@NSF: How much water flows into agricultural irrigation? New study provides 18-year water use record

Here’s the release from the National Science Foundation (Cheryl Dybas/Val Ostrowski):

Irrigation for agriculture is the largest use of fresh water around the globe, but precise records and maps of when and where water is applied by farmers are difficult to locate. Now a team of researchers has discovered how to track water used in agriculture.

In a paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the researchers detail their use of satellite images to produce annual maps of irrigation. The findings, the scientists said, will help farmers, water resource managers and others understand agricultural irrigation choices and make better water management decisions.

“We want to know how human activities are having an impact on the environment,” said hydrogeologist David Hyndman of Michigan State University (MSU), principal investigator of the project. “Irrigation nearly doubles crop yields and increases farmer incomes, but unsustainable water use for irrigation is resulting in depletion of groundwater aquifers around the world. The question is: ‘How can we best use water?'”

The paper highlights the need to know when and where irrigation is occurring to effectively manage water resources.

The project focuses on an economically important agricultural region of the central U.S.–the Republican River Basin–that overlies portions of Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas, and provides surface water and groundwater to the High Plains Aquifer. The team found that irrigation in this area roughly doubled between 2002 and 2016.

Water use in this region can be complicated because it is regulated to preserve stream flow into Kansas in accordance with the Republican River Compact of 1942.

“Previously, we knew what farms were equipped to irrigate, but not which fields were actually irrigated in any particular year,” said Jillian Deines, also of MSU and the paper’s lead author. “Our irrigation maps provide this information over 18 years and can be used to understand the factors that contribute to irrigation decisions.”

The researchers used Google Earth Engine, a cloud-computing platform that makes large-scale satellite and environmental data analyses available to the public, to quantify changes in irrigation from year to year–an important finding for farmers, crop consultants and policymakers working to improve the efficiency of irrigation.

Google Earth Engine has been an asset for computing the large number of satellite images needed, the scientists said. “It allows researchers to use consistent methods to examine large regions through time,” Deines said.

The project, which also involves MSU research associate Anthony Kendall, is supported by the joint National Science Foundation (NSF)-USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Water, Sustainability and Climate (WSC) program and the joint NSF-NIFA Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) program.

“Knowing what to plant, how much land to plant, and how much irrigation water is necessary to support a crop through harvest has been a challenge for farmers throughout time,” said Tom Torgersen, NSF program officer for WSC and INFEWS. “Farmers can now envision a future where models will provide options to help guide decisions for greater efficiency and crop productivity.”

Program managers at USDA-NIFA said that demand for agricultural products will likely increase in the future, while water for irrigation may decrease due to water quality issues and competitive uses.

The Republican River Basin researchers “leveraged new computing power to handle the ‘Big Data’ of all available Landsat satellite scenes, and developed irrigation maps that help explain human decisions about irrigation water use,” said Jim Dobrowolski, program officer in NIFA’s Division of Environmental Systems. The maps hold the promise, he said, of the ability to make future water use predictions.

A NASA graduate fellowship program award also funded the research.

Peru Basin acid mine drainage cleanup update

Jumbo Mine Cabin in-front of Adit September 25, 2017. Photo credit Environmental Protection Agency.

From the Environmental Protection Agency via Summit County (Brian Lorch):

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking immediate action to perform mine cleanup activities at the Jumbo Mine in Summit County’s Peru Creek Basin, approximately seven miles east of Keystone Resort.

The Jumbo Mine, which produced gold, copper, lead and silver, operated from 1915 to 1918. Historic mine operations also generated significant volumes of waste rock and tailings piles. Inactive and abandoned for a century, the mine site was identified in the early 1990s by EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE), as well as in the Snake River Watershed Plan, as a significant point-source contributor of metal-contaminated flows into Peru Creek and the downstream Snake River.

Historic hard-rock mining in the Peru Creek Basin left a legacy of contaminated and abandoned mine sites, whose acid mine drainage significantly degrades water quality. Much has been done to study the problems in the Snake River watershed, beginning in the early 1970s. Most studies have focused on the Peru Creek drainage, which is home to the Pennsylvania Mine, the largest, longest-operating mine in the watershed. In coordination with Summit County and the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (DRMS), EPA completed cleanup actions at the Pennsylvania Mine in 2016.

