Here’s the release from the University of California, Santa Cruz (Tim Stephens):
Despite differences in aquatic life and toxic metals in streams across a broad region of the western United States, scientists found common responses to cleanup of acid mine drainage
Many miles of streams and rivers in the United States and elsewhere are polluted by toxic metals in acidic runoff draining from abandoned mining sites, and major investments have been made to clean up acid mine drainage at some sites. A new study based on long-term monitoring data from four sites in the western United States shows that cleanup efforts can allow affected streams to recover to near natural conditions within 10 to 15 years after the start of abatement work.
The four mining-impacted watersheds—located in mountain mining regions of California, Colorado, Idaho, and Montana—were all designated as Superfund sites under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which helps fund the cleanup of toxic-waste sites in the United States. They are among the few acid mine drainage sites where scientists have conducted extended studies to monitor the effectiveness of the remediation efforts.
“The good news from them all is that Superfund investments can restore the water quality and ecological health of the streams,” said David Herbst, a research scientist at UC Santa Cruz and coauthor of a paper on the new findings to be published in the June issue of Freshwater Science, now available online.
For the past two decades, Herbst has been monitoring streams affected by acid mine drainage from the Leviathan mine in the central Sierra Nevada. The new study developed out of discussions he had with other scientists involved in long-term studies of similar sites.
“There are not many of these long-term studies of impacted watersheds, and by combining our data we could identify the common threads of recovery between these different sites,” Herbst said.
To assess the recovery of aquatic life in streams and rivers severely polluted by the abandoned mines, the researchers combined data from long-term monitoring over periods of 20 years or more. They used aquatic insects and other diverse invertebrate life (such as flatworms and snails) as indicators of the restoration of ecological health, with nearby unpolluted streams serving as standards for comparison.
Even with differing mixes of toxic metals and different treatment practices used to control the pollution at each site, the studies documented successful recovery to near natural conditions within 10 to 15 years. Much of the recovery was rapid, occurring within the first few years of treatment.
“These promising results and shared paths suggest that even daunting environmental problems can be remedied given the effort and investment,” Herbst said.
The research also revealed that the sites shared common responses despite differences in the species of aquatic life occurring across this broad geographic region. Shared feeding habits, patterns of development, and behavioral characteristics unified how stream invertebrates responded to the alleviation of metal pollutants.
Species with traits such as feeding on algae, long life cycles, and clinging to the surfaces of stones became increasingly common as toxicity declined over time. Species that were more prevalent when metal concentrations were higher had traits such as rapid development, short life cycles, feeding on deposits of organic matter, and an ability to escape quickly off the bottom by drifting into the flow of water.
The species most sensitive to toxic metals are the mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies. Across all streams, the loss of these sensitive insects occurred at a toxicity level predicted by lab bioassays based on the combined levels of the toxic metals present.
“The convergence of these responses across streams and at a level consistent with how water quality criteria are established lends support to guidelines established for what chemical conditions are protective of stream and river ecosystems,” Herbst said.
The additive toxicity of the metals present determined the response to pollutants, he noted, showing that water quality standards should be based on combined metals present rather than singly for each metal. In other words, even if a metal is below its toxic level, when it is present with other metals the combined effect may exceed the tolerance of aquatic life.
“It is vital to account for this factor in how water quality standards for metals are applied,” Herbst said.
The other coauthors of the study are William Clements at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Michelle Hornberger and Terry Short at the U.S. Geological Survey in California, and Christopher Mebane at the USGS in Idaho.
On Friday, April 23 — the day after Earth Day — a quarter or more of Colorado’s streams, rivers, and wetlands lost critical protections as the Navigable Waters Protection (NWP) Rule went into effect in the state following a year of legal efforts to prevent it.
Until this week, Colorado remained the only state to successfully avoid application of the Trump administration rule, which last year rolled back key protections in the Clean Water Act — the bedrock environmental law protecting our drinking water from pollution. A judicial stay issued as a result of a legal challenge by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has kept the state’s waterways protected until now. The appeals court recently lifted the stay, so the NWP Rule will take effect in Colorado Friday, April 23.
The NWP Rule will impact the protections of critical sources of drinking water and leaves at least 25% of Colorado’s streams and 22% of wetlands vulnerable to pollution. The rule hits “ephemeral” streams, those that flow seasonally, particularly hard, curtailing critical safeguards for waterways that respond primarily to precipitation events — which make up 68% of waters in Colorado. It also threatens the safety and reliability of clean drinking water, which 94% of Westerners say is essential. Below maps developed by Water for Colorado Coalition partner’s Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy illustrate the extent to which this policy will threaten Colorado’s water.
“In a state known for its work to conserve the natural resources that are vital to so many Coloradans’ well-being and livelihoods, it is shocking that this rollback is drifting by so quietly,” said Josh Kuhn, Water Advocate for Conservation Colorado, a Water for Colorado Coalition partner. “Colorado serves a vital national role as a headwaters state, and we need our lawmakers to take action now protecting our rivers, streams, and wetlands from irreversible harm.”
It is now up to the legislature to prevent this dangerous rule from taking effect and removing safeguards for water sources. Colorado needs state policies protecting clean drinking water and our waterways more broadly regardless of who is in the White House. While policy changes in the new federal administration could reestablish protections, that will take years — by then, the damage done to our waters will be irreparable. If Colorado leadership doesn’t step in, streams and wetlands could be filled with construction debris, subject to polluted runoff from nearby development sites or obliterated by bulldozers.
“We need immediate legislative action to ensure our water is treated as the precious natural resource it is,” said Melinda Kassen, Sr. Counsel, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The Colorado Legislature has prioritized critical funding for the Colorado Water Plan — but if they don’t protect our streams and wetlands from pollution, what are we funding? Our streams, rivers, and wetlands need safeguards from activities that would release pollutants into them. Without this, unregulated construction may impair sources of drinking water and the streams and wetlands that support hunting and angling in Colorado.”
The Water for Colorado Coalition has environment, legal, and policy experts available to discuss the implications of this rule’s implementation, and the need for immediate state action.
About the Water for Colorado Coalition
The Water for Colorado coalition is a group of nine organizations dedicated to ensuring our rivers support everyone who depends on them, working toward resilience to climate change, planning for sustained and more severe droughts, and enabling every individual in Colorado to have a voice and the opportunity to take action to advocate for sustainable conservation-based solutions for our state’s water future. The community of organizations that make up the Water for Colorado Coalition represent diverse perspectives and share a commitment to protecting Colorado’s water future to secure a reliable water supply for the state and for future generations.
Three new water treatment plants in Fountain, Security and Widefield needed to remove toxic “forever chemicals” from the groundwater, carrying a heavy price tag of $41 million, are nearing completion.
The plant in Widefield was finished in February, the Security plant is expected to be operational this week and the Fountain plant is expected to be complete in June, following a pause in construction that lasted more than a month, officials with each district said.
Construction of the Fountain plant was halted because the supplier of critical piping for the plant could not provide it, said Dan Blankenship, utilities director for Fountain, adding that the supplier’s work was delayed by the coronavirus. In a written statement the Air Force Civil Engineer Center said work on the $7 million plant in Fountain is expected to resume May 3. The other two plants are expected to cost a combined $34 million, the statement said.
The Air Force is paying for the water treatment plants that will remove per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from groundwater because investigations showed the contamination came from Peterson Air Force Base, where firefighters used a foam rich in one of those compounds for decades to put out aircraft fires…
Water providers stopped using the groundwater after the contamination was discovered in 2015 and 2016, and studies are still ongoing to learn about the long-term health consequences of the contamination. The compounds’ ability to stay in the body led to their nickname “forever chemicals.”
Encouraging results from one of the studies conducted by the Colorado School of Public Health and Colorado School of Mines showed that the amount of chemicals in blood samples taken from 53 exposed residents dropped from 2018 to 2019, according to a presentation of results. The median level of the chemical most closely associated with firefighting foam dropped 50% in the participants, results showed…
The new treatment plants are meant to protect the public from additional exposure to the chemicals and allow the districts in some cases to return to using a key water source.
In Security, the new plant was tested in December, and water samples showed it was removing problematic chemicals down to undetectable levels, said Roy Heald, general manager of the Security Water and Sanitation Districts.
In the past year, Greeley officials purchased about 1,000 acre-feet of water, equivalent to about 1,000 football fields covered in a foot of water. Adam Jokerst, deputy director of water resources for the city, said it’s more water than city had acquired in the past 10 years. Jokerst, who manages the water acquisition program, said the program has about a $9 million budget this year…
What is a water right?
Colorado’s waters are owned by the state and all its citizens, but water rights dictate the right to use the water. Water decrees, issued by water courts, confirm water users’ rights to that water.
Older water decrees were simple, Jokerst said, giving the example of a decree for the city’s senior direct rights, meaning the city has priority to divert water for direct application to beneficial use. Throughout the year, the city can use 12.5 cubic feet per second. That’s about it, he said.
Newer decrees can range from dozens to hundreds of pages, detailing how the water is to be diverted, measured and accounted for.
“Greeley owns a portfolio made up of many different water rights,” Jokerst said. “Some of those water rights are direct diversions from the Poudre River. Some are ownership in irrigation companies.”
Irrigation companies that historically provided irrigation water to farmers can issue shares of stock, basically selling a piece of the water rights held by those companies. The city converts that water from agricultural to municipal use to change the water right, though the city does rent some water rights to agricultural users, maintaining the historic use.
The city also owns water through the Colorado-Big Thompson and Windy Gap projects, as well as water diverted from the Laramie River. With a lot of variability across these different sources, the city’s water experts always plan for the worst case scenario: How much water could we provide to our customers in a drought situation?
Through the current plan, the city can provide about 40,000 acre-feet per year to its customers, well above the roughly 25,000 acre-feet of demand the city sees in a typical year. In a wet year, the city could potentially deliver up to 70,000 acre-feet, to give an idea of the impact of the planned drought.
When the city can, it rents a lot of that water to agricultural partners, renting about 20,000 acre-feet in the past year. In addition to maintaining historic use, this provides a source of revenue and supports Greeley’s agricultural economy, Jokerst said.
Jokerst said he’d consider the city’s “Big Three” sources to be:
Senior direct rights from the Poudre River
Ownership in the Greeley-Loveland Irrigation Company, which feeds the city’s Boyd Lake System
Colorado-Big Thompson (C-BT) and Windy Gap projects
Jen Petrzelka, water resources operations manager, added the direct and C-BT water is available year round, whereas a lot of the ditch directs only come in during irrigation season, which typically starts about now to early May and runs through the end of September or into October.
Accounting for the city’s diverse portfolio
The city must account for its water on a daily basis, submitting a monthly report to the state. Petrzelka said they manage about 10 different spreadsheets for all the city’s water right decrees…
Petrzelka keeps an eye on the city’s water supply to help prevent the need for watering restrictions. In all, the city has four engineers and scientists who manage the various decrees and operations, plus three workers out in the field, according to Jokerst.
The state ensures water users aren’t causing injury to other users’ water rights, with local river commissioners dedicated throughout the state. Jokerst compared the commissioners to a referee in a sports game.
“Any time we change the way we’re operating, whether that be our releases or operating an exchange, we have to get their approval,” Petrzelka said.
When agricultural water rights are changed, Jokerst said, some water is owed back to the river, just as the water historically returned to the river and groundwater after agricultural use.
“A lot of what we do is add water back to the river to compensate for those irrigation rights that we changed,” he said.
In addition to enforcement by river commissioners, everybody watches their neighbors, keeping track of what other users are doing on a day-to-day basis. Part of that monitoring happens in water court, where decisions about decrees are settled…
Greeley has a steady stream of water court cases the city must defend in court, according to Jokerst, as well as cases involving other entities in which the city enters opposition to protect its water rights. As of this past week, the city was involved in 32 water court cases.
“Water court cases are really just a structured negotiation where the applicant and the opposers reach agreement on whatever it is the applicant is trying to do,” Jokerst said. “All the parties involved negotiate an outcome that protects all their water and gets the applicant what they need.”
Petrzelka and Jokerst estimated the city’s water court costs at about $500,000 this year, mostly covering the costs of outside attorneys and engineers. Internal legal counsel also helps guide the department, Jokerst said.
Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency:
[On April 8, 2021] the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) [release] an updated toxicity assessment for perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS), a member of a larger group of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Today’s PFBS assessment is part of EPA’s commitment to restore scientific integrity to all of the agency’s actions and increase the amount of research and information available to the public on PFAS chemicals.
“This PFBS assessment reflects the best available science, involved extensive federal, state, and public engagement, and is critical to EPA efforts to help communities impacted by PFAS,” said senior career scientist Dr. Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development and the agency’s Science Advisor. “The assessment posted today fixes the errors in the version issued earlier this year, was developed by EPA career scientists, and upholds the values of scientific integrity. I’m proud to release such an important assessment that will help EPA and communities take action to address PFAS and protect public health.”
EPA, federal agencies, states, tribes, and local communities can use the PFBS toxicity assessment, along with specific exposure and other relevant information, to determine if and when it is necessary to take action to address potential health risks associated with human exposures to PFBS under appropriate regulations and statutes.
The assessment released today has gone through all appropriate reviews, includes input EPA received from external peer review, upholds the tenants of scientific integrity, was authored by expert career scientists in EPA’s Office of Research and Development, and has not been compromised by political staff – these were all issues with a version of the assessment that was posted during the previous administration. The release of today’s PFBS assessment upholds the integrity of EPA’s science, which EPA, states, tribes, and more rely on to make decisions that protect the health of their communities.
For the second time in less than a year, state health officials plan to ask lawmakers to fast-track permitting authority over hundreds of miles of streams left unprotected after a 2020 Trump Administration rollback of federal Clean Water Act rules.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s move comes just weeks after a federal court denied Colorado’s effort to prevent the new federal rules from taking effect.
The CDPHE is holding work group sessions and seeking public comment on a proposed bill that is likely to be introduced in the next two weeks, officials said. The CDPHE declined to comment for this article.
Last May Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and won a temporary injunction against the new rules, which would have taken effect in June 2020. But a federal appeals court overturned that decision last month.
As a result, the rules are set to take effect in Colorado April 23. Though many expect the Biden Administration to alter the new rules, once again, state health officials say an interim rule is needed to ensure the state has the permitting authority and the funds needed to protect streams.
Major water interests, such as the nonpartisan Colorado Water Congress, are closely watching the latest legislative effort.
Colorado Water Congress Executive Director Doug Kemper said right now there is too much uncertainty around which streams and which activities will be overseen by federal and state agencies.
“It’s a big deal right now because you don’t really know what activity is covered and what is exempted,” said Kemper. His group has not taken a position on the CDPHE’s initiative, in part because a formal bill has yet to be introduced.
Environmentalists said it’s important that the state moves quickly to assume the permitting authority to protect streams and to allow millions of dollars in construction, dam and road projects to be properly reviewed and permitted.
Industry groups, however, believe new legislation isn’t required right now because the state has some discretion to act already and because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees much of the work on federally protected streams, also has some discretionary authority to review and issue permits.
“We’re concerned that the focus is solely on legislative options,” said John Kolanz, an attorney who represents the Colorado Stone, Sand and Gravel Association. He believes the state could make changes to its own rules, rather than enacting a new law.
“We don’t think it’s advisable to rush through legislation and a complicated rulemaking by the end of the year,” Kolanz said during a public work group meeting hosted by the CDPHE Monday.
Melinda Kassen, general counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership who tracks water quality regulation, disagreed, saying the CDPHE must be given new legal authority quickly in order to adequately monitor and fund stream protection work over the next one to two years.
“The biggest part of this legislation is getting some fees so that the [Colorado Water Quality Control] division can do its job and go out and see what’s happening on the ground,” Kassen said Monday.
At issue is what’s known as the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule. The rule was designed to classify which streams are subject to federal rules and which activities must obtain permits from the Army Corps to ensure those streams are protected even when they are disturbed by home and road building, construction of new storm water systems, and other activities.
But WOTUS has been contested in courts for years over murky definitions about which waterways fall under its jurisdiction, which wetlands must be regulated, what kinds of dredge-and-fill work in waterways should be permitted, what authority the CWA has over activities on farms and Western irrigation ditches, and what is allowable for industries and wastewater treatment plants to discharge into streams.
It has also been difficult to administer because the U.S. is home to such a wide variety of waterways.
In the East and Midwest massive rivers are filled with barge and shipping traffic and are clearly “navigable.” That was the term early courts used to determine how water would be regulated. If a stream was considered navigable, it was subject to federal law.
But Colorado and other Western states rely on shallow streams that don’t carry traditional commercial traffic. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates 44 percent of Colorado’s streams are intermittent, meaning they are sometimes dry, and 24 percent are ephemeral, meaning they can be dry for months or years and appear only after extraordinary rain or snow. Just 32 percent of Colorado streams are classified as being perennial, meaning they flow year round.
Under the new federal rule only perennial and intermittent streams, or those deemed navigable, are regulated, meaning that thousands of miles of streams in Colorado and other Western states are no longer protected under the law.
If the CDPHE’s new legislative effort succeeds, it would give state health officials the authority to issue so-called dredge-and-fill permits on stream segments no longer protected by the federal law.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
City of Steamboat Springs officials know the municipality’s primary fresh water supply is increasingly at risk from potential wildfire danger in the Fish Creek watershed, so work will continue this summer to boost water supply redundancy.
The city along with Mount Werner Water District are proceeding with construction of enhanced and expanded “infiltration galleries,” or shallow wells that are filled by ground water near the Yampa River, to increase the volume of secondary water supply intake. Water collected through the Yampa well field, which is located near where Walton Creek meets the Yampa River, is piped to the nearby Yampa Water Treatment Plant
Frank Alfone, water district general manager, said the district’s work should be complete by Dec. 1 for a third shallow well and new raw water transmission line located about a quarter mile south of the district’s two existing wells. The additional well will push intake capacity for 2022 from 1.8 million gallons per day to 2.8 million.
The Yampa Water Treatment Plant, built in 1972, has about half the capacity of the primary Fish Creek Filtration Plant. The Yampa plant was updated in 2018 to be able to process more gallons per day and is used primarily to process water for the outdoor watering season from June through September, Alfone said.
Kelly Romero-Heaney, city water resources manager, said the city will open up bids in 2022 for construction of four additional Yampa River shallow wells to increase the overall intake capacity in the location to 3.5 million gallons per day, which would be available by 2023.
