‘Our job is to protect #Nebraska’s interests’ — The Lincoln Journal-Star #OgallalaAquifer

Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

Click the link to read the article on the Lincoln Journal-Star website (Chris Dunker). Here’s an excerpt:

Governments at all levels have stepped in to cut use in order to stabilize water levels [ed. in the U.S. West], but the ongoing and worsening crisis has revived discussions online and on newspaper opinion pages about dramatic proposals to pipe water into the region from elsewhere. Building a pipeline thousands of miles long to divert water from the Mississippi River to drought-stricken Southern California. Diverting a part of the Missouri River into an aqueduct that would supply water to the drylands of eastern Colorado and western Kansas…

That’s a prospect Sen. Tom Briese of Albion said he wants to prevent, at least in the Cornhusker state: “Water certainly is our most precious natural resource in Nebraska and it needs to be preserved and protected for future generations of Nebraskans.”

His bill (LB241) would prohibit the director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources from granting any permit “that would allow groundwater to be transported more than 10 miles outside this state,” unless it was to comply with an interstate compact or decree. Essentially, Briese’s idea would allow the Legislature a say on any project seeking to tap into the Ogallala Aquifer, a major geological feature underlying much of Nebraska.

Ogallala Aquifer. Credit: Big Pivots

#Colorado nonprofit among winners of #ColoradoRiver scarcity challenge — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification

Water users are urgently trying to keep Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border from dropping to a point where Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate electricity. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

A Colorado nonprofit is one of three winners of the national Colorado River Basin Water Scarcity Challenge, a philanthropic initiative to spur creative solutions to water shortages in the crisis-ridden, seven-state Colorado River system.

The Denver-based Colorado Water Trust will spend the next year working with Quantified Ventures developing new models for securing funds and identifying valuable water rights that can be used to help restore riparian areas, aid streams and maintain agricultural water uses.

Founded in 2002, the Colorado Water Trust partners with existing entities, such as the Colorado Water Conservation Board, as well as environmental and farm groups, to acquire or lease water rights, keeping that water in the streams to stretch the amount of water available for fish and the environment, irrigators and industry even during dry times.

Quantified Ventures is a finance and consulting company that specializes in developing sustainable solutions to environmental problems.

Across the American West, water users, government agencies, regulators and environmental groups are scrambling to find ways to save the river. Crippled by a megadrought thought to be the worst in 1,200 years, and shifts in climate that are reducing the mountain snows on which it relies, the river system is on the brink of collapse.

The Colorado River Basin Scarcity Challenge is funded by a $500,000 donation from the  Gates Family Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, according to Quantified Ventures spokesman Matt Lindsay. [Editor’s note: Fresh Water News is an initiative of Water Education Colorado which receives support from the Gates and Walton foundations.] Winners were announced Jan. 12.

“The Colorado River is facing an unprecedented crisis that requires innovative thinking and investment at an equally historic scale,” said Morgan Snyder, in a prepared statement. Snyder is senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation Environment Program. “Projects like these that move past outdated systems and instead find new ways to conserve, adapt, and become more resilient are essential to ensure a sustainable water supply for the millions who depend on the river.”

Kate Ryan, a senior attorney at the Colorado Water Trust, said winning the scarcity challenge will help her organization develop new relationships in the finance world and find ways to move more quickly in an arena in which deals can take years to finalize, allowing the water trust to accomplish more.

“This will allow us to become more nimble and potentially to meet new investors,” Ryan said. “We will also be looking at strategies for using water for additional sources of revenue, such as remarketing it downstream in a way that is complementary to our project partners. It will also help us recoup investment and turn that into operating revenue, or for funding new acquisitions or leases of water.”

The Tucson, Arizona-based Watershed Management Group is another winner. The Watershed Management Group will work with Quantified Ventures to develop new “green” infrastructure to improve the health of Tucson’s groundwater system, among other projects, with the goal of using less Colorado River water, according to Watershed Management Group’s Catlow Shipek.

“Our goal is to build hydro local resilience to reduce our dependence on Colorado River supplies,” Shipek said. “The idea is how do we restore our watershed but not at the expense of another watershed.”

The third winner, Ndrip, will use Quantified Ventures to evaluate how to increase the scale of its drip irrigation systems on tribal lands throughout the Colorado River Basin. Unlike other drip irrigation systems, Ndrip uses existing water distribution systems on farms and is gravity-based. These features help offset the high capital costs of more traditional drip irrigation systems, according to Ndrip’s website.

Ndrip, which has offices in Australia, Israel, South Africa and the U.S., could not be reached for comment.

Each of the scarcity challenge winners will spend roughly the next year with Quantified Ventures developing new solutions that will help improve the sustainability of the Colorado River system.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

On July 7, 2020, we closed our headgate that takes water from the Little Cimarron for irrigation. The water in the above photo will now bypass our headgate and return to the river. Photo via the Colorado Water Trust.

#Arizona city cuts off a neighborhood’s #water supply amid #drought — The Washington Post #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Rio Verde Foothills. Photo credit: VRBO

Click the link to read the article on The Washington Post website (Joshua Partlow). Here’s an excerpt:

Some living here amid the cactus and creosote bushes see themselves as the first domino to fall as the Colorado River tips further into crisis. On Jan. 1, the city of Scottsdale, which gets the majority of its water from the Colorado River, cut off Rio Verde Foothills from the municipal water supply that it has relied on for decades. The result is a disorienting and frightening lack of certainty about how residents will find enough water as their tanks run down in coming weeks, with a bitter political feud impacting possible solutions.

The city’s decision — and the failure to find a dependable alternative — has forced water haulers like [John] Hornewer to scour distant towns for any available gallons. About a quarter of the homes in Rio Verde Foothills, a checkerboard of one-acre lots linked by dirt roads in an unincorporated part of Maricopa County, rely on water from a municipal pipe hauled by trucks. Since the cutoff, their water prices have nearly tripled. The others have wells, though many of these have gone dry as the water table has fallen by hundreds of feet in some places after years of drought [ed. and over pumping]…

This grim [Colorado River] forecast prompted Scottsdale to warn Rio Verde Foothills more than a year ago that their water supply would be cut off. City officials stressed their priority was to their own residents and cast Rio Verde Foothills as a boomtown of irresponsible development, fed by noisy water trucks rumbling over city streets. “The city cannot be responsible for the water needs of a separate community especially given its unlimited and unregulated growth,” the city manager’s office wrote in December…Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega was unmoved when his Rio Verde Foothills neighbors cried foul.

“There is no Santa Claus,” he said in a statement last month. “The megadrought tells us all — water is not a compassion game.”

For the past several years, some residents have sought to form their own water district that would allow the community to buy water from elsewhere in the state and import what they need, more than 100 acre-feet of water per year. Another group prefers enlisting a Canadian private utility company, Epcor, to supply the community, as it does with neighboring areas. But political disputes have so far foiled both approaches. The water district plan — which supporters say would give them long-term access to a reliable source of water — was rejected in August by the Maricopa County supervisors. The supervisor for the area, Thomas Galvin, said he opposed adding a new layer of government to a community that prizes its freedom, particularly one run by neighbors with the authority to condemn property to build infrastructure. [Thomas] Galvin preferred Epcor, a utility that, if approved, would be regulated by the Arizona Corporation Commission.

#Water leaders to lawmakers: No ‘silver bullet’ in #Arizona’s water crisis — The Arizona Mirror

The 1980 Arizona Groundwater Code recognized the need to aggressively manage the state’s finite groundwater resources to support the growing economy. Areas with heavy reliance on mined groundwater were identified and designated as Active Management Areas (AMAs). The five AMAs (Prescott, Phoenix, Pinal, Tucson, and Santa Cruz) are subject to regulation pursuant to the Groundwater Code. Each AMA carries out its programs in a manner consistent with these goals while considering and incorporating the unique character of each AMA and its water users. Credit: ADWR

Click the link to read the article on The Arizona Mirror website (Jerod MacDonald-Evoy):

The day after Gov. Katie Hobbs delivered her first State of the State, outlining plans to address the state’s growing water crisis, the heads of the state’s water agencies stood before lawmakers to deliver an at times grim reality of the state’s water future. 

“I do not believe that any of the (Active Management Areas) are at a safe-yield,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told the House Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee on Jan. 10. 

Active Management Areas, generally referred to as AMAs, were created in 1980 in an effort to help the state manage its groundwater resources as the state continued to grow. Only the AMA in Tucson is near a safe-yield, meaning the amount of water withdrawn is balanced with the amount recharging it, but Buschatzke said that Tucson has reached that by storing large amounts of Colorado River water delivered by Central Arizona Project. 

Approximately 82% of Arizona’s population resides within the state’s five AMAs. 

But Buschatzke did not see it as a failure, and instead focused on telling the committee that solutions will need to be explored and that, in the future, more and more groundwater will begin to be pumped by municipalities across the state. 

“It is not a failure in my mind in any way shape or form,” Buschatzke said, adding that the state needs to find more renewable water supplies, look to find ways to move water from one state to another or even from other sources outside the state

“There is no silver bullet,” Buschatzke said. “But I think we have to embrace the success we have.” 

The hearing also comes after Hobbs released an ADWR report showing areas in the West Valley cannot support planned development. Hobbs has accused former Gov. Doug Ducey of directing the agency to keep the report secret. 

Lawmakers didn’t directly reference or ask about the report, but questions about development and its impact on water became a hot-button issue during the hearing. 

Rep. Barbara Parker, R-Mesa, asked Buschatzke if he would be willing to help the legislature “educate” the public that agriculture uses more water than development. ADWR estimates from 2019 provided to the committee showed that agriculture made up for approximately 72% of water use, municipal 22% and industrial around 6%. 

“They always want to be down on a builder,” Parker said, additionally asking Buschatzke if he thought Hobbs’ speech unfairly targeted homebuilders. 

Buschatzke said that mandatory conservation requirements on farmers in AMAs have been efficient and have given them an advantage over California farmers. Both state’s farmers have been hit dramatically by the drought and recent cuts in Colorado River water. Arizona is facing a 21% cut in Colorado River allocation this year because of the drought and an alarming decrease of water in Lake Powell.

“We have done great things in this state — and there is more we can do and there is more we will have to do,” he said, adding that Hobbs’ new Water Policy Council will hopefully address some of these issues. 

Rep. Stacey Travers, D-Phoenix, asked Buschatzke if the state should close a loophole that allows developers to get around a state law that says that every new home must have a 100-year supply of water by declaring the homes are being built as rental properties. Buschatzke deflected, and said such a policy change would be up to the governor. 

“Perhaps that is an issue to be further discussed by Governor Hobbs’ water council,” he said. 

Lawmakers also heard from Central Arizona Project’s newly appointed general manager, Brenda Burman, who spoke to lawmakers on her third full day on the job. 

CAP oversees the 336-mile aqueduct that runs from Lake Havasu to Tucson, delivering Colorado River water to Maricopa and Pima counties. 

Burman reiterated what Buschatzke said, telling lawmakers that new solutions are needed to get water to more people and in a renewable way. She also mentioned the impacts of climate change on the state’s water supply, pointing out that water that in the past would have made its way into the Colorado River is now being absorbed into drier soil due to the prolonged drought. 

Both Buschatzke and Burman were asked by Rep. Oscar De Los Santos, D-Laveen, if they believed that climate change had impacted Arizona’s water supply and if they believed human activity had created climate change. Both agreed that climate change was impacting our water, but neither answered if they believed that human beings were the cause. 

Studies have definitively shown that climate change is occurring and human beings are contributing to it. 

“I’m no climatologist and I’m no expert in this,” Parker said shortly after De Los Santos had asked Burman about climate change. “I want to channel my inner Hohokam Indian. I’m an Arizona native, and I wish we could have that crystal ball and predict that everything was, you know, climate change. I don’t know if the Hohokam didn’t have fossil fuel problems in the past, but they went through a serious drought in the past, as we know, and they disappeared as an agricultural community.”

Parker then asked what CAP was doing to prepare for another “curveball” from “Mother Nature.” 

Burman explained that CAP has been storing water from times when the state experiences excessive rains, and noted that the Hohokam lived during a time of very dry years followed by very wet years. The state is currently in its 27th consecutive year of drought.

The hearing marked the beginning of what will likely be a long session for one of the two committees that will hear a slew of bills related to a key part of Hobbs’ agenda in the coming months. Lawmakers were amicable to the Hobbs appointees, stating they looked forward to working with them in the future. 

“We need to work together, and I think we have come a long way,” Republican Chairwoman Gail Griffin said at the end of the hearing.

#RioGrande compact case: #Texas vs. #NewMexico — @AlamosaCitizen

Map showing new point to deliver Rio Grande water between Texas and New Mexico, at an existing stream gage in East El Paso. (Courtesy of Margaret “Peggy” Barroll in the joint motion)

From the Alamosa Citizen “Monday Briefing” newsletter:

Speaking of the Rio Grande, Texas and New Mexico, and to a degree Colorado, have been arguing since 2013 about water from the Rio Grande that Texas says New Mexico shorts it. Now the case has a proposed settlement. The biggest change the two sides have agreed on is that the gage station in El Paso, not Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico, would be where Texas’ share of the Rio Grande would be measured. The agreement still needs a sign off from the U.S. Supreme Court.

#Aurora poised to double capacity of Prairie Waters riverbank filtration project with federal grant — The Aurora Sentinel #SouthPlatteRiver

Prairie Waters schematic via Aurora Water.

Click the link to read the article on The Aurora Sentinel website (Max Levy). Here’s an excerpt:

Aurora is planning an expansion to its innovative Prairie Waters project with the help of a $5 million federal grant, a project that city staffers say could recover enough water to support thousands of homes. The grant, which the federal government says the city is likely to receive, would be used toward the $11.5 million undertaking of digging a new pump station and radial well, which would draw water from below the South Platte River.

“Drought has been something we’re needing to tackle and handle more and more as the years go on, and so having this resource come from the South Platte instead of the mountains is definitely a drought resiliency component,” said Aurora Water staffer Justin Montes, who applied for the federal grant…

Radial wells consist of a single vertical shaft ending in multiple horizontal shafts that radiate outward like the spokes of a wheel. The radial well and pump station would be part of an expansion to the Prairie Waters project including another radial well that the city plans to dig in 2024. Aurora Water representatives say the entire expansion has the potential to double the water recovered by the project, which uses wells dug near the South Platte River to collect water that has been absorbed and naturally filtered by the riverbank. By the time water is collected by the wells, it has already passed through hundreds of feet of sediment beneath the South Platte, filtering out pathogens, organic chemicals and other contaminants. Montes said the process can also filter out debris introduced by wildfires.

Say hello to the EPA “PFAS Analytics” website

Screenshot of EPA PFAS Analytics website interactive map for Region 8 January 11, 2023.

Click the link to access the EPA website:

This page contains location-specific information related to PFAS manufacture, release, and occurrence in the environment as well as facilities potentially handling PFAS:

Romancing the River: Quo Vadimus 2 — Sibley’s Rivers #GilaRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Palm Lake at Hassayampa River Preserve, East side of Wickenburg, Arizona. By John Menard from Phoenix, USA – Palm Lake at Hassayampa River PreserveUploaded by PDTillman, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11769047

Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

That fabled Hassayampa is in the news these days, down in Arizona. The Hassayampa River does exist, by the way: an intermittent stream that flows off the south slopes of the Colorado Plateau, and down through a desert valley west of the sprawling phenomenon of Phoenix, where it joins the Gila River, which in turn joins the Colorado River down near Yuma and the Mexican border.

A new development has been proposed for the lower Hassayampa Valley, catering to those trying to stay out ahead of the sprawl: the Howard Hughes Corporation wants to turn 37,000 acres of Sonoran desert land there, just west of the White Tank Mountains, into a new development, Teravalis, with 100,000 homes for maybe 300,000 people, and 55 million square feet of commercial space. According to a story in the New York Times, ‘Teravalis is seen by local and state leaders as a crowning achievement in a booming real estate market.’

Arizona Rivers Map via Geology.com.

Truly someone has been drinking from the fabled Hassayampa. Teravalis, in fact, plans to tap an aquifer under the Hassayampa Basin for a water supply for this massive development; they will all be drinking from the Hassayampa. Some Arizonans have, however, looked at the naked facts about water supplies in the desert, and the Phoenix area has a law in effect stating that every development has to show evidence that it has a 100-year water supply, and can replace groundwater it consumes. This law was mandated back in 1980 by the Interior Department, as a condition for funding and constructing the Central Arizona Project that brings water 300 miles from the Colorado River to the Phoenix-Tucson corridor. (The law, it should be noted, only applies to urban ‘Active Management Areas,’ and does not apply to the non-urban parts of the state where agriculture consumes a much larger share of the state’s water.)

Teravalis is on hold for now, under that law, until a believable estimate is made of how much water the Hassayampa aquifer actually contains. But – this is only one of several new developments proposed for the Phoenix area alone; remember that Arizona is one of the seven Colorado River states that have been told by the Interior Department that they must collectively cut their water consumption by maybe as much as a third, to prevent a collapse of the region’s water supply system, centered on storage in Mead and Powell Reservoirs.

Yet the Teravalis story is replicated in all seven of those states to some extent; each state has at least one metropolitan area that continues to spread like a cowflop on a flat rock, ever outward into dry lands. We have one right here in the little City of Gunnison where I live, spreading out into our pastureland, that is just completing its infrastructure of pipes and wires. We are a very small ‘city’ of five or six thousand that will never be considered a metropolis or even a micropolis (he bravely projects, back here in 2023), but when our ‘Teravalis’ is built out, mid-century, our current population will have increased by 30 percent, plus or minus. 

We seem to be oriented to grow even when we sense that it might be unwise. American historian Richard White commented on this in his history of the West, It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own. Parsing what he saw as the post-World War II ‘rise of the metropolitan West,’ he credited it mostly to a cycle of planning based on growth, created by ‘what scholars have called growth networks – that is, alliances of bankers, corporate executives, real estate interests, politicians, and labor leaders… [which] gained popular support by arguing that growth equals prosperity.’ We are, in short, culturally and economically organized for growth; it is who and what we are: the growth network creates new jobs for newcomers in the growth industries, building Tervalises for another wave of newcomers who will be employed by the growth industries in building ever newer Teravalises for et cetera et cetera….

Most of the West’s SMAs (Statistical Metropolitan Areas) today boast about the fact that, despite major increases in population, they are actually distributing about the same amount of water they were distributing around 1970. This means that people are using significantly less per capita than they were around 1970 – which is to say: they are conserving water, or using what they use in more efficient fixtures, or both. But this does not necessarily improve their situation. It just ensures enough water for more people to move to their SMA, which (even with sprawl) increases the general density of humanity in the SMA, which causes more traffic congestion, more people in the parks and pools, more queues for restaurants and DMVs, and generally a diminishing quality of life. Conservation loses some of the romantic radiance of civic virtue when the citizen realizes conservation functions mostly to make things available for ever more people.

The development plans do get better and more resource conscious – more ‘watersmart,’ to use a popular buzzword. But they are still intended to fill up with new people who will be using a water resource that we now know is not just limited, but is diminishing. Five or six percent more of it just disappears back to the atmosphere with every degree we increase the ambient temperature – a relentless process of increase that will be facilitated by our development here in the Upper Gunnison, as well as Phoenix’s and everyone else’s. This is not just the usual dire and depressing predictions by scientists; it is what we are already seeing in the diminishing Colorado River water supply – down 20 percent over the last 40 years (faster even than predicted by prescient scientists). 

One wants to ask, about that ‘naked fact’ cited in scores of articles about the river just this year: why are there 40 million of us are living in the driest parts of the continent, with more of us coming all the time to fill up these developments? The short answer to that question: we have become a swarming species on the planet – the biologist’s descriptor for a species over which natural ecosystemic processes have lost control. We have been, over the past 10,000 years, a remarkably adaptive species, able to fit into practically every land-based environment, and we have become the dominant species in all of those environments, thriving and increasing at the expense of most of their other animal and plant inhabitants. The deserts are not the only place where there are so many of us; nearly everywhere we go – there we are, lots of us, and more coming all the time.

Through the romantic prisms of what we call civilization, we have been a remarkable success, and all indications are that we plan to become even more successful. It is clear that there is no public will for trying to rein in the swarm, to put limits on our population expansion. When nature tries to control us, bring us back into some degree of balance with the rest of creation, we declare open war on nature and its controls – no COVID or cancer will have its way with us! We fight on all fronts for a world in which people do not die of diseases or malfunctioning parts, a world in which no children die before they are grown, in which everyone can live to be 100, 110, 140, or maybe someday forever. 

In other words, we demonstrate through our works and our wars, that we are not going to limit or control ourselves – the first species with the capacity to successfully challenge the often harsh natural systems that restore balance in species swarms. Therefore – so it seems to me – we give ourselves no choice but to make the planet ever more human-centered, to direct ever more of its resources and systems to the meeting of our ever-expanding needs and wants. To put this another way – we can applaud ourselves for quickly finding a vaccine for the COVID virus nature threw at us, but we have to put that in the context of our very active participation in the greatest species die-off since an asteroid took out the dinosaurs and much of the rest of nature’s life project millions of years ago. Is there any other alternative way of seeing what’s going on? Am I missing something?

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

That is where we find ourselves today, at any rate, in the Colorado River region: confronting the challenge of fitting a finite and even diminishing essential resource to an apparently unlimited demand. ‘Teravalis is seen by local and state leaders as a crowning achievement in a booming real estate market.’ It’s Teravalises all the way down – down, in that particular case, to an unquantified aquifer related to an intermittent desert stream from whose fabulous waters all humankind seems to want to drink. Does anyone really doubt, at this point, that the Hassayampa aquifer, or that aquifer combined with a pipe from some other aquifer, or some even more complex plumbing arrangement, will be proven to be sufficient to provide Teravalis with the radiant vision of a 100-year water supply? It’s the economy, stupid. 

