Senate confirms Zinke as Interior Secretary

Arizona Water News

The new Zinke team, including appointments to Bureau of Reclamation, will need to learn quickly about the complexities of Colorado River water law and the drought-induced woes facing Lake Mead

zinke-confirmation-photo

By a comfortable 68-31 margin, the U.S. Senate today confirmed President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke.

The former Montana member of Congress will head a department that manages around 500 million acres of land and waterways in the United States.

Zinke’s department also includes the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the agency responsible for the system of dams and reservoirs on the Colorado River, the waterway that is integral to the livelihood of 40 million U.S. citizens living in the Southwest.

In a statement declaring his approval of the appointment, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake said he looked forward to working with Zinke’s department, notably on behalf of Arizona’s Colorado River allotment.

“I was pleased to vote to…

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Pueblo West contracts for 6,000 acre-feet of storage in Lake Pueblo

Pueblo West
Pueblo West

From The Pueblo West View (Kristen M. White):

Pueblo West will have the right to store water in Pueblo Reservoir in the future, should the storage be needed, after the Metropolitan District agreed to enter into a subcontract with the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District…

The master plan contract is between the Bureau of Reclamation and the water district, and Pueblo West now has a subcontract with water district for its storage rights.

The contract allows Pueblo West to begin paying for 10 acre feet, at the starting rate of $40.04 per acre foot of water, in 2017. But the contract gives Pueblo West the ability to store as much as 6,000 acre feet of water in the future should the storage ability be necessary.

Southwestern Water Conservation District board shuffled

San Juan wildflowers.

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

Board President John Porter and Vice President Steve Fearn, representatives of Montezuma and San Juan counties, respectively, were voted off the board by commissioners in their respective counties.

Fearn, a prominent longtime coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, has represented San Juan County on the water conservation board since 1990 and served as vice president since 2007.

But San Juan County commissioners said Fearn’s representation no longer reflects county values, which have changed significantly since Silverton’s mining days to include more recreational interests with respect to water, county attorney Paul Sunderland said…

Commissioners voted to appoint Charlie Smith, part-time Silverton resident and eight-year general manager of the Lake Durango Water Authority, as Fearn’s replacement.

“Commissioners thought Charlie Smith would better represent San Juan County,” Sunderland said. “He has a lot of water expertise, and he’s probably more in tune with the wants of the current board. Historically, San Juan County has been largely dominated by mining interests, and Steve Fearn is very much associated with those interests, but the board’s interests have shifted more toward recreation.”

The fact that the state of New Mexico named Fearn in a lawsuit as a “potentially responsible party” for mine pollution in the Gladstone area was noted in the county’s decision, Sunderland said.

“It’s definitely something we’re aware of, given his ownership interests around Gladstone,” he said…

The board consists of nine members representing Archuleta, Dolores, Hinsdale, La Plata, Mineral, Montezuma, Montrose, San Juan and San Miguel counties. Board directors can serve an unlimited number of three-year terms.

“I want to make sure the county’s views are represented,” Smith told The Durango Herald. “I have an understanding of their water rights, and a lot of work needs to be done to secure those rights and make sure the uses align with what the county envisions.”

Montezuma County commissioners selected Don Schwindt to replace Porter, who was general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District for 22 years and a Southwestern board director for 26.

Schwindt is a director on the Dolores Water Conservancy District board and a critic of the Dolores National Conservation Area, a controversial proposal in Montezuma County to congressionally protect land and water along the lower Dolores…

Porter thinks the proposal, criticized by Montezuma County commissioners, influenced his removal. Under Porter’s leadership, Southwestern Water Conservation District contributed funds to hire a water attorney to rewrite draft National Conservation Area legislation, which Porter thinks was perceived as support for the bill.

“I perceived the funding as an effort so everyone involved knew all the problems, the facts on both sides and could intelligently make a decision,” Porter said. “I think Southwestern’s involvement was perceived by others that we were very much in favor of the NCA legislation. That had something to do with it, and the fact that I’m 80-plus, and my 26 years on the board.”

Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Suckla said the commission chose Schwindt because of his water knowledge, and the conservation area proposal did not play a part in the decision.

“Don has shown ways that he would save water and retain water for farmers and ranchers,” Suckla said. “John Porter is an icon for Montezuma County. He was involved in the management of the lake (McPhee Reservoir), and all the benefits the county has received from that is because of the work he did, but it felt like it was time for new eyes.”