The secondary water intake improvements are part of the city’s updated Water Supply Master Plan, completed in 2019, and a key component of the overall supply plan is the updated Water Conservation Plan approved in May, Romero-Heaney said. The goal of the 10-year Water Conservation Plan is to reduce the amount of water used per household by 10%…
[Romero-Heaney] said the city accomplished six key water conservation measures in 2020. Steamboat Springs City Council and the district adopted regulations that permanently limit outdoor watering to between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. three days per week based on the last digit of a street address. The city replaced 619 feet of aging and possibly leaking water lines, fixed five water main breaks and replaced irrigated sod in front of City Hall with a low water use demonstration garden.
The city updated the water distribution infrastructure master plan to prioritize water line replacements to mitigate leaks and water loss…
The updated conservation plan, posted on the city’s Water Conservation webpage, notes the city is actively engaged in meeting a variety of challenges to ensure a reliable water supply. Those challenges include drought, wildfire, need for more water treatment capacity, uncertainty of Colorado River Compact call, aging infrastructure, low flows in Fish Creek, growth in the west Steamboat Springs area and the uncertainty of climate change that has increased the statewide annual average temperatures by 2.5 degrees through the past 50 years…
The plan looks to preserve the health of Fish Creek and the Yampa River and protect drinking water supplies while reducing the use of chemicals and the energy intensive carbon footprint of treating fresh water and waste water. The plan also factors in the water requirements of the estimated 400,000 to 500,000 visitors to the city each year.
Steamboat’s primary source of treated water comes from snowmelt from the 22-square-mile Fish Creek watershed. Those supplies are stored in Fish Creek and Long Lake reservoirs and treated at the Fish Creek Filtration Plant.
Questions about the water conservation plan can be emailed to email@example.com.
The city of Greeley is clear to move ahead with the acquisition of an aquifer containing 1.2 million acre-feet of water as a new source of raw water after opponents of the project fell short of the required number of signatures to force a special election.
Save Greeley’s Water, which formed in opposition to the Terry Ranch Aquifer Storage and Recovery project, needed to collect 2,192 signatures by Thursday to require city council to reconsider an ordinance change that was required to make the Terry Ranch deal viable, or turn it over to a citywide referendum. On Thursday afternoon, they turned in just 2,028 signatures, falling at least 164 signatures short, according to City Clerk Anissa Hollingshead.
With the referendum effort’s failure, the city will move ahead on the purchase, which will supplement Greeley’s existing water resources…
City leaders and water experts have promoted the deal as a way to secure Greeley’s water future, meeting the needs of more than 260,000 people by the year 2065, according to projections from the state demographer. In drought years, city leaders plan to draw from the aquifer, allowing them to build wells as necessary and preventing steep water rate hikes. In wet years, the city plans to inject water into the aquifer for future use, not only saving the water for when it’s needed, but preventing evaporation…
The city’s next steps are to complete the purchase and refine the infrastructure design and phased implementation plan of Terry Ranch.
New legislation could help states and tribes clean up decades-old mining liabilities and restore the environment while creating needed jobs.
Mined lands reclaimed for biking trails, office parks — even a winery. Efforts like these are already underway in Appalachia to reclaim the region’s toxic history, restore blighted lands, and create economic opportunities in areas where decades-old mines haven’t been properly cleaned up.
The projects are sorely needed. And so are many more. But the money to fund and enable them remains elusive.
Mining production is falling, which is good news for tackling climate change and air pollution, but Appalachia and other coal states are also feeling the economic pain that comes with it. And that loss is more acute on top of pandemic-related revenue shortfalls and the mounting bills from the industry’s environmental degradation.
Local leaders and organizations working in coal communities see a way to flip the script, though. The Revelator spoke with Rebecca Shelton, the director of policy and organizing for Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, about efforts focusing on one particular area that’s plagued coal communities for more than 50 years: cleaning up abandoned mine lands.
Shelton explains the history behind these lands, the big legislative opportunities developing in Washington, and what coal communities need to prepare for a low-carbon future.
What are abandoned mine lands?
Technically an abandoned mine land is land where no reclamation was done after mining. Prior to the passage of Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, coal-mining companies weren’t required to reclaim — or clean up — the land they mined.
What SMCRA did, in addition to creating requirements for companies to do reclamation into the future, was create an abandoned mine land fund to distribute money to states and tribes with historic mining so that they could clean up those old sites. The revenue for that fund comes from a small tax on current coal production.
The program has accomplished a lot. It has closed 46,000 open mine portals, reclaimed more than 1,000 miles of high walls, stabilized slopes, and restored a lot of water supplies.
t’s been a successful program, but the work is far from done. A conservative estimate is that there’s still more than $11 billion needed to clean up existing identified liability across the U.S. [for sites mined before 1977].
What are the risks if we don’t do this?
There are safety, health and environmental issues.
Just this spring we’ve already gotten calls from folks living adjacent to abandoned mine lands that are experiencing slides [from wet weather causing slopes destabilized by mining to give way]. People’s homes can be completely destabilized, and if they don’t get out in time, it can be really dangerous.
There’s also a lot of existing acid mine drainage across coal-mining communities, which is water that’s leaking iron oxides and other heavy metals from these abandoned mine lands. This is bad for the ecology of the streams, but heavy metals are also not safe for humans to be exposed to.
There’s legislation in Congress now that could help deal with this issue. What are those bills?
One bill is the reauthorization of the abandoned mine land fund. That bill is absolutely critical because the fee on coal production, which is the only source of revenue for the fund, will expire at the end of September if Congress doesn’t take action.
If Congress fails to extend that, we may not see any more funding for the $11 billion needed to clean up abandoned mine lands. If passed, the bill would reauthorize the fee at its current level for 15 more years.
The challenge is that even if the fee is reauthorized, it’ll likely generate only around $1.6 billion — based on current coal-production projections — and that’s vastly inadequate to cover all of the liabilities that exist.
Also, when the abandoned mine land fund was first started, there were some funds that were not redistributed to states and tribes and have just remained in the fund — [about] $2.5 billion that’s not being dispersed on an annual basis.
So another bill, the RECLAIM Act, would authorize [an initial] $1 billion to be dispersed out of that fund that would go to approximately 20 states and tribes over the next five years. This money would be distributed differently than the regular funds in that any kind of project would have to have a plan in place for community and economic development.
So though the funds can only be used for reclamation, they need to be reclamation with a plan. There are so many high-priority and dangerous abandoned mine land sites that exist, and the RECLAIM Act funds would prioritize supporting community and economic development for communities adjacent to these lands.
How much support are you seeing for these bills?
We see momentum in this Congress, and there’s a lot of conversation around investing in our nation’s infrastructure. We see abandoned mine lands and their remediation as natural infrastructure that we need to invest in to keep our communities safe and prepare them for the future.
But we also see these bills as important pieces of an economic recovery package. COVID-19 has really exacerbated so many of the existing health and economic crises already in coal communities.
When we talk about economic stimulus and job creation, we also see reauthorizing the abandoned mine land fund as contributing to that because it takes a lot of work and creates a lot of jobs to do land reclamation.
We’ve talked about the legacy issues from lands mined before 1977, but what concerns are there from current or recent mining? Is that reclamation being done adequately?
That’s an area that also needs a closer look.
As the industry declines, we’ve seen coal companies file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy or reorganization. And when they do this, oftentimes they’re granted permission to get rid of liabilities that would affect their solvency. Sometimes those liabilities are reclamation obligations, pension funds or black lung disability funds.
And then what you see is smaller companies taking on these permits that the reorganizing company no longer wants. But many are under-capitalized and they sometimes don’t have the ability to even produce coal, or if they do they can’t keep up with the reclamation. And it’s dangerous for communities if there’s environmental violations that aren’t getting addressed.
I’ll give you a recent example. Blackjewel [the sixth-largest U.S. coal producer] went bankrupt in the summer of 2019. Since then there’s been very little done to address any kind of environmental violations existing on their permits.
Because of SMCRA, companies are required to have bonds in order to obtain their mining permits, but these bonds are not always adequate. The Kentucky Energy and Environment cabinet made a statement in the Blackjewel bankruptcy proceedings that it estimated that reclamation obligations on these permits were going to fall short $20 to $50 million.
What else is needed to help coal communities transition to a low-carbon economy?
That’s a big question. We have to address these legacy issues in order to help transition these communities into the future. And we have to address the problems right now of folks who are losing their jobs and need to be supported through training programs or through education credits.
But we also need to be thinking about the future more broadly. What will be in place 20 years from now for the younger generation?
There’s going to be a lot of gaps in local tax revenues because so much of the tax base has been reliant on the coal industry, which makes it really difficult for communities to continue to provide public services and keep up infrastructure as that industry declines. It’s going to be critical to think about that and invest in that.
I think the best approach is to find solutions that work for [specific] places. And to do that we need to listen to community leaders and folks in these communities that have already been working to build something new for many years. There are solutions that I think can apply to all places, but there also needs to be a targeted intention to create opportunities where communities can develop their own paths forward.
The South Taylor pit is one of Colowyo Mine’s current active coal mining site. Photo by David Tan via CoalZoom.com
Image credit: Dan Winters
Coal plant water consumption in the American West. Graphic credit: The Energy Policy Institute
Coal train loading at Spring Creek mine, Montana. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Spring Creek Coal Mine. Photo credit: Cloud Peak Energy
One coal mine remains open in the North Fork Valley. Photo/Allen Best
The U.S. is the second-largest producer of coal in the world, thanks in part to massive surface mines like this one in Wyoming. Photo courtesy BLM.
West Virginia coal mine circa. 1908
December 22, 2008 Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash retention pond failure via the Environmental Protection Agency and the Tennessee Valley Authority
Here’s a guest column from Kay Ledbetter, Texas A&M that’s running in No-Till Farmer:
The Ogallala Aquifer’s future requires not just adapting to declining water levels, but the involvement of a wide range of participants comfortable with innovation who will help manage the situation and drive future changes.
That was the message heard by more than 200 participants from across eight states who listened in and identified key steps in working together during the recent two-day Virtual Ogallala Aquifer Summit. The event was led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project, CAP, which includes Texas A&M AgriLife.
The group partners with the Kansas Water Office and USDA’s Agriculture Research Service-supported Ogallala Aquifer Program to coordinate this event with additional support from other individuals from all eight states overlying the Ogallala Aquifer.
“Technological innovation, financial and economic conditions, infrastructure changes, social values – all these factors drive change,” said John Tracy, Ph.D., director of the Texas Water Resources Institute, which is a partnering agency in the Ogallala Aquifer Program.
Often people feel the need to solve the issue of declining groundwater across many parts of the aquifer, when in fact, what is needed is to look at how we manage change, Tracy said. Adaptive management is about driving the change — realizing it is coming and trying to affect what is happening rather than just responding.
“So, large regions of the Ogallala are going to run out of water, particularly in the Southern High Plains – how are we going to embrace that and not just respond to the change?” he said. “Two important factors: first, this summit; have productive and transparent dialogue to move forward.
“The second thing we need to embrace is rethinking how we approach the changes happening in the Ogallala — this is not a problem to be solved; this is a situation to be managed. We must move into the mindset of changing programs in order to get out in front of the situation. One of the most important activities is looking forward to how we drive this conversation and turn talk into action through consensus building that is the product of shared dialogue amongst all of us.”
Meeting of the Minds
An inaugural eight-state summit, led by the Ogallala Water CAP and Kansas Water Office in 2018 focused on what actions were happening or could happen in terms of field management, science and, to some extent, policy.
After the 2018 summit, participants across the eight states helped lead the integration and merging of technology, the expansion of the Master Irrigator program into more states, as well as the development of new policies and incentives to support more conservation and other collaborative efforts. These efforts are helping develop a broader understanding of actions needed to address the region’s critical water issues.
The 2021 summit was intentionally framed to engage a broader community of actors.
Joining the conversation were representatives of energy co-ops, lenders, producers, federal agencies in each state, youth, non-profits, policymakers, commodity groups, tech and irrigation equipment dealers and multinational companies. Participants identified other groups, including absentee landowners and tribal representatives, that should be invited and engaged as a focus area of the conversation at a future summit event.
Key messages that surfaced from the two days of conversations were:
– Change is imperative to be sustainable. You must be adaptive, not reactive. Transition takes time.
– Learn from each other using inter-regional, interstate and peer-to-peer planning.
– Be willing to experiment with new ideas.
– The power of data drives good policy and real-time decision making for producers and helps break down silos.
– Water is a basic critical infrastructure; we need enough water to support our rural economy, but all industries are dependent on water and it affects the overall economy.
– Producers carry the brunt of what we talk about financially, and keeping them profitable as long as possible must be a priority.
– Engage and invest in youth. Invite them to join and foster conversations that instill a conservation mindset not just among their peers but with a wide range of stakeholders.
Changing the Mindset
The path forward begins with creating interest and providing education to the next generation of both producers and water conservation leaders. Fostering the transfer of knowledge between generations and developing leadership skills to position youth to step into groundwater district and other community leadership roles will be key.
David Smith, 4-H2O program coordinator with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Bryan-College Station, described how the Texas 4-H Water Ambassadors program is creating water stewardship leaders.
The program provides an opportunity for youth to gain insight into water law, policy, planning and management, and potential career paths as they interact with representatives from state water agencies, educators, researchers, policymakers and water resource managers.
But education must also take place in the fields. It must provide an organized pathway where producers can find actions and dedicate the time needed to make a difference. Producer-to-producer learning approaches in partnership with university and industry, such as the Nebraska and Oklahoma Testing Ag Performance Solutions program, have been particularly effective.
Brent Auvermann, Ph.D., summit program chair and Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center director, Amarillo, said the adoption of technology can’t be taken for granted. Looking ahead, tech development and research must grapple with the human dimension of technology adoption.
“Technology will race ahead, but it will stay on the shelf until and unless we devise new ways to foster its adoption,” Auvermann said. “Using even a little bit more water than needed is a form of crop insurance and asking producers to rely on new technology to cut back on that water use increases the risk that they, their insurers and their lenders perceive.”
C.E. Williams, Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District general manager, White Deer, said when producers think about growing a crop, their concern shouldn’t be about bushels per acre — water is the limiting factor. They need to understand and invest in the technology that will ensure they are putting every drop in the right place.
“All the inputs you put in are important, but the bottom line is water,” Williams said. “Why did we use it? It is like money. You spend it; it is gone. What was your bottom line per water use? Rather than thinking of production in terms of bushels per acre, we should be thinking in terms of how many bushels per acre-inch or acre-foot of water used.”
Every drop saved adds up
We need to find a way to provide access to broad audience about the actions of many successful innovators who are having success with different precision management technologies and strategies, said Chuck West, Thornton Distinguished Chair in the Texas Tech University Department of Plant and Soil Science, Lubbock.
“There are a lot of little decisions that people can make all along the way that add up to considerable water savings,” West said.
Katie Ingels, director of communications with the Kansas Water Office, said several some of their Water Tech Farm producers are seeing the advantages of tech adoption, where a combination of slight adjustments in practice or integrating a new tool or strategy and related decisions each contribute some savings of money, time or water.
“There’s a mindset out there among some growers that they can’t make a tremendous difference because they are a smaller operation with only a few wells,” said panelist Cory Gilbert, founder of On Target Ag Solutions. “Every single system that adds to the acre-foot savings turns into a very big number very quickly in terms of conservation.”
Panelist Matt Long, producer and seed supplier, Leoti, Kansas, said water conservation is a quality of life issue.
“If you look at the communities you can see which ones are vibrant and they are the ones with a stable water supply that can support industry beyond cropping,” Long said. “Conserving water isn’t just about there being water for the future; it’s about having a community for the future. We have to have enough water to keep the people to keep the community.”
But at the same time, Auvermann said, communities need to be mindful of their water use.
“We city folks need to look no further than our front lawns to see why we’re in the pickle we’re in,” Auvermann said. “We run water down the curb to make sure our home’s appearance doesn’t suffer. Water is insurance for all of us.”
Building a Path Forward
Amy Kremen, Ogallala Water CAP project manager, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Colorado State University, said a continuing theme throughout the meeting was, “With limited water in the High Plains, the question is less about production that needs to feed the world’s population of 8 billion, it’s about keeping rural communities vital. We need to give people more flexible options that allow them to make decisions related to water use that are to their economic best advantage.”
Quality of life in these smaller communities, whether they are in Kansas or Texas or any of the states the Ogallala Aquifer supports, is what is important.
“We don’t want to dry up that life,” Kremen said. “We are all in this together. And together, we will come up with solutions better than any of us individually.”
Decisions must center on making conservation economical for agriculture producers, both short-term and with long-term sustainability, providing not only for the next generations on the farm, but for the sustainability of the local communities they support.
“We need to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations,” Auvermann said. “We need to talk candidly and be willing to entertain new, unfamiliar ideas. Sometimes we’ll make mistakes, but it’s not as though we’ve not been making them up to this point. Fear of making mistakes keeps us from innovating. Our dialogue has to be generous, congenial and optimistic to overcome that. We have to be trustworthy ourselves, and we have to be willing to trust.”
People are hungry to have these conversations, said Meagan Schipanski, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Colorado State University and Ogallala Water CAP codirector.
“We need to have them happen in public, mini-summits or regional conversations,” Schipanski said. “We need to take on a stewardship that meets producer and community needs.”
U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis approved the cities’ plan Monday to drill into the high-alpine Homestake Valley and test whether the underlying geology could support a reservoir diverting water from the Colorado River to the growing municipalities.
It’s an early, key step in the effort to build the new reservoir, which would be called the Whitney Reservoir, in the National Forest about six miles southwest of the town of Red Cliff.
The cities have long held the water rights to build the new reservoir and divert the water, usually destined for the beleaguered Colorado River, to thirsty residents in Aurora and Colorado Springs.
With approval in tow, Aurora and Colorado Springs have the green light to test for several possible reservoir sites in the Homestake Valley.
Greg Baker, Aurora Water’s manager of public relations, told the Sentinel last year the reservoir could be built in about 25 years if the complicated approval process pans out. The new reservoir in the Homestake Valley could hold between 6,850 acre-feet and 20,000 acre-feet of water, according to the Forest Service…
Notably, the project requires environmental impact studies and possibly an act of Congress, according to Baker, to shave up to 500 acres from the popular Holy Cross Wilderness. However, he added that the plan is far from set in stone.
The plan has drawn scrutiny from conservation groups concerned about devastating the ancient wetland habitant that retains water — an increasingly scare commodity in the West. Various endangered fish species would be downriver from the dam.
The Colorado River itself has seen reduced flows in recent decades, in part because of human-induced climate change. Many environmentalists argue that as much water as possible should be left in the river, which multiple states and Mexico rely on…
Baker said in an email that the drilling study is “routine.”
