It’s been almost exactly a year since the Cameron Peak Fire tore through the foothills outside of Fort Collins, Colorado, on its way to becoming the largest fire in state history. Now, restoration efforts are underway. About 1 million people rely on water moving through this canyon, and one of the most effective ways to protect the area’s watershed uses these helicopters. Instead of scooping up water to drop on flames, pilots dip low and pick up bulging nets full of wood mulch to dump on the charred hillside.
Randy Gustafson, water resource administrator for the City of Greeley, looks on as a helicopter hovers near the ground, rumbling loudly over a pile of mulch bigger than a house. Then, it’s off as quickly as it came, zipping back and forth into the burn scar with heaving payloads in tow…
Even though Greeley is a two-hour drive away from this “aerial mulching” operation in Poudre Canyon, this is where the city’s water comes from. Snowmelt and rain make their way down from the foothills into the Cache la Poudre River before that water is piped over to the city. But Gustafson said a charred slope is slick like a frying pan. Water will run off of it, carrying dirt, ash and other debris into that water supply. So his team has to stabilize the hillside with mulch.
“I look at the Poudre as a living organism,” Gustafson said. “How do you keep it functional and operational and make it produce good, clean water for everybody down below?”
Gustafson’s team is just one part of the city’s strategy to keep the water clean. Another effort is underway above Chambers Lake, less than a mile from where the fire began. Here, fire debris threatens to cause harmful algae blooms in the reservoir. So big bundles of spongy wood shavings, held together by biodegradable nets, are laid out on the hillside.
“They form a baffle,” Gustafson said. “They stop the debris, soil, ash, and keep it from coming down into the reservoir.”
On a visit to the site, Gustafson shows how the baffles are successfully holding back sludgy piles of gray dirt in one of the most severely burned parts of forest…
In the grand scheme of things, though, these efforts could be little more than a Band-Aid. The expensive and time-consuming mulching work can only cover a fraction of the burn’s sprawling footprint. And more are likely on the way…
“These megafires are unfortunately not going to be going anywhere anytime soon,” said Hally Strevey, director of the Coalition for the Poudre River watershed. “We’re trying not to lose hope. There are plenty of things we can still do, working together collaboratively.”
That includes her organization’s precautionary forest management in areas prone to burning. The fact it’s carried out by a watershed group just further emphasizes how deeply water and fire are connected. Even after a fire is put out, it takes a lot of work to keep the water clean.
But restoration projects like the one in Poudre Canyon are not cheap. Keeping just one helicopter in the air costs $87 per minute. Greeley’s deputy water director, Adam Jokerst, says the high costs are worth it for two reasons…
The money spent on recovery work is also a precautionary measure against purification costs that could be incurred if ash finds its way into the water supply…
Greeley’s water team says restoration work will carry into the next few years, but because of the size and severity of the burn, it may never truly be the same as it was before the fire.
An algaecide that was toxic to fish entered Mill Creek this week, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has learned based on discussions with Vail Resorts.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife recorded 120 dead fish Tuesday in Mill Creek and Gore Creek in Vail, where a spill was reported to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment by Vail Resorts…
The department said it is inspecting Mill and Gore creeks to determine if there were possible violations of the Colorado Water Quality Control Act, Nason said.
The department coordinated with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to provide the initial investigation Tuesday. Friday’s inspection was a follow-up to that effort, Nason said…
On Monday, Vail Resorts was contacted by the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, which had noticed an abnormally high water demand in the core Vail area over the weekend.
The water and sanitation district had narrowed down the high use to a storage tank at Golden Peak. The major customer user from that tank is Vail Resorts for its snowmaking system, which, according to a memo from the town of Vail’s Environmental Sustainability Department, is not usually online until Oct. 1.
Vail Resorts, according to the memo, discovered that a few isolation valves on their snowmaking setup had been left open since March. Maintenance had been performed on the snowmaking system on Sept. 17, which required the drain line to be opened for repair work.
On Monday, the valves for the snowmaking setup were shut, which stopped the discharge of water to Mill Creek…
The discharged water was blue-gray, and bugs, fish and algae had been killed in 1,500 feet of affected creek. Common algaecides contain copper sulfate, which is blue and can be toxic to fish.
“Based on discussions with Vail Resorts, we learned that the spilled water to the river is a combination of potable water and pond water with algaecide, which in this case was toxic to fish given the dead fish,” Nason said. “While events that lead to fish kills are an immediate concern, dead fish doesn’t always mean there is an urgent public health threat.”
The fish were surrounded by high levels of the spilled and contaminated water, Nason said.
But for people or dogs playing near or in this area, Nason said the risk of health impacts are expected to be low “because much of that spilled water has been washed away and diluted as it moves downstream — otherwise we would be seeing many more dead fish downstream.”
Here’s the release Eagle River Water & Sanitation District:
Healing the Land: Collaborative partnership contributing to cleanup efforts
An important collaborative effort among community stakeholders has begun to clean up portions of the Eagle Mine Superfund site at the southern end of Minturn, Colo., an historic former mining and railroad town.
The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, and landowner, Battle North LLC, are moving forward with a remedial work plan approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) earlier this year.
Battle North, which owns about 600 acres in the Maloit Park and Bolts Lake areas, has been working with the EPA and CDPHE since 2006, completing extensive testing and analysis of the site to understand which areas needed additional remediation to allow for future residential use.
The district and the authority are currently evaluating the Bolts Lake area, which was never part of the Superfund site, to confirm the feasibility of creating a water supply reservoir.
In February, the district, the authority, and Battle North reached an agreement for the district and authority to purchase the Bolts Lake site following a due diligence period. The district and authority would allow passive recreation on the reservoir, including non-motorized boating and fishing, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the reservoir’s main purpose of water supply.
In addition, the construction of the reservoir would require deep excavation within the former lake footprint to roughly triple the volume of the original reservoir capacity. The clean material excavated from the reservoir area would be used as cover material for areas in Operable Unit 3 of the Superfund site, pursuant to a remedial action work plan approved by the EPA and CDPHE, which furthers remediation efforts.
Operable Unit 3 of the Superfund site, which is adjacent to the proposed location of the new reservoir, was remediated in the 1990s but certain restrictions remain along Tigiwon Road and a portion of the iconic mining trestle where the current cleanup efforts are taking place. The plan to remove several hundred yards of contaminated soil, relocating it to an approved disposal facility, is expected to be completed by the end of this month.
Battle North will also submit additional work plans for future cleanup of other portions of the Superfund site to the EPA and CDPHE for their review and approval to allow for continued remediation efforts in the coming years.
Monitoring and operation and maintenance activities have been ongoing at the Superfund site since 2001.
Minturn Mayor John Widerman agreed and noted his excitement for the area cleanup, saying, “Historical preservation is very important to Minturnites, and so, too, is remediation of the areas that remain contaminated. We very much appreciate the efforts by the district, the authority, and the landowner to continue to clean up and make room for a much-needed water supply reservoir. This has been a collaborative effort from the beginning, and this remains a focal point of how we will continue to make progress on issues that affect more than just Minturn.”