As I write here, we are tracking toward a February deadline set by the Interior Department/Bureau of Reclamation, mandating that the ‘seven city-states of Cibola’ come up with massive cuts in the consumptive use of the Colorado River’s waters – at least two million acre-feet, maybe up to four, in order to ‘save’ the river’s storage and distribution system. If the states fail at this (as they did with an earlier Interior deadline), then the Interior Department will make the cuts for them (as they threatened or promised, but didn’t do, when the states failed to meet that earlier deadline). This time, presumably, they really mean it.

This time, the state with the smallest share of the river, Nevada, has drafted up a plan that the other states have agreed is at least a reasonable way to start discussions. If it can be hammered with its current numbers into something acceptable to all the states, even California, it would reduce consumptive use this coming year by around 2.5 million acre-feet. Most of it would come out of the Lower River Basin’s water budget, and would include things like finally acknowledging that their share of the river includes responsibility for the evaporation from their reservoirs and fields. The Upper River Basin would be contributing maybe half a million acre-feet, since its usage quantification already reflects its evaporation plus most of the depletions to date from climate change. (The Upper River Basin produces 80-90 percent of the river’s entire flow.)

The goal, according to Nevada officials, is to share the pain across the entire system. That seems like a reasonable goal – except that it is at odds with the most sacred cow in western water use, the appropriations doctrine, which says that junior appropriators should bear the pain before any senior users are asked to. A ‘naked fact’ that California – holder of the largest senior appropriations on the river – has already been asserting. But as John Entsminger, General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has said, ‘If 27 million Americans don’t have water, then those laws will not be followed.’

But… again: what are 27 million, or 40 million, or by mid-century 60 million people doing, demanding water from a modest and diminishing river in the desert lands of the Southwest? I ask myself, being one of them. And can only think to say: Welcome to the Anthropocene. Still all radiant with the color of romance, which lets us still think that a water supply problem is somehow a problem with the water supply…. The second century of the Anthropocene awaits the woke. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile – a belated wish, to all of you who have read this far, for a good year coming: a year filled with wondrous things, like a union between our naked facts and the radiant color of romance that would not be merely cultureporn; a year filled with interesting things that are not merely the fulfillment of a Chinese curse; a year in which we learn to distinguish between a river in trouble and a civilization in trouble. 

Mountain West states getting millions in federal funds for #drought resilience — KUNR #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #RioGrande #SouthPlatteRiver

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

Click the link to read the article on the KUNR website (Kaleb Roedel). Here’s an excerpt:

In Nevada, more than $1.7 million will pay for Las Vegas Valley homeowners using septic tanks to convert to the municipal sewer system. This recycles water back into Lake Mead, which is fed by the drought-stricken Colorado River, said Doa Ross, deputy general manager of engineering for the Southern Nevada Water Authority…

In Colorado, $5 million will be used to build a collector well in Aurora. On the state’s Western Slope, Deutsch Domestic Water Company is getting $585,000 for storage and efficiency improvements…

In New Mexico, $5 million will go toward a groundwater well in Gallup. Another $1.5 million will help pay for new tools and strategies in regions with acequia water distribution systems, which are gravity-fed earthen canals that divert stream flow for distribution to fields…

Utah is getting the largest chunk of funds among states in the Mountain West. The state has seven different projects receiving a total of about $22.5 million

#RioGrande #Water Conservation Subdistrict 1 back in the spotlight — @AlamosaCitizen #SanLuisValley

Supermoon over the San Luis Valley August 11, 2022. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

From the “Monday Briefing” newsletter from the Alamosa Citizen:

The new year likely will bring a new amended Plan of Water Management for irrigators in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. The subdistrict’s board of managers in December approved a new amended plan that ties the allowable groundwater pumped to the natural surface of water of the property. This is a huge change that values snowpack, and if there isn’t any, irrigators can expect to pay a handsome fee to get surface water from a neighbor. The plan will get a hearing and vote before the Rio Grande Water Conservation District on Jan. 17. If approved there, as is likely, the amended Plan of Water Management then gets filed with Colorado Division of Water Resources for its blessing, or not.

We frequently note the activity of farmers in Subdistrict 1 because it is the subdistrict that pulls from the unconfined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin and is under state watch to reduce its groundwater pumping to recover water flows in the unconfined aquifer. It’s also the Valley’s most lucrative corridor for irrigated agriculture, and as such, the bellwether for farming in the Valley. The amended Plan of Water Management is a way for farmers in the subdistrict to try to stay in business while making gains in recovering the unconfined aquifer. More to come in 2023.

#California Could Capture Its Destructive Floodwaters to Fight #Drought — Erica Gies via The New York Times

Sources/Usage: Public Domain. Visit Media to see details. Animation showing AR plumes over the Pacific during January 2012.

Click the link to read the guest essay on The New York Times website (Erica Gies). Here’s an excerpt:

Ms. Gies is the author of “Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge.”

The big hope is that an array of paleo valleys could be turned into giant storm drains to quickly absorb heavy rain. Storm water spread over the valleys would sink underground and then move into the surrounding clays and silts, for more than 12 miles on either side of the valley and for hundreds of feet in depth, according to one study. It would raise the diminished water table, which is important because a healthier underground water system can feed rivers from below and allow people to continue to pump water from wells. It can also make more water available to plants and soil, help to sustain the rain cycle and reduce fire risk.

There is enough unmanaged surface water from rain and snow statewide to resupply Central Valley aquifers, making more water available to farmers, urban dwellers and the environment. Even with climate change, the state will most likely have enough water for recharge in the future in part because of more extreme weather, according to a 2021 study.

To use paleo valleys to store these big rains, the land above them must be conserved for groundwater recharge. And that’s already a challenge: One paleo valley found outside of Sacramento has been slated for housing developments, which would cover it with impermeable concrete and asphalt. Such decisions are typically governed by city and county governments, but the state could incentivize areas with paleo valleys to protect the land above them.

Land use isn’t the only issue. The state’s major aqueducts that move water from north to south can also play a big role in helping floodwater reach the paleo valleys. The aqueducts are underused in winter when fewer growers need to irrigate their crops and could transport excess storm water to depleted aquifers. Pipes could be added to them to move the water to the paleo valleys…

Erica Gies is a National Geographic explorer and journalist. She is the author of “Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge.”Erica Gies is a National Geographic explorer and journalist. She is the author of “Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge.”

EPA Requires Reporting on Releases and Other Waste Management for Nine Additional #PFAS

PFAS contamination in the U.S. via ewg.org.

Click the link to read the release on the EPA website:

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the automatic addition of nine per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) list. 

TRI data are reported to EPA annually by facilities in certain industry sectors and federal facilities that manufacture, process, or otherwise use TRI-listed chemicals above certain quantities. The data include quantities of such chemicals that were released into the environment or otherwise managed as waste. Information collected through TRI allows communities to learn how facilities in their area are managing listed chemicals. The data collected also helps to support informed decision-making by companies, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the public. 

The addition of these PFAS supports the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to address the impacts of these forever chemicals, and advances EPA’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap to confront the human health and environmental risks of PFAS. 

“Communities have a right to know how and where PFAS are being managed, released, or recycled,” said Assistant Administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Michal Freedhoff. “EPA continues to work to fill critical data gaps for these chemicals and ensure this data is publicly available.”

These nine PFAS were added to the TRI list pursuant to the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which provides the framework for the automatic addition of PFAS to TRI each year in response to certain EPA activities involving such PFAS. For TRI Reporting Year 2023 (reporting forms due by July 1, 2024), reporting is required for nine additional PFAS, bringing the total PFAS subject to TRI reporting to 189.

Addition of four PFAS no longer claimed as confidential business information

Under NDAA section 7321(e), EPA must review confidential business information (CBI) claims before adding a PFAS to the TRI list if the chemical identity is subject to a claim of protection from disclosure under 5 U.S.C. 552(a). EPA previously identified four PFAS for addition to the TRI list based on the NDAA’s provision to include certain PFAS upon the NDAA’s enactment. However, due to CBI claims related to their identities, these PFAS were not added to the TRI list at that time. The identities of these PFAS were subsequently declassified in an update to the TSCA Inventory in February 2022 because at least one manufacturer did not claim them as confidential during prior CDR reporting. Because they were no longer confidential, pursuant to the NDAA, the four chemicals were added to the TRI list:

  • Alcohols, C8-16, γ-ω-perfluoro, reaction products with 1,6-diisocyanatohexane, glycidol and stearyl alc. (2728655-42-1)
  • Acetamide, N-[3-(dimethylamino)propyl]-, 2-[(γ-ω-perfluoro-C4-20-alkyl)thio] derivs. (2738952-61-7)
  • Acetic acid, 2-[(γ-ω-perfluoro-C4-20-alkyl)thio] derivs., 2-hydroxypropyl esters (2744262-09-5)
  • Acetamide, N-(2-aminoethyl)-, 2-[(γ-ω-perfluoro-C4-20-alkyl)thio] derivs., polymers with N1,N1-dimethyl-1,3-propanediamine, epichlorohydrin and ethylenediamine, oxidized (2742694-36-4)

Addition of five PFAS with final toxicity values

The 2020 NDAA includes a provision that automatically adds PFAS to the TRI list upon the Agency’s finalization of a toxicity value. In December 2022, EPA finalized a toxicity value for Perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA), its anion, and its related salts. Pursuant to the NDAA, the following five chemicals have been added to the TRI: 

  • PFBA (375-22-4) 
  • Perfluorobutanoate (45048-62-2)
  • Ammonium perfluorobutanoate (10495-86-0) 
  • Potassium perfluorobutanoate (2966-54-3)
  • Sodium perfluorobutanoate (2218-54-4) 

As of January 1, 2023, facilities which are subject to reporting requirements for these chemicals should start tracking their activities involving these PFAS as required by Section 313 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. 

As part of EPA’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap, the Agency also proposed a rule in December 2022 to enhance PFAS reporting to TRI by eliminating an exemption that allows facilities to avoid reporting information on PFAS when those chemicals are used in small, or de minimis, concentrations. Because PFAS are used at low concentrations in many products, this rule would ensure that covered industry sectors and federal facilities that make or use TRI-listed PFAS will no longer be able to rely on the de minimis exemption to avoid disclosing their PFAS releases and other waste management quantities for these chemicals.

Learn more about the addition of these PFAS to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI).

How #California could save up its rain to ease future droughts — instead of watching epic #atmosphericriver rainfall drain into the Pacific Ocean — The Conversation

Heavy rain from a series of atmospheric rivers flooded large parts of California from late December 2022 into early January 2023. Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Andrew Fisher, University of California, Santa Cruz

California has seen so much rain over the past few weeks that farm fields are inundated and normally dry creeks and drainage ditches have become torrents of water racing toward the ocean. Yet, most of the state remains in severe drought.

All that runoff in the middle of a drought begs the question — why can’t more rainwater be collected and stored for the long, dry spring and summer when it’s needed?

As a hydrogeologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, I’m interested in what can be done to collect runoff from storms like this on a large scale. There are two primary sources of large-scale water storage that could help make a dent in the drought: holding that water behind dams and putting it in the ground.

Why isn’t California capturing more runoff now?

When California gets storms like the atmospheric rivers that hit in December 2022 and January 2023, water managers around the state probably shake their heads and ask why they can’t hold on to more of that water. The reality is, it’s a complicated issue.

California has big dams and reservoirs that can store large volumes of water, but they tend to be in the mountains. And once they’re near capacity, water has to be released to be ready for the next storm. Unless there’s another reservoir downstream, a lot of that water is going out to the ocean. https://www.youtube.com/embed/sKx-wSICxQQ?wmode=transparent&start=0 Video captures flooding from record rainfall on the last weekend of 2022.

In more populated areas, one of the reasons storm water runoff isn’t automatically collected for use on a large scale is because the first runoff from roads is often contaminated. Flooding can also cause septic system overflows. So, that water would have to be treated.

You might say, well, the captured water doesn’t have to be drinking water, we could just use it on golf courses. But then you would need a place to store the water, and you would need a way to distribute it, with separate pipes and pumps, because you can’t put it in the same pipes as drinking water.

Putting water in the ground

There’s another option, and that’s to put it in the ground, where it could help to replenish groundwater supplies.

Managed recharge has been used for decades in many areas to actively replenish groundwater supplies. But the techniques have been gaining more attention lately as wells run dry amid the long-running drought. Local agencies have proposed more than 340 recharge projects in California, and the state estimates those could recharge an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water a year on average if all were built.

One method being discussed by the state Department of Water Resources and others is Flood-MAR, or flood-managed aquifer recharge. During big flows in rivers, water managers could potentially divert some of that flow onto large parts of the landscape and inundate thousands of acres to recharge the aquifers below. The concept is to flood the land in winter and then farm in summer.

Illustration showing different techniques with fields flooded in different ways
Flood-managed aquifer recharge methods. California Department of Water Resources

Flood-MAR is promising, provided we can find people who are willing to inundate their land and can secure water rights. In addition, not every part of the landscape is prepared to take that water.

You could inundate 1,000 acres on a ranch, and a lot of it might stay flooded for days or weeks. Depending on how quickly that water soaks in, some crops will be OK, but other crops could be harmed. There are also concerns about creating habitat that encourages pests or risks food safety.

Another challenge is that most of the big river flows are in the northern part of the state, and many of the areas experiencing the worst groundwater deficits are in central and southern California. To get that excess water to the places that need it requires transport and distribution, which can be complex and expensive.

Encouraging landowners to get involved

In the Pajaro Valley, an important agricultural region at the edge of Monterey Bay, regional colleagues and I are trying a different type of groundwater recharge project where there is a lot of runoff from hill slopes during big storms.

The idea is to siphon off some of that runoff and divert it to infiltration basins, occupying a few acres, where the water can pool and percolate into the ground. That might be on agricultural land or open space with the right soil conditions. We look for coarse soils that make it easier for water to percolate through gaps between grains. But much of the landscape is covered or underlain by finer soils that don’t allow rapid infiltration, so careful site selection is important.

One program in the Pajaro Valley encourages landowners to participate in recharge projects by giving them a rebate on the fee they pay for water use through a “recharge net metering” mechanism. https://www.youtube.com/embed/7ZPKqqa6cas?wmode=transparent&start=0 How recharge net metering works.

We did a cost-benefit analysis of this approach and found that even when you add in all the capital costs for construction and hauling away some soil, the costs are competitive with finding alternative supplies of water, and it is cheaper than desalination or water recycling.

Is the rain enough to end the drought?

It’s going to take many methods and several wet years to make up for the region’s long period of low rainfall. One storm certainly doesn’t do it, and even one wet year doesn’t do it.

For basins that are dependent on groundwater, the recharge process takes years. If this is the last rainstorm of this season, a month from now we could be in trouble again.

Andrew Fisher, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California, Santa Cruz

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

#Water Resources Development Act signed with NGWA-supported MAR study

Figure 2: Recharge basin with down-gradient recovery well.

Click the link to read the release on the NGWA website:

President Joe Biden signed the National Defense Appropriations Act, which also included the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 (WRDA), on December 23.

WRDA is a biennial bill that grants authority and funding to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to carry out water resource development projects and studies.

For the first time since its creation, this year’s Water Resources Development Act contains a provision focused on studying the expansion of managed aquifer recharge (MAR) in current and future USACE projects. MAR is the purposeful resupply of water to aquifers for subsequent recovery or for environmental benefit.

The provision was drafted with the assistance of NGWA and its members and was a key policy focus for the Association throughout the year.

The provision:

  • Authorizes the USACE, in consultation with nonfederal partners, to conduct a national assessment on the implementation of MAR in current and future projects
  • Creates a working group within the USACE to centralize the corps’ knowledge on MAR and assist with feasibility studies
  • Requires a report to Congress on the results and data collected from the study and an evaluation of the benefits of a potential center of expertise for MAR
  • Authorizes up to 10 MAR feasibility studies with a 90:10 federal/nonfederal partner cost share.

The study would focus specifically on regions that have experienced prolonged drought, aquifer depletion, or water scarcity issues. The study would also include tribal lands and territories.

“Our country’s water future will rely heavily on finding new opportunities to expand and implement managed aquifer recharge programs which is why this study is so vital,” said NGWA CEO Terry S. Morse, CAE, CIC. “I would like to thank the NGWA membership who helped advocate for this provision and those lawmakers who continuously fought for it throughout the process.”

NGWA has been a leader in MAR research. The November-December 2022 issue of its hallmark technical journal, Groundwater®, was a special issue dedicated to MAR. The Association is also hosting a conference titled Managed Aquifer Recharge: Unleashing Resiliency, Protecting Groundwater Quality April 24-25, 2023, in San Antonio, Texas. Learn more about MAR by visiting the resource center NGWA has dedicated to it.

Water “Bank Account” running low in #Nevada — USGS

Click the link to read the release on the USGS website:

In a new report published today, U.S. Geological Survey scientists determined that groundwater in the Smith and Mason Valleys, a key agricultural region in Nevada, is being used up by humans at rates faster than it can be replenished.

The report documents water-level changes between 1970 and 2020, estimating groundwater storage-volume declines of 287,600 acre-feet in Smith Valley and 269,000 acre-feet in Mason Valley. The study also demonstrates that even during wet years, the Walker River is not able to adequately recharge the groundwater supply.

Sources/Usage: Public Domain. Line-graph plot showing the magnitude of water-level decline in a well in Smith Valley, 1970-2020.

“Looking at groundwater, streamflow, and climate data from over half a century, it is clear that we are running into a water deficit,” said Gwendolyn Davies, USGS hydrologist and lead author of the report. “Groundwater is like a bank account, and when you take more out than you are putting in, at some point the account runs dry.”

Sources/Usage: Public Domain. Visit Media to see details. Low stream flows at USGS Wabuska stream gage (10301500) on the Walker River in Nevada, near the end of the 2011-2016 drought. Link to streamgage data.

In the report, valley-wide water-level change was calculated by comparing water-table maps for the periods 1970-1995, 1996-2006, and 2007-2020; as well as the overall change from 1970-2020. Trends in water-level change corresponded with patterns in groundwater pumping and stream efficiency.

The introduction of supplemental groundwater pumpage in the 1950’s was initially intended to offset surface water deficits only during dry years, but pumpage continues even in years when average or above average stream flows meet surface water demands. Reliance on supplemental groundwater pumpage has resulted in widespread groundwater storage decline and decreased stream efficiency. With each successive drought cycle, the ability of Walker River to sustain stream flows and convey water downstream has diminished.

“This report will provide essential information to communicate recent status and trends in water resources in Smith Valley and Mason Valley, and to help the local water users move forward on developing a long-term plan for sustainable water use.” said Adam Sullivan, the State Engineer with the Nevada Division of Water Resources.  

Above average wet periods have a marginal and short-lived effect on rebounding the groundwater levels outside of the river corridor.

The Walker River originates in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and flows nearly 160 miles to its terminus at Walker Lake in west-central Nevada. The river provides a source of irrigation water for tens of thousands of acres of agricultural lands in California and Nevada and is the principal source of inflow to Walker Lake.

Sources/Usage: Public Domain. The extent of water-level declines in Smith and Mason Valleys, Nevada, 1970-2020. Large water-level declines are signified by warmer colors.

Say hello to the “Monday Briefing” newsletter from @AlamosaCitizen #SanLuisValley #RioGrande #COleg

Rio Grande through the eastern edge of Alamosa July 5, 2022. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the briefing on the Alamosa Citizen website. Here’s an excerpt:

The top story is always water

The Citizen’s 2022 Year in Water compilation will help you see more of the big picture – both with the unconfined aquifer and the confined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin. It’s important to see the fuller landscape, and we think the 2022 year in review does the trick. We would also direct you to our most recent podcast with state Sen. Cleave Simpson, who talks both about the upcoming 2023 legislative session and the critical time we’re in when it comes to water and irrigated ag in the San Luis Valley.

What You Need to Know About Sackett v. EPA: The upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case is nothing less than a judgment on the Clean Water Act itself — The Natural Resources Defense Council #WOTUS

The area around the Sacketts’ property, located near Priest Lake in Idaho PacificLegalFoundation/flickr, CC BY 4.0

Click the link to read the release on the Natural Resources Defense Council (Jeff Turrentine):

It wouldn’t be hyperbole to call it the most important water-related U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) case to come along in a generation. Indeed, the outcome of Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the first case to be heard in the court’s 2022–2023 term, will determine the future efficacy of the Clean Water Act by deciding whether wetlands are—or aren’t—deserving of federal protection.

Given the close relationship between wetlands and the larger system of streams, rivers, and tributaries to which they belong, the court’s ruling is certain to have a profound impact on the health and quality of all of America’s waterways. Here’s why.

The background of the Supreme Court’s clean water case

Michael and Chantell Sackett, who ran an excavation company, sought to develop property a few hundred feet from Priest Lake, a popular vacation site in the Idaho Panhandle, with plans to build a home there. To prepare the lot for construction, the Sacketts began to fill it with gravel. In 2007, the EPA halted the work after determining that the Sacketts’ lot contained a federally protected wetland. Under the authority granted to it by the Clean Water Act, the agency ordered the couple to remove the gravel and cease any further construction. The Sacketts sued in 2008, and the case wound its way through the federal court system for the next 14 years. Now, before the Supreme Court, their lawyers will argue, among other things, that the wetland the Sacketts filled is not, jurisdictionally speaking, a “water of the United States,” and thus not subject to EPA regulation. 

What are the “waters of the United States”?

Since 1972, the Clean Water Act has played an essential role in protecting the country’s diverse array of aquatic environments from pollution and keeping them safe for fishing, swimming, and wildlife (not to mention as sources of drinking water for millions of people). And for roughly that same amount of time, the act has also been the target of polluters and developers who would like to limit its regulatory scope. One way they’ve attempted to do so? By focusing on a particular—and pivotal—bit of language found in the law, five simple words that carry enormous legal weight: “waters of the United States” (or WOTUS, for short).

