The Water Information Program September 2020 Newsletter is hot off the presses

Mancos and the Mesa Verde area from the La Plata Mountains.

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

The Southwestern Water Conservation District (“District”), based in Durango, Colorado, is seeking candidates for the General Manager position. The District was created by Colorado statute in 1941 to lead in the protection, conservation, use and development of the water of the San Juan and Dolores River basins for the welfare of the District, and to safeguard for Colorado all waters of the basin to which the state is entitled. The District encompasses all of La Plata, Montezuma, Archuleta, San Juan, San Miguel and Dolores counties and parts of Montrose, Hinsdale and Mineral counties. The District has a nine-member board of directors with an appointee from each board of county commissioners.

The General Manager serves as the chief executive and management official of the organization reporting directly to the District’s Board of Directors. The General Manager is responsible for all business operations (administrative, financial, technical and external affairs) and manages a small team of staff and contractors. The General Manager must be able to lead the team, delegate, and play to the strengths of others, and must possess strong oral and written communication skills and be capable of clearly communicating difficult issues with candor. The General Manager works collaboratively to bring together groups of diverse interests in complicated and sometimes contentious matters, and is expected to offer creative solutions to the Board that take into consideration the varying water-related priorities and perspectives of the District’s diverse constituency. The General Manager represents the District’s broad range of constituents and priorities at conferences, speaking engagements and on local, statewide, and national matters, as directed by the Board.

All application materials should be submitted electronically (PDF preferred) to generalmanager@swwcd.org by Friday, September 25, 2020 at 5:00 PM. Applicants are encouraged to apply promptly and are responsible for ensuring that application materials are received by the District before the closing date and time listed above.

For more information and full job desctiption go to: https://swwcd.org/about-us/careers/.

Pagosa Area Water & Sanitation District chooses contractor to rebuild Snowball water treatment plant — The Pagosa Springs Sun

Pagosa Springs Panorama. Photo credit: Gmhatfield via Wikimedia Commons

From The Pagosa Sun (Clayton Chaney):

At the most recent Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) meeting held on Sept. 10, the board of directors agreed to sign a new contract with SGM, an engineering and consulting firm based out of Durango, regarding the rebuilding of the Snowball water treatment plant.

Engineer Chad Hill spoke before the board on behalf of SGM. He outlined the company’s plans and ideas for rebuilding the Snowball water treatment plant.

Part of SGM’s plan includes a pretreatment study of the plant, which is already underway and should be done by the new year, according to Hill. Following the pretreatment phase, SGM will perform a pilot study on the plant. The pilot study is expected to start the last week of April and run through the first week of June or “longer if we need it to,” according to Hill.

The current Snowball plant was built in 1984 and, according to PAWSD Manager Justin Ramsey, is currently functioning properly. However, in a phone interview, Ramsey added that, “its like an old car, at some point we’re going to be spending more money than its worth to keep it running.”

Ramsey indicated that a main reason for rebuilding the plant is to expand its size.

At the meeting, Hill reassured board members that the project will be getting the “focus and at- tention that it deserves.”

Navajo Dam operations update: 1,000 CFS in #SanJuanRiver critical habitat area September 16, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Swim class on the San Juan River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to a cool forecast and increasing tributary flows, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 700 cfs on Wednesday, September 16th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

Importance of wetlands to be topic of Audubon Society meeting — The Pagosa Springs Sun #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Geothermal sources in Pagosa Springs have created unique, warm-water wetlands and contribute to the rich diversity of birds along the Riverwalk in town. Photo via The Pagosa Springs Sun

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.

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to bump down to 800 CFS September 12, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Susan Behery):

In response to a cooler forecast and increasing tributary flows, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 850 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 800 cfs on Saturday, September 12th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended flows in the critical habitat reach as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. This target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

This scheduled release change is subject to changes in river flows and weather conditions. If you have any questions, please contact Susan Behery (sbehery@usbr.gov or 970-385-6560), or visit Reclamation’s Navajo Dam website at https://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/cs/nvd.html

The San Juan River’s Navajo Dam and reservoir. Photo credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

#Farmington residents urged to conserve water during ongoing drought conditions — The Farmington Daily Times #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

Farmington residents are being asked to voluntarily cut back on their water usage by 10% amid ongoing drought conditions.

The Farmington City Council approved a resolution enacting a stage one water shortage advisory on a 3-0 vote. The meeting was broadcast on Zoom and a recording will be available online at http://fmtn.org/AgendaCenter.

Community Works Director David Sypher said the city has struggled to keep Lake Farmington full.

“We are taking keeping our lake 100% full a little more seriously than we have in the past,” he said, explaining that the city not only provides water to its residents but also delivers water to other water systems.

Lake Farmington was approximately 98% full on Sept. 3, but has been dropping at a rate of 0.15 to 0.3% daily and, as of the meeting on Sept. 8, Sypher said the lake was 97.15% full.

A storm brought precipitation to the region as the City Council discussed the water shortage advisory, but Sypher said current forecasts are calling for 30 to 50% of normal precipitation in the upcoming months and the most liberal projections are anticipating moderate drought.

West Drought Monitor September 1, 2020.

When the river dries, a struggle to stay afloat — The #Taos News #RioGrande #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins. Map credit: By Kmusser – Own work, Elevation data from SRTM, drainage basin from GTOPO [1], U.S. stream from the National Atlas [2], all other features from Vector Map., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11218868

From The 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.”

#SanJuanRiver streamflow report #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Pagosa Sun (Chris Mannara):

As of Wednesday, the San Juan River had a flow of 41.6 cfs, well below the average for Sept. 2 of 136 cfs, according to the U.S. Geologi- cal Survey.

Based on 84 years of water re- cord, the San Juan River had the lowest flow total for Sept. 2 back in 2002, when the river had a flow of 8.40 cfs.

The highest flow total came in 1999, when the San Juan River had a flow of 983 cfs.

How municipal water #conservation is keeping the #RioGrande through #Albuquerque from going dry — @JFleck

New Mexico water projects map via Reclamation

From InkStain (John Fleck):

One of the traditional “tragedy narratives” of western water is the idea that thirsty cities are draining our rivers. But in two of the last three years, precisely the opposite has happened here in Albuquerque.

We’ve been limping along on a very bad year on the Rio Grande, with some of the lowest flows through Albuquerque that we’ve seen in a while. And the limping will continue. But with irrigation water in storage just about gone, an agreement is taking shape that will use an unused chunk of Albuquerque’s imported Colorado River water to keep the Rio Grande from drying through Albuquerque in coming months.

This is possible because Albuquerque’s water conservation success has left it with more water rights than it currently needs, including water we import through the San Juan-Chama project, a transbasin diversion that brings Colorado River water through tunnels beneath the Continental Divide. Some of that, now sitting in storage in reservoirs up on the Chama, will be released in coming weeks to maintain flows in the river here in town.

A similar deal in the very dry summer of 2018 also used some of Albuquerque’s unused Colorado River apportionment to keep the Rio Grande wet.

To be clear, this isn’t a charitable contribution on Albuquerque’s part. As I understand the deal, three government agencies with a shared interest in keeping the river wet – the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation – are paying the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority for the water…

But it’s intriguing to see the traditional narrative turned on its head – water available for the environment because a city has more than it needs.

Navajo Dam operations update

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to a warmer and dryer forecast weather pattern, Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 850 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 950 cfs on Thursday, September 3rd, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended flows in the critical habitat reach as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. This target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

Navajo Dam operations update: Turning down to 850 CFS, August 31, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #CORiver #aridification

The San Juan River’s Navajo Dam and reservoir above.U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

From email from Reclamation (Susan Behery):

In response to a cooler weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin and increasing tributary flows, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 900 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 850 cfs on Monday, August 31st, starting at 12:00 PM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

This scheduled release change is subject to changes in river flows and weather conditions. If you have any questions, please contact Susan Behery (sbehery@usbr.gov or 970-385-6560), or visit Reclamation’s Navajo Dam website at https://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/cs/nvd.html.

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to turn down to 900 CFS August 29, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The outflow at the bottom of Navajo Dam in New Mexico. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from Reclamation (Marc Miller):

In response to a cooler weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 900 cfs on Saturday, August 29th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended flows in the critical habitat reach as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. This target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

This scheduled release change is subject to changes in river flows and weather conditions. If you have any questions, please contact Susan Behery (sbehery@usbr.gov or 970-385-6560), or visit Reclamation’s Navajo Dam website at https://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/cs/nvd.html.

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to bump to 1,000 CFS August 14, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The San Juan River’s Navajo Dam and reservoir above.U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

From email from Reclamation (Susan Behery):

In response to decreasing flows and a continued dry forecast weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 900 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 1,000 cfs on Friday, August 14th, starting at 5:00 PM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended flows in the critical habitat reach as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. This target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

Navajo Dam operations update: 900 CFS in the #SanJuanRiver below the dam, August 12, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Susan Behery):

In response to decreasing flows and a dry forecast weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 900 cfs on Wednesday, August 12th, starting at 5:00 PM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

The Navajo Dam on the San Juan River.Photo credit Mike Robinson via the University of Washington.

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to be increased to 800 CFS on August 11, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The San Juan River, below Navajo Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from Reclamation (Susan Behery):

In response to decreasing flows and a dry forecast weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 800 cfs on Tuesday, August 11th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

#SanJuanRiver report: Streamflow = 40.6 CFS, median for day = 137 CFS #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara):

River report

As of Wednesday, the San Juan River had a reported flow of 43.5 cfs. This is below the average for Aug. 5 of 214 cfs, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The highest flow for Aug, 5 came in 1999 when the San Juan River had a flow of 1,050 cfs. The lowest came in 2002 when the San Juan had a flow of 18.2 cfs.

The #GoldKingMine spill 5 years on

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage. Photo via the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

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.

Prior to mining, snowmelt and rain seep into natural cracks and fractures, eventually emerging as a freshwater spring (usually). Graphic credit: Jonathan Thompson

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…

The “Bonita Peak Mining District” superfund site. Map via the Environmental Protection Agency

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…

Gold King Mine Entrance after blow out on August 5, 2015. Photo via EPA.

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.

Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to bump to 700 CFS August 7, 2020 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Piute Farms waterfall. Photo credit: Bureau of Reclamation

From email from Reclamation (Susan Behery):

In response to decreasing flows and a hot and dry forecast weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 700 cfs on Friday, August 7th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to bump to 600 CFS August 3, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing flows and a dry forecast weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 600 cfs on Monday, August 3rd, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

A boater, John Dufficy, makes his way down the lower end of the San Juan River toward the take-out, in 2014. Photo Credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

Partners Protect Banded Peak Ranch from Development, Completing 30-Year Effort to Conserve 65,000 Acres in Southwest Colorado — Colorado State Forest Service

Here’s the release from the Colorado State Forest Service:

[On July 28, 2020], The Conservation Fund, Colorado State Forest Service and USDA Forest Service announced the permanent protection of the 16,723-acre Banded Peak Ranch in Colorado’s southern San Juan Mountains. The protected land will connect a largely undisturbed forest landscape, prevent development in critical wildlife corridors and conserve an essential watershed that provides water to Colorado and New Mexico communities downstream. The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund played a critical role to permanently safeguard these private forestlands from the threat of development.