“We value the collaborative process involved in exploring alternatives that minimize environmental impacts, are cost effective, can be permitted by local, state, and federal agencies, and which will meet the water requirements of the project partners,” he said.
Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan represents seven counties that include communities like Aspen and Crested Butte. In a letter opposing the project, Donovan wrote that, “she can’t express how sternly the people in her district dislike water diversion projects to the front range,” according to CPR.
This map shows the location of test holes Homestake Partners plans to drill as part of its geotechnical investigation into the feasibility of a dam site in the Homestake Creek valley. The Forest Service has received more than 500 comments, most of them in opposition to, the drilling and the overall reservoir project. Credit: USFS via Aspen Journalism
These wetlands in the Homestake Creek valley are near the site of the proposed Whitney Reservoir. The Forest Service is considering whether to issue a permit for drilling and a geotechnical study to test whether the site would support a dam. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
These wetlands, located on a 150-acre parcel in the Homestake Creek valley that Homestake Partners bought in 2018, would be inundated if Whitney Reservoir is constructed. The Forest Service received more than 500 comments, the majority in opposition to, test drilling associated with the project and the reservoir project itself. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
A map from Colorado Springs Utilities that shows how tunnels could bring water to Whitney Reservoir from Fall and Peterson creeks, and from the Eagle River. The map also shows the route of a pipeline to pump water from Whitney Reservoir to Homestake Reservoir.
A wetland area along Homestake Creek in an area that would be flooded by a potential Whitney Reservoir. The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are looking to develop additional water in Eagle County and divert it to the Front Range. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
A map prepared by Aurora Water that shows a potential 500-acre adjustment to the Holy Cross Wilderness boundary near the potential Whitney Reservoir on lower Homestake Creek. The map as current as of July 16, 2019.
Homestake Reservoir, which is partially in Pitkin County, but mainly in Eagle County. Below the reservoir the Homestake Creek valley is visible, as well as short section of what’s known as Homestake Road. Water held in the potential Whitney Reservoir would be pumped up to Homestake Reservoir and then sent to the Front Range. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The dam in the Eagle River headwaters that forms Homestake Reservoir, which diverts water to the Front Range. If the wetlands in the Homestake Creek valley contain ancient peat bogs called fens, it could hinder the progress of the Whitney Reservoir project. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journailsm
FromThe Colorado Sun (Michael Booth and Jason Blevins):
The decision to let the Front Range water utilities move forward in taking more Western Slope water is only one of countless regulatory hurdles for a future Whitney Reservoir, but conservation groups say they are adamantly against any new water transfers to suburban water users across the Continental Divide and will oppose every approval step.
Colorado Headwaters, which opposes any new dams and water transfers, said it expected the approval but remains steadfast against any progress on the project. “We don’t think it will ever be built,” president Jerry Mallett said. “They haven’t done a transmountain diversion in 45 years. Water on the Colorado River is dropping from climate change. We don’t want to lose those natural resources.”
The decision from White River said the approval applies only to drilling 10 test bore holes the utilities applied for, and does not have bearing on any future decisions should the cities pursue the dam north of Camp Hale. The proposed reservoir would hold about 20,000 acre feet…
The cities partnered with Eagle County, the Colorado Water Conservation District, Vail Resorts and other Western Slope water users in 1998 in a deal that gave water rights to Eagle River communities and developed the 3,300 acre-foot Eagle Park Reservoir on the Climax Mine property.
The 1998 Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding included plans for possible reservoirs along Homestake Creek. The agreement — which brought together a diverse group of downstream users as “Homestake Partners” in the Eagle River Joint Use Water Project — also affirmed that no partner could object to a new reservoir plan if it met the memorandum’s agreement to “minimize environmental impacts” and could be permitted by local, state and federal agencies.
The proposed Whitney Reservoir project is not new and “represents our continued pursuit to develop water rights in existence for many years,” Colorado Springs Utilities spokeswoman Jennifer Kemp said.
Kemp said the cities have developed alternatives to building a new reservoir in the Homestake Creek drainage but those other options have not been proposed or discussed publicly. The results of the test boring and geotechnical work will help the two cities vet possible alternatives…
Environmental groups oppose new dams on Homestake in part because they would take water out of tributaries that feed the already-depleted Colorado River. But they are also focused on preserving complex wetlands called “fens” that develop over the long term and support diverse wildlife. They say fens cannot easily be recreated in any mitigation work that utilities traditionally include in dam proposals.
The headwaters group also questions why the Forest Service would encourage any steps when completion of a dam appears impossible. The utility proposals include shrinking the size of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area to create dam access, “which Congress will never approve,” Mallett said.
A consultant working for the city of Aspen is presenting both new sources and storage as part of its water future.
Denver-based Carollo Engineers is working on Aspen’s Water Integrated Resource Plan, which aims to predict and plan for water needs through 2070.
A main goal of the plan is figuring out how to address what they say are potential future water shortages, especially in late summer under hotter and drier conditions fueled by climate change. Carollo expects to submit a final IRP with recommendations and a plan to implement them in late spring or early summer.
Engineers define a shortage as the inability to meet all water uses — potable, irrigation, goals for instream flow (ISF), and hydropower generation — at the same time. ISF water rights are held by the state of Colorado and set a requirement for minimum flows between specific points on a stream. They are aimed at improving the natural environment to a reasonable degree. The ISF for the creeks that provide Aspen’s municipal water is 14 cubic feet per second on Maroon Creek and 13.3 cfs on Castle Creek.
The city’s consultants calculated future water demands using the variables of population, occupancy rates, climate change, water-use efficiency and unmetered water use. They claim that Aspen’s future water demand for the next 50 years, depending on these variables, could be between 4,900 and 9,300 acre-feet per year, according to a slide show presented at a public engagement meeting March 3.
Consultants say they are planning for the worst and, instead of hoping for the best, making the IRP flexible and adaptable. The factors that, according to the consultants, would contribute to Aspen having 9,300 acre-feet of water demand would include a 3.6 degree (Celsius) increase in temperature due to climate change and an annual population increase of 1.8% by 2070, according to John Rehring, senior project manager and vice president of Carollo Engineers.
This demand forecast already includes conservation measures and drought restrictions, which would decrease indoor use by 2% and outdoor use by 5% to 15% by 2070.
Rehring said that even under stage-three drought restrictions limiting water use, his firm’s projections show future supply gaps.
For the past several years, Aspen’s water demands have hovered between about 4,000 and 5,000 acre-feet per year. A 2016 study by Wilson Water concluded that Aspen did not need any storage, although drought years could cause the creeks to dip below the ISF standard without more water conservation.
Looking for storage locations
In this month’s earlier public meeting, consultants presented six different portfolios for meeting a potential projected shortage. Five of the six — all except the current status quo — included storage as a component.
The city has identified five potential reservoir sites: the city golf course; the Maroon Creek Club golf course; Cozy Point open space; the Woody Creek gravel pit; and a 63-acre parcel of land next to the gravel pit. Officials believe water could be stored underground at some of these sites.
A map included in the presentation with city officials and Carollo representatives on March 3 included three new possible sites: the Aspen airport, Zoline Open Space and North Star Nature Preserve.
But Aspen Utilities Resource Manager Steve Hunter said it’s highly unlikely the city would pursue water storage at these locations. Hunter said they were included on the map because the consultant used a geographic information system (GIS) mapping tool to pick out large tracts of city-owned land that would be big enough to store water.
“The three are low if not off the list,” he said. “I don’t see the city pursuing any of these three.”
According to Hunter, Zoline is probably too small and the airport too fraught with logistical challenges. North Star is valued for its natural beauty and important riparian habitat, and building city water infrastructure there is something Hunter said won’t happen.
“I don’t ever see it happening in my lifetime due to the pushback they would get,” Hunter said. “I’m almost 100% confident that is not going to fly.”
The pushback to which Hunter is referring would be of the same sort Aspen faced when it attempted to hang onto conditional water rights to build dams and reservoirs in the Castle and Maroon valleys. The Maroon Creek Reservoir would have held 4,567 acre-feet of water and the Castle Creek Reservoir would have held 9,062 acre-feet of water.
After a lengthy water court battle in which 10 entities opposed the city’s plans, the city gave up its water rights, which date to 1965, in those particular locations. The final water court decree in the case granted Aspen the right to store up to 8,500 acre-feet from Castle and Maroon creeks combined.
Now that the Castle and Maroon valleys are out of the question, part of the IRP process is figuring out where the city should store the water granted by those conditional water rights.
Consultants are proposing two different storage pools: seasonal/operational and emergency.
The seasonal/operational pool would be used as a traditional reservoir to retime flows by capturing spring runoff and saving it for use later in the summer, when creek flows have dwindled but demands — especially outdoor watering — are still high.
Emergency storage would be left untouched most years and only tapped if there was a disaster such as a wildfire or a flood that made the city’s water sources temporarily unusable. The two pools could be combined in the same reservoir or stored in two different locations.
Diversified supply of water encouraged
Consultants are also working toward a recommendation that the city develop additional sources of water in order to protect supply.
The city takes nearly all its water from Castle Creek and some from Maroon Creek, which consultants say makes Aspen vulnerable to drought, wildfire or avalanches. In addition to storage, the portfolio options included combinations of new sources from groundwater wells, tapping the flows of Hunter Creek, reuse of wastewater and enhanced conservation measures.
“We see strength in diversity, when we diversify the supply sources,” Rehring said.
Each of the six portfolios were ranked based on six criteria: supply availability; supply resilience; community and environmental benefits; affordability; ease of implementation; and ease of operations. (Supply availability is the most important of these.) Portfolio 6 — which includes storage, groundwater wells, enhanced conservation and reuse, in addition to current supplies from Castle and Maroon creeks — scored the highest.
The portfolios did not include an “everything but storage” option; storage was a part of all the portfolios except for the “do nothing” option. Rehring said storage is an effective way of helping the city use its current sources of Castle and Maroon creeks and avoid or defer bringing another water source online as quickly.
Hunter said he sees conservation, wells and reuse leading the charge on the front end, but he adds that the city will also use storage.
“Yes, storage will be a component,” he said. “It’s a phased approach — we don’t need to go out and put in … a 2,500 acre-foot reservoir and fill it up tomorrow.”
In addition to holding three public-engagement sessions on the IRP, the city also formed a technical working group — with representatives from Pitkin County, the Bureau of Reclamation, Western Resource Advocates, Aspen Global Change Institute, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and other entities — to provide input.
Laura Belanger, a senior water-resources engineer and policy adviser with Western Resource Advocates and a member of the technical working group, said the city is doing a good job getting input from stakeholders, including those who have been opposed to some of Aspen’s water plans in the past. WRA was one of the 10 opposing parties in the city’s conditional water-rights case.
Belanger said it’s encouraging that the city is considering enhanced conservation and reuse as part of the IRP.
“I think we actually like the way the city is approaching this,” Belanger said.
Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the March 20 edition of The Aspen Times.
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
Aurora and Colorado Springs want to bring more of that water to their growing cities, which are the state’s largest after Denver. To do that, they want to dam up Whitney Creek in Eagle County south of Minturn and create a reservoir that could supply water for thousands of new homes…
There are a few different spots along the creek that could be the home to the proposed Whitney Reservoir. The largest of the potential sites would hold about 20,000 acre-feet of water…
Tension between protecting wetlands and securing more water for growing cities
[Jerry] Mallett’s group works to restore and protect areas like this one — a wetland with fox and moose tracks in the snow.
Mallett has fought Aurora and Colorado Springs before. After these cities teamed up and built Homestake Reservoir in the 1960s, they tried to build the reservoir Homestake II. That project was shut down in the 1990s.
“We’re not saying you shouldn’t grow or that you’ve got to control the population, that’s your issue,” Mallett said. “Ours is protecting the natural resources for other values.”
Aurora and Colorado Springs are working together because they have the same problem: Planners don’t think they have enough water where they are to support the cities’ expected growth. If the cities get their way and dam up Homestake Creek, it would reduce the amount of water that ends up in the Colorado River — which the Front Range and some 40 million people have come to rely on over the decades…
That’s changed, Mallett said. West Slope communities now see water as a crucial part of keeping their economies alive and now fight for it to stay. Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan represents seven counties that include communities like Aspen and Crested Butte. In a letter opposing the project, Donovan wrote that, “she can’t express how sternly the people in her district dislike water diversion projects to the front range.
“West Slope is not in a position I think today where they’re going to roll over and say, ‘Fine, we’ll lose that water,’” Mallett said. “I think they’ve got the political clout now, it’s a new game.”
If Colorado Springs and Aurora secure permits to build the Whitney Reservoir, it would be the first major trans-mountain water diversion project in decades…
Environmentalists are concerned about losing these wetlands, which are threatened by climate change. Delia Malone, an ecologist and wildlife chair of the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club, said most animals rely on wetlands…
Malone said the proposed reservoir locations could include areas that are home to fens, a type of wetland that is rare in the arid West and supports plant biodiversity. Fens have layers of peat, require thousands of years to develop and are replenished by groundwater. Fens also trap environmental carbon, improve water quality and store water…
Colorado and other states are obligated to send a certain amount of water downstream to states like California because of a century-old agreement. As the Colorado River dries with climate change, and more demand is put on the river, Udall said there’s higher risk for what’s called a “compact call,” a provision that gives downstream states like California authority to demand water from upstream states like Colorado for not sending enough water down the Colorado River.
If that happens, Udall said newer Colorado water projects — including the proposed Whitney Reservoir — could have to cut their usage to make sure enough water is sent downstream.
[Brad] Udall said the best available science is needed to answer the question: Is this water better left in the river or sent to Aurora and Colorado Springs?
“The science really does need to be heard here,” Udall said. “It’s somewhat disturbing and is very different from the science that we used in the 20th century to assess the value and benefits of these kinds of projects.”
Officials in Colorado Springs and Aurora declined CPR News’ interview requests.
Before the cities can move towards building the reservoir, the U.S. Forest Service has to sign off on structural testing and surveying which requires drilling test holes in the wetlands. A decision is expected later this month on that permit, which has received more than 500 public comments, with most arguing against the drilling and the project as a whole.
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The view from Music Pass in the Sand Creek drainage, where a multi-agency effort is unfolding to restore the Rio Grande cutthroat trout. (Provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife)
The Rio Grande cutthroat trout has dwindled in its native habitat. A multi-agency effort to restore it still can inspire anger and concern. (Provided by Colorado Fish and Wildlife)
Workers administer the plant-based chemical compound rotenone at Upper Sand Creek Lake in the Sangre de Cristo range. The chemical kills all fish in the waterway so that Rio Grande cutthroat trout, a native species, had be restored to the habitat. (Provided by Colorado Fish and Wildlife)
A center pivot irrigates a field in the San Luis Valley, where the state is warming farmers that a well shut-down could come much sooner than expected. Credit: Jerd Smith via Water Education Colorado
The West Fork fire complex of 2013 was composed of three fires that burned more than 109,000 acres on mostly public lands managed by the Rio Grande and San Juan National Forests. Photo: Jonathan Coop, Western Colorado University via Colorado State University
The Rio Grande near Albuquerque in 2012. Photo credit: City of Albuquerque CC by 2.0 via The New Mexico Political Report
The Conejos River (right) joins the Rio Grande on the 3,200-acre Cross Arrow Ranch southeast of Alamosa. Photo By: John Fielder via Water Education Colorado
Side channels were excavated by the Bureau of Reclamation along the Rio Grande where it passes through the Rhodes’ property to provide habitat for the endangered silvery minnow. (Dustin Armstrong/U.S. Bureau Of Reclamation)
Kyler Brown rides along the Rio Grande River, where headgates divert water into irrigation canals. Coming up with a plan to reduce water use is the easy part, he says. Changing peoples’ behavior is trickier. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
The Rio Grande flowing through the Colorado town of Del Norte. Photo credit: USBR
The headwaters of the Rio Grande River in Colorado. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The drying riverbed of the Middle Rio Grande near the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on April 4, 2018. Photo credit: USBR
A cottonwood forest in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Matthew Schmader/Open Space Division
Elephant Butte Dam is filled by the Rio Grande and sustains agriculture in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico. Sarah Tory
Nearly every mature spruce tree has been killed by spruce beetle in this area of the Rio Grande National Forest in southwest Colorado. (Credit: U.S. Forest Service; photo: Brian Howell)
Rio Grande River photo credit Wild Earth Guardians.
Kevin Terry, a project coordinator for Colorado Trout Unlimited, holds up a Rio Grande cutthroat trout at Upper Sand Creek Lake.
Rio Grande River March 2016 via Greg Hobbs.
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument via the Bureau of Land Management
Rio Grande River corridor near Del Norte.
Photo via the Rio Grande Restoration Project
A Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Photo courtesy Andrew Todd.
Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust
Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia
Rio Grande Pyramid
Rio Grande River near South Fork via Division of Water Resources
Colorado water officials are considering whether to designate the increasingly stressed Yampa River from Steamboat Springs downstream to near its entrance into Dinosaur National Monument as over-appropriated.
If approved by the state water engineer, the designation would require augmentation plans for larger-volume wells along the river from Steamboat to Lilly Park, where the Little Snake River flows into the Yampa.
Augmentation plans document how the water used will be replaced to satisfy senior water rights. Such water is typically delivered from upstream reservoirs, both large and small.
The proposal comes amid growing evidence that the Yampa River can no longer deliver water to all users all the time as they wish. There have been two “calls” on the river in the past three years, limiting diversions of users with later — or junior — diversion decrees until those of older or more senior decrees are satisfied.
The changed hydrology of the river can best be understood at the gauging station along U.S. Highway 40 near Maybell. There, according to Division 6 Engineer Erin Light, annual flows a century ago of 1.5 million acre-feet annually have declined to 1.1 million acre-feet annually. The gauge during one year in the past decade recorded only 500,000 acre-feet.
Light is proposing the over-appropriation designation. When the comment period will begin and how long it will extend has not been determined.
“An existing water right is not going to be injured by this over-appropriation designation,” Light said on a video conference meeting Monday evening with more than 100 viewers. “They would be protected.”
Colorado law considers all groundwater to be tributary to the stream system unless proven otherwise. As Light recently explained to the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable, when a stream system is over-appropriated, drawing water from a well can deplete the stream during times when the water in the stream is insufficient to satisfy all decreed water rights.
The Yampa River famously long had sufficient flows such that it lacked the close supervision of many of the state’s rivers, including all of those on the east slope.
“If you look at the South Platte, the Rio Grande and the Arkansas, these are basins where the surface water was over-appropriated 100-plus years ago,” said Kevin Rein, the state engineer. He will be making the decision whether to approve Light’s recommendation.