Aerial view of wetlands and tundra typical of the Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska. Utilizing the Clean Water Act, the EPA is currently in the process of vetoing the Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, which would pose a critical threat to the area’s wetlands. Photo credit: EPA

Numerous pollution control programs in the Clean Water Act apply only to WOTUS, and for most people, defining the term is a pretty straightforward matter: The phrase refers to—or at least seems like it would be referring to—the many different bodies of water to be found within the geographical borders of our nation. And according to Jon Devine, the director of NRDC’s federal water policy team, that’s pretty much the correct way to define it.

“Congress intended the phrase to be interpreted very broadly,” says Devine. When lawmakers were drafting the Clean Water Act half a century ago, he says, they envisioned its protections as extending to all the various bodies of water that make up a watershed, many of which people use for recreation, fishing, and drinking-water supply. And while those lawmakers may not have been hydrologists, they nevertheless understood the fundamental interrelatedness of these different bodies of water. “So the very earliest regulations set forth by the EPA were inclusive,” Devine notes. As a jurisdictional matter, WOTUS comprised “all the relevant parts of an aquatic ecosystem, including streams, wetlands, and small ponds—things that aren’t necessarily connected to the tributary system on the surface, but that still bear all kinds of ecological relationships to that system and to one another.”

Still, given the restrictions on how people could interact with these protected waters, interested parties were inclined to litigate the meaning of the term over the decades. “There were always fights about it,” Devine says. “A developer who wanted to bulldoze a wetland, or a polluter who was being prosecuted for dumping into a small stream, would question whether that particular feature should really be considered a water of the United States.” But, as Devine notes, “they largely lost.” And as a result, the more inclusive definition prevailed—or at least it did until the early 2000s, when cracks in that foundation began to develop.


The most significant development on this front took the form of two separate opinions authored by Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy in a 2006 case, Rapanos v. United States. Like Sackett v. EPA, it also involved filling wetlands without a permit to do so. In their individual opinions, Scalia and Kennedy outlined two contrasting ways of identifying which waters merited protection under the Clean Water Act. For Scalia, those that qualified had to be either so-called navigable waters (think rivers, lakes, basically anything that can accommodate a boat), regularly flowing tributaries to those waters, or wetlands—so long as those wetlands had a continuous surface connection to a body of water that already enjoyed federal protection.

The Wood River Wetland in southern Oregon is home to an array of biodiverse vegetation and is a freshwater ecoregion. Photo credit: Bureau of Land Management

Kennedy saw things differently. He maintained that the connection between wetlands and other bodies of water didn’t necessarily have to be visible—i.e., continuous, and on the surface—but could be measured in other ways. For Kennedy, the far more important question was: Does a given wetland share a significant nexus with another protected body of water? Or (in somewhat plainer English), would polluting or destroying certain wetlands affect the physical, chemical, or biological health of the second body of water? If the answer was yes, Kennedy believed, then both deserved the same level of protection, regardless of whether a boat could easily journey between them.

Although the lower courts consistently ruled that wetlands satisfying Kennedy’s test must be protected (consistent with the views of both the Bush and Obama administrations), polluting industries kept arguing that Scalia’s view should govern. The Trump administration adopted a definition based on the Scalia approach, but it was quickly struck down in court. Which brings us to 2022, and to Sackett—and to the dangerous possibility of a Supreme Court ruling that will adopt a radically narrow view.

The stakes for our wetlands—and water

Wetlands are hugely important. In the words of the EPA, they “are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, comparable to rainforests and coral reefs.” By regulating water flow, they can dramatically lessen the impact of both floods and droughts. They provide habitat for all manner of fish, birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians. And they do all of these things while storing massive amounts of carbon in their abundant vegetation—making safeguarding wetlands a valuable natural climate solution.

Colorado River headwaters tributary wetland in Rocky Mountain National Park photo via Greg Hobbs.

In a better world, perhaps, those reasons would be enough to ensure that wetlands receive the maximum level of federal protection, but the main question before the Supreme Court right now is: When wetlands are intrinsically connected to other indisputably protected waters, does the Clean Water Act prevent their unregulated pollution and destruction? If not, then the Sacketts’ efforts to get rid of the one on their property wouldn’t need a federal permit, and developers and polluters can celebrate. But if wetlands that are intrinsically connected to other waters are protected, then destroying or polluting them is tantamount to destroying or polluting a lake or a river: an indisputable violation of the Clean Water Act.

For Devine, the answer is clear—so clear that he and his colleagues at NRDC and the Southern Environmental Law Center  felt compelled to file a friend-of-the-court brief on the matter, in support of the EPA, that was entered into the court’s docket earlier this year. In that document, Devine says, more than 100 conservation and community organizations argue that “based on the history of the Clean Water Act, and on prior Supreme Court cases, the law—at the very leastprotects the kinds of things found on the Sacketts’ property.” Not only is the wetland in question spitting distance from a huge lake that’s also a popular recreational spot, but this particular wetland is also part of a larger complex of wetlands through which water flows, underground, to the lake. And like nearly all other wetlands, it provides all kinds of water purification, water regulation, and wildlife habitat. “The law should protect these wetlands that, the science shows, have such an important effect on downstream waters,” Devine says.

Water flows in all sorts of ways: aboveground; belowground; rapidly, down rivers and streams; and also slowly, through the cleansing filters of the reeds, soils, and grasses that make up a wetland. “The notion that the law can’t protect a body of water, simply because there’s a road between it and another body of water that’s unquestionably protected, is absurd and unscientific,” says Devine. “And it would defeat the purpose of the Clean Water Act.”

Groundwater movement via the USGS

In Arizona, #ColoradoRiver crisis stokes worry over growth and #groundwater depletion — The Los Angeles Times #COriver #aridification

Typical water well

Click the link to read the article on The Los Angeles Times website (Ian James). Here’s an excerpt:

Water supplies are shrinking throughout the Southwest, from the Rocky Mountains to California, with the flow of the Colorado River declining and groundwater levels dropping in many areas. The mounting strains on the region’s water supplies are bringing new questions about the unrestrained growth of sprawling suburbs. [Kathleen] Ferris, a researcher at Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy, is convinced that growth is surpassing the water limits in parts of Arizona, and she worries that the development boom is on a collision course with the aridification of the Southwest and the finite supply of groundwater that can be pumped from desert aquifers.

For decades, Arizona’s cities and suburbs have been among the fastest growing in the country. In most areas, water scarcity has yet to substantially slow the march of development. But as drought, climate change and the chronic overuse of water drain the Colorado River’s reservoirs, federal authorities are demanding the largest reduction ever in water diversions in an effort to avoid “dead pool” — the point at which reservoir levels fall so low that water stops flowing downriver. Already, Arizona is being forced to take 21% less water from the Colorado River, and larger cuts will be needed as the crisis deepens…

To deal with those reductions and access other supplies to serve growth, the state is turning more heavily to its underground aquifers. As new subdivisions continue to spring up, workers are busy drilling new wells. Ferris and others warn, however, that allowing development reliant solely on groundwater is unsustainable, and that the solution should be to curb growth in areas without sufficient water.

“What we’re going to see is more and more pressure on groundwater,” Ferris said. “And what will happen to our groundwater then?”

#Arizona Is in a Race to the Bottom of Its #Water Wells, With Saudi Arabia’s Help — The New York Times

Creating a balance of water that’s taken from aquifers and water that replenishes aquifers is an important aspect of making sure water will be available when it’s needed. Image from “Getting down to facts: A Visual Guide to Water in the Pinal Active Management Area,” courtesy of Ashley Hullinger and the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center

Click the link to read the guest column on The New York Times website (Natalie Koch). Here’s an excerpt:

Arizona’s water is running worryingly low. Amid the worst drought in more than a millennium, which has left communities across the state with barren wells, the state is depleting what remains of its precious groundwater. Much of it goes to private companies nearly free, including Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company.

Thanks to fresh scrutiny this year from state politicians, water activists and journalists, the Saudi agricultural giant Almarai has emerged as an unlikely antagonist in the water crisis. The company, through its subsidiary Fondomonte, has been buying and leasing land across western Arizona since 2014. This year The Arizona Republic published a report showing that the Arizona State Land Department has been leasing 3,500 acres of public land to Almarai for a suspiciously low price. The case has prompted calls for an investigation into how a foreign company wound up taking the state’s dwindling water supplies for a fee that might be as low as one-sixth the market rate. But the focus on the Saudi scheme obscures a more fundamental problem: pumping groundwater in Arizona remains largely unregulated. It’s this legal failing that, in part, allows the Saudi company to draw unlimited amounts of water to grow an alfalfa crop that feeds dairy cows 8,000 miles away. Even if Fondomonte leaves the state, it will be only a matter of time before Arizona sucks its aquifers dry. While a 1980 state law regulates groundwater use in a handful of urban areas, water overuse is common even in these places. The situation is worse in the roughly 80 percent of Arizona’s territory that falls outside these regulations. In most of rural Arizona, whoever has the money to drill a well can continue to pump till the very last drop…

Many more agricultural operations are drawing down the state’s underground water reserves for free. And most of them are U.S.-owned. Minnesota’s Riverview Dairy company, for example, has a farm near Sunizona, Ariz., that has drained so much of the aquifer that local residents have seen their wells dry up. Meanwhile, some California-based farms, facing tougher groundwater regulations at home, are looking to relocate to neighboring Arizona for cheap water. These companies and other megafarms can afford to drill deep wells, chasing the rapidly sinking water table.

And it’s not just farming operations. Other sectors like mining and the military, which have a huge presence in the state, also benefit from Arizona’s lax water laws. It’s difficult to know how much water is being used up by one of the state’s largest employers, Raytheon Missiles and Defense, which, like Almarai, has a footprint in Arizona and Saudi Arabia. But manufacturing missiles has a water cost, too. And like Fondomonte’s alfalfa, Raytheon’s product is being shipped to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi farm scandal may have helped to spotlight the severity of Arizona’s water crisis, but the state will have to go further to address the root cause. Arizona needs to apply groundwater pumping regulations across the entire state, not just in its metropolitan areas. It won’t be easy. This year special interest groups scuttled a far more modest effort that would have allowed rural communities to opt in to groundwater enforcement. In all likelihood, when these groups have to pay fair prices for water, they will have to give up on growing water-hungry crops like alfalfa in the desert. This kind of race-to-the-bottom approach to water in Arizona is insupportable today, if it ever was.

Less #water, fewer farmers: the future of agriculture on the #OgallalaAquifer — KUNC

Yuma Colorado circa 1925

Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Rae Solomon). Here’s an excerpt:

“The yields are off,” [Ruben] Richardson explained. “We’re a little bit short of water. This soil – you have to water a bunch every day to maintain it.” He had to use a lot more water in his fields than usual this year, just to produce any crop under drought conditions. That water was delivered by 58 center pivot sprinklers, across Richardson’s fields of irrigated corn and sugar beets. The sprinklers were fed, in turn, by 45 high-capacity wells pumping groundwater out of the Ogallala Aquifer, far below the ground…

Ogallala Aquifer. Credit: Big Pivots

Picture a bathtub. But this bathtub has a very rocky, jagged bottom. When you pour in the water, the tub doesn’t fill evenly. Instead, it forms pools of different sizes within the crags and pits of that rocky floor. Now imagine that bathtub is huge: 175,000 square miles huge. It stretches across 8 stations, from South Dakota all the way down to Texas, including parts of eastern Colorado. Also, the whole thing is deep underground. That is the Ogallala Aquifer. A vast, but uneven reserve of freshwater stored under the earth. The people who live on top of the aquifer pump it out of the ground. More than 90 percent of Ogallala water is used for agriculture, and that water transformed the high plains dust bowl of eastern Colorado into highly productive farmland.

But according to Meagan Schipanski, an associate professor at Colorado State University and Co-Director of the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project, the aquifer has its limits. The water has been over-allocated for decades. The current drought is exacerbating the shortage. “That water is a nonrenewable resource,” Schipanski said, “we’re going to use it faster than it can recharge itself.”

The hydrology and terrain of the aquifer is highly variable, making it difficult to generalize about just how much water has been depleted. But across northeastern Colorado, on average the aquifer is down about 30% from where it started before groundwater irrigation became widespread in the mid 20th-century.

3M Ending #PFAS Manufacturing Paves Way for Chemical Market Shift — Natural Resources Defense Council

The Meeker Island Lock and Dam was the first lock and dam on the Mississippi River in 1902. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=179965

Click the link to read the release on the Natural Resources Defense Council website (Melodie Mendez):

Leading chemical manufacturer 3M announced it will exit per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) manufacturing and work to discontinue the use of the “forever chemical” across its product portfolio by the end of 2025. 3M’s decision signals a significant market shift away from the chemical industries’ reliance on PFAS for nonessential products, and an opportunity to end PFAS contamination at its source.  

PFAS are toxic chemicals used in an array of products, from cookware and clothing to paint and firefighting foam. They have been linked to numerous health risks in people, including cancers, liver disease, and much more. PFAS have contaminated the drinking water of an estimated 200 million Americans.

The following is a statement from Sujatha Bergen, Director of Health Campaigns at NRDC:

“This announcement signals significant market and regulatory push-back on the production of these harmful chemicals, and an opportunity for other manufacturers to follow suit.

“Polluters must be held accountable for cleaning up their messes. 3M has been accused of contaminating local communities and water supplies for decades and today’s announcement should not excuse them from addressing these injustices.

“We can and must create a future without PFAS. Market shifts like this are crucial and must be accompanied by federal and state-level policy changes to protect the public from further harm.” 

Additional Resources:

Groundwater movement via the USGS

#PFAS from #Colorado military bases contribute to environmental injustice: Toxins from Peterson have contaminated the drinking #water of downstream communities — Colorado Newsline

FORT CARSON, Colo. – 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division receives first CH-47 Chinook helicopters at Butts Army Airfield on Fort Carson, Colo., Jan. 22, 2013. Crew members conduct their post flight checks. The Chinooks are the first CH-47s to arrive to the new combat aviation brigade. (Photo by Sgt. Jonathan C. Thibault, 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division Public Affairs NCOIC/Released)

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Newsline website (Jonathan Sharp):

For over a century, the U.S. Army has been plagued by the lasting consequences of its negligent use, storage and disposal of hazardous chemicals. As a result, countless troops and dependents residing on contaminated bases regularly came into contact with toxins known to trigger adverse health effects and deadly diseases.

In high-profile cases like North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, nearly 1 million service members and their families were exposed to deadly toxins for over 30 years (1953-1987), including health hazards like benzene, vinyl chloride, trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, and per/polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFAS.

Also known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS are a group of over 12,000 artificial compounds that represent a distinct environmental concern due to their resilient molecular structure, which prevents natural decomposition, allowing them to easily permeate the soil and contaminate drinking water sources. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to testicular cancer, organ damage (liver, kidneys), high cholesterol, decreased vaccine efficiency in children, and impaired reproduction.

On Camp Lejeune and more than 700 army bases across the US, PFAS contamination is directly linked to aqueous film-forming foam used since the early 1970s to extinguish difficult fuel blazes. In 2016, the EPA established a health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, the main PFAS compounds.

Although service members and their relatives are the most burdened, contamination originating from military sources plays a larger role in an insidious pattern of discrimination that affects marginalized minority communities.

Due to discriminatory redlining policies, land in minority neighborhoods was significantly undervalued and became a cost-efficient solution to situate army bases, industrial facilities, landfills, traffic routes, and other sources of toxic pollution. The higher toxic burden that vulnerable minority communities experience due to systemic prejudice is better known as “environmental racism.”

2021 report notes that Colorado has the highest PFAS footprint in the country, with approximately 21,000 sites suspected of using or storing such compounds. Although industrial activities are the primary driver of PFAS’ prevalence, frontline communities also have to contend with contamination from several military sources.

(Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.)

Nine army bases in Colorado are known to have been affected by PFAS due to aqueous film-forming foam, with the most contaminated including Schriever Air Force Base (870,000 ppt), Buckley Space Force Base (formerly Buckley Air Force Base, 205,000 ppt), Fort Carson (156,000 ppt), U.S. Air Force Academy (72,000 ppt) and Peterson Space Force Base (formerly Peterson Air Force Base, 15,000 ppt). Significantly, PFAS from Peterson has previously contaminated the drinking water sources of downstream communities, with a CDC study finding PFAS compounds in the blood of residents in one exposed community registering concentrations 1.8 to 8.1 times the national average.

While the Air Force and Department of Defense have been involved in some remediation efforts, from distributing bottled water to installing filters and building treatment plants, their contributions are considered limited by Coloradans, given the lack of actual PFAS cleanup projects. Unlike Camp Lejeune, none of the contaminated Colorado bases are listed as Superfund sites.

Frontline communities exposed to higher health risks due to environmental racism’s lingering effects rely on state and federal authorities to establish a legal framework that keeps polluters accountable and protects vulnerable citizens. Since 2020, Colorado has enacted some of the country’s most stringent PFAS laws and adopted a PFAS narrative policy that closely follows the EPA’s 2016 advisories.

Federally, the National Defense Authorization Act will see aqueous film-forming foam phased out by 2024 and finance PFAS cleanup projects on contaminated installations, while the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will provide impacted communities with crucial investments to address pollution and other causes of environmental injustice. The Honoring Our PACT Act will provide improved health benefits and compensation for veterans and military families exposed to toxins in highly contaminated locations like Camp Lejeune.

Despite these encouraging developments, the DoD has yet to commence cleanup on any of the most affected bases in the country per NDAA’s provisions, and diseases resulting from exposure to PFAS aren’t recognized as presumptive conditions under HOPA. Moreover, while Colorado adopted the EPA’s 2016 guidelines, it falls behind other states that employ even stricter standards.

Still, Colorado has the opportunity to stay ahead of the game by implementing more effective PFAS standards that align with the EPA’s most current efforts to regulate these toxic compounds. With the goal of setting enforceable maximum contaminant levels in drinking water, the EPA has drastically reduced its non-binding advisories for PFOA and PFOS in June 2022 to a paltry 0.004 ppt and 0.02 ppt, respectively, illustrating the dangers these substances represent even at exceedingly low concentrations.

Products that contain PFAS. Graphic credit: Riverside (CA) Public Utilities

Landowners advised to register unpermitted wells, ground water ponds by December 31, 2022 — Steamboat Pilot & Today #YampaRiver

Click the link to read the guest column from the Colorado Division of Water Resources on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website:

The Colorado Division of Water Resources staff in Steamboat Springs reminds landowners with existing unpermitted wells, and ponds fed by ground water, to file permits for those water structures by Dec. 31 to be evaluated without the well impacts treated as injurious, or harmful to water rights.

The state water engineer designated the middle Yampa River basin from west Steamboat Springs to the confluence with the Little Snake River west of Maybell, including all of its tributaries, as over-appropriated on March 1. Through the end of 2022, owners of existing unpermitted wells in that area can obtain a well permit without negative impacts if the well owner can demonstrate the well and its uses existed prior to March 1. The wells may include but are not limited to pond wells or other structures that expose groundwater to the atmosphere.

Water resources officials estimate hundreds of unpermitted wells exist in that area. A map of over-appropriated areas is available online at dwr.colorado.gov/division-offices/division-6-office, and click on the link “Report Designating Yampa River as Over-Appropriated.”

For applications for existing unpermitted wells filed on or after Jan. 1, Division of Water Resources staff will consider the injurious impacts from those existing wells when evaluating applications, which may result in a permit issued that considerably limits the use of water from the well. For questions, call the state’s well information desk at 303-866-3587. Permitting information is available online at Dwr.colorado.gov/services/well-permitting.

Credit: Chas Chamberlin via Water Education Colorado

#Groundwater #conservation easement: A new way to manage #RioGrande — @AlamosaCitizen

The sun rises over Ron Bowman’s ranch in Mosca. Photo by Andrew Parnes for The Citizen.

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

WHEN you’re working on an enormous issue like water – in this case how to recover the Upper Rio Grande Basin and the two aquifers of the San Luis Valley – you have to stretch your mind to find new approaches.

The idea that groundwater pumped to irrigate crops could be restricted through a conservation easement is one of those moments when something that’s never been tried bubbles to the top and provides a new way to look at an urgent problem.

On Nov. 8, Valley farmer Ron Bowman signed the first-ever groundwater conservation easement to restrict the use of groundwater on his nearly 1,900-acre ranch in Mosca. The commitment also set a timeline for Subdistrict 4 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to purchase the ranch for $2.6 million, a deal it will be looking to close in 2023 with a loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The subdistrict’s acquisition of the entire ranch not only saves groundwater from being pumped, but importantly helps Subdistrict 4 achieve its sustainability requirements for the confined aquifer as well as offset stream depletions to nearby San Luis Creek from groundwater pumping that occurs in Subdistricts 4 and 5.

“How the law is written and works, we’ll hold those water rights and they’ll still be water rights but we won’t pump them ever again,” said Chris Ivers, program manager for Subdistrict 4 and one of the architects of the deal. “That protects those water rights from being abandoned and somebody else coming in and saying ‘Because these water rights have been abandoned, I can pump water over here.’ So we’re holding their place in line but saying, you can’t pump this water, this is our water to pump.”

Bowman’s groundwater pumping has accounted for about 10 percent of that being pumped by irrigators across Subdistrict 4. The farm has been operating with 12 center-pivot irrigation circles, growing mostly forage crops including some alfalfa.

“If by discontinuing irrigation on my farm, it means that my neighbors may be able to keep their multigenerational farms in their families, then it feels like the right thing to do,” Bowman said. He and his wife, Gail, purchased the property about five years ago.

The reduction in groundwater pumping and the fact the water is being placed in a conservation easement so it’s never pumped again creates a new way for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the state agencies and nonprofit land trusts it partners with to address depletion in the aquifers.

“The nice thing about a groundwater conservation easement is each one can be tailored to that property,” explains Sarah Parmar, director of conservation at Colorado Open Lands.

