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.

Crested Butte: End in site for Mt. Emmons Mine saga?

Mount Emmons
Mount Emmons

From The Denver Post (Jason Blevins):

Freeport-McMoRan — the world’s largest moly producer and owner of the Climax Mine near Leadville and the soon-to-shutter Henderson Mine near Empire — has inked a preliminary deal to permanently remove mining claims from Mount Emmons and return about 9,000 acres to the Forest Service. It will also work with Crested Butte to continue treating tainted water flowing from a long-defunct mine on the mountain.

For decades, every time molybdenum prices peaked, locals raised money and filed lawsuits to fight a proposed 1,000-worker mine digging 25 million tons of high-grade moly from the belly of beloved Mount Emmons. The crusade was at times so pitched that residents pledged to lay down in the middle of Whiterock Avenue to block ore-hauling trucks.

“This fight has defined our community for so long and its been an amazing sort of rally cry for what it means to be Crested Butte,” said Glenn Michel, mayor of the 1,500-resident town where a new economy is anchored in tourism and outdoor recreation in some of Colorado’s most pristine playgrounds.

Crested Butte
Crested Butte

In November, Crested Butte voters will be asked to approve use of the town’s real estate transfer tax to fund a $2 million payment to Freeport’s Mount Emmons Mining Co. Town leaders soon will visit Washington seeking bipartisan support for legislation that would permanently remove the mining claims from 12,343-foot high Mount Emmons, known as the Red Lady thanks to the pink hue it takes on as alpenglow dances across the snowy slope above downtown.

“This is a pretty cool Colorado solution where the town of Crested Butte and a globally traded mine can come together and find a solution and go forward with it,” Michel said. “If we pull this off, it’s going to be something very special that’s occurred.”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, said he would sponsor the legislation in the next session.

“This agreement represents a commonsense, collaborative, Colorado solution,” Bennet said. “We have been working with Freeport and the community on how best to solidify this agreement into law, and we look forward to working with the rest of the delegation to make sure that happens.”

Moly mining was never embraced in Crested Butte in the way that it was in Clear Creek County and Leadville. The High Country Citizens Alliance in Crested Butte formed in 1977 in response to the proposed mine above town. The mine plan faded as the price of molybdenum fell in the early 1980s. AMAX, which was running the plant that treated heavy-metal runoff from the Keystone into Coal Creek, applied to patent claims on Red Lady in 1992 as the moly market improved. Crested Butte, Gunnison County, the grassroots Red Lady Coalition and the High Country Citizens Alliance protested the application and labored to block the mine’s application for water rights in state court.

In 1999, international mining giant Phelps Dodge acquired AMAX and the Mount Emmons mining rights.

In 2004, the Bureau of Land Management, which handles mineral leases on federally managed land, sold AMAX 155 acres — including the Red Lady Basin — for $5 an acre under the antiquated General Mining Act of 1872. The town, county and HCCA filed a federal lawsuit protesting the sale.

Lawsuits and appeals flew as Crested Butte attacked the mine’s water plans and the legality of the BLM’s sale of public land to AMAX. Phelps Dodge in 2006 transferred the mining properties on Mount Emmons to its previous owner, U.S. Energy, after a legal battle over the responsibility for running the Keystone Mine water treatment plant.

In 2007, U.S. Energy and partner Kobex Minerals revived plans for the mine as molybdenum prices neared historical highs around $45 a pound. The next year, U.S. Energy partnered with Thompson Creek Metals, the world’s fifth largest molybdenum producer. That partnership dissolved in 2011.

In 2013, U.S. Energy won preliminary approval from the Forest Service to develop the mineral deposit on Mount Emmons, reigniting efforts to push the company out of Red Lady Basin and galvanizing locals aghast at the idea of round-the-clock mine traffic hauling 6,000 to 12,000 tons of ore through town every day.

Then the molybdenum market collapsed again and U.S. Energy struggled to find a partner to help mine Mount Emmons. The company’s financial woes left locals in Crested Butte worried that it could no longer support the $1 million annual cost of running the treatment plant filtering heavy metals watershed above town.

In August 2015, as molybdenum prices hovered around $5 a pound, HCCA, the town of Crested Butte and Gunnison County submitted a letter to the Colorado Water Quality Control Division, questioning U.S. Energy’s ability to keep the plant running.

“We were very concerned they were not going to be able to continue,” said Alli Melton, the Red Lady program director for what is now the High Country Conservation Advocates…

Within days of the Gold King disaster, national reports detailed Colorado’s bounty of abandoned mines swollen with toxic metals. The Environmental Protection Agency began talking about listing more mine sites across southern Colorado on the National Priorities List for Superfund cleanup.

