The scope of federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act remains perplexing, particularly now that Colorado is the only state in the nation where the Navigable Water Protection Rule did not take effect June 22, 2020. In the context of a lengthy “stakeholder” process, on November 20, 2020, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) issued a White Paper addressing its regulatory options in light of the new federal WOTUS rule. Construction companies, developers, and other businesses seeking to permit activities around wetlands, ephemeral waters, and intermittent streams in Colorado would benefit from reviewing this comprehensive discussion of the multitude of dilemmas Colorado and others states face in light of the new rule.
The state’s White Paper includes background on these topics –
Federal permitting including Section 402 and 404 permits.
State waters and the state’s regulation of discharges to state waters.
The Supreme Court’s Rapanos decision and subsequent guidance.
The 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule.
Litigation of the 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule.
And perhaps most importantly –
Potential impacts of the 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule if it were to go into effect in Colorado.
Of most significance in terms of the impacts to state regulatory programs, the White Paper states:
The rule includes several definitions that further limit how the EPA and the Corps will define WOTUS in contrast to the existing regulatory framework. First, it restricts the definition of protected “adjacent wetlands” to those that “abut” or have a direct hydrological surface connection to another jurisdictional water “in a typical year.” 33 C.F.R. § 328.3(c)(1); 40 C.F.R. § 120.3(3)(i). Wetlands are not considered adjacent if they are physically separated from jurisdictional waters by an artificial structure and do not have a direct hydrologic surface connection. The 2020 Rule also limits protections for tributaries to those that contribute perennial or uncertain levels of “intermittent” flow to traditional navigable waters in a “typical year,” a term whose definition leads to additional uncertainty. 33 C.F.R. § 328.3(c)(12); 40 C.F.R. § 120.2(3)(xii); 33 C.F.R. § 328.3(c)(13); 40 C.F.R. § 120.2(3)(xiii).
Collectively, these new definitions in the 2020 Rule will reduce the scope of waters subject to federal jurisdiction in Colorado far below that of the 2008 Guidance. The state waters that would no longer be considered “waters of the United States” under the 2020 Rule have been referred to as “gap waters” and are further described in Section II below. Historically, not all of Colorado’s state waters have been considered WOTUS. However, the [CDPHE] has maintained that the number of state waters considered WOTUS under the 2008 Guidance is far more than would be considered WOTUS under the 2020 Rule. [Emphasis added.]
Here’s the releaseThe Colorado School of Mines (Emilie Rusch):
Published today in Environmental Science and Technology, the research was led by Mines’ Chris Higgins and Juliane Brown
If state and federal regulators focus only on the safety of drinking water, the public could still be exposed to concerning levels of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) via the vegetables on their dinner plate if those vegetables are grown with PFAS-impacted water, according to a new study from researchers at Colorado School of Mines and engineering firm Geosyntec.
Published today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the study is the first of its kind to examine PFAS in water that is used to grow crops. Researchers compiled available data on how much individual PFASs are taken into vegetable crops irrigated with contaminated water – in this case lettuce – to estimate the daily dietary exposure intake through vegetables of these so-called “forever chemicals” for both adults and children.
“While there has been an emphasis on identifying and cleaning up drinking water impacted by PFASs, much less attention has been given to assessing risks from consuming produce irrigated with PFAS-contaminated water,” said Juliane Brown, an environmental engineering PhD candidate at Mines who led the research. “This study brings much needed attention to this issue and highlights the potential risks associated with this critical exposure pathway.”
PFASs are a large and diverse group of synthetic chemicals used in many commercial and household products, including Class B fire-fighting foams, nonstick-coated cooking pan production, food contact materials, waterproof textiles and many others. An emerging body of evidence shows PFAS exposure can cause cancer and developmental, endocrine, renal and metabolic problems.
Globally, PFAS contamination of irrigation water and soils in agricultural areas has arisen from a variety of sources, including the use of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) on military bases and airfields, the application of treated sewage sludge as agricultural fertilizer and releases from nearby industrial facilities.
But currently, many state and federal agencies are primarily focused on drinking water exposure, missing a potentially importance exposure pathway via irrigation water, said Christopher Higgins, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Mines and senior author of the study.
“Even when drinking water has been treated and is considered safe, there is a potential for exposure from vegetables irrigated with contaminated water or grown in contaminated soil,” Higgins said. “This study shows that regulations that solely target perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in drinking water are inadequate to protect human health risks from PFASs.”
By using statistical modeling techniques akin to the election model prediction forecasts, the Mines-led team was able to consider a range of variability and uncertainty to identify the “most likely” intake and hazard associated with consuming PFAS-contaminated vegetables, using lettuce as a proxy for produce. The team also predicted risk-based threshold concentrations in produce and irrigation water to provide screening levels for assessment. These represent the range of concentrations for individual PFASs in irrigation water predicted to be below a level of concern for human health.
Using the lowest available human health toxicity reference values and a conservative 5th percentile approach, estimated risk-based threshold concentrations in irrigation water were 38 nanograms per liter (ng/L) for PFOA and 140 ng/L for PFOS, two PFASs commonly targeted by regulators.
In the case of PFOA, this suggests that even if irrigation water meets the current 70 ng/L PFOA and PFOS U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lifetime health advisory for drinking water, this may not be fully protective of PFOA exposure due to vegetables grown in that water, at least compared to toxicity reference values used by the State of California, which has the lowest toxicity reference value for PFOA in the U.S., Higgins said. Importantly, PFAS contamination also typically includes more than just PFOA or PFOS.
“Another major implication of this study is we really need to come up with a plan to address PFAS mixtures, as these chemicals are nearly always present as a mixture,” Higgins said
The team used real-world data from PFAS-contaminated groundwater to conduct a hazard analysis of a theoretical farm comparing different risk estimates based on established state, federal, and international toxicity reference doses. This analysis showed estimated exposures to most PFASs exceeding available or derived human health toxicity reference values – indicating water-to-crop transfer is an important exposure pathway for agricultural communities with PFAS-impacted irrigation water.
The full study, “Assessing human health risks from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)-impacted vegetable consumption: a tiered modeling approach,” is available online at https://dx.doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.0c03411. In addition to Brown and Higgins, co-authors were Geosyntec principal scientist Jason Conder and project scientist Jennifer Arblaster.
This research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (under Assistance Agreement No G18A112656081.)
Here’s the abstract:
Irrigation water or soil contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) raises concerns among regulators tasked with protecting human health from potential PFAS-contaminated food crops, with several studies identifying crop uptake as an important exposure pathway. We estimated daily dietary exposure intake of individual PFASs in vegetables for children and adults using Monte Carlo simulation in a tiered stochastic modeling approach: exposures were the highest for young children (1−2 years > adults > 3−5 years > 6−11 years > 12−19years). Using the lowest available human health toxicity reference values (RfDs) and no additional exposure, estimated fifth percentile risk-based threshold concentrations in irrigation water were 38 ng/L (median 180 ng/L) for perfluorooctanoate (PFOA) and 140 ng/L (median 850 ng/L) for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). Thus, consumption of vegetables irrigated with PFAS impacted water that meets the current 70 ng/L of PFOA and PFOS U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory for drinking water may or may not be protective of vegetable exposures to these contaminants. Hazard analyses using real-world PFAS- contaminated groundwater data for a hypothetical farm showed estimated exposures to most PFASs exceeding available or derived RfDs, indicating water-to-crop transfer is an important exposure pathway for communities with PFAS-impacted irrigation water.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Legacy Management (LM) is collaborating with Gunnison County, Colorado, to connect more domestic residences with private water wells within the groundwater contamination boundary at the former Gunnison uranium mill site to a municipal water supply.
“This is a major milestone that reflects LM’s mission of protecting human health and the environment,” said Jalena Dayvault, site manager for LM’s Gunnison, Colorado, Site. “Gunnison County Public Works Director, Marlene Crosby, worked diligently to get remaining domestic well users on-board so this project could move forward.”
The Gunnison site is a former uranium ore processing site located about a half-mile southwest of the city of Gunnison. The mill processed approximately 540,000 tons of uranium ore between 1958 and 1962, providing uranium for national defense programs. These ore processing activities resulted in contaminated groundwater beneath and near the site.
In 1994, a water treatment plant, storage tank, and distribution system were partially funded by DOE and installed to supply municipal drinking water to all residences within the contaminated groundwater boundary. This project was part of the remedial action plan at the former uranium mill site and is considered a protective measure in case the contaminated groundwater plume was ever to affect domestic well users within this boundary.
A small handful of homeowners with domestic wells in use before the cleanup continue to use those wells for drinking water. As part of LM’s long-term stewardship activities at the site, the office has monitored these wells annually to verify that mill-related contaminants have remained below U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maximum concentration limits for the groundwater.
Working closely with Gunnison County Public Works, LM made funds available in September 2020 to support Gunnison County Public Works in connecting more residences with domestic wells to the municipal water supply. Excavation work began in November to connect the first residence to the alternate water supply.
“We started putting a game plan together back in early January of this year, reaching out to homeowners to get their buy-in and preparing a scope of work and budget for the project,” said Joe Lobato, site lead for the Legacy Management Support Partner (LMSP). “The LM and LMSP team has a great working relationship with Gunnison County.”
A slow-moving crisis threatens the U.S. Central Plains, which grow a quarter of the nation’s crops. Underground, the region’s lifeblood – water – is disappearing, placing one of the world’s major food-producing regions at risk.
The Ogallala-High Plains Aquifer is one of the world’s largest groundwater sources, extending from South Dakota down through the Texas Panhandle across portions of eight states. Its water supports US$35 billion in crop production each year.
In Kansas, “Day Zero” – the day wells run dry – has arrived for about 30% of the aquifer. Within 50 years, the entire aquifer is expected be 70% depleted.
Some observers blame this situation on periodic drought. Others point to farmers, since irrigation accounts for 90% of Ogallala groundwater withdrawals. But our research, which focuses on social and legal aspects of water use in agricultural communities, shows that farmers are draining the Ogallala because state and federal policies encourage them to do it.
A production treadmill
At first glance, farmers on the Plains appear to be doing well in 2020. Crop production increased this year. Corn, the largest crop in the U.S., had a near-record year, and farm incomes increased by 5.7% over 2019.
Our research finds that subsidies put farmers on a treadmill, working harder to produce more while draining the resource that supports their livelihood. Government payments create a vicious cycle of overproduction that intensifies water use. Subsidies encourage farmers to expand and buy expensive equipment to irrigate larger areas.
With low market prices for many crops, production does not cover expenses on most farms. To stay afloat, many farmers buy or lease more acres. Growing larger amounts floods the market, further reducing crop prices and farm incomes. Subsidies support this cycle.
Nor should Congress propose to eliminate agricultural subsidies, as some environmental organizations and free-market advocates have proposed. Given the thin margins of farming and longstanding political realities, federal support is simply part of modern production agriculture.
With these cautions in mind, three initiatives could help ease pressure on farmers to keep expanding production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to allow environmentally sensitive farmland to lie fallow for at least 10 years. With new provisions, the program could reduce water use by prohibiting expansion of irrigated acreage, permanently retiring marginal lands and linking subsidies to production of less water-intensive crops.
These initiatives could be implemented through the federal farm bill, which also sets funding levels for nonfarm subsidies such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. SNAP payments, which increase needy families’ food budgets, are an important tool for addressing poverty. Increasing these payments and adding financial assistance to local communities could offset lower tax revenues that result from from farming less acreage.
Amending federal farm credit rates could also slow the treadmill. Generous terms promote borrowing for irrigation equipment; to pay that debt, borrowers farm more land. Offering lower rates for equipment that reduces water use and withholding loans for standard, wasteful equipment could nudge farmers toward conservation.
The most powerful tool is the tax code. Currently, farmers receive deductions for declining groundwater levels and can write off depreciation on irrigation equipment. Replacing these perks with a tax credit for stabilizing groundwater and substituting a depreciation schedule favoring more efficient irrigation equipment could provide strong incentives to conserve water.
Using these precedents, state water agencies could designate thirsty crops, such as rice, cotton or corn, as wasteful in certain regions. Regulations preventing unreasonable water use are not unconstitutional.
Allowing farmers some flexibility will maximize profits, as long as they stabilize overall water use. If they irrigate less – or not at all – in years with low market prices, rules could allow more irrigation in better years. Ultimately, many farmers – and their bankers – are willing to exchange lower annual yields for a longer water supply.
As our research has shown, the vast majority of farmers in the region want to save groundwater. They will need help from policymakers to do it. Forty years is long enough to learn that the Ogallala Aquifer’s decline is not driven by weather or by individual farmers’ preferences. Depletion is a structural problem embedded in agricultural policies. Groundwater depletion is a policy choice made by federal, state and local officials.
Stephen Lauer and Vivian Aranda-Hughes, former doctoral students at Kansas State University, contributed to several of the studies cited in this article.
Editors note: This is the first of a three-part series examining the proposal to renew the county 1041 permit for Nestlé Waters North America.
For two days later this month, Oct. 20 and 22, Chaffee County Commissioners will hear from citizens and organizations in public hearings on the proposal to renew a 1041 permit granted to international conglomerate Nestlé Waters North America. If approved, the permit would allow Nestlé to continue to pump and truck local spring water it later sells as bottled water.
The original permit, granted by then-commissioners in 2009 was a controversial decision and the renewal has also generated opposition from activists who want the county to end the agreement.
Basically, the company pumps millions of gallons of water from the Ruby Mountain Spring in the north county annually, pipes it to a collection tank and pump station at Johnson Village, where it is loaded onto tankers, driven to a Denver bottling plant, and sold as Arrowhead Spring Water in plastic bottles.
The original (and current) agreement allows Nestlé to withdraw as much as 65 million gallons of water from the aquifer. However, company officials say Nestlé draws less than half that amount currently.
The original permit granted to Nestlé in 2009 was opposed by many residents, and an organized resistance to renewing the agreement has recently been mounted.
Larry Lawrence, Resource Manager for Nestlé Waters North America spoke with Ark Valley Voice recently about the agreement, what it provided both the company and community, and how the company has met the 1041 permit requirements, which some opponents of renewal dispute.
An engineer by profession, Lawrence has been with Nestlé Waters since 2003, and came to Colorado in 2019. He says he was already aware of the project through technical reviews with earlier resource managers prior to joining this assignment.
Lawrence said an earlier resource manager (Bruce Lauerman) was assigned to this area, and Lawrence took over in 2019. Looking for a water source closer to Denver, he said was a priority.
“The Arrowhead brand was marketed in New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho and a portion of Montana, all from California,” said Lawrence. “In reviews of not only our physical footprint but our carbon footprint and other aspects, where would we want to locate another factory? So Denver was chosen because of the reach we would have from this factory and to cover this market, which was a pretty good size bottled water market,” he added.
The factory was built in 2006, producing Nestlé Pure Life, a purified water from the municipal water system in Denver. Nestlé soon realized they wanted to produce the Arrowhead spring water brand. The prior Nestlé representative reviewed area springs and contacted various water agencies to see if they knew of any potential spring sources.
The Hagen Fish Hatchery on the Arkansas River, no longer in operation, was identified by the Colorado Division of Water Resources. Nestlé reached out to the Hagen family and reached a letter of intent for purchase at that time.
Lawrence said that at that time, they did several different studies. These included hydrological, environmental, and biological, to determine the impact of water collection there, water level withdrawal potential, and to determine the sustainability and volume of the site.
“A-number one for us is we never want to be in a position to where we recommend to the company to purchase a spring source that is non-sustainable,” said Lawrence. “…that would be a huge mistake for us, and it’s not a good business decision at all.”
The sites were studied to confirm a reasonable withdrawal rate to allow for replenishment at a sustainable rate. Another site, Bighorn Spring was reviewed, and because it did not meet replenishment rates, was not developed with Nestlé opting in favor of Ruby Mountain Springs.
Prior to that, Lawrence said other resource managers had looked at many other sites but they were ruled out for various reasons. In some cases it was because the water rights had been sold, even though there was a viable spring. According to Lawrence, springs in the eastern and southern U.S. are quite different than those generally found in the west.
It is an understatement to say that water issues are complex, especially in the west. Once the local site was selected, Nestlé reviewed what local and state government rules were for the permitting process.
The 1041 process in Colorado and in Chaffee County at the time was fairly new, and Nestlé, said Lawrence, was one of the first companies to enter that process.
“The spring here at Ruby Mountain Springs is similar to other mountain springs we see in the west. One of the differences here is we do have the Arkansas River running adjacent to the spring source,” he said.
The Nestlé operation includes the pumping stations at the spring site and long lengths of piping underground connecting to the Johnson Village property. That facility includes a large 30,000-gallon storage tank and pumps. Here, the water is loaded to tanker trucks that weigh about 87,000 pounds when full, which make the trips to the Denver bottling facility.
According to the permit, about 25 truckloads are allowed to run on U.S. 285 daily.
Next, we’ll review some of the issues and local opposition to the Nestlé 1041 renewal.
FromThe High Country News (Eric Siegel) [Originally published at High Country News (http://hcn.org) on 09/18/2020]:
For decades, the Great Basin Water Network has made a point of strange bedfellowing. Its ranks include ranchers, environmentalists, sportsmen, rural county commissioners, Indigenous leaders, water users from Utah, and rural and urban Nevadans. Over the years, these groups united against a single cause: the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s “Groundwater Development Project,” a proposal to pump 58 billion gallons of water a year 300 miles to Las Vegas from the remote rural valleys of Nevada and Utah. Nevadans called it the Las Vegas Pipeline; its ardent foes called it a water grab. In May, their three decades of resistance to the pipeline ended in victory: The project was terminated.
“Never give up the ship,” Delaine Spilsbury, an Ely Shoshone tribal elder who played a significant role in the Water Network, said in a recent interview. “Never. That’s the kind of feeling that I think most of us had. Just do the best we can and let’s make something happen, even if it does take forever.”
The Vegas Pipeline, had it succeeded, threatened to make a dust bowl of 305 springs, 112 miles of streams, 8,000 acres of wetlands and 191,000 acres of shrubland habitat, almost all of it on public lands. Major utilities in the West rarely fail in getting what they want (witness California’s Owens Valley, circa 1913), but the Water Network’s multipronged, intergenerational legal battle creates a different precedent, showing that diverse water interests can transcend any single approach or ideology — and win.
UNEXPECTED ALLIANCES like this have their origins in the Cold War. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the Air Force sought to conduct hazardous testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles and supersonic military operations in eastern Nevada. This required deep drilling into newfound aquifers, and tribal nations, rural counties, ranchers and environmentalists became increasingly distrustful of the massive groundwater pumping. They put their differences aside to mobilize public opinion and beat back two federal projects — the Missile Experimental (“MX”) and the Electronic Combat Test Capability (“ECTC”).