Banded Peak Ranch. Photo credit: Christine Quinlan via the Colorado State Forest Service

The completion of a conservation easement on Banded Peak Ranch is the final phase of a 30-year effort by The Conservation Fund in the Navajo River Watershed – protecting a total of 65,000 acres that connect wilderness ranches in the upper reaches of the watershed to conserved working ranches at lower elevations on the Navajo, Little Navajo and East Fork of the San Juan rivers. Permanent protection of these lands is the product of public-private partnerships involving 10 different ranches. Over the years, the Navajo River watershed project area has attracted $37 million from federal, state and private partners, including private foundations, Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), the federal Forest Legacy Program, which is managed in Colorado by the Colorado State Forest Service, and private landowner donations.

These privately owned lands are surrounded by some of the most remote, expansive and undisturbed national forest and wilderness lands in Colorado. As the last, large unprotected property in the upper Navajo River watershed, Banded Peak Ranch completes the protection of a wilderness watershed and preserves one of the most important wildlife migration corridors for mule deer and elk in the Rocky Mountain region.

“The headwaters of the Navajo River is one of the wildest and most pristine landscapes we have protected in Colorado. It is a majestic place that has inspired many others to join us in the effort,” said Tom Macy, Western Representative of The Conservation Fund. “If we are going to see grizzlies return to Colorado, it is likely to be here.”

Critical Water Supply, Wildlife Habitat, Working Forests

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

The watershed has critically important benefits for downstream users in Colorado and New Mexico, providing irrigation and drinking water for 1 million people in New Mexico, including 90 percent of Albuquerque’s surface water supply. Protecting Banded Peak safeguards 33 miles of streams on the ranch, including a 5-mile stretch of the Navajo River, along with 850 acres of riparian and wetland habitat.

Banded Peak Ranch – roughly 20 miles southeast of Pagosa Springs – hosts a premier deer and elk hunting program that provides stimulus to the regional economy, while the carefully managed timber operation supports regional wood processing mills. The ranch has been an active participant in the Colorado State Forest Service’s Forest Ag program for two decades and manages its forests with the guidance of a management plan written in conjunction with the agency.

“Our family has been dedicated to land conservation and land stewardship in Colorado and elsewhere for many years,” said Karin Griscom, the family’s representative. “We were privileged to partner with The Conservation Fund, which has diligently worked with us to protect strategic lands and wildlife corridors in the Upper Navajo River watershed over the last 20 years. We also greatly appreciate the help of the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado State Forest Service, elected officials and especially the Wyss Foundation that were all instrumental in the protection of this legacy ranch.”

‘Myriad of Ecological Values’

Navajo River Watershed map via the Colorado State Forest Service

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail runs along the eastern border of the family’s properties for approximately 10 miles. Almost completely surrounded by 3.75 million acres of the San Juan National Forest, South San Juan Wilderness and Rio Grande National Forest, protection of the Banded Peak Ranch enhances the adjacent public lands by maintaining healthy forests, critical wetland and riparian areas, and crucial wildlife corridors. Fire modeling shows this ranch is the first line of defense in the watershed for reducing the risk and cost of wildfire.

The conservation easement on Banded Peak Ranch will be held by the Colorado State Forest Service. The two adjacent ranches – Catspaw and Navajo Headwaters – are owned by members of the same family and protected through a series of conservation easements held by the Colorado State Forest Service and Colorado Open Lands. These perpetual easements ensure that the natural richness and ruggedness of these lands will remain largely undisturbed, allowing ranch operations to continue while eliminating future subdivision for residential or commercial development.

“We’re proud to partner with The Conservation Fund, USDA Forest Service and owners of Banded Peak Ranch to conserve the myriad of ecological values on the ranch,” said Mike Lester, State Forester and director of the Colorado State Forest Service. “By protecting Banded Peak and its forests from future development, we’re ensuring the public benefits that these forests provide – from clean air and water to habitat for our iconic wildlife – persist in Colorado for generations to come.”

Support from Colorado’s Congressional Delegation

The protection of Banded Peak Ranch was made possible by $7 million from the USDA Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, which is funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). LWCF uses offshore drilling revenue – not taxpayer dollars – to fund conservation projects across the country. The Great American Outdoors Act, a bill that has passed both the House and Senate and is on its way to the President’s desk for signature, provides full and permanent funding for LWCF and future conservation victories like this one. Colorado’s Congressional delegation, led by U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner and U.S. Representative Scott Tipton, is united in its support for this program and for the protection of the Banded Peak Ranch.

“The conservation of Banded Peak Ranch is excellent news for southwestern Colorado and a testament to the work of local leaders and landowners, The Conservation Fund, the Colorado State Forest Service and the U.S. Forest Service. Thanks to this decades-long effort, the Navajo River Watershed, and its valuable wildlife habitat, will now be protected for future generations,” said U.S. Senator Michael Bennet. “Without the Land and Water Conservation Fund, projects like this simply wouldn’t be possible. I’m glad to have supported this project throughout the process, and to have secured full funding for LWCF, so that Colorado can continue to invest in public lands, wildlife habitat and our economy.”

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund is the crown jewel of conservation programs and has played a critical role in protecting public lands in Colorado and across the nation,” said U.S. Senator Cory Gardner. “Protecting the Banded Peak Ranch completes 65,000 acres of protected wilderness and watershed which will help wildlife in the area flourish. Additionally, preserving the streams at Banded Peak Ranch ensures that communities downstream, including areas in southwest Colorado, have access to clean water for drinking and irrigation.”

“The addition of the Banded Peak Conservation Easement is a welcome expansion to safeguard critical wildlife habitats in southwestern Colorado,” said U.S. Representative Scott Tipton. “I am proud to have worked to permanently authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund so that important projects like this will continue benefitting communities in Colorado for years to come.”

Iconic Wildlife

Realizing the opportunity to protect this last piece of the headwaters of the Navajo River, the Wyss Foundation has played an essential role in the Banded Peak Ranch project, providing funds to match the LWCF dollars.

“Thanks to the determination of The Conservation Fund and support from Coloradans demanding more protections for their lands and waters, Banded Peak Ranch will be preserved forever,” said Wyss Foundation President Molly McUsic. “Collectively we must continue taking every opportunity to accelerate our conservation efforts, to safeguard imperiled wildlife and to ameliorate the worst impacts of a changing climate.”

Most of the wildlife species found along southern Colorado’s Continental Divide inhabit the Banded Peak Ranch. Elk, black bear, mountain lion, peregrine falcon, bald eagles, bighorn sheep and many others thrive in the area. Federally threatened Canada lynx also live on the property. The streams on Banded Peak Ranch support the recovery of the San Juan strain of the Colorado cutthroat trout, which was presumed extinct for 100 years, until it was rediscovered on the ranch in 2018. Grizzly bears were once present in this remote wilderness area until the late 1970s. In fact, this was the last place in Colorado to host the iconic and threatened species. Two books were written about the grizzly bears’ presence in this watershed, including Ghost Grizzlies: Does the Great Bear Still Haunt Colorado by David Petersen, and The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado by Rick Bass.

@EPA proposes permanent mine waste dump site north of #Silverton — The #Durango Herald #AnimasRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

The town of Silverton, Colorado, USA as seen from U.S. Route 550. By Daniel Schwen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10935432

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Project needs approval from Sunnyside Gold, a company potentially on hook for costs

It appears the Environmental Protection Agency has found a place for long-term storage of mine waste near Silverton.

Mayflower Mill

The EPA announced this week it is proposing a waste repository for the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site on top of the existing tailings impoundment near the Mayflower Mill, about 2 miles northeast of Silverton off County Road 2.

The site, EPA officials say, would serve as a long-term option to store waste that is generated from Superfund cleanup actions, as well as sludge from the water treatment plant that takes in discharges from the Gold King Mine.

“It’s going to be there for the long haul to accommodate any waste we’ll need to remove,” said Christina Progess, the EPA’s lead for the Superfund site.

The proposal comes with one caveat, however: The property is owned by Sunnyside Gold Corp. The EPA has asked for approval from Silverton’s last operating mining company and has yet to hear back.

Gina Myers, a spokeswoman for Sunnyside Gold, said in an email to The Durango Herald that “SGC … had previously offered EPA the use of Mayflower ground for storage of sludge from the underutilized treatment plant.”

Myers did not clarify whether Sunnyside Gold will allow EPA access or not.

The need for a centrally located, permanent dump site for mine waste has been an ongoing issue for EPA ever since the Superfund was declared in fall 2016, about a year after the agency triggered a blowout at the Gold King Mine.

The water treatment plant constructed after the blowout generates up to 6,000 cubic yards of sludge a year – or about a football field buried in 3 feet of muck – and there’s little room on-site for storage. And in the future, the EPA will need a place to take waste removed from other projects…

In August 2019, Sunnyside Gold offered the EPA access to its property at the Mayflower tailings repository, a large series of four impoundments of historic mine waste rock that operated until the early 2000s.

“(The site) is an ideal and proven site for a repository for the water-treatment plant, and, in the interest of good faith and improving water quality, SGC has granted EPA access for this evaluative work,” the company said at the time.

Progess said the EPA sent Sunnyside Gold a consent for access request and hopes to hear of a final decision by mid-August…

If access were granted, the EPA would start a phased approach at the Mayflower tailings, Progess said. A liner would be placed on top of the existing piles for the new waste, which would then be capped.

All told, the EPA’s plan would have the capacity to store up to 609,000 cubic yards of mine waste and sludge. Use of the site, however, would vary year to year, depending on current projects and need…

The Mayflower tailings are suspected of leaching heavy metals into the Animas River, which has prompted Sunnyside Gold to conduct its own multi-year investigation into the matter.

Progess said the investigation remains ongoing, and the EPA would use a different, more stable location at Impoundment 1 on the site to store its waste to begin with. She said leaching is suspected at Impoundment 4.

“We feel comfortable starting the work at Impoundment 1,” she said. “That will allow us years of use while the investigation on Impoundment 4 can continue.”

The public can comment on the proposed plan until Aug. 27. A virtual public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. Aug 11.

Progess said the EPA hopes to have the site constructed and ready for use by fall 2021, about the time storage at the water-treatment plant for the Gold King Mine is expected to reach capacity.

The EPA’s wastewater treatment plant near Silverton, Colorado, on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2015 — photo via Grace Hood Colorado Public Radio

Navajo Nation Sees Farming Renaissance During #Coronavirus Pandemic — KUNC #COVID19

The $1 billion Navajo-Gallup water pipeline will take 12 years to build and could serve as many as 250,000 people a year by 2040, officials say. Image via Cronkite News.

From KUNC (Laurel Morales):

Historically Navajos have lived off the land. But decades of assimilation, forced relocation and dependence on federal food distribution programs changed that.

Navajo farmer Tyrone Thompson is on a mission to help people return to their roots. He’s even taken to social media to teach traditional farming techniques.

In a recent video he demonstrates how to layer organic matter to turn dry clay into rich fertile soil.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture calls the Navajo Nation a food desert. People travel up to 40 miles to get their groceries. But Thompson says they don’t have to.

“As we see the shelves emptying of food and toilet paper we kind of reconnect to our roots,” Thompson says. “Some of the tools that were given by our elders and our ancestors — our planting stick and our steering sticks — those are our weapons against hunger and poverty and sickness.”

