Aspinall Unit operations meeting, Thursday, January 19, 2017

Aspinall Unit
Aspinall Unit

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The next Aspinall Operations meeting will be held this Thursday, January 19th at the Holiday Inn Express in Montrose CO. The meeting will start at 1 PM.

The WQCC holds meeting in Gunnison

Fly fishing on the Gunnison River outside of Delta, Colorado. Photo credit: © Mark Skalny for The Nature Conservancy
Fly fishing on the Gunnison River outside of Delta, Colorado. Photo credit: © Mark Skalny for The Nature Conservancy

From The Crested Butte News (Crystal Kotowski):

For the first time ever, the Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) came to Gunnison on Monday, November 14 and was greeted by substantial local turnout.

A local group led by the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) is working to address stream temperature standards—a conversation that began statewide in 2007, and locally in 2016. The comments submitted to the WQCC unanimously requested more time to compile data to determine whether standards should be revised.

The WQCC may hear proposals that address unresolved temperature issues at the June rulemaking, such as shoulder seasons (the transition from summer and winter) or elevation transitions, which other parties in the state feel is precedent-setting.

“Temperature is wildly difficult to regulate because as you can imagine it changes every day, by the hour, day and night, by the season, with groundwater inputs, water diversions, and dischargers—it’s infinitely complicated,” said Ashley Bembenek, technical specialist for the UGRWCD and the Northwest Council of Governments.

“Temperature standards are an attempt to maintain healthy stream systems as we deal with the ongoing effects of climate change– warming temperatures and decreasing streamflows,” said UGRWCD’s general manager Frank Kugel.

Temperature can have far-reaching implications. “Stream temperatures can impact the growth rate of fish and can change their geographic distribution. If it gets to an extreme, it can cause fish kills. At the same time, we are not just concerned about fisheries. Temperature can affect the dissolution of toxins and can impact certain metals,” said the High Country Conservation Advocates’ (HCCA) water director Julie Nania.

The Gunnison Basin has existing temperature standards, as temperature is part of the Clean Water Act, but stakeholders are looking to revise the statewide standards to better meet local conditions.

The UGRWCD’s local partners include the town of Crested Butte, Gunnison County, HCCA, the city of Gunnison, Mt. Crested Butte Water and Sanitation District, Trout Unlimited, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the National Park Service, and the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition.

Together, these organizations comprise the Upper Gunnison Water Quality Monitoring Committee. The committee is working to assure that local interests are represented as temperature standards are revised in the Upper Gunnison River Basin. Their primary objective is to use local temperature data to revise standards, if needed, to assure that aquatic life is protected, while balancing the needs and concerns of municipal dischargers.

“[The committee] jointly submit[s] this request that the Regulation 35 Hearing, in June 2017, focus solely on site-specific standards or temporary modifications for temperature. Simply put, the broad issue of revisions to surface water temperature standards in the Upper Gunnison Basin is not ripe for resolution so we respectfully request that the broader discussion be postponed to a later date… Our request for additional time, until the next triennial review in 2022, will enable us to develop meaningful recommendations based on relevant local data,” the committee’s comment letter read.

The UGRWCD has committed to providing funding for the data collection. “We are the coordinating agency for a planning-grant request [needs assessment phase] we have submitted to the Colorado Water Conservation Board; this and other aspects of stream health needs are part of that grant request. The UGRWCD has also committed $150,000 toward the watershed planning process for 2017 as the required match for that request, but we will invest that money in the planning process, whether the grant comes through or not,” said UGRWCD board member George Sibley.

Stream health is a significant part of the watershed needs assessments and planning process that is the UGRWCD’s current major focus. Temperature data collection will be addressed as part of a larger effort looking at a range of consumptive and non-consumptive use needs. The UGRWCD is working closely in the needs assessment phase with irrigators and local municipalities, as well as HCCA’s Julie Nania, Trout Unlimited’s Jesse Kruthaupt, the Lake Fork Conservancy’s Camille Richard and the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. The UGRWCD is the coordinating entity for the planning effort, but they hold the expertise, Sibley explained.

In the meantime, the committee partners will work together to collect supplemental data and create local recommendations for site-specific standards.

Triennial rulemaking hearing

The Gunnison meetings signify the start of the rulemaking process, and a large component of the process is determining how the Clean Water Act should be implemented in the region, said Nania.