Their single-minded focus on water and ability to tease out a strategy from a broad coalition of people proved an asset in resisting powerful entities. “We beat the federal government,” said Abby Johnson, who worked for a statewide environmental group fighting the MX project and later helped form the Great Basin Water Network. “It never would have happened had there not been such activism against it. The public opposition and outcry across rural Nevada was essential.”
This united front endured into 1989, when the Las Vegas Valley Water District filed 146 water right applications with the Nevada state engineer — the state’s top water regulator — to pump 800,000 acre-feet of groundwater from eastern Nevada. The former anti-nuclear coalition organized area residents again — this time against their own state, filing protests with the state engineer’s office. Great Basin National Park and the Bureau of Land Management, concerned that groundwater withdrawals could affect surface-water resources under their jurisdiction, also filed protests.
The water applications sat dormant for over a decade. But in 2002, in the face of worsening drought and looming supply shortages on the Colorado River, the newly formed Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) reactivated the water filings. By 2005, the SNWA requested legal hearings. That was “when the project caught steam and really began,” said Steve Erickson, an organizer with the Water Network in Utah, who worked closely with residents in Baker, Nevada. “This was a feisty group of people, and they had worked on this stuff before. They knew they could win if they were persistent.”
In 2007, the Great Basin Water Network received nonprofit status, formalizing the coalition. It partnered with rural county governments to help pay for expert witnesses and legal representation in court, and established “water tours,” in order to teach Nevadans how the region’s landscape of springs, seeps and streams sustained a uniquely Nevadan way of life. These efforts helped establish the pipeline in the public imagination as another water grab.
But despite these advances, there was a breakdown in trust, as state and federal agencies greenlit the project, circumventing bedrock environmental laws. A 2004 federal wilderness bill included a rider granting the SNWA a public utilities right-of-way for the project, facilitating its approval. In 2006, the Department of Interior — including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which failed to consult the tribes it represents — entered a closed-door agreement with the SNWA, dropping all federal protests in exchange for a contentious monitoring and mitigation plan.
A series of legal battles ensued at the state level. The Water Network’s initial legal strategy, which focused on due process rather than water law, ultimately prevailed in 2010 at the Nevada Supreme Court, which found that “the state engineer was ‘derelict in his duties,’ ” as Kyle Roerink, the Executive Director of the Water Network, said in a recent interview. The court’s decision voided SNWA’s water applications, forcing the Water Authority to re-file them with the state engineer, who in turn reopened the protest period.
The Water Network applied pressure from multiple angles, though, and the legal wins continued on other fronts. Activists successfully argued, for example, that the state engineer miscalculated the water levels in the basins where the Southern Nevada Water Authority wanted to pump, allowing for over-allocations. Their efforts convinced a district court to order the state engineer to recalculate.
Beyond its legal strategy, the Water Network built alliances geographically — notably with ranchers, farmers, and county commissioners in western Utah, who followed in lockstep with the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute there and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and public health, citizen science and conservation groups across the state. By 2015, their efforts convinced the Republican governor of Utah, Gary Herbert, to reject a bi-state water agreement that would have allowed the SNWA to pull water from the Snake Valley, in the Nevada-Utah borderlands. “The governor was getting pressure from all sides,” Erickson said. “At one time, he had three water lawyers and the director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources telling him to sign the agreement. But he listened to us.”
The Southern Nevada Water Authority, meanwhile, undertook its own political strategy — lobbying the state Legislature to change Nevada water law, then lobbying the Nevada congressional delegation to exempt the project from further federal environmental review, even as it aggressively promoted conservation measures and engineered a low-level intake pump at Lake Mead to secure its pumping capacities.
The Water Network’s continued pressure, applied from multiple angles, ultimately paid off. In March, the Nevada District Court denied the SNWA’s appeal for a final time — blocking it from pumping any water in eastern Nevada. After a string of seven straight legal losses, the SNWA announced that it would not appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court. In May, at its Board of Directors meeting, the Water Authority withdrew all its remaining water applications associated with the project, ending a 31-year battle.
Delaine Spilsbury, the Ely Shoshone leader, watched the board meeting via a video call. “I yelled at my son, Rick, ‘Get the champagne! — Get the champagne!’ It was hard to believe that it was happening. When it’s been that way for so long, you never think it will change.”
NEVADA HAS A LONG HISTORY of resource extraction, everything from gold, to rare earth minerals, to water. And the state is by no means a regulatory haven for environmental causes. But the defeat of the SNWA, along with other recent data, suggests that public opinion around natural resources, especially water, is changing. Since 2002, southern Nevada’s population has increased by 46%, but its per capita water usage has decreased 38%, and its consumption of Colorado River water is down 25%. The SNWA’s own partnerships up and down the Colorado River, and the Great Basin Water Network’s unexpected partnerships within the state, point to a larger shift.
Regardless of these changing attitudes, and the Water Network win, the decades-long battle produced collateral damage: deep mistrust between Nevada’s rural residents and the state, especially the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Tom Baker, a fourth-generation rancher in the Snake Valley, understands as much. “We knew we could never let SNWA start at all,” he said recently, “because once they started, they would keep going. We knew that the amount of water they wanted wasn’t actually there. As soon as they figured that out too, they would have to keep expanding. Rural Nevada is very lucky that this project is finished.”
Such criticism is understandable, Simeon Herskovits, the Water Network’s longtime lawyer, said. “There is a long history of deceit and punitive actions taken by SNWA towards rural folks,” he said. As recently as 2019, for example, the agency tried to change state laws that protect senior water-rights holders in Nevada, such as farmers and ranchers in rural counties. The legislation would have allowed the state engineer to re-award the rights to junior users. “That meant there was no opportunity for trust. Rural interests knew there was no way they could take SNWA at its word.”
Pat Mulroy herself, former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the architect of the now-failed project, agreed. Asked what she would have done differently on the Vegas Pipeline, she quickly responded: “Nothing we said or did was going to persuade them. We are city folk. People in the rural areas don’t trust us.” But then she paused, and turned the thought. “Look,” she said, “these battles are not going away. It is one of the divides, and there has to be bridges. Every move we made — whether with farmers in Utah or ranchers in White Pine County — they said no. That, to me, is the tragedy. This will never change unless people are willing to talk to one another.”
Eric Siegel is an editorial intern for High Country News. Email him at email@example.com or submit a letter to the editor.
Since the 2016 revelation that groundwater in Fountain Valley, which provided drinking water for Security-Widefield and Fountain, was contaminated with toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which include a number of individual chemicals such as PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS and PFHpA, government agencies, residents and community activists have been struggling to come to terms with what is arguably one of the largest ecological contaminations in Colorado’s history.
On Aug. 4, Chris Reh, associate director of the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), led a virtual information session for residents of Security-Widefield and Fountain regarding its ongoing PFAS exposure assessment. The assessment will randomly select participants and test blood, urine and tap water for levels of PFAS chemicals. According to Reh, the assessment will identify how people might be exposed to chemicals, calculate the extent of exposure and determine if there is a threat to health.
ATSDR’s exposure assessment is the first part of a process that will continue in 2021 with the Pease Study, a national multi-site study conducted locally by the Colorado School of Public Health that will look at the human health effects of PFAS exposure through drinking contaminated water. While the sites chosen for this study are near Air Force operations, PFAS exposure extends far beyond Air Force bases. Much of the focus in El Paso County is on Fountain Valley, but the Air Force Academy on the city’s Northside also released PFAS chemicals, and residents of Woodmen Valley report health concerns as well, though they are not included in the ATSDR exposure assessment.
El Paso County is one of eight sites nationwide identified by ATSDR for exposure assessments related to PFAS chemicals. The sites, located in Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, Washington and West Virginia, are co-located with Air Force bases that used aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), a type of chemical used to extinguish fuel fires and that contains PFAS chemicals…
Since 2016, community activists have been working to raise awareness of this environmental threat, and Colorado legislators have recently passed laws to address PFAS contamination. While much of the blame, and legal consequences, for this massive and widespread contamination have been aimed at companies that produce PFAS chemicals, such as DuPont and 3M, the military has known of the potential dangers of these chemicals since at least 1989.
The Air Force Occupational and Environmental Health Laboratory published a study titled “Biological Analysis of Three Ponds at Peterson AFB [Air Force Base], Colorado Springs CO” in November 1989 that raised concerns about contamination coming from the installation. “A series of three man-made ponds on the golf course at Peterson AFB, Colorado Springs CO were analyzed to determine their current ecological status and future potential for recreational fishing,” notes the report, which goes on to identify that “Pond 3 cannot be recommended for stocking with fish in its current condition. Low species diversity suggests that this pond is being stressed by an unknown pollutant.” The report identifies a nearby storm drain as a “chronic source of pollutants for this pond.” While the Air Force analyzed a number of factors, such as pH and the levels of phytoplankton and zooplankton, it was quick to identify AFFF as a possible problem, noting that it “was accidentally spilled into pond 3 shortly before the first fish kill. A subsequent restocking resulted in a second fish kill.”
Stephen Brady of the Peterson-Schriever Garrison Public Affairs office commented, “When there is a potential our missions are having, or may have had, an adverse impact on communities, we take appropriate measures to protect it. When PFOS was discovered in the aquifer south of base in 2016, we immediately stopped using the legacy foam during fire response and training. We replaced the legacy foam in our fire response vehicles in November 2016 and in the hangar fire suppression systems in 2018 with a more environmentally responsible foam. Our first responders will only use the new environmentally responsible firefighting foam for emergency life-saving response, and do not discharge it during training. The Air Force takes environmental stewardship seriously, and continuously strives to meet or exceed environmental standards.”
By the early 2000s DuPont and 3M were facing lawsuits from residents near their plants and increased scrutiny from the Environmental Protection Agency, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the EPA formally issued a health advisory regarding PFAS chemicals and set advisory levels of contamination at 70 parts per trillion (ppt)…
While Rosenbaum was organizing FVCWC, the Colorado School of Public Health began to study exposure and health effects from PFAS chemicals. The study was named “PFAS Aware.” In 2018 the PFAS Aware team began sampling water in Fountain Valley. Initial results published in December 2018 showed that “total PFASs in untreated well water ranged from 18 – 2300 ppt” and that “PFASs detected are typical of fire-fighting foam-impacted groundwater.”
On Sept. 18, 2019, the Air Force Academy sent a notice to Woodmen Valley residents, signed by Col. Brian Hartless, the installation commander, warning them that “firefighting foam containing PFOS and PFOA was used for firefighter training at the Academy from the 1970s until 1990, when we began to consolidate all of our training at Peterson Air Force Base. After that time, the equipment used to dispense the foam was periodically tested until approximately 2005.” Hartless did note that “this firefighting foam has never been used to extinguish a petroleum-based aircraft fire at the Academy” and that “the foam now in use at the Academy is a more environmentally friendly formula that we began using in approximately 2017.” Hartless went on to inform residents that the Air Force would begin sampling wells within the Woodmen Valley Fire Protection District.
According to Hartless, Air Force Civil Engineer Center representatives “identified 37 private wells used for drinking water at homes closest in proximity to the southern base boundary for sampling. To date, 35 of the 37 wells have been sampled.”
Bill Beaudin, a Woodmen Valley resident since 1978, questions the Air Force’s testing process. “The north border of our property is the south border of the Academy,” he says. “We live on six acres. For many years until 1995 we all used well water. We were offered to go on city water at that time and most of us took that option. About 38 families chose not to go on city water for whatever reason.”
Longtime residents like Beaudin were concerned about the fact that the Air Force only tested the wells still in use. “The rest of us all drank that water and so did our children for all of those years in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s until we went on city water,” says Beaudin, “and yet the Air Force Academy chose to just do this select group.”
On March 24, the Air Force announced in a news release, “recent well water monitoring tests on the southeast perimeter of the U.S. Air Force Academy show Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) below the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lifetime Health Advisory level of 70 ppt.”
While the Air Force reported PFOS and PFOA levels below the EPA advisory limits, Rosenbaum says that doesn’t tell the whole story. ”There’s 4,700 different types [of PFAS],” she says, “PFHxS is toxic firefighting foam, which may or may not have PFOA, which is Teflon, or PFAS, which is Scotchgard water-repellent. So when the Air Force Academy said ‘we’re below levels of PFOA and PFAS,’ all of us activists who have been doing this for four years were like, ‘duh.’ You don’t have a Teflon pan company. You don’t have a Scotchgard water-proofing company. You have toxic firefighting foam, so here, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility [PEER] did a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act request] to try to get the PFHxS levels, and they are really high.”
On March 12, 12 days before the Air Force’s statement, PEER reported that “The Air Force Academy test data of neighboring drinking water wells found levels of two individual PFAS chemicals, PFHxS and PFHpA, at more than 200 ppt in two locations” and “combined PFAS levels at a single well of 503.9 ppt and 537.8 ppt across two separate tests.”
The consternation over the levels of PFAS chemicals in the water stems from concerns over the health effects of exposure to these chemicals. Heightened levels of PFAS chemicals have been linked to health problems such as increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, decreased vaccine response in children and increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, according to Rachel Rogers, an environmental health scientist with ATSDR.
“A neighbor that was four houses away, her husband died of testicular cancer,” says Beaudin. “A neighbor who has since passed away died from both kidney and bladder cancer. They were longtime neighbors of ours.”
Rosenbaum notes, “The main health issues here are kidney cancers, prostate cancer and a lot of autoimmune diseases.” Autoimmune disease are often difficult to diagnose because symptoms can come from other common conditions…
Lawmakers in Colorado addressed problems with PFAS contamination during the 2019 legislative session. Tony Exum, D-House District 18; Lois Landgraf, R-House District 21; Pete Lee, D-Senate District 11; and Dennis Hisey, R-Senate District 2, sponsored House Bill 1279, which bans the use of AFFFs that use PFAS chemicals for testing or training purposes. In 2020 the same group of legislators sponsored House Bill 1119, which further regulates the use of PFAS chemicals.
On July 10, The city of Colorado Springs and Colorado Springs Utilities, along with the cities of Aurora, Greeley, Fountain and a number of water districts filed a motion to vacate an administrative action hearing by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) in regards to a proposed new policy to address PFAS contamination, referred to as policy 20-1. The motion states, “The Joint Parties recognize the importance of assuring that drinking water supplies are not contaminated by PFAS, and that water supplies contaminated by PFAS are cleaned up. Vacating the administrative action hearing will not preclude the cleanup of PFAS; it will require that regulatory measures imposed by the Water Quality Control Division are properly authorized through a rulemaking hearing.”
Rosenbaum was confused by the motion. “At first the injunction was pretty difficult to understand,” she says. “Here we are Saturday morning and it came across that they wanted all the PFAS discussions taken out of the meeting. This is our fifth contamination to our water district here. We have to do something completely different and drastic and start writing new policy. The state health department wasn’t making a new law, they were adding language to the policy they already had in place.
According to Jennifer Kemp, a public affairs specialist with Colorado Springs Utilities, “The reason for our joining several other Front Range entities on the motion to vacate is because we did not agree with the WQCC’s approach to regulating PFAS. Under Colorado’s State Administrative Procedure Act, a policy is a general statement of interpretation that is not meant to be a binding rule. Therefore, we joined other stakeholders in asserting that the regulation of PFAS is so important that it should have been accomplished with a thorough rulemaking process to establish a statewide PFAS standard.”
On July 14 the WQCC adopted policy 20-1. “What this policy does,” explains Rosenbaum, “is it forces wastewater to test for PFAS. Your drinking water is fine, it’s not contaminated yet, but do you have an industry that’s dumping everything into the wastewater? We have the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, so they’re not dumping in rivers anymore but they’re dumping into wastewater.
Now we’re making that accountable in our state. Now we’re explicitly stating in writing CDPHE [Colorado Department of Health and Environment] will receive extra funding to help that water district do an investigation of the industries that are connected to the wastewater system to see if they have PFAS. If they do, now they have to filter it at their site. If you own a restaurant, you have a grease trap. You can’t just dump in the wastewater. If you have a dental office, it’s explicitly written that they have to filter mercury. We’re not doing anything different, we’re just directly applying it where they’ve gotten away with no rules because they’ve been allowed to self-regulate.”
While ATSDR completes their current study, Rosenbaum is planning her next steps. “We need to set maximum contaminant levels in this state,” she says. “What we can do is stop the industry from adding more [PFAS contamination] in. New Hampshire set it at 18 ppt, where the state health department wanted to set it at 700 ppt for PFHxS, which is stupid. The EPA isn’t monitoring PFHxS, they’re just doing PFOA and PFAS, so we brought in evidence from other states saying PFHxs is actually the more harmful one because it’s more prevalent.”
From the Weminuche Audubon Society (Jean Zimhelt) via The Pagosa Springs Sun:
Please join the Weminuche Audubon Society on Wednesday, Sept. 16, at 6:30 p.m. for our monthly chapter meeting.
This remote meeting will take place on Zoom. Please check the events list on our website, http://www.weminucheaudubon.org, for a link to the online meeting. All interested parties are welcome.
The topic of this month’s meeting will be the importance of wetlands, particularly those in our Pagosa Springs area. Eighty percent of all wildlife species use wetlands or riparian habitats at some point in their life cycle.
According to the EPA, “More than half of our original wetlands have been drained and converted to other uses.”
Geothermal sources in Pagosa Springs have created unique, warm-water wetlands and con- tribute to the rich diversity of birds we see along the Riverwalk in town.
Our presenter for the evening will be Randy McCormick. Prior to moving to Pagosa Springs, McCormick served as environmental manager at the National Estuarine Research Reserve in Naples, Fla., mandated to protect 110,000 acres of coastal wetlands in the western Everglades. He is a board member of the Weminuche Audubon Society and an active member in Pagosa Wetland Partners, a group of citizens committed to preserving important area wetlands habitats. Find out how you can be involved in this mission.
Bottled water company Nestlé is seeking permission to extend its operations in Colorado’s Chaffee County, a move that is generating significant community opposition.
Nestlé Waters North America first won permission to export spring water from Chaffee County in 2009, building a pipeline and trucking the water to Denver where it is packaged.
The company hopes to renew its original 10-year permit to tap Ruby Mountain Springs near Buena Vista, which expired last fall. The water is sold under the Arrowhead brand.
Chaffee County Commissioners are expected to take up the matter at an Oct. 20 hearing.
Nestlé Natural Resources Manager Larry Lawrence declined an interview request, but in an email said the company strives to maintain environmentally sensitive operations and that extending the permit would create no new stress on the springs.
Separately company officials have said repeatedly that preserving water resources is key to their ability to continue selling water. The beverage maker has 25 plants in the United States, including the one in Colorado.
In the meantime, local activists have collected more than 1,200 signatures on Change.org opposing the permit extension.