The Bolts Lake area is planned to ultimately accommodate a 1,200-acre foot reservoir on about 45 acres, with enough water storage to secure service for customers of the district and authority for decades to come, as well as potential future development of the Bolts and Maloit Park areas.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Don Lumbardy):
Making a living as a rancher on the Western Slope isn’t easy. Working the land in an arid environment, keeping livestock, and negotiating in turbulent market conditions is hard work at the best of times. Yet over the past 50 years that I’ve raised cattle and grown crops in Mesa County, I have witnessed the days growing hotter and drier with each passing year.
For many like myself who sought to build a career feeding our community from the land that I call home, drought is threatening to wither our way of life. Protecting what little water we have and taking action to slow the change in climate is vital to sustaining agriculture in Western Colorado, which is why we must urge state and federal decision makers to adopt protective rules that require oil and gas operators to set aside enough money to clean up their oil and gas wells after they are finished with production.
When a well that is drilled to extract oil or gas has no operator responsible for it (due to bankruptcy, etc.), it is referred to as an “orphaned well.” Orphaned wells result in many problems for public health and the environment, including venting harmful chemicals into the air, polluting groundwater with toxic sludge, creating dangerous conditions for wildlife, and releasing plumes of methane.
Large operators will frequently drill wells, extract most of the resource, and then sell them off to smaller operators towards the end of the well’s productive life. After the small operator pumps the last dredges, they often declare bankruptcy, and leave the orphaned wells for the government (that is, taxpayers) to clean up.
Unfortunately, we already have a number of these orphaned wells here in Mesa County’s own backyard. For example, Fram Operating LLC has left a number of wells orphaned in the Grand Junction watershed. Fram only posted some $310,000 in bonds to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, despite the total bill for cleanup being about $5 million. These wells are a direct threat to the community’s water supply.
In my own experience, Fram has tried to strong-arm landowners such as myself into allowing them to drill on their property without regard to the potential impacts that their extraction might have on our water supply. Despite my protests and explanation that any drilling could divert away water that I needed to grow crops and raise cattle, their landman told me that my concerns didn’t matter, and that they would drill anyway. Fortunately, this did not come to pass, but there is no doubt in my mind that if they hadn’t filed for bankruptcy, they would have tried.
My story is just one example of what is happening across our state, and the real threat that orphaned oil and gas wells pose to us all. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, hunting, fishing, and animal watching contribute about $800 million to the economy of western Colorado, and $5.7 billion statewide. Colorado’s agricultural sector creates an additional $47 billion. Protecting these industries from disruptive changes in weather patterns, habitat loss, and soil degradation that orphaned wells contribute to is vital to protecting over 124,000 jobs throughout our state.
But it’s not just jobs on the line; it’s also our tax dollars. Of the approximately 52,000 producing wells in Colorado, about half produce less than 5 barrels of oil or equivalent in [methane] gas per day. Should the operators walk away from their obligations to plug and reclaim them, it will be Colorado taxpayers left to foot the bill for the billions of dollars in cleanup costs they represent.
Fortunately, there are steps we can take right now to prevent the orphaned well crisis we are facing from festering any longer. Presently, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is seeking to craft new financial assurance rules. They need to hear from the public that we expect operators to post a bond for the full cost of plugging and reclamation for each well up front before they are allowed to drill. At the federal level, we must encourage Sens. Hickenlooper and Bennet to push for the latter’s Oil and Gas Bonding Reform and Orphaned Well Remediation Act, which would provide billions of dollars to clean up orphaned wells and modernize bonding rates, to be passed by Congress as soon as possible.
For those of us on the Western Slope working in agriculture, science has produced technological advances that have made our work easier and level of crop production possible. Now, science is telling us that we have to protect our environment, health, and water from orphaned oil and gas wells. By working together, we can confront this threat to our health, economy, and tax dollars, and protect this vibrant, beautiful state for Coloradans now and in the future.
Don Lumbardy is a fourth-generation rancher born in Mesa County, just 20 miles west of the ranch he lives on today. Don has been ranching in western Colorado for nearly 50 years, and works to help the public understand the importance of food, water, and protecting the environment that sustains them.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe (the Tribe) is taking public comment on their proposed water quality standards and certification procedures from August 23 to October 22, 2021. Although the standards apply only to Tribal Waters on lands where the tribe has jurisdiction, they can affect permits and licenses issued upstream by EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and/or the State of Colorado, on and off the reservation. Permitting and licensing entities must consider any possible impacts that could cause violations of standards downstream to Tribal Waters.
For several years, the Tribe has been developing its authority to set water quality standards within their reservation boundaries. In 2018, the Tribe was granted “Treatment as a State” (TAS) by the EPA to receive delegated authority for sections 303(c) and 401 of the Clean Water Act to set water quality standards and certify that those standards will not be violated under certain federal permits and licenses. They did not apply for any permitting or enforcement authority. This current step is part of the Tribe’s process to promulgate its initial water quality standards and certification procedures.
Documents related to the Tribe’s TAS application as well as the proposed standards and procedures can be found here and here. Comments can be emailed to SUIT’s Water Quality Standards Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Tribe will hold an online public hearing regarding the proposed standards on October 7th from 3:00 – 5:00pm. To pre-register, visit https://bit.ly/3wnzxAb.
Rivers, lakes and wetlands cover just 1% of the Earth’s surface but are home to nearly 10% of all species, including fish, mammals, birds, insects and crustaceans. But these rich, diverse ecosystems are in free fall. Worldwide, species are declining faster now than at any other time in human history, and fresh waters are losing more species than land or ocean ecosystems.
It’s challenging to study how these stresses are affecting aquatic life. There are many diverse threats, and river networks cover broad geographic regions. Often they run through remote, nearly inaccessible areas. Current techniques for monitoring freshwater species are labor-intensive and costly.
In our work as researchers in ecology, we are testing a new method that can vastly expand biomonitoring: using environmental DNA, or eDNA, in rivers to catalog and count species. Federal and local agencies need this data to restore water quality and save dwindling species from extinction.
Collecting and identifying aquatic organisms requires highly skilled ecologists and taxonomists with expertise in a wide variety of freshwater species. For each sample of fish or invertebrates collected in the field, it takes from hours to weeks to identify all of the species. Only wealthy nations can afford this costly process.
Conserving threatened and endangered species and keeping river ecosystems healthy requires monitoring broad areas over time. Sensitive aquatic insects and fish species are the freshwater equivalent of the proverbial canary in a coal mine: If these species are absent, that’s a strong indicator of water quality problems. The cause may be mining, agriculture, urbanization or other sources, as well as dams that block animals’ downstream movements.
Free-floating genetic evidence
Innovations in genetic technology have created a powerful, affordable new tool that we are now testing. The process involves extracting eDNA from genetic material floating in the water – skin, scales, feces and single-celled organisms, such as bacteria.
By analyzing this genetic information, we can detect a wide range of species. We started considering using eDNA for our research in 2018, after several studies demonstrated its power to monitor single species of interest or groups of organisms in rivers and oceans.
Collecting eDNA is easy: One 4-ounce water sample can capture remnant DNA from thousands of aquatic species. Another benefit is that it doesn’t require killing wildlife for identification.