Parmar has been instrumental in helping create a framework for the groundwater conservation easement that Bowman entered into. She credits Cleave Simpson, the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and state senator representing the Valley’s six counties, with the initial brainstorm.

From there it was getting other smart water people in the room, like Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District; local farmers Sheldon Rockey and Nathan Coombs; and state division engineer Craig Cotten to lend their expertise to determine if groundwater could be placed in a conservation easement.

The concept also went through a rigorous exercise with water attorneys to determine the legality of such a move, and Colorado Open Lands and the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust in Del Norte lent support to the project. There was also the matter of figuring out how to appraise the land given the new construct of groundwater being placed in an easement as part of a sale.

Over 20 years ago conservation easement work began to grow in the San Luis Valley largely with the establishment of the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, which was formed primarily out of concern for the surface water provided by the Rio Grande and its tributaries,” Colorado Opens Lands noted. “Now through this new application of a conservation easement on the Valley’s groundwater resources, the land trust community in the Valley is reinforcing its commitment to supporting the community in protecting its most precious resource: water.”

More common in the Valley are announcements of land conservation easements, where a portion of agricultural land is placed in an easement to prevent future development and preserve the land as a natural habitat.

Now water managers like Simpson have figured out that groundwater can also be placed in a conservation easement, which creates a new way for farmers to think about their operations as they continue to reduce the amount of water they use to farm to meet the state’s groundwater pumping rules.

“We are used to keeping water rights in irrigation through conservation easements, so it feels wrong to intentionally dry a farm, but by drying this particular farm, we are ensuring that the other farms in the subdistrict are sustainable and we ensure that this groundwater stays in the aquifer and out of the hands of anyone who might want to try to move it outside of the basin,” said Parmar.

Other approaches to a groundwater conservation easement may be different, she said. Instead of a farmer putting all the groundwater in a conservation easement as Bowman did, maybe only a portion of it is conserved through an easement and the rest continues to be used for crop production.

“Our hope is to work with landowners across subdistricts to avoid the state stepping in to shut off wells,” said Parmar. “I am continually amazed by the willingness of farmers and ranchers to step up to the challenge and grateful to work with irrigators like Ron Bowman, who want to be part of the solution.”

This is the first time the #Kansas Water Authority has voted to save what’s left of the #OgallalaAquifer — High Plains Public Radio

The High Plains Aquifer provides 30 percent of the water used in the nation’s irrigated agriculture. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

Click the link to read the article on the High Plains Public Radio website (David Condos), Here’s an excerpt:

For the first time, the state board voted Wednesday to say that Kansas shouldn’t pump the Ogallala aquifer dry to support crop irrigation. The underground water source has seen dramatic declines in recent decades.

The board that advises the Kansas governor and Legislature on water policy now says the state needs to dramatically cut farming irrigation to stop draining the Ogallala aquifer. The vote by the Kansas Water Authority on Wednesday signals a call for a major shift in state policy. For the first time, a state entity has stated that Kansas should move away from gradually depleting the aquifer and act to halt the decline of the vital underground reservoir. Kansas Water Office director Connie Owen called the vote a historic step in changing how the state manages the aquifer, which has lost more than one-third of its water in recent decades.

“It is enormous,” Owen said, “because there has yet to be any state entity that has publicly acknowledged the problem … and made a statement that we can no longer behave as we have been.”

The water authority will now send this official recommendation to the governor and Legislature in its annual report.

Ogallala Aquifer. Credit: Big Pivots

Another #Colorado county considers “300-year rule” for water supply as population booms: Arapahoe County launches 18-month study to assess #water supply and future development — The #Denver Post #CRWUA2022

Photo credit: Arapahoe County

Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (John Aguilar). Here’s an excerpt:

Arapahoe County may triple the amount of water developers will be made to bring to any new subdivision they build, as a historic drought continues to grip the region and demographers project the county’s population to surge to more than 800,000 by 2050. The stricter limit, which would increase the required groundwater allocation for new development from the state minimum of 100 years to 300 years — known among water managers as the “300-year rule” — will be considered as part of an 18-month, $500,000 water study Arapahoe County is launching this month. Any new regulations or directives from the county’s study, the first of its kind in 20 years, would apply only to unincorporated parts of the county…

The county would join several others in Colorado, like Adams, Elbert and El Paso, that have adopted the 300-year rule as demand on metro area aquifers has shot up over the decades. The population in the Greeley/Boulder/Denver metropolitan statistical area, under which the Denver Basin water table lies, has leaped from less than 2 million in 1985 to nearly 3.6 million last year. It could jump to 4.4 million people by mid-century, according to state demography data. And much of that new development is headed to the eastern periphery of metro Denver, just beyond the E-470 beltway. Sixteen of the top 20 best-selling residential developments in the metro area are in Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, which accounted for 76% of all metro area lots under development, according to 2021 data from real estate analytics firm Zonda. But just how much growth is constrained by stricter water supply requirements in Arapahoe County, with a population of 655,000, is not clear. According to state demography numbers, the county’s projected population will increase to just over 800,000 over the next 28 years, which would translate to an additional demand of 21,200 to 53,300 acre-feet of water a year.

Water stored in Colorado’s Denver Basin aquifers, which extend from Greeley to Colorado Springs, and from Golden to the Eastern Plains near Limon, does not naturally recharge from rain and snow and is therefore carefully regulated. Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.

Opposition to CAFOs Mounts Across the Nation: Toxic manure discharges from large livestock operations is major source of water pollution — Circle of Blue

Beef cattle on a feedlot in the Texas Panhandle. Photo credit: Wikimedia

Click the link to read the article on the Circle of Blue website (Keith Schneider):

For decades, Americans mostly turned a blind eye to the industrial-scale livestock production operations that churn out cheap supplies of meat and dairy for the masses. Occasional opposition to local pollution problems and the casual animal cruelty that characterize conventional US dairy, hog, and poultry production did little to alter practices that are embedded in the rural landscape.

That may be changing. A wave of frontline resistance is now breaking across the Upper Midwest and around the country as organized campaigns aimed at regulating concentrated animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs, are being felt at every level of government, and in state and federal courts.

Opposition to large livestock operations is more intense than at any time in recent memory, say environmental advocates.

“It’s been building and building,” said Rob Michaels, an attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), a Chicago-based legal group, who is working to limit CAFO manure discharges in Ohio and Michigan. “It’s now being raised as a political issue. As a legal issue. As a legislative issue.”

On October 19, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued a ruling that lends legal muscle to a five-year old petition that Food & Water Watch and 36 allies filed to compel the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to update CAFO permitting regulations. The Trump and Biden administrations ignored the 2017 petition. The Court of Appeals said the plaintiff’s petition “raises issues that warrant an answer” from the agency. A Food and Water Watch attorney said the Justice Department has been in touch to schedule a negotiating meeting.

A week later, on October 26, Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law group, and 50 allied non-profit and citizen organizations from around the US filed a separate petition calling on the EPA to initiate new rule-making that would require the largest CAFOs, which are significant sources of water pollution, to apply for wastewater discharge permits under the Clean Water Act. The petition asserts that because every CAFO discharges polluting wastes EPA has the authority and duty to require them to operate under wastewater permits.

Calls for moratoriums on new CAFO construction also are being heard by legislatures in Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Counties in South Dakota and Arkansas have issued local moratoriums. The Missouri Supreme Court is set to decide, perhaps before the year ends, whether counties can regulate CAFO development through local public health ordinances.

At least five Wisconsin counties and three towns have enacted temporary moratoriums, and one county is considering imposing a local ordinance next year. Last year the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the authority of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to restrict large livestock farms to protect the state’s water, a rebuke to a 2011 state law that limited the DNR’s authority to regulate CAFOs.

Dairy cattle Morgan County. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

Water worries

The EPA has identified more than 21,000 large CAFOs across the country but just 6,266 of those operate with wastewater discharge permits under the Clean Water Act designed to control and restrict pollutants discharged into waterways, according to EPA figures.

“EPA is weak on regulations on CAFOs,” said Emily Miller, a Food & Water Watch attorney. “Only a fraction have permits and the permits that do exist are just simply ineffective.”

An EPA spokesman said the agency would not comment on either petition. The American Farm Bureau Federation declined to be interviewed for this article.

The National Milk Producers Federation, though, issued this statement in response to the environmentalists’ petitions. “Regulation of CAFOs require a responsible approach, which sometimes isn’t the case among environmental activists who seek to use regulations to reduce the availability of animal protein products for consumers,” said Jamie Jonker, the group’ chief science officer.”

The restiveness about CAFO operations and expansion in the American countryside is due to the same kinds of disruptions occurring in states like Wisconsin, where 340 large livestock operations have been constructed, most of them big milk and hog production facilities. They collectively house hundreds of thousands of animals.

Wisconsin CAFOS pour billions of gallons of untreated liquified manure every year, and millions of tons of solid manure on hundreds of thousands of farm acres. A study for the Wisconsin Legislature made public in October found that the number of private wells contaminated with nitrates or E.coli, the intestinal bacteria, was expanding steadily and identified the source as agricultural discharges.

CAFOs, though, are the only industrial polluting facilities not required to treat their wastes. The federal waiver for treating CAFO wastes dramatically reduces pollution control and operating costs. It is a primary reason the American livestock sector has rapidly changed from numerous small farms that manage livestock on outdoor pastures and barnyards to many fewer industrial-scale operations where animals spend their entire lives indoors.

And because CAFOs operate on efficiencies of scale, they have played an outsize role in keeping commodity prices low and contributed to the closure of small farms in America.

As CAFOs gained influence, for example, Wisconsin in November counted 6,172 dairy farms, down from 11,260 a decade earlier, according to state figures. A study by the American Farm Bureau Federation found that from 2011 to 2020 Wisconsin led the nation in farm bankruptcies.

Though the Biden administration dispatched the EPA administrator and several aides to Cleveland earlier this year to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the 1972 statute has not come close to achieving its “fishable and swimmable” goal for American surface waters. The problem is unregulated nutrient discharges from agriculture. In 2016, the EPA identified phosphorus and nitrogen discharges from U.S. farmland as “the single greatest challenge to our nation’s water quality.”

Harmful algal blooms caused by phosphorus discharges from CAFOs now contaminate many of America’s iconic waters, among them Chesapeake Bay, Lake Okeechobee, Lake Champlain, California’s Clear Lake, and Lake Erie. “Somewhere between 88 percent and 94 percent of the problem is caused by these CAFOs, these megafarms and their nutrient nonpoint source runoff. Everyone knows it,” said Wade Kapszukiewicz, the mayor of Toledo, Ohio, which was forced in 2014 to shut down its drinking water plant for three days because of bloom-generated toxins. Half a million residents lost their drinking water supply.

CAFO nutrient discharge is worse in the Corn Belt states: the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas. The EPA counted 9,332 concentrated livestock and poultry operations across the Corn Belt in 2021. It is not known how much manure they all produce each year, but it’s prodigious. For comparison the 291 CAFOs in Michigan generate 4 billion gallons of untreated raw liquid manure annually, and millions of tons of solid manure, according to the state environment department.

In Iowa, where almost 4,000 CAFOs operate, nearly every mile of streams and acre of surface water is impaired by nutrients or E.coli. Just 167 Iowa CAFOs have wastewater discharge permits, according to the E.P.A.

The Biden Administration and CAFO opponents know full well that changing the regulatory rules of the CAFO game will be a fierce struggle. Environmentalists, small farm advocates, and E.P.A. administrators under previous administrations, Democratic and Republican, have tried to cross this same ground before and been turned back in federal courts by politically powerful farm groups led by the American Farm Bureau Federation and its allies in the various state and national dairy, pork, poultry, and beef associations.

In 2003, in response to a lawsuit brought by Natural Resources Defense Council and Public Citizen, the EPA issued a new rule that obligated CAFOs to apply for discharge permit unless they could demonstrate that they had “no potential to discharge” damaging nutrients. That rule was challenged by livestock operators, who in 2005 convinced the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to strike it down.

The E.P.A. tried again with a new rule in 2008 that limited the permitting obligation to CAFOs that “propose to discharge” wastes. But in 2011, in a case brought by the National Pork Producers Council and other farm groups, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals struck that rule down, too. In both cases plaintiffs argued the law didn’t give the agency authority to regulate “potential” or “proposed” sources of pollution.

With their petitions and grassroots campaigns, activist legal and non-profit groups are pressing E.P.A. to try again. They assert that every CAFO operating in the United States is a source of “actual” wastewater discharges that require much more effective regulation. “The E.P.A. under its current leadership acknowledges that what we’ve asked for needs to happen,” said Amy van Saun, a senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, which is a party to the 2017 petition. “I don’t think they have any legal way to say no.”

A version of this article was published by The New Lede on November 17, 2022.

The Cold War Legacy Lurking in U.S. #Groundwater — ProPublica

Uranium and vanadium radioactive warning sign. Photo credit: Jonathan P Thompson

Click the link to read the article on the PropPublica website Mark Olalde, Mollie Simon and Alex Mierjeski, video by Gerardo del Valle, Liz Moughon and Mauricio Rodríguez Pons

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

In America’s rush to build the nuclear arsenal that won the Cold War, safety was sacrificed for speed.

Uranium mills that helped fuel the weapons also dumped radioactive and toxic waste into rivers like the Cheyenne in South Dakota and the Animas in Colorado. Thousands of sheep turned blue and died after foraging on land tainted by processing sites in North Dakota. And cancer wards across the West swelled with sick uranium workers.

The U.S. government bankrolled the industry, and mining companies rushed to profit, building more than 50 mills and processing sites to refine uranium ore.

But the government didn’t have a plan for the toxic byproducts of this nuclear assembly line. Some of the more than 250 million tons of toxic and radioactive detritus, known as tailings, scattered into nearby communities, some spilled into streams and some leaked into aquifers.

Congress finally created the agency that now oversees uranium mill waste cleanup in 1974 and enacted the law governing that process in 1978, but the industry would soon collapse due to falling uranium prices and rising safety concerns. Most mills closed by the mid-1980s.

When cleanup began, federal regulators first focused on the most immediate public health threat, radiation exposure. Agencies or companies completely covered waste at most mills to halt leaks of the carcinogenic gas radon and moved some waste by truck and train to impoundments specially designed to encapsulate it.

But the government has fallen down in addressing another lingering threat from the industry’s byproducts: widespread water pollution.

Creating a balance of water that’s taken from aquifers and water that replenishes aquifers is an important aspect of making sure water will be available when it’s needed. Image from “Getting down to facts: A Visual Guide to Water in the Pinal Active Management Area,” courtesy of Ashley Hullinger and the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center

Regulators haven’t made a full accounting of whether they properly addressed groundwater contamination. So, for the first time, ProPublica cataloged cleanup efforts at the country’s 48 uranium mills, seven related processing sites and numerous tailings piles.

At least 84% of the sites have polluted groundwater. And nearly 75% still have either no liner or only a partial liner between mill waste and the ground, leaving them susceptible to leaking pollution into groundwater. In the arid West, where most of the sites are located, climate change is drying up surface water, making underground reserves increasingly important.

ProPublica’s review of thousands of pages of government and corporate documents, accompanied by interviews with 100 people, also found that cleanup has been hampered by infighting among regulatory agencies and the frequency with which regulators grant exemptions to their own water quality standards.

The result: a long history of water pollution and sickness.

Reports by government agencies found high concentrations of cancer near a mill in Utah and elevated cancer risks from mill waste in New Mexico that can persist until cleanup is complete. Residents near those sites and others have seen so many cases of cancer and thyroid disease that they believe the mills and waste piles are to blame, although epidemiological studies to prove such a link have rarely been done.

“The government didn’t pay attention up front and make sure it was done right. They just said, ‘Go get uranium,’” said Bill Dixon, who spent decades cleaning up uranium and nuclear sites with the state of Oregon and in the private sector.

Tom Hanrahan grew up near uranium mills in Colorado and New Mexico and watched three of his three brothers contract cancer. He believes his siblings were “casualties” of the war effort.

“Somebody knew that this was a ticking atomic bomb,” Hanrahan said. “But, in military terms, this was the cost of fighting a war.”

A Flawed System

When a uranium mill shuts down, here is what’s supposed to happen: The company demolishes the buildings, decontaminates the surrounding soil and water, and encases the waste to stop it from leaking cancer-causing pollution. The company then asks the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the lead agency monitoring America’s radioactive infrastructure, to approve the handoff of the property and its associated liability to the Department of Energy’s Office of Legacy Management for monitoring and maintenance.

ProPublica’s analysis found that half of the country’s former mills haven’t made it through this process and even many that did have never fully addressed pollution concerns. This is despite the federal government spending billions of dollars on cleanup, in addition to the several hundred million dollars that have been spent by companies.

Often, companies or agencies tasked with cleanup are unable to meet water quality standards, so they request exemptions to bypass them. The NRC or state agencies almost always approve these requests, allowing contaminants like uranium and selenium to be left in the groundwater. When ingested in high quantities, those elements can cause cancer and damage the nervous system, respectively.

The DOE estimates that some sites have individually polluted more than a billion gallons of water.

Bill Dam, who spent decades regulating and researching uranium mill cleanup with the NRC, at the DOE and in the private sector, said water pollution won’t be controlled until all the waste and contaminated material is moved. “The federal government’s taken a Band-Aid approach to groundwater contamination,” he said.

White Mesa Mill. Photo credit: Energy Fuels

The pollution has disproportionately harmed Indian Country.

Six of the mills were built on reservations, and another eight mills are within 5 miles of one, some polluting aquifers used by tribes. And the country’s last conventional uranium mill still in operation — the White Mesa Mill in Utah — sits adjacent to a Ute Mountain Ute community.

So many uranium mines, mills and waste piles pockmark the Navajo Nation that the Environmental Protection Agency created a comic book superhero, Gamma Goat, to warn Diné children away from the sites.

NRC staff acknowledged that the process of cleaning up America’s uranium mills can be slow but said that the agency prioritizes thoroughness over speed, that each site’s groundwater conditions are complex and unique, and that cleanup exemptions are granted only after gathering input from regulators and the public.

“The NRC’s actions provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety and the environment,” David McIntyre, an NRC spokesperson, said in a statement to ProPublica.

“Cleanup Standards Might Suddenly Change”

For all the government’s success in demolishing mills and isolating waste aboveground, regulators failed to protect groundwater.

Between 1958 and 1962, a mill near Gunnison, Colorado, churned through 540,000 tons of ore. The process, one step in concentrating the ore into weapons-grade uranium, leaked uranium and manganese into groundwater, and in 1990, regulators found that residents had been drawing that contaminated water from 22 wells.

The DOE moved the waste and connected residents to clean water. But pollution lingered in the aquifer beneath the growing town where some residents still get their water from private wells. The DOE finally devised a plan in 2000, which the NRC later approved, settling on a strategy called “natural flushing,” essentially waiting for groundwater to dilute the contamination until it reached safe levels.

In 2015, the agency acknowledged that the plan had failed. Sediments absorb and release uranium, so waiting for contamination to be diluted doesn’t solve the problem, said Dam, the former NRC and DOE regulator.

In Wyoming, state regulators wrote to the NRC in 2006 to lambast the agency’s “inadequate” analysis of natural flushing compared to other cleanup options. “Unfortunately, the citizens of Wyoming may likely have to deal with both the consequences and the indirect costs of the NRC’s decisions for generations to come,” the state’s letter said.

ProPublica identified mills in six states — including eight former mill sites in Colorado — where regulators greenlit the strategy as part of a cleanup plan.

When neither water treatment nor nature solves the problem, federal and state regulators can simply relax their water quality standards, allowing harmful levels of pollutants to be left in aquifers.

County officials made a small area near the Gunnison mill off-limits to new wells, and the DOE suggested changing water quality standards to allow uranium concentrations as much as 475 times what naturally occurred in the area. It wouldn’t endanger human health, the agency said, because people wouldn’t come into contact with the water.

ProPublica found that regulators granted groundwater cleanup exemptions at 18 of the 28 sites where cleanup has been deemed complete and liability has been handed over to the DOE’s Office of Legacy Management. Across all former uranium mills, the NRC or state agencies granted at least 34 requests for water quality exemptions while denying as few as three.

“They’re cutting standards, so we’re getting weak cleanup that future generations may not find acceptable,” said Paul Robinson, who spent four decades researching the cleanup of the uranium industry with the Southwest Research and Information Center, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit. “These great mining companies of the world, they got away cheap.”

NRC staffers examine studies that are submitted by companies’ consultants and other agencies to show how cleanup plans will adequately address water contamination. Some companies change their approach in response to feedback from regulators, and the public can view parts of the process in open meetings. Still, the data and groundwater modeling that underpin these requests for water cleanup exemptions are often wrong.

One reason: When mining companies built the mills, they rarely sampled groundwater to determine how much contamination occurred naturally, leaving it open to debate how clean groundwater should be when the companies leave, according to Roberta Hoy, a former uranium program specialist with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. She said federal regulators also haven’t done enough to understand certain contaminants at uranium mills.

In one recent case, the NRC fined a mining company $14,500 for incomplete and inaccurate groundwater modeling data. Companies use such data to prove that pollution won’t spread in the future. Freeport-McMoRan, the corporation that owns the fined mining company, did not respond to a request for comment.

At a 2013 conference co-hosted by the NRC and a mining trade group, a presentation from two consultants compared groundwater modeling to a sorcerer peering at a crystal ball.

ProPublica identified at least seven sites where regulators granted cleanup exemptions based on incorrect groundwater modeling. At these sites, uranium, lead, nitrates, radium and other substances were found at levels higher than models had predicted and regulators had allowed.

McIntyre, the NRC spokesperson, said that groundwater models “inherently include uncertainty,” and the government typically requires sites to be monitored. “The NRC requires conservatism in the review process and groundwater monitoring to verify a model’s accuracy,” he said.

