Summitville Mine Superfund Site update: #Colorado to take over project for $2 million a year

Summitville Mine superfund site

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

After 27 years of EPA control, Colorado is preparing to take over the full financial burden — a forever bill for $2 million a year — of a high-mountain cyanide gold mine that became one of the West’s worst environmental disasters.

The re-shaping of ravaged alpine tundra at the Summitville Mine through a $250 million federal Superfund cleanup stands out because scores of other toxic mines in Colorado still are contaminating headwaters of western rivers each day.

But this fix requires constant work. Colorado must pay the $2 million, a bill that the EPA has been handling, starting in 2021 for cleaning a fluctuating flow of up to 2,100 gallons a minute of toxic water that drains down a once-pristine mountainside.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will use the money to run a silver-domed $18 million industrial water treatment plant built at 11,500 feet elevation in a wild and spectacular valley, surrounded by snow-splotched jagged peaks.

The plant houses huge stainless-steel vats of burbling brown sludge. Toxic metals are chemically coaxed and filtered out. Plant operators haul 4.1 million pounds a year of concentrated waste back up South Mountain (elevation 12,550 feet) in trucks for burial. This muck contains more than 690,000 pounds of cadmium, lead, copper, aluminum, iron, manganese and zinc. It is toxic metal that otherwise would flow down and degrade the Wightman Fork of the Alamosa River.

Colorado also must oversee the artificial covering and drainage ditches across 1,100 acres of tundra scarred by open-pit mining. Mountainsides ripped and slashed to remove gold and silver have been re-contoured by contractors using bulldozers, and re-planted with native vegetation — the engineering equivalent of plastic surgery to make the place look as good as possible…

The hand-off of responsibility for Summitville from the EPA to CDPHE in 2021 will mark a turning point in dealing with a severely damaged landscape using the nation’s Superfund system for handling disasters.

This project was set in motion before Congress in 1995 killed automatic funding for Superfund cleanups.

Complete restoration to a pre-existent state is considered impossible and the government aimed at best-possible repairs.

“That was what the EPA and the state worked to do: bring it back to a sustainable protected state. Once there is mining in an area, it has long-term impact,” said Fran Costanzi, an EPA official who managed the Summitville cleanup for four years. “We worked to bring water quality back and also the vegetation into a long-term stable state.”

An EPA spokesman issued a statement placing Summitville “among the more illustrious, or perhaps infamous, examples of the environmental damage a large mining operation can cause when resources for safely managing contamination sources disappear. The EPA’s initial response was an emergency situation in which the site was literally abandoned by the operator — in winter-time conditions — with a cyanide heap leach pad eroding into a headwaters stream.

“After years of work and investment, we’ve essentially reclaimed a watershed in one of the most beautiful parts of the state. Protecting those gains will continue to require our attention.”

Alamosa River. Photo credit: Wenck

The cleanup improved water quality to where fish can live in Terrace Reservoir, about five miles below the mine, and in the Alamosa River.

CDPHE officials now are required to monitor conditions.

The financial burden falls to Colorado because the Superfund process shifts responsibility to states after initial federal remediation. Colorado lawmakers have arranged to pay about $2 million a year by tapping revenue derived from fees paid at municipal and other landfills around the state…

At Summitville, Rio Grande County eventually will own the 1,100-acre site. State and county officials have been setting up placards conveying the history of mining in the area with an emphasis on environmental damage and evolving efforts to repair harm.

Do your part to #conserve water — City of Monte Vista

Monte Vista historic district via Wikipedia

From the City of Monte Vista via The Monte Vista Journal:

This year’s dry conditions may bring to mind the multi-year drought experienced throughout the San Luis Valley starting in 2002. The sustained lack of precipitation and over-appropriated water usage caused nearby streams and water tables to shrink. Some wells even dried up.

The situation seemed dire but a Valley-wide effort— which includes farmers and ranchers paying for water and fallowing portions of their fields—has helped water usage get to a more sustainable level. The Valley’s shared aquifer has since recovered nearly 250,000 acre-feet of water.

While it’s great that the aquifer is rebounding, there’s more that can be done to help it recharge to sustainable usage levels, says Monte Vista City Manager Forrest Neuerburg.

Engineering consultant SGM was hired to help draft a water efficiency plan for the city, which includes implementing water saving strategies such as water meter testing and maintenance, time-of-day outdoor watering restrictions, efficiency incentives, a system-wide water audit and even the xeriscaping of municipal properties. The city also plans on upgrading old appliances and fixtures in municipal buildings over time (toilets, showerheads, sprinkler heads, etc.).