In the lab, we analyze the DNA from different taxonomic groups one by one: bacteria, algae, fish and macroinvertebrates – organisms that lack backbones and are large enough to see, such as snails, worms and beetles. Many researchers study just one group, but we assess all of them at the same time.
We then match our DNA sequences with freshwater species that are already catalogued in existing databases. In this way, we can chart the distribution and abundance of these organisms within and across rivers.
This process requires just a cheap filter, a syringe and vials, and anyone can do it. Commercial eDNA companies charge less than $200 to extract and sequence a sample.
Using this method, we extensively surveyed 93 rivers in West Virginia – looking at the entire tree of life, from the tiniest bacteria to fish – in two days with a four-person team.
The area where we worked is an intensive coal mining region, which heavily affects waterways. Liquids draining from mines are acidic, but in this region they react with limestone rock, so the net effect is to make local streams alkaline. Mine drainage also increases streams’ salinity and concentrations of sulfate and other contaminants. Our research revealed that mined watersheds held 40% fewer species than areas without mining operations, and the organisms we detected were less abundant than in unaffected rivers.
Assessing river health
We believe this new approach represents a revolution for biomonitoring, expanding our ability to quantify and study freshwater life. It’s also an important new conservation tool, allowing scientists to track changes in populations of endangered or invasive species. Researchers also can use eDNA to monitor biodiversity or discover new species in oceans or soils.
This open-science method makes all DNA data widely available, with nearly all sequences placed in public repositories. Moving forward, we expect that it will aid many types of research, as well as state and local monitoring and conservation programs. Investments in collecting eDNA and identifying organisms and analyzing their genetic signatures will continue to make it a more effective tool.
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Efforts are underway to better target various individual species, focusing on those that are endangered, invasives that damage ecosystems and sensitive species that serve as indicators of river health. Scientists are freezing eDNA samples at -112 degrees F (-80 C) in expectation that technological advances may yield more information in the future.
Traditional monitoring approaches remain valuable, but eDNA adds an important new tool to the toolkit. Together, these approaches can begin to answer many questions about food webs, the conservation status of species, reproduction rates, species interactions, organisms’ health, disease and more.
At City Superintendent Mark Brown’s request, Holyoke City Council members held a work session immediately following their Sept. 7 meeting to discuss issues related to the city’s water.
He told the council that he, Lennie Fisbeck and Jeremy Thompson met with Element Engineering LLC on Friday, Sept. 3, to review ideas to address the issues…
Brown provided council members with spreadsheets showing nitrate level samples of the city’s different wells from 2002 through the third quarter of this year.
He said the increasing nitrate levels in the cemetery well are raising concerns. One of the possibilities of the increased levels is that an excessive nitrate plume could be headed in that direction.
He then discussed the possibility of getting the Stout well set up as a municipal well. This well, along with 318 acres located 2 1/2 miles south of Holyoke, was purchased by the city in 1996 from Clarence and Bernice Stout.
Brown said there are different options that can be used to bring the Stout well in, it’s just a matter of finding the one that suits the city best.
One of these options is to blend the Stout well with the cemetery well and come up with an acceptable nitrate limit.
This would involve connecting the two wells with underground pipes to let the water mix at a suitable distance before it ever gets to the city.
If the cemetery well gets to the point where it exceeds nitrate levels, allowing water from the Stout well to blend with water from the cemetery well would create an acceptable nitrate limit while still keeping both allocations…
Flushable wet wipes still causing problems
Brown then brought up the subject of the city’s wastewater, noting that flushable wet wipes continue to be an issue.
He outlined two possible scenarios to try to address the problem.
He said a grinder could be installed in the wet well of the existing lift station in Holyoke, grinding wipes up and pumping them to the lagoons. This would mean the lagoons would have to be dredged much more frequently since the debris would collect in the bottom of the lagoons.
FromThe Summit Daily via The Sky-Hi News (Lindsey Toomer):
The Blue River Watershed Group has completed the first phase of its Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan with the help of partner Trout Unlimited. The organizations have been working on the project for a couple of years now to gather information on the health status of the river.
Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator with Trout Unlimited, said the project is a way to bring all stakeholders relating to Blue River water use together. He said the watershed group taking the lead on this project will ensure it is a continuously evolving document…
Kendra Fuller, executive director of the Blue River Watershed Group, said the first phase of the project was meant to gather information about the current and future uses of the river, looking at what kinds of data has already been collected. She said the second phase — which is currently underway — will mostly be to fill in the gaps of information that couldn’t be found in the first phase. The final phase will be implementing actionable steps to maximize benefits for all Blue River users, as well as protect the water as a resource.
The biggest information gap found in the initial phase is that the watershed group hasn’t determined why there are declining fisheries between the town of Silverthorne and Green Mountain Reservoir. Fuller said the second phase aims to find answers by looking at a comprehensive picture of the health of the river.
Researchers will look at geomorphology — the study of the shape and flow of the river — macroinvertebrates, algae and water temperature to connect all the dots of the river’s ecosystem, Fuller said…
Van Gytenbeek said completing Phase 1 of the plan allowed them to get a good baseline of information to start determining what factors are causing what problems in the river…
When splitting the Blue River into its three reaches, the key issues with each section are clear and unique to each portion of the watershed…
The first reach, which goes from around Hoosier Pass to the Dillon Dam, has seen some water quality issues due to a history of mining in the area. Fuller said while some restoration work has been done, there is still a lot more to do. She said fish surveys show that the fishery in this area isn’t great because of the mining and water-quality issues, and macroinvertebrate communities have been impacted, too.
While the biggest concern in the second reach from Silverthorne to Green Mountain Reservoir is the decline in fisheries, Fuller said this reach is heavily influenced by the Dillon Dam, including how and when water is released. She said this stretch of river used to be classified as a gold medal fishery, but the status was removed in 2016 because there were no longer enough fish to qualify. The loss of the gold medal status affects the river as a tourist attraction for fishing.
Fuller said the primary concern with the third reach of the Blue River, which goes from Green Mountain Reservoir until its confluence with the Colorado River, is high water temperatures. She said it has enough water to support the fish habitat but the temperatures have been exceeding the state’s temperature standards.
Further north, the river also has issues with streamflow changes based on how much water is being released from the Green Mountain Reservoir dam. Fuller said the amount of water released from the dam fluctuates greatly throughout the day and has an impact on the river’s ecosystem downstream, also creating safety issues for recreation if there are huge rises and falls in the water level…
Looking to the future
Another potential issue for Blue River streamflows is the fact that some Front Range water users have more water rights than they are using, Fuller said…
Fuller said it’s inevitable that local rivers will get lower due to a variety of factors like climate change and evolving Front Range water rights. Because of this, it’s essential to make sure our water is properly cared for as the Summit community continues to grow, she said.
Rare earth elements are finding their way into Colorado water supplies, driven by changes in climate, finds a new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Rare earth elements are necessary components of many computing and other high-tech devices, like cell phones and hard drives. But there is growing recognition that they can be hazardous in the environment even at low levels of concentration.
“This is of concern because their concentrations are not monitored and there are no water quality standards set for them,” says study author Diane McKnight, who is an INSTAAR Fellow and Engineering professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The study is the first to look at how rare earth elements move within a watershed that is rich in minerals. It is also the first to investigate how climate change, by altering stream flow and natural weathering processes, is releasing more rare earth elements into streams.