Water quality standards impose specific limits on the allowable concentration of contaminants — for example, the number of micrograms of uranium per liter of water. But ProPublica found that the NRC granted exemptions in at least five states that were so vague they didn’t even include numbers and were instead labeled as “narrative.” The agency justified this by saying the groundwater was not near towns or was naturally unfit for human consumption.

Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site

This system worries residents of Cañon City, Colorado. Emily Tracy, who serves on the City Council, has lived a few miles from the area’s now-demolished uranium mill since the late 1970s and remembers floods and winds carrying mill waste into neighborhoods from the 15.3-million-ton pile, which is now partially covered.

Uranium and other contaminants had for decades tainted private wells that some residents used for drinking water and agriculture, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The company that operated the mill, Cotter Corp., finally connected residents to clean water by the early 1990s and completed cleanup work such as decontaminating soil after the EPA got involved. But the site remains without a final cleanup plan — which the company that now owns the site is drafting — and the state has eased water quality standards for molybdenum, a metal that uranium mining and milling releases into the environment.

“We have great concerns about what it might look like or whether cleanup standards might suddenly change before our eyes,” Tracy said.

Jim Harrington, managing director of the site’s current owner, Colorado Legacy Land, said that a final cleanup strategy has not been selected and that any proposal would need to be approved by both the EPA and the state.

Layers of Regulation

It typically takes 35 years from the day a mill shuts down until the NRC approves or estimates it will approve cleanup as being complete, ProPublica found. Two former mills aren’t expected to finish this process until 2047.

Chad Smith, a DOE spokesperson, said mills that were previously transferred to the government have polluted groundwater more than expected, so regulators are more cautious now.

The involvement of so many regulators can also slow cleanup.

Five sites were so contaminated that the EPA stepped in via its Superfund program, which aims to clean up the most polluted places in the country.

Homestake Mill Milan, New Mexico Zeolite cell construction. Photo credit: EPA

At the Homestake mill in New Mexico, where cleanup is jointly overseen by the NRC and the EPA, Larry Camper, a now-retired NRC division director, acknowledged in a 2011 meeting “that having multiple regulators for the site is not good government” and had complicated the cleanup, according to meeting minutes.

Homestake Mining Company of California did not comment on Camper’s view of the process.

Only one site where the EPA is involved in cleanup has been successfully handed off to the DOE, and even there, uranium may still persist above regulatory limits in groundwater and surface water, according to the agency. An EPA spokesperson said the agency has requested additional safety studies at that site.

“A lot of people make money in the bureaucratic system just pontificating over these things,” said William Turner, a geologist who at different times has worked for mining companies, for the U.S. Geological Survey and as the New Mexico Natural Resources Trustee.

If the waste is on tribal land, it adds another layer of government.

The federal government and the Navajo Nation have long argued over the source of some groundwater contamination at the former Navajo Mill built by Kerr-McGee Corp. in Shiprock, New Mexico, with the tribe pointing to the mill as the key source. Smith of the DOE said the department is guided by water monitoring results “to minimize opportunities for disagreement.”

Tronox, which acquired parts of Kerr-McGee, did not respond to requests for comment.

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

All the while, 2.5 million tons of waste sit adjacent to the San Juan River in the town of 8,000 people. Monitoring wells situated between the unlined waste pile and the river have shown nitrate levels as high as 80 times the limit set by regulators to protect human health, uranium levels 30 times the limit and selenium levels 20 times the limit.

“I can’t seem to get the federal agencies to acknowledge the positions of the Navajo Nation,” said Dariel Yazzie, who formerly managed the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund Program.

At some sites, overlapping jurisdictions mean even less cleanup gets done.

Such was the case near Griffin, North Dakota, where six cows and 2,500 sheep died in 1973; their bodies emitted a blue glow in the morning light. The animals lay near kilns that once served as rudimentary uranium mills operated by Kerr-McGee. To isolate the element, piles of uranium-laden coal at the kilns were “covered with old tires, doused in diesel fuel, ignited, and left to smolder for a couple of months,” according to the North Dakota Geological Survey.

The flock is believed to have been poisoned by land contaminated with high levels of molybdenum. The danger extended beyond livestock. In a 1989 draft environmental assessment, the DOE found that “fatal cancer from exposure to residual radioactive materials” from the Griffin kilns and another site less than a mile from a town of 1,000 people called Belfield was eight times as high as it would have been if the sites had been decontaminated.

But after agreeing to work with the federal government, North Dakota did an about-face. State officials balked at a requirement to pay 10% of the cleanup cost — the federal government would cover the rest — and in 1995 asked that the sites no longer be regulated under the federal law. The DOE had already issued a report that said doing nothing “would not be consistent” with the law, but the department approved the state’s request and walked away, saying it could only clean a site if the state paid its share.

“North Dakota determined there was minimal risk to public health at that time and disturbing the grounds further would create a potential for increased public health risk,” said David Stradinger, manager of the Radiation Control Program in the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality. Contaminated equipment was removed, and the state is reevaluating one of the sites, he said.

“A Problem for the Better Part of 50 Years”

While the process for cleaning up former mills is lengthy and laid out in regulations, regulators and corporations have made questionable and contradictory decisions in their handling of toxic waste and tainted water.

More than 40 million people rely on drinking water from the Colorado River, but the NRC and DOE allowed companies to leak contamination from mill waste directly into the river, arguing that the waterway quickly dilutes it.

Federal regulators relocated tailings at two former mills that processed uranium and vanadium, another heavy metal, on the banks of the Colorado River in Rifle, Colorado, because radiation levels there were deemed too high. Yet they left some waste at one former processing site in a shallow aquifer connected to the river and granted an exemption that allowed cleanup to end and uranium to continue leaking into the waterway.

For a former mill built by the Anaconda Copper Company in Bluewater, New Mexico, the NRC approved the company’s request to hand the site off to the DOE in 1997. About a decade later, the state raised concerns about uranium that had spread several miles in an aquifer that provides drinking water for more than 15,000 people.

The contamination hasn’t reached the wells used by nearby communities, and Smith, the DOE spokesperson, said the department has no plans to treat the uranium in the aquifer. It’s too late for much more cleanup, since the DOE’s Office of Legacy Management’s mission is to monitor and maintain decommissioned sites, not clean them. Flawed cleanup efforts caused problems at several former mills after they were handed off to the agency, according to a 2020 Government Accountability Office report.

“Uranium has been overplayed as a boom,” said Travis Stills, an environmental attorney in Colorado who has sued over the cleanup of old uranium infrastructure. “The boom was a firecracker, and it left a problem for the better part of 50 years now.”

“No Way in Hell We’re Going to Leave This Stuff Here”

Mining companies can’t remove every atom of uranium from groundwater, experts said, but they can do a better job of decommissioning uranium mills. With the federal government yet to take control of half the country’s former mills, regulators still have time to compel some companies to do more cleanup.

Between 1958 and 1961, the Lakeview Mining Company generated 736,000 tons of tailings at a uranium mill in southern Oregon. Like at most sites, uranium and other pollution leaked into an aquifer.

“There’s no way in hell we’re going to leave this stuff here,” Dixon, the nuclear cleanup specialist, remembered thinking. He represented the state of Oregon at the former mill, which was one of the first sites to relocate its waste to a specially engineered disposal cell.

A local advisory committee at the Lakeview site allowed residents and local politicians to offer input to federal regulators. By the end of the process, the government had paid to connect residents to a clean drinking water system and the waste was moved away from the town, where it was contained by a 2-foot-thick clay liner and covered with 3 feet of rocks, soil and vegetation. Local labor got priority for cleanup contracts, and a 170-acre solar farm now stands on the former mill site.

But relocation isn’t required. At some sites, companies and regulators saw a big price tag and either moved residents away or merely left the waste where it was.

“I recognize Lakeview is easy and it’s a drop in the bucket compared to New Mexico,” Dixon said, referring to the nation’s largest waste piles. “But it’s just so sad to see that this hasn’t been taken care of.”


To investigate the cleanup of America’s uranium mills, ProPublica assembled a list of uranium processing and disposal sites from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s most recent “Status of the Decommissioning Program” annual reportthe WISE Uranium Project and several federal agencies’ websites. Reporters reviewed fact sheets from the NRC and the Department of Energy before studying the history of each mill contained in thousands of pages of documents that are archived mainly in the NRC’s Agencywide Documents Access and Management System, known as ADAMS.

We solicited feedback on our findings from 10 experts who worked or work at the NRC, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, the Southwest Research and Information Center, the University of New Mexico and elsewhere. Additionally, we interviewed dozens of current and former regulators, residents of communities adjacent to mills, representatives of tribes, academics, politicians and activists to better understand the positive and negative impacts of the uranium industry and the bureaucracy that oversees uranium mill cleanup.

We also traveled to observe mill sites in New Mexico, Utah and Colorado.

Where did the #PFAS in your blood come from? These computer models offer clues — Environmental Health News

PFAS contamination in the U.S. via ewg.org.

Click the link to read the article on the Environmental Health News website (Marlowe Starling):

New research could help pinpoint “forever chemicals” exposure — giving communities a roadmap for cleanup and individuals direction on what to avoid.

Downstream of a Chemours fluorochemical manufacturing plant on the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, people living in Brunswick and New Hanover counties suffer from higher-than-normal rates of brain tumors, breast cancers and other forms of rare — and accelerated — diseases.

Residents now know this isn’t a coincidence. It’s from years of PFAS contamination from Chemours.

It wasn’t easy to make the connection. More than a decade of water testing and lawsuits identified the link between aggressive cancers and per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS – a class of more than 9,000 toxic and persistent man-made compounds known informally as “forever chemicals.” They’re commonly found in nonstick cookware, water-resistant clothing, firefighting foam, cosmetics, food packaging and recently in school uniforms and insecticides.

The difficulty of tracing these chemicals to a specific source is that Americans — 97% of us, by one estimate — are exposed to potentially thousands of PFAS.

New research published in Science of the Total Environment now finds that tracing models can identify sources of PFAS contamination from people’s blood samples. Instead of using environmental measures of PFAS as a proxy for how people are exposed, the methods use blood samples as a more direct way to map people’s exposure.

“If this works, it would allow us to identify, without any prior knowledge, what people are being exposed to and how they’re being exposed to it,” Dylan Wallis, a lead author of the paper and toxicologist formerly at North Carolina State University, told EHN.

The research, while not yet perfect, marks the beginning of what could become a wide-scale method of determining where the PFAS in our blood came from—such as our food, drinking water or use of nonstick cookware—and how much of it came from each source. But its effectiveness hinges on the need to collect more comprehensive data on where PFAS occurs in people’s bodies, the environment and sources. If scientists can collect this data, then these methods would be able to draw a roadmap for people’s exposure, allowing us to pinpoint problem areas, avoid contamination and implement regulatory changes.

PFAS in blood samples

For this tracing method to work, scientists need an idea of which compounds exist in air, water, food and everyday products in a determined community. First, they have to know where to look for PFAS. This study used data from previous research to identify the types of PFAS in drinking water. Then, they test blood samples for which PFAS are in people’s bodies—although using blood alone gives us only part of the contamination picture, Carla Ng, a chemical and biological engineer at University of Pittsburgh, told EHN. Once they match PFAS proportions in blood to what’s in their drinking water, as in this study, they can gain clues to which sources contributed the chemicals showing up in people’s blood.

“You start to build this picture of what are the inputs, what’s the material they’re getting their exposure from, and then what’s in their blood,” Ng, who was not involved in the study, explained.

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

The new study analyzed blood samples taken in 2018 and 2020 from residents in Wilmington, North Carolina, and three towns in El Paso County, Colorado. Both communities are near well-known PFAS polluters: the Chemours facility in North Carolina, which manufactures fluoropolymers for nonstick and waterproof products, and the Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado, which uses PFAS-containing firefighting foam, also called AFFFs.

Related: PFAS on our shelves and in our bodies

The team used computer models to identify 20 PFAS compounds from residents’ blood samples and then grouped them in categories representing different sources. Some are easy to identify because manufacturers often use a specific type of PFAS. For example, the compounds found in firefighting foam have a unique signature, like a fingerprint, making Peterson Space Force Base the obvious culprit. But more diffuse sources of PFAS, such as those in dust or food, are harder to pin down because scientists aren’t sure which PFAS are in them or where they come from.

In North Carolina and Colorado, the sources were more obvious, allowing the research team to test models’ ability to identify sources. However, to conduct similar research on a national scale is not so simple. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey has tested levels of PFAS in blood samples nationwide since 1999, but it only tests for a specific list of PFAS, which could overlook the full spectrum of compounds.

Drinking water in both locations in the study shows high levels of fluoroethers and fluoropolymers, many of which are “legacy” PFAS, meaning they have been phased out of production for at least a decade but are still found in drinking water. Because the chemical bonds are so strong, they persist in the environment for years, which is why they show up in blood samples long after companies have stopped using or manufacturing them. Long-chain PFAS like PFOA and PFOS, which are the most-studied compounds with a longer structure of carbon-fluorine bonds, are harder to break down, and they bond to proteins in the blood more easily than short-chain compounds.

“These last a really long time,” Wallis said of long-chain PFAS, which were recorded at levels several times higher than national averages. “If you were drinking a really high level of it 40 years ago, you would still have really high levels of it 40 years later.”

A pollution snapshot

Wallis said they were surprised the models worked because they have never been used for PFAS before. They were built to trace other contaminants in the environment, like particles in air pollution, rather than in people.

Tracing PFAS is more challenging than tracing air pollution for several reasons, Xindi Hu, a lead data scientist at the research organization Mathematica, told EHN. Hu conducted earlier research using a different type of computer analysis of blood samples to identify the main sources of PFAS contamination in the Faroe Islands.

Many PFAS lack distinct chemical fingerprints to tell researchers exactly where a particular compound came from, Hu said. But in the study led by Wallis, the chemical fingerprints from the Space Force base in Colorado and fluorochemical facility in North Carolina are well-known.

“When you take a blood sample, it’s really just a snapshot,” she said. “So how do you translate this snapshot of concentration back to the course of the entire exposure history?”

That’s partly why the new paper’s authors conducted this study: The more compounds that are correctly linked to a source, the better these models will work, Wallis said. In essence, they need a better database of PFAS compounds so the models know how to connect the dots.

PFAS also react differently in the human body than in the environment, and scientists still don’t fully understand how we metabolize different compounds. Shorter-chain PFAS, for example, are more likely to appear in urine samples than in blood because they are water-soluble, said Pittsburgh’s Ng, who studies how PFAS react in humans and wildlife.

“If you’re doing everything on the basis of blood levels, it may not tell you everything you need to know about exposure and potential toxicity,” she said, adding that PFAS could also accumulate in the liver, brain, lungs and other locations where it’s difficult to take samples.

Worse, more modern PFAS with carbon-hydrogen bonds can actually transform into other types of compounds as the body metabolizes them, which could give a false impression of what people are exposed to.

“The key to identifying a good tracer is a molecule that doesn’t transform,” Ng said. Some PFAS are great tracers, she added, but “the more transformable your PFAS is in general, the poorer the tracer is going to be.”

That’s why newer PFAS compounds like GenX were not detected in blood samples or used as tracers in the recent study.

“These models aren’t going to account for everything,” Wallis said. “No model is.”

Stopping the contamination 

Wallis and their co-authors said they hope the models can become more accurate for less exposed communities in the future. With more data, it would be easier to suggest what to avoid instead of guessing where PFAS exposures come from, Wallis said, adding that it could lead to more protective regulations.

Although these models can vaguely help identify where compounds might come from in a particular community, it’s not a definitive solution, Alissa Cordner, an environmental sociologist and co-director of the PFAS Project Lab who was not involved in the recent study, told EHN. Even if there’s no immediate application of these methods, identifying where PFAS are is the first step.

“Everybody can point their fingers at other possible sources of contamination,” Cordner said. “The best way to address this is not to try to, after the fact, link people’s exposure to a contamination source. It’s to stop the contamination.”

From Your Site Articles

Municipal water among most vulnerable in #ColoradoRiver crisis — WyoFile #LittleSnakeRiver #GreenRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Lincoln Highway in Cheyenne, Feb. 16, 2013. (Kent Kanouse/FlickrCC)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Dustin Bleizeffer):

When Cheyenne’s municipal water board approved a deal in October to supply up to 14,500 acre-feet of water over 15 years for a proposed gold mine west of town, attorneys insisted on inserting a clause in the contract. It retained the right to cut water deliveries if the city itself has to curtail its water use due to the Colorado River crisis.

“The majority of our water comes from the Colorado River [basin] and if that call [requiring upstream users to cut consumption] comes in, we’re in big trouble,” Cheyenne Mayor Patrick Collins said.

About 70% of the city’s municipal water supply originates 150 miles west in the Little Snake River drainage, a part of the Colorado River Basin. A complex “trans-basin” system of pumps, tunnels and pipelines transports the water under the Continental Divide in the Medicine Bow Routt National Forest to the city. 

Cheyenne’s legal claims to the Colorado River Basin water were appropriated from 1954 to 1982 — making it a relatively new user in the system. If there is a curtailment, it would be applied to the newest or most “junior” appropriations, then work back in time to the 1922 Colorado River Compact. That means, depending on how far back in time a curtailment extends, 70% of the city’s water supply could be shut off — an action that could come as soon as 2028 if hydrological conditions keep trending for the worse, according to the Wyoming State Engineer’s office.

This map depicts Cheyenne’s municipal water supply system, which funnels in water from the Little Snake River Basin. (Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities)

“If we lose 100% of our Colorado River Compact water, we’re upside down,” Collins said, adding that about 80,000 people rely on the city’s municipal water system. “We wouldn’t have enough water to meet our current needs.”

For now, Cheyenne, Baggs, Rock Springs, Green River, Pinedale and a handful of other towns that depend on water from the Little Snake and Green River basins in Wyoming are assessing where they stand in the pecking order of appropriated water rights in the event of a curtailment. Although municipalities make up a small percentage of Wyoming water users under the Colorado River Compact and associated laws, their legal claims to the water are among the most vulnerable.

First in time, first in right

If the Upper Colorado River Basin Commission issues a curtailment for Wyoming, it would not necessarily force all water users subject to the compact to close their spigots completely.

There’s no curtailment priority in terms of use — whether it’s irrigation for cattle and alfalfa fields, water consumed for cooling at the Jim Bridger coal-fired power plant or water piped to homes for domestic use. Instead, a curtailment would be applied based on the first-in-time, first-in-right water appropriations doctrine: Those who gained their water appropriation latest in time would be the first ordered to shut off their water.

For example, if the state had to curtail 100,000 acre-feet of water — approximately one-sixth of its annual Colorado River Basin consumptive water use — the state engineer would begin with the newest appropriations and work back in time until the 100,000 acre-feet of consumptive water use curtailment was met.

Shauna Gray and her dog, Lula Mae, paddle at Rob Roy Reservoir July 31, 2022. The reservoir is part of a trans-basin water system that supplies water to Cheyenne. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

If, let’s say, that required turning off all Colorado River Basin water appropriations back to 1970, that would choke off all water appropriated since then — whether for industrial, municipal or agricultural use. The cities of Rock Springs and Green River, which share a municipal water system that serves some 39,000 residents, would lose access to 75% of their Green River water appropriation. The towns would still be allowed to tap the 4,343-acre-feet-per-year appropriation they secured in 1928 and the 2,895-acre-feet-per-year appropriation that predates the 1922 compact. The rest — 75% — was appropriated in 1971 and after.

This type of variable vulnerability applies to many Colorado River Basin water users with appropriated rights that were obtained at different times. The exact order for how a curtailment would be applied is well documented and under continual review, according to the state engineer’s office.

Small straw, big vulnerability

Agriculture accounts for 83.7% of Wyoming’s consumptive use of water in the Colorado River system, according to the SEO. Municipal water use accounts for about 2.8% — or 3.3% if you include rural domestic water use. Industry — trona facilities, coal power plants, oil and natural gas processing — make up most of the remaining 13%.

Approximately 70% of agricultural irrigation water rights in Wyoming were appropriated before 1922. Those pre-1922 appropriations are not subject to the Colorado River Compact and cannot be shut off under a curtailment. The pre-1922 protection applies to all Colorado River Basin water users.

A majority of Colorado River Basin water appropriations held by Wyoming municipal water authorities, however, are post-1922. That means some 125,000 urban Wyoming residents and businesses are vulnerable to a curtailment.

Given the curtailment clause in Cheyenne’s water contract, gold mine developer Gold King Corp. is shopping around to secure alternative water resources, according to Mayor Collins. The city of Cheyenne — as well as Green River, Rock Springs and others — are doing the same.

“There is the possibility that we would not be able to collect any water from the Little Snake System if [a] curtailment call goes below 1954,” Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities Administrator Brad Brooks told WyoFile. “We are looking for additional water to mitigate this possibility and planning for the worst case that our Little Snake water will not be available.”

Green River and Rock Springs are in the same boat. Their joint municipal water system collects 100% of its water from the Green River and its tributaries to serve some 39,000 residents in and around the two cities. Only 10% of their Colorado River Basin water appropriations pre-date the 1922 compact.

Green River. (Google Earth)

Although the cities don’t rely on the full volume of their legal claims to Colorado River Basin water, the time to plan for supplemental water sources is now; 2028, the year Wyoming might first see a curtailment, isn’t far away, Green River/Rock Springs Joint Powers Board General Manager Bryan Seppie said.

“Understand, [a curtailment] probably isn’t a one-year event,” Seppie told WyoFile, adding that much depends on what Mother Nature has in store. “We’ve got to secure other water resources to serve as replacement water if [a curtailment] were to happen. Conservation is a tool, but with these types of curtailments, conservation is not going to get you out of it.”

Backup water

Part of the Gold King deal provides Cheyenne’s Board of Public Utilities approximately $5 million in fees that would help cover the cost to expand Cheyenne’s groundwater capacity. The city’s water board is also seeking up to $10.5 million in grants from the Wyoming Water Development Commission for its Borie wellfield expansion project. The expansion would add approximately 3,300 acre-feet of water per year to the city’s water portfolio, according to the board. 