@CWCB_DNR Appropriates Himes Creek Water Right to Protect Rediscovered Cutthroat Trout Population

Himes Creek. Photo credit: Colorado Water Conservation Board

Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) received a water court decree for an instream flow water right on Himes Creek, located in San Juan National Forest, to protect a rare population of Colorado River cutthroat trout. This lineage of trout is native to the San Juan River Basin and was previously thought to be extinct.

“This instream flow water right on Himes Creek is one of the most significant that the Colorado Water Conservation Board has appropriated in the program’s history,” said CWCB Stream and Lake Protection Section Chief Linda Bassi. “CWCB staff, along with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service, consulted with leading researchers and scientists for the past two years to develop a strategy to best protect this extremely rare and at-risk species.”

When this instream flow recommendation was initially brought to CWCB in 2017, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) was interested in protecting flows on Himes Creek to support a genetically pure population of Colorado River cutthroat trout. During data collection, genetic testing confirmed that the fish in Himes Creek have the same genetic markers as the San Juan lineage once thought to be extinct. Researchers estimate that the total number of San Juan lineage trout in all known populations is estimated to be as few as 1,000.

The CWCB approved the Himes Creek instream flow recommendation in March 2019, and the water court issued a decree for the Himes Creek instream flow water right on July 27, 2020.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

Navajo Dam operations update: Decrease to 500 CFS July 28, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A kayaker makes her way down the San Juan River, which delivers water from Colorado, New Mexico and Utah to Lake Powell. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to increasing flows in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 500 cfs on Tuesday, July 28th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

Navajo Dam operations update: 700 CFS in the #SanJuan River #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Navajo Dam spillway via Reclamation.

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to increasing flows and a forecast wet weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an decrease in the release from Navajo Dam to 700 cfs on Thursday, July 23rd, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

The Four Corners will likely see #monsoon moisture, cooler temperatures this week — The Farmington Daily Times

From The Farmington Daily-Times (Mike Easterling):

While monsoon rainfall in the Four Corners has been of a hit-or-miss nature so far this season, most of San Juan County [New Mexico] will see a good chance of precipitation in the week ahead.

Randall Hergert, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said the moisture outlook for the next several days is very encouraging.

“We are in the monsoon season,” he said. “We are finally getting a nice plume of moisture coming up from Mexico.”

Hergert said storms will begin to form over high terrain on July 21 and continue to build July 21 through July 23, moving out over lower-elevation areas.

“The peak of activity will be toward the end of the week for the Four Corners area,” he said, explaining that a plume of moisture is making its way toward northwest New Mexico and eastern Arizona.

#Runoff news: #SanJuanRiver at Pagosa Springs = 45.2 CFS, Median for this day = 176 CFS

From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara):

As of Wednesday, the San Juan River had a reported flow of 30.7 cfs, below the average for July 15 of 308 cfs.

The lowest reported flow total for July 15 came in 2002, when the San Juan River had a reported flow of 10.9 cfs. The highest reported flow total came in 1995, when the San Juan had a flow of 1,550 cfs.

Town’s #geothermal system discussed by town council — The Pagosa Springs Sun

The dome greenhouse gleams in the Sun at the center of the park. To the right is a new restroom and on the far left is the Community Garden. Along the walk way is a small paved amphitheater like space for presentations and entertainment. Photo credit The Pagosa Springs Journal.

From the Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara):

A report on the town’s geothermal heating utility was provided to the Pagosa Springs Town Council at a regular meeting on July 7.

The geothermal heating system has been operated and owned by the town since December of 1982, according to Public Works Director Martin Schmidt.

The town put out a bid and Alan Plummer Associates Inc. was awarded with an assessment of the utility, Schmidt explained.

Currently, the geothermal system has 32 customers that range from a school to small residences, Schmidt explained.

The geothermal system is fully operational and the town has not experienced any failures that would inhibit the utility to heat those that the town committed to heating, Schmidt added.

A report from Alan Plummer As- sociates Inc. Project Engineer Steve Omer done for the town touches on the system’s current conditions, ca- pacity and expansion opportunities…

One idea for an expansion opportunity was to cool homes in the summer with the geothermal piping using river water, Schmidt noted.

“When you actually look at theriver data, the average temperature of the river through the summer months is 63 and a half degrees, and 63 and a half degrees doesn’t give us enough of a difference,” he said…

Another expansion opportunity looked into by Omer was the limits of the geothermal system and how many more customers the town could add to the system.

“We found that we could not add a customer like the high school. Just the high school would overwhelm the system.” Schmidt said.

Navajo Dam operations update

The San Juan River, below Navajo Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing flows in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 850 cfs on Thursday, July 16th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. This release is calculated to be that necessary to maintain the minimum target baseflow.

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

June/July 2020 Newsletter is hot off the presses from The Water Information Program

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Basin Implementation Plan Update
Ed Tolen, SW Basin 1st Vice Chair, explained that in January a sub-committee was set up to select a local expert to work with the SW Basin Roundtable on updating the Basin Implementation Plan (BIP). From the proposals received the committee chose Harris Water Engineers to be local expert. Steve Harris (Harris Water Engineering) will no longer participate on the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) or the SW Basin Roundtable, and Carrie Padgett, P.E. of Harris Water will also step down from the SW Basin Roundtable. Roundtable elections will take place in October, Officer elections will take place in July.

There will be a team approach to working on the BIP update that will include the SW Basin Roundtable, the Local Experts (Harris Water Engineers), who work with the General Contractor (Brown and Caldwell) and the CWCB.

Matt Lindberg with Brown/Caldwell, the General Contractor, gave a presentation on next steps regarding the BIP review process. The purpose of the review and update is to improve project data, unpack technical update, revisit goals and objectives and invest in process efficiency.

The timeline for the BIP update is as follows:

  • March – August 2020 – Local Expert Workshops, Work Plans and Project lists.
  • September – December 2020 – Basin Analysis/Study
  • January – December 2021 – Update the Basin Implementation Plan
  • December to March 2022 – Incorporate Updated BIP’s into the Water Plan Update
  • To view the full Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan go here.

    #Runoff news: San Juan River at Pagosa Springs = 31.5 CFS, median for day = 224 CFS

    From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara):

    River report

    As of Wednesday, the San Juan River had a flow of 51.5 cfs. This total is well below the average for July 8, which is 466 cfs, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

    The highest reported flow total for the San Juan River came in 1995 when the river had a reported flow of 2,200 cfs.

    The lowest flow total for the San Juan River came in 2002 when the river had a reported flow of just 18.6 cfs.

    Navajo Dam operations update

    Update: From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

    In response to decreasing flows in the San Juan River Basin, and a dry weather forecast, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 800 cfs on Wednesday, July 1st starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

    The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

    From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

    In response to decreasing flows in the San Juan River Basin, and a dry weather forecast, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 600 cfs on Tuesday, June 30th starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

    The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

    A kayaker makes her way down the San Juan River, which delivers water from Colorado, New Mexico and Utah to Lake Powell. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Navajo Nation files lawsuit against the U.S. @EPA over the Clean Water Act #DirtyWaterRule

    From The Navajo Nation Facebook page:

    The Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit on Monday against the U.S. EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, arguing that the recent 2020 Waters of the United States rule significantly diminishes the number and extent of Navajo waters protected by the Clean Water Act in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. The new rule could also adversely impact the amount of federal funding that the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency receives for its water programs.

    “At this point in time, with climate change occurring around the world, it’s more prudent than ever to protect our land, water and air. We, as Diné People, have a duty to preserve and conserve our natural resources to ensure that our future generations have access to clean water, air and land. The previous 2015 Waters of the United States rule provided clarity in protecting our Nation’s waters. Therefore, we strongly oppose and disagree with the revised WOTUS,” said President Nez.

    The Nez-Lizer Administration is proposing to use $300 million from the CARES Act funding that the Navajo Nation received for water infrastructure and agriculture projects, which will require clean water resources to development and construct.

    “Our Navajo people always say that water is life, and that’s very true. When we plan for any type of water projects, we are planning for future generations, not just for today or tomorrow. Clean water is a necessity for life,” said Vice President Myron Lizer.

    “Clean water should be protected not only by the Clean Water Act, but also by the Navajo Nation’s treaty rights. It is a necessity of life that is vital to preservation of Navajo culture and tradition,” added Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen N. McPaul.

    Department Manager for Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency’s water programs Ronnie Ben said, “Since the inception of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency’s water programs, our main purpose and goal has always been to protect our Nation’s water sources. However, our job becomes difficult when the federal government rolls back environmental regulations in favor of polluters. We currently have organizations on the Navajo Nation who are not in compliance with Navajo Nation and Federal environmental laws and laxing Waters of the United States doesn’t help bring these companies into compliance.”

    President Nez and Vice President Lizer thank Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen N. McPaul, Navajo Nation Department of Justice Attorney Michael Daughtry, Contract Attorney Jill Grant, and Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency water program personnel for their efforts in bringing this suit on behalf of the Navajo people.

    #Runoff news: #SanJuanRiver calls going senior

    From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara):

    As of June 10, water from Four Mile Creek has been turned off due to a call on the creek, leading to a drop in collective diversion flows, according to Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District Manager Justin Ramsey.

    Last year, water from Four Mile was turned off on July 24, according to Ramsey in an interview on Monday.

    “The average day that it’s turned off is June 13, the mean is June 15, so we’re not that far off,” he said. “It’s the mean. I’m not overly worried. I would prefer to keep it on. From here on out Hatcher is going to start dropping.”

    According to a press release from Ramsey, total diversion flows are now at 4.3 cubic feet per second (cfs) due to the loss of the water from the Four Mile diversion.

    Last week, total diversion flows were listed at 5.8 cfs.

    This week, the West Fork diver- sion is still contributing 3 cfs and the San Juan diversion is adding another 1.3 cfs.

    As of June 15, three local lakes are full, according to Ramsey’s press release. Stevens Lake, Lake Pagosa and Village Lake all remain full, as they were last week…

    As of Wednesday, the San Juan River had a reported flow of 221 cfs, well below the average for June 17 of 1,260 cfs.

    The highest reported flow total for the San Juan on June 17 came in 1995, when the river had a flow of 4,080 cfs.

    The lowest reported flow total came in 2002, when the San Juan River had a flow of 41.4 cfs.

    #Drought/#Runoff news #SanJuanRiver

    West Drought Monitor June 9, 2020.

    From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara):

    As of June 4, Archuleta County is in “extreme drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

    The next classification from ex- treme drought is “exceptional drought,” which is the highest standard of drought on the U.S. Drought Monitor.

    The southwest portion of the state features counties such as Archuleta, Conejos and Alamosa being fully in extreme drought, while others — such as La Plata, Mineral and Hinsdale — feature a mixture of extreme and severe drought, ac- cording to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

    As of Wednesday, the San Juan River had a reported flow of 374 cfs, lower than the average for June 10 of 1,480 cfs.

    The highest reported flow total for June 10 came in 1952 when the San Juan River had a reported flow of 4,120 cfs. The lowest total came in 2002 when the river had a flow of just 67.1 cfs.