The Jumbo Mine is another high-priority abandoned mine site in the Peru Creek Basin identified by the Snake River Watershed Coalition as a remediation project site capable of significantly improving water quality in the Snake River watershed.

Summit County purchased the land surrounding the abandoned Jumbo Mine in early 2016 for public open space. A restrictive covenant placed on the adjacent property containing the abandoned mine site allows for EPA’s cleanup actions to occur, but also limits the County’s liability for the existing environmental issues and associated cleanup actions.

“We had been looking to acquire this piece of property for a long time, recognizing that it has many open space values,” said Brian Lorch, Summit County Open Space and Trails director. “But before we could take steps to purchase the property, we needed to ensure that it could be cleaned up in an economical manner.”

EPA is implementing the cleanup work as a time-critical removal action under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). Last week, the agency began the work, which it plans to complete in about three weeks.

Cleanup activities involve diverting water draining from a mine adit around or over adjacent tailings piles in a limestone and membrane-lined ditch. According to EPA studies, water quality of the adit drainage degrades as it crosses the mine tailings, contributing high levels of suspended and dissolved lead, zinc and other metals into the stream. Diverting drainage around the tailings into a lined ditch should greatly improve water quality.

“The overall approach will help reduce the discharge of metals into Peru Creek,” Lorch said. “A passive treatment approach at the Jumbo Mine site is quite similar to numerous mine cleanups performed elsewhere by the County.”

Since 2001, Summit County has worked with EPA to identify and prioritize mine sites in need of cleanup in the Peru Creek Basin. The County’s proactive coordination with EPA facilitated recent cleanup efforts at the Pennsylvania Mine and numerous other sites in the area.

“We are really happy and grateful to see EPA continue its mine cleanup efforts in the Peru Creek Basin,” Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said. “The Summit County community is very supportive of our efforts to clean up abandoned mine sites on County property, voting in 2015 for a mill levy that provides funding for cleaning up mine-impacted sites.”

Jumbo Mine looking up at channel liner installation from lower middle section of waste rock pile. Photo credit Environmental Protection Agency.

Sneffels Creek water quality concerns delaying Ouray County mine

Mount Sneffels

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Marianne Goodland):

Ouray Silver Mines wants to reopen a mine that produces silver, gold, lead and copper and would bring 152 jobs to Ouray County, along with, its proponents say, a 10 to 20 percent boost to the county’s tax base.

But that mine is on hold, due to issues with water quality at a nearby creek tied to the mine that the mine owners say they have worked on for 18 months without any concerns raised by CDPHE until now.

Sneffels Creek, the surface water source near the mine, is about halfway between Ouray and Telluride, as the crow flies. The creek has a long history with mining, going back 140 years.

The mine dates back to 1876 and ran until its mill burned down in 1912. During its early operations, the mine produced 25 million ounces of silver.

Sneffels Creek joins up with another creek and then into Canyon Creek downstream, and then into the Uncompahgre River. Briana Greer, an environmental consultant with Ouray Silver Mines, said when the water originating in Sneffels Creek reaches the Uncompahgre, water quality in that river improves by 50 percent. It’s better water quality than area drinking water, she told the committee.

The idea of starting the mine back up for its silver, gold, zinc and copper began in the 1980s. The mine passed through numerous hands until 2014, when Fortune Minerals of Canada bought it hoping to mine its silver veins. But the company couldn’t sustain production and defaulted on its loans. The chief investor, Lascaux Resource Capital of New York, took over the mine and renamed it Ouray Silver Mines.

Mine CEO Brian Briggs told the General Assembly’s interim Water Resources Review Committee Wednesday that the company has invested $70.5 million to get the mine up and running, and it will take another $36 million to get up to full production. The payoff? Fourteen million ounces of silver, which costs $7.89 per ounce to mine and can bring in about $17 per ounce on the market. The mine also has rich veins of gold, lead and zinc, and the company expects a net a profit of around $76 million, along with 152 well-paying jobs for experienced miners, according to Briggs.

A fifth-generation Ouray native, Briggs has several decades experience in mining, called Ouray “a very, very good mine, the best I’ve every worked on for economic results.”

Ouray County could benefit more than just how the mine will improve its tax base. Briggs explained that Ouray has no gravel pits or other sources for road base. So mine tailings and waste rock, which metallurgical tests show are “benign,” are ground up by the company and provided to the county for road base.