That would boost Cheyenne’s non-Colorado River Compact water source portfolio to 9,900 acre-feet per year. But the city would still be in trouble in the event of a curtailment because its average annual use is about 14,000 acre-feet.

“We are actively pursuing possibilities” for additional water resources, Brooks of the city’s BOPU said.

Anglers try their luck on the Green River at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge on Sept. 27, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Expanding groundwater capacity, however, isn’t an affordable option for Rock Springs and Green River, according to Seppie. Instead, the cities are looking to those in the state with pre-1922 appropriations to share some water.

The federal System Conservation Program pays water users to curb consumption. Congress recently re-appropriated funding for the program, while the Inflation Reduction Act includes some $4 billion for efforts to modernize Colorado River Basin infrastructure and water management practices. Another $8.3 billion from the bipartisan Infrastructure law is available to address water and drought challenges throughout the U.S.

The SCP is an attractive option, Seppie said, for both ag irrigators and municipalities. Ag irrigators who volunteer for the program can use payments to upgrade their irrigation systems to waste less water.

“It’s a voluntary thing. It’s preemptive, and it’s benefiting the entire system,” Seppie said. “We haven’t gotten to a point where we’re having those discussions [with city officials]. But we have somewhat of a timeframe; 2028 is not all that far off.”

In #Colorado, a storied valley blooms again: The #SanLuisValley’s Acequia Institute is raising new traditions from multicultural roots — @HighCountryNews

Selection of the 2015 native heirloom maize harvest of the seed library of The Acequia Institute in Viejo San Acacio, CO Photo by Devon G. Peña

Click the link to read the article on the High Country News website [October 31, 2022] (Marissa Ortega-Welch):

It was 10 a.m. in San Luis, a small town in southern Colorado, and the grocery store had only been open for an hour. But already owner Devon Peña was dealing with a lot. Two workers were out with COVID-19, and the guy he’d hired to operate the forklift in the stockroom was proving unreliable. Then the butcher burst into his office and told him that all the freezers were down.

“Oh, crap,” Peña said. “We’re going to lose thousands of dollars’ worth of meat.”

The butcher and another employee began frantically moving food from the freezer into the fridges. Melting blueberries dripped blue goo onto the floor.

San Luis garden. Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

For the past few months, Peña had faced a string of similar emergencies. Running a business isn’t easy. “I’m a professor and a farmer,” he exclaimed. “I don’t know how to run a grocery! I’m learning now.”

This is not a typical grocery store, and Peña is not a typical grocery store owner. He’s the founder and director of The Acequia Institute, a not-your-typical environmental and food justice organization that purchased the market earlier this year. Started in the 1980s and incorporated in 2006, the institute has tackled projects ranging from land restoration in the San Luis Valley to scholarship support for local students entering environmental and health fields. Peña himself is a professor of environmental anthropology at the University of Washington who divides his time between San Luis and Seattle. He sees the market as a way to merge the institute’s many goals.

Devon Peña. Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

Luckily for Peña, Romero still lives upstairs, and he was in the store when the freezer broke down. “It’s nothing major. Don’t panic,” he said. The freezer, which Romero purchased in the 1960s, had simply iced up. It happens all the time, he said calmly. And he asked someone to bring him a space heater, a box, and the mirror above the desk in the office.

“This is a trick I don’t know about, so I’ve got to learn this,” Peña said. Romero set the heater on top of the box in the back of the freezer and plugged it in. Then he used the mirror to look behind the freezer coils. “See? It’s all iced up,” he told Peña. “Now we’ll just check on it and wait for it to melt. Take about an hour.”

Like Romero, most people in San Luis can trace their roots back to the mid-19th century, when the valley was part of Mexico. But as in much of the rural U.S., the valley’s economy — and consequently its landscape — has undergone radical changes over the past century. In the 1960s, the mountain where people had hunted and fished for more than a century was purchased by a private owner, who cut off all local access. Many residents shifted from polyculture vegetable farming to monocrop agriculture and cattle ranching. Soil health suffered, and as people ate less homegrown produce and more processed food, Type 2 diabetes, once a rare complaint here, became common.

The effects of privatization and industrialization are an old story in the rural West. Here, however, residents still remember how their grandparents — even their great-great-great-grandparents — used to farm this land and how they used to eat. By helping to revive and strengthen local traditions, Peña hopes to help conserve not just the land itself but the ways in which residents relate to the land and to each other. “I want to reawaken that cultural memory,” he said.

The Acequia Institute, with its myriad projects, can seem chaotic, but that’s because its goals are so far-reaching. Ultimately, Peña said, it’s determined to do nothing less than “change the basic structures that have to do with the well-being of this community.” First, though, he needs to upgrade the freezers.

San Luis Valley. In this perspective, S is on top. Costilla County is along the edge of the southeastern side of the Valley between the Sangre de Cristo sub-range known as the Culebra Mountains (on the E) and the Rio Grande (on the W); upper left quadrant within SLV on this map. Source: http://geogdata.scsun.edu.

THE SAN LUIS VALLEY is a bowl of high desert enclosed by two towering mountain ranges, the Sangre de Cristos and the San Juans. Besides the grocery store, the town of San Luis has a Family Dollar, a couple of restaurants, a post office, and a beautiful Catholic shrine that sits on a mesa above Main Street. From almost anywhere in town, it’s easy to see Culebra Peak, the 14,000-foot-tall mountain that locals simply call “La Sierra” — The Mountain. La Sierra, and the water from its snowmelt, have always loomed large here.

Culebra Creek, which begins high on La Sierra, runs down the mountain and through the valley on its way to the Rio Grande. After it passes through the town of San Luis, some of its water is diverted into a diagonal canal — the San Luis People’s Ditch. On the valley’s main highway, just above the point where the canal ducks under the road, a commemorative plaque lists the names of the 29 settlers who founded San Luis and dug the ditch.

In the 1840s, the Mexican government granted almost a million acres of valley land to settlers living near Taos, in what we now call New Mexico, to encourage them to move north. The land grants displaced the Ute, Jicarilla Apache, Diné and other tribes, forcing them to the west and south. When Mexico ceded the territory to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War, the U.S. honored the land grant, and San Luis later became the first town in the state of Colorado. From its start, the town was multicultural and multinational, including direct descendants of Mexicans, Indigenous peoples and Spanish colonists.

The town organized itself around an acequia system, a Southwestern institution influenced by Spanish, Arabic and Indigenous cultures. Practically speaking, acequias are irrigation ditches that deliver water from streams to agricultural fields. Culturally, however, they are much more than that. The irrigators agree to share the available water equally, and each participant contributes equally to ditch maintenance. The land-grant recipients divided the valley into long skinny strips called varas, so that every landowner had access to acequia water. The mountain itself was communal land, where all valley residents could graze their animals, hunt and gather firewood. Year after year, residents rotated their livestock between the valley and the mountain, giving the pasture in each place a chance to recover. These traditions continued on La Sierra well into the 20th century.

Shirley Romero Otero remembers going to the mountain as a kid with her family and neighbors. “We would bring a lunch and have a picnic, and the kids would run all over the place while the adults gathered wood,” she said. The usual practice was to gather firewood for one family one day and for another the next, so that everyone had enough to get through the long cold winters.

Otero is a retired classroom teacher, a community organizer and the executive director of the Move Mountains Youth Project, which provides educational opportunities for local youth. She’s a descendant of the original land-grant settlers. She drove me from town up toward the mountain, parking where the road ended at a gate, beyond which lay the meadow where she played as a child.

In 1960, when Otero was 5, Jack Taylor, a lumberman from North Carolina, purchased Culebra Peak and almost 80,000 acres of surrounding ridgeline. He put up locked gates and “No Trespassing” signs across the roads that led from the town up the mountain.

Otero left the valley for college, but then, inspired by the era’s Chicano rights movement, she came home to organize a lawsuit against Taylor for blocking local access to the mountain. In 1981, a group of valley residents called the Land Rights Council filed a class action lawsuit. The battle would last two decades.

IN 1984, a few years into the struggle to regain access to La Sierra, Peña began visiting San Luis. At the time he was a professor at Colorado College, a liberal arts school in Colorado Springs, and a fellow professor brought him to the area to meet some solar power activists. The region interested Peña as an environmental anthropologist, and it reminded him of his hometown, Laredo, Texas, which was also settled through a land grant. He began spending more time in the valley, and he moved here permanently in 1991.

Peña and Otero did not start out as friends. In the 1990s, while Otero’s organization continued its lawsuit against the Taylor Ranch, Peña became involved in a separate fight to purchase the mountain for the community. Otero’s group opposed this effort on principle, because they believed that the mountain should not — indeed, could not — be bought or sold.

The movement to buy La Sierra fizzled when Jack Taylor’s son, Zach, inherited the property and refused to cooperate. Later, Peña sent a pound of coffee and a box of cigars to Otero as a peace offering and asked to meet and talk. That was when things began to shift between them, Otero said.

In 2002, the court finally ruled in favor of the town residents. The owners of the vara strips that had originally had access to the mountain could once again gather firewood and graze their animals there. Since then, the mountain has changed hands many times, with the most recent owner being Bruce Harrison, heir to a Texas oil fortune. Each new owner inherits the land’s legal history and often ends up back in court with the locals.

Otero now has a key to the gate on the road to the meadow. She can collect firewood on the mountain, but she says it’s not the same as it used to be. Since her access is limited to a few utilitarian purposes, she can’t experience the land the way she did as a kid. “We didn’t get the right to hunt, fish, picnic or gather our medicinal herbs,” she said. “And those are big losses.” As a Chicana with both Spanish and Jicarilla Apache ancestry, Otero sees the privatization of the mountain as part of a cycle of displacement. “We displaced the Indigenous folks for the sake of land grabbing,” she said. And then, after the United States took over the region, the Mexican land-grant descendants were viewed as second-class citizens and were pushed off their land.

Otero and Peña say that the lack of access to the mountain dramatically changed both the town’s economy and the surrounding landscape. Ranchers who previously followed the life cycle of the grasses up and down the mountain had to keep their cattle in the valley, which led to overgrazing. To replace the native grasses the cows used to eat on the mountain, farmers began growing alfalfa, which took a toll on the soil. No one was growing vegetables anymore, so the locals had to buy produce that came from elsewhere. Many farmers gave up and moved away.

“It’s not just the soil that’s been eroded,” Peña says, “but our customary norms of conservation.  They’ve been severely eroded as well.” He thinks people forgot how to live in close relationship with the land: “Being kept off the mountain for about 50 years created a kind of weird disconnect.” Now, both Peña and Otero are trying to repair that disconnect.

San Luis People’s Ditch March 17, 2018. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

DOWNSTREAM FROM THE ROADSIDE PLAQUE that commemorates the establishment of the town’s water rights, the People’s Ditch and Culebra Creek run almost parallel to each other. Just west of Main Street, they cross a large plot of land owned by The Acequia Institute. In 2005, Peña’s father used his estate to help Peña purchase this 181-acre vara strip and start the institute. The creek meanders through the land’s meadowy center, while the ditch borders the northern side. On one side of the creek is a field planted with beans and peas; on the other, the land slopes upward into sagebrush and then piñon habitat.

When Peña first bought the land, it wasn’t pretty. The previous owner, a cattle rancher, grew alfalfa and irrigated his fields using a center pivot, the giant rotating sprinkler systems common on industrial farmlands. He let his cattle graze in the creek bed. “It was a disaster,” Peña said. “The river was so degraded. All the banks were caving in.”

Peña put up a fence to keep the cattle on one side of the ranch and allow the creek and upland habitat to recover. Almost 20 years later, willows and cottonwoods stand along the creek. Native blue grama grasses are growing among the sagebrush. “It’s all come back,” Peña said. “A beautiful regenerative ecological restoration is happening. And it’s basically the land doing it itself. All we did was kick the livestock out.”

He’s switched the farm from a monoculture to a polyculture — growing vegetables like corn, bolita beans and peas, all of which will be sold at the San Luis People’s Market. Peña says polyculture farming is better for the soil. And he’s returned to the traditional method of flooding his fields with water from the acequia. Flood irrigation is not the most efficient use of water, but it mimics the creek’s natural flooding processes, enriching the soil with mineral sediment from the mountains and creating wetland habitat for birds and other animals. In dry years, Peña said, he’ll still need to use drip irrigation, but he’ll switch to flooding whenever he can.

The land serves as a working classroom for Peña’s students and the local farmers, modeling the agricultural traditions of the valley and of acequia culture in general. The Institute also helps fund Indigenous food sovereignty efforts across the country, from Texas to Alaska. Peña believes that cultural history is key to environmental conservation. “My whole theory is that you cannot pull this off unless a community has a cultural memory of certain things,” Peña said. “And people here remember how they used to eat.”

What about those who lack those memories, or have no other connections to a landscape? “We can draw from our own ancestors,” Peña said. “You have to find out who your great-great-grandma was.” He added that it’s possible to learn — and learn respectfully —from customs that aren’t your own: In the San Luis Valley, for example, farmers grow Native American crops and use a water-governance system with Arabic roots. The system of vara strips is believed to date back to 5th century Europe, when it was developed by the Visigoths.

There’s a lot to be learned from the work of The Acequia Institute, but it is not something that can necessarily be scaled up or easily replicated. Rather, the institute represents a radical way of thinking about environmental conservation, one that is less about finding the most efficient way to use water or grow food and more about imagining, or reviving, an economy within which people create meaningful relationships with each other and the land.

Ethnobiologist Gary Nabhan, who has worked with Peña, said The Acequia Institute is teaching living history. “This isn’t just retro or nostalgia,” he said. “It has importance in the future.” In a future with more demands on a decreasing water supply, the ability to work together through times of scarcity will prove crucial to survival.

“OUR LITTLE FARMERS! Good morning, gentlemen!”

On a Tuesday after a three-day weekend, Otero greeted a group of teenage boys, all of whom had somehow managed to arrive on time for their summer job at 8 a.m.

“Thanks for showing up. I know it’s rough,” Otero said.

The institute received a grant last year to partner with Otero’s Move Mountains Youth Project. The grant pays local farmers to convert an acre of their alfalfa or hay to vegetables, and the farmers train the youth in exchange for help in the fields. The farmers get to keep a percentage of the crop, and the rest will be sold at the market.

On this day, the teens used a seeder to plant lines of corn in a plot of county-owned farmland. Alonzo Lobato, one of the adult farmers, guided the boys. “Make sure you guys don’t get too excited planting the seeds, because then they come out too close,” he told them.

Fifteen-year-old Amado Montoya used a hoe to make rows in the field for planting. He was wearing a Cabela’s ball cap and red suspenders over his T-shirt. Montoya, who lives on a ranch with his grandfather, said he enjoys this work because it teaches him about the land. “Land is a way of life. And it just provides for the people — like the corn that we’re planting now is gonna go to the San Luis People’s Market.”

Maiz de concho growing at The Acequia Institute seed library patch, El Rito, CO. Photo by Devon G. Peña

“The youth we’re working with are one of two generations that have been removed because of people not growing food anymore,” Otero said. “We’re trying to revive those practices and keep them alive in order to come up with the next generation of farmers.”

Even more than teaching young people to farm, though, Otero wants to use farming as a way to help them connect with the land and their community. It’s a connection that she formed when she was a child, spending her summers on the mountain, running in the meadow and playing in the creek. “Our youth have not been able to go up there and enjoy that,” she said. “I would love to take them camping up there, to teach them mitigation, forest restoration, the love of the resources — just so they could set their feet on the ground.” Instead, she ends up driving them three hours to Crested Butte every summer to camp. “That’s the irony, when it’s all right here.”

“We’re going to turn on this pipeline pretty soon,” Lobato told the youth. Because of the drought this year, Lobato is using well water to irrigate this plot. The teens helped him line up the irrigation with their planted rows of corn. “OK, I think we’re ready to rock and roll!” Lobato said. He switched on the electrical pump to the well, and water gushed out of the pipe gates, flowing in glistening lines down the rows of corn the youth planted.

“I love that sound!” Otero said. “Irrigating — it’s like a ritual. We’re lucky we got water.”

IT WAS 8 A.M., and the grocery store wouldn’t open for another hour, though the customers didn’t seem to know that. As Peña pulled baskets of Red Delicious apples and navel oranges out of the produce fridge and set them on shelves at the front of the store, someone popped in to ask if he could buy tripa for menudo. “Let me see what I can do,” Peña said. He went back to the office, where the staff were having a meeting, and asked the butcher. But she hadn’t had a chance to prepare the meat counter, so Peña returned to the customer. “Do you mind waiting?” he asked.

Peña helps out a lot at the store. His goal, however, is for the business to one day be run as a cooperative by the staff, many of whom have worked there for years. Peña has a lot of other plans, too: By the end of the summer, the Red Delicious apples on the shelves will be replaced by local produce grown by farmers working with the institute. Within a year, the store expects to open a commercial kitchen, complete with volcanic rock corn mills for making traditional tortillas, and it will start offering cooking and nutrition classes featuring valley produce. And The Acequia Institute just received an endowment from the Ceres Trust to provide no-interest loans to local women and young adults who want to start their own farms — an echo of the mutual aid society that started in 1900 to support valley farmers through times of hardship. Every project is ambitious, and each will require time, effort and lots of supporters.

“What’s up, brother?” A few minutes before the store opened, another young man popped his head in. He’d supplied the cement for the store’s new floors, but today he was a customer, hoping to have a key made in the hardware section.

Peña told him they weren’t quite open yet, and thanked him for waiting.

“You’ve got my business, brother,” the customer assured him, as he left to wait in his car.

“Gracias, hermano. I truly do appreciate that.”

“I love that sort of relationality,” he said after the man left. “In a way, it slows down what we do. But that’s OK. You can have all the refrigeration up to date and the nicest building, but if the relationships don’t work and people don’t have the commitment, it won’t survive.”  

Marissa Ortega-Welch is an award-winning radio and print journalist reporting on science and the environment. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at editor@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

Fig. 2. Mexican Land Grants in Colorado and New Mexico. The Baumann map depicted here mislabels these Mexican land grants as “Spanish”. Source: Paul R. Baumann 2001. SUNY-Oneonta.

The Cochise County #Groundwater Wars: A thirsty megafarm is driving a libertarian enclave in #Arizona to embrace a radical solution: government regulation — Grist

Fort Bowie site at Apache Pass, Arizona (Cochise County). By Wilson44691 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12463763

Click the link to read the article on the Grist website (Jake Bittle). Click through for the photography and video:

This story is part of the Grist series Parched, an in-depth look at how climate change-fueled drought is reshaping communities, economies, and ecosystems.

For Anje Duckels, Florida was home. Duckels, 41, was born in the Sunshine State; her family had lived there for generations. But housing prices in Fort Myers just kept rising, so she and her wife decided to find somewhere cheaper to raise their three children. Duckels volunteered to help restore a rural estate with a small farmhouse in the Willcox Basin of southeast Arizona, near the U.S.-Mexico border. After a few years in the area, they bought the property, which was located in a Cochise County neighborhood called Kansas Settlement.

Calling the Willcox Basin “remote” would be an understatement: 2,000 square miles of sand and scrub, strewn with crop fields and lined with dusty single-lane roads, it’s nothing like the subdivided coastal paradise that Duckels was used to. Most residents live at least 30 minutes from the closest store or gas station. Many live several miles from their nearest neighbor. In most of the county there are no public services or utilities. The most famous housing development in local history was a land-fraud scam that marketed empty desert tracts to gullible northerners — a sham version of snowbird refuges like the one where Duckels had grown up.

The day the family moved to Kansas Settlement, they lost their water. When Duckels turned on the faucet, she heard a spitting noise, but nothing came out. It didn’t take long to find the source of the issue: The aquifer beneath her house had dropped below the bottom of her well. The pump was pulling on dry dirt. Duckels soon learned that many of her neighbors had lost water as well, and they’d found themselves forced to haul in jugs of water on their pickup trucks or else pay thousands of dollars to drill their wells deeper.

“Not only was our well dry, but pretty much everybody in this area has a well that was dry, or going dry, or had been dry and had to be re-drilled,” Duckels told Grist.

In times of crisis, people tend to look for a villain. It didn’t take long for Duckels to find one: Surrounding her property on all sides are farms owned by a massive dairy operation called Riverview. Over the previous decade, the Minnesota-based company had gobbled up more than 50,000 acres in Cochise County to build an expansive network of farms and feedlots, according to High Country News, which has covered Riverview and the local opposition it has engendered extensively. The dairy’s wells were far deeper than the one on Duckels’ property, and she assumed the firm was sucking all the water out from beneath her.

Riverview is hardly the only reason for the area’s water crisis — the desert aquifers had never been very robust, and a climate-change-fueled drought had made the area drier than ever — but Riverview and other large farms growing nuts and alfalfa are by far the area’s largest water users. Duckels started to look at the irrigated fields around her with fear and resentment.

“That Riverview man is literally going to try to starve us out of water,” Duckels told me, referring to the Riverview board member who runs the company’s operations in the area. “I hope every single property he owns is set on fire by someone. I hope that someone salts his ground so that nothing grows.” 

Duckels’ neighbors all feel the same way. The mounting water crisis has created a groundswell of anger in the Willcox Basin. Libertarian-minded locals who might once have kept to themselves have banded together against the dairy and other large nearby farms, channeling their frustration over dry wells into a political battle against big agriculture. Interviews with almost two dozen residents in the area paint a picture of a once-sleepy community that has erupted into turmoil: Residents have shown up at public meetings to shout at Riverview representatives, sparred in comment wars in local Facebook groups, and flown rogue reconnaissance flights over dairy facilities.