Diane McKnight has led her students in investigations of water quality in the Snake River watershed of Colorado since the 1990s. Their main focus has been measuring and observing acid rock drainage. In this process, rocks that include sulfide-based minerals, such as pyrite, oxidize when exposed to air and water. The resulting chemical reaction produces sulfuric acid and dissolved metals like iron, which drain into streams. More acidic water can further dissolve heavy metals, like lead, cadmium, and zinc, and as it turns out can carry rare earth elements as well.
“What really controls the mobility of rare earth elements is pH. Acid literally leaches it out of the rocks,” says first author Garrett Rue, who earned a masters degree studying limnology with McKnight and a subsequent PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder.
Acid rock drainage happens naturally throughout the western United States, with its pyrite-rich geology. But historic mines that disturb large amounts of rocks and soil amp up the process dramatically and cause downstream water pollution.
Within the Snake River watershed, towns impacted by acid mine drainage have been forced to adapt to poor water quality. Some former mining boomtowns, like Silverton, import water from distant sources. Others rely on expensive water treatment plants. All fish in the Snake River are stocked, since the water is too high in zinc for any native fish species to survive. The problem is endemic to the western United States, says Rue: “Upwards of forty percent of the headwaters to major rivers in the West are contaminated by some form of acid mine or rock drainage.”
The Snake River has made a good natural laboratory for investigating both, since the Peru Creek part of the watershed was heavily mined, while the Upper Snake River was not. But Rue and McKnight found that both parts of the watershed are now contributing significant amounts of metals downstream, as climate change has brought longer summers and less snow in the winters. Longer, lower stream flows make it easier for metals to leach into the watershed, and concentrate the metals that would otherwise be diluted by snowmelt.
The same processes that mean more heavy metals are finding their way into streams are also acting on rare earth elements. The researchers found rare earth elements throughout the Snake River. “We documented a concentration range of one to hundreds of micrograms per liter—several orders of magnitude higher than typical for surface waters—with the highest concentrations nearest the headwaters and areas receiving drainage from abandoned mine workings,” says Rue.
They also documented that increases in rare earth elements in the Snake River corresponded to warming summer air temperatures, and that rare earth elements are accumulating in insects living in streams at concentrations comparable to other metals such as lead and cadmium shown to be toxic.
“We’re starting to understand that once rare earth elements get in the water, they tend to stay there,” says Rue. “They aren’t removed by traditional treatment processes either, which has implications for reuse and has led some European cities to designate REEs as an emerging contaminant to drinking water supplies. And considering that the Snake River flows directly into Dillion Reservoir, which is Denver’s largest source of stored water, this could be a concern for the future.”
The researchers suggest that investigating and investing in technologies to recover rare earth elements from natural waters could yield valuable commodities and help address the problems associated with acid rock and mine drainage, which are poised to worsen as the climate shifts.
“Rare earth elements are used to make a lot of products. But most of the supply comes from China. So our government has been looking for sources, but at the same time mining has left an indelible mark on the waters of the West,” says Rue. “If we can harvest some of these materials that are already coming into our environment, it might be worthwhile to treat that water and recover these materials at the same time.”
“This problem is getting worse and we need to deal with it,” adds McKnight. “If we can solve the problem holistically, we can have a valuable resource and also think about climate adaptation.”
“We know who pooped in the river, now we’re trying to figure out where it’s coming from,” Alyssa Richmond said as she took a sample of water recently from the muddy San Juan River, in the blazing high desert outside Farmington.
Richmond is coordinator for the San Juan Watershed Group, a collection of local agencies and volunteers working to improve water quality on the San Juan River as it runs through northern New Mexico. The group’s ultimate goal, Richmond said, is to have the stretch of river meet national water quality standards. But as it stands, it’s not going well.
Among a plethora of water-quality issues that include mine pollution, urban runoff and rising water temperatures amid an increasing drought, is the issue of E. coli contamination. A naturally occurring bacteria that lives in all humans and animal stools, E. coli can contaminate ground and surface water, and lead to health implications.
For at least the past 10 years, researchers have launched a full-scale investigation to better understand E. coli issues up and down the San Juan River watershed, from high up in the San Juan Mountains to its major tributary, the Animas River, to stretches that run into the Navajo Nation.
Early results are not encouraging: the EPA’s standard for acceptable E. coli levels is 126 colony-forming units (CFU) per 100 milliliters. In stretches of the San Juan River through Farmington, water samples taken this summer exceeded nearly 1,500 CFUs. “We didn’t expect it to be as high as it was,” Richmond said on a sampling day in late August. “It was shocking.”
But it’s not all doom and poop. The San Juan Watershed Group’s efforts will ultimately help inform where cleanup projects should be focused to achieve the highest improvement in water health. And, all up and down the watershed, even to the highest reaches of the Animas River around Silverton, there is a concerted push to face E. coli issues head on.
“The good news is everyone agrees there should be no human poop in the water,” said San Juan Citizens Alliance’s Animas Riverkeeper Marcel Gaztambide, who probably never thought he’d have to make so obvious a statement to the local paper. “And it’s an issue of concern, so it’s good we’re talking about it now.”
E. coli is a difficult contaminant to fully contextualize because not only is it naturally occurring, it is also one of the most common bacteria. It can come from livestock as well as wildlife like elk, deer, birds, beaver – pretty much any animal that poops. And to complicate matters further, only some strains of the bacteria are harmful to human health.
In the early 2010s, however, researchers knew high E. coli levels were an issue in the San Juan River in northern New Mexico, but the question was, who was the main culprit? After conducting two years of microbial source testing, which not only shows the level of E. coli but also pinpoints the exact source, the results were not what researches were expecting. It came back that the largest contributors were … drumroll, please … humans.
In fact, test results showed human feces in 70 to 100 percent of samples taken from the Animas River at the Colorado-New Mexico state line down to the border of the Navajo Nation.
With the guilty party exposed, funding was again secured to take the investigation a step further this summer by understanding where exactly the human waste was coming from, Richmond said. It’s a process that’s rather simple, by testing upstream and downstream of suspected source points, and then seeing where the spikes in E. coli levels occur. And already, there are some potential smoking guns: failing septic tanks from homes and development, outdated wastewater treatment plants and illegal RV dumping.
What the sampling has also shown, Richmond said, is the high E. coli levels aren’t necessarily coming from upstream communities in Durango and elsewhere. Instead, early results indicate the highest spikes happen in and around Farmington…
It’s a watershed moment
But that doesn’t necessarily mean upstream communities are swimming in sparkling clean waters.
The Animas River, for instance, has issues all its own. Remember that EPA standard of 126 cfu/100 mL? Well, one study conducted by Fort Lewis College in October 2018 found E. coli levels in the Animas at Santa Rita Park, near the Whitewater Park (close your eyes kayakers and surfers) at 226 CFUs. Bare in mind, this was before the completion of the City’s new water reclamation facility in December 2019…
Over in the Florida River, which runs into the Animas about 18 miles south of Durango, progress is also being made, said Warren Rider, coordinator for the Animas Watershed Partnership, which focuses on water quality issues on the Colorado side of the border.
