complex geology is well understood, the consultants note, and their study drew on maps showing the many rock layers and mine tunnels. The pond at the current Glory Hole Park, off Ute Avenue, formed in the mining era when alluvial soils were swallowed by a sinkhole, taking a locomotive and two boxcars with it.

Council members thanked the consultants for the report — the study, which included site visits, cost the city $15,000 — but showed little appetitive for pursuing the issue further. Councilman Bert Myrin said it’s crucial for the city to determine how much water it needs to store before it can make sense of options.

Deere and Ault will continue looking into the “in-situ” reservoir concept, which also could yield 1,000 or more acre feet of storage.

San Luis Valley aquifer system primer

San Luis Valley via National Geographic

From the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable (Helen Smith) via The Valley Courier:

Water is the glue that holds the San Luis Valley together. It is vital to the people, the economy, lifestyle and even the physical landscape of the Valley itself.

There are two aquifers that lie beneath the Valley floor. One is the confined aquifer that is trapped below a series of clay lenses deep beneath the Valley floor. The other is the unconfined aquifer that is generally found within the first 100 feet of the surface. Without the water from these aquifers, the San Luis Valley would very likely not be the agricultural workhorse that we know today.

There are also unique geological structures such as Rio Grande Rift that contributes to when and where water travels throughout the Valley subsurface. Aquifers are key, particularly the unconfined. The water of the unconfined aquifer functions very much like surface water. The recharge of this important commodity comes from the mountains and the snow that brings down their runoff. The unconfined aquifer supplies 85 percent of agricultural well water. The largest concentration of these wells lies within Sub-district #1.

The confined aquifer lies beneath the unconfined aquifer. There are clay layers that separate the aquifers. Historic Alamosa Lake is likely responsible for the formation of these layers. The water that lies beneath the surface is heavily relied upon by the agricultural community. There are also differences in how each of the aquifers react. In addition, any well in the San Luis Valley inevitably impacts the river flow at some point.

As a Valley native from Saguache, Allen Davey of Davis Engineering Services has studied the San Luis Valley aquifer system extensively. He also has a great deal of background on the Valley’s water issues. Davey points out that the aquifers and well levels have been monitored since 1970, when accurate measurements were first available. Since that time, there have been notable trends in the increase and decrease of the aquifer and well levels. The water table itself has seen a significant and steady decline partly due to the sheer number of wells that have been drilled. More water has been taken than replaced. The worst decrease was the extreme drought that began in 2002. Historically speaking, demand has simply outweighed supply. Because of these factors, there are now big implications for the future.

Davey also explained that the aquifers are situated very much like a bowl of water. This means that there is pressure that pushes the water upward from beneath the clay and downward pressure from the surface. The result is wells in the confined aquifer have high amounts of pressure, the result of which is artesian flow. Both confined and unconfined wells are heavily relied upon especially for agriculture irrigation. This has resulted in a widening gap between the aquifer waters and the surface.

Because this gap between the water and the surface has increased, it is now not impossible that there is potential for the Valley floor to begin sinking if the aquifer is not replenished. Rebuilding the aquifer system has now become even more necessary than many once thought. It has now become imperative that this issue be addressed. It is also critical that the recharge process is working properly.

The effort to replace the depletions and rebuild the aquifer is another piece to this puzzle. This is where sub-districts, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the pending well rules and regulations for Division 3 come in. The pending regulations for Division 3 require well users to replace their depletions. There is also a slow gain in the northern portions of the aquifer system being seen though studies and reports that Davis Engineering Services provides to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Because the well owners of Sub-district #1 have been replacing their depletions, Davey believes that the aquifer is headed in the right direction because of monitoring and reduced pumping. Replacing depletions will only help agriculture as well as Colorado’s obligation to the Rio Grande Compact.

The well rules for Division 3 and the replacement efforts are still a work in progress. However, it would appear that these measures are producing some results. The trial to finalize the rules for Division 3 is set for January of 2018. If and when these rules are approved, a great deal of change will arrive. Arguably, it is necessary change.