Formal decisions about the standards will be made at a rulemaking hearing in June 2017. Prior to that an “issues formulation hearing” will be held in order for stakeholders to voice their concerns; for the Water Quality Control Commission to identify issues that are ripe for decisions; and to direct staff at the Water Quality Control Division on work priorities related to the upcoming rulemaking hearing.

The issues formulation hearing is the second step in a three-step process for triennial review of water quality classifications and standards in Colorado.

The first step is an issues scoping hearing, which provides an opportunity for early identification of potential issues that may need to be addressed in the next major rulemaking hearing.

The third step is the rulemaking hearing, where any revisions to the water quality classifications and standards are formally adopted.

The WQCC is the rulemaking body for the state of Colorado as it pertains to water quality. Commission members are appointed by the governor and serve for a term of three years. The Water Quality Control Division is staff to the WQCC and will develop a targeted list by January of site-specific temperature standards. The sites must have sufficient historical data, and the division must engage with local stakeholders. The process to revise temperature standards will continue with the rulemaking hearing on June 12, 2017 in Durango.

@USBR Releases Final Environmental Assessment on Repairs to the Paonia Dam Intake Structure

Intake structure during construction in 1961. Photo Credit Reclamation.
Intake structure during construction in 1961. Photo Credit Reclamation.

From the US Bureau of Reclamation (Lesley McWhirter, Justyn Liff):

The Bureau of Reclamation has released the final Finding of No Significant Impact and Environmental Assessment evaluating if Reclamation will provide partial funding to the North Fork Water Conservancy District to make repairs to the Paonia Dam intake structure and bulkhead, part of the Paonia Project located near Paonia, Colo. Repairs are expected to begin in September 2017.

During construction, work crews and an excavator will be operating at the dam. Crews will dismantle the damaged upper concrete bulkhead of the intake structure and replace it with a modified aluminum trash rack and support members. These repairs are necessary to help ensure continuation of normal dam operations and water delivery to downstream users.

Prior to repairing the intake structure, increased turbidity downstream of the dam will be noticeable due to normal reservoir operations and drawdown. Turbidity will temporarily increase in Muddy Creek and the North Fork of the Gunnison River downstream of Paonia Dam, and sediment deposition will occur primarily in Muddy Creek from the dam to the confluence of Anthracite Creek until high flows begin the following spring.

The final Finding of No Significant Impact and Environmental Assessment are available online at http://www.usbr.gov/uc/wcao/progact/paonia/documents.html

To learn more about the Paonia Project, upcoming repair work or sedimentation issues in the reservoir, visit our website at: http://www.usbr.gov/uc/wca/progact/paonia/index.html.

Uncompahgre Water Partnership: We’ve been slimed!

Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research
Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research

From the Uncompahgre Water Partnership:

Every year, a few weeks before Halloween, the Uncompahgre River seems to blossom with slimy, bubbling growths in areas of the lowest flow. This substance is green algae, decaying and releasing bubbles that are often trapped by iron deposits. Though the algae appears more prominently and abundantly in this season, it’s actually present in the river – even in high flow areas – year round. This fall, the slime may be more noticeable due to more pronounced bubbles caused by the unusually warm temperatures.

While this algae is a typical condition of many river systems and streams, it suffocates macroinvertebrates. According to Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership board member and River Watch volunteer Dudley Case, River Watch experts explained that the zinc in the Uncompahgre River negatively effects both fish and macroinvertebrates, and the slime clogs up areas where they might nest and reproduce.

“Macroinvertebrates are a food source for fish, so the less macroinvertebrates, the less fish. Since the slime is so endemic in the river, reducing the slime safely would be a useful project,” said Case.

Observing and reporting on these types of water issues is one of the goals of the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (UWP) as we monitor watershed conditions and communicate with stakeholders. We are reviewing our Watershed Plan this winter so we can make updates related to project and study results from recent years. We hope you will contribute your observations and ideas about priorities to the review and update process. Please feel free to contact us anytime with your thoughts, and we will be back in touch with you to collect input in the coming months, too.