Only a few of Colorado’s rivers, mostly on the flanks of the San Juan Mountains, remain free of restrictions that require augmentation plans for wells along rivers as are now proposed for the Yampa.
Regulation of large-capacity wells began in Colorado during the 1960s. The laws were adopted in response to conflicts in the South Platte River Valley between farmers diverting water directly from the river and those drilling wells. State legislators clarified the legal rights of each. The key breakthrough was acceptance that groundwater was, in many cases, part of the same water system as the surface flows.
In the Yampa River valley, this designation would primarily impact new residential wells located on lots less than 35 acres and wells used for purposes other than domestic uses.
Permits for new wells located on lots of less than 35 acres in existing subdivisions may be issued for in-house use. If the well serves additional purposes, such as for livestock watering or a pond that intercepts groundwater on a lot less than 35 acres, then an augmentation plan must be in place before a well permit will be issued.
Well permits may be issued for as many as three single-family dwellings, irrigation of as much as 1 acre of lawn and garden, and for watering of domestic animals, on lots greater than 35 acres.
Based on her experience after designations of the Elk River and the Yampa River upstream of Steamboat Springs in the past decade, Light expects to see no major impacts.
“I have just not seen a tremendous impact on people because of this designation,” she said.
Stagecoach Reservoir, near Oak Creek, has several thousand acre-feet of its 36,000 acre-feet of storage capacity available for augmentation. YamColo, a smaller reservoir located on the Bear River, upstream from Yampa, has lesser quantities available. Both are administered by the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, whose boundary goes to but does not include Craig.
How much augmentation water will be needed from upstream reservoirs will depend upon the use, explained Holly Kirkpatrick, external affairs manager for the district. Does the well provide for livestock water, for example, and if so how many animals?
The conservancy district has enough water in the two reservoirs, especially Stagecoach, to provide for all needs, at least in the near term.
“Individual augmentation plans are of very small magnitude,” said Andy Rossi, general manager. “We might be talking about less than one acre-foot up to three acre-feet” (annually), he said of augmentation plans for new wells.
Traditional agriculture water users would normally seek storage rights in the reservoirs for larger volumes.
It will still be possible to file for new water rights in the Yampa subject to Colorado’s first-in-time, first-in-right pecking order. But the proposal signals a new paradigm for the full Yampa River Basin.
“It should be a clear indicator to those individuals establishing a new appropriation that water may not be available all of the time every year to meet their water needs,” Light said.
One of the key water rights in determining water use upstream are those at Lilly Park.
Twice in the past three years those rights have triggered “calls” on the Yampa River upstream, causing Light, as the water engineer, to require more junior users upstream to end their diversions. That same call could have been made in 2002, but the owner of the water rights at Lilly Park recently confided to Light that he didn’t want to cause the problems upstream in that notoriously dry year.
Enlargement of Elkhead Reservoir, near Hayden, has also allowed more water to be delivered downstream, forestalling the need for the designation of over-appropriation.
The Yampa River upstream of Steamboat Springs and many of its tributaries were previously designated as over-appropriated after a water decree for a recreational in-channel diversion for the kayak park in Steamboat Springs was granted in 2006.
For Steamboat Springs, one consequence was the need to create an augmentation plan for the wells along the Yampa River supplying its water treatment plant. The water from Stagecoach will be needed only if the river downstream is on call, meaning that Steamboat’s water diversions must be curtailed to meet needs of senior users.
Will the over-appropriation designation downstream of Steamboat impact the city’s water supplies?
“No, not that I’m aware of,” said Kelley Romero-Heaney, the city’s water resources manager.
The designation of over-appropriation “just means there’s more accountability” to ensure that new diversions don’t injure existing water users and water-right holders, Romero-Heaney said.
The state also designated the Elk River, north of Steamboat, as over-appropriated Jan. 1, 2011, just a few months after the first call. Water is available from Steamboat Lake for augmentation.
Small reservoirs have also been constructed to deliver augmentation water in the Elk River basin. Small augmentation reservoirs may be needed for new development downstream from Craig, such as for new rural subdivisions.
Light, in recommending the over-appropriation designation, identified no single trigger.
There were the two calls, critical low-flows in other years, and the increasing importance of juggling reservoir releases. She said the most important signal of a new era came in 2018, when the first call was placed on the river.
“I think you could make a good case of climate change and different ecological conditions,” said Rossi. Snowfall remains highly variable, but runoff has consistently arrived earlier followed by more intense heat and, perhaps, a later arrival of winter.
Soil moisture may also be a factor. If soils are dry going into winter, they’ll soak up more of the runoff.
“Start the season with dry soils, and that is the first bucket that needs to be filled when the snow starts melting,” Becky Bolinger, the assistant state climatologist for Colorado, explained last week in The Washington Post.
These changes were evident in 2020. Winter snows were healthy and the snow water equivalent, or the amount of water in the snow once it has melted, was 116% of median. Then came spring, early and warm. By June, the snow-water equivalent of the remaining snowpack had dropped to 69%.
Then came summer, hot and mostly absent rain. August broke records for both the hottest and driest summer month on the 130-year record. This combination of heat and lack of precipitation actually made 2020 worse than the other notorious drought years of recent memory: 2002, 2012 and 2018, according to Romero-Heaney
Designation of over-appropriation, however, would not forecast the climate in the Yampa Valley, cautioned Rein.
“It just recognizes what has been happening recently,” he said.
Climate change has started playing a significant role in declining river flows and falling reservoir levels in the Colorado River basin. These declines have led to concerns in Colorado during the last 20 years that requirements of the compact governing the Colorado River and its tributaries in the seven basin states could force curtailment of water use within Colorado.
From his perspective in Denver, Rein sees the proposed designation on the Yampa being neutral. All groundwater is already considered tributary to the river and hence should have no additional impact on compact compliance matters.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the March 10 edition of the Steamboat Pilot & Today.
“What is groundwater’s value?” “If we conserve it, what is gained?” “How can cross-state cooperation help sustain rural communities in the eight-state Ogallala Aquifer region?”
These were among the many topics discussed during the Feb. 24-25 virtual Ogallala Aquifer Summit.
More than 200 people from the eight-state Ogallala Aquifer region participated in the conference via Zoom.
They included agricultural producers, commodity group representatives, federal and state agency staff, groundwater district managers and staff, and students.
With the theme, “Tackling Tough Questions,” the meeting built upon information and programs shared at the 2018 Summit in Garden City, KS.
The 2020 Summit in Amarillo was moved to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some takeaway points from the keynote speakers, panels, and breakout sessions included:
Many people have the mindset that the “Ogallala Aquifer will run out of water—what will we do?” Instead, they should be thinking that the “Ogallala Aquifer will change–how do we embrace this? It is not a problem to be solved but rather a situation to be managed.”
Everyone must do their part to reduce the load on the Ogallala Aquifer. “It will take producers talking to producers. They need to share how they have reduced their groundwater use. Cutting back on water use can be done. It’s not easy—but it can be accomplished. Producers and others need to share these success stories.”
Multi-state networking among water leaders remains important. It is important to share information about conservation programs with others. As an example, the Master Irrigator Program, originated by North Plains Groundwater Conservation District in Texas, is now being implemented in other states in the Ogallala region.
Mentoring programs are essential to foster the next generation of water leaders.Technology can be overwhelming to some. It is important to showcase simple water conservation methods that can be implemented without spending a great amount of money.
Many producers said the subject of water conservation is now readily accepted at a local level. “There was a time five years ago when you would not be warmly greeted at the coffee shop if you mentioned or promoted water conservation. Things have changed since then.”
One presenter encouraged people to “have the uncomfortable conversations about water conservation. Talk candidly and freely. Dare to push the envelope without being disrespectful to others and without achieving consensus too rapidly.”
Future water conservation measures need to be proactive—rather than reactive. “Get ahead of this.”
“Many small decisions can lead to greater water savings.”
One panelist spoke to a producer about water conservation. During the conversation, the producer said his grandfather and father did not use certain water conservation practices. The younger producer made a change which saved both money and water. He admitted that conservation practices can be scary—but wished he had adopted them much sooner.
It is important to identify a common vision, practices and opportunities, for short and long-term benefits. “Do we have a consensus or a vision for the future? If we don’t know where we are going—how do we know when we get there? What is the big picture and how will your farm fit into it?”
Data is important. Don’t be afraid to collaborate. However, many are concerned that data will be used against them. “Many have said we don’t want bad data to be used against us for regulations or restrictions. Yet, they don’t want to learn that they could have irrigated an additional five years if there had been better data to support that decision. You must have a benchmark for comparison. Remember, if you are the only one in the race, then you will be the winner when you cross the finish line. You must have something for comparison purposes.”
One presenter said future Federal regulations may force banks and other lenders to take a closer look at water management on farms. “Producer A does a good job conserving water on his farm. Producer B may have little or no conservation practices in place. Because of this, lending institutions may consider Producer B to be a greater risk. It’s not just a handshake deal anymore. Use of technology and supporting data will play a larger role in lending decisions.”
There is interest in revisiting the 1982 “Six State High Plains Aquifer Study.” A comprehensive reassessment may provide new insight into the four proposed water transfer routes, feasibility of using the water for municipal and industrial purposes, aquifer storage and recovery, flood mitigation, irrigation, and an updated evaluation of water supply infrastructure.
HPWD Education and Outreach Coordinator Katherine Drury was a panelist discussing “Effective Communications and Training the Next Generation of Water Leaders.”
Funding and support for the 2021 virtual summit was provided by the Ogallala Aquifer Program; Kansas Water Office; Texas A&M AgriLife; OgallalaWater.org; USDA-NRCS; USDA-ARS National Institute of Food and Agriculture; Kansas Geological Survey; Colorado Water Center; Nebraska Water Center; Oklahoma Water Resources Center; Komet Innovative Irrigation; High Plains Water District; Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment (KCARE); Panhandle Groundwater District; Texas Tech College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources; North Platte Natural Resources District; North Plains Groundwater Conservation District; New Mexico Water Resources Institute; Texas Water Resources Institute; Water Grows; Irrigation Innovation Consortium; Zimmatic by Lindsay; and SitePro.
Additional articles with information from the 2021 Ogallala Aquifer Summit will be featured in future issues of The Cross Section.
Education and collaboration were repeatedly emphasized during the second-ever Ogallala Aquifer Summit, a virtual gathering space where hundreds of concerned farmers, researchers and resource managers shared ideas about how to preserve the vitality of a rural region that overlies one of the most heavily pumped underground reservoirs in the world.
Roughly 95 percent of all freshwater currently withdrawn from the eight-state aquifer goes to irrigate commodity crops.
Since the first aquifer summit in 2018, previous participants have expanded on several innovative programs or spread them to new areas.
The Kansas Water Office now has 15 water technology farms that demonstrate the latest irrigation technology in a real world setting.
Colorado’s Republican River Water Conservation District is putting its own spin on a Master Irrigator training program, which originated in the Texas panhandle, adding stipends and service discounts in the Burlington area to help incentivize participation, according to program coordinator Brandi Baquera.
In the Oklahoma panhandle, OSU soil and water specialist Jason Warren introduced an experiential learning program that was originally developed by the University of Nebraska. TAPS, which stands for Testing Ag Performance Solutions, uses a competitive format to engage farmers in finding new ways to optimize resources and improve input-use efficiency. The field trials help provide OSU with valuable research data, while farmers get to test out their ideas in a research simulation before making big upfront investments.
These programs, along with countless one-on-one conversations, are drawing more converts to precision water management, as the finite nature of the region’s centuries-old groundwater gradually sinks in…
Farmers are also learning to recognize the power of collecting and analyzing data, according to Billy Tiller, a Lubbock farmer and founder of Grower Information Services Cooperative, the country’s first ag-data cooperative.
For one thing, there’s immense value in simply having good data.
“As a producer, my big fear is bad data regulating me,” he said.
Then it’s often necessary to collaborate to use that data effectively, he said.
“Don’t be afraid to collaborate,” he said. “We’re always thinking about how will that data be used against me? But we have to get proactive about this.”
Tiller is currently working with the Twin Platte Natural Resources District in Nebraska on using electric smart meters to update and improve older stream-flow data previously collected by the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
He’s also building out a benchmarking tool for farmers in the district that keeps their data private, but allows them to compare themselves with other water users.
The Ogallala aquifer, also referred to as the High Plains aquifer. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration
Map shows current water district boundary in red, proposed boundary in black. Blue area shows the Ogallala Aquifer. (Courtesy Republican River Water Conservation District)
Attendees at the first Ogallala Aquifer Summit, April 9 and 10, 2018, Garden City, Kansas, were broken into diversified focus groups by the organizers to better hash out issues that affect all eight states that sit above the aquifer. (Journal photo by Jennifer M. Latzke.)
Center pivot sprinklers in the Arikaree River basin to irrigate corn. Each sprinkler is supplied by deep wells drilled into the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer.
Bar graph showing change in recoverable water in storage, 2011 to 2013 (orange) and 2013 to 2015 (green), in million acre-feet by state and in total for the High Plains aquifer. Recoverable water in storage from 2013 to 2015 for the aquifer declined 10.7 million acre-feet, which is about 30 percent of the recoverable water in storage change from 2011 to 2013. This difference is likely related to reduced groundwater pumpage during the 2013 and 2014 irrigation seasons as compared to the 2011 and 2012 irrigation seasons. (Public domain.)
Bar graph showing change in water-in-storage, predevelopment to 2015, by state and in total for the High Plains aquifer. States in region include Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. (Public domain.)
High Plains aquifer water-level changes, predevelopment (about 1950) to 2015. Figure 1 from USGS SIR 2017-5040.(Public domain.)
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.
The hot dry conditions that melted strong snowpack early in 2020 and led to severe drought, low river flows and record setting wildfires across the state could be a harbinger of what is to come in Colorado.
Climate change is likely to drive “chaotic weather” and greater extremes with hotter droughts and bigger snowstorms that will be harder to predict, said Kenneth Williams, environmental remediation and water resources program lead at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, headquartered in California.
“We are looking to be moving toward a future that is really decoupled from the past,” said Williams, who is leading a long-term watershed research project in Crested Butte.
In 2020, the Colorado River system had 100% of average snowpack on April 1 but then thwarted expectations when it didn’t deliver the 90% to 110% of average runoff that water managers could typically predict. The river system only saw 52% of average runoff because water was soaked up by dry soils and evaporated during a dry, warm spring, said Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University.
“It’s not typical, but it could very well be our future,” he said.
The 2020 drought will end at some point, but that appears unlikely this spring with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasting above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation through March, April and May.
Conditions could improve more rapidly on the eastern plains with big spring and summer rain, said Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s state climatologist.
In the larger picture, breaking the drought across the vast Colorado River Basin will likely take a string of winters with much above average snowfall, Schumacher said.
In the long term, conditions across the Southwest are going to become more arid as average temperatures rise, driven by greenhouse gas emissions, Udall said, with lower soil moisture and stream flows among the negative impacts.
The 19-year stretch of only intermittingly interrupted drought from 2000 to 2018 in the Southwest U.S. was exceeded only by a late 1500s megadrought, the journal Science reported in a paper this year…
New reservoirs could play a role in the future, but construction alone cannot resolve the coming water woes.
“Anyone who thinks they can build themselves out of climate change is nuts,” Udall said. “There is a limit to the amount of storage that’s helpful.”
Too much storage can sit empty and if the water is allowed to sit for too long a valuable portion is lost to evaporation, he said.
In the highly variable years of climate-related weather to come, keeping water flowing to homes and farms will take better planning and a much better understanding of the “water towers of the West,” the remote peaks where significant amounts of snow accumulate above 8,000 feet.
Water managers are keen to know not just how much water may flow into rivers and streams, but when, and also what it might contain because as water flows drop water quality is also likely to be more of a concern…
The rapid change has left water managers and researchers in need of better data to understand short-term trends, such as how much runoff to expect this year and longer-term shifts.
Traditionally Colorado and the West have relied on a network of more than 800 snow telemetry sites — SNOTELS, as they are called by the Natural Resources Conservation Service — that automatically collect snowpack, temperature and precipitation. But now more snow is falling at elevations above the SNOTELS and aerial observations are needed to provide an alternative source of data on snowpack utilities and others wouldn’t otherwise know about, Williams said…
So Denver Water is forming a new collaborative to bring utilities, including Colorado Springs Utilities and other water users, such as water conservancy districts that serve farmers and ranchers, together to fund statewide flights, which can be quite expensive, she said.
The formal planning work around what data to collect and funding flights is set to begin in April and already the collaborative has attracted members from across the state, Kaatz said.
The group hopes to start funding the flights in about a year to provide the high quality data to water managers, Kaatz said. Having that data will be a valuable asset in Colorado’s semi-arid climate as it warms, she said.
“Warming is here and now. It’s not the next generation’s challenge.”
The rapid spring runoff is often the star in the water world. But high elevation groundwater is key to feeding streams in the late summer and winter, helping to sustain fish and late season irrigation. It is also an important source for reservoirs, said Rosemary Carroll, a hydrologist with the Desert Research Institute and collaborator on the Department of Energy projects in Crested Butte.
When Carroll started studying groundwater in the upper Gunnison watershed, she expected to find water that had percolated through the soil for two or three years before reaching streams. Instead, she’s found groundwater about a decade old, which has benefits and drawbacks during dry times, she said.
If the watershed is in a shorter drought, the groundwater can act as a buffer supplying old water that fell as snow and rain years ago, she said. But if it is a sustained drought then the absence of water from the system persists through a lack of groundwater, she said.
If the area continues to see hotter drier conditions, it’s likely that groundwater coming to the surface would be older and there will be less groundwater available to support streams, she said.
As Colorado Springs Utilities braces to absorb hundreds of thousands of new residents in the coming decades amid hotter weather, it is looking to conservation, agriculture, and new water supplies from the Colorado and Arkansas rivers to help fill the gap.
Utilities examined 50 future climate scenarios to prepare its latest 50-year plan and settled on a future that will be on average 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer with no change in average precipitation, instead of relying on historical weather trends to make projections, said Kevin Lusk, a water engineer with Utilities…
As new neighborhoods take shape, particularly in Banning Lewis Ranch, Utilities is planning for the city’s population to increase 53% from about 470,000 people to 723,000, the 50-year plan states. As those residents move in, the city’s annual water demands are expected to rise from 95,000 acre feet a year to 136,000 acre feet a year…
For Colorado Springs, reservoirs are already a key piece of a complex water system that brings 80% of the 95,000 acre feet of water the city uses annually into the area.
The largest amount of new water supply, 90,000 to 120,000 acre feet of water, is expected to come from the new or enlarged reservoirs or water storage within the Arkansas River basin, according to the 50-year plan. One of those projects could be a new reservoir or gravel pit complex between Twin Lakes and Pueblo Reservoirs, the plan states.