The future remains to be seen. There is certainly a great deal of importance in this matter when considering the agriculture, the people and the future of the San Luis Valley. This is a unique situation that will require a unique solution.

Helen Smith is the Outreach Specialist for the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable.

The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable meets the second Tuesday of every month. Meetings are located at the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District office at 623 4th St. Alamosa. For more information visit http://www.RGBRT.org.

@USGS Monthly Groundwater News and Highlights: May 1, 2017

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

A new USGS assessment suggests that brackish groundwater could help stretch limited freshwater supplies. The amount of fresh or potable groundwater in storage has declined for many areas in the United States and has led to concerns about the future availability of water for drinking-water, agricultural, industrial, and environmental needs. Use of brackish groundwater could supplement or, in some places, replace the use of freshwater sources and enhance our Nation’s water security.

2017 #coleg: Gov. Hickenlooper signs SB17-036 (Appellate Process Concerning Groundwater Decisions)

Groundwater movement via the USGS

From Colorado Corn Growers via The High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal:

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law Senate Bill 17-036—a piece of legislation that was supported by the Colorado Corn Growers Association and is what some in the industry describe as one of the most significant pieces of water-related legislation in recent years. Colorado Corn Executive Coordinator Ann Cross was on hand in Denver for the signing of the bill.

This legislation will prevent evidence being changed during the appeal of a water right-change case in a designated groundwater basin, thus protecting farmers and ranchers from incurring unnecessary costs when protecting the value of their water right. The bill’s sponsors were Sens. Jeni Arndt, Don Coram and Ray Scott.

Colorado Farm Bureau President Don Shawcroft said in a statement that “the signing of SB17-036 into law will ensure a fair and equitable appeals process for water right owners within designated groundwater basins, while reducing potential costs and maintaining the integrity of the Groundwater Management Act.

“The appeals process within Colorado’s designated groundwater basins will now be treated equitably, providing fair and equal access to district court appeals, and ensures that the appeals process is treated in a similar manner to all other state appellate processes,” Shawcroft added.

Pueblo County Planning and Development Board okays gravel pit near Bessemer Ditch

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Anthony A. Mestas):

[A] contentious battle over a proposed gravel pit at Badger Hills between Avondale Boulevard and 40th Lane came to an end with a granted permit from the Pueblo County Planning and Development Board.

If appealed, the decision would go to the Pueblo County commissioners.

The company has been granted a special-use permit for a 1,500-acre mineral and natural resource extraction and mining operation.

Those in opposition of the proposal have complained about the amount of truckloads that would travel along 36th Lane to U.S. 50 in front of Vineland Elementary School and Vineland Middle School.

The opponents said they do intend to appeal the decision. They have 10 days to do so.

Earlier, there even was contention on the vote. The permit passed 5-1. Donald Thorne voted no. Then he resigned from the commission. He said he was not happy with some of the decisions the planning commission has made recently.

Fremont Paving has an existing gravel pit on 36th Lane. If the commissioners allow the permit, a private road would connect the existing gravel pit to the new operation. The haul route from there would continue on 36th Lane.

John Paul Ary, of Fremont Paving, said his company is limited to 70 trucks a day from the new site to the existing one. Those in opposition said there would be 200 plus trucks a day when added to the truckloads already coming from the older operation.

Those in opposition also have said the operation would cause environmental concerns in the area and thick dust.

#AnimasRiver: @EPA is recommending a scaled-back approach for Bonita Peak superfund due to funding uncertainty

On April 7, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
Eric Baker

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

EPA crews in southwestern Colorado swiftly stopped an acidic, 15 gallons-a-minute flow from the defunct Brooklyn Mine, drainage that for decades has injected heavy arsenic, cadmium, lead, manganese and zinc into Animas River headwaters. That’s a tiny portion of the overall 3,750 gallons-a-minute contaminating the Animas, but is typical of the trickling from thousands of mines that slowly kills Western streams — even as clean water increasingly is coveted.