The city, Neuerburg said, additionally plans on seeking grant monies to fund rebates for Monte Vista residents wanting to swap out old appliances and fixtures with newer water-efficient ones. Other cities with similar rebate plans include the city of Longmont, which offers residents a $100 rebate on their utility bills for upgrading to dual flush toilets and $50 for low flow toilets. Brighton offers $125 rebates on WaterSense washing machines and $100 on toilets.

While agriculture uses about 99 percent of water that’s pumped from the aquifer, towns like Monte Vista use their fair share. It’s worth noting that the city’s annual water demand has declined by about half since the installation of water meters in the early 2000s—but from 2012 to 2016, Monte Vistans averaged 135 to 145 gallons of water used per person per day. Add to that local businesses and municipalities and Monte Vista’s daily water usage tops 169 to 182 gallons per day, translating to some six million gallons of water being pumped from the aquifer each month in Monte Vista alone.

According to the EPA statistics, the average American used between 80 to 100 gallons of water a day at home. That means Monte Vista residents use more than the national average.

Conserving water isn’t as much trouble as people might think. “Something as simple as turning off the water while brushing your teeth or shaving will save a significant amount of water,” Neuerburg said. Running the dishwasher just once a week saves nearly 320 gallons of water annually. And repairing leaky faucets, running toilets and dysfunctional hose connections can save some 180 gallons a day.

“Xeriscaping is also one easy thing people can do,” Neuerberg said, “and the cool thing about it is that you can make your yard really pretty without bluegrass.” He also suggests natural organic products like Revive, which can help your lawn absorb water more efficiently, “You just spray your lawn down with it and it helps your lawn retain water.”

Resources to help with water-saving ideas include Colorado Native Plant Society, Colorado Water Wise, Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Smart Colorado, which offers some rebates for water-saving products on home-improvement projects.

The Monte Vista Water Efficiency plan can be viewed at http://cityofmontevista.com for public comment.

A look at #Colorado acequias

Sangre de Cristo Land Grant, La Sierra Common, and Subdivisions. La Sierra is the 80,000-acre common land or ejido. Map courtesy of High Country News at URL: https://www.hcn.org/issues/104/3250.

Click through and read the entire article from KUNC (Luke Runyon). Here’s an excerpt:

For many people, spring is a time for deep cleaning, a time to take stock of and prepare for the year ahead. That’s also the case on farms in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, where farmers spend their weekends banding together to clean out the irrigation ditches that bring snowmelt to their fields.

The clean up, known as the limpieza, is part of an irrigation tradition unique to this region for centuries.

If you irrigate here, Quintana says, you or one of your family members is expected to be here shoveling out muck, removing trash and tree limbs. The limpieza is an annual obligation…

If not for the clean up, water would pool in places it’s not needed, caught up in makeshift dams of trash and vegetation.

Small farm towns in portions of the San Luis Valley, like San Pablo, are organized around acequias, networks of irrigation ditches and canals dug nearly 150 years ago. It’s what makes farming possible in this dry stretch of land. While most Western law views water as property – a commodity people own and trade – acequias see it as a community asset, something tied to the land and shared.

Quintana, 61, grew up on a farm in San Pablo. As an adult, he left for a career in IT, always knowing his family’s land would be here for him to return to. He participates in the annual ditch cleaning now because he always has. But Quintana says there’s a growing sense that it will be difficult to bring the next generation back to the valley to keep the acequias functional and vibrant.

Sharing water in the West

On this day, the limpieza moves fast. The ditch is cleaned, and a group of middle-aged farmers pile into the back of an old pickup truck to head to the volunteer fire station for chicken fajitas.

It’s hard to overstate how radical the idea of sharing water in the West is. Everyone outside an acequia in states like Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Nevada, uses the prior appropriation system for water. That system, where your right to water is given to you based on when you claimed it, doesn’t allow for easy sharing, but it’s the core tenant of acequia management. Distribution of water is based on equity and need, not given out because you claimed it first.

Sharing water sounds easy if snowpack is high and runoff is plentiful. But in times of scarcity everyone within an acequia feels the shortage together.

Acequias vary in their style of governance. A common form is as a civic association, with members, the people who irrigate with water from a particular ditch, a board of directors and at least one employee who runs the ditch. That person is the mayordomo.

Augustin “Roy” Esquibel is the mayordomo for the ditch cleaned today. When he arrives at the fire station for lunch, he takes the time to shake everyone’s hand, and jokes that he’ll have to walk a lot more ditches to work off these fajitas.