Utilities may also build additional reservoir space in the Colorado River watershed, and it is working with Aurora on a highly controversial new reservoir in the Holy Cross Wilderness in Eagle County. The U.S. Forest Service is expected to make a decision soon on whether to permit the exploration of the new reservoir’s feasibility…
Through conservation, Utilities expects to save 10,000 to 13,000 acre feet of water annually, said Patrick Wells, general manager with Colorado Springs Utilities Water Resources and Demand Management. The city’s watering restrictions adopted last year that limit outdoor watering to three days a week from May 1 to Oct. 15 are meant to help achieve long-term water savings and more than 550 acre feet of water was saved in the first year, he said.
In the future, water owned by agricultural interests, particularly farmers and ranches in the Lower Arkansas River basin, will also play a key role. But rather than purchase it outright, Utilities is looking to lease 15,000 to 25,000 new acre feet of water annually.
The leases are a move away from purchasing farms and their associated water rights outright and transferring that water to the city, a practice called buy and dry. In the 1970s, farmers sold the water rights that previously served 45,000 acres in Crowley County leaving only 5,000 acres in production, The Gazette reported previously.
Cities bought water outright from agriculture through the early 2000s as the primary means of transfer, said Scott Lorenz, water sharing senior project manager with Colorado Springs Utilities.
Now, the state and city are focused on lease agreements that can serve farmers in dry times, he said. For example, in a dry year a farm may not have enough water to put all the fields in production, the producer can lease some water to the city and earn money through the water instead, Lorenz said.
Compensating farmers for their water and taking land out of production can have consequences, however, because it can disrupt the overall agriculture market when farmers aren’t buying seed or materials or employing laborers, said Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University. The buyers the farms supply may also go elsewhere for products if farms aren’t producing annually, he said.
Utilities’ already has several lease agreements in place, including one in perpetuity with the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association, a group that replaces the water taken from the Arkansas River through wells. As farmers pump from ground wells supplied by the river, the association ensures water flows back into the river so that downstream residents in Kansas receive their full water rights.
The city has agreed to lease water from the association five out of every ten years and pay for its water every year, said Bill Grasmick, association president. The city also paid for a new reservoir that the association is already using.
Colorado lawmakers are considering three major water bills that would help finance wildfire mitigation and forest health projects, study underground water storage for future beneficial use, and create a state enterprise to fund drinking and wastewater projects through fees paid by water utility customers.
Wildfire mitigation and forest health
Last year was Colorado’s worst wildfire season ever. The three largest fires on record burned over 600,000 acres. Water providers fear that spring runoff will clog streams and reservoirs with ash and sediment, damaging clean water supplies.
House Bill 1008 is sponsored by Rep. Jeni Arndt, D-Fort Collins, and Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose. (Editor’s note: Rep. Arndt is a board member of Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News). HB21-1008 (Forest Health Project Financing) aims to help fund local wildfire mitigation and forest health efforts to protect watersheds. It would allow counties, municipalities and special districts to band together and form special improvement districts empowered to levy property taxes to fund wildfire mitigation and forest health projects. It would also make those improvement districts eligible for $50 million from a Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority (CWRPDA) bond program, and expand the program’s life by 10 years to last through 2033.
Arndt said districts would be formed voluntarily and noted that any property tax assessments would require voter approval. “The Colorado way,” she said, “opt in.” Catlin, the bill’s co-sponsor, agreed. “This is an opportunity for communities to take some preemptive steps and, if needed, be able to bond through the state to get help and make the payments to take care of the problem.” Keith McLaughlin, CWRPDA executive director, emphasized that “every $1 in fire mitigation efforts saves between $3 and $6 in fire suppression costs.”
The House Agriculture, Livestock, & Water Committee passed the bill unanimously to the House Finance Committee Feb. 22. It will be heard there on March 4.
Underground water storage
Concern with declining water tables and the volume of water leaving the state in excess of compact requirements led Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron, a rancher and dryland farmer, to introduce HB21-1043 Study Underground Water Storage Maximum Beneficial Use. The bill would require the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to contract with a state university to study ways to maximize beneficial use of water by storing excess surface flows in aquifers for future use. The study would identify aquifers with storage capacity, funds to pay for storage, specific storage projects, and proposed legislation to implement its recommendations. It would be due to the interim Water Resources Review Committee by Aug. 1, 2022.
While acknowledging the value of underground water storage, some House Agriculture, Livestock, & Water Committee members questioned the need for the study since several similar studies had already been done and at least two large water providers—Denver and Greeley—are already storing water underground. There were also concerns about who would have rights to excess surface flows. Rep. Arndt, committee chair, asked, “Who would get those rights…you can’t just capture excess water?” Rep. Holtorf replied that whoever’s next in line when it reenters the river would gain use to the water; nothing changes the prior appropriation doctrine.
Rep. Holtorf concluded, “I’m not going to say it’s not complicated, but at the end of the day we’ve got to do something to get maximum beneficial use of water that we give away and try to keep it in our state for the beneficial use of everyone.” He had the backing of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado Water Congress and Colorado Groundwater Association. The committee passed the bill 9-1 to the House Finance Committee.
Financing water projects
The Colorado Water Plan, adopted in 2015, projects a need to spend an additional $100 million a year for 30 years in state money to fully fund water projects and activities to meet its objectives. Funding to date has come nowhere near that figure, but a bill introduced this session will try to put a dent in it.
SB21-034 (Water Resource Financing Enterprise), sponsored by Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, would create the Water Resources Financing Enterprise made up of both the CWRPDA and CWCB board of directors. The new enterprise would provide grants and loans for drinking water, wastewater treatment, and raw water delivery projects. The enterprise could issue revenue bonds to be repaid from fees assessed on drinking water customers of 25 cents per 1,000 gallons of water delivered each month in excess of the first 4,000 gallons. SB21-034 would generate roughly $37 million annually. If passed, it would go on the November 2022 ballot as a legislatively referred measure for approval by voters statewide.
The bill is similar to legislation Sen. Coram introduced last year. That bill was defeated in committee with assurances that it would be studied in greater detail by the interim Water Resources Review Committee. The pandemic, however, wiped out all interim studies. SB21-034 has been assigned to the Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee and is scheduled to be heard on March 4.
Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the Baca Grande Water & Sanitation District (John Loll) via The Crestone Eagle:
The Baca Grande Water and Sanitation District Board of Directors on February 17, 2021 authorized the District’s Attorney Marcus J. Lock to prepare, but not yet file, litigation against the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for failure to abide by a Water Service Agreement that supplies water to the Baca Grande Subdivision.
Contract negotiations deadlock
Contract negotiations over extending the current Agreement have been on-going for at least 18 months and are now stalemated. USFWS is refusing to abide by procedures stipulated in the Agreement regarding the cost of water purchased from it and would charge a rate almost ten times more than that charged for augmented water purchases in the San Luis Valley, as determined by Dick Wolfe, former State Engineer.
Relief from payment of excessive water prices is critical for the District going forward, as many components in the aging water delivery system are approaching their replacement dates. The current deadlock in negotiations is also inhibiting the District’s efforts to move forward on the purchase of water rights from USFWS. Purchase of water rights is central to the long-term health of the District and would end, as one Director said, “Throwing money down a bottomless well.”
Savings from excessive rates may help stabilize the District’s fiscal posture that has required two recent rate increases. A Lease To Own arrangement may also prove feasible, but is dependent upon being able to reach agreement on a fair rate to be charged.
The District’s Board of Directors also authorized contact with our political representatives to educate them and seek their assistance in resolving these critical issues. Educating our northern valley communities is called for as well, as they have shown in prior water battles that their determination is one of the greatest sources of advocacy available.
The Baca Grande Water and Sanitation District originally leased water rights from a company called Arizona-Colorado Land & Cattle Company back in 1972. This company owned the Luis Baca Grant No. 4 and the water rights that went with it. The purpose of the lease was “to assure the availability of the water supply necessary” for the District’s operations. In 1997, the District entered into a new Water Service Agreement with Cabeza de Vaca Land & Cattle Company, LLC, which was a successor to the previous company and became the new owner of the Baca Ranch and the leased water rights. The purpose of the new Agreement remained the same, to ensure the District had access to a sufficient supply of water to serve the District’s customers.
This 1997 agreement is still in effect, but now the lessor is USFWS as a result of the federal government’s acquisition of what is now the Baca Grande National Wildlife Refuge in 2004. The Water Service Agreement is perpetual in nature unless terminated by the District. However, the District would prefer to purchase the water rights and own them outright rather than continue to make lease payments to USFWS forever.
In the Great Sand Dunes Park and Preserve Act of 2000 Congress authorized the Secretary of the Department of the Interior (which includes USFWS) to sell water rights to the District. This has yet to happen.
Maintaining positive relations with Baca National Wildlife Refuge
It’s important to make a distinction between the local USFWS representatives with whom the District has enjoyed excellent relationships throughout the years. The District very much hopes to continue with the same regard in future endeavors. Rather, the issues seem to occur in regional and national levels.
Opportunities to become involved
Soon the District will be crafting opportunities for community members to become involved in our efforts. Items under consideration include: Campaign Committee? Zoom Public Information Meetings? Postcard Campaign to elected representatives? Forming Alliances with other Local and Valley Groups?
Offer input now
You can offer your suggestions and ideas now by email to: email@example.com.
Houses on the Baca Ranch tend toward environmental principles and eccentric designs. Photo/Allen Best
A Buddhist stupa is located on the Baca Ranch, about two miles from Crestone, with the Sangre de Cristo peaks in the background. Photo/Allen Best
Here’s the release from Unbottle and Protect Chaffee County Water (Jennifer Swacina):
Nestlé, the world’s largest corporate water bottler, agreed to sell its North American bulk bottled water business (including the Arrowhead brand) to private equity firms One Rock Capital and Metropoulous. This $4.3 billion dollar sale is an especially ominous development in light of Wall Street’s accelerating interest in water trading.
The sale announcement raises many questions about what this means for communities currently entangled in legal hearings and permit negotiations with Nestle Waters. Will Nestle remain a part-owner of the company? In Chaffee County, specifically, will new owners follow through on permit commitments that Nestle has previously made – yet failed to complete – such as a conservation land easement? Are the buyers aware that Nestle failed to meet the required quota for hiring Chaffee County truck drivers, and that Nestle’s latest proposal includes investing in a truck driver training program through Colorado Mountain College?
“Nestle has not proven to be a good neighbor, and the only thing worse than Nestle, is Nestle operating undercover,” said Unbottle and Protect Chaffee County Water co-founder, Jennifer Swacina. “Our commissioners can, at their discretion, simply vote to deny this permit extension. They have all the ammunition they need.”
“Nestlé’s motivation is clear: to shed itself of its responsibility for the plastic pollution and environmental degradation its water extraction and bottling has caused and the damage these scandals have done to their brand and bottom line. It is also clear that a private equity firm, freed of Nestlé’s reputational responsibilities, will seek to cut expenses at the cost of the limited promises its predecessor made regarding environmental sustainability and community benefit. We call on elected leaders, regulators, advocacy groups and the media in Canada and the US to ‘follow the money’ and expose this deal to the highest levels of public scrutiny.”
Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a three-part series on the city’s decision on whether to approve the Terry Ranch project. It was originally intended as a two-part series but new information presented after the publication of Part 1 necessitated a third part. Part 1 is available here and Part 3 will publish in Sunday’s Greeley Tribune…
Wood, following the publishing of the first part of this series, connected with the Tribune to share his group’s concerns. Much of what he shared is also found on savegreeleyswater.com, and many of the elements of the group’s fears and allegations had already been discussed with the city’s project manager for the project, and its deputy director of the Water and Sewer Department, Adam Jokerst.
What follows is the second part of Jokerst’s responses from a phone conversation, in question-and-answer format, to the issues raised by Wood, Gauthiere and their cohorts, including some further clarification from Jokerst via email about a question raised by Wood in his conversation with the Tribune.
Save Greeley’s Water: Injection of treated Bellvue water may dissolve precipitated uranium ore bodies, causing uranium levels to spike, causing problems with treatment.
Adam Jokerst: We hauled water from the Bellvue water treatment plant and collected that water at the location where the water would tee off the transmission line between Bellvue and Greeley, so the actual point it’d be directed up to Terry Ranch. We hauled that up, injected it underground, stored it for about 24 hours, then for three to four days, withdrew it, tested the quality and tested to see if there were any reactions between injected water and rock. We saw no evidence there would be adverse reactions somehow leeching or mobilizing contaminants.
Before we did this, we ran a variety of models looking at chemistry and geochemistry, predicting these reactions. This was a confirmation of what we thought would occur. Doing this pilot test again conclusively confirmed there won’t be reactions.
We’ll continue to do additional tests when we do the injection to doubly make sure, but we have no indication there will be adverse reactions.
SGW: Terry Ranch is not an exclusive water right in the underground aquifer. The State Land Board land, which checkerboards the ranch, is vulnerable to others filing water rights. Other entities drawing water could result in significantly less annual capacity in order to comply with groundwater extraction rules.
AJ: We have an exclusive right to the groundwater underlying the surface land owned by the Terry Grazing Association. The Terry Grazing Association lands are checkerboarded with State Land Board land, but part of the purchase agreement is an exclusive lease to the water under the State Land Board land. The water under the State Land Board land has not been decreed. It’s not a decreed water right, but if it were decreed, Greeley would have the exclusive lease on the water.
It’s a big aquifer. There are others that could file for non-tributary decrees of the aquifer in different locations, but our modeling shows that there will not be well interference. That means withdrawals from miles away are not going to affect the yield of our rights. This is common. In the Denver Basin, many different entities pump from the same aquifer; typically, there’s no interference between multiple wells. We localize draw-down, so the well depletes the groundwater around itself, but there isn’t interference between wells owned by different people.
Terry Ranch is also in the area of the thickest area of the aquifer, and it typically becomes less thick and shallower as you move from north to south, so Terry Ranch is where the most productive wells are expected to be.
SGW: The proposed Terry Ranch Pipeline Route is very inefficient from a cost and energy standpoint.
AJ: Terry Ranch will cost more to operate than our existing water treatment plants because of the pumping requirements. We will need to pump the water out of the ground, that’s energy, then the water will flow by gravity down to Greeley, but when we inject water, we’ll have to treat it and pump it. So yes, there are energy inputs required that make this more expensive. The point we’ve made about this being a drought supply is these are costs not that are not incurred every year.
An analogy on the spot: I have a commuter car with great gas mileage, and I have an SUV that costs a little more to drive. I don’t drive the SUV every day, though, and so my bottom-line budget is not significantly impacted by having a less-efficient vehicle. In this way, while Terry Ranch will be expensive, we won’t operate it all the time as we do our surface water. So rate impacts will not be as comparably increased, water rights won’t be increased comparably because we’re bringing on a more expensive treatment system. We fully acknowledge it’s more energy-intensive and more expensive, though.
SGW: The Terry Ranch/Wingfoot/City of Greeley talking points (have) referred to the $125 million from Wingfoot as something that Wingfoot is contributing to the deal. It is not a gift; it is a loan with interest. The city would be better served by financing through the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
AJ: It is not a loan.
It’s a complicated agreement. We negotiated in exchange for these credits that we’d get the assets and $125 million. There are options that give Wingfoot the right to sell us credits, Greeley the right to buy back credits, but it’s not like we’re on the hook for a mortgage. We aren’t making monthly or annual payments to Wingfoot.
SGW: The City of Fort Collins applies their sewage sludge to the land upstream of the Terry Ranch aquifer. Currently, Fort Collins applies 2,344 metric dry tons of sewage sludge per year to the property.
AJ: It is happening. Fort Collins owns the Meadow Springs Ranch located primarily on the west side of I-25, just west of Terry Ranch. And Fort Collins disposes the solids left over from waste water treatment through land application. We looked at the risk of these biosolids infiltrating into the ground and making their way to Terry Ranch.
Groundwater moves extremely slow, that’s why this is classified non-tributary, so our experts create da model flow and simulated it’d take about 1,400 years for any solids on the Meadow Springs Ranch to make it to the Terry Ranch aquifer. That’s the most conservative estimate — conservative as in the shortest amount of time.
Over time, contaminates break down, most do, and we feel the risk is low. As we’ve said, repeatedly, we’re not saying there’s no risk of contamination, but it’s very very low risk. And not any more risk than we currently see with our existing surface water supplies.
Surface water can flush out, but in Boyd Lake or Lake Loveland, there’s continuous input of contaminates. There’s no flushing that out. That’s why we treat it. It’d be nice to have pristine water sources untouched by man, but that doesn’t exist. The water department treats that water so it’s safe and great tasting.
Part three of this conversation will be published tomorrow. The city of Greeley announced Friday evening that City Council would allot extra time to public comment — a full hour — during the March 2 council meeting wherein the endorsement for the purchase finalization will be voted upon.
The meeting, which takes place at 6 p.m. March 2, can be commented on via the city’s Zoom platform at greeleygov.zoom.us./j/98241485414. A link is also being provided to sign up to speak, at signupgenius.com/go/4090D4BACAD2AAB9-march. Sign-ups must be made before 5 p.m. March 2.
Residents who wish to comment will be allowed three minutes each, unless more comments than can fit in an hour are presented, in which case the time will be limited to two minutes each to accommodate as many comments as possible.
Residents may also submit comments prior to the meeting in writing at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to the City Clerk’s Office, 1000 10th St., Greeley, CO, 80631.
FromKUNC (Luke Runyon) via High Plains Public Radio:
The city of Greeley wants to keep growing, and it needs water to do so.
Over the last couple years, city leaders have focused their energy on testing and developing an underground water supply to make that growth possible. The Terry Ranch project, estimated to cost upwards of $318 million to fully build out, would give the city access to an untapped water source — a rarity on the fast-growing, water-tight Front Range.
Unlike the city’s existing water storage, held in reservoirs along the Poudre River northwest of Fort Collins, the Terry Ranch project represents a pivot in how Greeley has developed new water supplies since its inception as the agricultural temperance settlement, the Union Colony, in 1870.
Instead of enlarging one of its existing reservoirs, city leaders are envisioning the massive groundwater basin on the Colorado-Wyoming border, sitting below grazing bison herds, as its way toward future growth, drought resilience and climate change adaptation…
Jokerst stood next to a test well drilled deep into an aquifer that’s held in place by layers of rock below the property. Think of it like an enormous contact lens under the surface, filled to the brim with water. State officials have deemed the aquifer “non-tributary,” meaning it doesn’t drain, or isn’t connected, to a flowing waterway.