    Community help sought in revising #drought plan — The Pagosa Springs Sun

    Swim class on the San Juan River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara):

    The drought management plan for Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) will be going through some changes soon, and the PAWSD board is seeking input from a variety of community members on the plan’s trigger points.

    In an email, PAWSD Manager Justin Ramsey explained that the drought management plan will have triggers that are based on river, lake and/or hydrologic data to encourage or require water use reductions.

    Within the 2018 drought management plan, there are voluntary drought management water reductions that go all the way up to level four, or severe, drought management measures.

    “It was based on the cumulative amount of water we had in the district, so how much water was in the river, how much water was in the lakes, including Hatcher,” Ramsey said in an interview on Wednesday.

    Ramsey added that if totals were below a certain threshold, drought restrictions would occur per the 2018 drought management plan.

    However, the basis for the 2018 drought management plan was determined to be “flawed,” Ramsey described.

    “As you remember in 2018, we had somewhat of a drought. The river still flowed pretty good, but Hatcher really dropped,” he said. “I can have all the water in the world in the river; if I don’t have water in Hatcher, then we’re still screwed.”

    In 2018, drought restrictions were not triggered until late October, Ramsey explained.

    “But the lake got very low, and we don’t want that to happen again,” he said. “If we would have based it solely on the lake level, then we would have triggered it much earlier than October.”

    The revised drought management plan will be “broken up” with various triggers, Ramsey explained, citing examples such as how much water is in Hatcher Lake, the water in the San Juan River and snow water equivalency, among other things.

    “Any of those things could cause a trigger to occur. It’s not going to be a cumulative effect anymore. That’s what the major change is going to be,” he said, “instead of it being cumulative, we’re going to break out each of those little components and say if one of these happens, any of these components, we’re going into it.”

    PAWSD is looking for input from people on both the environmental side and business side of the com- munity, Ramsey explained.

    Anyone interested in serving on a committee to help with the revising of the plan can contact Ramsey at 731-7641 or justin@PAWSD.org.

    #Runoff news: Generally below average streamflow W. of the Continental Divide of the Americas @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    The Roaring Fork River near Mill Street in Aspen was flowing around 255 cfs on Thursday afternoon. The Colorado River Basin Forecast Center predicts spring runoff will peak here for the year on Saturday. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

    Flows in local rivers are peaking this week, with a spring runoff that is slightly earlier and lower than normal.

    “It kind of depends on where you are, but on the Colorado (River’s) main stem, for sure, the peak is below average,” said Cody Moser, senior hydrologist with the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center in Salt Lake City.

    But despite the lower-than-average flows, this weekend is probably one of the best of the year to go boating on local waterways.

    Vince Nichols, owner of the Aspen-based rafting company Blazing Adventures, said this weekend’s relatively big water is akin to a powder day.

    The company is running trips on the upper Roaring Fork River, especially the Slaughterhouse section between Cemetery Lane and Woody Creek, and doing so in accordance with Pitkin County-mandated social-distancing and cleaning guidelines due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “This will likely be one of the high-water weekends of the year,” Nichols said. “For the next seven to 10 days, there will be really good rafting conditions on the Roaring Fork.”

    Flows in the Roaring Fork, at its confluence with the Colorado in Glenwood Springs, are predicted to be 74% of average for April through June. According to stream gauges, the Roaring Fork appears to have hit its peak seasonal flow on June 2 at just over 4,000 cubic feet per second. The normal period for peak runoff at this location is between May 29 and June 23, at about 5,900 cfs.

    Predicting the exact day of peak flows near Aspen is trickier. The forecast center is predicting a peak for the Roaring Fork in Aspen on Saturday, at 490 cfs, because of rain expected that day. The Roaring Fork at Mill Street was running at a daily high of about 330 cfs on Thursday.

    There would be more water flowing through Aspen if not for the Twin Lakes Tunnel, which takes water from the Roaring Fork headwaters near Independence Pass to Front Range water providers. About 600 cfs of water from the upper Roaring Fork basin was being diverted through the tunnel Thursday.

    “The challenge is we’ve got that big warmup and precipitation in the forecast in this weekend,” Moser said. “It’s kind of a tough call.”

    The low runoff, despite a snowpack that was slightly above normal, is due to 2019’s dry late summer and fall, plus this year’s drier-than-average March, April and May. Dry soils and plants sucked up a lot of the moisture before it made its way into the streams.

    This photo taken on Thursday, June 4, shows little snow left on top of Independence Pass, the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River. This year’s peak spring runoff is slightly earlier and lower than normal. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Below-average flows

    According to the U.S. Geological Survey gauges, the Crystal River near Redstone appears to have peaked on June 2, at about 1,750 cfs. The Crystal at this location usually peaks between May 25 and June 18, at about 1,930 cfs.

    Downstream on the Colorado, flows peaked in DeBeque Canyon, above Grand Junction, on June 2, at about 13,300 cfs. A typical peak is about 17,000 cfs between May 24 and June 12.

    This year’s peak flows on the Colorado near Grand Junction were augmented by releases from several upstream reservoirs to the benefit of endangered fish in the 15-mile reach between Palisade and the Gunnison River, which flows into the Colorado in central Grand Junction.

    Beginning May 29, Green Mountain Reservoir, Wolford Mountain Reservoir, the Moffat Tunnel and other water-storage facilities released water to enhance the Colorado’s natural peak in the 15-mile reach. The augmented high flows enhance fish habitat.

    Ruedi Reservoir, above Basalt on the Fryingpan River, did not participate in the coordinated reservoir operations this year because there was not surplus water to contribute, said Tim Miller, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation who manages water levels in Ruedi.

    “I was getting kind of worried about fill a month ago,” Miller said. “I was pretty sure we didn’t have extra. We haven’t received anything near average precipitation for part of April or all of May.”

    Ruedi Reservoir, which can hold 102,373 acre-feet of water, is currently 79% full. Releases from Ruedi will decrease Friday to allow it to fill, bringing flows on the Fryingpan to 115 cfs. Miller said it could end up about 5,000 acre-feet short of filling this year, which usually happens in early July.

    Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that covers water and river issues in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the June 5 edition of The Aspen Times.

    From The Pagosa Sun (Chris Mannara):

    As of June 3, the San Juan River had a reported flow of 745 cfs, lower than the average for June 3 of 1,560 cfs.

    The highest reported flow total for the San Juan River came in 1948 when the river had a reported flow of 4,090 cfs.

    The lowest flow total for the San Juan River came in 2002 when the river had a flow of just 116 cfs.

    The Pagosa Area Water & Sanitation District approves surcharge relating to affordable housing — The Pagosa Springs Sun

    Pagosa Springs Panorama. Photo credit: Gmhatfield via Wikimedia Commons

    From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara):

    A monthly surcharge to cus- tomer’s water and wastewater bills was approved by the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors at a regular meeting on May 14.

    The monthly surcharge for water is 68 cents per equivalent unit (EU) while the wastewater surcharge is 22 cents per EU, according to PAWSD Manager Justin Ramsey.

    This surcharge relates to the PAWSD board previously discussing fee waivers for affordable housing and utilizing those surcharges
    to make up for the money lost.

    At a regular meeting of PAWSD on Jan. 16, a worksheet was pre- sented that outlined what these fee
    waivers would be.

    For potential affordable housing developments that are under 60 percent area median income (AMI), PAWSD would be willing to waive 100 percent of its capital investment fees (CIF).

    For developments that are 60 to 80 percent AMI, PAWSD would be willing to waive 50 percent of its CIF; for developments that are 81 to 100 percent AMI, PAWSD would be willing to waive 25 percent of its CIF according to the worksheet.

    #Snowpack news: The Upper #SanJuanRiver is mostly melted-out #runoff #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Graphic via the NRCS.

    From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara):

    An email from Pagosa Area Wa- ter and Sanitation District Manager Justin Ramsey indicates that snow water equivalency (SWE) hit 0.0 on May 15, with the median date for SWE to hit 0.0 being June 2…

    As of Wednesday, the San Juan River had a reported flow of 1,200 cfs.

    That total is below the average for May 20, which is 1,430 cfs, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

    The highest reported river flow for May 20 was 3,680 cfs, which oc- curred in 1948. The lowest reported river flow came in 1977 when the San Juan River had a flow of 158 cfs.

    The Pagosa Area Water & Sanitation District approves its half of intergovernmental agreement with Pagosa Springs Sanitation General Improvement District — The Pagosa Springs Sun

    Wastewater lift station

    From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara):

    At a regular meeting on May 14, the Pagosa AreaWater and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors approved its half of an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with the Pagosa Springs Sanitation General Improvement District (PSSGID).

    The IGA pertains to the two entities sharing equipment. The PSSGID approved its half of the agreement at a meeting on May 5…

    A new vacuum truck would cost about $600,000, Ramsey explained. According to Ramsey, the PSS- GID just bought a new vacuum truck and uses it about two times
    a month.

    “We would use it half a dozen times a month. Neither of us use it all that much, but both need to have it because you’ve got a lift station that’s failing and backing up you’ve got to suck that stuff out,” he said. “It just kind of makes sense that we share a vac truck as opposed to both buying two $600,000 pieces of equipment.”

    In the event that the PSSGID allows PAWSD to use the vacuum truck and also supplies a driver, PAWSD would pay the PSSGID’s driver.

    he IGA also applies to sharing staff, Ramsey explained, adding that PAWSD had recently hired a supervisory control and data acquisition engineer that PSSGID would like to utilize sometimes…

    The IGA between the PSSGID and PAWSD was approved unani- mously by the PAWSD board.

    The Pagosa Area Water & Sanitation District approves River Rock Estates petition for inclusion — The Pagosa Springs Sun

    San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

    From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara):

    River Rock Estates

    Also at the May 14 meeting, the PAWSD board approved a revised petition for inclusion from River Rock Estates LLC.

    The PAWSD board had previously heard a different petition for inclusion request from River Rock Estates LLC in March of 2019 and June of 2019.

    “They’ve come to us a couple of times. This was originally going to be somewhere between 80- and 100-unit subdivision,” Ramsey said, adding that the proposed development is off of Light Plant Road.

    The current site plan asks for an inclusion of 10 units, Ramsey explained.

    “This is just kind of infill for us at this point,” Ramsey said, explaining that all four sides of the site plan are already within the PAWSD boundaries.

    The home sites on the development range from one to three acres, Ryan Searle of construction company Beyond Your Wildest Dreams explained.

    “It’s a good project. Like I said, it’s surrounded by properties that are already within the district, so it’s just kind of an infill of our inclusion area,” he said.

    Durango hatchery takes first spawn from rare #cutthroat trout rescued in #416Fire — @COParksWildlife

    Toby Mourning, manager of the Durango fish hatchery for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, takes eggs from a rare San Juan cutthroat trout. Photo credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife

    Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):

    After nearly a two-year wait, Colorado Parks and Wildlife hatchery staff and biologists in Durango have spawned a new lineage of Colorado River cutthroat trout that were rescued from a remote stream during the 416 Fire in 2018.

    This marks a major milestone for CPW’s on-going species conservation work in Colorado, and the result of decades of work by dedicated biologists, researchers and field staff.