Unbottle and Protect Chaffee County Water, with 300-plus members, said the permit renewal poses an ongoing threat to local water supplies due to chronic drought and climate change. Activists also say that Nestlé donations of bottled water to local nonprofits increases the county’s recycling costs, and that Nestlé has not followed through on some of the commitments it made to the county, including taking steps to preserve important property along the Arkansas River near the springs.
“We believe we are an environmentally sensitive county,” said Francie Bomer, one of the activists leading the effort to cancel the permit.
“We don’t like plastic and we don’t believe the benefit to the county is equal to the value of the water Nestlé is taking out,” Bomer said.
The conflict comes as bottled water manufacturers across the U.S and Canada face mounting criticism over their use of groundwater. Five states, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, are moving to ban or sharply limit the industry.
Earlier this year Nestlé opted to sell its Canadian operations, exiting a country in which local opposition had grown strong, according to published reports.
Under its Chaffee County permit, Nestlé is required to monitor water levels in the Ruby Mountain Springs and to replace any water it takes under a replacement plan overseen by the Salida-based Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District.
Such plans are often required under state law, and are designed to ensure water users downstream of diversion sites with more senior water rights aren’t harmed by upstream diversions.
Manager of the Upper Arkansas Water District, Terry Scanga, said the replacement plan relies on water from Turquoise Lake in Leadville, which fully covers any water removed from Chaffee County by Nestlé. Scanga said the district has no plans to contest the permit renewal.
Nestlé is required to monitor water levels and habitat conditions as part of its agreement with the county. In its 2019 annual report, the company said it extracted 89 acre-feet of spring water, 5.6 percent of the 1,573 acre-feet of overall flow measured. An acre-foot is equal to nearly 326,000 gallons.
If its permit is renewed, the company estimates annual production would grow at 2 percent annually, but would still be well below the amount to which it is legally entitled.
In addition, ongoing monitoring by the company shows that the spring recovers quickly as water is extracted and that no harm to habitat has been noted since 2010.
“To date, spring water production has been well below the permit limitations and at no time over the last decade of monitoring has stress to the spring system resulted in conditions where pumping was required to be reduced, either to meet criteria under the permit or due to observations that indicated operations were negatively impacting upstream or downstream users or the ecological and biological systems,” the report states.
Bomer is skeptical of those reports because they have not been independently verified by outside experts.
Earlier this year, in advance of the permit renewal effort, the county hired experts to evaluate Nestlé monitoring data, according to Chaffee County Attorney Jennifer Davis.
Whether Chaffee County will become another bottled water hot spot in the international battle isn’t clear yet.
“We are a tiny county. Are we part of that bigger effort? No. We’re just trying to protect our resources so they will be here when we need them,” Bomer said. “But if we contribute to to that effort, that would be okay.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Here’s an in-depth report from (Bruce Finley) writing in The Denver Post. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
A hundred miles from Colorado’s Front Range house-building boom, field scientist Delia Malone dug her fingers into spongy high-mountain wetlands at the edge of the Holy Cross Wilderness.
She found, about 15 inches underground, partially decayed roots, twigs and the cold moisture of a fen. These structures form over thousands of years and store water that seeps down from melting snow.
Malone has been digging about 20 holes a day, surveying fens for the U.S. Forest Service, to better understand nature’s water-storage systems — which sustain vegetation and stream flows that 40 million people across the Colorado River Basin rely on in the face of increasing aridity.
Aurora and Colorado Springs are planning to flood these wetland fens and replace natural storage with a man-made system: a $500 million dam and a reservoir that may require changing wilderness boundaries.
The cities each own rights to 10,000 acre-feet a year of the water that flows out of the wilderness and would pump what the reservoir traps, minus evaporation, through tunnels under mountains to other reservoirs and, finally, to pipes that deliver steady flows from urban faucets, toilets, showers and sprinkler systems…
Fens play a key role ensuring that streams and rivers still flow after winter snow melts. And as climate warming leads to earlier melting and depletes surface water in the Colorado River, natural wetlands increasingly are seen as essential to help life hang on. The benefits stood out this summer as the West endured record heat, wildfires and drought…
Yet Front Range developers’ desire for more water is intensifying. Across the mountains at construction sites on high dusty plains, roads and power lines have been installed, heavy dirt-movers beep and carpenters thwack atop roofs.
Local governments already have approved permits allowing house-building at a pace that in some areas is projected to nearly double water consumption.
Colorado Springs officials issued 3,982 permits for new single family homes last year, 18% higher than the average over the previous five years, according to data provided to The Denver Post. They estimated the current population around 476,000 will reach 723,000 “at build-out” around 2070. This requires 136,000 to 159,000 acre-feet of water a year, city projections show, up from 70,766 acre-feet in 2019.
Aurora officials estimated their population of 380,000 will reach 573,986 by 2050. They’ve approved entire new communities, such as the 620-acre Painted Prairie with more than 3,100 housing units in the “aerotropolis” that Denver leaders have promoted near Denver International Airport, and projected current water consumption of 49,811 acre-feet a year will increase to 85,000 acre-feet and even as much as 130,158 acre-feet in a high-growth, rapid-warming scenario…
To make a new dam and reservoir more palatable, the cities are exploring unprecedented “mitigation” of digging up and physically removing the underground fens, then hauling them and transplanting them elsewhere to restore damaged wetlands. An experiment on a ranch south of Leadville, officials said, is proving that this could help offset losses of Homestake Creek wetlands.
This would challenge a federal policy laid out in 1999 at Interior Department regional headquarters in Denver that classifies fens as “irreplaceable.” The policy says “onsite or in-kind replacement of peat wetlands is not thought possible” and that “concentrated efforts will be made to encourage relocation of proposed reservoirs… that might impact fens, when practicable.”
Covered by grasses and shrubs, water-laden fens blanket the Homestake Valley — wetlands filled with porous peat soils that receive minerals and nutrients in groundwater. Moving such wetlands, if attempted, would require massive hauling of soil blocks combined with the delicate precision of an organ transplant to retain ecological functioning…
Some environmental groups are preparing for legal combat should the cities seek required state, county and federal permits. Others haven’t weighed in. Conservation Colorado leaders declined to comment on this water push.
Transplanting fens as mitigation to try to restore wetlands elsewhere “for our convenience” is impossible, WildEarth Guardians attorney Jen Pelz said. “Fens and other sensitive high-elevation wetlands are quite beautiful and mysterious, more art than science, not something we can re-engineer.”
Dams and diversions proposed in recent years around the West “are just as destructive as those built a century ago, and building dams today is actually more irresponsible because we know that dams disconnect aquatic and riparian habitat, cause species extinction, disrupt ecosystem function, dry rivers and harm native cultures and communities,” she said.
“We need to start removing dams, not building more. This project is one of many where water managers are looking to cash in on their undeveloped rights or entitlements at the expense of people and the environment. … It’s time to draw a line in the sand.”
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
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
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.
A view, from the Alternative A dam site, of the Homestake Creek valley. The triangle shape in the distance is the dam that forms Homestake Reservoir. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
One of four potential dam sites on lower Homestake Creek, about four miles above U.S. 24, between Minturn and Leadville. From this location, the dam that forms Homestake Reservoir higher up the creek can be seen. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/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.
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
FromThe Santa Fe New Mexican (Scott Wyland) via The Taos News:
A severe, prolonged drought is reducing the river’s flows to the lowest levels in decades, affecting cities’ drinking water supplies and compelling farmers to adjust how they water their fields.
[Glen] Duggins grows chile peppers, alfalfa and corn on his 400-acre farm in Lemitar, a tiny community north of Socorro. He already faces the prospect of restaurants buying fewer goods from him during the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, when their operations have been limited by the state’s public heath orders. Now he’s also seeing higher costs to produce his crops due to pumping.
But he is fortunate, he said, because many farmers in the Middle Río Grande Valley don’t have water pumps and must shut down when the river gets low…
A thin mountain snowpack, recent heat wave and light monsoon have depleted water levels from the Colorado River Basin to the Chama River to the Río Grande. It’s perhaps the most arid year in a two-decade dry period in New Mexico, making climate scientists and water managers wonder whether this is the start of an even drier time that will demand a new, long-term approach to urban planning and water use.
Locally, the prolonged drought can be seen in cottonwoods’ foliage turning yellow six weeks early along a parched stretch of the Santa Fe River and the likelihood of the Buckman Direct Diversion — which pulls Río Grande flows for city of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County water users — suspending operations for the first time in its 10-year history.
Everyone must prepare for how a warmer climate will diminish water supplies and put more stress on humans and the ecosystem, said Dave DuBois, a state climatologist at New Mexico State University.
“We need to address climate change and adapt to it,” DuBois said. “Not just in the here and now, but the next 20, 30 years.”
On a recent morning, Liza Mitchell of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails rolled out fiber mats over a soil-filled portion of a ditch in the North Star Nature Preserve, adding a final layer to a wetland plug that the natural resource planner and ecologist and her team had been working on for the three weeks prior.
The plug is the central component of the program’s fen-restoration project, which aims to enhance the wetland’s ability to provide habitat, store and filter groundwater, and sequester carbon.
While North Star is known as an idyllic paddleboarding and beach destination, 77% of the preserve is closed to public access. This includes the property west of the Roaring Fork River, where the fen sits.
The preserve’s 245 acres function primarily to protect native species and ecosystems. The first 175 acres of the preserve were bought by the Nature Conservancy in 1977. In 2001, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails and the city of Aspen jointly purchased the 70 acres below the initial property, creating the current North Star Nature Preserve, according to the 2020 North Star management plan.
“It’s for wildlife,” Mitchell said of North Star.
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Critical to the nature preserve
Aligning with the goal of conservation, Open Space and Trails staff identified the North Star fen as a site for ecological restoration. Situated in the northwest corner of the property, the 14-acre fen, which is a peat-filled wetland, is populated with sedges, reeds and grasses.
The wetland is critical to the entire preserve, providing wildlife habitat, water filtration and flood mitigation. In dry months, groundwater stored in the fen percolates into the Roaring Fork River, benefiting the watershed and its thirsty users, Mitchell said.
Yet, due to human alterations to the watershed and North Star, the fen is drying out. In 1936, two tunnels, multiple canals, and the Grizzly and Lost Man reservoirs were completed as part of the Independence Pass Trans-Mountain Diversion System. The system moves water from the upper Roaring Fork River basin to the east side of the Continental Divide, satisfying the water needs of Colorado’s largest cities, according to the 2020 management plan.
This system diverts as much as 40% of the Roaring Fork’s headwaters upstream of the preserve, reducing the volume of river water that flows into the property and saturates the fen, Mitchell said.
The fen underwent further drying in the 1950s, when the preserve was a private ranch owned by James Smith. Smith dug ditches through the fen for pasture and hay cultivation, and those ditches continue to drain standing water into the Roaring Fork, according to Mitchell.
The wetland plug combats the drying by slowing the outflow of water from the fen into the Roaring Fork River. Mitchell, two staffers from Basalt-based Diggin It Riverworks and two ecological consultants began the plug construction Aug. 10. The first week, the team filled 130 feet of the main ditch with a mixture of locally sourced and imported soil. In the second and third weeks, the team added a layer of local soil, scattered native plant seeds and sealed it all with hay, mulch and matting, Mitchell said.
“It’s been a pretty quick project,” she said. “We’ve really tried to get in, get out and minimize disturbance as much as possible.”
6,700 years of carbon sequestration
The wetland plug increases saturated conditions in the fen, or the presence of standing water, enhancing the fen’s ability to provide ecological services to the preserve. For instance, saturated conditions allow fens to function as carbon sequesters by storing peat, or carbon-rich plant material.
Peat accumulates at a rate of 8 inches per 1,000 years, according to David Cooper, wetland ecologist and professor at Colorado State University. With 53 inches of peat soil, the North Star fen is estimated to be 6,700 years old, according to a Pitkin County news release.
“Peatlands make up about 5% of the land surface of the world,” Cooper said, “but almost 45% to 50% of all the soil carbon on Earth is in peatlands.” When fens dry up, the carbon stored as peat is released as carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming, he said.
Saturated conditions also support wildlife. Standing water creates the ideal habitat for native plants, such as beaked and blister sedge, as well as native amphibians and waterfowl. Saturated conditions suffocate canary grass, an invasive species that spread increasingly through the fen as it dries up, Mitchell said.
Wet by standing water, fens filter groundwater. The peat body removes excess nitrogen as well as heavy metals that would otherwise accumulate in watershed fish populations, Cooper said.
A positive for North Star neighbors
Mitchell anticipated finishing the construction phase of the restoration project this past week. She plans to place wattles, or cylinders of hay, across the wetland plug to prevent soil and seed erosion. She also will add hay bales and cylinders to the fen’s two smaller ditches to retain water and provide a surface for native plants.
After this construction phase, a hydrologist and botanist hired by Open Space and Trails will monitor the fen for three years. The consultants will conduct studies and submit reports to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issued the initial permit for the project in 2018, according to Mitchell.
In the spring of 2021, Open Space and Trails staffers hope to get the local community involved with the project by having volunteers plant native sedges and rushes over the plug.
Already, community response to the restoration project has been very positive. Even without physical access to the fen, neighbors are excited about the prospect of improving habitat for wildlife, such as blue heron and elk, which they enjoy watching from their windows, Mitchell said.
“North Star can get a lot of negative attention surrounding the paddleboarding and recreation use, so it’s really nice to have another project that there seems to be widespread agreement on,” Mitchell said. “Everyone can get behind that it’s a pretty light touch for a pretty big benefit.”
This story ran in the Sept. 5 edition of The Aspen Times.
From The Rio Grande Water Conservation District (Lisa Cyriacks) via The Crestone Eagle:
In the San Luis Valley: water is and will always be a critical issue. While demands on our scarce water supply grow, there are many community-based efforts working to restore a better water balance and plan for our future.
In the case of groundwater, the amount of water withdrawn by legally permitted wells exceeds the amount of water refilling the aquifers.
At a recent symposium hosted by Adams State University’s Salazar Center, local water leaders presented information on key aspects of current water conditions and challenges.
Salazar Center Director, Rio de la Vista, “With this year’s water shortage, the time is now to raise our level of knowledge on the critical water issues here. We aim to engage more people in community-based efforts for a sustainable water future and we need everyone’s help to make that possible!”
Local water users and State officials recognized something needed to be done in response to a severe drought that started about 20 years ago and reached its peak in 2002. They banded together to form local groundwater sub-districts to balance water use and supply. Their goal is to make groundwater use sustainable and protect senior surface water right holders from water shortages due to groundwater pumping.
Despite efforts to meet a court-mandated goal to replenish the shallow aquifer to pre-2000 levels by 2030, significant progress was curtailed by another serious drought beginning in 2018.
Agriculture is the economic engine in the San Luis Valley. None of the region’s current crops could be grown if growers depended only on the 7.5 inches of annual precipitation that hits the valley floor. The valley is one of the world’s largest high-altitude deserts. Water users draw from the valley rivers and streams to irrigate their crops but the peak flows that are common in May and June dry up by July and August. Given the lack of water storage in the region, growers rely on groundwater to finish watering their crops.
The latest attempt to export water from the valley to the Front Range is led by Renewable Water Resources (RWR), based in the city of Centennial near Denver. This scheme is undermining local farmers’ efforts to address water shortages and could set a dangerous precedent of water export.
There is zero unappropriated water in the Rio Grande Basin. This means all surface water and groundwater is currently used by existing water users, leaving no water available for transport outside the valley.
RWR aims to pump 22,000 acre-feet of water and pipe it over Poncha Pass to the Front Range. Local water leaders believe that if the pipeline is built, the RWR project will be just the start and lead to further attempts to export water.
The proposal is opposed by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, Conejos Water Conservancy District, the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable as well as the City of Alamosa, Town of Del Norte, City of Monte Vista, Town of Saguache; joined by environmental groups, local businesses, and many farmers and ranchers.
There is widespread opposition in the valley to the RWR export scheme. Locals are concerned that RWR’s plan could turn Saguache County into another Crowley County, an area east of Pueblo that has been devastated economically by the sale of its water. See https://bit.ly/2CORMbB.
The San Luis Valley is a beloved place for many Colorado residents and travelers from across the country and around the world. With the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, three extraordinary National Wildlife Refuges, the Rio Grande Natural Area, the Rio Grande National Forest and many other public lands, the valley’s water sustains wildlife for viewing, hunting and fishing, and many forms of recreation. Sandhill crane migration attracts many visitors to the valley. Water export threatens the valley’s economy, which is dependent on agriculture.
Valley water leaders urge residents to take action by seeking out the facts about valley water resources and advocating for the truth about RWR’s export plans and the valley’s water supplies and hydrology.
Please see http://www.rgwcd.org for information about current aquifer levels and the subdistricts’ efforts to manage our groundwater.
FromThe Denver Post (Bruce Finley) via The Brush News-Tribune:
How to survive in hotter, drier world a focus as 93% of state bakes in “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought
The sun beat down, baking Colorado’s bone-dry, cracking San Luis Valley, where farmers for eight years have been trying to save their depleted underground water but are falling behind.
They’re fighting to survive at an epicenter of the West’s worsening water squeeze amid a 20-year shift to aridity. Federal data this past week placed 93% of Colorado in “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought .
And Gov. Jared Polis was listening now, as a group of farmers sat around a patio shaking their heads, frowning, frustration etched on their faces — down by 150,000 acre-feet of water below their aquifer-pumping target as the driest months begin.
“We’re about as lean as we possibly can be. We’ve re-nozzled our sprinklers. Our pumping is as efficient as it possibly can be. We’re trying different crops,” said Tyler Mitchell, who had cut his water use by 30% after installing soil moisture sensors and shifting from barley to quinoa. “But, at the end of the day, we have too many businesses that are trying to stay in business. I don’t know how we can reduce pumping more than we already have.”
How to adapt to a hotter, drier world is emerging as a do-or-die mission for people living around the arid West. Polis was in the San Luis Valley on Tuesday, embarking on a potentially groundbreaking statewide effort to explore solutions amid increasingly harsh impacts of climate warming, including wildfires burning more than 300 square miles of western Colorado.
Average temperatures will keep rising for decades, federal climate scientists say, based on the thickening global atmospheric concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, now around 412 parts per million, the highest in human history. Heat is depleting water across the Colorado and Rio Grande river basins, where more than 50 million people live.
Nowhere have climate warming impacts exacerbated local difficulties more than here in the Massachusetts-sized, predominantly Hispanic, low-income San Luis Valley between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains of southern Colorado…
This year, the winter mountain snowpack that determines surface water flow in the Rio Grande River measured 33% of normal in spring. Rainfall so far, 2.7 inches, lags at around 38% of average.
And the Rio Grande barely trickles, at 7 cubic feet per second, leaving Colorado toward New Mexico and Texas. Those similarly drought-stricken states count on shares of surface water in the river under a 1938 interstate legal agreement.