The Florida River for years has exceeded safety standards for E. coli and accounts for nearly a quarter of the bacteria and nutrients dumped into the Animas River before the state line. In a bit of a shock, the Florida was delisted last year, but that was mostly due to a lack of data, researchers say.
While natural sources do account for a portion of contamination in the Florida, agriculture and livestock operations also contribute a good amount of harmful bacteria. As a result, Rider said the Animas Watershed Partnership has tried to work with landowners to fence off waterways to livestock and reestablish vegetation along stream banks…
Up in the high country
And no one has forgotten about the highest reaches of the watershed atop the San Juan Mountains, where an unprecedented increase in recreation, and therefore human waste, has been well noted and nosed in the past year or so.
This summer, the U.S. Forest Service and Mountain Studies Institute partnered to test heavily trafficked recreation areas for E. coli. Colleen Magee-Uhlik, a forest ambassador with MSI, said areas with high use of recreation showed much higher concentrations than locations with little human impact.
In the obvious case study, South Mineral Creek – that of Ice Lakes fame – water samples taken above the highest areas of recreation tested at about 22 CFUs. Farther downstream, in a location that would catch all the cumulative impacts of recreation and camping, samples were more than four times as high, at nearly 90 CFUs. (And, it should be noted, South Mineral was closed this year because of fire damage, which likely means levels would be even higher if people were in the area)…
Christie Chatterley, Fort Lewis College assistant professor of physics and engineering, said in the popular backpacking spot Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness, a student-led research program also found high levels of E. coli in streams. FLC has plans to conduct microbial source testing to see exactly where the bacteria is coming from, but Chatterley said it’s probably safe to assume hikers and campers…
So what can be done?
For starters, using best practices in the high country, such as burying waste 6 to 8 inches deep and 200 feet away from water, and packing out toilet paper can go a long way. This message is even more important as record numbers of people visit the backcountry, many without a working knowledge of how to protect the very landscape they come to enjoy.
Farther downstream, upgrading septic tanks is seen as another obvious target. Brian Devine, with San Juan Basin Public Health, said new septic regulations require people selling their homes to have septic systems inspected. In 2020 alone, more than 500 systems were inspected, which led to many leeching septic tanks being fixed. “It’s resulting in systems getting repaired,” he said. Richmond, with the San Juan Watershed Group, said agencies are working with New Mexico health officials to tackle failing and outdated septic systems as well.
And, the city of Durango’s Biggs said the Clean Water Act continues to push water quality standards. “The Clean Water Act has really improved water quality, and the Animas would be a testament to that,” he said. “And everyone benefits, including our downstream users.”
So yes, there’s no quick and easy fix to E. coli issues in the Animas and San Juan rivers, but all these efforts are folded into the long history of communities along the watershed, and the responsibilities they have to one another, Biggs said. It’s an issue that dates back to the 1800s when Silverton would send down water contaminated by mining operations to Durango, and a few decades later, when Durango’s uranium pile sat along the banks of the Animas River, only to be swept downstream.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Sam Klomhaus):
A group of concerned Grand Valley organizations announced Wednesday they plan to appeal a decision by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to implement total maximum daily levels of selenium and recoverable iron in watersheds north of the Colorado River in the Grand Valley.
Selenium, recoverable iron and E. Coli are all “pollutants of concern” in the watershed, according to a CDPHE report on the total maximum daily levels.
According to the report, elevated selenium levels can cause mortality, deformity and reproductive failure in fish and aquatic birds.
The decision, which would affect 14 “washes” from the Government Highline Canal diversion to below Salt Creek, was announced Aug. 10. The appeal would stop the decision from being forwarded to the Environmental Protection Agency and formally implemented while the appeal process is ongoing.
Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, said Wednesday he was “saddened and surprised” by the CDPHE’s decision, which he said ignored ongoing efforts to mitigate selenium levels in area water, as well as the amount of selenium that naturally occurs in area soils and gets washed into the watershed whenever it rains…
Harris said that while protecting water quality is important, the amount of selenium reduction the CDPHE is requiring is impossible from a practical and cost standpoint.
To comply with the regulations, Harris explained, the economic and physical landscape of the Grand Valley would have to change. The cost of complying with CDPHE’s proposed regulations would be borne by area governments and passed on to residents, Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce CEO Diane Schwenke said.
Organizations supporting the appeal are Associated Members of Growth and Development, city of Fruita, city of Grand Junction, Mesa County Valley School District 51, Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce, Grand Valley Water Users Association, Housing and Building Association of Colorado, Mack airport, Mesa County, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, Palisade Irrigation District and Western Colorado Contractors Association.
The selenium in the soil is washed out of the Bookcliffs and into the watershed, Harris said, and mitigation efforts include lining irrigation canals and ditches to keep the selenium from leeching in.
Harris said there has already been a lot of success reducing the selenium levels in the watershed since the 1970s and 80s, success he contends the CDPHE has ignored.
Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency:
Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), published a draft of the first EPA-validated laboratory analytical method to test for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in eight different environmental media, including wastewater, surface water, groundwater, and soils. This method provides certainty and consistency and advances PFAS monitoring that is essential to protecting public health.
“This new testing method advances the science and our understanding of PFAS in the environment, so we can better protect people from exposure,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “This illustrates the progress we can make when working with federal partners in an all of government approach. I want to thank the Department of Defense for its leadership on this issue and for working with us to achieve this important milestone.”
A partnership between EPA and the Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program has produced draft Method 1633, a single-laboratory validated method to test for 40 PFAS compounds in wastewater, surface water, groundwater, soil, biosolids, sediment, landfill leachate, and fish tissue. Until now, regulated entities and environmental laboratories relied upon modified EPA methods or in-house laboratory standard operating procedures to analyze PFAS in these settings. With the support of the agency’s Council on PFAS, EPA and DoD will continue to collaborate to complete a multi-laboratory validation study of the method in 2022.
“This is one of many examples of strong EPA – DoD Collaboration on issues of national importance. Currently the Department is working with EPA, other federal agencies, academic institutions, and industry on over 130 PFAS-related research efforts, and we expect further progress in the future,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment and Energy Resilience Richard Kidd.
This draft method can be used in various applications, including National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits. The method will support NPDES implementation by providing a consistent PFAS method that has been tested in a wide variety of wastewaters and contains all the required quality control procedures for a Clean Water Act (CWA) method. While the method is not nationally required for CWA compliance monitoring until EPA has promulgated it through rulemaking, it is recommended now for use in individual permits.
Draft Method 1633 complements existing validated methods to test for PFAS in drinking water and non-potable water.
Draft Method 1633 complements existing Safe Drinking Water Act methods to test for 29 PFAS compounds in drinking water and a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act method for 24 PFAS compounds in non-potable water.
EPA publishes laboratory analytical methods (test procedures) that are used by industries, municipalities, researchers, regulatory authorities and other stakeholders to analyze the chemical, physical, and biological components of wastewater and other environmental samples. EPA regularly publishes methods for CWA compliance monitoring on its CWA Methods website. Doing so does not impose any national requirements to use the method. Only after EPA promulgates a CWA analytical method through rulemaking (at 40 CFR Part 136) does it become nationally required for use in NPDES permit applications and permits.