The well is delivering treated drinking water from the city’s existing water treatment plant into the aquifer to see what happens to it after spending a few days below the surface. The treated water, the same thing you’d get if you turned on a faucet in Greeley, is trucked into the high elevation grassland by the thousands of gallons. It’s then pumped back out and tested.
As the pump whirred in the background, Jokerst ticked off the factors that he says make this project the smartest way to ensure Greeley can keep growing, without breaking the bank.
“This very well could be the future of Greeley’s water supply,” he said.
City officials have been pitching the Terry Ranch project to residents since making the project public knowledge in June 2020, while at the same time studying its efficacy. Here’s how it would work: Greeley would get the water in the aquifer, and $125 million to cover a portion of infrastructure costs, from a private company, Wingfoot Water Resources. The city would have years to build the pipelines, treatment facility and pump stations needed to draw water out of the aquifer, and put additional water in it.
Water needs aren’t so severe in the city that they’d need to bring it online rapidly, Jokerst said.
The first six miles of pipeline could begin construction in 2022, Jokerst said, while a full project build out could take 15 to 20 years. If dry conditions eat into their existing storage, that timeline could be sped up…
The idea for this new storage project was born out of an old one. The Terry Ranch project came up as an alternative to the city’s proposal to enlarge its Seaman Reservoir on the North Fork of the Poudre River. Expanding dams and flooding riparian habitat — home to at least one threatened species — comes with its own financial and legal problems. And when the aquifer project presented itself as a cheaper alternative capable of storing more water with fewer environmental concerns, Jokerst said the city took it seriously…
Climate change is already raising temperatures across Colorado, and diminishing the snowpack the city relies on. This project is an investment in diversifying how Greeley stores water, as droughts are projected to grow in length and intensity over the next several decades, Jokerst said.
If the Terry Ranch project moves forward and is approved by the city council, Jokerst said Greeley will exit the 15-year federal permitting process to make Seaman Reservoir larger, having spent roughly $19 million on that dam project so far.
Private backer bets on future water needs
The logistical diagram of how water would move from the Poudre River to the aquifer and then from the aquifer to future homes and businesses is complicated. The financial arrangement to make this deal possible is moreso.
By handing over ownership of the water, Wingfoot, which owns the aquifer now, would receive credits, redeemable by developers interested in building within city limits and in need of new water taps.
As part of the deal, Greeley gets a big underground bucket of water and some cash to develop it, while Wingfoot makes their investment back when new water users — like subdivisions, commercial districts and factories — come knocking.
The aquifer under Terry Ranch is estimated to hold 1.2 million acre-feet of water…
In the deal, Wingfoot will receive 12,121 credits, each one equal to one acre-foot.
Right now, developers without ready access to water supplies can pay what’s called “cash in lieu” to Greeley to supply water to new construction. The city’s current cash in lieu rate for one acre-foot is $36,500. When selling the credits, Wingfoot will likely come under that cost to stay competitive with Greeley’s rate, Jokerst said.
While it’s not easy to pin down with certainty the exact value of the water at stake, it’s possible to game out some scenarios. In a highly unlikely hypothetical scenario where Wingfoot sells all 12,121 credits immediately after closing for the slightly discounted price of $36,499, the water credits would be worth $442.4 million…
But the big unknown is how fast Greeley will grow, and how much water it will need…
The Greeley city council is expected to take a final vote on the deal during its March 2 meeting.
Click here to read about Greeley Water’s proposed aquifer storage and recovery project:
Greeley has a long history of investing in its water future. The foresight and diligence of past city leaders and water pioneers ensured Greeley continuously seeks opportunities to plan for, and secure, Greeley’s water needs. Terry Ranch is the next frontier.
Top 6 Things You Should Know
The Terry Ranch project would add 1.2 million acre-feet of water to the city’s vast, existing water portfolio. Terry Ranch is an aquifer storage and recovery project, in which an underground pocket of water has been isolated in the rock for thousands of years. While new to Greeley, aquifer storage and recovery is common in the West. Click here to read the facts about Terry Ranch aquifer storage.
The federal government required the city to look for alternatives to enlarging Milton Seaman Reservoir. Terry Ranch emerged as the most environmentally friendly alternative among hundreds of water storage options. Click here to read the history and background.
A group called Save Greeley’s Water, spearheaded by John Gauthiere and Paul Wood, both former longtime employees of the city water department according to their various internet profiles, has raised what it sees as concerns about the Terry Ranch project.
Their website, http://savegreeleyswater.com, includes dozens of allegations about the city’s plans for the underground aquifer, and a group of a little more than a dozen people participated in a protest Tuesday around City Hall waving signs that read “Don’t Tread on Greeley’s Water,” “Recall City Council” and “Hell No We Won’t Glow! Roy Otto You Have to Go!” among other, similar things.
The Tribune spoke at length with project manager and deputy director for the Water and Sewer Department Adam Jokerst about these concerns, line-by-line, issue-by-issue. Following are the majority of the group’s claims against the city, along with Jokerst’s answers explaining the city’s position in response, as well as some Greeley Tribune-led followup questions. Jokerst’s comments have been lightly edited for space.
Save Greeley’s Water: (Pursuing Terry Ranch) Will make acquisition of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit for enlargement of Milton Seaman Reservoir impossible.
Adam Jokerst: It’s unlikely that we would be able to receive a permit to enlarge Milton Seaman Reservoir, and the unlikelihood became more and more apparent as we progressed through the permitting process. We found a less environmentally damaging, practical alternative through the Terry Ranch project. If Terry Ranch goes through, we would pause or suspend permitting for Milton Seaman — not to say we wouldn’t do it sometime well in the future, but Terry Ranch really meets our needs for the foreseeable future.
Greeley Tribune followup: Is permitting the main reason you consider Terry Ranch a better alternative to enlarging the Milton Seaman reservoir? Or are there other advantages of the Terry Ranch project?
AJ: Permitting, that’s the driving issue. It’s just that we live in reality, and it’s easy to say we should go build Milton Seaman, but we have to get those permits. If we can’t get those permits, it’s nota realistic project. That’s number one.
Some other benefits of Terry Ranch compared to Milton Seaman are affordability. Not only is it cheaper, but we can build it over time, and I can’t stress how important that is, because it means we can keep rates low.
We presented in the past rate increases with Terry Ranch versus Milton Seaman, and our rate impacts would be pretty drastic. Rate increases would be pretty drastic with Milton Seaman. We’d have to build it all at once over a few years compared to a fe decades with Terry Ranch.
There are fewer environmental impacts with Terry Ranch, which means we can build right away. That’s important. The fact that there’s no evaporation, that’s big, too.
But, yes, Milton Seaman is a smart project; that’s why the city pursued it for so many years. We’d love to do that, but we live in reality, and we have to — our charge is to develop water supply and water storage. We must do that in a way that’s realistic and cost-effective.
SGW: (The project) will result in the loss of two valuable conditional water rights totaling 14,892 acre-feet. At the current cash-in-lieu price for water, that would be a los of $506,328,000 for Greeley Citizens.
AJ: Greeley filed for what are called conditional water storage decrees. This is a process through Water Court by which an applicant can file for a water right before they have the storage reservoir in place or built where they plan to store the rights. The reason for that is we recognized building reservoirs takes a long time, so these conditional rights hold our place in line for when the reservoirs are eventually built.
There are two water rights, conditional storage rights associated with Milton Seaman. One is the Milton Seaman enlargement decree, for 10,000 acre-feet. It has a 1980s priority. To give context, 1980s priority is extremely junior — junior meaning it only comes into priority during very wet years, and by coming into priority, it means one is able to actually use the water, divert the water, under that right. The second right is called the Rockwell Ranch right. This was filed on a proposed reservoir on the south fork of the Poudre River in the 1970s, at the time a joint project between Greeley and Fort Collins. That’s a little under 5,000.
That (second) right’s already moved from Rockwell to Milton Seaman, recently. Water Court allows us to move those rights. By moving those rights, it gives water providers some flexibility to refine plans for reservoir projects the state understands takes a long time and analysis to develop. Similar to the Rockwell right, we plan on moving these rights to Terry Ranch or to other water storage reservoirs.
We won’t lose these rights. We’ll move them. That’s a fact.
I think there has been some speculation these rights are far more valuable than they are, and I say that because we want to make clear Greeley is not giving up hundreds of millions of dollars in water rights. They’re so junior — most rights we rely on year-in and year-out are 1860s, 1870s-type priorities. These are 1980s priorities. The value of the right is much less than what has been stated. That valuation is very inflated.
Here’s an example of a comparable situation: The city of Fort Collins in 2013 failed to file diligence on the Halligan Reservoir, and that right was abandoned, for somewhere around 33,000 acre-feet. This was a priority senior to Milton Seaman. The city (of Fort Collins) settled with a law firm, and the final settlement was around $2.5 million. I bring that up to illustrate the absurdity of a $500 million valuation.
These rights being so junior, they may only divert water every four or five years in a very wet year. We found with Milton Seaman, those years they come into priority, Milton Seaman may already be full. So they have some use, but they’re not a value that a senior water right on the Poudre River provides.
SGW: Terry Ranch ground water will forever change the perception that Greeley has excellent drinking water. Water samples have shown various degrees of contaminants such as uranium, arsenic and manganese. These contaminants require special treatment to remove.
AJ: Our studies, our diligence activities, are all listed on our website (greeleygov.com/terryranch). I encourage anybody to review those engineering and scientific documents, which prove conclusively the high-quality, treatable nature of the Terry Ranch water.
For two hours, a cascade of Zoom presenters on the final day of the 39th Annual Southern Rocky Mountain Agricultural Conference and Trade Show explained different aspects of the San Luis Valley water situation.
Thursday’s, Feb. 4, updates included historical data and projected forecasts, but water users on the call also heard about pressing deadlines. The 2015 Ground Water Use Rules fully take effect on March 15. Some well owners, for example, may not realize how new regulations will affect them this spring…
The program manager for Subdistricts 2, 3 and 6, Pacheco has already been absorbing some of Simpson’s duties since he won the Colorado State Senate District 35 seat. She presented his legislative update while he attended committee meetings in Denver. According to Pacheco, draft legislation called the “30 by 30 Resolution to Save Nature” sets a goal of measuring meaningful improvements in conservation across the country before 2030.
Pacheco said she was “not familiar with the legislation, so I can’t answer many questions. But looking over a short summary, it looks like there may be some potential economic opportunities for producers in the Valley who are looking to participate in conservation efforts.”
Pacheco mentioned retiring wells, planting cover crops and conducting soil projects as examples of these efforts, “just to name a few.”
Before moving on to updates for Subdistricts 2, 3 and 6, Pacheco encouraged participants to contact the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council Director Christine Canaly for legislative details — 719-589-1518 or email@example.com.
In April, Subdistricts 2 and 3 will complete the second year of Annual Replacement Plans (ARPs). “So far,” Pacheco said, “we’ve successfully replaced all stream depletions to all river systems as required under our plans.” Pacheco added that Subdistrict 6 is currently in its first year, and “they have successfully replaced all their depletions to date.”
Subdistricts 3 and 6 operate with sustainability requirements defined in the 2015 Ground Water Use Rules. They are currently within 78% of requirements and look sustainable for a while, although continued drought conditions may threaten the 22% cushion.
Pacheco closed by addressing water users in Subdistricts 2, 3 and 6 who received letters from DWR regarding commercial non-exempt well uses. If they want to become a subdistrict member, they need to contact Pacheco immediately. The customary deadline for receiving subdistrict applications is the first of December for the following year. But the DWR letters mailed in January.
The contract deadline for Subdistricts 4 and 5 is Feb. 15. Although they are no longer soliciting new members, they’re looking for wet water sources on San Luis Creek and Saguache Creeks. They are also seeking Well Injury Payments (WIPs or “forbearance”) on Kerber Creek and Crestone Creek. Partial and full-year Annual Replacement Plans are due. Plans covering March 15 to April 30 are due on March 1, and the annual plan starting in May is due April 15.
The same deadlines apply to Subdistrict 1 water users, according to Program Manager Marisa Fricke. Fricke celebrated 2020, the year with the highest enrollment in subdistrict history. Of the 399 well owners who received letters from DWR, 300 are in the Subdistrict 1 response area. Fricke encouraged owners to reply before making conclusions. One letter recipient called DWR for clarification and resolved the issue right away.
DWR District Engineer Cotten recapped water history from 1938 to present while showing forecasts for hotter, dryer conditions this year. Throughout his update, he referred to the dry years of 2002, 2018 and 2020.
As of Feb. 3, the Snow Water Equivalent for the Upper Rio Grande looks promising at 107%. But runoff forecasts are low. None reach 100% of average as of Feb. 1, and the San Antonio River meandering into New Mexico and back into Colorado ranks lowest among forecasts at 58%.
Referring to letters some well owners received, Cotten reiterated new groundwater rules about to take effect. Wells permitted for domestic drinking and sanitation only will be subject to the Rio Grande rules, which means they will have to cover depletions by joining a subdistrict or presenting an augmentation plan. They can contact DWR for more information.
Closing out the water presentations, SLV Water Conservation District Manager Heather Dutton described opposition to the fifth water export proposal from the San Luis Valley. Previous proposals — San Marcos Pipeline, American Water Development Inc. (AWDI), Stockman’s Water and Sustainable Water Resources – failed. The current pitch from Renewable Water Resources (RWR) does not include water court or permit filings to date, although marketing activities continue.
The RWR website (http://renewablewaterresources.com) provides background and objectives about the proposal. Dutton encouraged people to compare the RWR website with protectsanluisvalleywater.com and the Protect San Luis Valley Water Facebook page to compare data points.
The depth (and salinity) of the water has been disputed since geologist Phil Emery hinted at two billion acre-feet stored in the deposits in 1971. He later explained his miscalculation, but the billion-acre-feet notion persists. Meanwhile, all the Valley water has already been allocated. Two ditches carry water from the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the Wet Mountain Valley between May and July, approximately 1,063 acre-feet a year. The rest heads downstream.
Two proposed water management bills filed for the 2021 Colorado General Assembly session could prove to be problematic to water interests. Both bills were discussed Tuesday during the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy Districts board of directors meeting in Sterling.
One bill, originated by State Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron and co-sponsored by Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, calls for an evaluation of ways to implement underground water storage, as called for in the five-year-old Colorado’s Water Plan. Another seeks to clarify the rights of various members of a mutual ditch company, especially when some shares of the company are owned by non-irrigators.
LSPWCD manager Joe Frank told his board he has “some concerns that we’re mixing apples and oranges” with the underground storage bill. Frank said that, although it’s a statewide bill, it still comes down to taking unappropriated water out of the South Platte River Basin and storing it outside the basin.
“You’d have to move the (water) out of the South Platte basin into a designated basin,” Frank said. “Almost any underground storage inside the (South Platte) basin is going to be alluvial to the river.”
That means attempts to store the water underground inside the basin would only result in water being pulled out of the river in times of excess flow and pumped right back into the river’s aquifer, resulting in no actual benefit. Instead, the water would have to be pumped and piped to a designated basin outside the South Platte basin, such as the Ogallala Aquifer, to be pumped out again at a later time.
The other problem, Frank said, is getting the water into the storage basin in the first place. He said designated basins are best recharged by pumping water into a surface reservoir and letting it seep into the aquifer below. Otherwise, high-powered pumps are required for deep injection well storage.
According to Holtorf’s bill, the Colorado Water Conservation Board would contract with “a Colorado institution of higher education” to do the study, but no specific college or university was mentioned in the draft bill.
The second draft that Frank discussed concerns water rights for members of mutual ditch companies. Sometimes called irrigation companies or just ditch companies, these companies are owned by member shareholders who receive water during the irrigation season according to the size of their shareholdings. As the name implies, the shareholders mutually agree on who gets their water when. Irrigators don’t receive their water continuously during the irrigation season, but in large quantities over short periods of time. Over the course of an irrigation season, all shareholders get their share of the water, just not all at the same time.
Problems arise when non-irrigators, such as municipalities or industries, own shares of mutual ditch companies. That ownership occurs through a change-of-use case adjudicated in Colorado Water Court. Those “change cases” can cause confusion in the running of a ditch company because the new users generally want their water continuously during the irrigating season.
There also is contention over what happens to water that a shareholder doesn’t use; at issue is whether the unused water can be used by other shareholders or must be turned back to the river or reservoir from which it came.
At the heart of the matter is a 1975 water case, Jacobucci v. District Court, which should have settled the matter. A key passage in that decision states, “the benefit derived from the ownership of such stock is the right to the exclusive use of the water it represents …” Exclusivity, as understood by most in the legal profession, means “if it’s mine and I don’t use it, you can’t use it either.”
Most ditch companies, however, don’t actually operate that way, but allow the use of unused water as long as it’s put to beneficial use. It is, according to LSPWCD Vice President Gene Manuello, a matter of common sense.
“It’s just common sense that we all work together,” Manuello said during the meeting Tuesday. “That’s why it’s called a mutual ditch company, we work to our mutual benefit. Let’s not change how we run a mutual ditch company.”
The draft legislation seeks to clarify the rights of mutual ditch company shareholders but, according to the discussion at Tuesday’s meeting, it does anything but that.
Frank told the board the bill has “a lot of moving parts,” and seems to have been inspired by recent change cases. He said attempts to figure out exactly what the bill means haven’t been very helpful. Manuello, who sits on a number of water boards and committees, said he was on a conference call about the bill recently and gained no new insight from the meeting…
The draft legislation was submitted by Rep. Jeni Arndt, D-Fort Collins, who chairs the House Agriculture, Livestock and Water Committee, and Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, who is the ranking Republican on that committee.
South Platte River Basin via the Colorado Geological Survey
Arkansas River Basin — Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey
There are two main aquifers supplying water to the area: the valley-fill aquifer and the Glen Canyon Group aquifers. The city’s culinary water comes entirely from the Glen Canyon Group aquifer, particularly its deeper sections. Douglas Kip Solomon, a University of Utah geologist who helped author both recent reports, told KSL.com that “essentially all” the water recharging the aquifer each year is already being withdrawn for use, about 3,600 acre-feet per year between all entities.
In other words, withdrawing more water would require “mining” the aquifer, or taking out more than is going back in. “There just isn’t any unaccounted-for water,” Solomon said, “that was somewhat, I think, previously assumed.”
Why not just use another source, like the valley-fill? Solomon said the water rights from the valley-fill aquifer and the shallow Glen Canyon waters are already claimed and are used primarily for irrigation and agriculture. They are treatable, he said, but not as high-quality as the Glen Canyon Group waters.