Colorado farmers’ fallback habit of pumping more from the aquifers connected to the river — water use that is restricted under a locally-run, state-ordered conservation plan — has obliterated water savings painstakingly gained since 2012.
The 150,000 acre-feet draw-down this year hurled farmers practically back to their starting point. And a state-enforced deadline of 2030 for restoring the aquifer to a healthy level looms. If not met, state authorities could take control over wells.
Rio Grande Water Conservation District manager Cleave Simpson said recovery now requires a snow-dependent gain of 680,000 acre-feet — 4.5 times this year’s draw-down…
“A drier and hotter world”
Polis looked out the windows of a black utility vehicle and saw devastation spreading as climate warming impacts hit home. Hot wind churned dust around farms now abandoned and rented to newcomers struggling to get by. San Luis Valley leaders have estimated that low flows and falling water tables may lead to the dry-up of 100,000 irrigated acres, a fifth of the farmland in a valley where residents depend economically and culturally on growing food.
He saw farm crews toiling, coaxing the most from their heavy machinery, after flows from some wells had diminished and even reportedly pulled up just air.
He said he sees different dimensions of problems around climate warming.
On one hand, human emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases “are going up,” Polis said. “But, then, here in this world, it is about adapting to what is happening. I mean, the global effort needs to succeed. Climate change needs to slow down. Colorado is just a teeny piece of that — a fundamental issue affecting the entire world. America never should have pulled out of the Paris accords. I hope we return, and have a concerted international effort.
“But it is also a reality for how these farmers put food on their plate, for how their communities thrive in a drier and hotter world. … The same crops we have been growing, with one water and warm temperature profile, don’t work with the way things are now.”
Colorado agriculture commissioner Kate Greenberg said state leaders also will hear from producers enduring dry times on the Eastern Plains, where wheat harvests are expected to suffer. Agriculture statewide “is hurting” and the San Luis Valley stands out as “ground zero” in a water squeeze due to low snow, shrinking aquifers, drought and competing demands from inside and outside the valley. Legal obligations to leave water for New Mexico and Texas compel cuts that complicate solutions, Greenberg said…
Few of the farmers on the patio meeting with the governor saw much that state governments can do in the face of a possible environmental collapse.
Many have concluded that, as Jim Erlich said, “we’re going to be farming less here.” Some anticipated an agricultural landscape looking more like western Kansas…
Polis called climate warming “the new normal.” He asked the farmers: “Where does it lead? Do you see a way forward?” State projections show conditions for at lest 15 years will be “likely hotter and drier… What does that mean in terms of crop mix? What does it mean in terms of sustainability? What does it mean in communities?”
The farmers, about a dozen, said they’ll push ahead in the “sub-districts” they’ve formed to encourage saving groundwater — as an alternative to state engineer authorities controlling wells. They now pay fees for pumping and pooled funds can be used to pay farmers for leaving fields fallow…
An entrepreneurial businessman, Polis pushed toward what might be done to create better markets for crops, such as “Colorado quinoa” that use less water, giving a global perspective. “I mean, agriculture does occur in dry parts of the world. It has to work from a water perspective…
At another farm, Brendon and Sheldon Rockey showed Polis around. They’ve reduced their use of water from wells by 50% and prospered, growing 25 types of potatoes, shifting off water-intensive crops such as barley and planting more “Colorado Quinoa” along with a half dozen other growers.
Fallow fields fertilized with cows and planted with restorative “cover crops” help boost productivity by improving soil, Brendon Rockey told the governor. “I don’t have a mono-culture anywhere on this farm.”
As president of the potato producers’ council and leader of a water-saving sub-district, Sheldon Rockey is encouraging other farmers — optimistically despite increased stress around the depletion of aquifers. “We can still make it back,” he said, “if we have snow.”
Polis also suggested a relaxed state approach to the 2030 deadline for replenishing the shrinking aquifer. “It is about the long-term trends. … whether goals are being met. There’s nothing that would ever be done based on one bad year.”
The farmers were hanging on that.
“He is genuinely interested in providing what support the state can to help with our water balance challenges,” Simpson concluded following this first meeting.
But “farmers are frustrated,” he said, emphasizing that aquifer recovery can happen only “if mother nature brings snow.”
And Polis left with a more detailed sense of the stakes.
“What we want here is sustainability. That’s why I oppose trans-basin water diversions,” he said. “But we have to make sure that farmers here today don’t live at the expense of farmers here tomorrow and the next decade. This valley is about agriculture. If the water is sold off, or the water is used up, it will become a dust bowl.”
New emails detail drained ponds, salvaged fish and a tense relationship with the Department of Homeland Security.
During the fall of 2019, the Department of Homeland Security began pumping large amounts of water from a southern Arizona aquifer to mix concrete for the Trump administration’s border wall. The aquifer is an essential water source for the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, so when the pumping escalated, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials watched helplessly as the water levels at several ponds — the main habitat for the endangered fish at this Sonoran Desert refuge — dropped “precipitously.”
In what Bill Radke, who has managed the refuge for two decades, called “life support” actions, staff was forced to shut off water to three of the ponds to minimize broader damage. As a result, biologists had to salvage endangered fish from the emptying ponds. It was “like cutting off individual fingers in an attempt to save the hand,” Radke wrote in an email to staff.
Since its creation in 1982 the 2,300-acre refuge’s sole mission has been to protect the rare species of the Río Yaqui, including endangered fishes like the Yaqui chub and Yaqui topminnow, and other species, such as the tiny San Bernardino springsnail and the endangered Huachuca water umbel, a plant that resembles clumps of tubular grass. Through a series of artesian wells connected to an aquifer, the refuge has kept ponds filled in this fragile valley for nearly 40 years.
Under normal circumstances, a significant construction project like a border wall would be required to go through an extensive environmental review process as dictated by the National Environmental Policy Act. The Department of Homeland Security says it operates under the spirit of NEPA and solicits public comment. But with environmental laws — including NEPA, the Endangered Species Act and the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act — waived for the border wall, the refuge lacks any legal protection, either for itself or the endangered species in its care. So wildlife officials have tried to work with the department, sending hydrological studies and providing recommendations about how to reduce water use near the refuge — information that the Department Homeland Security has repeatedly claimed it takes into consideration.
But as emails recently obtained by High Country News through a Freedom of Information Act Request show, Homeland Security consistently ignored the expertise of Radke and his team. The emails, which were sent from August 2019 to January 2020, chronicle months of upheaval at the refuge and dysfunctional communication between Fish and Wildlife and Homeland Security. During crucial moments, Homeland Security kept wildlife agency staff in the dark as land managers and hydrologists worked to anticipate damages.
“What we are seeing in these FOIA documents confirms a pattern with CBP and DHS that goes back 15 years,” said Randy Serraglio, Southwest conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Matthew Dyman, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman, stated that “DHS and CBP have and continue to coordinate weekly, and more frequently on an as needed basis, to answer questions concerning new border wall construction projects and to address environmental concerns from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” Nevertheless, documents confirm that border wall construction caused groundwater levels to plummet and harmed endangered fish at the refuge.
IN OCTOBER 2019, RADKE wrote to Fish and Wildlife staff that “the threat of groundwater depletion” at the San Bernardino Refuge had gone from “concerning” to a “dire emergency.” Subsequent emails detail the refuge’s difficulty in obtaining water usage estimates from DHS contractors for an accurate risk assessment. Fish and Wildlife officials sent the department a hydrology analysis to raise an alarm and requested a five-mile buffer around the refuge for well drilling.
According to the emails, though, the Department of Homeland Security did little in response. “I was disappointed today to see first hand that DHS and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not abide by the (most recent) October 16, 2019, Fish and Wildlife Service request to minimize water withdrawal from the aquifer that supports all wetlands on San Bernardino NWR,” Radke wrote. “Instead contractors made plans to drill even closer to the refuge, drilling their second new well 480 feet east of (the refuge).”
CBP spokesman Dyman maintains that construction contractors honored the buffer request. But emails show otherwise: At least one well was drilled less than 500 feet from the refuge boundary; it was abandoned only after it didn’t produce water. And Fish and Wildlife soon learned that even more well locations were being considered near the refuge, according to emails. Homeland Security also continued to pump large volumes of water from a private landowner whose well is just 1.5 miles from the refuge.
Around the same time, pond levels in the refuge dropped. In a series of emails in late November, Radke grew increasingly frustrated. On Nov. 22, he wrote to agency employees, “Our refuge water monitoring is already showing harm to our aquifer during months when the refuge has always demonstrated an increase in groundwater levels. We have ponds dropping precipitously (as much as a foot already) that have never gone low during the winter months — not ever.” Fish and Wildlife had warned Homeland Security that this would happen, but no apparent action was ever taken. “I do not know what reaction to expect from DHS or (the Army Corps of Engineers) to our continuing requests for them to minimize or mitigate impacts to the refuge,” Radke wrote, “but so far our requests have been consistently met with indifference.”
ON DEC. 12, RADKE CALLEDthe water withdrawals for the border wall “the current greatest threat to endangered species in the southwest region.” By that point, refuge staff had begun to track the impact themselves; there was little else they could do. The monitoring became “an overwhelming priority that diminishes our ability to adequately meet other important objectives, obligations and due dates,” Radke wrote.
By January, the impact on the ponds was obvious. According to a Fish and Wildlife memo, swings in water pressure and depth were clearly documented. The report noted that these changes “began to occur as water was used off refuge for border wall construction.” Earlier emails speculated that the situation would only grow more dire at the refuge during the sweltering summer months, when evaporation both from the ponds and the water being pumped would use even more of the precious desert resource.
In an email, Dyman told High Country News that Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “are working closely with the construction contractor on estimated water usage requirements for barrier construction in Arizona as well as working with San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge to mitigate the impacts of groundwater use for the project.” Beth Ullenberg, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, confirmed that the refuge is working with Homeland Security. The agency “has identified that larger capacity pumps are now needed in order to maintain pond levels and appropriate pond outflows,” Ullenberg wrote. She said the contractor is purchasing and will install the new pumps at the refuge.
Those pumps came too late for at least three ponds and according to a document obtained by Defenders of Wildlife, as recently as May water pumping near the refuge was still having a direct and detrimental impact to the refuge. Environmental groups say a pattern of secrecy, lack of communication and failure to coordinate with land managers at the border continue to endanger other biodiverse regions, such as Quitobaquito Springs in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where they intersect with border wall construction.
“(The Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Patrol) have consistently ignored the input of land managers and landowners and other stakeholders along the border with regard to these construction projects,” Serraglio said, “and it has resulted in serious damage time and time again.”
Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at email@example.com.
In 2012, the state of Colorado passed Regulation 85, or Reg 85, which dealt with point source and nonpoint source water contaminants. Point sources, like wastewater treatment plants, were hit with strict measures for managing pollutants. Nonpoint sources, like parks, golf courses and agriculture, were not.
However, Reg 85 began a 10-year period where the agricultural community is encouraged to do voluntary measures for managing nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Agricultural organizations like the Colorado Livestock Association and Colorado Corn Growers Association were involved in those early discussions and pushed back against the assumption that agriculture is the main contributor of nutrients to streams and rivers in Colorado.
In 2022, the Water Quality Control Commission will determine if the agricultural community needs regulations or if we will continue voluntary measures. The first hearing on Reg 85 is in October, and it is an opportunity for the agricultural community to tell their story and keep Colorado as a voluntary state.
The main issue is not the voluntary measures. Farms and ranches throughout the state have been changing and adapting their practices constantly. Many practices, which have been implemented to simply keep a farm or ranch efficient or profitable, have also improved the management of nitrogen and phosphorus. Colorado producers will continue to invest and adopt practices that manage nutrients and are compatible with their operations.
The issue is telling this story to those outside of the agricultural community, and there are multiple opportunities to do just that.
A team with Colorado State University is conducting multiple edge-of-field studies to show the benefit of specific operations and practices on nutrient management. These studies provide us with valuable data to show the positive benefit of practices on the majority of farms and ranches today.
Additionally, these studies can help the landowner have a better understanding of their own application rates of nitrogen and phosphorus and how well those are being used by the crop.
There is also work being done to demonstrate past improvements through programs like EQIP — Environmental Quality Incentives Program —administered by Natural Resources Conservation Services. Every year, millions of dollars in federal and private funding are spent on Colorado farms and ranches that have had positive impacts on managing nitrogen and phosphorus. These studies can show us how much work has been done throughout the state in reducing loads of nitrogen and phosphorus because of new agricultural practices.
If there is a project that will benefit your farm or ranch and have a positive water quality impact, there is a lot of funding out there. We want to focus that money on projects that are compatible with farms and ranches, making them even better.
If you are interested in participating in any of these opportunities, want to know more about Reg 85 or are interested in project funding, please contact Greg Peterson at the Colorado Ag Water Alliance at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-244-4629.
Greg Peterson is the executive director of the Colorado Ag Water Alliance.
At the Monument Board of Trustees meeting Aug. 3, 2020…approved two resolutions to continue water projects which have been on hiatus.
Trustees reviewed a resolution to award a project agreement to Forsgren Associates Inc. for the continued design and development of a new two-gallon [two million gallon] water storage tank and associated pipeline into the town’s water system. Public works director Tom Tharnish said a lot of preliminary work had already been done by Forsgren Associates and continuing the project with the firm would quicken the project’s timeline.
The agreement would allow the majority of the engineering for the project, which involved a change in the size of the tank from 1.2 million gallons. The town is already $60,000 into the project, Tharnish said. When originally developing a 1.2 million gallon tank, the additional capacity required for the upcoming reuse pipeline wasn’t considered…
Another resolution was presented to the board to award a contract to Lytle Water Solutions LLC for the design and development of a new water well at the Water Treatment Plant.
Given recent emergency repairs to Wells No. 3 and No. 8, Tharnish said the department’s senior water technicians approached him with concerns for the same incident occurring later this year…
The idea is to drill a new well on the Well No. 4-5 site and build a short pipe to the existing treatment plant. Since this would create additional flow to an existing plant, the plans for the well have to be approved by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Tharnish said the new well, which would draw from the Arapahoe basin, would produce 190-200 gallons per minute. Presently, Wells No. 4 and 5 produces 100 and 60 gallons per minute, respectively, which is the way the state has permitted them, he said. Trustees approved the resolution 6-0.
Town Manager Mike Foreman said the town is getting ready to sell revenue bonds prior to November to help fund the water projects planned for the next five years and a workshop with the board to review all future water projects would be forthcoming. Foreman said the town has the opportunity to sell $15-20 million in bonds over the next five years.
Tharnish noted Well No. 3 is repaired and operational, producing 25 gallons per minute more than it did previous to experiencing a failure July 5.
For a few days in August 2015, invisible mining pollutants could be seen by the world
Five years ago today, a breach at the Gold King Mine north of Silverton sent a deluge of water loaded with heavy metals into the Animas River, turning the waterway an electric-orange hue that caught the nation’s attention.
But five years later, and four years into the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup program, there has yet to be meaningful improvements to water quality and aquatic life.
Dan Wall, with the EPA’s Superfund program, said most of the focus since the Bonita Peaking Mining District Superfund site was declared in fall 2016 has been on studying the watershed and the multitude of mines impacting water quality.
The EPA is still in that effort, Wall said, and there’s no time frame for when the agency will present its final work plan for a comprehensive cleanup in the Animas River basin.
The EPA has spent more than $75 million on the site to date.
“It may be slower than what people want,” Wall said. “But we want to make sure our remedy selection is based on science … so the money won’t be wasted and we can be confident to see improvements based on the work we take.”
The stretch of the Animas River between Silverton and Bakers Bridge, about 15 miles north of Durango, is virtually devoid of aquatic life. Fish populations in the river through Durango are unable to reproduce, in part because of heavy metal contamination. And, years ago, the city of Durango switched its main source of water to the Florida River because of quality issues in the Animas.
The Animas River Stakeholders Group formed in 1994 and brought together a coalition of local, state and federal agencies, as well as mining companies and interested people, who sought to improve the health of the river amid heavy metal loading from legacy mines.
Despite the many Stakeholders Group successes, water quality in the Animas River in recent years has diminished, mainly from the mines leaching into one of the river’s tributaries, Cement Creek.
In 2014, the EPA decided pollution had gotten so bad that it stepped in with a $1.5 million cleanup project of its own…
Despite millions of dollars in claims, no one was reimbursed for their losses after the EPA claimed governmental immunity. A lawsuit still lingers in the federal courts from those seeking to recoup costs.
But ultimately, the Animas River did not appear to be too adversely impacted – the spill did not cause a die-off of fish, and long-term studies have shown little to no effect on aquatic life or the waterway…
What the spill did accomplish was to highlight the legacy of mines chronically contaminating the Animas River: The amount of metals released from the Gold King Mine spill is equal to that released every 300 days from all the mines around Silverton.
After years of the possibility of the EPA’s Superfund program stepping in, it became official in fall 2016, with the agency singling out 48 mining-related sites set for some degree of cleanup…
Immediately after the Gold King Mine spill, the EPA built a $1.5 million temporary water treatment plant that takes in discharges from the mine and removes metals, which costs about $2.4 million to $3.3 million a year to operate.
But other than some minor projects around the basin, the EPA has focused on studies to better understand the complex mining district, and evaluate what long-term options would be best for cleanup.
The EPA is set, remedial project manager Robert Parker said, to make stronger headway on a quick action plan to address about 23 mining sites over the next few years while longer-term solutions are being examined.
The race against time continues for farmers in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, with the state’s top water regulator warning that a decision on whether hundreds of farm wells will be shut off to help save the Rio Grande River could come much sooner than expected.
July 28, at a virtual symposium on the Rio Grande River, the state warned growers that they were running out of time to correct the situation.
“We’ll see in the next couple of years if we can turn around this trick,” said State Engineer Kevin Rein. “If we’re not turning it around, we need to start having that more difficult conversation.”
The valley is home to the nation’s second-largest potato economy and growers there have been working voluntarily for more than a decade to wean themselves from unsustainable groundwater use and restore flows in the Rio Grande. Thousands of acres of land have been dried up with farmers paying a fee for the water they pump in order to compensate producers who agree to fallow land.
The San Luis Valley, which receives less precipitation than nearly any other region in Colorado, is supplied by the Rio Grande, but under the river lies a vast aquifer system that is linked to the river. It once had so much water that artesian springs flowed freely on the valley floor.
As modern-day farmers began putting powerful deep wells into the aquifer, aquifer levels declined, and flows in the river declined too as a result, hurting the state’s ability to deliver Rio Grande water downstream to New Mexico and Texas, as it is legally required to do.
Between July 2019 and July 2020 the valley’s unconfined aquifer, which is fed by the Rio Grande River, dropped by 112,600 acre-feet. All told the aquifer has lost around 1 million acre-feet of water since the drought of 2002.