The work the agency is doing to provide new laboratory analytical methods reflects the work that the EPA Council on PFAS is undertaking to support federal, state, local, and Tribal efforts to protect all communities from the harmful impacts of PFAS contamination.
If there’s one thing most Coloradans can agree on, it’s that our communities and public lands need to be protected. Laws and regulations are there to make that happen, but there are instances where the federal government could be doing more.
One example: The federal oil and gas program has been failing Coloradans, undermining our communities, and harming our public lands. Fortunately, there are aspects of the program our leaders in Congress can fix right now.
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To start, they can address the growing number of orphaned oil and gas wells on our public lands that will cost taxpayers millions, if not billions, to clean up. Putting these costs back where they belong — on the oil and gas companies who made the mess — is something Congress can do today by strengthening the financial assurance requirements for drilling on public lands.
They can also update the more than 60-year-old rates oil and gas companies are required to pay when they lease public lands, which have cost all of us billions in lost revenues over the last decade. Updating these requirements will finally hold irresponsible oil and gas companies accountable. Instead of Coloradans paying to cap orphaned wells, we can invest that money in schools, health care, and other priorities.
According to the Government Accountability Office, as many as 99% of the bonds posted by oil and gas companies are inadequate, leaving taxpayers with billions of dollars in potential clean-up costs when companies go bankrupt due to the highly volatile oil market.
It’s not right that oil and gas companies get to extract resources from publicly owned lands, profit on them for years, then leave behind toxic wells that we, the owners of the lands, must pay to clean up. By a conservative estimate, there are more than 600 wells on federal public lands in Colorado that are at risk of being orphaned. We shouldn’t be left with that tab.
According to the Government Accountability Office, as many as 99% of the bonds posted by oil and gas companies are inadequate, leaving taxpayers with billions of dollars in potential clean-up costs.
Colorado is working to fix this problem at the state level but needs the federal government to do its part and adopt solutions. Luckily, Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper are two of the champions in Congress working on a fix.
Bennet recently introduced a bill, co-sponsored by Hickenlooper, that would require oil and gas companies to actually set aside enough money to clean up wells before they start drilling. Bennet’s bill would also provide federal funding to address wells that are already orphaned.
Congress has a great opportunity to step up and get common-sense reforms like these done, and it’s critically important they do so now. The Department of the Interior recently announced that it will resume oil and gas leasing on federal public lands. If the government continues to let oil and gas companies off the hook, nothing will prevent this problem from getting much worse. It’s not enough to just provide funding to clean up wells, as the bipartisan infrastructure deal did. Congress must also modernize bonding rates, as outlined in Bennet’s bill, so that Coloradans aren’t using our valuable public dollars to pay for a mess we didn’t create.
Coloradans and our neighbors across the West deserve federal leasing policies that serve our best interests, not those of irresponsible actors in the oil and gas industry. These federal oil and gas leasing program reforms should be a priority for Congress and the White House, and we’re all counting on Bennet and Hickenlooper to make it happen.
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Northern Water, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Grand County and additional regional health, water and recreation officials are closely monitoring a potentially harmful algal bloom that developed at Willow Creek Reservoir in July, a component of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project in Grand County.
In late July, monitoring teams found the presence of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), which can sometimes produce toxins (cyanotoxins) that can be harmful to humans and animals. With this discovery, the U.S. Forest Service’s Arapaho National Forest placed restrictions on water contact recreation and posted signs informing the public of the issue.
Recent tests indicate the concentration of cyanotoxins in the two samples collected to be nearly negligible. However, because of evidence of algae in other parts of the reservoir where sampling has not occurred the reservoir remains under the existing restrictions for contact recreation.
Willow Creek Reservoir is part of the collections system for the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which gathers water in the headwaters of the Colorado River for delivery to cities, farms and industries in northeast Colorado.
In the East Troublesome Fire of 2020, as much as 90 percent of the watershed that feeds into the reservoir sustained damage. This summer, the arrival of monsoonal moisture has increased the delivery of nutrients from the burn scar to the reservoir, and made these nutrients available to support increased growth of all kinds of algae. However, the vast majority of algae species are not harmful. Water recreation enthusiasts can learn more by viewing the Colorado Parks and Wildlife video and visiting the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment links available from Grand County.
Water from Willow Creek Reservoir is pumped intermittently into Lake Granby to make room in Willow Creek Reservoir should future flooding occur. However, with a maximum capacity of 10,600 acre-feet, Willow Creek Reservoir is dwarfed by the 540,000 acre-foot Lake Granby, meaning the overall impact to the region’s water supply is negligible. In addition, water quality testing equipment installed in the aftermath of the East Troublesome Fire will be able to monitor key water quality metrics in the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. A monitoring program has been implemented to watch for algae blooms and potential toxins in the Three Lakes, as well as in Willow Creek Reservoir. Agencies will continue to review data and monitor the issue until the bloom disappears.
A recent study assessed 29 PFAS coming into and out of the Arctic Ocean.
In the last five years, the environmental problem known as PFAS has become mainstream public knowledge and a growing public concern. Aided by popular movies, books, and environmental advocates, including dozens of recently-formed citizen action groups, many have now heard of PFAS — shorthand for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — and are familiar with one or more potential health consequences from prolonged exposure to these chemicals — e.g., cancer, immune system malfunctions, hypertension, thyroid and kidney disease.
When introduced to the marketplace in the early 1950’s due to features like oil and water repellency, flame retardancy, and general indestructibility, PFAS have been used in industrial and product manufacturing for at least eight decades. Their seemingly ubiquitous usage in a wide range of consumer products and frequent daily contact with these “forever chemicals” is assured for most people. For instance, PFAS is found in:
Carpets and upholstery (including child car seats!);
Cosmetic and personal hygiene products such as dental floss and makeup;
Food wrappers and carry-out containers;
Water resistant shoes and clothing;
While exposure to PFAS in these everyday items is becoming increasingly well known, new information continues to surface pointing to some of the more surprising places PFAS can be found, from the far away to the very local.
PFAS in the Remote Arctic
A recent study assessed 29 PFAS coming into and out of the Arctic Ocean. The study identified the widespread distribution of 11 PFAS, including PFOA, which has mostly been phased out of the industry, and a newer replacement PFAS: HFPO-Dimer Acid (sold under the trade name Gen-X). Higher levels of PFAS were detected in the water exiting the Arctic Ocean compared with the water entering the Arctic from the North Atlantic, suggesting that more of these compounds arose from atmospheric sources than from ocean circulation. PFAS has also been shown to bioaccumulate in the Arctic marine ecosystem, including in seals, waterfowl and even the brain tissue of polar bears.
PFAS in Fracking Chemicals
Many are not looking for another reason to disfavor the practice of using hydraulic fracturing (i.e., fracking) to extract oil and gas from the ground. And by now, many more communities are becoming less enamored with the thought that PFAS has been so widely used in so many products and processes for so long. But the idea of using PFAS chemicals for fracking represents a severe double negative. And yet, a recent report, Fracking with “Forever Chemicals,” published by the Physicians for Social Responsibility, suggests that the practice of using certain PFAS in the fracking chemical mixture has been going on for the past decade. Despite environmental concerns posited by the EPA, the use of “trade-secret non-ionic fluorosurfactants” was approved by the agency and has been applied at more than 1,200 wells in six states.