The growing water shortage is driving freedom-loving denizens of the Willcox Basin to a radical solution: state regulation. In two weeks, basin residents will vote on whether to establish new restrictions on large groundwater wells, the first such referendum in state history. If voters approve the new rules, it would constitute a sea change in Arizona water politics. Not only would it be one of the first times a rural community has voted to restrict its own water usage, but it would also be a rare example of rural voters succeeding in limiting the power of large-scale agriculture.

The backlash may portend a broader political shift in the arid U.S. West. Farms are by far the largest water users in the region, and rural communities from California to Texas are watching these operations suck the water from beneath their homes. Places like Cochise County have relied on agriculture as an economic anchor, but the water crisis is drawing battle lines between rural populations and the large agricultural firms that sustain them.

“Back in the day, we used to get a lot more rain, and the theme with water was: If it’s not affecting you personally, nobody’s really gonna care,” said Esteban Vasquez, a lifelong Cochise County resident who has managed local water systems. “Now that people actually see it happening, the conversation has opened. It’s something that has hit close to home.”

Unlike the sprawling Phoenix suburbs 200 miles away, Cochise County remains mostly an undeveloped desert, almost as rural today as it was when the first prospectors and miners arrived to dig for copper more than a century ago. Most residents who spoke with Grist said they moved to the area because they wanted solitude and privacy, even if that meant roughing it. In a county where the population density is a quarter of the national average, they often see more rattlesnakes than people.

“People have to be a little bit courageous or at least ambitious,” said Christian Sawyer, who moved out to the area a few years ago in search of a quiet place where he could pursue various creative projects. “It’s people who want to do their own thing, build their own house, farm their own crops. It’s this kind of back-to-the-land libertarianism, with a bit of a hippie-type of mentality as well.”

Cochise County has a unique “opt-out” permitting system, which allows people who own more than four acres of land to build structures without having to submit to a county building inspection. This has enabled some unorthodox abodes: Some residents have built houses with composting toilets, walls made out of volcanic rock, and frames made out of straw bale.

If the absence of local regulations made Cochise County an attractive retreat for loners and libertarians, it also made it an ideal target for large farms. There have long been small cotton and alfalfa operations in the county, but over the past ten years a number of large conglomerates have moved in to grow nuts and alfalfa; several vineyards have opened as well. The growers needed a place where they could pump water with no restrictions whatsoever, and the Willcox Basin fit the bill.

These conglomerates could afford to dig groundwater wells that are much deeper than standard residential wells, giving them a de facto monopoly on the region’s aquifers. Producers have also snapped up land in unregulated localities elsewhere in the state — like the town of Kingman, where a Saudi-backed company grows alfalfa for export back to the Middle East, and Hyder, where a conglomerate called Integrated Ag has invested $90 million to grow Bermuda grass.

Riverview made the biggest splash in the Willcox Basin. Starting around 2014, the company built or bought out several separate dairy operations in the area to the tune of $180 million, beginning in Kansas Settlement and spreading out from there. With operations in five states and hundreds of thousands of cows, Riverview is one of the largest dairy firms in the country. In other states the company has been accused of muscling out family farmers by flooding local milk markets and then underpaying desperate farmers to buy them out and swallow up their acreage.

Much of the land Riverview bought had already been used for farming, but the firm dug dozens of new wells at depths of more than 1,000 feet and pumped millions of gallons of water to grow food for its large herd of heifersState records show that Riverview owns more than 600 wells in Cochise County. The majority were drilled before the company arrived, but the wells that Riverview drilled in recent years are by far the deepest, with some of them reaching more than 2,000 feet into the earth — so deep that the water is hot from proximity to the earth’s crust. This year alone, the company has bought or drilled at least a dozen thousand-plus-foot wells.

Arizona Rivers Map via Geology.com.

Unlike other aquifers that are fed by rivers and streams, the aquifers in the Willcox Basin depend on rainfall alone for replenishment, so they have always been vulnerable to depletion during drought. But it wasn’t until large operations like Riverview moved in that residents started to notice their water disappearing. Groundwater accretes underground in basins, so if one user pumps a lot of water from a deep well, they can cause water to drop for other wells even several miles away. The best way to visualize this is to imagine two or three straws stuck in the same milkshake; the straw that plunges down deepest will get the last of the milkshake, even as the ones positioned higher end up coming up dry.

“The amount of groundwater pumping has increased exponentially because of what’s been happening with this dairy. And as that has happened, people’s wells have gone dry,” said Kathy Ferris, a research fellow at Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy. Ferris was one of the architects of Arizona’s landmark 1980 groundwater law, which limited underwater pumping in the state’s main population centers.

“I think we know what the problem is,” she added. “It’s not rocket science.”

A 2018 report from the state water department found that groundwater levels declined by at least 200 feet between 1940 and 2015 in the parts of the Willcox Basin with the most agricultural pumping — and that was before Riverview moved in. An Arizona water official who spoke to High Country News last year said the rate of decline has increased since the dairy arrived.

Other farming-heavy regions across the West are seeing similar stress on their aquifers from unrestricted agricultural pumping and an ongoing megadrought. California has recorded 1,287 dry well reports across the state this year, a 50 percent increase since 2021. One town in the Golden State’s Central Valley may run out of water altogether by the end of the year. The massive Ogallala Aquifer that runs from Nebraska to Texas has also shown signs of severe stress in recent years.

In the Willcox Basin, the groundwater crisis began in the immediate vicinity of Kansas Settlement, but it’s since spread out across the county as Riverview and other large farms expand farther out and draw from new sections of the aquifers that run through the county. The crisis has even started to affect the town of Willcox itself, one of the only incorporated settlements in the area, which is ten miles from Riverview’s operations. Esteban Vasquez spent five years helping manage the town’s water system, and he told Grist that even the town’s deep municipal wells were seeing stress as a result of agricultural pumping.

“There’s seriously something going on down there,” he said. “We were dropping about nine feet a year. People used to think that since we were miles away [from the dairy], that wasn’t really going to affect us and our aquifers, but it was only a matter of time.”

When Vasquez left his job with the town of Willcox and started working for a company that manages small water systems across the county, he encountered the same dry well crisis everywhere he went. According to High Country News, at least 100 wells in the basin went dry between 2014 and 2019.

The proliferation of water issues has cast a pall over the area, making life darker and more difficult for all those who live there. Everyone knows someone whose well has gone dry, or who’s had to deepen their well, or who’s taken to hauling water rather than try to find it on their own property. Many of the haulers are elderly people who live on fixed incomes and can’t afford to invest in wells, so they haul water instead, filling up jugs at a water facility in Willcox and driving them back home multiple times a week. In a county where the median household income is just 70 percent of the national figure, options for those who suddenly find themselves without water are limited.

Even for those who still have water, the effects of the crisis are all too visible. In some parts of the basin, the overpumping of underground aquifers has led to the emergence of fissures in the ground that are dozens of feet deep, some of which have split apart roadways and forced local officials to close them for weeks. Dozens of people have left areas like Kansas Settlement over the past few years after losing water and finding themselves saddled with worthless properties. Vasquez said he knows at least 20 people who’ve left the county due to the recent water issues; Duckels gave a similar estimate.

“A lot of people have abandoned their houses,” said Duckels. “You drive up and down our streets over here. You can see houses that are just decrepit, because the people have literally just had to leave their investments to rot.”

Even as the water crisis grew for years, many locals didn’t understand the scale of the problem. Because the population of the basin is so spread out, many people were not totally aware of the growth of agribusiness in the area. Opposition to megafarms was initially limited to just a few committed locals.

Julia Hamel, who lives about six miles north of the town of Willcox, was one of those people. She refers to dairy owners as “crooked bastards” and sees their expansion as part of a campaign to force out longtime residents like herself.

“These folks at the dairy have forced out families that have been there five generations,” she said of Riverview. “They can’t sell their land because no one wants it without water. Meanwhile [the dairy has] bought miles and miles of land. We’re the ones who get tromped on.”

About ten years ago, as a dairy company called Feria was expanding its operations in the Willcox Basin, Hamel and two of her friends decided to go on offense. They piloted a small plane from a nearby hangar to conduct aerial reconnaissance on Feria’s feedlots, looking out for potential health code violations. Hamel’s friends photographed large ponds she said were full of urine, as well as burning piles of manure, both of which she could smell from miles away. They tried to show the photos to local representatives, but nothing came of it. A few years later, Riverview acquired Feria. (Riverview representatives did not respond to Grist’s multiple requests for comment.)

Stunts like these were rare, but in recent years more people have come over to Hamel’s side. The local “Willcox chit chat” Facebook group has exploded with debates over how much of the responsibility for dry wells can be pinned on agriculture, with many residents blaming Riverview. Vandals have defaced some of the dairy’s signage, and residents have shown up at county meetings to berate public officials for supporting the dairy.

Anje Duckels said she’s concerned that violence will erupt in the area if water supplies continue to drop.

“You get people who see their moms cry because they’re too old to mortgage their house to pay for another well,” said Duckels. “These people are gonna get desperate and crazy. These people are frightening, they’re poor, and they’ve got weapons.”

Ironically, one major demonstration of this outrage was a pressure campaign against a proposal to actually increase local water access. In the years after Riverview arrived, a group of county politicians started to push for the creation of a municipal water district that could ease the burden on individual wells. Rather than having everyone pump water on their own property, the new district would pump water from a deep communal well and pipe it out to households.

But many residents view the proposed district with suspicion or outright hostility — not because they think it wouldn’t deliver water, but because it is supported by Riverview. Gary Fehr, a member of Riverview’s board of directors and grandson of the dairy’s founder, is one of the lead organizers behind the effort.

The water district doesn’t advertise its association with Riverview, and vice versa. But Peggy Judd, a member of the Cochise County Board of Supervisors and a supporter of the water district, told Grist the district wouldn’t have been possible without Fehr and Riverview, which she said has helped finance outreach efforts and donated office space for the endeavor.

“The power and the brainpower behind the district is the dairy, and they’re keeping it quiet. But if we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t have that gift,” she said.

As a result, many locals consider the water district part of a ploy to make the entire Willcox Basin dependent on Riverview for water access. Rumors have swirled that Fehr is laying the groundwork to build a massive new suburban development in the area: First he’ll dry out everyone’s wells, the logic goes, and then he’ll create a new water district to support the residents of his planned community.

At a series of public meetings about the water district earlier this year, numerous residents cast blame for the crisis on Riverview, suggesting the dairy couldn’t be trusted to solve a problem it had allegedly created.

“The only reason we’re here today is because our water table is going down, and the biggest single reason that water table is going down is because of agricultural pumping,” said one.

“Neighborliness is one of our values in this valley, and good neighbors don’t suck their neighbors’ wells dry,” he added to laughter and applause. 

For the moment, the water district project appears to have stalled amid local opposition; the volunteer committee hasn’t held a meeting since June. Fehr did not respond to Grist’s requests for comment.

Even as residents of the Willcox Basin have spurned the dairy’s proposed water district, many have embraced a far more radical solution: strict regulations on groundwater usage. Decades of anti-regulation sentiment have given way to an unprecedented grassroots campaign for restrictions on new groundwater wells. These restrictions could jeopardize the future growth of industrial farming operations like Riverview.

Groundwater movement via the USGS

When Arizona lawmakers drafted the state’s landmark 1980 groundwater law, they were trying to solve an over-pumping problem that had begun to threaten development around the major cities of Phoenix and Tucson. Because most of the state’s population lived in these metropolitan areas, lawmakers focused on slowing new well drilling in urban rather than rural areas. The 1980 bill established so-called “active management areas,” or AMAs, in those two cities, as well as in the agriculture-heavy county that lay between them.

For four decades now, farms and large subdivisions in these areas have been subject to stringent limits on how much groundwater they can pump. Outside these three counties, however, unlimited pumping remained fair game. People in areas like Cochise County didn’t want restrictions on their water, and the potential for overdraft in many of Arizona’s more remote regions was less immediate.

“We knew that there are areas of the state where problems are worse than other areas,” said Ferris, the water expert who helped craft the law. However, “in many rural areas, they just said, ‘go away.’ They didn’t want regulation. They didn’t want us to be managing their groundwater.”

But buried within the 1980 law was a provision that allowed for the possibility that rural communities might change their mind: If residents of a groundwater basin gather enough signatures, the law allows them to propose a ballot question about whether to establish an AMA. If the ballot question wins a majority vote, the state then appoints a committee to supervise groundwater in the basin. The committee can impose restrictions on new irrigation activity, capping the amount of land in the basin that is fed by groundwater.

The proviso has never been used — until now.

In Cochise County, a local librarian and textile artist named Bekah Wilce learned about the clause a few years ago. She had started to worry about the impact of agricultural pumping on her town, Elfrida, which sits in the water basin adjacent to the Willcox Basin. Wilce’s husband, an independent journalist, started to talk with Arizona’s state water department about how large water users could be regulated. Those conversations led him to the 1980 statute, and to the clause allowing communities to form their own AMAs.

Wilce soon got involved with a group of local groundwater activists known as the Arizona Water Defenders. The group had been looking for a solution to the dry-well problem for a few years, and Wilce pitched them on gathering signatures for an AMA ballot question, something that had never been tried in Arizona before. 

When Wilce first started working on the AMA campaign, her neighbors warned her that it would be a long shot. Cochise County residents tend to be quite conservative — Donald Trump carried the county by 20 points in the 2020 election — and many are averse to the very idea of regulation. So Wilce was surprised that she and her fellow volunteers had no trouble getting enough signatures. In fact, they submitted 250 more signatures than they needed to get an AMA vote on the ballot — not just in the Willcox Basin but also in the neighboring Douglas Basin, where Wilce lives. Wilce told Grist that the massive growth of big agricultural interests in the area has woken up people who might not have engaged in the past.

“It’s true that it’s a fairly conservative area — and even those on the left side of the spectrum don’t really want a lot of government interference — but I do think we see the need for common-sense limits,” she said. “The dairy has been in place now for a number of years, and people have become increasingly concerned. It’s just been this snowballing tragedy, so there’s this fear.” 

The scale of support for the AMA has also surprised Vasquez, the former water systems manager, who said he’s been trying to warn locals about groundwater for years without success.

“I feel like nobody really cared about water before,” he told Grist. “Water conservation was the last thing I felt in people’s minds when it came to this community. So when the AMA got a lot of positive backing behind it, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, that’s crazy, because everybody that I’ve talked to beforehand didn’t give two shits about water.’”

The campaign has deepened the fault lines between farmers — including many small-scale growers unaffiliated with larger newcomers like Riverview — and the rest of the county’s residents. Now that the AMA question is on the ballot, the state has paused all new irrigation in the area until the election, freezing the growth of local agriculture. It isn’t clear how strict the AMA’s ultimate restrictions would be: Should the ballot question pass, the state will appoint a committee that will study the aquifers in the basin and decide what kinds of pumping need to be curbed. Individual households wouldn’t be subject to restrictions, since their wells are too small to meet the legal threshold for regulation, but family farmers might face limits on future growth, and they would need to go through a permitting process to drill new wells. The largest operations would likely be unable to expand at all.

View of Dos Cabezas peaks from downtown Willcox, Arizona. By Turaliigo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82818575

Jacob Collins, a fourth-generation alfalfa farmer who lives just southeast of the town of Willcox, said that the region’s farming community is very worried about new limitations on water usage. Collins farms about 360 acres in total, and there’s a chance an AMA might place a ceiling on the amount of land he can irrigate.

“There’s a lot of fear surrounding a loss of water in the valley, and there’s a lot of fear [about] having our water controlled by an outside entity that isn’t here,” he told Grist. “If we want the valley to continue to be farmable, we do have to do our best to make sure that we’re not using more water than we need, [but] there’s not really anything farmers can do to make a drought not happen.”

These sentiments in the local farming community have led to a backlash against the pro-AMA campaign. A group called Rural Water Assurance, which was co-founded by the president of the county farm bureau, has put up billboards by the Interstate urging a ‘no’ vote on the ballot question. The Willcox Facebook group has seen a proliferation of posts warning of draconian water restrictions. Rural Water Assurance even filed a lawsuit against the Douglas Basin AMA effort in June, alleging that the signatures the group had collected were invalid. A court dismissed the lawsuit in August, finding that the plaintiffs had “wholly failed to demonstrate any legal basis” for the challenge.

Wilce feels confident the AMA vote will pass in the Willcox Basin, and a large chunk of the county’s most engaged voters seem to be on her side. If the outlook for the AMA campaign is bright, though, the outlook for the county’s groundwater is far darker, regardless of which way the vote goes next month.

Even the most stringent regulations might not save people like Duckels from having to leave the valley. At its strongest, the AMA can restrict almost all new pumping, but it can’t order current users to stop drawing water, which means Riverview would get grandfathered in. The dairy wouldn’t be able to expand its operations any further, but it could keep withdrawing water at its current rates. And the groundwater levels in the basin will likely keep dropping.

“You’re just trying to stop the hemorrhaging,” said Ferris. 

The depletion of area aquifers will make life harder and harder for people like Duckels. More residents will have to haul water, or spend tens of thousands of dollars to dig new wells, or walk away from their homes and move somewhere else. In the absence of a water district like the one proposed by Riverview, there will be more new dry wells every year, and more people leaving the area. Plus, new limitations on large groundwater pumping will deter new farms and businesses from moving to the county, further sapping its already sluggish economy.

The irony, according to Ferris, is that the dairy can always move somewhere else if it loses water access. There’s a lot of land in the United States, and it’s a lot easier to move cows around than people. The absence of water regulations in the Willcox Basin has allowed Riverview to run down the clock on the area’s future, and the new political backlash against these companies is arriving too late to change that trajectory. Even if residents manage to stymie Riverview, there’s no guarantee the community will survive.

“Industrial ag moved into that basin, and industrial ag can move out of that basin. But everybody else is kind of stuck,” Ferris told Grist. “They’re living there, they invested their livelihood there, and I think the potential outlook is really grim. I think, unless something changes, it becomes a ghost town.”

#Colorado #water users, environmentalists brace for changes as EPA, Supreme Court weigh wetland rules — @WaterEdCO

Sunrise Over Wetland by NPS/Patrick Myers

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Caitlin Coleman):

A race is on to determine which wetlands and other waters will be protected under the Clean Water Act, the law that regulates the discharge of pollutants into the nation’s water. At issue is not only the protection of water bodies but also clarity for farmers, ranchers, developers, and others who question whether the actions they take on their lands require a federal permit.

Last month, on October 3, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Sackett v. EPA, a case that asks whether certain wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act and how that should be determined. The Supreme Court offers no specific timeline as to when it will release an opinion, aside from by the end of this term in June 2023, or sooner, but likely not before January 2023.

“The magnitude of this Supreme Court case can’t be overstated,” said Ashley House, director of public policy national affairs for the Colorado Farm Bureau. “It’s a matter of food security.” But it’s also a matter of protecting the state and nation’s water resources.

In Colorado there is no state program to protect certain wetlands and waterways from dredging, filling and other damage if they’re not covered by the Clean Water Act. The state has always relied on the federal government’s program for dredge and fill permits, though it could develop its own protections if needed.

Over the past seven years, the test for which water bodies are protected under the Clean Water Act has changed three times – with each new presidential administration – as certain categories of wetlands and ephemeral streams have been revised in and out of the definition for “waters of the United States,” also known as WOTUS, a federal status that extends them protections under the Clean Water Act.

Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers are developing another new rule that would also clarify which waters are protected from pollutants under the act. The agencies’ final rule was submitted in September 2022 and, according to EPA, the agencies plan to issue the rule by the end of the year.

Recent changes to the definition of WOTUS occurred in 2015, 2020 and 2021, with another likely coming in 2022. Those recent definitions for what qualifies have bounced between broader and narrower.

“A narrow definition of waters of the U.S. leaves an incredibly important water resource value unprotected by federal law — which is basically uniform across the nation — and then it’s up to the states to decide what to do, and some states won’t decide to protect those areas at all,” said Joro Walker, general counsel with Western Resource Advocates.

Ephemeral streams are streams that do not always flow. They are above the groundwater reservoir and appear after precipitation in the area. Via Socratic.org

The 2020 definition, for example, excluded all ephemeral waterways and some wetlands. Ephemeral streams represent more than 25% of Colorado’s stream miles, according to Colorado Trout Unlimited.

But farmers and ranchers, developers, and other business owners worry the broader definition would mean federal involvement in day-to-day decisions around their properties, or the need to consult a lawyer on something like driving across an ephemeral stream or running water through an irrigation ditch every few years. The 2015 rule included a broad definition and has been referred to as a federal “overreach.” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in 2019 that the rule would have put “backyard ponds, puddles, and prairie potholes under Washington’s control.”

Now though, the Colorado Farm Bureau and others who are regulated are calling for clarity and security, something they hope the Supreme Court will provide.

“It’s hard to know what is covered,” said Travis Vincent, general counsel and director of public policy state affairs for the Colorado Farm Bureau. “We want a more bright-lined test so our members have a better understanding of when their property or something on their property would be regulated under WOTUS.”

The organization is also looking for more stability.

“On the existential level it creates a lot of anxiety when you have changes to the definition with every changing administration. There’s a sense of anxiety with all producers,” said House. “Producers need accountability and also regulatory consistency.”

Currently, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers are relying on the definition that was in place through 2015, which they call a “familiar approach” that will “support a stable implementation of ‘waters of the United States’” while EPA and the Army Corps continue their rulemaking.

According to a statement issued by EPA, the new rule will include “amendments to reflect the agencies’ determination of the statutory limits on the scope of the ‘waters of the United States’ informed by Supreme Court precedent, the best available science, and the agencies’ experience and technical expertise.”

But the Supreme Court’s decision could change that. If the Supreme Court issues a decision before EPA finalizes its rule, the agency would likely need to adjust its rule before issuing it. If EPA’s call comes first, it could render the court’s decision moot, or mean that the agencies need to go back to the drawing board after the court’s decision is released. Both the court’s opinion and the rulemaking could affect EPA’s regulatory process and the level of protection that water bodies receive.