Uncompahgre River watershed
Uncompahgre River watershed

Aspinall Unit operations update: Gunnison Tunnel turning off, 600 cfs in Black Canyon

Fog-filled Black Canyon via the National Park Service
Fog-filled Black Canyon via the National Park Service

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from Crystal Dam will be decreased from 1500 cfs to 600 cfs on Tuesday, November 1st. This reduction will follow the shutdown of diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel. Release reductions will be coordinated with Gunnison Tunnel diversion reductions throughout the morning of November 1st. River flows downstream may fluctuate during the shutdown period but flows should steady out at the current level by the afternoon. The current content of Blue Mesa Reservoir is 610,000 acre-feet which is 73% full.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. Flows are expected to remain above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for November through December.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are around 900 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 600 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be at zero and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon should still be around 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

@USBR Releases Final Environmental Assessment on Repairs to the Paonia Dam Intake Structure

Paonia Reservoir

Here’s the release from the US Bureau of Reclamation (Lesley McWhirter):

The Bureau of Reclamation has released the final Finding of No Significant Impact and Environmental Assessment evaluating if Reclamation will provide partial funding to the North Fork Water Conservancy District to make repairs to the Paonia Dam intake structure and bulkhead, part of the Paonia Project located near Paonia, Colo. Repairs are expected to begin in September 2017.

During construction, work crews and an excavator will be operating at the dam. Crews will dismantle the damaged upper concrete bulkhead of the intake structure and replace it with a modified aluminum trash rack and support members. These repairs are necessary to help ensure continuation of normal dam operations and water delivery to downstream users.

Prior to repairing the intake structure, increased turbidity downstream of the dam will be noticeable due to normal reservoir operations and drawdown. Turbidity will temporarily increase in Muddy Creek and the North Fork of the Gunnison River downstream of Paonia Dam, and sediment deposition will occur primarily in Muddy Creek from the dam to the confluence of Anthracite Creek until high flows begin the following spring.

The final Finding of No Significant Impact and Environmental Assessment are available online at http://www.usbr.gov/uc/wcao/progact/paonia/documents.html

To learn more about the Paonia Project, upcoming repair work or sedimentation issues in the reservoir, visit our website at: http://www.usbr.gov/uc/wca/progact/paonia/index.html. You can also join our email list for project updates by clicking the “Contact Us” link.

EPA probes toxic Colorado mine tunnels, investigates possible harm to human health — The Denver Post

On April 7,  2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear. Eric Baker
On April 7, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
Eric Baker

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Crews are debating whether to try to contain toxic mine drainage or funnel it out and clean it perpetually at huge expense

Colorado and federal authorities want to resolve the issue as soon as possible because today’s untreated flow into Animas headwaters — averaging 3,750 gallons a minute — may be hurting not only the environment but human health, officials said recently.

All it would take inside this abandoned Red and Bonita Mine tunnel is a turn of the blue screw on that bulkhead plug to stop hundreds of gallons of the [acid mine drainage] from leaking. But if the EPA crew does turn that screw, shutting a valve, the blockage could cause new toxic blowouts from other mountainside tunnels, veins, faults and fissures.

So, for now, the feds are letting Animas River mines drain, tolerating the massive toxic discharge that equates to more than a dozen Gold King disasters every week.

“We don’t want to discount the Gold King spill, but it is good to keep it in perspective,” said EPA project chief Rebecca Thomas, who’s managing cleanup at the now-stabilized Gold King Mine and 47 other mining sites above Silverton.

“Think about the millions of gallons draining each day. It’s something we should be paying attention to as a society – because of the impact on water quality,” Thomas said.

The environmental damage from contaminants such as zinc and aluminum (measured at levels up to tens of thousands of parts per billion) already has been documented: fish in Animas headwaters cannot reproduce. But questions remain about harm caused by lead in water at exceptionally elevated levels up to 1,800 parts per billion, cadmium at up to 200 ppb, arsenic at up to 1,800 ppb and other heavy metals.

The EPA this month intensified an investigation of possible effects on people at 15 U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, American Indians whose traditions take them to high valleys, and vehicle riders who churn dust along roads.

Lead contamination at the Kittimack Tailings, a popular 8-acre course for off-road riding, has been measured at 3,800 parts per million, which is 7.6 times higher than the federal health limit. EPA scientists, collecting water and dirt samples this month, planned to interview campground hosts, all-terrain vehicle tour guides and southern Ute tribe members — assessing possible exposures.

If people inhale or ingest contaminants around any of the 48 mine sites, cleanup at that site would be prioritized, EPA officials said.