PFAS in The Vegetable Drawer?
Dietary intake is a major potential exposure pathway for PFAS that continues to be assessed. A 2018 study by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sampled foods, including lettuce, cabbage, corn and tomatoes, from areas of the country with known PFAS contamination. Of the 20 samples, 16 were found to contain PFAS. Produce using irrigation water or soil contaminated with PFAS readily uptake the chemicals, with contaminant transfer influenced by concentrations and mixtures of PFAS, plant species, soil organic carbon and other factors. Thus, dietary exposure to PFAS is very likely when contaminated irrigation water is used, pointing to the need for further studies, testing and eventually the establishment of PFAS limits for irrigation water.
PFAS in Blood
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) data, PFAS is found in almost all Americans’ blood, regardless of age, race, or gender. And although the CDC states, “Human health effects from PFCs at low environmental doses or at bio-monitored levels from low environmental exposures are unknown,” the fact that the average total PFAS in blood serum currently exceeds 5,000 parts per trillion (ppt) should make one pause. Trends over time indicate these levels are slowly decreasing as PFAS materials are gradually phased out of manufacturing. Nevertheless, there is much work to be done to identify and remove the PFAS sources contributing to all the various source of PFAS in our blood…
PFAS in Drinking Water
After nearly 80 years of manufacturing, uncontrolled releases, and disposal practices, it should not be too surprising that PFAS is found in drinking water. It is, however, the vast extent of these impacts that is both surprising and unsettling. According to recent estimates by the Environmental Working Group, more than 200 million Americans may be exposed to PFAS simply by drinking a glass of water. And to date, more than 2,200 public water supplies have been identified with PFAS contaminants. From the lens of human health and risk assessment, much of the nation’s drinking water is now considered a source of PFAS exposure.
Groundwater supplies approximately 40% of U.S. drinking water. The risk of PFAS groundwater contamination is most significant where it is encountered at shallow depths and where there are PFAS sources nearby (e.g. a fire training area at a military base). It is impossible to know, as we are only beginning to comprehend, how many PFAS-contaminated groundwater sites exist, but there are undoubtedly many thousands. Fortunately, a field-proven method is available and being used now to effectively address PFAS contamination in groundwater near these source areas and cut off these contaminants from potential human and environmental exposure.
Colloidal Activated Carbon Barriers for PFAS Removal
This PFAS treatment approach uses a colloidal form of activated carbon applied in situ – i.e. directly into the groundwater. The colloidal activated carbon (CAC) treatment works by intercepting contaminants that move naturally through established groundwater pathways. To accomplish this, CAC is injected along a line of delivery points into the affected aquifer zone to form a permeable reactive barrier (PRB). As groundwater migrates across the PRB, PFAS sorbs onto the carbon, removing it from the water. With PFAS removed from the water, the exposure pathway is eliminated and so is the risk.
Material scientists developed CAC to overcome the challenge of evenly dispersing a solid injected material (i.e., activated carbon) through aquifer soils. Activated carbon particles are ground to 1 to 2 microns — the size of a red blood cell — and treated with a proprietary and drinking water-safe, anti-clumping agent that allows the CAC to permeate through and then adhere to the surface of individual soil grains.
In situ CAC treatments have been used to capture and treat groundwater contaminants since 2014 and applied at numerous PFAS-contaminated groundwater sites. Over one hundred PFAS projects have been implemented or are in the planning stages. The longest-running application has reduced PFAS for five years, with the treatment expected to be maintained 50 years based on independent, peer-reviewed modeling estimates.9 The approach is substantially more cost effective and technically feasible compared to any other treatment alternative. Performance-based warranty options are available from the manufacturer that can be tailored to a project’s needs.
With lower, warmer water levels in the Yampa River during this extreme drought year, town of Hayden employees are carefully watching operations at the water plant this summer to continue to alleviate taste or odor issues for the town’s 1,100 water taps…
[Bryan] Richards said the usual time of heightened summer concern for low water levels and thus increased algae is lasting longer this year, starting about one month earlier than usual in early July rather than the normal early August. Water levels have dropped at the intake on the Yampa River at the water plant north of town, and water temperatures at the intake have increased by 3 to 5 degrees above normal, rising as high as 75 degrees. Lower, slower, warmer water leads to more algae production…
Fortunately, major improvements to the Hayden water treatment plant during the past three years are working to help mitigate the algae increases, said Town Manager Mathew Mendisco. He said the town spent a total of $2.3 million in water system and plant upgrades with half of the funding coming from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and other funding from a citizen-approved bond measure. The plant was first built in 1978…
Town of Hayden water users have been under outdoor water restrictions this summer that mimic city of Steamboat Springs restrictions and resulted in a 3% decrease in overall water use compared to the past three years, even though the watering season started earlier this dry year, Richards said. Hayden water users will need to continue water conservation efforts when the town’s 1 million gallon water tank on hospital hill goes offline for a planned refurbishment starting with the tank drained by the end of August through project completion Oct. 20, Richards said.
Mendisco said the town secured $989,000 in low-interest financing to upgrade the tank through a state revolving loan fund managed by the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority. The town qualified for a 1.5% interest rate based on its status as a “disadvantaged community” dealing with the impacts of the transition from coal.
The town has a 500,000-gallon water tank near Yampa Valley Regional Airport, so officials do not anticipate impacts to water customers when the larger water tank is off line.
FromThe Washington Post (Dino Grandoni and Brady Dennis):
A federal judge Monday threw out a major Trump administration rule that scaled back federal protections for streams, marshes and wetlands across the United States, reversing one of the previous administration’s most significant environmental rollbacks.
U.S. District Judge Rosemary Márquez wrote that Trump officials committed serious errors while writing the regulation, finalized last year, and that leaving it in place could lead to “serious environmental harm.”
A number of business and farm groups had supported the push to replace Obama-era standards with the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, on the grounds that states were better positioned to regulate many waterways and that the previous protections were too restrictive.
The ruling in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, which applies nationwide, will afford new protections for drinking-water supplies for millions of Americans, as well as for thousands of wildlife species that depend on America’s wetland acreage.
Márquez, a Barack Obama appointee, noted that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees permits to dredge and fill waterways under federal jurisdiction, determined that three-quarters of the water bodies it reviewed over a nearly 10-month period did not qualify for federal protection under the new rule. Federal agencies identified 333 projects that would have required a review under the Obama rule, she added, but did not merit one under the Trump standards…
Home builders, oil drillers and farmers — who have long argued that earlier restrictions on developing land made it too difficult to do their work — are likely to appeal…
In June, the Biden administration announced that it would write regulations to strengthen wetland protections but would keep the Trump-era rule on the books while it did so. But tribal and environmental groups pressed the court in Arizona to vacate the previous administration’s rule sooner, since some wetlands may be irreparably harmed during the time it would take to replace it…
“We came in and said, ‘No, no, no, no, you can’t leave this in place,’” said Janette Brimmer, a senior attorney for Earthjustice, which represented the Native American and green groups in court. She added, “This is hugely good.”