Starting up an old mine has not been without its problems. According to a chart from the company, lead, zinc and cadmium discharges briefly exceeded state standards in 2014, leading to a violation notice last year from CDPHE. Lead discharges exceeded the standards again this past summer due to the failure of a lining in a mine tunnel that is being replaced.

Then there’s the water quality issue, and that’s delaying the mine’s startup.

The mine’s previous owner had a permit to discharge water to Sneffels Creek. The new owners set up a passive water system that could discharge either to surface or to groundwater (underground) water sources.

Briggs explained to the committee that the passive system is not only one for today’s mining but for 50 or 60 years from now. Briggs said the system, which has been piloted in Wyoming, for example, should prevent the kinds of problems that happened at the old Gold King Mine near Durango two years ago, when contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released more than a million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas River.

In the mine’s passive system, used mining water is passed through a clay liner that contains fabric with peat moss to absorb metals and then a layer of topsoil. “It makes a tremendous impact on the three metals we’re concerned about: cadmium, lead and zinc,” Briggs said.

The hangup has been just who’s in charge of making sure the system is in compliance at the CDPHE. Briggs said the mine had provided quarterly updates, explaining the passive system, to CDPHE’s enforcement division. In November 2016, the mine owners applied for a termination of its surface water discharge permit, believing it was no longer necessary since the passive system was discharging its water into underground water sources.

In July, CDPHE denied the request, stating the surface water interacts with groundwater sources. “We can’t confirm” whether that’s true, Briggs said.

That left the owners in a pickle – tear up the previous system? Install a new one? “If they want us to discharge into surface water we’ll do that,” Briggs said. But he also appeared to be frustrated that after 18 months of telling CDPHE what they were doing that the agency came back and said that system doesn’t work.

Installing another system will take another year, Briggs said.

The story from CDPHE is a tad different. In a September 3 letter to Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, CDPHE’s Karin McGowan said the mine had an active permit for a surface water discharge. “They are not waiting for a new permit, but may be frustrated because they have not been able to successfully modify their permit because they have not provided the necessary information needed to execute a modification. We are currently working with them to get the necessary information needed,” McGowan wrote.

McGowan further added that the mine changed its manner of discharge, from surface to groundwater, without notifying the division.

The September, 2016 notice of violation was for discharging to a new location without a permit, effluent violations, and administrative violations, McGowan pointed out. “The facility has consistently failed whole effluent toxicity testing permit requirements,” she wrote. The 2016 notice pertains to a 2014 discharge, when the mine was owned by Fortune Minerals, in which water contaminated with lead, cadmium and zinc was dumped at a rate of 400 gallons per minute into Sneffels Creek for about 18 hours.

Briggs told the committee CDPHE has never even visited the site, despite numerous requests by the mine owners…

In a statement, CDPHE spokesman Mark Salley told Colorado Politics that most enforcement is completed through evaluations of self-reported data. “Resource limitations makes it impossible to visit every site on an annual basis and hence permittees are put on a schedule for inspection,” he said.

2018 #COleg: Two bills come out of Water Resources Review Committee

HB12-1278 study area via Colorado State University

From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Jeff Rice):

…when Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District Manager Joe Frank reviewed them for his board of directors at the board’s October meeting, there was much shaking of heads and rolling of eyes.

The first draft document, identified only as Bill 9, would attempt to address rising water tables in a couple of places on the South Platte River, and in at least one area that would mean allowing un-augmented irrigation pumping to lower the artificially high water table.

The draft legislation was triggered by a series of reports by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources on high water tables in the town of Gilcrest, south of Greeley on U.S. 85, and the Sterling area subdivision of Pawnee Ridge…

the Colorado Legislature’s Water Resources Review Committee was not. In September the WRRC drafted a bill, tentatively labeled Bill 9, that requires owners of “artificial recharge facilities” (ie. augmentation ponds) in District 2 of Water Division 1 to install monitoring wells; if their groundwater comes up within 10 feet of the surface, they have to stop augmenting, notify the state engineer’s office, and continue pumping until the water table goes down.

Water Division 1 is simply the South Platte River watershed; District 2 is an area directly north of Denver that includes Gilcrest.

Here on the lower reaches of the river, in District 64, there are two reasons that bill could cause a whole lot of trouble.