When Porter joined the board in 1990, he said water storage and dam construction were the district’s primary focus, including such projects as Lake Nighthorse. But gradually, the focus broadened to consider recreational water use and water quality.

Porter refers to his tenure as a career highlight, and said the importance of inter-basin relations and dialogue will only increase as time goes on, water supply dwindles and population grows.

“You’re asking someone who’s biased, but I’ve always felt that the Southwestern board tried its very best to represent all interests,” Porter said. “True, the majority of the members, including myself, were and still are agriculture-oriented. Yet to me, as Colorado’s population grows, it’s inevitable that our water supply will be drying up agriculture. And that’s not in our best interest, but I don’t see a way of satisfying municipal needs that we’re going to have without drying up some ag use. Irrigation takes a lot of water, and just that amount converted to municipal use will take care of a lot of families in an urban situation.”

@usbr: Aspinall Unit operations update: 600 CFS in Black Canyon

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

From email from the US Bureau of Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from Crystal Dam will be increased from 600 cfs to 1200 cfs between Monday, February 6th and Tuesday, February 7th. This increase is in response to the high runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir this spring. The latest runoff forecast predicts 925,000 af of runoff to Blue Mesa Reservoir between April and July, which is 137% of average. The current content of Blue Mesa Reservoir is 586,000 acre-feet which is 71% full.

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

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

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are at zero and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 600 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be at zero and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon should be around 1200 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Michigan Ditch: “the biggest excavators we could bring in were nearly hanging off the edge of the mountain on the way up” — John Beckos

Aerial view of Michigan tunnel entrance via City of Fort Collins.
Aerial view of Michigan tunnel entrance via City of Fort Collins.

From TrenchlessTechnology.com (Jim Rush):

The Michigan Ditch is a 5.2-mile conveyance system that brings water from the high mountains into the Joe Wright Reservoir, a part of City’s two water sources. Over the years, the Michigan Ditch, a combination of pipeline and open channel originally built around 1900 and purchased by Fort Collins in the 1970s, was subject to the whims of Mother Nature. Specifically, one portion of the water supply route that crosses an area known as “the mudslide” was subject to periodic damage when the slides occurred.

The City was accustomed to making simple repairs that involved digging up the pipe and moving or replacing it when the slide moves. But in September 2014, crews noticed something unusual. The pipe, which typically moved only during snowmelt in the spring, had moved substantially since its repair that summer. The following spring, even more movement showed that a more permanent fix was needed.

“It was apparent that this wasn’t something we could simply dig up and put back in place like previous years,” said Owen Randall, chief engineer for Fort Collins Utilities. “We knew we needed a long-term solution that could cost upwards of $10 million. When I told City management the response was: ‘The water is worth $180 million, so go fix it.’”

In summer 2015, the City got to work with a geotechnical assessment that included seismic refraction as well as vertical and horizontal borings. Meanwhile, the City put together a team of consultants and contractors to help ascertain the best way to move forward. After exploring the options, the team decided that a tunnel that would re-route the water through the mountain in stable rock was the best solution…

The tunnel option provided the long-term solution the City was looking for while having the added benefits of less maintenance, less environmental impact and a construction cost comparable to other options…

The logistics of working on the side of a mountain also presented challenges. The project site was located 2.5 miles up a narrow, winding dirt road that dictated the weight and dimensions of the equipment that could be safely transported. Additionally, the nearest town (Walden, Colorado; population 3,000) was located 30 miles away, with Fort Collins 70 miles away. Even cell phone service had to be brought in.

“Due to the nature of the road, we were limited to about an 11-ft wide load,” said John Beckos, project manager for BT Construction. “We were unable to get a crane to the site, and the biggest excavators we could bring in were nearly hanging off the edge of the mountain on the way up.”

The site access also dictated the type of tunnel boring machine that could be used to excavate the tunnel. After evaluating the options, the project team elected to use an Akkerman hard-rock TBM that had a mixed face cutterhead to deal with the highly fractured, hard rock and abundant fault and shear zones. The machine was compact enough to accommodate the limited space at both the launch and retrieval pits, light enough to be handled by the available equipment, and had enough power to drill through rock that reached strengths of 15,000 psi…

The tunnel was mined from the downstream portal to the upstream portal. The first 40 ft of the alignment was straight before it transitioned into the 630-ft radius curve spanning 726 ft. The TBM was equipped with a conveyor system and dual muck boxes to remove the spoil. Spoil was stockpiled near the site to be used by the City for future repairs to the ditch and pipeline, as well as the access road, which the City also maintains…

Randall said the ground made tunneling a challenge. “The only thing consistent about the ground was that the rock was inconsistent,” he said. “We would find hard zones 2-3 inches thick, 2-3 feet thick and 30-feet thick. We knew we were going to get into difficult geology, but it still posed a challenge.”