Freeport acquired U.S. Energy ‘s Mount Emmons mine site in February, taking on responsibility for the water treatment plant. If U.S. Energy had gone bankrupt, the operation of plant and Keystone Mine cleanup would have reverted to the previous owner of the Mount Emmons claims: Freeport-McMoRan.

“I think Gold King kind of spurred conversations between the companies and the EPA. It was a really interesting time for us,” Melton said.

Mount Emmons Mining in the spring approached Crested Butte’s town leaders with a plan. The company, which never actually mined on Mount Emmons, offered to sell its mining claims and work with local leaders on a long-term plan for maintaining the water treatment plant.

“As the previous owner of the site and water treatment plant, Mount Emmons wanted to ensure sustained operation of the water treatment plant that discharges to Coal Creek,” said Freeport spokesman Eric E. Kinneberg.

First, the company said it would prefund two years of operation of the water treatment plant. And second, if the town came up with $2 million, Freeport said it would ask the federal government to withdraw all the unpatented mining claims from the mountain, permanently removing any chance of a mine on Red Lady.

In the Sept. 6 memorandum of understanding, Freeport and the town said they understand the deal is “only a first step in a long-term relationship,” and they they will work on other agreements.

High Country Conservation Advocates chief Brett Henderson called the agreement a monumental shift from decades of failed negotiations with U.S. Energy.

“It was sort of trench warfare with previous owners,” his colleague Melton said, “and for the first time, there’s a path forward and it’s collaborative.”

As High Country Conservation Advocates maps future projects, the General Mining Law of 1872 is a target. Oil and gas developers have to divert a portion of their revenues into funds that help clean up after accidents. Mining companies don’t have to do that.

Building a pool of money for mine reclamation is crucial, said Melton, who hopes the success of HCCA can bolster other mine cleanup efforts around the state.

The Crested Butte crusade to beat back the mine should serve as an example for other communities, Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck said.

“This is a joint effort of federal, state and local governments — supported by citizens and citizen groups — that is respectful of private property rights, mindful of public health, safety and welfare,” Houck said, “and ultimately will unknot a thorny issue in a manner not only productive for the local community but also a model for other actions in our state.”

Gunnison River Basin via the Colorado Geological Survey
Gunnison River Basin via the Colorado Geological Survey

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

Paonia Reservoir

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

The Bureau of Reclamation has released a draft 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 will include dismantling the damaged upper concrete bulkhead of the intake structure and replacing the bulkhead with a modified aluminum trash rack and support members. Prior to repairing the intake structure, increased turbidity downstream of the dam will be noticeable due to normal reservoir operations and drawdown. Repairs on Paonia Dam will ensure continuation of normal dam operations and water delivery to downstream users.

The draft environmental assessment is available online at http://www.usbr.gov/uc/wcao/progact/paonia/documents.html or a copy can be received by contacting Jenny Ward at 970-248-0651 or jward@usbr.gov. Reclamation will consider all comments received by September 20, 2016. Written comments can be submitted by email to jward@usbr.gov or mailed to: Ed Warner, Bureau of Reclamation, 445 West Gunnison Ave., Suite 221, Grand Junction, CO 81501.

To learn more about the Paonia Project, the 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 be added to our email list for project updates by clicking the “Contact Us” link.

Uncompahgre Valley Water Forum Sept. 1 — The Montrose Press

Uncompahgre River Valley looking south
Uncompahgre River Valley looking south

From The Montrose Press:

John Stulp, special advisor to the Governor and director of the Inter Basin Compact Committee for the State of Colorado, will speak at the Uncompahgre Valley Water Forum Sept. 1.

The event will be held at the Montrose County Fairgrounds in Friendship Hall 6:30-9 p.m. Stulp’s presentation will be focused on what the State Water Plan says about agricultural water.

He will address the extent to which everyone is a recipient of the benefits that ag. water provides – not just the foods and fibers grown and raised that require water, but also important community amenities, like city parks, soccer fields and cemeteries which often depend on ag. water to keep grass growing and green.

Shavano Conservation District is hosting the Uncompahgre Valley Water Forum to create a medium for landowners to be aware of ideas and views on local and state agricultural water.

Other speakers at the Forum include Marc Catlin, who is the Water Development coordinator for Montrose County, sits on the Colorado River Water Conservation Board,and also on the Gunnison Basin Roundtable.

Dick Wolfe, state engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources; Steve Anderson, manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association; and MaryLou Smith from the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, will also be on hand.

Those planning to attend should RSVP by Aug. 29 to either Bert at 970-249-8407, ext. 115, or by email to bertha.earle@co.nacdnet.net.