Through a plan written by growers in the valley and approved by the state in 2011, farmers had 20 years, from 2011 to 2031, to restore the aquifer. But multiple droughts in the past 19 years have made clear that the region can’t rely on big snow years to replenish the valley’s water supplies because there are fewer of them, thanks to climate change.
“So what is the future, the short-term future, if we can’t count on climate? And let’s admit we can’t,” Rein said. “If climate’s not cooperating the only thing that can be done is consuming less water.”
Adding to pressure on the region is a proposal by Denver developers to buy thousands of acres of the valley’s farm land, leaving some of the associated water rights behind to replenish the aquifer, while piping thousands of acre-feet of water northeast to the metro area.
Rein said drastic steps, like drying up more fields and sharply limiting how much growers can pump, are needed. But this could result in bankruptcies and could cripple the valley’s $370 million agriculture economy, which employs the majority of workers in the region. Worse still, though, would be the shutdown of all wells in the region, which is what could occur if farmers aren’t able to make progress toward aquifer sustainability.
While the deadline to restore the aquifer is set for 2031, if it becomes clear before then that growers aren’t able to restore groundwater levels, Rein will be forced to take action early by turning off all wells.
Rein said his decision likely won’t come as early as next year. But, he said, “Do we wait until 2031, the deadline? Probably not.”
The groundwater challenges and associated deadline stem from Colorado’s historic 2002 drought which led to more groundwater pumping than ever before and resulted in a falling water table, decreases in water pressure, and failing wells.
Groundwater declines have been so severe that they’ve affected surface water levels in parts of the valley. In 2004, state lawmakers passed a bill requiring the state to begin regulating the aquifer to make it more sustainable.
Landowners within the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) responded by forming a groundwater management district known as Subdistrict 1—that was just the first of what will soon be seven approved subdistricts.
Subdistrict 1 set goals and developed a plan of water management in late 2011 that spelled out how to reduce groundwater depletions and recharge the aquifer.
In 2012 they began paying a fee for every acre-foot of water used. That revenue helps pay irrigators who elect to participate in voluntary fallowing programs and other efforts to replenish the river and reduce stress on the aquifer.
And by 2017, irrigators had restored 350,000 acre-feet of water in the aquifer, halfway to their goal. But drought and disaster struck in 2018. With less surface water available and high temperatures, irrigators pumped heavily to maintain their crops. And by September 2018, farmers had lost about 70 percent of the groundwater gains they had worked so hard to recover.
“2018 was extremely frustrating,” said Cleave Simpson, manager of the RGWCD who is also a fourth-generation grower. ”It really kind of set us back to where we were when we started this in 2012.”
It’s not over yet. Some of that groundwater lost in 2018 has been recovered and this year participation in the fallowing program is higher than ever, with more than 13,000 acres enrolled, according to Amber Pacheco who manages the RGWCD’s subdistrict programs—that’s in addition to the 8,800 acres fallowed through the conservation programs that have been running since 2012.
Simpson and others, faced with another severe drought year, are deeply worried about the success of their conservation efforts, but dire times are also boosting motivation to solve the problem, Simpson said.
“There’s a sense of urgency from the board of managers that we’ve got to keep doing more,” Simpson said. “We’ve got to get back what we lost.”
Caitlin Coleman is the Headwaters magazine editor and communications specialist at Water Education Colorado. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased from 1450 cfs to 1500 cfs on Wednesday, August 5th. Releases are being adjusted to raise flows back to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.
There is a drought rule in the Aspinall Unit Operations EIS which has changed the baseflow target at the Whitewater gage. The rule states that during Dry or Moderately Dry years, when the content of Blue Mesa Reservoir drops below 600,000 AF the baseflow target is reduced from 1050 cfs to 900 cfs. Therefore, the baseflow target for July and August will now be 900 cfs.
Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently below the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to trend up toward the baseflow target after the release increase has arrived at the Whitewater gage.
Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 450 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 500 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.
The vast Ogallala Aquifer has been on the minds of growers in many states but it certainly has been on the minds of growers in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska who share the crucial resource with differing regulations. We all share a common bond to try to preserve it for future generations.
Timothy Pautler became involved with water conservation district matters with the settlement of the Arkansas River Compact dispute between Colorado and Kansas. The state of Colorado was in litigation with Kansas and Nebraska on the Republican River Compact. The state decided to approach the defense of this conflict differently than the Arkansas River Compact, so through legislation, Colorado created an entity to assist the state in achieving compact compliance and in August 2004 the Republican River Water Conservation District was formed.
The board members represented, at the time, seven counties, seven Ground Water Management Districts and one member from the Colorado Ground Water Commission. Pautler was appointed by the Kit Carson County Commission.
“My understanding of what was happening to the Ogallala Aquifer in my area of the basin was the driving force behind my desire to participate in the decision to assist the state,” he said. “The economy that was created by the state, in its determination to allow the mining of the Aquifer, and the resulting decline, was a concern.”
In 2019, the boundary for the RRWCD was expanded, to include all the irrigated acres that are actually contributing to the compact issue. This change affected folks in the southeast part of Kit Carson County and the northern part of Cheyenne County and in the East Cheyenne Ground Water Management District. This change created two more board member positions, representing those two new entities. This expansion added approximately 45,000 new irrigated acres to the RRWCD fee assessment.
The RRWCD assists the state in reaching compact compliance on the Republican River Compact that was signed in 1942. In the beginning, the state told growers that if they retired 30,000 acres from irrigation the state would be in compliance. To fund the required budget that was going to be needed, the RRWCD assessed all irrigated acres a fee of $5.50 per irrigated acre. At that point in time, the basin did not have meters on any of the wells, so a per acre charge was really the only option and was easy to do, using county assessors’ records. The RRWCD worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency, to create programs that would financially compensate producers for voluntarily retiring some of their irrigated lands.
Over time the district has been actively involved with purchasing surface water rights on the Arikaree and the North and South Forks of the Republican. It was involved with the Pioneer and Laird ditch rights. When they were purchased by the Yuma County Water Authority, the RRWCD leased those rights from the YCWA for $5 million for 20 years. This transaction leaves water in the North Fork of the Republican, and is accounted for at the gauging station located just east of Wray, Colorado
“We are continually working with surface water folks, in order to acquire their rights, this practice is ongoing,” he said. “Because of the way surface water irrigation is accounted for under the compact the retirement of these water rights is very helpful in achieving compliance.
He noted the 15-member board showed tremendous leadership in helping stakeholders understand what was at stake.
“As we moved through time, the collective efforts started to bring results for the basin. We were well on our way to retiring the 30,000 acres of irrigated land. The programs were working rather smoothly, and the process was a success,” Paulter said. “But then our general manager, Stan Murphy, and our engineer, Jim Slattery, started to look at the numbers and realized that the retirement of acres alone, was not going to get us where we needed to be, in order to be in compliance.”
The acreage retirements were coming so far from the three streams—the North Fork, the Arikaree, and the South Fork—to achieve the goal. The retirements were still a good concept and leaving water in the hole is always a positive, the producer and board member said. But the lagged depletion effect that existed in the aquifer was not allowing the impact of acreage retirement to result in immediate stream flow. The lagged depletion, describes the impacts that distant well pumping has on stream flow. As a result of the lag effect, the impact of present day pumping will have negative effects for 30 to 50 years, according to the engineers, even though a well has been retired. The effects that those distant retired wells created, prior to retirement, continued to haunt the long-term goals of the RRWCD.
In 2002, the Republican River settlement had been signed. The final settlement stipulation agreed that Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado would not fight about water use that was in the past, but only work toward achieving future compliance with the compact that allocates how much water each state is entitled to use, he said. As part of the stipulation between the states, the accounting for all three states started at zero, it also allowed that any one of the states could use a pipeline to get additional water to the river in order to get into compliance.
So that became the next challenge for the board. Where do we get enough water to make a difference?
“We started looking at an exhausting list of possibilities, including The Dakota formation below the Ogallala, areas of the basin that were under appropriated, and imports from the South Platte at the time we left no stone unturned. Every idea had issues that came along with it,” Pautler said.
The Dakota was going to be too salty and too costly to bring to the surface and not enough water. The unappropriated area was going to require too many easements and a pipeline of extreme length. The South Platte was too expensive.
“In the end we were able to make a deal with one family. Their water rights were located northeast of Wray. This area of the basin has absolutely the greatest amount of saturated thickness.”
It was far enough away from the North Fork to minimize effect on stream flow, but yet close enough that the pipeline length was a doable deal, approximately 13 miles, he said. About 13,500 acre feet of historical consumptive use, from 62 permits, were acquired.
The Colorado Ground Water Commission then approved the RRWCD application, allowing it to consolidate the 62 existing wells into 15 wells to be used for compact compliance, without any injury to surrounding water rights. Along with the water purchase, the district negotiated easements from the landowners for the pipeline route. The cost of the water and easements was $50 million. The engineers designed a pipeline system that cost $20 million.
Informational meetings were key because a $70 million project was not an easy sell, especially when budgets were compiled. The $5.50 per acre assessment needed to go to $14.50. This created a budget of $7 million. A loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board for the $60 million, at an interest rate of 2% was secured and the 20-year note will be paid off in 2028. “The public acceptance of the concept, came with a lot of questions,” Pautler said. “As their understanding of the entire compact issue increased, so did their support.”
Not so fast
Even with the pipeline it did not mean going back to old practices, Paulter said. Wells in every county and management district that once pumped 800 to 1,000 gallons per minute had diminished to 200 to 500 gpm.
When the pipeline was completed and functioning, the board started to hear comments like, “now we can pump it till it is dry.”
“The pipeline did give us all a false sense of security that nothing else has to change; the perception was the economies of the communities can now continue as always; the threat of shut downs is taken care of,” he said. “But in reality, our small communities are changing so slow we don’t even see it happening, especially in areas of the basin that never did have sufficient saturate thickness, to expect life to go on as usual, or forever.”
A safe statement would be, “most wells in the basin, do not have the yield they originally had.” Conservation has always been an underlying effort, but the urgency to get into compact compliance was paramount and trumped conservation.
The fee assessment has been a problem for the basin, in terms of conservation. For $14.50 per acre, a producer can pump all he wants, up to his permitted amount. Paulter said a per acre foot charge would have been better formula to achieve conservation. The meters did not come into existence until about 2010. Meters alone will not create conservation, although the irrigators, today, do pay more attention to the amount pumped. They are required to stay within their annual appropriation.
What has worked
Conservation has been attained in the areas where irrigated acres were retired. That unused volume assures more water for domestic and livestock use. That is vital for those areas long term. Travel west of the RRWCD boundary and there are large ranches with very limited water resources. Pipelines have been installed with USDA cost share dollars to move the water for miles. And now, even those pipelines are in jeopardy of not having enough water for livestock numbers to adequately make an economic enterprise work.
When the pipeline was completed, the RRWCD’s Conservation Committee started looking at ways to encourage meaningful conservation. They formed a subcommittee made up of members from all the Ground Water Management Districts.
The basin is very different north to south and east to west. Saturated thicknesses vary from having very little left to those areas that still have a 40-year supply left. Soil types very vastly as well.
“We have good heavy soils that will support dry land farming, to sugar sand that without water becomes rangeland. It is a classic case of the ‘haves and the have nots,’ depending on where you are located,” Pautler said. “We are all human, and no one wants to limit their neighbor’s ability to have an economic gain. Admittedly, a tough issue to struggle with.”
Another problem is the fact that the RRWCD has no statutory authority to impose water use restrictions on the basin. That is under the authority of the GWMD. By design, when the RRWCD was given statutory authority to help the state get into compact compliance, GWMDs were very outspoken and insisted that the RRWCD should not be allowed to take over the authority that the management districts already had. These are some of the challenges in trying to achieve meaningful and measureable conservation.
“I would hope that we in the Republican basin can come up with a fair and equitable solution that fits the needs of all water users in the basin. The list of water users has to include discussion with the municipalities, domestic users, commercial interests, and livestock folks. Finding agreement affects everyone, not just the ag irrigators,” he said. “We all have economic interests that are effected by the discussions moving forward. The emotional part of the discussion, kind of stems from the fact that, if we do nothing, ever so slowly, the water passes by our neighbors and we don’t care until it is our turn. A restriction that imposes conservation on all water users happens immediately. The economic impact is immediate.”
This was edited by Dave Bergmeier who can be reached at 620-227-1822 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“At least with the smog, you can see it. With the flaring, we can see it,” said [Ean Thomas] Tafoya. “I would say average people aren’t really aware as much about water pollution because it’s something that’s invisible.”
What concerns Tafoya is recent evidence Suncor is emitting high levels of per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, into Sand Creek…
Since last summer, Suncor has complied with a state directive to test treated groundwater it pumps into Sand Creek for the chemicals. A letter state regulators sent to the company show the effluent often had PFAS concentrations far exceeding what the EPA recommends for safe drinking water.
According to one test from January, the levels of PFOS and PFOA, two of the best understood PFAS, combined to 199 parts per trillion. That’s almost three times the federal health advisory of 70 parts per trillion. It’s seven times more than stricter levels recently adopted in New Hampshire…
The refinery’s problems with water pollution date back to the 1990s. Due to hydrocarbon spills and benzene pollution, the company began to pump up groundwater, treat it and release it into Sand Creek…
While the presence of PFAS in that water has not been reported until now, it was not a huge surprise to state regulators at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The refinery has long practiced firefighting at an onsite location. In a statement, spokesperson Erin Rees said the company believes the chemicals in groundwater comes from the historic use of Class B firefighting foam. She added the company has since replaced the foam with a new product in line with EPA recommendations…
The news also follows a statewide survey commissioned by the legislature, which identified Suncor as a forever-chemical hotspot. The state conducted tests of 24 wells at the refinery between October 2018 and May 2019. The results found concentrations almost 150 times above the EPA health advisory.
That same survey included tests of surface water across the state. The only place where levels exceeded the threshold of 70 parts per trillion was the mouth of Sand Creek, just below Suncor…
After finding such high concentrations, Dani said the state worked with local health officials to reach nearby homes with shallow groundwater wells. The campaign, conducted in English and Spanish, offered residents free PFAS tests. According to Dani, the results show “we don’t have anyone drinking water above the health advisory.”
Kipp Scott, the manager of the South Adams County Water & Sanitation District, said the same can be said for municipal tap water. His system supplies water to more than 60,000 people in Commerce City and other parts of southern Adams County.
The district has worked to control PFAS in its water supply since 2018 when it found high concentrations in a dozen wells near I-270 and Quebec. The district disconnected three of the wells and purchased supplies from Denver Water to dilute what it sent to customers…
Following the incident, Scott said his district improved its water treatment practices and launched programs to conduct regular tests of the chemicals. Those results show water now sent to customers contains about 25 parts per trillion for PFOS/PFOA, below the health advisory.
Scott added he’s “reasonably sure” forever chemicals from Suncor aren’t affecting the water supply of its neighbors. That’s because most of the water supplied to the district comes from wells sunk into a different branch of the alluvial aquifer running beneath the district. Based on groundwater models, he said he has no reason to believe the chemicals at Suncor have reached the water supply.
Still, the water in Sand Creek does join the South Platte, which flows through Colorado into Nebraska. Water districts downstream from Commerce City use the river to grow crops and supply drinking water.
A Coming Crack Down
Even if forever chemicals from Suncor aren’t affecting drinking water, it will likely affect the company.
Last week, the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission adopted the state’s first-ever limits on forever chemicals. The new policy was pushed ahead in the absence of federal regulation, which has lagged under complex EPA rulemaking and inaction from Congress. It allows the state to set limits for the chemicals in wastewater permits in line with the federal health advisory. If a company or wastewater district exceeds the limit, it could require water treatment or issue fines of up to $54,000 per day.
Meg Parish, permit section manager for the Water Quality Control Division, said Suncor’s permit is up for renewal next year and would be subject to the new policy…
Rees, the spokesperson for Suncor, said the company is already exploring PFOS/PFOA treatment options as a part of its general efforts to improve water coming from the Commerce City facility…
But the commitment from Suncor doesn’t put Olga Mijares at ease. The school administrator lives near the refinery and raised her three children in Commerce City. Like most people in the largely Latino community, she doesn’t drink the tap water but showers and cooks with it.
Her oldest son, who is 29 years old, has already battled thyroid and brain cancer. She said a doctor told her she would never know what was behind the conditions and to put it out of her mind, if possible. She said that gets a lot harder when she learns about any new pollution near her home.
With Wednesday’s move by the Trump administration to weaken one of the nation’s bedrock conservation laws – the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) – all eyes will increasingly be on local opposition and regulation when it comes to major infrastructure on federal lands.
That’s pretty much what Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry told me when I asked about the proposed Whitney Reservoir project currently being scoped out by the U.S. Forest Service along Homestake Creek in southeastern Eagle County. The reservoir is being proposed by Colorado Springs and Aurora to pump Western Slope water to the Front Range.
All that’s currently being considered by the Forest Service is a test-drilling project to detect fatal flaws and see if one of four possible dam configurations is feasible, at which point an actual proposal for Whitney Reservoir would be submitted and considered by the feds, including a possible request to shrink the Holy Cross Wilderness by up to 500 acres to realign the road.
The Forest Service was flooded with more than 500 online comments opposing the drilling and the reservoir, demanding higher levels of environmental scrutiny for a special use permit for the drilling project that could be issued under what’s known as a “categorical exclusion.” Opponents are demanding an Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)…
in the 1990s, when I first moved to the Vail area, there was a huge battle going on over what was then called Homestake II – a reservoir proposed for the same area by the same cities, which still hold 20,000 acre-feet of water rights here.
Eagle County used its 1041 permitting powers, which give counties some degree of local control over infrastructure projects with regional or statewide impacts, to deny Homestake II – a move that wound up in court and went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court before Eagle County ultimately won. Those 1041 regulatory powers were granted by a state law in the 1970s.
All of that led to the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that outlines how all the various stakeholders in the Eagle River Basin would work together going forward to resolve their issues. But one important thing remains true: Eagle County, not a signatory to the MOU, still has 1041 permitting authority.
So Chandler-Henry, the water leader on the board, had some important things to say last spring. First, on any proposal that would require redrawing the boundaries of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area: “I can tell you that’s not anything that we would ever be supportive of is moving wilderness boundaries.” Then, on the importance of local permitting power:
Chandler-Henry points out that federal protections have been stripped away by the current administration, with fens and ephemeral streams recently being removed from the definition of Waters of the United States by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Those changes, she said, are making it much easier for water providers to get their federal permits in place.
“Which means 1041 is all the more important for local considerations,” Chandler-Henry said, adding she believes her constituents oppose a dam. “I think that that is going to be a huge public sentiment, that we don’t want anything there.”
That being said, the county has to be somewhat diplomatic on both the test drilling and a possible future reservoir. Eagle County officials said they are working with the Forest Service on the test drilling proposal and may comment later.