“Water from the Glen Canyon Group aquifer, especially the deep aquifer that the city of Moab uses, is outstanding quality water,” Solomon said. “Just the right amount of salt to be really tasty. It’s thousands of years old, it’s free of contamination — it’s just an excellent source of water supply.”
Solomon said the City of Moab will “have to really think about other sources of water” other than drilling wells into the Glen Canyon Group aquifer. “They may have to think about using water from the Colorado River,” he said, but that’s an “expensive proposition.”
[Mike] Duncan wants the city to start carefully measuring how much water it’s using, tracking its future commitments and, if necessary, considering a quota system for future allocations. “The city has plenty of water rights,” he said, “but that’s not the issue anymore. How much real water do we have to use?”
Other potential sources include Mill Creek, surface water supplied from the Glen Canyon Group aquifers, which is currently used agriculturally by the Moab Irrigation Company. There’s also the valley-fill aquifer, but its waters would be expensive to treat, and drawing it down could have environmental impacts. Using Colorado River waters would also be expensive.
Every option has its tradeoffs, Duncan and Solomon agree, but it’s important to start this conversation now.
New Mexico water agencies are urging farmers to think twice about planting crops in what could be a tight water year. The state faces a big water debt to downstream users, and a multi-year drought is taking its toll.
The Office of the State Engineer recommends “that farmers along the Rio Chama and in the Middle Valley that don’t absolutely need to farm this year, do not farm,” according to a staff report that Interstate Stream Commission Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen presented to the Commission earlier this month.
Irrigation supply along the river from Cochiti Dam to Elephant Butte Reservoir is governed by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. The district cut its 2020 irrigation season a month short, because there wasn’t enough water to go around. A shorter season also helped deliver some river water to Elephant Butte as part of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Compact obligations.
In January, the district board voted to delay the start of the 2021 season until April 1, a month later than usual.
This year is on track to be a situation of water shortages and storage restrictions unlike any since the 1950s, said Mike Hamman, the district’s chief engineer and CEO and an Interstate Stream Commissioner. The district also anticipates receiving as little as half the usual allotment of San Juan-Chama water.
“The hydrology really started to shift in the early ’90s,” Hamman said. “We’ve got into this cycle of below-average, average, above-average years, and I’ve noticed that our climatic conditions (limit) the available snowpack. That exacerbates things a little bit more now, where we need to have well-above-average snowpacks to address the poor watershed conditions that may have resulted from a poor summer rain period or fall moisture.”
Regional farmers are advised to prepare for severe water shortages by exercising “extreme caution” in planting crops this spring and by using any available water only for the most essential uses…
The current Rio Grande Compact water debt of about 100,000 acre-feet, or 32 billion gallons, restricts how much the state can store in reservoirs.
By the end of January, the state will have released about 3,200 acre-feet, or about 1 billion gallons, of “debit water” from El Vado and Nichols Reservoir near Santa Fe to Elephant Butte.
Last year’s monsoon season from May to September was the driest on record for New Mexico.
The Rio Grande could go completely dry this summer all the way from Angostura Dam north of Bernalillo through Albuquerque, especially if this year brings another lackluster monsoon season…
‘Last page in our playbook’
The fail-safe options New Mexico relied on last year to stretch the Rio Grande water supply won’t be available this year. This summer on the river may look like what water managers and environmental groups worked to stave off during last year’s hot, dry summer months.
The Middle Rio Grande didn’t look good in July 2020. The MRCGD had just a few days of water supply left.
No water could have meant no irrigation for farmers, but also limited river habitat for endangered species, scarce drinking water supply for local communities, and meager flows for river recreation.
Then came word from the other Rio Grande Compact states of Colorado and Texas: New Mexico had permission to boost river flows by releasing a total of 12 billion gallons from El Vado Reservoir.
“That was the last page in our playbook, or pretty darn close to it,” Schmidt-Petersen told the Journal.
The release kept the Rio Grande from drying completely in the Albuquerque stretch and helped extend the irrigation season for central New Mexico farmers.
Colorado River water diverted via the San Juan-Chama Project also added to the trickling native Rio Grande flows.
Last summer’s massive release from El Vado was water that had been stored as assurance that the state’s Rio Grande Compact debt would be paid.
That water is gone. New Mexico still has to “pay back” the 12 billion gallons, plus any obligations accrued this year.
State Engineer John D’Antonio said the drought is shaping up to be as severe as the conditions the state experienced in the 1950s.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s December 2020 emergency drought declaration could provide some financial relief for communities affected by the record-setting dry conditions.
“There could be appropriated up to $750,000 for each eligible and qualified applicant that the governor may designate from the surplus unappropriated money in the general fund, if there is any,” D’Antonio said.
The state Drought Task Force would determine which organizations or local governments receive the money, which under the emergency declaration could be used for water conservation projects, to offset economic losses caused by the drought, or as a match for federal funding.
New Mexico will endure another double whammy of limited water supply and growing Rio Grande Compact water debt if snowpack levels don’t improve dramatically by early spring.
Statewide snowmelt runoff forecasts published Jan. 1 showed most of New Mexico at less than 80% of normal levels.
Since then, some snowstorms have brought much-needed moisture to the northern half of the state.
But New Mexico needs several months of above-average snow and rain to dig out of a drought before the hot summer months.
Groundwater wells in the lower Rio Grande region of southern New Mexico supply water for municipal and agricultural uses when the river is low.
“That’s not the same in the middle valley for all the farmers there,” Schmidt-Petersen said. “There are limitations on wells that have been in place for long periods of time, so some places can pump and some cannot, and similarly all the way up the Chama.”
Various efforts along the river or tributaries annually remove about 1.2 million tons of salt. But the largest brine-removal system in the basin has been shuttered for two years over earthquake concerns. In December, President Donald Trump’s outgoing administration released a final environmental review on what to do about it.
The chosen course: No action, leaving the fate of the project and of salt removal murky. Now local suppliers say they will be pressing the Biden administration to do the opposite.
“For the last two years the salt has been flowing back into the river,” said Bill Hasencamp, chair of the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Forum, which represents all of the states that draw from the river. “We were very disappointed. There’s no plan to capture [it] going forward.”
Water suppliers have filed comment letters about the “no action” decision and sent letters to former Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. The average annual economic loss from salinity levels in the Colorado River is estimated to be $495 million, Reclamation said in its environmental review.
At issue is the Paradox Valley Unit near the Colorado-Utah border. The project, in operation since 1996, took saline groundwater before it could hit the Colorado and the Dolores River, a tributary, and injected it more than three miles beneath the surface into a well disconnected from the river system. About 95,000 tons of salt were removed each year.
But injecting, like hydraulic fracturing, can cause seismic shifts.
Reclamation shut down Paradox Valley in March 2019 after a magnitude 4.1 earthquake, which the U.S. Geological Survey considers moderate in size. Operations resumed for a six-week test at reduced use in spring 2020, but the well currently isn’t operating.
Technical experts are evaluating next steps and it’s too soon for the agency to propose a new salinity control plan, Reclamation spokeswoman Linda Friar said in an email.
The agency currently doesn’t plan to issue a record of decision, which would finalize the “no action” plan Reclamation selected, she said.
Hasencamp, also manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and others had pushed for that delay in comments filed with Reclamation earlier this month…
In its environmental review, Reclamation considered and rejected building a new injection well, using evaporation ponds for brine to be treated at the surface, and building a discharge facility to evaporate and condense water before sending salt to a landfill.
The “no action” alternative was “in the best interest of public health and safety,” Ed Warner, Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area office manager, said in a news release.
James Eklund, former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said when he served as the state’s representative on salinity control programs, he was “pretty adamant” that the bureau should switch from earthquake-causing deep injection wells to evaporating ponds in order to deal with the saltwater. Eklund is now at Denver-based Eklund Hanlon LLC…
But more than 600 miles south, the loss of Paradox Valley could increase salinity levels at Imperial Dam by 9 to 10 parts per million, which could lead to $23 million in estimated economic losses each year, Harris, from the Colorado River Board of California, said in a December letter to Burman, a Trump appointee no longer in office.
The EPA doesn’t have a drinking water standard for sodium chloride, but it has a voluntary standard of 250 parts per million for chloride, a component of salt. Voluntary standards are generally related more to aesthetic concerns like taste and appearance.
“It’s not huge, but we get essentially a ton of salt in every acre-foot of water,” said Tina Shields, water manager for Imperial Irrigation District, which borders Mexico. “If you don’t continue to implement these upstream salinity control measures by default, it can only go up.”
Nearly all farmers in the Imperial Irrigation District have drains installed beneath the surface to leach salt away from crops, which requires even more water. But that’s not a permanent solution.
Imperial is the last stop for water before it gets into Mexico, where the Colorado River delivers water to 2.3 million people and 500,000 acres of agriculture…
Urban areas will be able to weather the salt problem better than agricultural ones because they have mass treatment to comply with drinking water standards, said Patricia Mulroy, former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and owner of the consulting firm Sustainable Strategies.
Paradox Valley Location Map. Credit: Bureau of Reclamation
The Paradox Valley in western Colorado, a place with uranium mineral deposits. (Photo by Emily Hunnicutt via Flickr: Creative Commons)
Experts hope that with the incoming Biden administration, the federal government will finally regulate a class of chemicals known as PFASs
Many Americans fill up a glass of water from their faucet without worrying whether it might be dangerous. But the crisis of lead-tainted water in Flint, Mich., showed that safe, potable tap water is not a given in this country. Now a study from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit advocacy organization, reveals a widespread problem: the drinking water of a majority of Americans likely contains “forever chemicals.” These compounds may take hundreds, or even thousands, of years to break down in the environment. They can also persist in the human body, potentially causing health problems
A handful of states have set about trying to address these contaminants, which are scientifically known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). But no federal limits have been set on the concentration of the chemicals in water, as they have for other pollutants such as benzene, uranium and arsenic. With a new presidential administration coming into office this week, experts say the federal government finally needs to remedy that oversight. “The PFAS pollution crisis is a public health emergency,” wrote Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs, in a recent public statement.
Of the more than 9,000 known PFAS compounds, 600 are currently used in the U.S. in countless products, including firefighting foam, cookware, cosmetics, carpet treatments and even dental floss. Scientists call PFASs “forever chemicals” because their chemistry keeps them from breaking down under typical environmental conditions. “One of the unique features of PFAS compounds is the carbon-fluorine bond,” explains David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG. “That bond is incredibly strong.” Ultimately this means that if PFASs enter the environment, they build up. These chemicals can linger on geologic time scales, explains Chris Higgins, a civil and environmental engineer at the Colorado School of Mines…
Because of their widespread use, release and disposal over the decades, PFASs show up virtually everywhere: in soil, surface water, the atmosphere, the deep ocean—and even the human body. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web site says that the agency has found PFASs in the blood of nearly everyone it has tested for them, “indicating widespread exposure to these PFAS in the U.S. population.” Scientists have found links between a number of the chemicals and many health concerns—including kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, liver damage, developmental toxicity, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced preeclampsia and hypertension, and immune dysfunction.
Concerned about PFASs’ persistence and potential harm, Andrews and his EWG colleague Olga Naidenko set out to assess Americans’ exposure to the chemicals via their drinking water. PFASs can get into this water in a variety of ways. For example, industrial sites might release the compounds into the water or air. Or they can leach from disposal sites. They can also percolate into groundwater from the firefighting foams used at airports and military bases. Andrews and Naidenko say there is a need for research into drinking-water levels because the federal government does not require testing water for PFASs. This leaves a gap in scientists’ understanding of overall exposure. Andrews and Naidenko focused their analysis on two types of these chemicals—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS)—because those compounds had the most available data. The two researchers pulled that information together from various sources, including state agencies, the federal government and the EWG’s own measurements.
The scientists estimated that more than 200 million people—the majority of Americans—have tap water contaminated with a mixture of PFOA and PFOS at concentrations of one part per trillion (ppt) or higher. Andrews and Naidenko say previous research shows that levels higher than one ppt can increase the risk of conditions such as testicular cancer, delayed mammary gland development, liver tumors, high cholesterol and effects on children’s immune response to vaccinations. “It’s a calculation of what would be a safe exposure level,” Andrews says. Even when the researchers shifted their analysis to a higher level of 10 ppt, they still found some 18 million to 80 million Americans to be exposed. Representatives of the chemical industry have disagreed with such concerns. “We believe there is no scientific basis for maximum contaminant levels lower than 70 ppt,” the American Chemistry Council said in statement to Scientific American…
Technologies to remove PFASs from drinking water exist on both household and municipal levels. Granular activated carbon filters and reverse osmosis are two options, but they are costly and high-maintenance—and the burden falls on taxpayers. “PFASs are produced by companies, for which they receive a profit,” DeWitt says. “And then residents end up paying to clean up the pollution.” On top of that, PFAS that is removed from drinking water may simply end up elsewhere, such as in a landfill or river.
Some states have instituted or proposed limits on PFASs in drinking water, but experts say federal action is needed to tackle such a widespread problem. President Joe Biden’s administration may finally address that need. His campaign’s environmental justice plan specifically called out forever chemicals. And the plan said that the president will “tackle PFAS pollution by designating PFAS as a hazardous substance, setting enforceable limits for PFAS in the Safe Drinking Water Act, prioritizing substitutes through procurement, and accelerating toxicity studies and research on PFAS.” The new administration could carry out all of these goals unilaterally through executive action, without Congress’s cooperation. Some experts appear optimistic about this prospect. “I’m hopeful that the incoming administration will reempower the EPA so that it can actually create regulations to protect public health,” DeWitt says. “That is the agency’s charge—that is its mission.”
For some ranchers in Troublesome Valley, the worst impacts of the wildfire that began near there in October might not arrive until summer — or even summers beyond.
Experts say the greatest danger of sedimentation from the East Troublesome Fire will occur during and after a hard rain, especially of an inch or more. That is when the severe soil damage from the fire will cause sediment to wash into the east fork of Troublesome Creek and into a diversion ditch used to irrigate 10,000 acres of hay.
“It’s a real concern for us,” said Kent Whitmer, one of seven ranch owners who get water from the ditch owned by the East Troublesome Mutual Irrigation Co.
Whitmer said he most fears sediment filling the ditch so badly that it overflows.
“That would be disastrous,” he said.
Agricultural and municipal water users will see broad, lingering effects of the 193,812-acre fire.
The East Troublesome Fire, which had been burning east of Colorado Highway 125, exploded on the afternoon of Oct. 21, driven by 70 mph winds. In all, the fire grew 100,000 acres in 24 hours, eventually becoming the second-largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history. The fire was formally designated as contained Nov. 30, although small plumes of smoke could be seen in the golf course area as recently as Christmas Day. All but about 5,000 acres of the fire burned in Grand County.
Denver Water may offer lessons useful to water managers, who will be dealing with impacts from the East Troublesome Fire for years, perhaps decades. Denver Water has struggled with sediment and debris clogging its two major reservoirs in the foothills southwest of Denver. The fires that caused problems for those reservoirs — Buffalo Creek in 1996 and Hayman in 2002 — fried soils, removing their ability to absorb moisture. Sediment has been washed up to 11 miles into Strontia Springs and Cheesman reservoirs, pushed by water during summer cloudbursts.
Denver Water has spent $28 million in reservoir dredging, facilities repair and landscape-restoration projects. It discovered that debris and sediment can travel downstream to cause problems in critical water infrastructure. At Strontia Springs, Denver Water dredged for sediment as recently as five years ago but may need to do so again this year.
“Dredging is very costly,” Denver Water watershed scientist Christina Burri said during the recent post-fire water impacts webinar. Retrieving sediment and debris can be challenging, and then there’s the issue of what to do with the debris. “Do you pile it? Do you burn it? Where can you take it?” Burri said.
The East Troublesome Fire might produce fewer problems. A fire assessment called burned-area emergency response was conducted by U.S. Forest Service land managers and shows mostly low to moderate soil burn severity, suggesting lesser impacts to water quality.
But water managers still expect significant challenges come spring, when melting snow produces debris and sediment that can clog bridges, culverts and reservoirs.
Assessing the damage
The fire came through in October “so quickly that it didn’t have a chance to do long-term scarring of the soil,” said Jeff Stahla, public information officer for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “However, this is still a sobering assessment because it really lays out the challenge we have going forward.”
Northern Water operates the Colorado-Big Thompson diversion project, which employs Willow Creek, Granby and Shadow Mountain reservoirs as well as Grand Lake to deliver water to more than a million people and 615,000 irrigated acres along the northern Front Range and in northeastern Colorado.
The district estimates the fire burned as much as 94% of the Willow Creek watershed, 90% of the area drained by Stillwater Creek, 29% of the Colorado River drainage above Shadow Mountain Reservoir and 42% of the North Inlet watershed. A more detailed assessment will be needed in the spring after snow has melted, Strahla said.
“It’s not as bad as Hayman, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bad,” Stahla said, referring to the 138,000-acre fire in 2002 that was the largest forest fire in Colorado’s recorded history until last year. In size, Hayman was eclipsed by the three Colorado fires in 2020: East Troublesome, Cameron Peak and Pine Gulch.
In assessing the damages caused by the East Troublesome Fire, resource specialists estimated 5% of the soil suffered high severity, 48% of it moderate severity and 37% of it low severity burns. Within the fire perimeter, 10% of the land was unburned.
The mapping for the 22,668 acres of the East Troublesome Fire within Rocky Mountain National Park has not yet been released.
Soil in severely burned areas has lost its structure, as the fire burned the forest litter and duff, weakening the roots of trees and other material that hold soil together.
Areas of severe damage include the basin drained by the east fork of Troublesome Creek, where the fire was first reported Oct. 14. There, the fire hunkered down, moving slowly but burning most everything. Other notable severe burn areas are near Willow Creek Pass, between Granby and Walden, and a gulch immediately north of Windy Gap Reservoir. Some areas near Grand Lake burned with surprising severity.
Erosion in high or moderate soil burn areas depends on the specific characteristics, such as the slope and soil texture, of each area, according to the burn report.
Watching the water
Impacts to drinking water in Grand County will vary. Well owners generally should have no problems with the debris.
“These folks will want to make sure that wellheads and components are not damaged, to test for coliform bacteria before drinking the water post-fire and to treat it if necessary,” said Katherine Morris, water-quality specialist for Grand County. “If a well is located in an area known to be down-gradient from an area where homes burned, it may be prudent to ensure that your water treatment is adequate.”
At Grand Lake, the town draws water from 80-foot wells.
“We have not seen anything yet,” said Dave Johnson, the water superintendent for Grand Lake. He said he doesn’t expect problems but that the water will continue to be monitored, as it has been.