    Fertilized eggs of the San Juan cutthroats will hatch by mid-summer; some of the fingerlings will be placed in back-country streams in the southwest area of the state and others will be held at the Durango hatchery to start a sustainable brood stock. Now, the hatchery staff and biologists will continue the long-term effort to restore these native trout to their home waters.

    “I’m thrilled that we’ve gotten a spawn from these fish, it’s been a long process and we’ve got a lot more work to do,” said Jim White, aquatic biologist for CPW in Durango.

    The story of these fish that hold a unique genetic marker goes back nearly 150 years and includes some serious biological detective work. Since the 1970s, CPW aquatic biologists have searched back-country streams looking for isolated populations of cutthroats — Colorado’s native trout. In southwest Colorado in the 1980s and 1990s, biologists found cutthroat trout that were suspected to have unique characteristics in eight small streams. Back then, however, technology to analyze genetics fully was still being developed. The biologists kept their eyes on the fish and made sure non-native trout were not stocked nearby.

    In 2012, researchers from the University of Colorado went to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History looking for preserved specimens of cutthroat trout that had been collected in Colorado. Two of the specimens they found were taken from the San Juan River near Pagosa Springs in 1874.

    An analysis showed that the fish had genetic “fingerprints” specific to the San Juan River Basin. CPW researchers then began a similar analysis of the cutthroats they’d found in southwest Colorado. By this time, genetic-analysis technology had advanced and in early 2018 scientists confirmed that the marker in the museum specimens matched the cutthroat trout recently found in the wild.

    Biologists and hatchery staff then made a plan to start propagating the fish. The 416 Fire helped push the project along.

    The 416 Fire near Durango, Colorado, ignited on June 1, 2018. By June 21, the wildfire covered more than 34,000 acres and was 37 percent contained. Photo credit USFS via The High Country News

    When the fire started north of Durango, biologists worried that ash and sediment run-off could kill the cutthroats in the remote streams. So CPW worked with the San Juan National Forest to go into the area to capture the wild trout and bring them to a special isolation hatchery in Durango. Only 54 cutthroat were recovered from the fire area.

    White and Durango Hatchery Manager Toby Mourning have been concerned because the fish did not produce any spawn last year and some of the fish died. But the turnaround this year is a major milestone for the restoration effort.

    “We’re not getting a lot of eggs, but enough to provide some for a limited amount of stocking and some to start a captive population that will be sustainable,” Mourning said.

    In order to protect the fish, CPW is not providing details on stream locations. Biologists hope, however, that in a few years anglers will be able to find this unique cutthroat trout in the wild.

    White explained that the work on this native is a significant conservation effort. In 2018, after the genetics of the fish were confirmed, he said: “We always ask ourselves, ‘What if we could go back to the days before mining, pioneer settlement and wide-spread non-native fish stocking to see what we had here? Careful work over the years by biologists, finding those old specimens in the museum and the genetic testing gave us the chance, essentially, to go back in time. Now we have the opportunity to bring this native trout back to southwest Colorado.”

    Beautiful San Juan “Cut” May, 2020. Photo credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife

    Repairs to El Vado Dam Begin Next Year — The #RioGrande Sun

    From The Rio Grande Sun (Molly Montgomery):

    Beginning in 2021, the Bureau of Reclamation will repair El Vado Dam.

    Built in 1935, the dam is one of the only steel faceplated dams in the country. It can store around 200,000 acre-feet of water.

    Some of the steel faceplates of the dam have become cracked and bent due to shifts in the land around the dam, wrote Bureau of Reclamation Public Affairs Specialist Mary Carlson in a March 6 email.

    The shifts in land have also caused erosion behind the faceplates and cracks and bending in the plates on the dam’s spillway, she wrote.

    Bureau of Reclamation Civil Engineer Carolyn Donnelly discussed the potential effects of these changes at the Fifth Annual Rio Chama Congreso Feb. 29.

    “The spillway, some of those face plates, if you walk on it, you can hear it’s kind of hollow underneath and they move, so if we started using that at the full capacity, water could get under those plates, take them out, and then there could be failure of the dam,” Donnelly said. “And luckily there’s not a large population downstream, but for those who are there it would not be a good thing.”

    El Vado stores water for irrigation in the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which includes six pueblos—Santa Ana, Kewa, Cochiti, San Felipe, Isleta and Sandia.

    It also sometimes stores drinking water for cities including Santa Fe and Albuquerque as part of the San Juan-Chama Project.

    Carlson wrote that the Bureau of Reclamation is still working out details about how water will be stored and move during the repair, for which the reservoir will be close to empty for at least a year.

    New Mexico Lakes, Rivers and Water Resources via Geology.com.

    Pagosa Springs Sanitation General Improvement District approves purchase of pumps to address lift station problems — The Pagosa Sun

    Wastewater lift station

    From The Pagosa Sun (Chris Mannara):

    At its regular meeting on May 5, the Pagosa Springs Sanitation General Improvement District (PSSGID) approved a purchase of $73,317 for additional pumps for pump stations.

    Pumps were previously pur- chased in December of 2019 and have since been installed, Public Works Director Martin Schmidt explained during the meeting.

    Since the installation of those pumps, however, they have seen failures and other issues, Schmidt explained.

    The town ultimately got the assistance of its on-call engineer service, RG and Associates (RGA), to further investigate the problem and the town’s lift stations, Schmidt explained…

    RGA, through its research, found that a series of things are causing pumps to fail, Schmidt explained.

    Currently, staff is looking at prices for swing check valves to replace a ball valve pump control, he explained.

    “That is something that really needs to be done no matter what else we do in this phased process because the current system creates a lot of dead head time,” Schmidt described.

    According to Schmidt, “dead head time” is where pumps are pumping against a closed valve.

    “For any pump system, there is an allowable amount of time that can happen, but because we have two 115 horsepower pumps, pumping in series, that time is shockingly short for our system,” he said. “Because we have so much power pushing against the valve, we need to get rid of that ball valve and put in something that opens when sufficient pressure is built.”

    Other things the PSSGID can do with swing check valves is re- programming the PSSGID’s vari- able sequencing drives for slower startup and shutdowns, Schmidt added.
    Additionally, town lift stations have seen cavitation from an in- correctly sized reducer, Schmidt explained.

    “What it’s doing is it’s destroying the impellers, it’s destroying the wear plates,” Schmidt said, adding that cavitation causes main seals to be lost on the pumps.

    In a follow-up email on Tuesday, Schmidt described cavitation as being caused by pressure changes in a fluid, which creates bubbles that collapse “violently.”

    […]

    Part of the recommendation is to get a pump with an 8-inch inlet into the dry-well location, paired with the pumps purchased in December, he explained at the meeting…

    Rebuilding and trying to fix the current pumps would put the price within $10,000 of buying a new pump that hasn’t had cavitation and other issues.

    Additionally, rebuilding old pumps costs about $17,000 each, he added later…

    According to Schmidt, the additional pumps will solve the cavitation issues in a single train at both lift stations.

    “We spent $56,000 and change in December and because of a few different things, now we’re looking at $73,317 for a pair of pumps,” Schmidt said. “If you approve the purchase of these two pumps to- day, we still have four pump loca- tions that will be running pumps in some state of disrepair and not operating at full ability.”

    According to RGA’s recommen- dation, the town would purchase those two pumps and then four additional ones, Schmidt added.

    The motion to approve the pur- chase of additional pumps at the cost of $73,317 was approved via a unanimous vote of the PSSGID board.

    May 2020 SW #Colorado #Snowpack update — RiverOfLostSouls.com @jonnypeace

    From RiverOfLostSouls.com (Jonathan P. Thompson):

    Snowpack levels in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado typically peak in April or early May, before starting a rapid downward slide as temperatures rise and spring runoff gets underway. This water year — which so far has tracked just below average in terms of snowpack — appears to be following the “normal” pattern. Yet it also continues a trend of earlier, and diminishing, snowpack-peaks.

    This slideshow requires JavaScript.

    For the last few years I’ve been following, graphing, and posting snow water equivalent levels at three high-altitude SNOTEL stations: Columbus Basin, located in the La Plata Mountains west of Durango; Red Mountain Pass; and Molas Lake (near Molas Pass). Looking back at the graphs one thing that immediately stands out is that there is no “normal.” Terrifyingly dry years (2018) are often followed by wickedly wet ones (2019).

    However trends do appear. Notice in the graphs below that although the snowpack level for the first of April and May fluctuate wildly from year-to-year, the overall trend line is on a downward slope. Also note that in the ’80s and ’90s the levels on May 1 were as likely to be higher than on April 1, but as time goes on, the peak tends to be earlier. This would appear to be a sign of a warming, drying climate (at least for this admittedly small sample size and short period of record).

    This slideshow requires JavaScript.

    Something not seen in these graphs: A hot early May has melted a lot of snow. If the current melting rate continues, there won’t be any snow left by June. And that could mean that the Animas River already hit its peak, topping out at about 2,200 cfs on May 5. That would be a pretty disappointing spring runoff. The warm temperatures have also put most of the region into some level of drought conditions, despite the near-average-snowfall this winter.

    Of course, you never know what might happen this time of year in the San Juans. Temperatures could fall, and big storms might still hit. But don’t count on it.

    This slideshow requires JavaScript.

    #Drought/#runoff news: Parts of SW #Colorado slip back into Extreme Drought, #AnimasRiver runoff expected to peak early

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    Extreme drought has crept back into Southwest Colorado…

    “With climate change, we expect to see these really big swings from wet to dry years,” said Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist with Colorado State University. “But the trend is we’re in a mega-drought.”

    For context, Udall said it’s important to look at Colorado’s weather the past three years. In 2018, it was one of the hottest and driest years on record. The next year, however, brought one of the best snowpacks in recorded history.

    For 2020, it appears the pendulum has swung back to hot and dry.

    “It’s not as bad as 2018, but it’s still bad,” Udall said. “Probably within the bottom 10 driest years on record.”

    West Drought Monitor May 5, 2020.

    On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor relisted parts of Southwest Colorado in the “extreme drought” category for the first time since the region was downgraded after the 2018-19 winter…

    Southwest Colorado’s current dry spell began in October 2019 and lasted through the winter. Though high elevation weather stations recorded about normal snowpack levels, researchers estimated snow levels were below average.

    This spring, too, has been all but void of precipitation. April saw just 10% of normal precipitation levels for the region, making it one of the driest months on record. From October to April, the region saw 70% of its average precipitation levels.

    As a result, the Animas River is expected to have 63% of its normal water supply.

    Unusually high temperatures, too, have exacerbated the lack of snow and rain. In April, for instance, the region was 10 to 20 degrees higher than average, according to data from the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center.

    Above-average temperatures this early in the season have caused snowpack to melt and rivers to run higher and earlier than normal. The Animas River, for example, is expected to peak this weekend at around 2,700 cubic feet per second. By comparison, the Animas River usually peaks during the first week of June around 4,700 cfs.

    Most of the snow has already melted off the San Juan Mountains – the Animas, Dolores, San Miguel and San Juan river basins have just 50% of normal snowpack levels for this time of year.

    The hot and dry conditions have elevated concerns about fire danger in the region. Pugh said soil moisture is in the lowest fifth percentile, a sign that fuels on the ground are ripe to burn and would be difficult to put out.

    Hal Doughty, chief of Durango Fire Protection District, said local fire chiefs in the region sent a letter Friday to La Plata County, requesting commissioners implement Stage 1 fire restrictions.

    La Plata County commissioners are expected to vote on the restrictions Tuesday. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe implemented Stage 1 fire restrictions on Friday…

    On April 7, the Forest Service announced a complete fire ban across 24 national forests in the Rocky Mountain region, including the San Juan National Forest.

    Lorena Williams, spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said the agency is expecting above-average fire potential in May and June.

    “Fuel dryness levels have hit critical levels, and above-normal fire potential exists at all snow-free elevations in Southwest Colorado,” she said. “We are preparing for active fire behavior that will be difficult to control. As we’ve seen very recently, any ignitions can lead to rapid fire spread when aided by wind and slope. As fuels dry even more, less wind and less slope will result in the same amount of spread.”

    Udall said there is some connection between dry years and wetter monsoons later in the summer: The sun heats the land more, which pulls moisture-laden air from thousands of miles away.

    “I don’t think there’s any question that happens,” he said. “But it’s just not a guaranteed thing. The odds are just higher.”

    Udall pointed to a scientific study published April 17 in Science that concludes a drought of epic portions is the new reality for the American Southwest, driven in part by climate change…

    Williams and his colleagues, however, found by studying soil moisture content in tree ring records that the region had experienced four periods of more than two decades of severe drought conditions in the past 1,200 years.

    The study found the current drought in the region since 2000 is the second-worst drought experienced in that time span, second only to a dry spell in the 1500s.

    Add complications with climate change, which is expected to move storms farther north and raise temperatures in the Southwest, and concerns about water availability and intensified wildfire seasons begin to mount.

    “I’ve always been worried about Southwest Colorado,” Udall said. “As the planet warms, areas right on the edge of big deserts like Southwest Colorado are really at risk.”

    San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan Basin High/Low graph May 7, 2020 via the NRCS.

    Water future: Community input sought — The Pagosa Sun #COWaterPlan

    Here’s a guest column from Al Pfister that’s running in The Pagosa Sun:

    We are living in an age where we are facing drier and warmer times ahead. While we have had a few wet years over the past two decades, looking over that entire time span, we have been in a drought. We are currently in a severe drought with gradually worsening conditions in southern Colorado over the past few months. This scenario is believed to be a foreshadowing of our future.

    The Colorado Water Plan, completed in December 2015, recognized these conditions and outlined numerous strategies to guide all water users in collaboratively addressing our challenging water future.

    One of those strategies was the development of stream management plans (SMPs). SMPs are intended to compile a community’s understanding of a watershed’s collective environmental, recreational, agricultural and municipal water needs, identifying information gaps, and promoting projects and processes that meet those needs and gaps.

    In 2018, community representatives formed a group, now called the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership (WEP), to better understand current and future local water use and needs through the Colorado Water Plan’s SMP process. Funding for this local effort is provided by the state through Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), Southwest Basin Roundtable, San Juan Water Conservancy District, Archuleta County, Town of Pagosa Springs, Banded Peak Ranch and numerous other partners.

    Envisioned as a three-phase process, the ultimate purpose of this effort to explore opportunities to conserve the Upper San Juan Basin streams and their uses with wide-ranging community support and decisions based on local input and current science and assessments. In order to ensure a broad representation of the community’s interests are brought forward and maintained through the process, a steering committee was formed. Representatives of agricultural, environmental, recreational, and municipal water users, private landowners, business owners, and local government comprise the steering committee.

    While forming the steering committee and informing stakeholders about this endeavor, the local water users decided to call it the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership to recognize the voluntary and collaborative nature of this effort. Phase I, just completed, of this effort entailed formation of the steering committee and outreach to stakeholders, identification of our community’s collective values on issues, opportunities and the geographic scope of the WEP. Funding for Phase II has been obtained and is now awaiting formal approval from the CWCB in order to proceed with implementation.

    Phase II will focus on assessing the environmental, recreational, and agricultural structural water needs and values of our community. We will be working with partners, San Juan Conservation District and Lotic Hydrological, to evaluate current and future water needs via community input and scientific analysis. Our goal is to complete an assessment that can prioritize projects and processes to meet those needs. This assessment will inform the development of an Integrated Water Management Plan that lists goals, potential projects and actions in Phase III, as determined by the local community.

    In order to accurately assess and identify projects that align with local values and needs, the WEP is again asking for community input throughout Phase II. To help the WEP and our partners better understand environmental, recreational and agricultural structure needs this year, our partners will be working directly with ditch companies, land owners, governmental agencies, as well as providing updates to the general public throughout the process. We greatly appreciate your involvement and input, helping our communities in the San Juan River Basin better prepare and secure our water future.

    More detailed information on the WEP can be obtained at our website: http://www.mountainstudies.org/sanjuan/smp, or by contacting Al Pfister at (970) 985-5764.

    San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

    #Runoff news: @USBR is expecting below a normal season on the #AnimasRiver #snowpack

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    “I think, unfortunately, it’s one of those years that’s kind of a bummer,” said Ashley Nielson, a senior hydrologist with the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center. “Everything is going to be below average.”

    Animas River Basin SNOTEL snowpack graph May 3, 2020 via the NRCS.

    Snowpack in the San Juan Mountains this winter hovered near historic averages, according to Snotel sites, which track snow depth.

    But Snotel sites tell only part of the story.

    For one, there are a limited number of sites in the basin. And this year, elevations above most Snotel sites around 11,000 feet didn’t receive as much snow as usual.

    To make matters worse, drought conditions last summer and fall caused the ground to dry up significantly, so soil likely will absorb more snowmelt than normal, at the expense of rivers and streams.

    As a result, the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center predicts the Animas River will receive about 70% of the water it usually does in spring, Nielson said.

    The forecast center also predicts the Animas River likely will hit a peak flow of 2,300 to 2,500 cubic feet per second, though as much as 3,000 cfs is possible…

    As of Friday, Snotel records show Southwest Colorado’s snowpack is melting at an accelerated rate: Snowpack in the San Juans is 70% of normal historic averages for this time of year.

    Jarrod Biggs, assistant utilities director for the city of Durango, said a heavy snowpack year in the winter of 2018-19 provided good storage for the town’s reservoir, which should help water reserves during a below-normal runoff.

    The city of Durango gets most of its water from the Florida River and supplements supply from the Animas River when demand increases…

    Water is not being pulled from the Animas River to Lake Nighthorse this year, said Russ Means, general manager of the reservoir, as crews work on the intake structure across from Santa Rita Park.

    On Friday, the Animas River was running at 1,700 cfs, which is 25% higher than average for this time of year, said Frank Kugel, director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.

    San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

    #Snowpack news: #SanJuanRiver SWE = 52% of normal

    San Juan River Basin SWE May 3, 2020 via the NRCS.

    From The Pagosa Sun (Chris Mannara):

    Snow water equivalency (SWE) data has seen a 3.3-inch decrease since last week with totals dropping from 22.5 inches to 19.2 inches this week.

    The SWE median has also seen a decrease, with totals going from 31 inches to 29.6 inches this week.

    This week, SWE data is 64.9 percent of median, while last week it was 72.6 percent of median.

    Precipitation data has seen a slight increase since last week, go- ing from 26.5 inches to 26.8 inches this week.

    The precipitation average has also increased, going from 36.4 inches to 37.6 inches this week.

    Precipitation data is 71.3 per- cent of median this week; last week, it was 72.8 percent of median.

    Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map May 3, 2020 via the NRCS.

    The Spring 2020 Headwaters Magazine: Pursuing Water Justice is hot off the presses from @WaterEdCO

    Please enjoy the article below and then Click here to become a member at Water Education Colorado.

    From Water Education Colorado (Laura Paskus and Caitlin Coleman):

    Interstate 70 and a Nestle Purina pet food factory loom above northeast Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods. By Matthew Staver

    When Water Justice is Absent, Communities Speak Up

    Two years ago, a company that analyzes property data crunched the numbers on more than 8,600 zip codes in the United States and found that America’s most polluted neighborhood was in northeast Denver. The study, from ATTOM Data Solutions, shows that Denver’s 80216 zip code, which includes Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and River North, topped its “environmental hazard index.” As of 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory reported that 22 facilities were still releasing toxic chemicals in 80216, chemicals such as nickel, lead, methanol, creosote and more.

    “The neighborhood is parked between gas refineries, the former airport, and then, also, what was at one time an Army base making mustard gas,” says University of Denver law professor Tom Romero, II, who has spent his career dissecting the factors behind environmental injustices in Colorado. There are two Superfund sites and six brownfield sites in 80216, plus the knot of Interstate 70 and Interstate 25 severs the neighborhood from the rest of Denver and increases pollution from highway traffic. The area is also home to a predominantly low-income, Hispanic and Latinx community, says Candi CdeBaca, Denver City Councilwoman for northeast Denver’s District 9.

    Last year, CdeBaca became the first person from the neighborhoods to represent on the Denver City Council, ever. She points to an opposition campaign to the Central 70 Project as the beginning of the neighborhood rallying to achieve representation against environmental inequities.

    The Central 70 Project broke ground in 2018 to widen the highway through Denver. It will demolish the viaduct that carries I-70 over Elyria-Swansea, replacing it with a below-grade highway. Residents had a list of worries: losing their homes to eminent domain, living even closer to the highway, and unearthing a Superfund site, which they feared would re-expose harmful heavy metals and increase health risks, CdeBaca says.

    Their opposition campaign didn’t stop the highway work, but the community came together and won in one sense—the Colorado Department of Transportation will pay for a long-term health study, collecting data to determine whether toxins in the air, soil and water are making residents sick. They also gained a louder voice. “Those losses were the first start of me galvanizing some community power around environmental racism,” says CdeBaca. “Now we have this amplification of groups who never had representation in our government from the neighborhoods that were polluted.” She points to the importance of local voice and representation in all issues, particularly for communities that want to bring about environmental justice. “There is nothing that I support more than activating people power,” CdeBaca says.

    With water affordability, access and quality challenges—all of which can translate into health impacts—the role of water in Colorado isn’t always one of fostering healthy communities, yet it could and should be. What contributes to these less-than-whole communities? And what does it take to recognize the issues and how they evolved, address power imbalances, engage the community, and restore equity where it’s been missing?

    What is Environmental Justice?

    Environmental injustices in Colorado, or anywhere, can span cities and suburbs, sovereign tribal lands, and rural communities. They have their roots in narratives of immigration, development and industry, and political power dynamics, further influenced by evolving legal and regulatory frameworks.

    In 1990, EPA Administrator William Reilly created an Environmental Equity Workgroup to assess evidence that “racial minority and low-income communities bear a higher environmental risk burden than the general population.” The agency, which went on to establish an Environmental Equity office in 1992, later changing its name to the Office of Environmental Justice in 1994, defines environmental justice as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” It has since expanded to offer a range of programs that provide services from grant funding to technical assistance and training. It also runs a National Environmental Justice Hotline.

    Another early definition of environmental justice came from University of Michigan professor Bunyan Bryant, who said it refers to places “where people can interact with confidence that the environment is safe, nurturing and productive. Environmental justice is served when people can realize their highest potential.”

    Scholars add additional layers to the term—it’s not just about identifying who is or isn’t harmed but includes some form of restitution, says Kelsea MacIlroy, an adjunct professor and PhD candidate in the sociology department at Colorado State University.

    “There are a lot of different ways to talk about justice that aren’t just about who and how but also about a long-term social justice component,” MacIlroy says. “Does the community actually have an authentic seat at the table in addressing the ills?”

    80216 may feel it all. “Denver was segregated, and that segregation manifested itself in a variety of ways in terms of water,” Romero says. “It meant that Denver’s communities of color, particularly African Americans and Mexican Americans, were living in close proximity to the areas with heavy industry, where the affordable housing is.” That’s a pattern and practice, he says, that was established in the 20th century and continues today. Many environmental justice cases have similar roots, as repeated practices that ultimately create winners and losers.

    When Government Fails

    Americans watched one of the most high-profile environmental justice cases unfold in Flint, Michigan, in 2015 and 2016 when corroded lead pipes poisoned the population.

    To save money, in April 2014, the city switched its drinking water source and began supplying residents with Flint River water that wasn’t treated under federal anti-corrosion rules. The population was predominantly black, and more than 40 percent of residents were below the poverty threshold. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, no level of lead exposure is safe but higher lead exposure leads to more health challenges including anemia, kidney and brain damage, heart disease, decreased IQ and more. In children, the impacts are especially toxic.

    In 2016, labor and community activists in Lansing, Michigan, called for Governor Rick Snyder to resign over the Flint water contamination crisis. The former governor did not step down—his term lasted through 2019. Photo by Jim West

    Residents began noticing a rusty tint to their tap water in the summer of 2015, but it wasn’t until October 2015 that the governor ordered Flint’s water source switched. By then, though the new water was safe, the plumbing wasn’t—corroded pipes continued to leach lead into drinking water. Bottled water and free faucet filters to remove lead at the point of use were distributed.

    More than five years after the crisis in Flint began, the city and its residents are still recovering. The city’s FAST Start program is removing and replacing lead and galvanized steel service lines across the city, but it’s a big, expensive job. FAST Start has been funded with $25 million from the State of Michigan and $100 million allocated by Congress through the Federal Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act of 2016. As of December 2019, less than 40 percent of the city’s pipes had been replaced, with many residents still relying on faucet filters or bottled water.

    Fifteen state and local officials were charged with various crimes, including involuntary manslaughter—some took plea deals and most cases were dropped. Residents now mistrust their water and water providers. That mistrust has flooded the nation, with many more communities now coping with elevated lead levels and lead pipe replacement.

    According to the independent Flint Water Advisory Task Force’s final report, released in 2016, breakdowns in protocol, dismissal of problems, and failure to protect people occurred at nearly every level of government. Not only were customers supplied with unsafe drinking water, government officials were slow to acknowledge the problems and rectify the issue by providing safe water. According to the 2016 report, the Flint water crisis is a “story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental justice.” Had there been local control of resources and decisions, they write, the problems wouldn’t have occurred in the first place.

    Coping with Forever Chemicals

    Flint’s toxic water is not unlike the water quality issues discovered in 2016 in the Colorado towns of Fountain and Security-Widefield. That’s when water providers and residents learned that PFAS chemicals, short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, were detected at levels above EPA’s new 2016 health advisory levels. The source of the chemicals: firefighting foam used for decades to extinguish training fuel fires at the U.S. Air Force’s Peterson Air Force Base. The Air Force now uses a replacement foam at the base, and in 2019, the Colorado Legislature enacted restrictions and bans on PFAS foam, but the damage has been done. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they bioaccumulate and remain in the environment for a long time, with half lives (the amount of time it takes the chemical to decrease to half its original value) in humans of two to eight years, depending on the chemical. They have been linked to cancers, liver and kidney damage, high cholesterol, low infant birth weight, and other ailments.

    “We ended up having 16 family members that lived within that area that had cancer, and five of them died of kidney cancer,” said Mark Favors, during a public event on PFAS at Colorado School of Mines in January 2020. Favors is a former resident of Security, a U.S. Army veteran, a PFAS activist, and member of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition. “A lot of [my family] are military veterans. One of my cousins, while he was doing two combat tours in Iraq, the Air Force was contaminating their drinking water. That’s the crazy part. How they’ve admitted it and it’s just hard to get any type of justice on the issue,” Favors says.

    Concerned members of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition took a bus to Colorado School of Mines in January 2020 to hear fellow coalition member Mark Favors speak alongside experts about PFAS. Panelists included Dr. Christopher Higgens, an engineering professor working on PFAS cleanup at Colorado School of Mines; Rob Bilott, the attorney who fought DuPont on PFAS contamination in West Virginia; and others. Photo by Matthew Staver

    These southern El Paso County towns aren’t home to what are often considered disadvantaged populations—the poverty rate is between 8 and 9 percent, slightly less than the statewide average; about 60 percent of residents are white, and about 20 percent are Hispanic or Latinx, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. However, census numbers don’t represent military personnel who temporarily reside in the area. According to El Paso County’s Health Indicators report, published in 2012, four military bases in the county employ 40,500 military personnel and about 21,000 contract personnel.

    When EPA tightened its health advisory levels in 2016, they were 10 times more restrictive than what the agency had previously advised, and water providers realized they had a problem. They acted quickly to provide residents with free bottled water and water filling stations while they suspended use of the aquifer, then worked to broker deals to purchase clean water from other municipalities. Some of those deals were only temporary. Since June 2018, the City of Fountain has worked to get back on its groundwater supply, treating the groundwater with granular activated carbon units provided by the Air Force. Now it is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct a full, permanent groundwater treatment plant. The story in Security is similar—the Security Water and Sanitation District has been importing water, primarily from Pueblo Reservoir, to meet the needs of its residents since 2016, which involved building new pipelines and purchasing extra water from Colorado Springs Utilities—an added cost. Security avoided raising water rates for a time, paying those costs out of its cash reserves. By 2018, residents had to absorb a 15 percent rate increase, with another 9.5 percent increase in 2019.

    The Army Corps of Engineers is constructing a treatment facility in Security, too, which should be complete by the end of 2020. Once the plant is finished, Security will switch back to a combination of groundwater and surface water, and rates should stabilize once the costs of those pipelines are recovered, says Roy Heald, general manager at Security Water and Sanitation Districts.

    Who pays to protect the health of those who rely on this water? “What responsibility did [the Air Force] have in rectifying this? What about the local sanitation districts? They have to deal with this. It’s not their fault but they’re tasked with giving clean water,” says MacIlroy at Colorado State University.

    “The Air Force really has stepped up,” Heald says. But they may have to step up further—in 2019, the Security Water and Sanitation Districts and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, another affected entity, sued the Air Force to recoup the costs of purchasing and piping in clean water. Their lawsuit cites negligence for disposal of chemicals, remediation of contamination, and breaching a responsibility to prevent dangerous conditions on the defendant’s property. Heald wouldn’t comment on the pending lawsuit, but says, “As long as [cash] reserves are at an adequate level, if we received a windfall there would be no place else for it to go besides back to our customers.” Those recouped costs would likely take the form of lower or stabilized rates.

    Residents are also pushing for justice through a class-action lawsuit brought by the Colorado Springs-based McDivitt Lawfirm, which has teamed up with a personal injury law firm in New York to file against 3M, Tyco Fire Products, and other manufacturers of the firefighting foam.

    “There’s going to have to be some sort of accountability and justice for these people who unknowingly, for years, drank colorless, odorless high amounts of PFAS,” says Favors. He calls for better oversight and demands that polluters are held accountable.

    As for coping with PFAS-related health challenges, there are still a lot of unknowns, but El Paso County was selected to participate in two national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies to better assess the dangers of human exposure to PFAS, and to evaluate exposure pathways.

    Locally, the study and lawsuits might help recoup some financial damages—but PFAS-related water contamination isn’t isolated to these Colorado communities. In July 2019, the Environmental Working Group mapped at least 712 documented cases of PFAS contamination across 49 states. Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives, hoping to implement a national PFAS drinking water standard, estimate the number is even higher: 1,400 communities suffer from PFAS contamination. A U.S. Senate version of a PFAS-regulating bill has yet to be introduced. But in February, EPA released a draft proposal to consider regulating PFOS and PFOA, just two of the thousands of PFAS.

    Justice through Water Rights

    Environmental justice isn’t exclusively an urban issue. Injustices involving pollution, public health, access, affordability and water can be wrought anyplace—including rural and suburban areas. For rural communities, the issue comes to a head when people, organizations or entities in power seek more water for their needs at the cost of others.

    In southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, acequia communities fought for years to protect their water rights and way of life. Acequias are an equity-based irrigation system introduced by the original Spanish and Mexican settlers of southern Colorado. “What it means is that the entire community is only benefitted when all resources are shared,” says Judy Lopez, conservation project manager with Colorado Open Lands. There, Lopez works with landowners to preserve wildlife habitat, forests, culturally significant lands, and ag lands—including those served by acequias.

    The Town of San Luis, the heart of Colorado’s acequia community, is one of the most economically disadvantaged in the state. It’s in Costilla County, where more than 60 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latinx—more than any other county in Colorado—and 25 percent of the population live in poverty, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. But the people there are long-time landowners, never separated from the land their ancestors settled, four to seven generations back, Lopez says. They have the state’s original water rights to match, including Colorado’s oldest continuously operated water right, the San Luis People’s Ditch, an acequia established in 1852.

    Prior to statehood, the territorial government recognized acequia water rights. But when the Colorado Constitution established the right of prior appropriation, the priority scheme of “first in time, first in right” became the law, challenging communal rights.

    “It was very difficult for [acequias] to go to water court and say, ‘This guy is taking my water,’” Lopez says. “It was very difficult to quantify the use and who was using it.”

    In southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, Judy Lopez with Colorado Open Lands and landowner Dave Marquez discuss upcoming restoration work on the Culebra River, which
    traverses his property. Marquez irrigates from the Francisco Sanchez Acequia to grow alfalfa-grass hay. The acequia worked with Colorado Open Lands and the bylaws
    project to develop bylaws that preserve their oral traditions. Photo by Christi Bode

    It wasn’t until 2009 that the Colorado Legislature passed the Acequia Recognition Law. The law was developed by Rep. Ed Vigil with the help of the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, an entity that represents more than 73 acequias and 300 families who depend on them. Amended in 2013, the law solidifies the rights of acequia users. According to the Colorado Acequia Handbook, it allows “acequias to continue to exercise their traditional roles in governing community access to water, and also strengthens their ability to protect their water.”

    In order to be recognized under the Acequia Recognition Act, acequias needed bylaws. Over the past six years, Colorado Open Lands, the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, and the University of Colorado Boulder have partnered to help 42 acequias write bylaws, thereby protecting their water. “The bylaws were still based, in large part, on those oral traditions,” Lopez says, “and included protective language that said, ‘If a water right is sold, or a piece of land is sold, that acequia gets the first right to purchase those rights.’”

    Even having water rights doesn’t guarantee water access: Over the past few decades, the federal government has settled longstanding water rights cases with sovereign tribes, in many cases backdating tribal water rights to the dates of their reservations’ establishment. Although the tribes now have the nation’s oldest established water rights, they haven’t always, and they still come up against structural and financial barriers that prevent them from developing water and getting the real benefit of those rights.

    Of the more than 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States, as of 2019 only 36 tribal water rights settlements had been federally approved. The Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes in Colorado are among that small number, but despite their long journey, the tribes still don’t have access to all the water they own.

    Tribal water rights have their roots in the Winters Doctrine, a 1908 case which established tribal water rights based on the date the federal government created their reservations—thereby moving tribal water rights to “first in line” among users.

    In the 1970s and ‘80s, the U.S. government filed and worked through claims on behalf of the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes to surface waters in southwestern Colorado. In the 1980s, Congress approved a settlement between the tribes, the federal government and other parties; in 2000, the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act was amended, entitling tribes to water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s proposed Animas-La Plata Project (A-LP), as well as from the Dolores Project’s McPhee Reservoir. Construction on A-LP began in 2001, and the project’s key feature, Lake Nighthorse—named for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell—began filling in 2009.

    Prior to the Dolores Project, many people living in Towaoc, on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, did not have running water and instead trucked it in to fill water tanks at their homes, says Ernest House, Jr., senior policy director with the Keystone Policy Center and former director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. His late father, Ernest House, Sr., was pivotal in that fight for water. “I was fortunate, my father was able to see A-LP completed. I think he probably, in his own right, couldn’t believe that it would have been done and could be done,” he says. But even today, some Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute communities still lack access to water, and aging infrastructure from the 1980s needs updating and repairs.

    “Our tribes as sovereign nations cannot maintain or move forward without access to water,” House says. “We have to remind people that we have tribal nations in Colorado, and that we have other tribes that continue to call Colorado home, that were removed from the state, either by treaty or forced removal,” he says, adding that acknowledging the difficult past must be a part of conversations about the future.

    Those conversations include state, regional, and federal-level water planning. The Colorado tribes are engaged in Colorado’s basin roundtable process, with both tribes occupying seats on the Southwest Basin Roundtable, says Greg Johnson, who heads the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Water Supply Planning Section (and serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees). Through the roundtables, local stakeholders conduct basin-wide water planning that is eventually integrated into the statewide Colorado Water Plan. However, until recently, tribal involvement in regional Colorado River negotiations between the seven U.S. basin states and federal government has been nonexistent. Change is brewing—a 2018 federal Tribal Water Study highlighted how tribal water resources could impact Colorado River operations, while a new Water and Tribes Initiative is working to build tribal capacity and participation in water negotiations throughout the basin.

    “The Utes have been in what we call Colorado for the last 10,000 to 12,000 years,” House says. “It would be a shame if we were left out of the conversations [about water].”

    The External Costs of Industry

    Government is vital to addressing the legacy of environmental injustice, and preventing future problems, but finding solutions also demands reconsidering how business is done.

    Consider Colorado’s relationship with the extraction industry, visible in the 19th-century mines that pock mountain towns, uranium-rich communities like Nulca, and the escalation of oil and gas drilling today. Colorado is an “epicenter” of extraction and environmental justice issues, says Stephanie Malin, associate professor at Colorado State University and a sociologist who studies energy development and extraction.

    Lack of local control in the past has been especially frustrating, Malin says, since private corporations earn profits off the resources but then outsource the impacts. In the end, extractive industries have a track record of leaving communities and governments to bear the costs of cleanup.

    Take Gold King Mine as one high-profile example. In August 2015, wastewater from an abandoned mine in San Juan County contaminated the Animas River between Silverton and Durango. Contractors hired by EPA accidentally caused 3 million gallons of mine waste, laden with heavy metals, to wash into the Animas. New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation all filed to sue EPA, with farmers reporting that they couldn’t water their crops and others saying they had to truck in alternative water supplies. But those responsible for the contamination were long-gone. Like tens of thousands of other mines in the region, the Gold King Mine was abandoned in the early 20th century.

    In August 2015, wastewater from the Gold King Mine was flowing through a series of retention ponds built to contain and filter out heavy metals and chemicals about a quarter of a mile downstream from the mine, outside Silverton, Colorado. Photo by Blake Beyea

    The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)—more commonly called Superfund—which Congress passed in 1980, was originally set up as a “polluter tax” on oil, gas and chemical companies at risk of contaminating communities or the environment. But Congress never reauthorized the tax, which expired in 1995. By the early 21st century, the fund was bankrupt. Today, these cleanups are funded entirely by taxpayers.

    “It’s part of a bigger pattern of privatizing profit and nationalizing, or socializing, risk,” Malin says. “Then, communities and the environment are left holding the ‘external’ costs.” Those external costs, she says, are nearly unquantifiable: “The intergenerational impacts in particular are so hard to gauge, in terms of what the communities are absorbing.”

    While these problems can seem intractable, there are solutions, Malin says. For example, the bond amounts companies are required to pay up-front should better reflect the actual cost of cleanup, she says. Last year, Colorado lawmakers made strides to unburden taxpayers in just that way, with an update to Colorado’s old mining law.

    The new Colorado law, HB19-1113, makes sure water quality impacts from mining are accounted for and long-term impacts are avoided. The law says that the industry can no longer self bond—a practice that allowed mine operators to demonstrate they had the financial resources to cover clean-up costs rather than providing the resources up front. Without self bonding, taxpayers won’t be left paying for remediation if the company goes bankrupt. It also requires mine operators to factor water quality protection costs into their bond—and requires most to develop a water quality treatment plan. This means that reclamation plans must include a reasonable end date for any needed water quality treatment, hopefully ensuring Colorado will avoid new perpetually polluting mines.

    State lawmakers are currently looking at a more encompassing environmental justice bill, HB20-1143, introduced in January 2020. At press time the bill was still under consideration. If it moves forward as introduced, the bill would increase the maximum civil fine for air and water quality violations—from $10,000 per day to $47,357 per day, which would be adjusted annually according to the consumer price index—reallocating some of the financial burden back on polluters. It would also authorize the use of the money in the state’s water quality improvement fund, which is where those water quality violation fines go, to pay for projects addressing impacts to communities. The bill would also bolster the state’s environmental justice efforts, with a new environmental justice advisory board and environmental justice ombudsperson who would run the advisory board and advocate for environmental justice communities.

    Speaking up for Tomorrow’s Climate

    Environmental justice can’t be about a single issue, says Lizeth Chacón, executive director of the Colorado People’s Alliance, a racial-justice, member-led organization based in Denver and Pueblo. That means looking at water-focused environmental justice alongside related issues such as climate change, racial justice, inequities, poverty, housing, power dynamics, and more.

    “When we are talking to our members, we are talking to them about the fact that they are working two jobs and still cannot put dinner on the table in the week, talking that they live in fear of being deported and being separated from their families, talking about the fact that they are sick, or have headaches, or have to spend money on water because they can’t drink the water coming out of their tap like other people can,” she says. “It can’t be seen as one issue … This work has to be holistic.”

    Lizeth Chacón is the executive director of the Colorado People’s Alliance, a racial justice organization that is working on a climate justice campaign.
    Chacón, a first-generation immigrant from Mexico, emphasizes the importance of engaging and creating opportunities for disadvantaged communities to lead. Photo by Matthew Staver

    Currently, the Colorado People’s Alliance is working on a climate campaign directed by its members in Commerce City. “They said, ‘This is something that’s impacting all of us, regardless of where we’re from, whether we’re undocumented or documented, what our economic status is,’” she says. The Alliance is focused on greenhouse gas emissions, which have immediate health impacts and long-term water effects.

    Another approach in northeast Denver is proceeding thanks to an EPA environmental justice grant, in which organizers will convene youth, local leaders, and scientists to create a community science project that leads to a more fishable and swimmable Denver South Platte River. The river flows through Elyria-Swansea and Globeville, but it used to be a dumping ground, with a landfill beside its banks. Clean ups and improved recreational access, much of which has been spearheaded by the nonprofit Greenway Foundation since its founding in 1974, have created opportunities for kayakers downtown, but river access in northeast Denver, beyond the popular Confluence Park, is limited. In addition, E. Coli levels are often high, making swimming inadvisable. Access to a healthy waterway makes communities more vibrant and whole, supporting health, wellbeing, recreation, and cultural and spiritual practices, but also connection. This may be the only recreational water access available to some urbanites.

    “Rivers are one of the major pathways to healing the environment and healing ourselves,” said Jorge Figueroa at an initial workshop for this project in December 2019, where they began to establish a youth advisory board. Figueroa runs El Laboratorio, an organization that brings people together from different disciplines and cultures to creatively solve environmental challenges. (He is also on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.) He’s working on this project with Lincoln Hills Cares, a nonprofit that provides outdoor education, recreation and experiences to youth who may not otherwise have these opportunities; and Colorado State University, which is developing a new campus at the National Western Center, called Spur, in the neighborhood. The partners expect to have a plan ready by the end of 2020, and the project should begin in 2021.

    Figueroa, who grew up and has family in Puerto Rico, also witnessed, up close, the wave of climate refugees who left his home state after Hurricane Maria devastated it in 2017.

    “It’s critical for us to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure and in the reliability of our municipal potable water systems,” Figueroa says. “But from an equity perspective, we need to ensure that the more than a trillion dollars that will be invested in the nation’s public water systems provide the most benefit to the most people.” His suggestion to build climate resiliency in an equitable way: water conservation. “Water conservation can be a supreme water equity tool: It provides cheaper water for the community and more resiliency and reliability for the system. It’s not only an ideal climate change adaptation strategy but also is one of the top, by far, equity water strategies.” When you don’t consider equity in water decisions, you can make vulnerable communities more vulnerable, he says.

    Whether working to improve environmental justice structurally and physically through conservation and resiliencies, or politically and financially through new regulations, bonding or taxation, there are many opportunities to do better. But there are also social justice elements to work on. Chacón recommends involving community members at the beginning of a process—not at the end. She says it’s important to listen—and to not dismiss people when they disagree.

    Looking forward, it’s up to everyone in positions of power to actively create space for disadvantaged communities to lead, says Chacón. “To us, the people who are closest to the pain are the ones closest to the solution because they know what’s happening in their community best of anyone.”

    Some of the principles of engaging communities in these situations are “almost universal,” says Colorado’s Michael Wenstrom, an environmental protection specialist in EPA’s Environmental Justice Program. Wenstrom worked in Flint over the course of a year following the water emergency, “assisting them to connect with processes, in understanding what their rights are, and helping them learn how to raise their voices effectively,” he says.

    He says that where communities and families are already overburdened—with poverty, crime, racism—they often don’t have time, expertise or resources to recognize the problems, nevermind address them. “In addition, people in low-income communities may be less inclined to raise their voices for various reasons,” Wenstrom says. Reasons could include racism, job discrimination, or, for some, the fear of being identified as an illegal resident.

    He says officials like him who come into communities as outsiders must be careful, persistent, and work to build trust. “As trust builds, we can then start pointing people toward tackling issues related to pollution or public health,” he says. But, Wenstrom cautions, if people don’t believe they can make a difference, they won’t raise their voices in the first place.

    Laura Paskus is a reporter in Albuquerque N.M., where her show, “Our Land: New Mexico’s Environmental Past, Present and Future,” airs on New Mexico PBS. Caitlin Coleman is editor of Headwaters magazine.