First, and most obviously, there isn’t sufficient data yet to make such a sweeping requirement of every irrigator in District 2. Bob Mari, a member of the LSPWCD, said during the board’s meeting on Tuesday that it’s a typical one-size-fits-all solution that doesn’t need to be applied so broadly.

“You’ve got just a few sections of land where there’s a high water problem, but (legislators) want a statewide law to address the problem in that one spot,” Mari said. There was almost unanimous head nodding around the table when Mari made his remarks.

The second problem, according to Frank, is that allowing un-augmented pumping is simply not legal and would almost certainly harm downstream water users.

“Don’t get me wrong, we are very sympathetic to the problem, and we know it has to be addressed,” Frank said. “But it has been proven in the past that any pumping that goes un-replaced does cause harm. Even legislation that allows (un-augmented pumping) goes against legally binding water decrees. Taking water out (of the river aquifer) and putting it on crops without replacing it and putting it on crops is taking water that would have ended up back in the stream. Since they’re upstream from us, that creates a domino effect that affects us.”

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, who chairs the WRRC, said the committee wanted to address the situation legislatively because, frankly, the $11 million solution just doesn’t make sense. He pointed out that the draft bill, which still needs some work, applies only in the district where the most severe problem exists. He said the committee believed the augmentation forgiveness shows promise, but needs some improvement.

“The idea was to try to figure out how to deal with high groundwater rather than pumping the water into the river from a dewatering well,” he said. “I don’t think it makes sense to dewater when they’re augmenting. Let’s consolidate the augmentation, move it closer to the river so we can control it better.”

Thus, the second document Frank shared with his board at that meeting, a bill draft tentatively called “Bill 10,” which directs the CWCB to engage “a qualified engineering consultant” to answer those questions and others. The bill tentatively directs that a report on the scope and goals of the study be delivered to the CWCB by Aug. 31, 2018, that a five-year pilot project be designed and begun by April 2019, and that the pilot project end by June 30, 2024.

Frank is hopeful that the study will identify ways other than un-augmented pumping, and he ticked off a list of ideas including improving surface drainage, cleaning out barrow ditches, finding new supplies for augmentation sources, tile drains in the area that move the water to the river, and moisture monitoring to avoid over-irrigating.

“Unfortunately, everyone points to that one solution, which is pumping un-augmented,” he said. “For us, that’s just not a solution.”

Water Line: A Creative Exchange August 4 – October 21, 2017

Images: Natascha Seideneck, Uncanny Territory, 2017; Cannupa Hanska Luger, We Have Agency VII, 2016; Anna McKee, WAIS Reliquary: 68,000 Years (detail), 2016, image by Joe Rudko.

I had the time today to tour Water Line: A Creative Exchange at the Metropolitan State University of Denver Center for Visual Art. Make some time to go see the artwork if you haven’t already. The exhibit closes next Saturday.

Colorado College professor proposes to study Widefield aquifer pollution effects

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

From KOAA.com (Lena Howland):

Dr. John Adgate, the professor leading the potential study, told dozens of concerned homeowners at the meeting here on Thursday that he wants to know what the health effects are from the firefighting foam that’s said to have caused the widespread contamination across the area.

He has submitted a fast track proposal seeking the funding for this study from the National Institutes of Health back in August and says he hopes to hear back within the next few months, with the goal of starting the study next summer.

Adgate says he would be looking for a pool of 200 volunteers spread out from all three affected water districts.

Their blood would each be tested once and 50 of them would be tested again the following year.

This is to find out the levels of these compounds found in their blood and to see if these levels are going up and down over time.

He says the compounds coming from the firefighting foam haven’t been studied enough to prove certain health effects, which is why he hopes his study will lead to more definitive answers.

@SCOTUS agrees to take up #TX v. #NM and #Colorado

Map of the Rio Grande watershed, showing the Rio Chama joining the Rio Grande near Santa Fe. Graphic credit WikiMedia.

From The Courthouse News (Kevin Lessmiller):

The nation’s high court also agreed to take on Texas’ lawsuit against New Mexico and Colorado over the nearly 80-year-old Rio Grande Compact.

The Lone Star State claims New Mexico’s increasing use of water from the Elephant Butte Reservoir deprives it of water apportioned to it under the 1938 deal, which governs the distribution of Rio Grande water among Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.

Dates for oral arguments have not been set in either case, both of which are original-jurisdiction cases, meaning the lawsuits were filed directly with the Supreme Court.