But Grand Lake’s microhydro plant could have problems. Located on Tonohutu Creek, the small plant constantly generates 5 kilowatts of electricity used in treating the town’s domestic water.
“We can only filter out so much debris before we have to close the intake,” Johnson said.
In that case, the water treatment plant will be operated solely by electricity from Mountain Parks Electric.
Hot Sulphur Springs, which draws water from wells that tap the river aquifer, will be the only town in Grand County with municipal water supplies directly impacted by the fire. Kremmling also can tap the Colorado River, but it does so only in emergencies.
Hot Sulphur Springs Mayor Bob McVay said his town expects challenges when the snow melts this spring, producing ash-laden water and debris. The town already has set out to take precautions, but it’s not yet clear what will be required.
Upgrading of the filters in the town’s water treatment plant, a project that began a year ago, probably will be completed in January, providing duplicate filtering systems. But that might not be enough. Secondary wells in the groundwater along the river remain an option.
In Troublesome Valley, Whitmer hopes to consult the expertise of the Natural Resources Conservation Service about how to mitigate effects of the fire on the irrigation ditch. He also wonders whether beaver dams in the East Fork will trap at least some sediment.
For Northern Water, this was just one of several fires affecting its operations in 2020. It was impacted by fires on both sides of the Continental Divide, including the Cameron Peak Fire, the state’s largest wildfire, which affected the Poudre River and other creeks and drainages.
Stahla said managers attempt to prepare for wildfire and other contingencies, but they did not prepare for such a severe wildfire season.
“If you had come to us with a scenario that there is wildfire burning above Grand Lake, above Estes Park and throughout the Poudre River Basin, we probably would have pushed back, thinking that’s a little too over the top,” he said.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with Swift Communications newspapers. Our water desk is funded in part by the Catena Foundation. This story ran in the Jan. 16 edition of the Summit Daily News and the Jan. 15 edition of Sky-Hi News.
When humans over-exploit underground water supplies, the ground collapses like a huge empty water bottle. It’s called subsidence, and it could affect 1.6 billion people by 2040.
AS CALIFORNIA’S ECONOMY skyrocketed during the 20th century, its land headed in the opposite direction. A booming agricultural industry in the state’s San Joaquin Valley, combined with punishing droughts, led to the over-extraction of water from aquifers. Like huge, empty water bottles, the aquifers crumpled, a phenomenon geologists call subsidence. By 1970, the land had sunk as much as 28 feet in the valley, with less-than-ideal consequences for the humans and infrastructure above the aquifers.
The San Joaquin Valley was geologically primed for collapse, but its plight is not unique. All over the world—from the Netherlands to Indonesia to Mexico City—geology is conspiring with climate change to sink the ground under humanity’s feet. More punishing droughts mean the increased draining of aquifers, and rising seas make sinking land all the more vulnerable to flooding. According to a recent study published in the journal Science, in the next two decades, 1.6 billion people could be affected by subsidence, with potential loses in the trillions of dollars.
“Subsidence has been neglected in a lot of ways because it is slow moving. You don’t recognize it until you start seeing damage,” says Michelle Sneed, a land subsidence specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey and coauthor on the paper. “The land sinking itself is not a problem. But if you’re on the coast, it’s a big problem. If you have infrastructure that crosses long areas, it’s a big problem. If you have deep wells, they’re collapsing because of subsidence. That’s a problem.”
For subsidence to become a problem, you need two things: The right kind of land, and an over-exploited aquifer. Aquifers hold water in between bits of sand, gravel, or clay. When the amount of clay in an aquifer is particularly high, the grains arrange themselves like plates thrown haphazardly in a sink—they’ve basically got random orientations, and the water fills in the spaces between the grains. But if you start extracting water from an aquifer, those spaces collapse and the grains draw closer together. “Those plates rearrange themselves into more like a stack of dinner plates that you put in your cupboard,” says Sneed. “It takes a lot less space, obviously, to stack the plates that way. And so that’s the compaction of the aquifer system that then results in land subsidence at the surface.”
But wouldn’t pumping more water back into the aquifer force the clay plates back to their random, spacey orientations? Unfortunately, no. “It’ll press those grains apart a little bit—you’ll get a little bit of expansion in the aquifer system represented as uplift on the land surface. But it’s a tiny amount,” says Sneed. We’re talking maybe three quarters of an inch of movement. “They’re still stacked like the plates in your cupboard,” she continues.
So at this point you’ve got a double-barreled problem: The land has sunk and it won’t reinflate, and the aquifers won’t hold as much water as they once did, because they’ve compressed. “And that’s an important point,” says Sneed. “As places around the world, including California, are starting to use aquifer systems as managed reservoirs, the compaction of them prior to now has reduced their ability to store water.”
But scientists haven’t modeled global risks of subsidence—until now. To build their model, Sneed and her colleagues scoured the existing literature on land subsidence in 200 locations worldwide. They considered those geological factors (high clay content), as well as topology, as subsidence is more likely to happen on flat land. They factored in population and economic growth, data on water use, and climate variables.
The researchers found that, planet-wide, subsidence could threaten 4.6 million square miles of land in the next two decades. While that’s just 8 percent of Earth’s land, humanity tends to build big cities in coastal areas, which are prone to subsidence. So they estimate that, in the end, 1.6 billion people could be affected. The modeling further found that worldwide, subsidence exposes assets totaling a gross domestic product of $8.19 trillion, or 12 percent of global GDP.
True, gradual subsidence isn’t as destructive as a sudden earthquake or volcanic eruption. “But it will cause these indirect effects or impacts that, in the long term, can produce either damages to structures or infrastructure, or increase floodable areas in these river basins or coastal areas,” says geoscientist Gerardo Herrera-García of the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain, lead author on the paper.
Subsidence is uniquely sensitive to climate change—at least indirectly. On a warmer planet, droughts are longer and more intense. “This is very important,” says Herrera-García. “Because no matter the amount of annual rainfall you have, the most important issue is that you have a prolonged drought period.” Dry reservoirs will lead cities to pump even more water out of their aquifers, and once you collapse the structure of an aquifer by neatly stacking those plates of clay grains, there’s no going back. For the 1.6 billion people potentially affected by subsidence—and that’s just by the year 2040—the consequences could be dire, leading to both water shortages and the flooding of low-lying land…
At the end of the day, subsiding cities are up against unstoppable physical forces. “Geology is geology,” says Sneed. “We can’t do anything about that.”
FromThe Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo) via The Cortez Journal:
Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for CPW, said the Durango Fish Hatchery, along the banks of the Animas River near Main Avenue and 16th Street, receives its water from three natural springs near the Durango High School.
Typically, at this time of year, about 1,000 gallons of water per minute flows into the hatchery. Currently, however, because of a long-term drought that has gripped the region, only 700 gallons of water per minute is flowing…
Winter is the time when the hatchery holds the most fish in anticipation of stocking in spring and summer. Currently, there are about one million fish on site, mostly fingerlings two to three inches in size…
But because there is less water coming into the hatchery, CPW was forced last week to stock an estimated 28,000 mature rainbow trout throughout Southwest Colorado to make room at the hatchery.
For example, CPW went through the ice to stock nearly 5,000 9-inch rainbow trout into Summit Reservoir and another 1,400 or so into Joe Moore Reservoir, both north of Mancos.
In 2021, CPW expects to stock an estimated 100,000 catchable rainbow trout throughout Southwest Colorado…
As a result of the risks posed to the hatchery because of drought conditions, CPW intends to drill a test well to determine if another water source in the area is available.
“The test-drilling will be done this year,” Lewandowski said.
FromThe Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan) via The Colorado Sun:
Under the settlement with the Navajo Nation, Sunnyside Gold Corp. — a subsidiary of Canada’s Kinross Gold — will pay the tribe $10 million
The Navajo Nation’s Department of Justice announced Wednesday it has settled with mining companies to resolve claims stemming from a 2015 spill that resulted in rivers in three western states being fouled with a bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals.
Under the settlement with the Navajo Nation, Sunnyside Gold Corp. — a subsidiary of Canada’s Kinross Gold — will pay the tribe $10 million…
The tribe said the toxic water coursed through 200 miles (322 kilometers) of river on Navajo lands…
The tribe’s claims against the EPA and its contractors remain pending. About 300 individual tribal members also have claims pending as part of a separate lawsuit…
The state of New Mexico also confirmed Wednesday that it has reached a settlement with the mining companies. Under that agreement, $10 million will be paid to New Mexico for environmental response costs and lost tax revenue and $1 million will go to Office of the Natural Resources Trustee for injuries to New Mexico’s natural resources…
The settlement was not an admission of liability or wrongdoing, but Sunnyside agreed to it “as a matter of practicality to eliminate the costs and resources needed to continue to defend against ongoing litigation,” Myers said in an email…
In August, the U.S. government settled a lawsuit brought by the state of Utah for a fraction of what that state was initially seeking in damages.
In that case, the EPA agreed to fund $3 million in Utah clean water projects and spend $220 million of its own money to clean up abandoned mine sites in Colorado and Utah.
After the spill, the EPA designated the Gold King and 47 other mining sites in the area a Superfund cleanup district. The agency still reviewing options for a broader cleanup.
From the Land Desk newsletter (Jonathan Thompson):
Whether the company [Kinross] is at all culpable for the spill is a question the courts have yet to answer. But there is definitely a connection, both hydrological and historical.
Here’s the short(ish) bulleted explanation:
The Gold King Mine workings are on one side of Bonita Peak (in the Cement Creek drainage) and the Sunnyside Mine workings are on the other side of Bonita Peak (in the Eureka Creek drainage). If you look at the two mines in a cross-section of the peak, they sit side-by-side, separated by a lot of rock.
In the early 1900s the owners of the Gold King started drilling the American Tunnel straight into Bonita Peak below the Gold King. The plan was then to link up with the Gold King in order to provide easier access. More than one mile of tunnel was dug, but the link was never completed, prior to the Gold King’s shutdown in the 1920s.
Photographic and other evidence suggests that prior to the construction of the American Tunnel, water drained from the Gold King Mine. However, after the tunnel’s construction the mine was said to be dry, suggesting that the tunnel hijacked the hydrology of the Gold King.
In 1959 Standard Metals continued drilling the American Tunnel through the mountain in order to provide a better access (from the Cement Creek side) to the then-defunct Sunnyside Mine.
After the Sunnyside shut down, the parent company at the time (Echo Bay), reached an agreement with the state to plug the American Tunnel with huge bulkheads to stop or slow acid mine drainage. They placed three bulkheads, one at the edge of the workings of the Sunnyside Mine (1996), one just inside the opening of the American Tunnel (2003), and another in between (2001).
Shortly after the bulkheads were placed, the Gold King ceased being a “dry” mine, and drainage resumed, eventually flowing at more than 250 gallons per minute. After the ceiling of the adit collapsed, water began backing up behind it until it was finally released in one catastrophic swoop in August 2015.
It seems pretty clear that one or more of the bulkheads caused water to back up inside the mountain and enter the Gold King Mine workings, eventually leading to the blowout. At this point, however, no one knows which bulkhead is the culprit, so no one knows whether the water is coming from the Sunnyside mine pool, or whether it is actually coming from the part of the American Tunnel that is still on Gold King property. Until that is determined, the root cause of the Gold King blowout will remain a mystery.
For the longer explanation of the Gold King saga, read my book, River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. And for more maps showing the relationship between the Sunnyside and the Gold King, check out my River of Lost Souls reading guide.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has denied local groups’ request for a public hearing in the case of a marble quarry that violated the Clean Water Act.
In a Dec. 28 letter to Pitkin County and others, Benjamin Wilson, project manager for the Army Corps’ Colorado West Section, said the agency does not intend to conduct a hearing or public meeting.
“We do not believe there would be a valid interest served or that we would receive any substantial new information we would not otherwise obtain through the public notice comment and review process we are currently engaged in,” the letter reads.
In separate comments submitted to the Army Corps, Pitkin and Gunnison counties, the Crystal River Caucus, the Roaring Fork Conservancy and the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) had asked for monitoring, restoration, mitigation and a chance for the public to weigh in about the situation at the Pride of America Mine, which sits above the town of Marble.
“We are definitely not going to accept this,” said John Armstrong, director of CVEPA. “To not even offer to hear what the public has to say in a public hearing is kind of shocking to me.”
In the fall of 2018, mine operator Colorado Stone Quarries (CSQ) diverted a roughly 1,500-foot section of Yule Creek from its natural channel on the west side of Franklin Ridge, a rock outcropping, to the east side of the ridge so that it could build a road. Operators piled the streambed with 97,000 cubic yards of fill material, including marble blocks.
In March, the Army Corps determined that these actions, which were done without the proper permit, violated the Clean Water Act. CSQ is now retroactively applying for that permit, known as a 404 individual permit. Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, a project requires a permit from the Army Corps if it includes the discharge of dredged or fill materials into waters such as rivers, streams and wetlands.
In its permit application, CSQ proposed making the creek relocation permanent by leaving it where it is on the east side of the ridge. The company says this is the most efficient and environmentally sound option, and it results in the closest return to pre-diversion stream conditions.
Wilson said the Army Corps received more than a dozen comments, which have been forwarded to the mining company, along with additional questions from the Army Corps. Wilson said mining company officials must address these comments and propose a plan to mitigate the damage caused by the creek relocation. The deadline for the quarry to respond is Jan. 23, but Wilson said it will probably take the company longer than that to come up with a mitigation plan.
“We are working towards figuring out which alternative is indeed the least environmentally damaging,” Wilson said in an interview with Aspen Journalism. “I think it’s understood that no matter what alternative we choose to go forward with, additional mitigation will be required.”
Pitkin County wants the mining company to restore the riparian habitat, conduct water-quality monitoring at multiple sites in the basin and compensate for any damage by doing restoration projects in other areas. County representatives identified eight projects that could provide compensatory mitigation in the Crystal River basin, including restoration of Filoha Meadows streambanks, Thompson Creek riparian restoration and Crystal River streambank stabilization.
Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop agrees. The conservation organization is also getting involved in the issue, signing on to the comments provided by CVEPA.
“It is a shocking issue,” said Peter Hart, conservation analyst and staff attorney for Wilderness Workshop. “Obviously, the damage is done, but I think that we’d like to see fines for violations imposed and see those funds actually utilized for restoration projects in the Crystal River valley.”
CSQ senior consultant Katie Todt, who is with Lewicki & Associates, said the company is evaluating potential mitigation options, including improvements to the current stream channel within the quarry’s permit area, which should stabilize the creek bank and promote vegetation growth. The company will more fully set out mitigation options in its expected Jan. 22 response to the Army Corps.
Wilson said that even though there won’t be another opportunity for the public to formally provide comments, the Army Corps is still obligated to consider any new information that comes to light.
Assistant Pitkin County Attorney Laura Makar said it was disappointing that the Army Corps decided not to hold a public hearing, especially since this is an atypical, retroactive permit application, submitted after the work needing a permit was already complete. There was significant information that could have been shared in a public hearing, she said.
“It would have been a good opportunity to ensure the record was complete,” Makar said.
This story ran in the Jan. 8 edition of The Aspen Times.
The U.S. Forest Service said it is just weeks away from deciding whether a high-profile request to explore the geological feasibility of a new reservoir site in Colorado’s Eagle County that would capture water flowing from the iconic Holy Cross Wilderness should be granted.
The request comes from Aurora and Colorado Springs, among others, who want to be able to capture more of the water flowing from the wilderness area to meet their own growing needs.
David Boyd, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said a decision is expected “early this year.”
Proponents had hoped for a decision late last summer, but Boyd said the delay wasn’t unusual and was triggered in part by last summer’s Grizzly Creek Fire.
Aurora and Colorado Springs, which own and operate the only reservoir in the area, Homestake I, hope to demonstrate that they can divert more water and build another reservoir to serve Front Range and West Slope interests without damaging the delicate wetlands and streams in the mountain forests there.
But in advance of any request to build an actual reservoir, they have asked the Forest Service for a special use permit to survey the area and to bore several test holes to determine soil conditions and areas best suited to build the proposed Whitney Reservoir.
If a reservoir were to be built, it would also require that the 122,000-acre-plus wilderness area shrink by 500 acres, an action that will require congressional approval.
Significant opposition to the exploratory permit erupted almost as soon as the proposal became public last year. The U.S. Forest Service received more than 500 comments on the proposal last summer. The majority of those were opposed to it, citing the need to protect the wilderness and the need to preserve as much of the region’s water as possible. The Eagle River, a part of the Colorado River system, is fed in large part by the Holy Cross watershed.
Warren Hern, a co-founder of the Defenders of the Holy Cross Wilderness, said the plan would do irrevocable damage to the rare bogs and wildflowers that populate the area.
He also noted that the proposed reservoir site lies along a major fault line.
“We will do everything in our power to stop this,” Hern said.
Greg Baker, a spokesman for Aurora Water, said his agency is well aware of the special relationship thousands of Coloradans have with the Holy Cross and its spectacular wetlands and hiking trails.
Baker declined to comment for this article, saying the agency would wait until the Forest Service issues a decision.
But in a recent interview, Baker said the cities had little choice but to pursue additional water supplies to meet growing demand.
“Water is a rare commodity and it needs to be used very carefully,” Baker said.
He also said any environmental damage that might occur could be successfully mitigated.
“What you do is wetlands rehabilitation, where you develop wetlands in other areas on a two- or three-to-one basis so you’re restoring additional wetlands for those you may lose,” Baker said.
The new proposal comes under a 1998 agreement known as the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding, which allows the reservoir proponents to develop enough water to serve environmental, municipal and industrial interests.
Parties to the 1998 agreement include Aurora, Colorado Springs, the Colorado River District, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority.
Located west of Vail between Minturn and Leadville, the Holy Cross Wilderness Area was the subject of a significant battle in the 1980s when Aurora and Colorado Springs sought to build a second major reservoir there known as Homestake II.
After the case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Homestake II was defeated in 1994.
In exchange, however, the cities were granted permission to develop a smaller amount of water in the future in partnership with Western Slope interests, resulting in the permit request now being considered by the Forest Service.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Vail Associates as a participant in the Whitney Reservoir proposal.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
This map shows the location of test holes Homestake Partners plans to drill as part of its geotechnical investigation into the feasibility of a dam site in the Homestake Creek valley. The Forest Service has received more than 500 comments, most of them in opposition to, the drilling and the overall reservoir project. Credit: USFS via Aspen Journalism
These wetlands in the Homestake Creek valley are near the site of the proposed Whitney Reservoir. The Forest Service is considering whether to issue a permit for drilling and a geotechnical study to test whether the site would support a dam. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism