Late on Friday afternoon, July 16, the consumer protest organization calling itself Unbottle & Protect Chaffee County Water (“UPCCW”), a Colorado non-profit corporation, delivered a notice from the law offices of John Barth, of Hygiene, Colorado to the Chaffe Board of County Commissioners, and Chaffee Planning Director Dan Swallow. Interestingly enough, the notice did not include the county attorney’s office.
In it, the group issued a set of complaints; in their view, Chaffee County has failed to follow the required permitting procedure for issuance of a 1041 permit. The group’s basis for that claim; that the county plans to review a draft of the proposed 1041 permit and conditions at the upcoming July 20 BoCC meeting, but that it hasn’t yet made the document available. It also issued its own set of permit conditions.
The UPCCW group takes the position that since the BoCC hasn’t yet made that draft available, the failure to do this constitutes a violation of the law. Further, it claims that the county violated the law by voting to approve the issuance of a 1041 permit for the project, before considering a draft proposal of the 1041 permit and conditions.
The UPCCW was formed specifically to protest the Nestlé Waters North America/BlueTriton 1041 permit. Its nonprofit membership includes residents of Chaffee County opposed to the renewal of a 1041 permit for Nestlé Waters North America — now BlueTriton Brands.
That permit allows the company to pump spring water from Ruby Mountain Spring, on property Nestlé owns in Chaffee County, transfer it to its pumping station in Johnson Village, then trucking it to its Denver bottling plant.
The notice goes on to state that the county didn’t reopen public comments during the last session (this, after multiple public sessions with the most extensive public comment ever held in the county on a proposal, and formal notification of the process laid out to be followed). The group’s complaint; that by not specifically seeking their input on the language of the 1041 permit conditions as it has been drafted, that this also constitutes a violation of the law.
The document also cites numerous state statutes for what it claims; then makes an assertion that it is their perception that Chair Greg Felt has a conflict of interest that should have prevented him from ruling on this. In fact, in what many will consider an audacious request, it asks that the BoCC’s July 6 decision to approve the permit be rescinded and that Mr. Felt recuse himself from the proceedings.
Felt has addressed the issue of conflict of interest not once, but twice during the proceedings. While the protest groups make reference to his role as the Vice–Chairman of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservation District (UAWCD) it’s stated as a perceived conflict; the mission of the UAWCD is to secure and manage water resources to meet the needs of the Upper Arkansas River Valley.
During their July 6 session, following the 2 to 1 vote on the permit, which ended months of lengthy questions and debate, the BoCC openly discussed the necessary timing to proceed with a new 1041 permit, and the development of what will be complex conditions. They pushed county legal, which was concerned about the tight timeframe, to get a first draft ready for them to review in the public meeting on July 20, which they explained would be the beginning of the permit development public process.
Once, or if, the BoCC finalizes a written resolution containing the conditions of the permit renewal, the issuance of that resolution and written 1041 permit will trigger the statute of limitations for any challenges to the BoCC’s actions under Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 106.
FromThe Douglas County News-Press (Thelma Grimes):
As afternoon rainstorms have continued through spring and early summer, officials of the Centennial Water and Sanitation District, the water provider in Highlands Ranch, warn residents that the community is still under a drought watch designation.
“A drought is not just about precipitation,” said Swithin Dick, water rights administrator for Centennial Water. “Precipitation is one part of the equation, but you also have to look at snowpack, water runoff, demand and water supply.”
Centennial Water monitors the water supply for the community daily. On July 7, Centennial Water’s reservoir storage was 8,048-acre feet, or 47% of 17,200 acre-feet total capacity. Centennial Water’s median storage level for July over the past 10 years has been 8,904 acre-feet, or 52% of the capacity…
“Despite the precipitation we have received over the past month, the storage level in our reservoirs has declined,” Dick said. “This is because community water demand has increased, which is offsetting the water we have been able to capture.”
Dick said water supplies are based on water rights priority in the region. Water rights determine who is able to capture the water for use…
Centennial Water has three stages for measuring drought condition. In April, the Centennial Water Board of Directors approved the lowest stage level, drought watch. The drought watch designation is for residents in Highlands Ranch, Solstice, and portions of northern Douglas County.
If drought conditions get worse, the board can approve two new stages, Drought Stage 1 and Drought Stage 2, which would mean higher fees to further encourage residents to practice water conservation.
For instance, a resident who uses between 101% and 120% of the allotted amount, rates would go from $5.52 per 1,000 gallons to $6.95 under a Stage 1 designation. Under a Stage 2 designation, rates would increase to $8.38.
Recruitment for a large-scale study on the health effects of “forever chemicals” will start in the Fountain Valley this month and its results could help set federal limits on the chemicals in drinking water.
The work is part of the second large-scale study in the country to examine exposure to perfluorinated compounds — a family of manmade chemicals that linger in the body and have earned the nickname “forever chemicals” — and the health risks they pose.
The first large-scale study was done 15 years ago in Ohio and West Virginia and found probable links between the chemicals and conditions including high cholesterol, thyroid disease, kidney and testicular cancers, said epidemiology professor Anne Starling, with the University of Colorado.
This study through the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is set to investigate health effects of the chemicals including impacts to the immune system, kidneys, liver and thyroid. It will also help determine if the chemicals change neurobehavioral outcomes in children trough tests of their attention, memory and learning abilities. The study was expected to begin last fall but it was delayed by the pandemic, Starling said.
Researchers plan to study 7,000 adults and 2,100 children exposed to perfluorinated compounds across seven states, including 1,000 adults and 300 children 4 and older in the Fountain Valley…
The study will also be the first to include people with high levels of a chemical found in firefighting foam in their blood, Starling said.
Firefighting foam from used by the military at Peterson Air Force Base contaminated the aquifer that residents in Widefield, Security and Fountain used for drinking water, studies have determined. After the contamination was found in 2016, drinking water providers for all three communities worked to ensure the water was safe. Since then, the Air Force has paid $41 million for three new water treatment plants to bring the level of chemicals down to nondetectable levels.
Researchers will take one-time blood and urine samples to help determine how the chemicals may have affected residents’ kidneys, liver and sex hormones, among other bodily functions. It will not examine whether the chemicals cause cancer.
The urine samples will likely be more indicative of forever-chemicals residents have recently been exposed to, Starling said…
The tests and residential histories should allow researchers to estimate the cumulative lifetime exposure residents have had to the chemicals, according to a news release.
The work will also examine the neurobehavioral effect of the chemicals in children because some smaller studies have suggested that exposure to the forever chemicals early in life may affect children’s development and response to vaccines, but the connection is not yet well established, she said.
The researchers plan to have children complete puzzles and problem-solving tasks, similar to activities they might do in school, as part of the study, she said…
The neurobehavioral tests will not diagnose problems in individual children, she said.
The upcoming study expects to build on a recent study of 220 residents in the Fountain Valley that found the median level of a chemical specific to firefighting foam in residents was 10 times higher than the national median. Some residents had levels of the chemical that were much higher, said Colorado School of Mines Professor Christopher Higgins, a lead researcher on the study…
Scientists don’t know whether the chemical specific to the foam is more or less dangerous than other forever chemicals, Starling said.
The levels of chemicals in residents seem to be dropping and that may be good if some of the health effects are reversible. But some people may still be experiencing long-term health effects…
Study participants will receive individual test results that could be shared with their doctor. The test results may not indicate a problem, but more and more doctors are becoming aware of the potential health effects of forever-chemical exposure, Starling said.
In the long-term, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Academies of Science could use results from this study to help set enforceable limits on water contamination. No federal maximum limits on forever chemical contamination of drinking water exist, she said.
Recruitment for the study is expected to start later this month and researchers have set up an office in Fountain to meet with residents. Data collection could take 12 to 18 months. The entire study could be completed in 2024, although researchers should have results to share before that, Starling said.
Once again this summer, rain has been hard to come by in this historic farming valley of southern Colorado. The average annual precipitation in the middle of the San Luis Valley hovers around seven inches — about as low as it gets in all of Colorado, according to the state’s climate center.
And yet farming prevails. It is the lifeblood of Alamosa, the town that rose from a once-bustling railroad and today is often passed by travelers en route to more flashy destinations on the Western Slope. Unlike other rural communities that have swapped mining or energy for tourism, the ruling industry here is and always has been agriculture.
“The hospital, the county and city offices and school district, all of those are important,” said Alamosa Mayor Ty Coleman. “But farming and ranching, that’s it. That’s huge.”
Once again this summer, rain has been hard to come by in this historic farming valley of southern Colorado. The average annual precipitation in the middle of the San Luis Valley hovers around seven inches — about as low as it gets in all of Colorado, according to the state’s climate center.
And yet farming prevails. It is the lifeblood of Alamosa, the town that rose from a once-bustling railroad and today is often passed by travelers en route to more flashy destinations on the Western Slope. Unlike other rural communities that have swapped mining or energy for tourism, the ruling industry here is and always has been agriculture.
“The hospital, the county and city offices and school district, all of those are important,” said Alamosa Mayor Ty Coleman. “But farming and ranching, that’s it. That’s huge.”
But by the turn of the 20th century, the Rio Grande was considered over-appropriated. Demand outpaced supply.
“So we’ve always lived in this area where there was this level of stress,” said Heather Dutton, manager of San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and fifth-generation native.
The difference, she said, is this century’s more dire circumstances.
A multi-agency report last year found average annual streamflows to be steadily declining since the 1930s, with drops worsening in the 2000s. Citing climate change, the report warned of that long trusted snowpack in the mountains becoming less dependable.
Where Simpson’s and Dutton’s grandfathers and fathers didn’t have the Rio Grande to count on, they had groundwater. They joined drilling and pumping that ramped up in the ’30s. The shallow and “unconfined” aquifer and deeper “confined” aquifer, both remnants of an ancient lake, represented turning points for farming.
“But it was also a turning point for what my generation is now grappling with,” Dutton said, “where now we have too many wells, we have too much pumping, and we’re taking more out of the aquifer than we’re putting back in.”
The decades saw agreements for taking and giving back — for digging a hole, filling it with water and thus recharging the unconfined aquifer in hopes of making up for Mother Nature.
“By far, that’s where most of the groundwater withdrawals occur in the valley,” Simpson said. “The potatoes are grown and raised above that unconfined aquifer. Most of the intense irrigation is above that unconfined aquifer.”
Simpson manages the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which has tracked the aquifer’s storage since 1976. From the mid-’80s to today, charts show a staggering drop: A change amounting to about 1.3 million acre-feet of water.
The severe drought of 2002 started the steep trend of decline. Since then, there have been year-to-year gains of storage — eight years totaling 746,791 acre-feet. But there have been more years of drops, 10 totaling more than 1.7 million acre-feet. Lows this year are on par with record lows following the 2012 drought, data show.
The hope of Simpson and Dutton is to locally regulate before higher powers enforce harsher demands. The state has called on the valley to bring water back up to pre-2000 levels, or else face possible consequences of widespread shutdowns in 2030…
Farmers are taxing themselves to pump, with that money going to other farmers to pump less. Simpson and Dutton have been encouraging creativity, such as less water-needy crops like hemp and quinoa.
But they fear more drastic measures.
“There is a need to physically take land out of production,” Dutton said. “And it’s not like it’s just one person owns everything and we can just say, ‘Hey, can you cut back your farm by 30%?’ There are hundreds of families that farm and ranch here.
“And this is how they make their living, it’s in their blood, they want to do it, they’re proud of it. So trying to get people to cut back or stop farming altogether, it’s a study in psychology and human behavior. It’s really hard.”
And there are broader ramifications to consider when farms close, Simpson said. The well-being of his hometown is at stake when that happens, he said — Alamosa’s school, hospital and small businesses.
Out past the 100th meridian things get dry damned quick.
The meridian traditionally marks the line where the west begins and agriculture is difficult without irrigation. You can find it easily on a map of Kansas. Just look for Dodge City, in the lower western third of the state. The meridian runs right through town. There’s a marker at the old railway depot, but the line is really a few blocks to the east. An Eagle Scout named Michael Snapp determined the location, with the help of GPS, and in 2007 planted a 600-pound limestone post to mark the spot. It’s on the south side of Highway 50, between avenues L and M.
The Arkansas River also runs through Dodge City. Or at least it used to. It’s been a dry bed now for decades. If you (carefully!) make your way past the wire and barricades at Wright Park you can see what has become of it. The river is nothing but hard-pack sand and tire tracks, from the four-wheelers that tear up and down the old channel. The Arkansas is one of three legally navigable rivers in the state (the other are the Kaw and the Missouri), but you’d have a hard time getting a boat down it now. It’s a legal absurdity that sums up our state’s complicated relationship to water.
I wrote about this in my book, “Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River,” published by the University Press of Kansas. By following the Arkansas River from its headwaters at the Continental Divide above Leadville, Colorado, all the way to the Oklahoma line below Arkansas City, I learned a few things.
The most important lessons came from experts like Rex Buchanan, the former director of the Kansas Geological Survey, who for years has braved January weather to drop steel tapes down sometimes remote wells to physically measure water levels. Because of volunteers like Rex, Kansas has some of the best statistics available, and they go back decades.
I won’t pretend to speak for Rex — he’s articulate and passionate about water, and is among the state’s foremost advocates for water conservation — but I can say that water levels in the High Plains Aquifer have been going steadily down since the 1950s. The explosion of pumping technology after World War II allowed more, and deeper, water to be pumped than ever before, which was a boon to agriculture. The feeling at mid-century was that the Ogallala Aquifer — a shallow aquifer that runs for hundreds of miles below the 100th meridian, from South Dakota down to the Texas panhandle — would provide an inexhaustible supply of water. Not only does the Ogallala irrigate crops, it also provides water for industry and tap water for municipalities like Colby, along Interstate 70 in northwestern Kansas.
The problem is, the aquifer isn’t a uniform depth. Imagine an egg carton, with some deep pockets and other shallow ones, and you have some idea of the Ogallala. Because the aquifer has to be recharged by rainwater — and because things west of Dodge City are, well, arid — some places are in danger of exhausting the water supply quicker than others. Dodge City and Colby are in two of the most critically depleted parts of the aquifer of all, marked by swaths of angry red on most groundwater maps. Colby is in Thomas County, where the Kansas Geological Survey predicts the water will be depleted in less than 25 years.
I had a friend who flew into Denver recently from back east who asked me if all the circles he saw from the window seat of his airliner were some kind of crop circles or navigation aids. No, I said, that’s pivot irrigation — and it’s killing western Kansas.
Drought has hit areas like Dodge City particularly hard in recent years, because the less rain fills, the more water has to be pumped out of the ground to keep the crops growing. Some local water management districts in the state are taking conservation seriously. There are five such districts across the state, governed by local boards. And some of them — particularly toward the Nebraska line — have a chance of achieving sustainability by reducing usage by 20 or 30%. But for places like Dodge City, where demand is high and rain is slow in coming, it would take hundreds of years for the aquifer to recharge, even if all irrigation stopped today. If we drain it, some scientists say, it might take 6,000 years for it to refill naturally.
Right now, the west is experiencing a severe water crisis, with the Colorado River basin experiencing a historic, extended drought. There’s talk of the New Water Wars, with municipalities vying with farms and industries for tap water. At the same time, the heat wave of late June and early July — driven by climate change — broke records in the Pacific Northwest, with Portland hitting a jaw-dropping 116 degrees Fahrenheit.
In Kansas, we’ve so far escaped the worst of the heat wave, and an unusually wet summer has prevented drought. But we are headed into what is traditionally our hottest period, from late July to early August. The record high temperature for the state was recorded July 24, 1936, at Alton, in north central Kansas, at 121 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
While researching my book about the Arkansas River, I was interested in not only the natural landscape, but also the history of how human beings have interacted with the river. What I found was disturbing. Because of irrigation and climate change, much of the river has simply dried up between Garden City and Great Bend. This has resulted in the disappearance of cottonwood trees along the riverbed, the desertification of some areas, the loss of ecosystem, and the destruction of one of the state’s most important natural features. The Arkansas is really two unconnected rivers now, the upper and the lower.
I grew up in southeast Kansas, on the edge of the Ozark Plateau. Like much of the eastern third of the state, it is a wet region, with plenty of rainfall and plenty of creeks and rivers. But out past the 100th meridian — the rainfall curtain — it’s a different and in many ways more fragile world.
One of the things I remember most about my meeting with Buchanan, that committed soul who actually goes out and measures water levels, was a map he showed me of the historic rivers and creeks in western Kansas. The waterways looked like veins in a leaf, spreading across the high plains. Then he showed me a recent map, and many of those waterways were simply gone, erased from the landscape.
That was a few years ago. The situation has just gotten worse since.
To save what is left of the water in western Kansas, we must change our relationship with water. The history of water rights in Kansas has been a troubled one. Since 1945, Kansas has been a “prior appropriation” state, like most western states, which means the right to use is based on “first in time, first in right.” It’s a property right, clear down to the aquifer. This doctrine places an emphasis on legacy water rights and prioritizes recognized “beneficial” uses, which are economic in nature.
Recognizing the hazard posed by water scarcity, Kansas since 1978 has enacted three novel legal strategies to cope with drought and dwindling resources. The first was the ability of the chief engineer — the state’s chief water administrator, at the Kansas Department of Agriculture — to designate some areas as Intensive Groundwater Use Control Areas. The second, in 1991, was to require conservation plans from some water rights applicants. The third, in 2012, gave communities within IGUCAs the authority to voluntarily create, through a public hearing process, a Local Enhanced Management Area with more restrictions. There are currently five LEMAs in the state, with Wichita County (in far western Kansas) being the newest.
But as Caleb Hall pointed out in a 2017 journal article, such efforts are insufficient to combat increased water depletion caused by climate change. Hall is an environmental attorney, a Kansas City native and a University of Kansas School of Law alum.
“IGUCAs allow established, yet still unsustainable, agricultural practices to continue,” Hall writes, “never questioning if water usage is truly beneficial if it is being applied to thirsty corn.”
If the western water rights model does not voluntarily change now, Hall argues, climate change will force it to do so in the future.
The question at the heart of the problem is what is truly beneficial.
Instead of viewing water as a property right to be exploited for personal profit, we must become guardians of that which remains. Twentieth century technology allowed us to use water at a rate far beyond what was sustainable. Climate change has brought the crisis to a head. Nothing is going to bring back the Arkansas River in western Kansas in our lifetimes, but if we start changing our laws now, we just might be able to save what’s left of the Ogallala Aquifer.
FromThe Tri-Lakes Tribune (Benn Farrel) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:
With limited water resources, the Town of Monument looks to encourage water conservation among residents while the area is experiencing high temperatures in its semi-arid climate and increased water demand.
As the town invests $22 million in improvements to the infrastructure of its water system, an increase in water production and additional storage is in the near future. However, to maintain healthy landscapes around the community, the town is encouraging responsible water practices, implementing water restrictions and has offered tips to efficient water use…
Properties within the service of Triview Metropolitan District are also under restrictions from May 1 through Sept. 30 every year…
Properties which use the Woodmoor Water and Sanitation District are restricted from June 1 to Sept. 30…
On May 31, the Town of Monument released an informational video, “Conserving water using rain barrels,” on its YouTube channel, informing residents of their rights to conserve rainwater with rain barrels and how to do it. A few years ago, the State of Colorado legislature passed House Bill 16-1005 which allows single-family residences to collect rainwater in two barrels maximum, each up to 110 gallons, to be used solely for outdoor use and not consumption or indoor use. It also mandates the top of the barrels must be sealed to prevent pests from getting in.
The bill was geared toward helping homeowners offset the use of their irrigation systems for their landscaping.
Residents of the Town of Monument, who use of the town’s water system, are offered a $50 rebate if receipts for the rain barrel purchases are provided and their account with the Monument Water Department is current. The rebate is given in the form of a credit toward the account.
Tips for installing the rain barrels are available on the Town of Monument’s YouTube channel, or by visiting the town’s website, tomgov.org, clicking on the “Community” tab and visiting the Garden & Landscaping page.
The Triview Metropolitan District is presently making a transition from making use of the non-renewable groundwater from the Denver Basin to renewable surface water. Last year, the district acquired 568-acre feet of water rights and purchased another 1,000-acre feet of water storage in April. Triview acquired nearly 850 acres of land to be used for the development of two large reservoirs which are near completion.
Monument is planning to install a new water treatment system in the coming months that will remove radium from one of its wells allowing it to start serving the town again.
The town expects to spend about $1.5 million on the new water treatment system, an associated building and lab space. The work will expand an existing facility at Second Street and Beacon Lite Road, said Tom Tharnish, Monument’s public works director.
Extended exposure to radium, a naturally occurring element and common along the Front Range, can cause cancer and other health problems over time, according to the Environmental Protection Agency…
The problem was discovered in the city’s 9th well about four years ago and no unsafe levels of radium ever reached residents’ taps. Monument’s engineers designed a system that diluted the radium to safe levels, but that proved to be only a temporary fix. The well was shut down late last year while the town worked on a more permanent solution, Tharnish said.
The new filtration system will employ a resin that will filter out the radium at the end of the water treatment process, he said…
The new technology will also come with ongoing maintenance costs. The resin will need to be replaced every year to 18 months and will require between $18,000 to $20,000, Tharnish said…
Monument’s board of trustees approved drilling a 10th well in November to help offset the loss of water from the well that had to be shut off because of radium pollution. The work was expected to cost $624,975. The new well is expected to be in production next week, Tharnish said.
The community is also seeking additional water rights, so that it doesn’t need to rely as heavily on its groundwater, Wilson said.
A Laramie County family said last week statutes and regulations obligate the state engineer to approve its plan to drill eight high-capacity water wells into the troubled High Plains Aquifer, a plan some neighbors strongly oppose.
Members of the Lerwick family made their case for the new wells in a three-day public hearing in Cheyenne that pit neighbor against neighbor. Farmers and ranchers living near the proposed development said it would draw water from the aquifer under their lands, imperiling springs, creeks and wells on which their operations depend.
If the project moves forward, opponents said, they will be left with unsatisfactory legal recourse. But expert witnesses called by the Lerwicks contested those claims, saying that there’s enough water for the development and that they’re not looking to harm their neighbors
The hearing stemmed from a 2019 application by Ty Lerwick, Keith Lerwick and Rod and Jill Lerwick to the State Engineer’s Office for eight permits to drill irrigation wells in the High Plains Aquifer system.
The proceeding’s purpose was to provide information to the Laramie County Control Area Advisory Board and the State Engineer’s Office. The advisory board will make a recommendation to the state engineer, who will then issue a decision on the Lerwick applications…
The various parties presented their cases, and participation was limited to the parties, their representatives and their identified witnesses. Those opposed to the Lerwick wells were identified as contestants, and the Lerwicks as contestees.
The applications would allow the Lerwicks to drill high-capacity wells that protesters say would draw more than 1.5 billion gallons from the ground each year. Several farmers and ranchers testified that they would have to drill new wells at significant cost to replace water sources that could be lost if the proposed wells are approved…
Epler even argued that approval could set a dangerous precedent for Wyoming.
The Lerwicks used their words sparsely throughout the proceeding. Rod Lerwick said his intention is to develop the water for irrigation, not harm his neighbors.
Whose water is it anyhow?
The area in question, which covers two-thirds of eastern Laramie County, is designated as the Laramie County Control Area. Since it was established in 1981, groundwater levels have continued to decline, according to the state engineer’s records. Despite that, in 2015, then-state engineer Pat Tyrell issued an order that created potential for new high-capacity wells to be drilled in the area.
Both the Lerwicks and their opponents contend that the law is on their side.
Evidence shows there is water available for appropriation in the aquifer and that law requires the state engineer to approve development that is of benefit to the public interest, according to the Lerwicks’ lawyer, Laramie attorney Bill Hiser. The state engineer could impose regulations on the Lerwicks’ development designed to protect the public interest, and that his clients would comply, Hiser said.
He also noted that guideposts are in place to ensure development proceeds properly. Not only would people who believe they’ve been injured by the development have an interference claim as a recourse, Hiser said, but the state engineer has the ability to monitor the development as it proceeds. (Hiser said there is “no chance” the Lerwicks would start eight new high capacity wells at one time.)…
Epler, attorney for the contestants, painted a different picture.
The Lerwicks’ permit applications are not legally sufficient, Epler said, pointing to what she saw as errors and omissions. The burden is on the applicants to demonstrate there is water available for appropriation in the source, and the Lerwicks failed to do so, she said.
The contestants’ position, Epler said, is that there is not, in fact, water available for the Lerwicks’ development. Granting the permits would only lead to more high capacity wells, she said, exacerbating the problem…
The rights of established water users needed to be considered, Mark Stewart, a Cheyenne attorney representing Lerwick-opponents at the Gross-Wilkinson Ranch, said. The ability to bring an interference claim, Stewart said, is an insufficient legal remedy.
“That’s too little too late,” Stewart said. “You’ve heard uncontroverted evidence that an injury to groundwater cannot be remedied immediately. It takes time to investigate, to determine the amount of injury, and it takes time to remedy and redress that.”
The development’s relative harm to the community would “far outweigh” the benefit to the Lerwicks, Conner Nicklas, a Cheyenne attorney representing Harding Ranch, Inc., said. Nicklas said his client had already seen water drying up in wells and on the surface, and estimated it would cost $500,000 to resupply water lost because of the Lerwick development…
Probing the ultimate purpose, contestants’ attorneys asked Lerwick about any plans to transfer water rights temporarily — potentially for significant profit — for oilfield use. Lerwick testified that he had not entered into third-party agreements to transfer water rights for fracking and that there was no third-party financing of the application…
Epler asked if there could be a profit incentive to eventually transfer water for fracking, to which Lerwick replied it was “possible, but not likely.”
Rod Lerwick said he has “nothing to hide” when it comes to the family’s plans for groundwater development. The plan for now, he said, is to use the development for irrigation.
When asked how he would feel if he were in the contestants’ situation, Rod Lerwick said he has thought about that, but doesn’t know if he would be among protesters to a permit application…
Two expert witnesses testified for the Lerwicks that there is groundwater available for high-capacity irrigation wells in the Laramie County Conservation Area.
In 2012, the state engineer’s office contracted with AMEC Environment & Infrastructure to conduct a hydrogeologic study largely focused on the conservation area. The modeling depicted current aquifer drawdown compared to pre-development conditions, and also evaluated future groundwater level changes with several modeling scenarios…
Ben Jordan, senior hydrologist at Weston Groundwater Engineering in Laramie, said that the modeling in what’s known as the AMEC Report, as well as hydrographs and monitoring wells, tell him there is water available for appropriation in the district where the proposed wells would be located…
Jordan also said there “are tools in place to make sure harm is minimized,” whether that’s the state engineer putting certain requirements on the permit or the recourse of filing an interference claim…
The contestants responded with their own expert witnesses, who questioned the picture Jordan and Rhodes painted…
Russ Dahlgren, a hydrologist and engineer with Dahlgren Consulting, Inc., testified that he does not believe there is water available for a development like the one proposed by the Lerwicks. The AMEC model, he said, needs to be vetted, reviewed and modified. In an April 2020 letter to the State Engineer’s Office, Dahlgren wrote that the 2015 order that opened up the conservation area to high-capacity drilling should be discontinued and urged a moratorium on new high-capacity wells.
Dahlgren also testified that filing an interference claim takes a significant amount of time and effort. “I think we can do better than that particular standard,” he said.
The application now moves to the Laramie County Control Area Advisory Board, which has yet to set a date to consider the information gathered at the hearing.
Much of the groundwater pumped up from the Denver basin in northern and central El Paso County flows down Monument or Fountain creeks, never to be seen again after it’s been used and treated once.
Colorado Springs Utilities, Monument and six groundwater districts want to see that water returned back to homes and businesses to be reused and to help ease the pressure on groundwater.
The groundwater that’s already flowed through showers, sinks and toilets once could potentially be treated and reused twice, and that could help the diminishing aquifer last longer, said Jenny Bishop, a senior project engineer with the water resources group within Colorado Springs Utilities.
Reusing the water could reduce the amount of fresh groundwater that must be pumped annually, limit the need for new wells, give districts more time to pursue additional water rights and make the most of a finite resource, she said. The deeper groundwater in El Paso County is not replenished by rain or other natural sources.
While Colorado Springs Utilities does not rely on Denver basin groundwater, future water reuse projects identified by an ongoing study involving Monument and the groundwater districts could rely on Utilities infrastructure. In recent years, Utilities has also started to focus more on effective water use across the county.
Utilities “recognizes that long-term water security for the Pikes Peak region depends on the efficient use and reuse of reusable water supplies,” Bishop said.
The Pikes Peak Regional Water Authority Regional Water Reuse Study is going to determine how and where groundwater could be diverted from Monument or Fountain creeks and returned to the water providers. It’s possible the water could be diverted below Colorado Springs and may require new water storage, such as a reservoir or a tank, she said.
Larger projects that could serve multiple water providers, such as Tri-View and Forest Lakes metro districts, are expected to be efficient, Bishop said. The study could also recommend more than one project to recapture water, she said.
Not all of the groundwater that is pumped up from the ground will be available for reuse, because some of it goes into outdoor irrigation, some is used up by thirsty residents, some is lost in the treatment process and some is lost to evaporation in the creeks, among other points of loss. But the water returned to districts could be substantial…
The following water providers are participating the water reuse study although not all of them would benefit from groundwater flowing back to be used again. Some are interested in portions of the project like additional water storage
Woodmoor Water and Sanitation District
Town of Monument
Triview Metropolitan District
Forest Lakes Metropolitan District
Cherokee Metropolitan District
Donala Water and Sanitation District
Security Water District
Colorado Springs Utilities…
The $100,000 study to identify the projects that would allow the most water reuse may be finished by the end of the year. The document is expected to project cost estimates for construction and operation of the projects. The work could include new water storage, such as reservoirs.
Funding, permitting and designing the projects is expected to take a few years as well, Bishop said.
Officials say back-up water supply plan will not affect Wild & Scenic designation
Representatives from the Colorado River Water Conservation District say their efforts to develop a solution to a water shortage on the Crystal River will probably include natural fixes before a dam and reservoir and that the plan should not impact a future Wild & Scenic designation.
Staff from the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District presented some preliminary findings of a study of a back-up water supply plan, known as an augmentation plan, to Pitkin County commissioners [June 22, 2021]. They said their preference is to find and develop natural infrastructure like aquifer recharge or wetlands restoration before proposing a dam and reservoir.
Water could be diverted and stored in an underground aquifer during peak flows and then be allowed to slowly seep back into the river when it’s needed. Restoring wetlands can raise the water table throughout the valley floor, creating a sponge that holds water.
River District staff said they would absolutely not consider storage on the main stem of the Crystal — any potential small reservoir would be on a tributary — and that whatever solutions they come up with shouldn’t affect the long-held goal of some residents to get a federal Wild & Scenic designation to protect the free-flowing nature of the river.
River District Director of Government Relations Zane Kessler said the River District is working with environmental groups like American Rivers to find a solution to the shortage.
“We see a real opportunity to do something cool here and think outside the box,” he said. “I don’t know that natural infrastructure could take care of all of it, but we want to prioritize that first and look at opportunities.”
The River District, along with Rifle-based West Divide Water Conservancy District, undertook the study, paid for by a state grant, to examine a problem that became evident during the summer of 2018: that in dry years there may not be enough water for both irrigators and residential subdivisions.
“2018 was a wake-up call for water users on the Crystal,” Kessler said.
That August, the Ella Ditch, which irrigates land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time ever. That meant that junior water rights holders upstream were supposed to stop taking water so that the Ella Ditch, which has water rights dating to 1902, could receive its full amount. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, those with the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
The Colorado Division of Water Resources did not enforce the call by turning off water to homes, but instead told water users they must work together to create a basin-wide augmentation plan.
Most junior water rights holders have augmentation plans, which allows them to continue using water during a call by replacing it with water from another source, like releasing it from a reservoir. The problem on the Crystal is that several residential subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.
Until water users come up with a permanent solution, DWR has said it may not allow outdoor water use when a senior call is on as a temporary fix. Water managers expect once-rare calls by irrigators to become more frequent as rising temperatures result in less water in streams.
River District staff presented the first step in the study: a demand quantification or putting numbers on the amount of water needed for different uses throughout the year.
Engineers found 90 structures — many of them wells for in-house water use — that take water from the river system and which would need to be included in the augmentation plan. These 90 structures deliver water to 197 homes, 80 service connections in Marble, nearly 23 irrigated acres, Beaver Lake and Orlosky Reservoir in Marble, 16,925 square-feet of commercial space, plus some water for livestock.
In order for these water users to keep taking water during a downstream call by an irrigator, they would have to replace about 113 acre-feet of water in the Crystal River per year. The amount of extra flow that would need to be added to the river is small — just .58 cubic feet per second during July, the peak replacement month.
Some commissioners asked if simply using less water — instead of creating a new supply of water — especially by irrigators on the lower Crystal, could solve the problem.
“I’d love to see an analysis of the conservation opportunities,” said Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury. “What can we do that’s not taking the water out, but preserving it in the stream?”
River District General Manager Andy Mueller acknowledged there may be more “aggressive” irrigators on the Crystal, but that in addition, climate change is decreasing the amount of water available. He said he wants the River District to work more closely with Pitkin County to find conservation opportunities.
“I think those types of opportunities require identifying the potential for them but then developing relationships with the water users,” Mueller said.
Tuesday’s meeting was a chance for board members from both organizations, which have not historically seen eye to eye on water issues, to work together and ask questions. Next steps include public outreach and education, coordinating with water managers and eventually developing a basin-wide augmentation strategy.
“We are going to continue to evaluate alternatives and try to get some additional expertise in the realm of natural infrastructure or aquifer recharge,” Kessler said. “We are going to do our best to make sure that this effort aligns with the Wild & Scenic values that the community supports.”
The Arkansas Valley Conduit promises to bring clean drinking water to more residents of southeast Colorado
n the 1940s, the Arkansas River was dammed south of town to build [John Martin Reservoir], a place locals call the Sapphire on the Plains. The reservoir was tied up in a 40-year battle until Colorado and Kansas came to an agreement, in 2019, to provide an additional water source to help keep the levels high enough for recreation and to support fish.
Forty years may seem like a long time to develop a plan to save fish and improve water levels for a reservoir, but southeastern Colorado is used to long fights when it comes to water…
For nearly a century, leaders in southeastern Colorado have worked on plans to bring clean drinking water to the area through the proposed Arkansas Valley Conduit, but progress on the pipeline project stalled after a major push in the 1960s. Pollution, water transfers and years of worsening drought amid a warming climate continue to build stress for water systems in the area. Adding to that, the area continues to see population decline combined with a struggling economy.
The water needed for the conduit will be sourced from melting snowpack in the Mosquito and Sawatch mountain ranges [ed. and Colorado River Basin]. Under the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project Act, passed in the early 1960s, the water has been allocated for usage in the Lower Arkansas Valley. The water will be stored at Pueblo Reservoir and travel through existing infrastructure to east Pueblo near the airport. From there, the conduit will tie into nearly 230 miles of pipeline to feed water to 40 communities in need.
Renewed plans to build a pipeline to deliver clean drinking water to the Lower Arkansas Valley are bringing hope for many people in southeastern Colorado. But in an area that is inextricably linked to its water, the future can seem unclear…
“Deliver on that promise”
“It was nearly 100 years ago, in the 1930s, that the residents of southeast Colorado recognized that the water quality in the lower valley of the Arkansas River was quite poor,” said Bill Long, president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and a former Bent County commissioner.
Water systems in the district, which includes Pueblo, Crowley, Bent, Prowers, Kiowa and Otero counties, have two main issues affecting drinking water.
The first is that a majority of those systems rely on alluvial groundwater, which can have a high level of dissolved solids. This can include selenium, sulfate, manganese and uranium, which are linked to human health concerns.
Second, the remaining systems in the water district rely on the Dakota-Cheyenne bedrock aquifer that can be affected by naturally occurring radionuclides. Radium and other radionuclides in the underlying geologic rock formation can dissolve into the water table and then be present in drinking water wells, also carrying health risks.
In 1962, residents in southeastern Colorado thought President John F. Kennedy was delivering a solution to their drinking water problem during a ceremony in Pueblo. Congress had passed the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project Act, and Kennedy came to Pueblo to authorize the construction of a pipeline to deliver clean drinking water…
Residents of the 1930s began working on ideas to deliver clean drinking water to southeastern Colorado. By the 1950s, they were selling gold frying pans to raise money to send backers to Washington, D.C., to encourage Congress to pass the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project Act. But it wasn’t until 1962 that the pipeline authorization became a reality.
Fast forward 58 years, and two more politicians came to Pueblo to address a crowd about the same pipeline project. This time, on Oct. 3, 2020, it was at the base of Pueblo Dam. Because of funding shortfalls, the Arkansas Valley Conduit was never built after it was authorized in 1962.
The Colorado communities could not afford to cover 100% of the costs, as initially required, so in 2009, the act was amended to include a 65% federal share and a 35% local cost share. Additionally, in 2020, Congress appropriated $28 million more toward the project, according to the water conservancy district.
That October day, Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner took turns talking about the importance of the project. They told a small crowd that when the pipeline is built, it will provide clean drinking water to 50,000 residents in southeastern Colorado…
The water conservancy district estimates the pipeline project’s cost will range from $546 million to $610 million…
Physical construction of the pipeline won’t start until 2022, according to the water district…
“The solution to pollution Is dilution”
A hand-painted sign with stenciled letters welcomes travelers on Highway 96 into Olney Springs. The highway cuts across four blocks that make up the width of the small town with around 340 residents.
Olney Springs is one of six water systems in Crowley County that plans to have a delivery point, known as a spur, on the Arkansas Valley Conduit. The plans for the pipeline call for two spurs in Pueblo County, three in both Bent and Prowers counties, and one in Kiowa County. Out of the 40 total participants, the remaining 25 are in Otero County…
Located along the Arkansas River about 70 miles east of Pueblo, La Junta is the largest municipality in Otero County. With its population around 7,000 and a Walmart Supercenter, a Holiday Inn Express and Sonic Drive-In, La Junta can feel like a metropolis when compared to Olney Springs.
La Junta is one of two Arkansas Valley Conduit participants, along with Las Animas, that uses reverse osmosis to remove potentially harmful and naturally occurring toxins from the water. Reverse osmosis is a process that uses pressure to push water through a membrane to remove contaminants. According to the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation’s Arkansas Valley Conduit Environmental Impact Statement, reverse osmosis can treat source water to meet standards, but the brine from the process “is an environmental concern, and operation costs are high.”
The other participants use conventional methods to treat water. The environmental impact statement said those methods can be as simple as adding chlorine for disinfection and filtration or adding chemicals to remove suspended solids, but that those treatments “…cannot remove salt or radionuclides from water.”
Tom Seaba, director of water and wastewater for La Junta, said out of a total of 24 water districts in Otero County, 19 were in violation with the state due to elevated levels of radionuclide.
Four of the 19 came into compliance with the state’s drinking water standards after La Junta brought them onto its water system. The remaining 15 are still in violation with the state, according to Seaba.
La Junta spent $18.5 million to build a wastewater treatment plant that came online in 2019 to help meet water standards for its community. But the city’s water treatment came with its own issue: selenium.
After La Junta treats its water using reverse osmosis, the water system is left with a concentrate, which is safe drinking water. However, it’s also left with a waste stream high in selenium. “That wastewater has to go somewhere,” Seaba said. It goes to the city’s new wastewater treatment plant…
According to the environmental impact statement, “La Junta’s wastewater discharge makes up about 1.5% of average annual flow in the Arkansas River.” The study goes on to say that during drought or low-flow events, the wastewater discharge can contribute up to half of the streamflow downstream from the gage.
Seaba is looking to the Arkansas Valley Conduit as a possible answer. “The solution to pollution is dilution,” he said. The water from the pipeline will not have a selenium problem, Seaba explained. By blending water from the conduit with the selenium waste from reverse osmosis, La Junta hopes to reduce costs and stay compliant with Environmental Protection Agency standards to discharge into the river.
The environmental review studied a section of the Arkansas River from where Fountain Creek runs into the river east to the Kansas border. The study found that a section of the river was impaired by selenium…
“I sure don’t drink it”
The EPA sets a maximum contaminant level in drinking water at 5 picocuries per liter of air for combined radium and 30 micrograms per liter for combined uranium. If contaminant levels are above those numbers, the water system is in violation of drinking water regulations, which the state enforces.
According to data provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Patterson Valley Water Company in Otero County, one of the 40 pipeline participants, had the highest result of 31 picocuries per liter for combined radium in 2020. In that same county, Rocky Ford, another pipeline participant, had a high result of 0.2 picocuries per liter for combined radium. According to the state health department, Rocky Ford’s combined radium sample numbers were last recorded in 2013.
Manzanola, also in Otero County and a pipeline participant, topped the list with the highest result of 42 micrograms per liter for combined uranium in 2020. In contrast, 19 other pipeline participants, from across the valley, had results of 0 micrograms per liter for combined uranium, according to the most recent numbers from the state health department.
Levels of the two carcinogens are sporadic throughout the valley. The average of the highest results of all 40 participants in the pipeline for combined radium is roughly 8 picocuries per liter and combined uranium is roughly 5 micrograms per liter. According to Seaba, averaging the members’ highest results might seem unfair to some individual water systems because it brings their numbers up, but what those averages do show is that water in Pueblo Reservoir, which will feed the future conduit, is approximately three times less affected by combined radium and combined uranium than the average of current water used by pipeline participants. In 2020, the highest result of combined radium in the Pueblo Reservoir was 2.52 picocuries per liter, and the highest result of combined uranium was 1.7 micrograms per liter…
“I sure don’t drink it,” said Manny Rodriquez. “I don’t think anybody in town drinks the water.”
Rodriquez, who grew up in and still lives in Rocky Ford, was not sure if the water at his apartment was in violation of the state’s clean drinking water act or not. State data showed at that time his water was not in violation. Colorado is required to notify residents if their water system is in violation of the clean drinking water act…
MaryAnn Nason, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, used an example to show how violations can add up: “If a public water system has two entry points that fail for both combined radium and gross alpha (measures of radionuclides), and they have those same violations for 10 years each quarter, that is going to appear as 160 violations on the website. But really, it is one naturally occurring situation that exists for a relatively long time,” Nason said.
For some residents like Ruby Lucero, 83, it makes little difference to her if her water is in violation with the state or not. She plans to buy her drinking water no matter what the results say about her tap water…
“The struggling farmer”
In the past decade, Otero County has seen a 2.9% drop in population. Residents have a ballpark difference of $38,000 in the median household income compared to the rest of the state, and the county is not alone. All six counties that are part of current plans for the Arkansas Valley Conduit are seeing economic hard times.
Adding to those factors is drought. Years of drought keep hitting the area’s No. 1 industry: agriculture.
The Rocky Ford Ditch’s water rights date back to 1874, making them some of the most senior water rights in the Arkansas River system. In the early 1980s, Aurora was able to buy a majority of those water rights. Over time, Aurora acquired more shares and has converted them to municipal use…
“We still have a heavy lift before us”
Planned off the main trunk of the Arkansas Valley Conduit, a pump station near Wiley will push water along a spur to support Eads in Kiowa County. Water that ends up in Eads will have traveled the longest distance of the pipeline project. The majority of the pipeline will be gravity-fed, but this section will need to be pumped uphill.
The journey is a good representation of Eads’ battle with water. Not only is clean drinking water needed, but the area is also desperate for relief from years of drought exacerbated by climate change…
Long said that Eads is different from a majority of the other participants in the project because it is not located along the Arkansas River…
The domestic water that will be delivered via the conduit is even more important for a town like Eads, said Long. “It’s very difficult to attract new industry when you have a limited supply of very poor water.”
Long believes the conduit will make a huge difference to support communities in the Lower Arkansas River Valley…
Long has been working on the Arkansas Valley Conduit project for nearly 18 years.
“After such a long fight, to finally be where we are feels good, but honestly I can say it doesn’t feel as good as I thought it would. Only because I know we have so much work still to do, and I know how difficult the past 18 years have been,” Long said. “We still have a heavy lift before us.”
A controversial water dispute in Laramie County that got held up last year because of the pandemic will see its day in court June 9-11 in Cheyenne.
17 ranch families are pushing back on a permit application by three members of the Lerwick family to drill eight high-pressure wells north of Cheyenne. These wells would appropriate 1.6 billion gallons of ground water from the Ogallala Aquifer, a water source that’s already gone dry in several other Western states.
Attorney Reba Epler owns a ranch in the area and said this case is crucial for establishing a more modern approach to water management in Wyoming…
The wells would use 4700-acre feet of water or the equivalent used by a town of about 10,000 people. Epler said her dad remembers fishing on some creeks that no longer flow in the area. Most local creeks have gone dry.
“Horse Creek is probably the last flowing creek in Laramie County,” Epler said. “And that creek sustains so much agriculture and so much wildlife, so many birds and fish and it is quite a magnificent creek and it is sustained by the base flow of the groundwater from the Ogallala Aquifer.”
Epler said granting permits on these wells would endanger Horse Creek.
Promoting community-driven wetland conservation with Pagosa Wetland Partners.
The story of Pagosa Wetland Partners (PWP) begins with a verdant, 15-acre stretch of wetlands teeming with birds adjoining the San Juan River in the southwestern Colorado town of Pagosa Springs. Uniquely fed by geothermal hot springs, this wetland is an ecological and cultural treasure. It harbors rare species, provides a key winter refuge and nesting site for birds, and serves as a premier site for nature observation. It is considered a birding hotspot by residents and tourists alike, with more than 180 species identified to date.
However, this downtown wetland area faces diverse threats, some of which include limited protections in local county and town building codes, possible light and noise pollution, and harmful water runoff. The possibility of inadvertent disruption to the unique warm geothermal water inflows is a primary concern that we are collaborating with the town and local developers to ensure doesn’t occur.
PWP began at a November 2019 meeting of the local Weminuche Audubon Society, where local conservationist Bob Lecour alerted the chapter to the possibility of proposed development that would threaten the Riverwalk Conservation Area. In the months to follow, a group of concerned citizens, including future PWP leaders Randy McCormick and Barry Knott, assembled and delivered a presentation to the Pagosa Springs town council on the environmental and tourist value of these unique wetlands. This presentation began the critical step of building awareness within the town government and community about the importance of wetland conservation. The proposed development did not materialize, however. The organization recognized that more extensive and far-reaching work would be required to ensure lasting protection of the wetlands.
PWP has grown in the year since its formation. We have recruited new members and articulated our mission and objectives to conserve, protect, and enhance the wetlands.
Our work has been shaped by three strategies:
Building partnerships wherever possible with local businesses and town government
Educating stakeholders about the value of wetlands
Striving for clear policy successes
From its inception, PWP has positioned itself as a willing collaborator with all stakeholders, including town government, environmental groups, and local developers. We have framed our environmental protection work in terms of promoting responsible development and science-driven conservation. We are very careful to avoid simplistic antagonism towards development. This approach has been key in building fruitful partnerships with developers and town government. Although there have been times when PWP has taken a firm stand against a potentially damaging project, more broadly, our relationships have been congenial and have allowed us to gain support and financial backing for our initiatives.
At the same time, our focus on rigorous science has allowed us to collaborate effectively with diverse conservation organizations, including a wetland water-monitoring partnership with River Watch of Colorado, utilizing Weminuche Audubon as a non-profit recipient for donations, and receiving ongoing guidance from Audubon Rockies staff. These partnerships have built our base of support, expanded our options for financial backing, and allowed us to connect with a diverse cross-section of the community, including many key decision-makers.
Our education initiatives aim to expand community knowledge and engagement with the wetlands, thus creating political pressure to preserve the area. This education initiative, inspired by advice from Abby Burk of Audubon Rockies, started with a series of educational articles in the local newspaper, the Pagosa Sun, in December 2020. These articles aim to educate the community about the unique ecology and beauty of the area as well as its importance as a tourist destination. They include pieces on wetland ecology, profiles of specific wetland species, and coverage of human threats to wetlands. As COVID-19 restrictions have loosened, our education and outreach have expanded, including a successful booth at the recent local Earth Day event and the upcoming launch of our Riverwalk Naturalist Program, which will provide guided nature tours of the wetlands to visitors and residents. Our education efforts have been successful in building community interest in the wetlands and in framing them as a key natural resource in the minds of residents and policymakers.
Our efforts also include the appointment of PWP co-chair, Barry Knott, to the Land Use and Development Code (LUDC) revision steering committee. He is working, along with other committee members, to update and add more significant wetland protection provisions into the revised code, which will be finalized in 2021.
PWP has also collaborated with the town to develop environmentally responsible approaches to proposed initiatives in the wetlands. These collaborations have included providing scientific and citizen input on the proposed placement of night lights along the wetlands pathway and the installation of a wind harp in the wetlands. In both cases, the information provided by PWP resulted in a reassessment of the environmental viability of the projects by the town and their collaborators. These collaborations are the most tangible markers of our growth as an organization. However, they would not be possible without the strong foundation of partnerships and public education that underlie them.
In addition to its value as a community conservation success story, I hope this article will offer a blueprint for other organizations looking to promote conservation in their communities. The three main themes of PWP’s development (building partnerships, educating the public, and pursuing policy protections) are easily transferable to many environmental causes. In addition, many of the organizational strategies we have used, including delegating tasks to match members’ skills, being willing to connect with key decision-makers, and being highly flexible about securing resources and building partnerships, are also useful to a range of start-up conservation organizations. Our work to protect the wetlands continues with the LUDC revision process and the launch of our naturalist program coming in the near future. As our work continues, I hope it provides an inspiration for others to advance their conservation goals. If you want to learn more, you can contact Pagosa Wetland Partners at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You wouldn’t want to put it in your granola, in the words of Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association President John Armstrong, but a heap of waste material left over from a 1900s smelting operation near the banks of the Crystal River in Marble does not appear to pose enough of an environmental hazard to prevent the donation of 55 acres of otherwise stunning, mostly wetlands terrain to a land conservation organization.
But the road to reach this point has been long for the private owner of the now three contiguous parcels across the river that the owner has been trying since 2016 to see donated and permanently preserved in its natural state. In that time, concerns about potential liabilities associated with the slag pile have held up the initiative.
But support from CVEPA, which agreed to put $1,000 toward an analysis of the material, plus a discussion with the Pitkin County Health Rivers and Streams board about a grant, gave momentum to the effort last year. This spring, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) completed its analysis of the site and determined that contaminant levels in the material are within the range considered to be non-threatening to human health for a day-use recreation site.
In the end, the analysis work was completed pro bono, and proponents hope that funds pledged can be used for materials to fence off the slag heap and put up some interpretive signage explaining the history of the smelter and the slag left behind. This would complement an eventual management framework in which a land-conservation agency holds title to the property and allows passive, non-motorized public access along an existing route following the river.
That would adhere to long-held use patterns on the land, where private owners have allowed the public to hike, bike or Nordic ski. The biodiverse area straddling the river and the wooded hillside, referred to by Marble history museum curator Alex Menard as the Trail With No Name, has been the site of nature walks hosted by the Roaring Fork Conservancy to observe the beaver dams dotting the wetlands. A portion of it near the slag heap is also marked by giant slabs of marble — probably left over from a railroad that used to run through the site to a marble quarry on Treasure Mountain — that a previous owner artistically stacked just off the trail. The trail itself leads to scenic waterfalls on Yule Creek, although the falls are just over the property line on an adjacent parcel controlled by a separate owner.
“This is really a wildlife refuge,” said Menard, who was instrumental in bringing the project to the attention of the CVEPA. “It’s a place where you can see an eagle taking a trout out of water with its talons, then half a mile farther up, there is a moose; walk a little more, there’s a bear, a blue heron. It’s a wild place.”
As noted by Armstrong, it could also be a desirable spot for a “McMansion,” if not for the benevolence of the private donor — an out-of-state woman who also donated the land in town that is becoming Marble Children’s Park. That land is now owned by Aspen Valley Land Trust, which is working with the town and obtaining additional grant funding to spruce up the site.
AVLT is critical to the conservation effort on the wetlands parcel, as well. AVLT staff is completing survey and title work on the property and will soon be proposing action to the land trust’s board. However, the exact shape of that action is still to be determined, according to AVLT director Suzanne Stephens.
“(We) have talked with our lands committee about potentially accepting fee ownership, but we are also investigating potential partnerships and other options for the property, so it’s not a foregone conclusion that we’ll end up with it,” Stephens wrote in an email. “However, we are committed to seeing it protected one way or another.”
Potential partners include Colorado Parks and Wildlife, CVEPA, Pitkin County and other entities, Stephens said.
The site is “unquestionably one of the most important wetlands and riparian parcels in the valley,” Stephens said.
“The fact that it adjoins Beaver Lake and almost the entirety of its acreage is wetland and river make it extremely important from a land and water conservation perspective,” she wrote, referring to the body of water located on a CPW-owned parcel to the north. “The habitat is crucial and threatened across the west, and combined with the proximity to the town of Marble and the fact that the smelter site has historic significance and the parcel offers flat, easy access and a lovely walk make it a rare gem that deserves to be conserved for a multitude of reasons.”
‘Like a glass blob’
In the early days of industrialization and European settlement in the Crystal River Valley, a smelting and ore-crushing operation known as the Hoffman Smelter was erected on the site, according to Menard’s historical accounting. The site processed silver, lead, zinc and copper ore hauled by mule train from mines around Marble from roughly 1898 until 1911.
The smelter is long gone, but its shadow still hangs over the site. According to Armstrong, initial donation efforts in 2016 and 2017 ran aground on concerns about the slag heap, although proponents have long held that such concerns would ultimately be inconsequential.
The heap in question — perhaps 50 feet long and 10 feet high and located near the edge of the trail — “looks like something volcanic,” Armstrong said.
The mostly solid mound is, however, shedding pieces the size of small rocks. But there is not a strong presence of dust or other material that could wash away in a rainstorm or become airborne in dry conditions. CVEPA’s hope has been that any toxic material is inert, locked up in the rock.
“I have a strong feeling that it shouldn’t be something that should preclude something from acquisition,” Armstrong said in December, when CVEPA was awaiting the results of a materials analysis involving a private lab and CDPHE.
CDPHE — which was reviewing the site following a grant process where projects are submitted that present a public benefit — has substantially completed its analysis, and its findings line up with Armstrong’s characterization.
“Nothing is alarming,” said Mark Rudolph, an environmental protection analyst and brownfield site coordinator with CDPHE. He referred to the slag material as “like a glass blob.”
Rudolph noted that vegetation around the slag pile is healthy and that water quality in the Crystal River, about 50 yards from the material, meets the highest standards. Lead concentrations in the material fall in the range deemed acceptable for recreation sites, he said, and most of it appears locked up in the rocklike formation.
A final report from CDPHE is pending and will include recommendations on how to manage the site for public use. Those recommendations are likely to include clearing from the road any particles that have come off the slag heap. The road was recently built using a historic easement that allows access to a neighboring property owner, who is developing a home. Other strategies could include reseeding areas around the heap and using crushed marble or some other material to cover the slag particles that are visible on the shoulder of the road.
“It’s going to be a great addition to the town if we can get it all the way through,” Menard said of the conservation effort.
For Armstong and CVEPA, there is further work to be done to ensure public access to the falls, which are about 1.5 miles in from the beginning of the walk through the wetlands. The falls are on the property owned by the man who recently built the road. He could not be reached for comment.
“The owner of the private property seems amenable to allowing access, as he has placed ‘no trespassing’ signs farther up the road beyond the access to the falls,” the CVEPA wrote in a winter 2020 newsletter article about the Marble wetlands donation initiative.
This story ran in the May 29 edition of The Aspen Times.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) have released the initial results of exposure assessments conducted in communities near current or former military bases known to have had per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their drinking water.
Individuals who participated in the assessments provided blood and urine samples to CDC and ATSDR for analysis. The assessment focused on El Paso County near Peterson Air Force Base, in the Fountain Valley and Security-Widefield areas.
The assessments measured the levels of three specific PFAS chemicals in 346 residents’ bodies: PFOS, PFHxS, and PFOA, and found levels higher than in the general U.S. population, as measured by National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS and have PFAS in their blood…
While levels of PFOA and PFOS chemicals were only slightly higher than the general population, levels of PFHxS in El Paso County residents were higher than any other population surveyed, except the people who manufactured the chemicals in Alabama. “What we’ve been fighting for, for five years, is identifying how contaminated we are from the toxic firefighting foam, the PFHxS,” said Rosenbaum. “We are highly contaminated in El Paso County.”
The most recent results from the CDC and ATSDR were presented alongside results from the 2018 and 2019 PFAS Aware study conducted by the Colorado School of Public Health, and showed a slight decrease in PFAS levels overall. “[PFAS Aware] did a 200 person blood study and then a final 50,” said Rosenbaum. “I was in the 200 and the final 50, and my levels dropped from 19 [micrograms per liter, μg/L] to 12 [μg/L]. You can see just how high we are from 2019, and it’s dropping a little by 2020, because as we’re not drinking this water, it’s not bio-accumulating in our system. What’s been in our system is slowly filtering out as we go to the bathroom.”
Jessica Woelfel’s family is weighing whether or not they can continue living in their home of six years in Midway, south of Fountain, as affordable water options dry up.
“It’s forcing us out of our home,” said Woelfel. “We’re going to have to move and we own this place. We’re kind of down to the last resort here.”
Because her family doesn’t live in Fountain City limits, they can’t receive Fountain City water. Because they don’t live in Pueblo, they can’t get a key for access to Pueblo water. The family says Wigwam utilities quoted them $50,000 for a new water tap and pipes to their home. Unable to afford that hefty bill, her household pays Koury Transport to truck in water from the Pueblo area at a rate of $85 per 1,000 gallons…
Owner of Koury Transport, Grant Koury, says he does everything he can to keep costs low. But the business model factors in upfront water costs, rising fuel prices, heavy equipment, insurance, delivery, and labor fees.
Koury told 13 Investigates the company services 20 to 40 Midway-area homes twice a week. Each roundtrip takes about five hours. Koury says his business also faces limited water supply coupled with increasing demand…
Meanwhile, the Fountain Utilities Department is evaluating how it can accommodate thousands of new taps amid rapid development plans…
The city of Fountain currently provides water to 8,700 taps. A recent study revealed a way to improve the water delivery system. City leaders are implementing a plan that would increase the number of available water taps in Fountain by 1,000 to 1,200…
The Fountain Utilities Department calculated the demand for new water taps across all proposed development projects. It’s more than three times the current supply.
One farmer claimed to have learned more in one day of master irrigator training than he had in five years of farming on his own.
For another, the light bulb came on when he realized by making one simple change he could save $10,000 a year.
Colorado Master Irrigator program manager Brandi Baquera was thrilled to share those glowing endorsements during a panel presentation at the virtual Ogallala Aquifer Summit in late March. She always believed the program’s “one-stop shop” format was exactly what the region’s irrigated farmers needed.
The first class of the master irrigator program, which was held a little over a year ago, offered 32 hours of instruction to 25 producers who collectively farm 20,000 acres across multiple counties in the Republican River Basin…
While program participation is currently limited to the Republican Basin, Baquera is eager to see the concept spread and get adopted by other advisory teams and coordinators across the state…
How to conserve water, without putting farmers out of business or harming the local economy, has always made it difficult to translate talk into action.
“Conservation has been a conversation out here for so long,” Baquera said. “It’s not for lack of trying, it’s just finding the right formula. It’s about connecting all the dots.”
Farmers taking the training don’t just sit through a class on theory; they learn about water use efficiency practices and technologies immediately applicable to their farms.
The curriculum is developed by an advisory committee consisting of local experts, with emphasis on the unique features of the basin. Participants are awarded a $2,000 stipend, along with a package of additional incentives that include free energy audits, discounts from local businesses and service providers, and prioritization for cost-share grants through the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Most importantly, it emphasizes peer-to-peer interaction, discussion and learning…
The point of the program is that using less groundwater doesn’t necessarily mean lower yields or lower profits, it’s more a matter of understanding the tools available and knowing how to use them, she said.
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 email@example.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.