He motions down the street, toward the church of San Isidro, the Catholic saint of farmers. This valley is sustained by agriculture, he says. Everyone here is either currently farming or a descendent of farmers. The land today is used to mostly grow hay or other grasses for cattle and horses, with some wheat and dry beans grown as well. As a water steward, Esquibel says his faith guides his decisions.

Creede State Wildlife Area receives nearly $20,000 GOCO grant

Creede circa 1920

From Great Outdoors Colorado via The Monte Vista Journal:

The Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) Board awarded an $18,683 grant last Thursday to Creede State Wildlife Area to convert overgrown ponds to a youth-only fishing pond.

The grant is part of GOCO’s CPW Director’s Innovation Fund (DIF), a partnership between GOCO and CPW to create a funding source for one-time, innovative projects that would not otherwise receive funding from either organization. CPW receives half of GOCO’s funding each year for statewide programs, wildlife, and state parks through an annual investment proposal, however many innovative, small-dollar projects fall outside current funding parameters.

The nearest public fishing lake is more than 20 miles away, and the newly funded project at the state wildlife area will build a kid-friendly pond within walking distance of the local public school. In addition to being more convenient for families, creating a youth-only pond will give local kids an opportunity to learn to fish in a less competitive environment than the tourist-packed areas on the Upper Rio Grande.

Mineral County Road and Bridge has already donated a significant amount of heavy equipment and operator time for preliminary site preparation work. Mineral County re-contoured the pond, placed large boulders in it to improve fish habitat, and removed overgrown vegetation.
GOCO funding will help CPW rehabilitate a well that has not been used for at least 30 years. The agency owns water rights to the well, but it needs a new pump and water supply line to become operational again.

Fishing clinics will be scheduled through Creede Public Schools and other community organizations like the Creede Elks Club, which has also donated funding to the project. The pond will also host angler education events and fishing derbies for local kids.
The state wildlife area will begin removing sediment and rehabbing the well this spring, with construction on the pond wrapping up by the end of summer. The pond should be open to the public by fall 2018.

To date, GOCO has invested $5.5 million in projects in Mineral County and has conserved more than 4,200 acres of land there. GOCO funding has supported Creede’s Basham Park, San Luis Valley Inspire, and the Creede skate park, among other projects.
GOCO

Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) invests a portion of Colorado Lottery proceeds to help preserve and enhance the state’s parks, trails, wildlife, rivers, and open spaces. GOCO’s independent board awards competitive grants to local governments and land trusts, and makes investments through Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Created when voters approved a Constitutional Amendment in 1992, GOCO has since funded more than 5,000 projects in urban and rural areas in all 64 counties without any tax dollar support. Visit GOCO.org for more information.

The San Luis Valley Conservation Fund scores $540,000 to bolster #conservation efforts

San Luis Valley via National Geographic

From the San Luis Valley Conservation Fund via The Conejos County Citizen:

The San Luis Valley Conservation Fund (SLVCF), a partnership between Colorado Open Lands, Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, Western Rivers Conservancy and the LOR Foundation, announced its third round of grant awards for organizations working in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.
A total of $540,000 was awarded recently by the SLVCF to bolster conservation efforts within the Valley and to help preserve the region’s rich cultural heritage while enhancing livability for local communities.

A total of 21 organizations received grants that ranged from $5,000 to $50,000.

“There is great work being done by the organizations and communities in the San Luis Valley, and the most recent round of grants from the SLVCF will only strengthen that work, maintaining the rich culture and natural beauty of this region for future generations,” said Jake Caldwell, program officer at the LOR Foundation. “We are proud that we are able to make these grants to 21 different local organizations in partnership with Colorado Open Lands, Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust and Western Rivers Conservancy.”
Local grants follow:

Conejos Clean Water
Preserving Community: Sustaining Community Engagement and Construction of Facilities for Promotion –$30,000
This project will sustain programs that CCW has developed to enhance livability and health of San Luis Valley communities, especially through outdoor recreation and environmental education opportunities for valley youth and families; additional preservation of local communities and their rich cultural heritage; and conservation of valley land and water through sustainable natural resource management practices.

Costilla County Conservancy District
Upper Culebra Watershed Planning Project – $35,000
This project aims to engage stakeholders in an inclusive process to develop a scope of work and prepare an RFP for a watershed assessment of the Culebra Watershed. Stakeholders will determine the needs of the ecological conditions of the area, identify problems, and develop a list of prioritized objectives needed for the assessment.

Costilla County Economic Development Council, Inc.,
Funding for project coordinator – $12,000
This award will fund the Project Coordinator position, which complements the work of the Hispano Farm Curriculum project by developing a signature exhibit at the Sangre de Cristo Heritage Center on acequias and the Hispano farm. The Coordinator will collaborate with public and private agencies and individuals to enhance collaborative partnerships for CCEDC projects and other projects such as Congreso de las Acequias.

Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association
Developing Strategies for the Sustainability of the Traditional Acequia Culture – $50,000
The Developing Strategies for the Sustainability of the Acequia Culture will be centered on the practices that were adopted through the Association’s ongoing strategic planning process for 2018. This includes employment of the association’s executive director, identifying member acequias, and developing training sessions for acequia producers, as well as collaborating with partners to develop needed programs.

Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado
Sustaining and Growing Our Valley Organizations – $30,000
As the San Luis Valley grows and evolves, its nonprofit organizations will be challenged to step up their community support. This project offers tools and techniques to sustain current operations and to position organizations for future growth.

The partners’ efforts are focused on the Rio Grande and the open space surrounding and dependent upon the river and its tributaries. The Rio Grande provides crucial habitat for fish and wildlife, including pronghorn, elk, bighorn sheep, over 200 bird species and 95 percent of the Rocky Mountains’ greater sandhill crane population.

The Rio Grande and its tributaries sustain the working ranches and farms that form the base of the region’s agricultural economy. They are also the primary source of water for the valley’s historic acequias, a system of communal irrigation in the southern portion of the valley that predates Colorado’s statehood and has connected local communities for generations.

The river also provides some of the best recreation opportunities for people throughout the San Luis Valley.
With the support of the LOR Foundation, COL, RiGHT and WRC are working together to help preserve the valley’s rich heritage, balancing agricultural needs with conservation and recreation along and around the Rio Grande.

San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition, Environmental and Regenerative Farming Education at the Rio Grande Farm Park – $35,000
This award will support RGFP’s initiative to enhance its environmental and regenerative farming educational offerings, which help visitors draw connections between the environment, recreation, and conservation. Park staff will create construction documents for an education pavilion and work with many partners to ensure that the plan meets the needs of local youth, families, residents, and other community stakeholders. In addition, the San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition, Valley Roots Food Hub Regenerative Soil Farmer Project was awarded $5,000

The project will build on the burgeoning soil health movement in the SLV. This phase will feature participating farmers in a soil health marketing campaign aimed at area restaurants, schools, and other retailers. This will be accomplished by going to participating farms, touring the land, documenting and interviewing the farmer, and constructing the results into an effective marketing campaign.

Walk2Connect, Caminos del Valle Capacity Building – $13,000
This project is an investment in capacity building and new program development alongside a diverse list of partners for the San Luis Valley’s Caminos del Valle connection-focused walking community. The project will support development of meaningful walking events, walking leader training and community outreach throughout the Valley.

As warming continues, ‘hot #drought’ becomes the norm, not an exception — #NewMexico Political Report #aridification

West Drought Monitor May 15, 2018.

From the New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):

“Climate change for the Southwest is all about water,” said Jonathan Overpeck, who has spent decades studying climate change and its impacts in the southwestern United States. Warming affects the amount of water flowing in streams, and the amount of water available to nourish forests, agricultural fields and orchards. There’s also the physics of the matter: A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, demanding more from land surfaces. Plants need more water, too. “Any way you look at it,” Overpeck said, “water that normally would flow in the river or be in the soil ends up instead in the atmosphere.”

[…]

Past southwestern droughts were notable for declines in precipitation. But today’s droughts are different, he explained. Even in wet years, which will still occur as the climate changes, warmer conditions dry out the landscapes.

“With atmospheric warming, we’re getting what we’re calling ‘hot droughts’ or ‘hotter droughts,’” he said. “That means that they’re more and more influenced by these warm temperatures, and the warm temperatures tend to make the droughts more severe because they pull the moisture out of plants, they pull the moisture out of rivers and out of soil—and that moisture ends up in the atmosphere instead of where we normally like to have it.”

From 1952 until 1956, below-normal rainfall caused “critical water deficiencies in much of the southern half of the Nation,” according to a 1965 U.S. Department of the Interior report. The 1950s drought had widespread impacts on New Mexico’s communities and economy. Today’s drought conditions, which Overpeck explains have been moving around the Southwest for 19 years, are exacerbated by warmer temperatures. The global temperature is 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit higher than it was in 1880, and the Southwest is warming at an even faster rate.

“What we’re seeing now in the drought that’s going on is that it’s more due to temperature increase and less due to precipitation deficit,” he said. And “hot drought” is what we should prepare to face in the future, too.

“More and more so, the droughts will really be defined by hotness, by warm temperatures that just suck the moisture out of the soil, suck the moisture out of our rivers,” he said. “And leaves the droughts an ever more devastating manifestation.”