“Eagle County cannot take a position regarding, and will not be commenting on, any future reservoir project because of its permitting authority powers,” county officials said in an email. “Eagle County must avoid prejudging a file based upon this authority.
“Eagle County plans to meet with the USDA USFS to discuss procedural questions regarding the proposed Whitney Creek Geotechnical Investigation project. Depending upon the outcome of that conversation, Eagle County may or may not choose to provide comment [to the Forest Service],” officials added.
Chandler-Henry, who talked to me well before the formal test drilling application and the recent Trump move to gut NEPA, said the county is keeping an open mind on 1041 permitting for whatever proposal eventually comes before the board. However, she reiterated that shrinking the Holy Cross boundary – something Congress would have to approve – is a non-starter…
Western Slope signatories of the Eagle River MOU were tight-lipped on the geophysical study and drilling. Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District, declined to comment on the investigatory test work, saying only, “Yes, we have signed the MOU. That said … we are not participating in the Whitney Creek effort.”
Diane Johnson,communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said: “The short answer is we – [ERWSD] and Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority — support [Homestake Partners’] right to pursue an application for their yield. We trust the permitting process to bring all impacts and benefits to light for the community to consider and weigh in total.” Neither organization submitted a comment to the Forest Service…
Impacts from fatal-flaw drilling
If approved by the Forest Service for a special use permit, Homestake Partners would send in crews on foot to collect seismic and other geophysical data later this summer or fall. Then crews with heavy equipment would drill 10 bore holes of up 150 feet deep in three separate possible dam locations on Forest Service land.
Crews would use a standard pickup truck, a heavy-duty pickup pulling a flatbed trailer, and a semi-tractor and trailer that would remain on designated roads and parking areas, with some lane closures of Homestake Road (703) and dispersed campsites possible.
For off-road boring operations, crews would use a rubber-tracked drill rig, a utility vehicle (UTV) pulling a small trailer, and a track-mounted skid steer. The drill rigs are up to 8 feet wide, 22 feet long, and 8 feet high and can extend up to 30 feet high during drilling, requiring possible tree removal in some areas. The rigs would also have to cross Homestake Creek and some wetland areas, although crews would use temporary ramps or wood mats to mitigate impacts.
According to a technical report (pdf) filed by Homestake Partners, the subsurface work is expected to take up to five days per drilling location, or at least 50 days of daytime work only. However, continuous daytime noise from the drilling could approach 100 decibels, which is equivalent to an outboard motor, garbage truck, jackhammer or jet flyover at 1,000 feet. If work is not done by winter, crews have up to a year to complete the project and could return in 2021.
The drilling process would use several thousand gallons of Homestake Creek water per day that engineers say “would have negligible impacts on streamflow or aquatic habitat. Water pumped from Homestake Creek during drilling would amount to less than 0.01 [cubic feet per second], a small fraction of average flows.”
Homestake Partners would avoid wetlands as much as possible during drilling, but “where temporary wetland or waters disturbance is unavoidable, applicable 404 permitting would be secured from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps).” Crossing of Homestake Creek would occur in late summer or fall when stream flows are low, and no drilling would occur in wetlands.
While no permanent roads would be built for the drilling, temporary access routes would be necessary and reclaimed as much as possible. “Access routes would be selected to reduce surface disturbance and vegetation removal, and to avoid identified or potential unexploded ordnances (UXOs) discovered during field surveys.” The famed 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army used the area for winter warfare training during World War II.
FromBloomberg Law (Ellen M. Gilmer, Stephen Lee, and Jennifer A. Dlouhy):
States and environmental coalitions are set to wage multiple challenges to President Donald Trump’s overhaul of federal requirements for environmental permitting, setting up long-term regulatory uncertainty and the potential for a checkerboard of rules across the country.
Trump unveiled the plan Wednesday, replacing Nixon-era rules for how federal agencies conduct reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act. The changes are aimed at streamlining permitting timelines for major projects down to two years, Trump said in public remarks in Atlanta…
Yet the move poses risks for developers and federal agencies alike. Congress hasn’t rewritten the requirements in the underlying, 50-year-old environmental law, and streamlined reviews that fall short of its mandates could be struck down in court.
“Even though the president has said that he wants to make this process more efficient and effective, it’s going to make it even worse, because it’s going to create more litigation and uncertainty,” said Sharon Buccino, senior director of the lands division at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The controversy and the confusion around these projects is going to increase, rather than decrease.”
The administration’s critics are already sharpening their legal tools, vowing courtroom fights over how the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality crafted the new regulation.
Congratulations to friend of Coyote Gulch, Grace Hood.
Here’s the release From the University of Colorado:
The Center for Environmental Journalism is proud to welcome its 24th class of Ted Scripps Fellows, who will spend nine months at the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Media, Communication and Information working on long-term, in-depth journalistic projects and reflecting on critical questions.
The group brings a depth of experience across a range of media, with backgrounds covering local issues as a public radio reporter and a photojournalist, overseeing a non-profit news organization and a science magazine, and reporting abroad as a Moscow correspondent.
“We’re thrilled to welcome these incredibly accomplished journalists to the Center for Environmental Journalism,” said Tom Yulsman, CEJ director. “We gain as much from their presence as they do from spending a year at the university.”
Stacy Feldman, co-founder of InsideClimate News (ICN), a Pulitzer Prize-winning non-profit news organization providing reporting and analysis on climate change, energy and the environment. Serving as executive editor from 2015 to 2020, she’s spent the past 13 years helping to build and lead ICN as it transformed from a two-person startup to an operation with nearly 20 employees and a model for national and award-winning non-profit climate journalism.
As a fellow, she plans to study new approaches to local journalism that could help people connect environmental harm and injustice to their own health and their communities’ well-being.
Grace Hood, who has covered water, science and energy topics across the American southwest as Colorado Public Radio’s environment and climate reporter since 2015. Throughout more than a decade in public radio, she’s profiled octogenarian voters worried about climate change, scientists tracking underground mine fires, a visually impaired marijuana farmer and a homeowner who lives next door to Colorado’s first underground nuclear fracking experiment.
As a fellow, she plans to study how cities and states monitor air quality near oil and gas sites. She has a particular interest in the rise of citizen science when it comes to measuring air pollution across the West.
Alec Luhn, an independent journalist with a focus on the changing communities and ecosystems of the far north. Previously a Moscow correspondent for The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, he’s been published in The Atlantic, GQ, The Independent, MAXIM, The Nation, The New York Times, POLITICO, Reuters, TIME, Slate and WIRED, among others. During a decade abroad, he’s reported from the coldest permanently inhabited place on earth and covered the conflict in eastern Ukraine, annexed Crimea, war-torn Syria and Chernobyl reactor four, as well as covering oil spills, permafrost thaw, reindeer herding, polar bear patrols, Gulag towns and the world’s only floating nuclear power plant in the Arctic.
As a fellow, he plans to study how climate change and resource extraction are altering the fragile environment of the north, with deep repercussions for reindeer and caribou and the indigenous peoples that depend on them.
Amanda Mascarelli, managing editor of Sapiens, an award-winning digital magazine that covers anthropology and archaeology for the general public. She has led the publication since before its 2016 launch and has overseen the production of hundreds of stories on topics including Holocaust archaeology, schizophrenia, fracking, cultural appropriation, and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. Previously, she spent more than a decade as a freelance science journalist specializing in health and the environment. She’s been published by outlets including Audubon, Nature, New Scientist, Science, Science News for Students and The New York Times and worked as a health columnist for the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.
As a fellow, she will study the social inequalities of health in vulnerable communities in the Denver metro region and elsewhere in Colorado, with an eye to exploring the health and social impacts of industrial expansion, fossil fuel extraction, and a planned massive urban redesign.
RJ Sangosti, who has been a photojournalist at The Denver Post since 2004, where he’s covered events spanning from Hurricane Katrina to presidential elections. Over more than a decade, he has documented the people and landscape of eastern Colorado, where years of drought and a loss of agricultural earning power continue to hurt farmers. Most recently, he completed a story about a Denver neighborhood in one of the country’s most polluted urban zip codes, whose residents continue to be impacted by a huge interstate construction project. His work was included in the 2012 Time Magazine top 10 photos of the year, and he was honored to be part of the 2016 jury for the centennial year of The Pulitzer Prizes.
As a fellow, he will report on the effects pesticides and fertilizers have on aquifers and groundwater, and he hopes to gain new skills in research and writing.
The state’s Water Quality Control Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to enact a policy to put new limits on per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS. The class of chemicals is a common ingredient in everything from nonstick pans to foam used to smother flames from jet fuel.
A growing body of scientific evidence has linked the chemicals to a range of health problems, including cancer and pregnancy issues. Meanwhile, federal efforts to regulate the chemicals have lagged, leaving states to take action on their own.
Liz Rosenbaum, founder of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition, was relieved to see Colorado join the list of states cracking down on the chemicals…
Rosenbaum’s community just south of Colorado Springs is widely seen as ground-zero for Colorado’s growing PFAS pollution crisis. In 2016, scientists found elevated levels of a specific PFAS in the drinking water for Security, Widefield and Fountain. The study traced the contamination to firefighting foam used at Peterson Airforce Base. Two years later, another study found elevated levels of the same chemical in community members’ blood.
Further testing has since revealed the chemicals in waterways across the state. Recent results from a state study found four water sources where levels exceeded a health guideline set by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008. All of the samples had some detectable levels of the chemicals.
In an effort to control the problem, the Colorado Water Quality Control Division proposed rules to require wastewater treatment plants and industrial sites to monitor the chemicals. It also established the authority for the state to limit the chemicals in future wastewater permits.
But the focus on wastewater was met with a fierce backlash from cities and private interests.
Three days before the commission hearing, Aurora, Colorado Springs and Greeley joined utilities and water districts in demanding regulators pause deliberations over the new rules. The motion to vacate claimed the rules focused on wastewater treatment plants, which do not add PFAS to water systems.
The groups called on the regulators to instead focus the source of the chemicals, like companies making carpet products or consumers using nonstick pans.
The Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, which serves more than 2 million people around metro Denver, put an especially shocking number behind their objection. If the state required wastewater districts to clean up the chemicals, it could cost ratepayers over $700 million.
Representatives for the Colorado Water Quality Control Division dismissed those concerns. Manufacturers and airfields would also face new scrutiny to clean up the chemicals, which means the wastewater district probably wouldn’t end up stuck with the problem. Under the rules, the district also likely wouldn’t face any of the new limits on PFAS until 2031. Meg Parish, a permit manager with the division, said by then it could be far cheaper to clean up the chemicals.
The Trump administration’s adoption of narrower protections for wetlands and waterways can take effect almost everywhere in the nation, except Colorado, while courts review whether the move was legal.
A federal Judge in California on Friday rejected a request for a nationwide injunction of the rule. Hours later, a federal Judge in Colorado agreed to freeze the federal rule within that state.
The California court’s decision is a major blow to environmentalists and states that had hoped to block the Navigable Waters Protection Rule across the country before it takes effect Monday. Colorado, meanwhile, is celebrating its success in blocking the rule in the Centennial State.
A coalition of liberal states and cities challenged the joint rule from the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers, saying the agencies violated multiple federal laws. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California heard a marathon session of arguments June 18…
Colorado had filed its own legal challenge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.
Judge William J. Martinez said some of the state’s arguments were “unusual and partly self-contradictory,” but concluded that the state met the bar for a preliminary injunction, which will put the regulation on hold in that state while the litigation plays out.
Other lawsuits attacking the regulation are pending in district courts across the country, where litigants are pursuing similar efforts to block the measure.
The Trump rule defines which types of wetlands and waterways are subject to federal regulations under the Clean Water Act. The interpretation replaces the Obama-era Clean Water Rule and a set of Reagan-era regulations.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
NARROW WOTUS ON HOLD IN CO
The adoption of narrower Clean Water Act protections for streams and wetlands is currently blocked in Colorado, as a result of a court ruling on the state’s challenge to the new federal rule. Details are in this Bloomberg Law report.
The U.S. Forest Service has been inundated with more than 500 online comments — the vast majority in opposition — to a geophysical study and drilling by the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs to determine the feasibility of a second reservoir in the Homestake Creek drainage, including objections from nearby towns and a local state senator.
The geophysical study and the drilling are the next step in the lengthy process of developing a reservoir on lower Homestake Creek.
The mayors of Red Cliff and Minturn signed and submitted separate but identical letters questioning the legality of drilling 10 boreholes on Forest Service land near the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, which is six miles southwest of Red Cliff, to see whether soil and bedrock can support a dam for what would be known as Whitney Reservoir. Avon’s attorney has asked for a public comment extension to Aug. 4 so that it can hold a hearing.
“A Whitney Reservoir would irreparably change and harm our community,” Minturn Mayor John Widerman and Red Cliff Mayor Duke Gerber wrote in their letters, submitted June 30. “We are paying close attention to these proposals, other moves by Homestake Partners and the public controversy. This categorical exclusion is rushed, harmful and unlawful.”
Operating together as Homestake Partners, the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs own water rights dating to the 1950s that, under the 1998 Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), give them the basis to pursue developing 20,000 acre-feet of water a year from the Western Slope. They’ve been studying four potential dam sites in the Homestake Valley several miles below the cities’ existing Homestake Reservoir, which holds 43,600 acre-feet of water.
The smallest configuration of Whitney Reservoir, if deemed feasible and ultimately approved, would be 6,850 acre-feet, and the largest would be up to 20,000 acre-feet. The reservoir, on lower Homestake Creek, would pump water up to Homestake Reservoir, about five miles upstream, then through a tunnel under the Continental Divide to Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville.
In 2018, Homestake Partners paid $4.1 million for 150 acres of private land, which it leases back to the former owner for a nominal fee. That land, which would be inundated to accommodate a large portion of Whitney Reservoir’s surface area, is braided with streams and waterfalls and is lush with fens and other wetlands. It’s also home to a cabin once used as an officers quarters for the famed 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army. The site is not far from Camp Hale, between Red Cliff and Leadville, where soldiers trained for mountain warfare during World War II.
Eagle River MOU
The Eagle River MOU is an agreement between Aurora and Colorado Springs and a bevy of Western Slope water interests. The Colorado River Water Conservation District, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, and Vail Resorts are collectively defined in the MOU as the Reservoir Company. None of those entities submitted comments to the Forest Service on the drilling proposal. And according to Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager for the ERWSD and UERWA, none are helping to pay for the feasibility study and none are involved in the reservoir project, except to the degree that it is tied to the MOU.
The MOU provides for 20,000 acre-feet of average annual yield for the cities. “Yield” refers to a reliable supply of water. In some cases, yield equates to storage in a reservoir, but yield can also be created by other methods, such as pumping water uphill from a smaller, refilled reservoir, which is an option being studied by the cities on lower Homestake Creek. The MOU also provides for 10,000 acre-feet of “firm dry year yield” for the Western Slope entities in the Reservoir Company, and firm dry year yield means a reliable supply even in a very dry year. Those entities have developed about 2,000 acre-feet of that allocated firm yield in Eagle Park Reservoir, and it’s not yet clear whether the Whitney Reservoir project would help them realize any additional yield.
“The short answer is we support (Homestake Partners’) right to pursue an application for their yield,” Johnson said. “We trust the permitting process to bring all impacts and benefits to light for the community to consider and weigh in total.” .
Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the River District, declined to comment on the investigatory test work, saying only, “Yes, we have signed the MOU. That said, … we are not participating in the Whitney Creek effort.”
Besides Homestake Partners and the Reservoir Company, the MOU was signed by the Climax Molybdenum Company. The two private companies signed onto the MOU — Vail Resorts and Freeport-McMoRan (Climax) — also declined to comment on either the drilling study or Whitney Reservoir.
Under the MOU, various parties can pursue projects on their own, and the other parties are bound to support those efforts, but only to the degree that a proposed project meets the objectives of the MOU, including whether a project “minimizes environmental impacts.”
Many of the 520 online comments as of the June 30 deadline objected to testing for the possibility of a dam, expressing concern for the complex wetlands in the area, but most of the comments also strongly condemn the overall project: a potential future Whitney Reservoir.
The cities are trying to keep the focus on the test drilling.
“This is simply a fatal-flaw reservoir siting study that includes subsurface exploration, and it’s basically just to evaluate feasibility of a dam construction on lower Homestake Creek,” said Maria Pastore, Colorado Springs Utilities’ senior project manager for water resource planning. “It’s simple exploratory work to determine if we can even go ahead with permitting and design.”
Marcia Gilles, acting ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross District, said her office will continue accepting comments at any time during the ongoing analysis of the geophysical study despite the June 30 deadline. She added that if the Forest Service concludes there are no “extraordinary circumstances,” she can render a decision using what is known as a categorical exclusion and then issue a special-use permit as soon as August. A categorical exclusion requires less environmental scrutiny than other forms of analysis.
“At this time, the proposed action appears to be categorically excluded from requiring further analysis and documentation in an environmental assessment (EA) or environmental impact statement (EIS),” Gilles said. “Should the environmental analysis find extraordinary circumstances, the Forest Service would proceed to analyzing the project in an EA or EIS.”
State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat, disagrees. She wrote to the Forest Service on June 30: “I … strongly urge you not to categorically exclude this project from (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis. I cannot express how sternly the citizens of my district oppose water diversion projects to Front Range communities.” Her district encompasses seven Western Slope counties, including Eagle, where the dam would be located.
Donovan called the proposed investigation — which would require temporary roads, heavy drilling equipment, continuous high-decibel noise, driving through Homestake Creek and use of its water in the drilling process — an affront to the “Keep It Public” movement, which advocates for effective federal management on public lands.
If approved by the Forest Service for a special-use permit, Homestake Partners would send in crews on foot to collect seismic and other geophysical data later this summer or fall. Crews with heavy equipment would then drill 10 boreholes up to 150 feet deep in three possible dam locations on Forest Service land. The drilling would take place on Forest Service land but not in a wilderness area.
Crews would use a standard pickup truck, a heavy-duty pickup pulling a flatbed trailer, and a semi-truck and trailer that would remain on designated roads and parking areas, with some lane closures of Homestake Road and dispersed campsites possible.
For off-road boring operations, crews would use a rubber-tracked drill rig, a utility vehicle pulling a small trailer, and a track-mounted skid steer. The drill rigs are up to 8 feet wide, 22 feet long and 8 feet high, and can extend up to 30 feet high during drilling, possibly requiring tree removal in some areas. The rigs would also have to cross Homestake Creek and some wetland areas, although crews would use temporary ramps or wood mats to mitigate impacts.
According to a technical report filed by Homestake Partners, the subsurface work is expected to take up to five days per drilling location, or at least 50 days of daytime work only. However, continuous daytime noise from the drilling could approach 100 decibels, which is equivalent to either an outboard motor, garbage truck, jackhammer or jet flyover at 1,000 feet. If work is not done by winter, crews have up to a year to complete the project and could return in 2021.