Once the TBM was completely launched into the mountainside, the team had originally planned to be tunneling for about 6 weeks from early July through the middle of August. The inconsistent rock in the middle of the drive would end up slowing productions down and delaying the hole out until Sept. 29. And, despite the challenging ground, the TBM holed through precisely on target. Project team members credited the VMT guidance systems, typically used for larger and longer tunnels, for keeping the tunnel on line and grade…

Over the last 20 years, Fort Collins has implemented and refined its delivery system known as the Alternative Product Delivery System (APDS). Fort Collins retains a group of prequalified contractors and consultants on an annual contract basis – known as master service agreements – and when a project is needed, the City can call on its team of service providers with expertise in a particular area to negotiate a contract. This allows the City to quickly gather a team to develop the project from start to finish.

In the case of the Michigan Ditch Tunnel, the project team was brought on board to determine the best solution for the problem. As the project began to take shape as a tunnel, the City negotiated further contracts for tunnel design, construction and TBM procurement. The project team additionally developed a risk register to help identify and mitigate potential occurrences that could impact the project.

“Rather than trying to write a contract for the whole project up front, we can write contracts that are very well defined, knowing what our scope of work is going to be as planning and design progresses,” Randall said.

The added benefit of having the project team in place was that the project goals were defined by the team, rather than by an individual party or parties. “This was a very challenging and difficult project, but when you have everybody working toward the same goal, it makes all the difference in the world,” Randall added.

“The team functioned at a very high level and with great communication,” Dornfest said. “It was extremely challenging, but there was never any finger pointing and we were able to get the job done on schedule and under budget.”

Thanks to planning, teamwork and determination, the Michigan Ditch Tunnel project was successfully completed approximately $1 million below the initial budget of $8.5 million. The ditch system is now back online, assuring Fort Collins citizens of a reliable source of water for the years to come.

Conflict of interest — @DenverWater watershed funding for forest health in Boulder County?

St. Vrain River Rocky Mountain National Park
St. Vrain River Rocky Mountain National Park

From the Boulder Daily Camera (Charlie Brennan):

Denver Water, which serves 1.4 million people in the city and county of Denver and surrounding communities, is currently waiting for a permitting decision to be issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on its proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir, located in southwestern Boulder County.

The USFS has filed extensive past comments critical of the Gross Reservoir project, but now says all of its concerns about that project have been resolved.

Critics, however, point to a five-year, $4.5 million contract providing Denver Water funding for the original Forsythe project as well as numerous other Colorado forest management efforts — talks are now underway for a new five-year pact for Denver Water to help subsidize projects, including Forsythe II — and they challenge the level of transparency surrounding that wildlands management initiative.

Denver Water touts its relationship with the Forest Service on its website, billed since 2010 as the “From Forests to Faucets” program. That partnership called for Denver Water from 2010 to 2015 to match a $16.5 million investment from the Forest Service, for a total of $33 million, for forest treatment projects seen as critical to protecting water supplies and water quality.

A memorandum of understanding was signed by Denver Water in December for a similar new agreement between the two, setting up a new one-to-one matching effort totaling another $33 million, to cover 2017 to 2021.

The Colorado State Forest Service was also a partner to the previous pact, and will be to its successor, along with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Colorado saw a dramatic example of the healthy forests-healthy water link following the June 2002 Hayman fire, which filled Cheesman Reservoir — the oldest reservoir in the Denver Water system — with mud, ash and other debris.

Denver Water was forced to spend more than $27 million on water quality treatment, sediment and debris removal, reclamation techniques and infrastructure projects in the wake of the Hayman Fire and the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire, according to Denver Water spokesman Travis Thompson.

But Magnolia-area resident David Bahr sees the Denver Water-USFS relationship as “absolutely” representing a conflict of interest, specifically as it applies to the controversial Forsythe projects in western Boulder County.

“How can it not be?” Bahr asked. “The fact that (USFA) employees and goods are being paid for by Denver Water means that if they weren’t doing this, those employees wouldn’t be getting paid. The Forest Service has to be aware of this, so it has to influence any decisions that they make.”