“We are in a very dynamic situation with the rule and have been for a number of years,” says Trisha Oeth, director of environmental health and protection at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “I think all interests would benefit from certainty and stability in this area, so we continue to watch it very closely and have been having conversations with stakeholders here in Colorado to figure out, long term, what is the right path for us.”

Colorado Rivers. Credit: Geology.com

In Colorado, not all changes to the rule have been implemented. A month after the 2020 revision took effect, which rolled back protections, Colorado filed a legal challenge. According to Colorado’s Water Quality Control Division, some 25% to 50% of Colorado streams, lakes and wetlands could have been impacted by the 2020 rule. Colorado’s attorneys initially secured a stay on enacting the new rule and absorbing more enforcement responsibilities, but that ruling was vacated by the Tenth Circuit Court in March 2021.

In 2021, the nation reverted back to the pre-2015 rule but just after that, in January 2022 the Supreme Court agreed to review Sackett v. EPA, which questions whether certain wetlands are waters of the United States. The Sacketts own land in Idaho which lies across from wetlands and drains into a tributary that feeds Priest Lake. They had long been trying to build there but EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers found that the dredging and filling of construction would affect the tributary and lake.

When the case went to the U.S. Court of Appeals, the court upheld EPA’s conclusion, based on a test established through a 2006 Supreme Court case, Rapanos v. United States, in which Justice Kennedy argued that the Army Corps of Engineers should determine whether the water at issue possesses a “significant nexus” to waters that are navigable when determining whether a water body meets the definition of WOTUS.

But in the Rapanos case, justices failed to achieve a majority opinion on the WOTUS test. This has left, as the Sacketts have said, a landscape of “fruitless confusion, conflict, and litigation.”

The Sacketts appealed the Court of Appeals’ decision to the Supreme Court. The Sacketts aren’t alone in standing up to EPA on its decision. In April 2022, the Colorado Farm Bureau joined 19 other state Farm Bureaus in filing a brief with the court in support of the Sacketts.

More than 40 additional briefs in support of either EPA or the Sacketts have been filed by many other parties, including the State of Colorado, which filed a brief in June arguing for broad protection of waters and for the use of the “significant nexus” test in determining which waters to protect.

Although the court has heard oral arguments, it remains unclear where the justices will side and whether they will come together to provide a new, definitive test for WOTUS jurisdiction.

“It’s hard to speculate on what the [U.S. Supreme Court decision] is going to look like,” said Oeth. “If the outcome were to change the definition of WOTUS or add a new test for what WOTUS includes, that could have an impact here in Colorado.” If a new definition were to apply to fewer water bodies than it does now, that would mean that Colorado waters would have less protection than they do today, she said.

Elizabeth Miller contributed to this report.

Caitlin Coleman is a contributor to Fresh Water News and is editor of Water Education Colorado’s Headwaters Magazine. She can be reached at caitlin@wateredco.org.

#CastleRock passes new rules on limiting lawns — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette #conservation

Click the link to read the article on The Colorado Springs Gazette website (Mary Shinn). Here’s an excerpt:

The new rules approved by the town council last week prohibit lawns in front yards and limit lawns in backyards to 500 square feet. Castle Rock estimates that the limits on lawns could reduce outdoor water use 50% once the community is fully built out, according to the town’s website.


Mrs. Gulch’s Blue gramma “Eyelash” patch August 28, 2021.

The community is eliminating future front yard lawns in part to help encourage the acceptance of alternative landscaping that can thrive in a drier climate, he said.

Water stored in Colorado’s Denver Basin aquifers, which extend from Greeley to Colorado Springs, and from Golden to the Eastern Plains near Limon, does not naturally recharge from rain and snow and is therefore carefully regulated. Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.

Castle Rock relies heavily on nonrenewable groundwater aquifers and it is working to transition to other sources, according to the town website.

Officials plan to truck 6,000 gallons of #water from #MissouriRiver across #Kansas — The #Missouri Independent #OgallalaAquifer

The dry bed of the Arkansas River near the Santa Fe Trail crossing at Cimarron, Kansas. The Ogallala aquifer groundwater levels in much of western Kansas started dropping in the 1950s as pumping increased, according to the Kansas Geological Survey. File Photo / Max McCoy

Click the link to read the article on the Missouri Independent webiste (Allison Kite):

The project is meant to prove that large transfers of water could be a tool to help save the disappearing Ogallala Aquifer, which provides irrigation and drinking water to western Kansas

An agency charged with conserving groundwater in arid western Kansas plans to truck thousands of gallons of water from the Missouri River nearly 400 miles almost to the Colorado border.

Half of the 6,000 gallons drawn from the river will be poured onto a property in Wichita County. The other half will be taken into Colorado.

Groundwater Management District 3, in southwestern Kansas, received a permit from state water authorities for the project, which is expected to cost the district $7,000. The district manager Mark Rude said it’s designed to prove large-scale movement of water could be a tool to keep the Ogallala Aquifer from drying up.

“Basically moving water from where it’s in excess to where it’s in short supply,” Rude said.

But other groundwater management officials say it’s a distraction from the far more urgent task of conserving water that’s quickly disappearing from under Kansans’ feet.

“For one, it’s a waste of water,” said Shannon Kenyon, who manages Groundwater Management District 4 in northwest Kansas.

She said: “Their idea instead of telling their producers, ‘You need to cut back,’ is to just dump water all over western Kansas.”

Ogallala Aquifer. Credit: Big Pivots

The Ogallala Aquifer, America’s largest underground reservoir, has been in decline for decades — since soon after farmers started pumping the underground water to cultivate crops following World War II. Some parts of the aquifer have half the water they had before irrigation on the aquifer began. In some areas, there’s only about 10 years of water left.

Loss of the aquifer would fundamentally alter life in western Kansas and destroy farmers’ livelihoods. There’s little surface water since streams that reliably flowed through the area in 1961 all but disappeared, according to the Kansas Geological Survey.

Officials have pursued a number of strategies to help the aquifer, including equipping farmers with probes to measure moisture under the ground to help them water their crops more conservatively without reducing their yield, and reaching agreements with farmers to cut their use.

Rude’s hope with the effort to truck water is to prove that transferring water from where it’s more plentiful or where an area has become flooded is feasible. One such idea is known as the Kansas Aqueduct, which would pump water uphill from the Missouri River at Kansas’ eastern border to western Kansas.

There are no formal efforts underway to make the longshot project a reality, Rude said, but his district’s website houses a presentation on the idea, and he has touted it to the Kansas Legislature in the past.

Rude said going through the regulatory process necessary to truck the water across the state helps walk water officials through the process in preparation for whatever larger project might come along.

“And so what’s the right project? Well, I don’t know. We don’t know yet,” Rude said. “… So you take steps and you evaluate and you learn, and this (proof of concept) is part of that process for the board of the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District.”

Earl Lewis, the state’s chief engineer, who signed off on the permit, said the state’s Division of Water Resources didn’t see the district’s project as comparable to a larger water transfer.

“You’re not really demonstrating that you could transfer a large amount of water by hauling 6,000 gallons of water across the state,” Lewis said. “I mean, that happens all the time in the state of Kansas.”

Kansas House Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park, called it a “political stunt.”

“For the sake of local farmers and families, and for the future of our entire state, I hope GMD 3 starts to take its responsibility seriously, and soon,” she said. “Time is running out.”

Groundwater management districts 1 and 4, which are north of Rude’s near the Colorado border, are taking different approaches to saving the Ogallala. Shannon Kenyon in district 4 said western Kansas needs to focus on conserving water now while an aqueduct could take decades to get off the ground.

“Am I against it? No,” she said. “But do I think it’s fantasy? Yes.”

Katie Duhram, who manages Groundwater Management District 1, noted the district’s board chose not to participate in the project though the Wichita County farm that will receive 3,000 gallons of water lies in the district’s territory.

Durham said it’s always smart to look for projects that could help in the future.

“But I think it’s also important to take steps towards managing the resource that you have in order to address decline in the Ogallala in order to protect the local communities because again,” Durham said.

Both Durham and Kenyon’s districts have established local enhanced management areas, or LEMAs, which allow the GMD to enforce reductions in groundwater use. Durham’s district is working to establish a LEMA covering the whole district.

Rude said his district is conserving water by providing information to well owners on the amount they’ve pumped from the aquifer, how that compares to their neighbors and how they’re affecting the long-term health of the aquifer.

“That information is key for people in their voluntary conservation efforts as well as discussions for collective limits to further conserve the groundwater supply,” Rude said.

At this time, he said, there are no discussions about establishing a LEMA to require reductions.

Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

A second metro #Denver town clamps down on lawns amid #drought: “#Water’s on everyone’s mind”: CastleRock’s move comes after #Aurora passed a similar water-saving measure last month — The Denver Post

Castle Rock and Pikes Peak. Photo credit VisitCastleRock.org

Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (John Aguilar). Here’s an excerpt:

Castle Rock this week became the second metro area municipality in as many months to pass a measure severely limiting the amount of water-intensive “cool-season turf” that can be rolled out with new homes in the Douglas County town. The new ordinance, passed Tuesday in a unanimous vote of the Castle Rock town council, bans turf in the front yards of new homes and limits it to no more than 500 square feet in the backyard. It also does away with turf in non-functional areas — spaces not meant for recreation — around commercial properties and multi-family developments. The new measure applies to any new home construction permitted after Jan. 1, 2023…

“Water’s on everyone’s mind and how we can conserve it,” Castle Rock Mayor Jason Gray said. “We’re going to get more and more people moving in and we’re going to have to accommodate these people.”

In fact, Castle Rock has plans to grow to around 125,000 people from 81,000 today over the next couple of decades. Nearly half of the water the town uses is for outdoor irrigation and water officials estimate Castle Rock could achieve a reduction of 52% in future outdoor water use if less thirsty turf — like fescue or Kentucky bluegrass — is planted and more drought-tolerant native vegetation is grown, a practice known as xeriscaping. The town has a goal of cutting per capita water usage from 118.4 gallons a day to 100 gallons daily by 2050.

Water stored in Colorado’s Denver Basin aquifers, which extend from Greeley to Colorado Springs, and from Golden to the Eastern Plains near Limon, does not naturally recharge from rain and snow and is therefore carefully regulated. Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.

The #RioGrande #Water #Conservation District. The board gets these latest charts on the unconfined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin — @AlamosaCitizen

Click through to Twitter to view the docs from Chris Lopez.

Las Vegas Pipeline’s end brings relief to eastern #Nevada — for now — The Las Vegas Review-Journal

“Swamp Cedars” (Juniperus scopulorum) and associated pond, wetland and meadow in Spring Valley, White Pine County, Nevada. Photograph by Dennis Ghiglieri from NV.gov

Click the link to read the article on the Las Vegas Review-Journal website (Colton Lochhead). Here’s an excerpt:

A proposal to pump groundwater from rural Nevada to Las Vegas is dead, bringing relief to a coalition of odd bedfellows who fought it for more than 30 years. But concerns linger that the pipeline may one day return.

For more than 30 years, Southern Nevada water officials had a simple plan to fuel the valley’s explosive growth: pump groundwater from rural valleys in eastern Nevada to Las Vegas. The water would make a 300-mile trip from arid basins in rural Nevada through a pipeline to Las Vegas. But for three decades, a group of odd bedfellows that included rural ranchers, environmentalists, Native American tribes and even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fought the project at every turn — before a judge finally dealt it a fatal blow in March 2020.

To its opponents, the pipeline was a looming threat that would have devastated ranching communities, high desert ecosystems, Native American sacred sites and more. But for Southern Nevada, the pipeline was a key backup plan should Lake Mead ever start to dry up — something once talked about as only a remote possibility decades down the line, but which now stands as a reality staring the Southwest square in the face. Conditions along the Colorado River have deteriorated far more rapidly than predicted, with eroding hydrology, climate change and chronic overuse all taking a toll during a two-decades-long drought…

The outlook was clear to [Pat] Mulroy in the early days of the drought, though. The water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell started what would be their two-decades long fall in the early 2000s, and Mulroy knew that climate change would progressively worsen that decline as the years went on. The authority at one point applied for the rights to pump as much as 180,000 acre-feet of water per year from those valleys to Las Vegas — what would have been a significant addition to Nevada’s annual 300,000 acre-foot allocation from the Colorado River. Mulroy said the project to pump billions of gallons of water from the eastern edge of the state to its most populated urban hub was planned “for conditions like they exist today.”

Map of Nevada’s major rivers and streams via Geology.com.

Opinion: Let Good Samaritans help with abandoned mine cleanups: Acid mine drainage in the #Colorado mountains damages waterways throughout the state — Colorado Newsline

Prior to mining, snowmelt and rain seep into natural cracks and fractures, eventually emerging as a freshwater spring (usually). Graphic credit: Jonathan Thompson

Click the link to read the guest column on the Colorado Newsline website (Martin Saunders):

In the West and around the country, tens of thousands of abandoned mines — an estimated 23,000 in Colorado alone — dot the landscape, many of them fouling waterways and harming aquatic ecosystems.

Seven years ago in the mountains above Durango, workers for the Environmental Protection Agency dislodged rock while inspecting the Gold King Mine. Water that had built up in the mine suddenly gushed forth and 3 million gallons of liquid tainted with heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, flowed into Cement Creek, then the Animas, the San Juan and on to Lake Powell. As bad as it was, that spill represented just a trickle of the millions of gallons of tainted water that flow from abandoned mines — big and small — every year nationwide.

This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5, 2015. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]

The Gold King helped shine a brief spotlight on a major issue.

As imposing as they may seem, Colorado’s mountains are not rock solid. Beneath those peaks are thousands of miles of old mine tunnels, many of them discharging acidic, metal-laden water that kills insects and fish, taints drinking and agricultural water and damages waterways throughout the state. A 2017 study commissioned by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper estimated that more than 1,800 miles of streams in Colorado are polluted by that water — known as acid mine drainage.

But thanks to bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Senate, help could be on the way.

Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper are two of the 14 bipartisan cosponsors of S. 3571, the Good Samaritan Remediation of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act of 2022Introduced by Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and James Risch (R-Idaho), the bill would establish a new pilot program administered by the EPA that would help spur abandoned mine cleanups.

It is estimated that it could cost at least $54 billion to clean up abandoned mines in the West. Currently those costs fall on underfunded government agencies, so there’s never enough money. While the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act established a new abandoned hardrock mine remediation program, that “fund” has yet to be funded. State agencies and non-governmental parties want to help fill this resource gap and add horsepower to federal cleanup efforts, but substantial legal liability obstacles severely limit the work these entities — called Good Samaritans — can do.

The “Bonita Peak Mining District” superfund site. Map via the Environmental Protection Agency

At present, the only legal mechanism to address these leaking, abandoned mines is a federal Superfund cleanup, a program that is ironically also underfunded. Moreover, Superfund only addresses the worst cases and is not well-suited for the thousands of smaller discharges and waste rock piles impacting Western waterways.

Without a legal mechanism authorizing state agencies and private organizations to add to federal cleanup capacity and take on smaller remediation projects, these sites will bleed and bleed, decade after decade. Thus, incremental water quality improvements are hamstrung by provisions in the Clean Water Act and Superfund law that treat those who want to clean up abandoned mines as if they themselves are polluters.

That is why the Good Samaritan bill co-sponsored by Bennet and Hickenlooper is so important.

State agencies and non-governmental organizations, such as Trout Unlimited, that have no legal or financial responsibility or connection to a project — true Good Samaritans — want to help fill the gap between Superfund and the immense need to remediate abandoned mine sites. Complex projects like the Gold King would be off the table, but there are thousands of smaller, low-risk cleanups where Good Samaritans could substantially improve water quality.

By cleaning up sites that pose a low risk for accidents, cost-effective Good Samaritan cleanups would improve water quality. But, conservation organizations, state agencies, and watershed groups can’t help clean up draining abandoned mines unless Congress makes minor, targeted changes in law to provide Good Samaritans with conditional liability relief.

The Good Samaritan bill enables willing and well-qualified Good Samaritans to provide badly needed help.

It is time to empower volunteers who want to clean up abandoned mines — it’s time to solve a problem that has been more than a century in the making.

Legal concerns for Douglas County remain unchanged, #water attorney says — @AlamosaCitizen #SanLuisValley #RioGrande

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

Click the link to read the article on The Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

THE water attorney Douglas County hired to advise it on the proposed San Luis Valley water exportation project by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and his Renewable Water Resources group said “many hurdles” remain and that his legal concerns are unchanged.

Stephen Leonhardt, Douglas County’s lead water attorney consultant, made his concerns known in a Sept. 13 closed-door meeting with the three Douglas County commissioners. An executive summary of that meeting was made available to Alamosa Citizen on Friday following a Colorado Open Records request.

Leonhardt, engineer Bruce Lytle and water attorney Glenn Porzak – all Douglas County consultants – met with John Kim of Renewable Water Resources on July 26, according to the memo, as a follow up to an outline of issues and concerns Leonhardt earlier presented to Douglas County following a “deep dive” into the RWR proposal.

“While it was a good meeting, the discussion did not alter my initial analysis and conclusions and there remain many hurdles to a successful project, which are not resolved at this time,” Leonhardt wrote in a Sept. 28 executive summary released to The Citizen. “The legal concerns with the project remain unchanged.”

Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas has been pushing her fellow commissioners, Abe Laydon and George Teal, to release more details from their executive session meetings with Leonhardt. She said Friday on Twitter, “I remain OPPOSED for @douglascounty continuing to spend time and resources on taking water from the San Luis Valley when none of the water providers in Dougco are interested in participation with the concept.”

Laydon is facing re-election against challenger Kari Solberg in November. For Douglas County to continue showing interest in the Owens-led plan, RWR needs Laydon to earn a second term in the commissioners’ chambers.

But even then, the RWR water exportation concept faces major barriers, not the least of which is complying with state groundwater pumping rules that govern water in the San Luis Valley and the confined and unconfined aquifers of the Upper Rio Grande Basin.

State Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa is already gearing up to knock back any legislative push Renewable Water Resources attempts to make in an effort to amend state rules governing groundwater pumping. He said RWR has lobbyists in place, and he expects the group to begin a lobbying process.

“I’ve always said they’ll be at the legislature at some point, going, ‘This is so important to the state we shouldn’t have to follow the same rules and regs,’” Simpson said. 

He said he’s heard recently that RWR might approach the legislature with this plan in the 2023 session, which would align with RWR telling Leonhardt that it was developing a “legislative strategy” when he first outlined the problems. 

“Why would they do that? They have zero chance of being successful, but that’s why they’ve hired lobbyists,” Simpson said.

“They don’t need a lobbyist if they’re just going to follow the rules as written,” Simpson said, alluding to RWR’s own statements in its proposal.

Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, said, “The last line of the memo says it all. The Douglas County Commissioners should take the extensive review provided by their independent water counsel to heart and move on from RWR. The legal issues with RWR’s proposal are insurmountable. In my opinion, any continued discussions or study of the RWR proposal is simply a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

The plan Douglas County has been reviewing would pump 22,000-acre feet a year from the northern end of the Valley in Saguache County and Subdistrict 4 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

One monumental task RWR faces is getting a state water court-approved augmentation plan in place that would demonstrate to the court that RWR has a portfolio of replacement water on the injured streams under a worst-case scenario.

How water augmentation works in the San Luis Valley

Leonhardt has raised the required augmentation plan as a major barrier. “In the San Luis Valley, an augmentation plan for wells must not only prevent injury to water rights on the stream system, but must also maintain the sustainability of both the Confined Aquifer and the Unconfined Aquifer,” he wrote in his bulleted May memorandum to Douglas County Commissioners.

“This requires, at a minimum, providing one-for-one replacement for all water pumped, either by retiring historical well pumping or by recharging the aquifer.”

The attorney said back in May that not only does the RWR proposal lack a developed augmentation plan but…it cannot meet the state rule that requires “one-for-one replacement within the same Response Area.

He hasn’t changed his mind.

Why is the Colorado River in crisis, and what is being done about it?: Pressing questions to an urgent problem asked and explained — Audubon

American White Pelican and Double-crested Cormorants at Bill Williams Wildlife Refuge in Arizona. Photo: Gary Moore/Audubon Photography Awards

Click the link to read the article on the Audubon website (Haley Paul):

**Este artículo se puede encontrar en español**

Q: Why are we in this situation, with the Colorado River and its reservoirs shrinking so quickly?

A: Truth is, we saw this coming. We use more water than the river provides. The only reason we got away with it for so long was because the reservoirs were full when the climate’s shift to hotter temperatures and reduced river flows began 22 years ago. We did not reduce the amount of water we used until recently, and it has not been enough in the face of drought exacerbated by climate change. 

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

Q: What happens if we stick with the status quo?

A: If we keep doing what we’re doing, and take water out of the reservoirs—not because it’s wise but because the law allows it—our system as we know it would crash. Water could not be released from Lakes Powell or Mead. A “Day Zero.” This is bad for ALL water users in the Colorado River basin.

There is also the dreadful possibility of no water flowing through the Grand Canyon, or through the Lower Colorado River along the Arizona-California border. That would mean no Colorado River water for tens of millions of people, including numerous sovereign Tribes. No Colorado River water for drinking, bathing, or growing crops, and no water for essential habitats, birds, and other wildlife.

Q: Why does this matter for birds?

A: A future without a running Colorado River would impact 400 bird species including California Condors, Bald Eagles, Southwestern Willow Flycatchers, and countless fish species and other wildlife that reside in and migrate through the Colorado River basin. The Colorado River Delta alone provides habitat for 17 million birds during spring migration and 14 million in the fall, from American White Pelicans and Double-breasted Cormorants to Tree Swallows and Orange-crowned Warblers. 

And because the Delta acts as a “bottleneck” for migrating birds—meaning concentrations of bird populations are significantly higher inside its geographical boundaries than outside of them—changes to water availability or habitat in the Delta could have outsized impacts on tens of millions birds. These impacts could be seen on a global scale.