The drilling process would use several thousand gallons of Homestake Creek water per day that engineers say “would have negligible impacts on streamflow or aquatic habitat. Water pumped from Homestake Creek during drilling would amount to less than 0.01 (cubic feet per second), a small fraction of average flows,” according to a technical report included with application materials.
Homestake Partners would avoid wetlands as much as possible during drilling, but “where temporary wetland or waters disturbance is unavoidable, applicable 404 permitting would be secured from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.” Crossing of Homestake Creek would occur in late summer or fall when streamflows are low, and no drilling would occur in wetlands.
While no permanent roads would be built for the drilling, temporary access routes would be necessary and reclaimed as much as possible.
“Access routes would be selected to reduce surface disturbance and vegetation removal, and to avoid identified or potential unexploded ordnances (UXOs) discovered during field surveys,” according to the technical report. The 10th Mountain Division used the area for winter warfare training during WWII.
Another concern cited in the report is the potential impact to Canada lynx. Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, “only Canada lynx has potential habitat in the vicinity of the project area,” according to the report. “No impacts on lynx are anticipated from the proposed work because much of the activity would occur near Homestake Road, a well-traveled recreation access road. Work would be conducted over a short period (approximately five to six weeks) and impacts on potential habitat would be negligible.”
The vast majority of comments from a variety of environmental groups and concerned citizens focused on potential impacts to the area’s renowned wetlands and peat-forming fens, which the project proponents say they will avoid as much as possible. So far, Gilles said she is not aware of any legal challenges to the project.
“Geophysical exploration has an obvious significant nexus and direct relation to additional future actions, i.e., dam construction, which may in time massively impact the Eagle River watershed — regardless of whether the future actions are yet ripe for decisions,” ERWC officials wrote.
Even if the test drilling returns favorable results for a reservoir project, there is another obstacle that Homestake Partners will have to clear if they want to move forward with two iterations of the project: a wilderness-boundary change, which would require an act of Congress and the president’s signature.
The Whitney Reservoir alternatives range from 6,850 to 20,000 acre-feet and in some configurations would require federal legislation, which the cities are working to draft, requesting a boundary adjustment for the nearby Holy Cross Wilderness Area. The largest Whitney proposal would require an 80-acre adjustment, while an alternative location, lower down Homestake Creek, would require a 497-acre adjustment.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams discounts the notion that his agency should reject outright the test-drilling application, as some environmental groups have suggested, until the wilderness-boundary issue is determined. Although some local and state lawmakers have said they are against shifting a wilderness boundary, Fitzwilliams said it’s still too soon for him to take up the wilderness issue.
“These are test holes,” Fitzwilliams said of the drilling, which is intended to see whether the substrata are solid enough for a dam and reservoir. “Going to get a (wilderness) boundary change is not a small deal for them, so why would you do it if you find fatal flaws? That’s a red herring.
“I understand it; nobody wants to see a dam in the Homestake drainage. I get that. But it just seems prudent to do (the drilling) to see if there’s any reason to go further.”
Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Vail Daily and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story was published online by Vail Daily on July 9, 2020 and in its print edition on July 10. The early online version of the story was edited to clarify aspects of the Eagle River MOU.
The silence you are hearing is no one being surprised.
The limits of the phrase “waters of the United States” within the Clean Water Act (CWA) have been the subject of conflicting, confusing, and often divergent case law for decades, and the efforts of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to issue new rulemakings beginning in the Obama administration have only led to a deeper legal quagmire. The most recent effort to redefine the term, the Navigable Waters Protection Rule (2020 WOTUS Rule) is already subject to conflicting court decisions, and split implementation.
The contrary decisions were both handed down on June 19, 2020 in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado and in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. The Colorado decision granted the state’s request for a preliminary injunction preventing the implementation of the 2020 WOTUS Rule in Colorado. The California decision considered and rejected a similar request for nationwide injunction by seventeen states.
Colorado’s decision turned on an analysis of the U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006). Noting that is difficult to ascertain what the 4-1-4 Rapanos decision actually stands for, the Colorado district court looked at what it stands against. Five justices in Rapanos were expressly opposed to the categorical exclusion of intermittent and ephemeral streams from Clean Water Act protection that was proposed by the plurality opinion of Justice Scalia. Because the 2020 WOTUS Rule attempts to codify what the Supreme Court has already rejected as “inconsistent with the [CWA’s] text, structure, and purpose” (see Rapanos at 776), the judge concluded that Colorado is likely to succeed on the merits, and granted the requested injunction.
The California decision came to the opposite conclusion, relying heavily on the inherent ambiguity of the term “navigable waters” within the CWA. Citing Chevron U.S.A. v. NRDC, Inc. 467 U.S. 837 (1984), the court believed deference was due to the agencies when implementing ambiguous terms in a statute. The district court also noted that under National Cable & Telecommunications Association v. Brand X Internet Services, 545 U.S. 967 (2005), an agency reversing itself regarding the interpretation of an ambiguous term is not automatically cause for denying Chevron deference. Moreover, the district court noted that a “court’s prior judicial construction of a statute [read: Rapanos] trumps an agency construction otherwise entitled to Chevron deference only if the prior court decision holds that its construction follows from the unambiguous terms of the statute and thus leaves no room for agency discretion.” Brand X at 982. The court could not construe any proposition from the fractured Rapanos opinions as following unambiguously from the terms of the CWA, and thus concluded that the plaintiffs had not carried their burden of showing a likelihood of success on the merits. The broader injunction requested by the plaintiffs was denied.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment:
The state announced the results of a project that tested water statewide for PFAS, pervasive chemicals that originate from toxic firefighting foam and other sources. The state found that none of the treated drinking water tested was above the EPA’s health advisory level, but the state did find higher levels of the chemicals in some groundwater sources.
The results are posted online in a data dashboard. With $500,000 awarded from the state legislature, the department facilitated the sampling of 400 water systems and 15 firefighting districts– as well as 152 groundwater sources and 71 surface water sources like rivers and streams. The sampling included about half of the drinking water systems in the state serving around three-quarters of the population.
“The current results show that no drinking water tested above the EPA health advisory for two chemicals,” said Kristy Richardson, state toxicologist at the Department of Public Health and Environment. “At the same time, we know science is evolving, and we are committed to using the most current and best available information to provide health-based guidance on exposure to the chemicals. As new studies become available, our understanding of health effects in humans — and our recommendations — will continue to be refined.”
Four entities that tested source water had sample results that exceeded the EPA health advisory. Three of the four entities already tested for the chemicals in previous years and have notified the public of those results– Stratmoor Hills Water and Sanitation District and Security Water and Sanitation District located in El Paso County and Sugarloaf fire district located in Boulder County. The entities are either not using that source water or treating the water to remove the chemicals before using it as drinking water. The additional entity is Fourmile Fire District.
Fourmile Fire District, located in Teller County, had not previously tested for the chemicals and found high levels in a well at one of their stations, but the state was informed the firefighters do not drink this well water. The fire district, local public health agency, and state are examining the geographical area to see if any residents living nearby may be impacted. Residents that live near the Four Mile station will be notified of the results and what steps they can take if they are concerned.
The state also sampled rivers and streams. All of the samples collected had some detectable level of the chemicals. The sample collected at the mouth of Sand Creek in Commerce City was above the EPA drinking water health advisory, but the state isn’t aware of anyone directly drinking this affected water. Nonetheless, high levels of the chemicals in streams can impact downstream drinking water supplies since they don’t break down.
The data indicate that industrial entities that have permits to discharge wastewater into rivers and streams may play a large role in the buildup of the chemicals. Sand Creek was sampled twice– one upstream of Commerce City on the east end of Aurora and one downstream before it flows into the South Platte. A number of industries treat and discharge wastewater in that area. The upstream sample result was 13 ppt, and the chemical amount increased downstream to a combined level of 77 ppt for the chemicals, a level above EPA’s drinking water health advisory.
The state recently released a survey that state dischargers are required to fill out providing information about the use and storage of certain products containing the chemicals. This will help the state better understand the risk of the chemicals entering state waters.
The state is also using its hazardous waste authority to require various sites along the Front Range to evaluate potential impacts to groundwater. State inspectors have evaluated three oil and gas facilities in the area of Sand Creek, and found that one facility has significantly impacted groundwater next to Sand Creek. The state will use the groundwater data and the surface water data from Sand Creek to determine if additional measures are needed to protect the creek.
“This is an essential step in filling in the gaps in our understanding of where the chemicals are in the state,” said John Putnam, director of environmental programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “But, our work is not complete — we will continue to work to assess conditions for the other systems not sampled, private wells near areas of contamination, and Colorado’s waters. And, we’ll work to find solutions where the chemicals are found at high levels and to safely dispose of materials before they get to our waters.”
As part of its action plan to address the chemicals, the state will propose a water quality policy to the Water Quality Control Commission in mid-July to enhance its ability to get more data on discharges of the chemicals to state waters and provide guidance on the need for filtration or other treatment. The policy will also help the state set limits on the chemicals from entering our waters.
Additionally, in spite of the shortened session, the legislature passed two important laws regarding the chemicals. There are now restrictions on the use of firefighting foam that contains the chemicals and a fee structure so the state can have the necessary resources to provide guidance on the health impacts and investigate and support communities that may be impacted. The fees will provide critical resources to (1) support additional sampling and health assessment for systems; (2) implement a takeback program to take back and dispose of materials with the chemicals; and (3) assist systems that have found the material in their source water.
Here’s the release from the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Chris Woodka):
The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District applauded state approval of a $100 million financing package for the Arkansas Valley Conduit that will allow construction to begin in the near future.
The Colorado General Assembly passed the annual Colorado Water Conservation project bill which contains the funding earlier this month, and Governor Jared Polis signed the bill into law on Monday.
“The Arkansas Valley Conduit will be a lifeline for the Lower Arkansas Valley for generations to come,” said Bill Long, President of the Southeastern District. “Governor Polis, the General Assembly and the CWCB have all shown vision and foresight with this support of the AVC. This goes beyond just financing a pipeline, because really it’s an investment to assure clean drinking water for the future.”
Long also noted the strong bipartisan support the AVC enjoys from the entire Colorado congressional delegation, and noted in particular the leadership of Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, and Congressmen Scott Tipton and Ken Buck.
“I want to thank the CWCB board and staff for including this funding in their annual bill, and express our sincere gratitude to the legislators from the Arkansas Basin for their leadership and support,” said Kevin Karney, chairman of the District’s AVC committee. “The recognition by the State of Colorado of the benefit of partnering with the Bureau of Reclamation on this project is an enormous boost.”
The AVC is estimated to cost between $564 million and $610 million to complete over a 15-year period. The $100 million in state funding would include $90 million in loans and $10 million in grants over the life of the project. When complete, the AVC will provide clean drinking water to 50,000 people in 40 communities.
The AVC had received funding since 2010 to prepare for construction of the 130-mile pipeline which will deliver a safe drinking water supply to the Lower Arkansas Valley. In February of this year, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that $28 million of FY ’20 funding was being directed to the conduit, in an effort to move from planning and design into construction. An additional $8 million has been requested for FY ’21 and is under consideration by Congress.
“The unanimous approval of this funding package by the CWCB board last November was the absolute catalyst for an improved federal funding picture,” said Southeastern District Executive Director Jim Broderick. “Colorado, like other Western states, recognizes developing a strong partnership with Reclamation allows us to overcome water quality and water supply challenges in rural areas.”
While neighbors of Peterson Air Force Base and the Air Force Academy are still dealing with the effects of chemicals in firefighting foam that got into the environment, Gov. Jared Polis was in Colorado Springs on Monday to sign bills into law that establishes when and how PFAS can be used.
PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, has been linked to detrimental health effects when found in groundwater. The PFAS family of compounds been deemed “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment.
They were created to make products like Scotchgard and Teflon and are used on military installments and airports in firefighting foam.
Until today there were little to no regulations of the dangerous chemicals in Colorado.
The new laws establish testing and use procedures for PFAS; and it also orders the solid and hazardous waste commission to create rules for facilities, fire departments, or others who want to use or store PFAS. The law also prohibits the use of class B firefighting foam that contains PFAS in certain aircraft hangars starting in 2023.
A $25 fee for every petroleum load that enters the state will also go into effect. The money collected will fund PFAS in Colorado…
In the meantime, it’s possible Colorado could create its own limits for the chemicals in drinking water, as other states have.
The public’s chance to comment ends Tuesday in the U.S. Forest Service’s consideration of a permit that would allow the first action in a process which could create a new reservoir in the Homestake Valley near Red Cliff.
The special use permit would allow the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs to build roads and drill holes in an area of the White River National Forest which is near the Holy Cross Wilderness, 6 miles southwest of Red Cliff.
Ultimately, if constructed, a 20,000-acre-foot reservoir would flood a corner of the wilderness area and would also relocate Homestake Road, requiring the removal of 500 acres from the Holy Cross Wilderness area.
But at this time, the Forest Service is only seeking comments on the impacts of the drilling, not the dam. The drilling would give crews information about the feasibility of dam sites, but the drilling in itself would have impacts to the forest as 8-foot-by-22-foot drill rigs could cross wetlands and cut down trees in the path to their drilling destination, where holes of 150 feet would be dug…
In soliciting comments in June, “we are focusing solely on the potential impacts from this preliminary geophysical work,” said Marcia Gilles, acting Eagle-Holy Cross district ranger. “Any further proposals that might be submitted after this information is collected would be evaluated separately.”
“They’re calling this the Whitney Project; I’m calling it Homestake III,” said Mike Browning, a former water attorney in Colorado who is now the chair of the Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance.
The “Homestake III” handle is in reference to the project known as Homestake II, in the early 1980s, which bears a strong resemblance to the Whitney Creek effort. The Homestake II project also sought to build another reservoir beneath the existing Homestake Reservoir, which was constructed in 1964. The Homestake II idea was eliminated in large part to Hern’s efforts.
“(Hern) was really the spokesperson and really the leader of that movement in the 1980s,” Browning said. “The Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund was marshaling the local comments and local opposition.”
In his Sunday letter to the Forest Service, Hern said the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund, which he co-founded In 1982, has not changed its stance on the project.
“The people of Colorado love this wilderness and have supported our efforts for over forty years to establish it and preserve it,” Hern wrote. “You should not underestimate the intensity of these feelings and the attitudes of the public in this matter.”
ERO Resources Corporation and RJH Consultants, Inc., which prepared the technical report for the special use permit application, referenced the memorandum of understanding in its report.
“The objective of this study is to evaluate opportunities to construct reservoir storage to develop a portion of the yield contemplated in the (memorandum of understanding),” according to the report, which was published in November. “Specifically, the subsurface explorations described below would provide valuable information regarding the suitability of the area for reservoir development. The cities are currently considering and evaluating multiple reservoir sizes with potential storage capacities between 6,850 and 20,000 acre-feet.”
The court said that Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser had met the requirements for a temporary injunction to be granted. The decision came as a federal court in California rejected a similar request that was nationwide in scope and backed by several states including California and New York, according to Bloomberg business news.
The decision means the state will have more time to set up a new regulatory program to replace at least a portion of the protections lost under the new Waters of the U.S. rule, or WOTUS, as it is known.
Even in these tumultuous times with significant challenges arising each day – there are some issues that continue to require our attention and effort. One of those issues is water security. Water is becoming increasingly scarce around the United States, particularly in the West. Access to safe and affordable water has become even more critical because of its role in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. In the Colorado River basin — which has a population of roughly 40 million and accounts for 15 percent of the country’s agricultural production — demand already outstrips supply. Climate change could also worsen the situation. Meanwhile, in Washington, the Trump administration is rolling back a number of Obama-era environmental rules that have implications for water quality and water quantity. As Congress tries to respond to the pandemic and rescue the U.S. economy through trillions of dollars in federal aid, there is a push to include water infrastructure improvements as part of the solution.
Join POLITICO on Monday, June 15, at 8:20 AM MT/10:20 AM ET for this virtual deep-dive panel discussion on the policies and legislation needed at the state, regional and federal levels to meet the water needs of Western states and secure long-term solutions at a time when the attention and resources of local and state leaders are consumed by the pandemic crisis.
8:20 AM MT — Opening Remarks
8:30 AM MT — A Conversation with Governor Jared Polis, Colorado
8:45 AM MT — POLITICO Editorial Panel Conversation
Governor Stephen Roe Lewis, Gila River Indian Community
Rebecca Mitchell, Director, Colorado Water Conservation Board
FromThe Denver Post (Judith Kohler) via The Broomfield Enterprise:
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved the rules Wednesday as part of ongoing revisions to oil and gas regulations mandated by Senate Bill 181, approved by the legislature in 2019.
The regulations deal with the well bore, or the hole that’s drilled to access oil or gas as well as the pipes and casings installed to inject fluids to make fractures in rocks and sand and bring up the oil and gas. The casings and cement that are part of the construction are also meant to ensure that no fracking fluids, oil or gas escape and flow into groundwater.
Heading into the hearing, there was general agreement among the parties on the proposed changes. Since the COGCC and the state Air Quality Control Commission began writing new rules, oil and gas industry representatives, community and environmental groups have clashed with each other and with agency staffers in hearings and meetings over how far the regulations should go.
But Julie Murphy, COGCC deputy director, said the agency was able to consider new rules on well bores earlier than expected thanks to a broad consensus among the various parties. She said the “top-line” change is the new requirement that the pressure in all wells across the state be tested annually to ensure that the casings and cement are still in good shape.
The annual testing and regular monitoring approved put Colorado at the head of the pack among oil- and gas-producing states, said Adam Peltz, an attorney with Environmental Defense Fund who has reviewed and worked on similar regulations across the country. He noted that the COGCC has tried to incorporate as many recommendations as possible from a 136-point list put together by a multi-state body of regulators and policy makers.
Another important change is a more precautionary approach to making sure that groundwater no matter, how far down it is located, is protected by isolating the oil, gas and fracking fluids with casings and cement, Murphy said…
The new rule is consistent with Colorado state groundwater standards, Freeman said. The COGCC staff added language saying that groundwater with less than 10,000 parts per million total dissolved solids in it must be protected, Freeman said.
The standard addresses the amount of salt in the water is and is the same one in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and used by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, Freeman said.
Water with 3,000-10,000 parts per million of total dissolved solids is often called “brackish,” or saltier than fresh water, but it can be treated to use for drinking.
FromBloomberg Law (John Dunbar and Christina Brady):
After decades of inaction, the federal government has gotten serious about cleaning up PFAS, a class of compounds known as “forever chemicals” that have been linked to health problems and inhabit the bloodstream of nearly every American.
Congress has introduced dozens of bills mentioning “PFAS” so far in the 2019-2020 Congress, many more than in previous years. The boom in legislation has sparked a major increase in lobbying. In 2017, only four entities mentioned the issue in government lobbying reports. In 2018, the number grew to 35, and by 2019, it rocketed to 164.