Vivian Long, president of the Magnolia Forest Group, has long been vocal in opposition to the original Forsythe project and its planned successor, Forsythe II, which calls for thinning and controlled burns on 2,855 acres of national forest land within the nearly 19,000-acre project area, to be carried out over 10 to 15 years.

“While they’re saying, ‘We’re taking money from Denver Water, but they have no input on what we do,’ I don’t know if that’s true or not,” Long said. “When we have asked about them taking money from Denver Water, they have tried to either downplay it, or deny, or just say they don’t know anything about it. So we’re left wondering, whose opinion is more important here: the public’s or Denver Water?”

Paperwork documenting the Denver Water-USFS relationship was obtained by Magnolia Forest Group member Teagen Blakey through Colorado Open Records Act requests…

Forsythe II critics point out that in March 2010, the Forest Service filed 142 pages of comments on the Gross Reservoir project with the Corps of Engineers highlighting many concerns, including the adequacy of Denver Water’s consideration for habitat and wildlife issues in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests.

That same year, the Forest Service signed off on the five-year operating plan for Denver Water to pitch in $4,479,251 toward improving forest and watershed health on national forest lands in numerous Colorado watersheds designated as Denver Water “Zones of Concern,” including the St. Vrain Watershed, home to Gross Reservoir.

To date, $660,000 of that Denver Water money has gone toward Forsythe work, according to Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests spokeswoman Tammy Williams.

On Oct. 17, the Forest Service and Denver Water agreed on a lengthy agreement settling any concerns over Gross Reservoir, which it states “resolves all issues raised by the Forest Service during the consultation process” relating to the Gross Reservoir expansion

Clark Chapman, vice president of the Magnolia Forest Group, is among those wondering why the Forest Service is seeming now to soft-pedal habitat concerns around both Forsythe II and Gross Reservoir…

Tammy Williams, the USFS spokeswoman, said there is no conflict of interest inherent in Denver Water’s pushing for Gross Reservoir and funding Forsythe forest work at the same time.

“Gross Reservoir was independently analyzed and considered separate and apart from the Forsythe II project,” she wrote in an email. “These projects are being proposed by different agencies, these are independent processes, with independent timelines and different decision makers.”

[…]

The western half of Gross Reservoir, as it is currently configured, is encompassed by the southeastern corner of the Forsythe II project area. But despite their proximity, the Forest Service maintains that its evaluation of Forsythe II is not influenced by its relationship with Denver Water.

Widefield aquifer pollution update

Southern Delivery System map via Colorado Springs Utilities
Southern Delivery System map via Colorado Springs Utilities

From The Colorado Springs Independent (Nat Stein):

‘It’s amazing, really, how it worked out,” says Roy Heald.

Heald, general manager of the Security Water and Sanitation District (SWSD), is referring to perhaps the only piece of good news in the ongoing story of water contamination in communities south of Colorado Springs.

“We got into planning [the Southern Delivery System] two decades ago for redundancy, thinking we’d use it if anything happened, and then it comes online not three weeks before we really needed it,” he says.

In May, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory lowering what’s considered a safe amount of perfluorinated chemicals — a highly prevalent but unregulated toxin that’s been linked to low birth weights, heart disease and cancer. Wells drawing from the Widefield aquifer, which supplies around 80,000 people’s drinking water, then tested at nearly 20 times the EPA’s recommended threshold in some cases.

Right away, SWSD took mitigating steps by instigating watering restrictions, fast-tracking an infrastructure project to boost connectivity between service areas and negotiating more access to surface water through the newly operational SDS pipeline. By September, all groundwater wells were shut off. But all that came at a price.

“The exact cost is hard to pin down at this point because we’ve still got bills coming in,” Heald says, “but yeah, this was a huge unanticipated expense.” To get an idea, consider groundwater typically accounts for half the district’s total water supply. Forgoing cheap groundwater in favor of more expensive surface water, even if just for the last four months of the year, cost SWSD around $1 million in 2016, when it expected to spend $100,000. The district has deferred other capital projects, prioritized new ones and diminished its cash reserve, meaning it needs money.

But from whom?

At the very least, the Security, Widefield and Fountain water districts are all expecting some portion of the $4.3 million the Air Force pledged over the summer after Peterson Air Force Base admitted a chemical-laden fire retardant used for decades on base could be the source of contamination.