The federal Superfund cleanup of toxic mines across 80 square miles in southwestern Colorado is shaping up as one of the EPA’s largest mining legacy projects, contingent on Congress and agency chiefs lining up funds. EPA restoration work here is expected to set the standard for dealing with a wide western problem involving tens of thousands of toxic mines contaminating streams and rivers, for which total cleanup costs have been estimated at more than $20 billion.

In the past, cleanup work at toxic mines in Colorado stalled because of technical difficulty, lack of will and scarce funds. No work has been done for years at the collapsing Nelson Tunnel above Creede, where millions of gallons of some of the West’s worst unchecked acid mine drainage contaminates headwaters of the Rio Grande River, despite a 2008 federal designation as a Superfund environmental disaster.

But EPA officials are pushing for this post-Gold King cleanup including 48 Animas sites, concentrated around Bonita Peak above Silverton, because an EPA-led team in August 2015 accidentally triggered a blowout — setting off a 3 million-gallon spill that turned the river mustard-yellow in three states and sent contaminants nearly as far as the Grand Canyon.

This month, EPA project leaders, bracing for winter snowfall that limits what they can do until summer, anticipated a mix of different solutions at the various sites — each unique with different conditions. They’re considering construction of water treatment plants, like the temporary plant set up to neutralize and filter drainage from the Gold King Mine.

That plant has cleaned 273 million gallons of water over the past year before discharging it into Cement Creek, one of three main headwaters creeks flowing into the Animas River. Meanwhile, six surrounding toxic mines along Cement Creek drain an untreated sulfuric acid flow measured at 1,476 gallons per minute to 7,590 gallons.

A water treatment plant can cost up to $100 million with annual operational costs as high as $1 million.

EPA officials said they’ll combine installation of water treatment systems with bulkhead plugs to hold acid muck inside mountains. And the feds also are exploring use of “bio-treatment” systems using plants and plastic devices to filter and remove contaminants.

The overall cleanup is expected to take years.

“Ideally, we would come up with a way to take care of the water that did not involve a lot of very expensive, in-perpetuity water treatment,” Thomas said.

There are questions dogging hydrologists and toxicologists as they embark on remediation studies.They want to know how mining tunnels, dozens of natural fissures and faults, and mineral veins are connected.

“That is a big puzzle piece,” Thomas said, because subsurface links will determine whether bulkhead plugs safely can be used to contain toxic muck without raising water tables and triggering new blowouts.

They want to know how much acid water is backed up in major tunnels, including the American Tunnel and the Terry Tunnel, and in the Sunnyside Mine. The Sunnyside was the largest mine in the area and the last to close in 1991. EPA officials said natural faults or fissures may connect acid water backed-up Sunnyside water in the American Tunnel, where bulkheads have been installed, with the Gold King Mine.

Canada-based Kinross Corp., which owns Sunnyside, is considered a potentially responsible party, along with Gold King owner Todd Hennis, liable for a share of cleanup costs.

And EPA officials say they are monitoring underground changes that may be affecting flows from at least 27 draining tunnels — called adits — that contribute to contamination of Animas headwaters. The state-backed installation of plugs over the past decade may have triggered the rising groundwater levels that documents show the EPA and state agencies have known about for years.

For example, orange sludge oozed from a grate at the Natalie Occidental Mine — one of the worst sources of untreated mine waste — north of the Silverton Mountain ski area.

EPA on-scene coordinator Joyel Dhieux inspected it this month, hiking beneath snow-dusted mountain peaks. The backed-up sludge obscured a culvert installed years ago by state mining regulators. A huge tailings heap, leaching contaminants into a creek, suggested significant underground tunnels.

“The sludge could create a blockage in the mine that could increase the risk of a blowout. … This will require thoughtful planning,” Dhieux said. “Kittimack could be easy. You go in and remove the mine tailings. This one, it could be a more complex solution because of the risk. … This is an ‘unknown unknown.’ I honestly don’t know what the mine works look like behind this grate.”

And then there’s the problem inside that Red and Bonita Mine tunnel where a bulkhead plug is installed but not closed. Dhieux and her crew determined the plug, installed in 2015, 15 feet thick and framed in steel, appears solid.

If the EPA closes the bulkhead, she and other EPA officials said, it will be done very slowly. They’re considering a partial closure, as a test, next summer. The plan is for dozens of researchers to fan out across green mountain valleys, while contractors inside the tunnel turn the screw, watching for sudden orange spurts.