More water utilities—which have pushed back against certain provisions to clean up PFAS—have lobbied on regulation of the chemicals than any other group. They rank above the air travel industry, cities, and chemical companies, a Bloomberg Law analysis shows.
“I continue to be shocked that people charged with keeping our water clean have been among the most vocal opponents of getting PFAS out of our water, and are in many respects just as bad as many of the polluters whose mess they are charged with cleaning up,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs with the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization…
One basic question underlies the debate over what to do about what is arguably one of the most pervasive public health threats facing Americans in years: Who is going to pay to clean up this mess?
Under proposed EPA regulation and congressional action, utilities are faced with removing the stubborn compounds from their systems and disposing of them in landfills which could be designated as Superfund sites. Water utilities are already dealing with an aging infrastructure, worries about lead, and costs associated with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact.
Among the tools in the EPA’s toolbox for cleaning up toxic chemicals like PFAS is the Superfund law, enacted in 1980, which gave the agency the authority to force polluters to pay for cleanup of toxic sites…
In July 2019, the Democrat-controlled House approved the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 2500), which contained an amendment by Michigan Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell that would force the EPA to designate PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous” within a year, thus triggering the Superfund designation that would allow the EPA to compel cleanup.
An alliance of water associations wrote to the House and Senate armed services committees in August, saying the Superfund designation could “create liability for communities that encounter PFAS in their water treatment activities.”
The letter was signed by the American Water Works Association, the American Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, the National Association of Water Companies, and the National Rural Water Association.
A coalition of industry groups also argued against the Superfund designation, saying such decisions are “not political questions that Congress is best positioned to address,” in a letter to the House. “EPA should retain its traditional authority to study potentially hazardous substances and to ascertain whether they should be designated under CERCLA.”
The letter was signed by more than a dozen industry associations, including the American Chemistry Council, whose members include 3M, which still manufactures PFAS compounds, and DuPont spinoff, Chemours Co., which now holds most of DuPont’s PFAS liabilities.
Faber, of the Environmental Working Group, said utilities aren’t usually big contributors of PFAS to sites that could be designated under Superfund and subjected to liability. And they don’t have deep pockets. The government usually goes after companies with resources, not “cash-strapped entities,” he continued.
Mehan, from the utilities group, said that EPA doesn’t sue municipalities under Superfund, but other entities—like polluters that have been declared responsible for cleaning up contaminated sites—”have and will. Hundreds of them.”
Mark W. LeChevallier is the former chief environmental officer for publicly traded American Water and is now a consultant. “Any utility has to be worried,” he said. “The ultimate disposal is an issue here. And that might be a concern that some utilities have. Will they have ultimate responsibility?”
In Colorado, where groundwater contamination is a problem thanks in part to the military’s use of firefighting foam at its facilities, state lawmakers proposed testing requirements for drinking water and setting limits for PFAS. But the proposal didn’t survive the bill’s first hearing.
“We had pushback from the utility companies,” said state Rep. Tony Exum Sr., a Democrat who represents a part of the state that has been contaminated with the chemicals. “To mitigate and prevent is very, very expensive, as well as enforcement.”
Similar to the federal level, the groups had liability concerns, which lawmakers sought to address, “but we just didn’t have enough time to move forward,” Exum said.
“We’re going to keep working on it so we can come to an agreement,” he continued. “We can’t take clean water for granted.”
Havasupai Vice Chairman Matthew Putesoy is worried that a federal court decision regarding a uranium mine could lead to environmental catastrophe for his community and surrounding lands.
A U.S. District Court judge ruled May 22 against the tribe and two environmental groups in a seven-year-old lawsuit that sought to close the Canyon Mine, a uranium mine located about 10 miles south of the Grand Canyon’s south rim.
Putesoy said the tribe is not prepared to abandon its fight.
“From Havasu Baaja’s point of view,” he said, using the traditional name of his people, “the Guardians of the Grand Canyon will continue to battle the mining companies and someway, somehow, stop the mine from happening. Once the water is gone there’s no replacing it.”
The Canyon Mine lies within 1 million acres of federal lands surrounding the Grand Canyon that was withdrawn from any new mining for 20 years by the Interior Department in 2012.
The ban’s intent was to allow the U.S. Geological Survey to study the effects of such mines in the area to determine if environmental damage was likely to occur. The U.S. Forest Service determined that Canyon Mine, owned by Canadian firm Energy Fuels, could still operate because it could show a profit, as theMining Law of 1872 requires for a valid claim to be honored.
The White River National Forest opened a public comment period last week concerning the next phase of a would-be reservoir project dubbed the Whitney Reservoir. Water authorities in Colorado Springs and Aurora plan to divert water near the Vail Valley — normally destined for the Colorado River — to the Front Range by way of pumps and tunnels.
For comparison, Cherry Creek Reservoir stores more than 134,000 acre-feet.
Aurora Water and its southern counterpart, Colorado Springs Utilities, applied for a Special Use Permit to do so. Geologists would conduct ground-level seismic analyses of the ground below and also drill up to 150 feet below the surface. Currently, the operation proposes ten drilling sites.
The water could help Aurora meet the needs of a rapidly-expanding city while capturing water rights Aurora already holds, Baker said. He estimated the reservoir could be completed in 25 years if key steps were met, including a geological analysis.
The Whitney Reservoir project drew early attention from Colorado River conservationists and a fishing association concerned for the health of local fish habitats and the river system. Prolonged drought and existing diversions have already diminished Colorado River flows in recent decades.
The project could also impact pristine wetland ecosystems and would also require cutting near 500 acres from the Holy Cross Wilderness.
Members of the public can find more information about the project on the U.S. Forest Service website. Comments can be made any time but will be “most helpful” if submitted before June 30, 2020, the Forest Service said in an information release…
FromColorado Politics (Marianne Goodland) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:
A bill on toxic firefighting chemicals that have contaminated water supplies in southern El Paso County won unanimous support Thursday from the House Finance Committee.
[HB20-1119] was approved by the House Energy and Environment Committee on March 9, before the General Assembly shut down for 10 weeks due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
According to bill co-sponsor Rep. Lois Landgraf, a Colorado Springs Republican, the measure is a fix of sorts for legislation that passed in 2019 which banned the use of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, known collectively as PFAS.
The 2019 law banned Class B firefighting foams that contain “intentionally added” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Those chemicals were used for decades at Peterson Air Force Base in El Paso County and have been found in the Widefield aquifer, which serves Security, Widefield and Fountain, communities near the base…
Last year’s bill created the clean water process for PFAS, Landgraf said. “What we didn’t realize is that it also eliminated the ability of the airports to stay in business. United could not get their insurance because we banned any use of PFAS. They have to practice with it a couple of times every year to keep their insurance in place,” Landgraf said.
This year’s measure allows the testing to take place in airline hangars. The runoff will be captured in catch basins and then disposed of.
The bill also requires a the state’s solid and hazardous waste commission to come up with a certificate for any facility — like an airport — or firefighting department that shows PFAS is present on the premises.
Landgraf said the certificate will help the state track PFAS. “Right now we don’t know who’s using it and not using it,” she said.
The Colorado Aviation Association backs the bill in its current form, according to lobbyist Kelly Sloan, who pointed out that the use of PFAS is on its way out. The Federal Aviation Administration is planning to phase out the use of PFAS at airports, but for now, airports still have to comply with those federal regulations, he said…
The bill now heads to the House Appropriations Committee.
On behalf of the State of Colorado, Attorney General Phil Weiser today filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Denver to protect Colorado’s streams and wetlands from a dangerous federal rule that would leave them vulnerable to pollution under the Clean Water Act.
By radically changing how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers define “waters of the United States” that are protected under the Clean Water Act, the new 2020 rule will leave a substantial portion of Colorado’s streams and wetlands without federal protection and jeopardize the integrity and quality of Colorado’s waters.
“The federal government’s new definition of ‘waters of the United States’ violates the Clean Water Act, contravenes controlling U.S. Supreme Court precedent, and ignores sound science,” Weiser said. “This illegal action shirks the federal government’s responsibility to implement this law and thrusts on Colorado the responsibility of protecting water quality with limited warning and with no support to do so. We are bringing this lawsuit to stop this new rule and reckless action from taking effect.”
The Clean Water Act protects U.S. streams, wetlands, and rivers from pollution. Previously, under Supreme Court precedent, the rule included ephemeral streams—streams that run because of melting snow or precipitation—and wetlands that aren’t connected on the surface to larger bodies of water.
“We need to challenge this action to avoid a bigger problem for our economy at a time when our state is already hurting from COVID-19. Some flood control, stormwater erosion, transportation, and other important projects may not be able to move forward because the new rule takes away the permitting path needed to ensure environmental protection and project development. That’s a problem that we need to fix,” said John Putnam, Environmental Programs Director, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The new 2020 rule does not include many ephemeral streams or wetlands without a surface connection. The lawsuit states that the new, narrower definition of the types of water protected under the Clean Water Act eliminates federal jurisdiction over a significant number of Colorado’s tributaries, adjacent waters, and wetlands that affect downstream waters, without providing any rational basis for the rule. This leaves Colorado’s snowmelt streams and wetlands vulnerable to pollution, which would negatively impact our state’s agriculture and outdoor recreation economy.
Through the lawsuit, Colorado is asking the court to maintain the definition in place since the 1980s and to stop the new, unlawful rule from going into effect. In so doing, Colorado is following up on its comment to the agencies, which praised earlier 2008 guidance as legally sound and grounded in science. Maintaining the status quo will also protect important agriculture exemptions, respect state authority to administer water rights, and provide the appropriate level of federal partnership.
A Saturday morning stroll through your local farmers market, is there anything like it? It’s a popular way that many Front Range people decide to spend their weekends, where you get to peruse the abundance and score some of the best food you can buy.
They fill their baskets with organically grown produce, chat with a farmer, walk over to a food truck for a coffee and a pastry and head home with their bounty. These brief interactions allow people to connect with where their food is grown, and put a face to the people who run these farms. But those interactions are threatened, and no, not because of COVID-19.
I am the Board President of the Valley Organic Growers Association (VOGA), representing over 125 farmers, ranchers, vineyard owners and related business operators in the North Fork Valley of western Colorado, many of whom travel to the Front Range to provide food to residents, restaurants, and breweries.
We take pride in being able to grow high-quality food, carefully tended and responsibly grown without additives or chemicals.
We also take pride in providing that food to Coloradans throughout the state. For many of us farmers, the food we grow is an extension of our personalities and represents us and our businesses.
VOGA’s vision is to create a vibrant community of prosperous, local farms that sustain the land and provide healthy agricultural products. To achieve this vision, we are dependent on our public lands.
Earlier this month, the Trump Administration approved a plan that puts the farms in our watershed at serious risk. The Bureau of Land Management’s final plan for the North Fork Valley opens our public lands to oil and gas drilling while removing protections for everything else that matters to us in the North Fork Valley.
For the past 10 years, the Bureau of Land Management has been rewriting a plan to manage the public land in the North Fork Valley. Our area is approximately 40% public land, which includes the headwaters of streams, rivers and ditches that supply irrigation water to our local farms.
VOGA has been participating and commenting on the BLM’s plan every step of the way. We even helped write our own proposal, called the North Fork Alternative, for how public land should be managed in our watershed.
The North Fork Alternative represents a locally grown vision for the North Fork Valley that would keep energy development away from sensitive areas and fosters a diverse, resilient economy. We were glad to see that the BLM included the North Fork Alternative in the planning process in 2016.
In the name of energy dominance, however, the Trump Administration completely dismissed our proposal last week and opened the entirety of our watershed to oil and gas development, without proper restrictions to protect our farms, our food or our livelihoods.
If resource extraction takes off in our watershed, our waterways may become polluted, ruining our region’s model for farm-to-table community agriculture.
Earlier this year, VOGA received a grant to conduct a study on our member’s economic impact within Delta County. For the 167 members of our association, we found the estimated total market value of our farms to be $50-60 million, with estimated annual gross sales to be $4.1 million.
If we want to maintain these numbers and build upon them to support a sustainable, resilient local economy, we need strong protections for our lands, air and water. And that begins with stipulations set forth in the BLM’s plan.
Luckily, Sen. Michael Bennet is on our side. Time and again, his commitment to working with local farmers, ranchers, business owners and conservationists has shined through in the face of this terrible plan.
And now it is no different. Sen. Bennet, thank you for your commitment to protecting the North Fork Valley, and we hope to work with you on a path forward, as farmers and as the local community.
Here’s the release from the University of California Riverside:
Grasslands across the globe, which support the majority of the world’s grazing animals, have been transitioning to shrublands in a process that scientists call “woody plant encroachment.”
Managed grazing of drylands is the most extensive form of land use on the planet, which has led to widespread efforts to reverse this trend and restore grass cover due to the belief that it results in less water entering streams and groundwater aquifers.
A new study led by Adam Schreiner-McGraw, a postdoctoral hydrology researcher at the University of California, Riverside, modeled shrub encroachment on a sloping landscape and reached a startling conclusion: Shrub encroachment on slopes can increase the amount of water that goes into groundwater storage. The effect of shrubs is so powerful that it even counterbalances the lower annual rainfall amounts expected during climate change.
Until now, researchers have thought that because woody plants like trees and shrubs have deeper roots than grass, woody plant encroachment resulted in less water entering streams and groundwater aquifers. This belief stemmed from scientists performing their related studies on flat ground.
“It is striking that ecosystem composition is what controls projected future changes to groundwater recharge,” Schreiner-McGraw said. “This does not mean that climate change is not important, but that vegetation change is potentially more important and something that scientists and land managers should focus more effort on understanding.”
Co-author Hoori Ajami, an assistant professor of groundwater hydrology at UC Riverside, said the paper looks at the combined effects of climate and vegetation change on groundwater-recharge processes in arid environments.
“Most studies to date have looked at these changes in isolation,” Ajami said. “Here we illustrate that the combined effects of vegetation change and climate change could be greater or less than the sum of its parts.”
The intrusion of shrubs into grasslands is often considered a problem because it reduces the amount of forage available for livestock grazing and can lead to more bare ground patches and subsequent increase in soil erosion. This process of creating more bare ground is called “xerification.” Climate change contributes to xerification, but fire suppression and overgrazing play the biggest roles.
It makes sense that shrubs, which have deep root systems along with thick stems and many leaves, capture more water than grass does as it percolates down through the soil, leaving less available water to replenish the underground aquifers. Research on “diffuse recharge,” the process by which water replenishes groundwater supplies over a large area, seems to bear this out for flat landscapes. Xerification of grasslands has thus been viewed as bad for both livestock and the water cycle.
“We approached this research with a simple premise that topography plays a role in redistributing available water, and this should affect the outcomes of xerification,” said co-author Enrique R. Vivoni, a professor at Arizona State University.
The group looked at focused recharge, which occurs when hillslopes funnel water into concentrated areas, such as streambeds. Streambeds often have sandy bottoms, which allow water to quickly infiltrate and prevent the deep-rooted shrubs from sucking it up.
Data from a highly monitored desert mountain slope in New Mexico was used to simulate the effects of woody plant encroachment and climate change on water resources. The team discovered that not only did the shrubs increase focused groundwater recharge, but that they did so even under conditions where climate change reduced the amount of rainfall.
They also modeled a more extensive form of shrub encroachment called thicketization, in which plants grow in dense stands with no bare patches, and found, as in prior flat landscape research, the shrubs reduced the amount of groundwater recharge on slopes as well.
On hillslopes, bare soil in between patches of shrubs is necessary to drive water into streambeds. Increased runoff increases focused groundwater recharge.
“We were surprised to find that a transition from grassland to shrubland can increase sustainability of groundwater aquifers,” said Schreiner-McGraw. “The best way to increase focused recharge in this system is to increase the amount of runoff from hillslopes that gets concentrated in the streambeds.”
Climate change will most likely increase groundwater recharge by making rainstorms larger, but less frequent. Larger storms increase the amount of runoff that reaches sandy-bottom channels and increases groundwater recharge. Findings from this study suggest vegetation will also play an important part in groundwater recharge in the future.
Though the study took place in New Mexico, Schreiner-McGraw said it applies to similar environments. Large parts of California are also desert savannahs. Southern California and the Central Valley have landforms similar to those found in the New Mexico study site. These areas could experience similar hydrological processes, though atmospheric rivers create storms very different from monsoon storms, so more research is required.
“The study highlights the role of long-term monitoring in understanding water balance dynamics of watersheds, and the role that process-based modeling plays in understanding system dynamics,” Ajami said.
A fast-growing Douglas County city has filed a new claim for water on the South Platte River, a move that could allow it to boost its future water supplies by some 60 percent.
But the action could also undermine SPROWG, an innovative, collaborative effort by more than a dozen Front Range communities to capture and reuse water on the South Platte River near the Nebraska state line and return it to Eastern Plains farm communities, northern Front Range cities, and the metro area.
Parker’s legal move to claim water rights in the same region, in partnership with the Sterling-based Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, is unfolding just as SPROWG completed a major feasibility study indicating its project could be built for roughly $3.2 billion to $4.2 billion.
Parker’s project, slated to be done in about 10 years, would add 20,000 acre-feet to the city’s current supply of 34,400 acre-feet…
Though SPROWG’s feasibility study has been completed, years of planning lie ahead before the cooperative effort is ready to deliver water, with a completion date yet to be set.
“We are light years ahead of them,” said Ron Redd, manager of the Parker Water and Sanitation District. “We’ve offered to partner on anything they want to do. I hope, especially when it comes to storage, they will want to partner. But we are just way ahead of them.”
The Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, whose boundary encompasses much of the northern Front Range and extends out to the Nebraska border, is alarmed by Parker’s $500 million proposal, saying it violates the spirit of collaborative water planning embodied in SPROWG and that it could dramatically shrink the amount of water available for others at the table.
“It’s disappointing to me,” said Brad Wind, general manager of Northern Water. “SPROWG was initiated as a community effort. We were going to share the good, the bad and the ugly. When one entity files, it’s a much different process to look at community involvement and decide how to share the yield.”
Parker and the Lower South Platte district plan to develop at least 20,000 acre-feet of water for urban use, a number that rises to 30,000 acre-feet when the agriculture component is added in, according to Joe Frank, manager of the Lower South Platte district.
Frank also said Parker’s project is important to northeastern Colorado because it won’t result in a permanent dry-up of farmland and will give farmers in his district a more reliable source of water, helping stabilize farm communities that are already struggling.
Parker’s Redd said he’s hopeful, given the similarities between the two proposals, that a partnership can be developed with the existing SPROWG collaboration.
“I like the idea of controlling our own destiny,” he said. “And right now we’re assuming we’re going it alone. But my hope is they will join us.”
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.