Air Force spokesman Steve Brady gave the Indy a rundown of how the money’s being spent: Homes on private well water will get reverse osmosis systems installed; NORAD and Security Mobile Home Parks will get granular activated carbon systems, as will Stratmoor Hills, Fountain and Widefield public water systems; First United Pentecostal Church will tap into Security water; SWSD will construct new piping to hook into Colorado Springs Utilities; the Fountain Valley Shopping Center, private homes that don’t agree to take ownership of a filtration system once installed and the Venetucci farmhouse will continue getting bottled water.

The Air Force’s pledge has been messaged as a “good neighbor” gesture and not a signal of responsibility, meaning that for now, available funds are finite. The Air Force Civil Engineer Center is working to confirm or deny the possibility that contaminants came from Peterson Air Force Base while public health officials (and private litigants) continue to investigate other possible polluters.

A damning outcome of those inquiries could warrant additional compensation, but until then, affected parties will have to just deal on their own.

“I know we’ll get some share of that $4.3 million, but whatever it is won’t be enough to cover our costs,” says Heald, whose district hasn’t received a check from the Air Force yet. “There could be grants available at the state level, but those are in the thousands or tens of thousands range. We’re looking at millions. I’ve talked to our congressional representatives but I don’t know about federal sources. Maybe folks will have other ideas, because whatever the source, our ratepayers didn’t cause this so they shouldn’t have to pay for it.”

Security residents will start seeing higher water bills immediately. Rates were already scheduled to rise in 2017 before this situation arose, but now the hike could be steeper. Unless some new windfall comes through before the next rate study gets underway in the fall, you can guess what direction rates will continue to go. Still, a typical water bill in Security during 2016 was $36 —about half of a typical Colorado Springs bill.

Fountain is in a similar, though not identical, position. “We don’t need to use groundwater in the wintertime — that’s been the standard for years,” Utilities Director Curtis Mitchell tells the Indy, explaining that groundwater only ever flowed through taps during peak demand over the summer. Ahead of that time this year, Mitchell has negotiated extra surface water through a capacity swap with Colorado Springs Utilities. Groundwater will only enter the equation once filtration systems are installed and working reliably.

Widefield has been off well water since November, according to department manager Brandon Bernard, who says four pilot projects are underway to find the best technology for filtering out PFCs. He’s aiming to get a small treatment facility built by May and another, bigger one “in the near future.” (Because Widefield isn’t an SDS partner, it has limited surface water, hence the primary focus is on treating well water.)

“All of the capital costs to pilot and build the treatment will be taken from cash reserves,” Bernard wrote by email. “The only costs the customers will incur through rates will be to cover operation and maintenance of these facilities. … We aren’t sure how much of the $4.3 million is portioned for WWSD and have not heard when we will receive it.”

Fountain and Security’s increased reliance on SDS may cost their customers, but it provides some relief to Colorado Springs — primary investor, owner and operator of the $825 million pipeline. As partners, Fountain and Security already contributed their share of construction costs, but moving more water through it offsets operational costs.

“We’re running at really low levels right now, so there’s plenty of room in the pipe for our partners,” says Colorado Springs Utilities spokesman Steve Berry. “The bottom line is we’re one big community here in El Paso County, so we’re happy to be flexible for them, but it also takes some of the financial burden [of running SDS] off our customers.”

The costs of getting SDS up and running have been factored into CSU’s rates over the past five years, Berry says, so Phase 1 is pretty much paid for. Phase 2, including new storage construction and reservoir resurfacing, has yet to be reflected in customers’ water bills. Other capital improvement projects like maintaining aging pipes elsewhere in CSU’s raw water system, replacing main lines under downtown and modernizing storage tanks and treatment facilities are coming later.

So whatever reprieve Colorado Springs water users get will be overshadowed by other expenses. “Unfortunately, base rates typically don’t go down — they either stay constant or they increase,” says Berry, who emphasizes that partners’ usage won’t compromise CSU’s access to water. CSU still has precious “first-use” water rights and plenty of redundancy built into its overall system. “But to have a high-quality, reliable water source requires a hefty investment,” Berry adds.

Reliable is the key word there, as demonstrated by the crises playing out in Security, Widefield and Fountain, and communities across the country where drinking water is compromised. Part of the trend is having better detection instruments and part is better science showing potential harm, Heald observes. But, he says, what remains constant is America’s “leap before you look” approach to regulating toxins in our environment — chemicals get introduced to the market before anyone really knows what risk they pose.

Heald offers this summation: “You don’t know what you don’t know, but when you do know, you know it’s going to cost more.”