“It took half a day. All we did was redirect the adit flow so that it didn’t cross waste rock,” EPA Superfund project manager Rebecca Thomas said…

…EPA cleanup specialists face the practical reality that the nation’s ailing Superfund program for rectifying environmental disasters may not be able to deliver. Federal cleanups of toxic mining Superfund sites typically take decades due to bureaucracy and scarce funds.

EPA officials have proposed 40 “early-response” fixes spanning 20 of the mine sites in the mountains above Silverton. If locals approve — public meetings are scheduled next week — EPA crews would embark on these small-scale projects to create ponds that slow drainage so that contaminants drop out, to reroute snow and rain run-off away from waste rock, and to remove tailings that slump into streams and ooze poison.

The investigation and planning for a full Superfund cleanup still would continue, once EPA chiefs and Congress allocate funds. But the overall cleanup here at 46 sites across the newly designated, 60-square-mile Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site is complicated and costly. It requires mapping a vast underground maze of drilled tunnels and natural fissures, inserting concrete plugs and installing water-cleaning systems. EPA crews also would have to dispose of thousands of cubic yards of metals-laced sludge each year, spreading it in waste pits or possibly injecting it into super-deep bore holes to serve as a buffer and hold acidic mining wastewater inside dormant mine tunnels…

Less money for EPA could reduce Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment testing of water quality in streams and slow completion of a toxic mines inventory to guide cleanups at thousands of the worst leaking mines, Green said. Next year, Conservation Colorado will push state-level legislation to require mining companies to post sufficient bond money to guarantee proper postmining restoration.

In Washington, D.C., Earthworks advocates lamented that legislation Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner mulled to promote cleanups has fizzled…

Beyond the quick fixes, EPA and southwestern Colorado officials also are working to create a scientific research center in Silverton that they envision as a hub for hydrology research to improve water quality at mining sites…

Next week, EPA officials plan to hold public meetings with residents in Silverton, Durango and Farmington, N.M., for discussion of both the quick fixes and long-term cleanup.

“Funding is a question,” said Thomas, the EPA project manager. “We certainly will be requesting money this year. We will start the work as soon as the funding is available — no earlier than probably the fourth quarter this year.”

Yet tangible progress can be made sooner, she said.

“I’m very optimistic. This is a high-visibility project. The work that we do in this district could be used as a template for hundreds, if not thousands, of abandoned mines across the Rocky Mountain West. There’s a lot of energy here at the EPA, and also at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, to make sure we do the right thing and see some improvement in environmental quality. I’m more optimistic than trepidacious for sure,” Thomas said.

2017 #coleg: SB17-036 (Appellate Process Concerning Groundwater Decisions) now #Colorado law

Groundwater movement via the USGS

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Charles Ashby):

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed several bills into law Tuesday, including one that GOP Sens. Ray Scott and Don Coram have been working on for a few years now.

That measure, SB36, is designed to make it harder for land developers to drag farmers and ranchers through years of court proceedings over groundwater rights disputes.

Under current law, such disputes are handled by the Colorado Groundwater Commission, but appeals to district court can include new evidence not seen by the commission.

The bill gives district judges more discretion to decide what new evidence can be heard in those appeals.

Some opposition to the bill fell away when it was amended to include language that allowed new evidence to be included in an appeal if that evidence was wrongly excluded or could not “in good faith” be presented to the commission.

Scott of Grand Junction and Coram of Montrose said they don’t buy opponents’ contention that the definition of “in good faith” is so broad that it opens the door to any evidence being presented, as is the case now.

“It’s held to a higher legal standard,” Coram said.

“The rules of evidence are very tough,” Scott added. “If they can prove evidence was stuffed in a box somewhere in the basement for the last 50 years and was just found or something like that, it’s still a high bar to reach.”

The two lawmakers said the bill fixes a long-standing problem for poorer ranchers and farmers who found themselves spending more time in court battling well-heeled developers over those water rights.

The Colorado Farm Bureau said the bill will help ensure a fairer and more equitable appeals process.