The ruling marks the latest salvo in a decades-long legal and regulatory battle over the full extent of the Clean Water Act’s reach.
That landmark 1972 law prohibits polluting “waters of the United States” without a permit. But the question of which waterways fall under that category has been debated in courtrooms and agencies ever since.
In 2015, Obama’s administration moved to protect a broad swath of water bodies, including “ephemeral” streams that appear only after rainfall and help purify water. Hydrologists have found that even these intermittent rivulets can affect the water quality of large rivers and lakes downstream.
But the Trump administration replaced that regulation with a far narrower one, on the grounds that the Obama rule exceeded the government’s legal authority.
“They basically ignored it all,” Mark Ryan, a former EPA lawyer who helped craft the Obama-era regulation, said of the Trump team. “It was a voluminous bit of science.”
With Monday’s court ruling, agencies will go back to applying water protection standards from the 1980s, which are more expansive than the Trump-era rule but not as sweeping as Obama’s.
The push to overhaul federal clean-water regulations has caused ongoing fights in places such as in Georgia, near the sprawling Okefenokee Swamp. A proposal to strip-mine for titanium would have received strict scrutiny under the Obama-era standards, and some federal officials and environmental groups raised concerns about its potential impacts.
But last year the Army Corps of Engineers determined that under the revised Trump rule, the area was no longer federally protected…
“This is a welcome day for the Okefenokee, the wetlands surrounding the refuge, and will force Twin Pines to reevaluate this disastrous project,” Christian Hunt, Southeast program representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said in an email.
Today, the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona said Trump’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule must be vacated because the rule contains serious errors and has the potential to cause significant harm to the Nation’s Waters if left in place while the Biden administration works on revisions to the rule. It represents the culmination of a lawsuit brought by six federally recognized Indian tribes, who are represented by Earthjustice and sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers for passing a rule that eliminated Clean Water Act protections for thousands of waterbodies by redefining them as not “waters of the U.S.”
Thanks to this lawsuit and the Court’s ruling, the country will now return to water protections that were in place for years starting in 1986, wiping the Trump Dirty Water Rule off the books. This outcome ensures Clean Water Act protections are in effect while the Biden administration works to develop a new rule. The Dirty Water Rule was particularly damaging for waters throughout the West, Southwest and Great Lakes. The six tribes and their members have been disproportionately harmed by the rule as their livelihoods and culture were put at risk when the Dirty Water Rule eliminated protection for thousands of wetlands, headwater streams, and desert washes.
“The court recognized that the serious legal and scientific errors of the Dirty Water Rule were causing irreparable damage to our nation’s waters and would continue to do so unless that Rule was vacated,” said Janette Brimmer, Earthjustice attorney. “This sensible ruling allows the Clean Water Act to continue to protect all of our waters while the Biden administration develops a replacement rule.”
For Tribes, just like for every living being on the planet, water is life and has been so since time immemorial. The Trump administration, however, wholly disregarded that when it put industry profit over people by rolling back Clean Water Act protections. Even though the Biden administration has initiated the process to repeal the Trump Dirty Water Rule, it continues to apply the rule in the meantime, exacerbating the harms to Tribes.
In court filings, the federal government acknowledged that the Dirty Water Rule completely disregarded decades of the best science and neglected to assess the impacts the rule had on downstream communities. EPA’s own science advisors said Trump’s rule threatened to weaken protection of the nation’s waters by disregarding the established connectivity of ephemeral wetlands and small streams to downstream rivers and lakes.
Earthjustice is representing the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Tohono O’odham Nation, Quinault Indian Nation, Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
“Small headwater streams are fundamental to the protection and restoration of salmon and our way of life,” said Guy Capoeman, president of the Quinault Indian Nation. “Today’s ruling will protect all waters on which the Quinault people rely.”
From The Colorado River District (Marielle Cowdin and Lindsay DeFrates):
The Lower Gunnison River reached an important milestone this summer. During the June 2021 hearing, the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission deemed the Gunnison River in compliance with aquatic life standards for dissolved selenium – a naturally occurring element and micronutrient that can be unhealthy for aquatic ecosystems in high doses. As a result, the Commission delisted 66 miles of the Gunnison River downstream of Delta, Colorado from the impaired waters list. Decades of work in the Lower Gunnison Basin shepherded this achievement, which highlights a healthier environment for native and endangered species like the razorback sucker and the Colorado pikeminnow.
“This is a big victory and a reason to celebrate,” says Raquel Flinker, Senior Water Resources Engineer with the Colorado River District. “The Colorado River District has been a leader in this effort for over 20 years, working alongside multiple partners including the Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, non-governmental agencies, local conservancy districts, ditch companies, and even individual citizens to reach this point.”
Established and led by the Colorado River District as part of the cooperative Selenium Management Program, the Lower Gunnison Project (LGP) has proved instrumental in the final phases of the delisting. The decades of associated work began with the 1988 listing of the Gunnison River as an impaired water, with selenium levels as a focal point. Prevalence of the element results from the area’s marine-derived Mancos Shale, which contains vast amounts of selenium and releases it into ground and surface waters when saturated. Gunnison River Basin selenium levels had increased to such unhealthy levels that the reproductive abilities of egg-laying species – including native fish and birds – were impaired throughout the local ecosystems.
In response, the LGP was formed to address this and other natural resource issues in the Gunnison River Basin by investing in integrated water-use efficiency systems. Investments included enclosing canals and ditches into pressurized piping systems and upgrading irrigation equipment on farms with improved technology control. All together, these systems decreased water losses and minimized selenium-impacted runoff to the river resulting in better water quality and increased water availability. In 2020, the 5-year level of selenium measured at key stations in the river dropped below 4.6 ppb (parts per billion) for the first time, and the declining trend continues, as quantified by independent scientific agencies like the USGS.
“A lot of the credit goes to the local water users, especially the agricultural community,” said Ken Leib, Acting Director of the Colorado Water Science Center during the River District’s Gunnison State of the River event in June. “Often, lower flows in the river, as we are seeing today, result in higher concentrations of selenium. But despite drought conditions, we are not seeing that. So, we are really confident that the decreases we see have resulted from improvements in system efficiencies. It’s really quite impressive.”
Colorado River District Director of Science and Interstate Matters Dave “DK” Kanzer, creator of the Lower Gunnison Project, has been a long-time, integral leader in the Selenium Management. “We’re making a big difference for the environment by improving water quality and the aquatic habitat for sensitive and endangered species, while helping sustain productive agriculture in the Gunnison and Colorado River Basins,” he said. “Investments in strategic structural improvements and increased public education have moved us into full Clean Water Act compliance while helping take another step towards recovering key threatened and endangered fish species. This takes a lot of pressure off our hard-working agricultural producers; it is an important win-win for everyone.”
On Aug. 18, 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will end use of chlorpyrifos – a pesticide associated with neurodevelopmental problems and impaired brain function in children – on all food products nationwide. Gina Solomon, a principal investigator at the Public Health Institute, clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco and former deputy secretary at the California Environmental Protection Agency, explains the scientific evidence that led California to ban chlorpyrifos in 2020 and why the EPA is now following suit.
1. What is chlorpyrifos, and how is it used?
Chlorpyrifos is an inexpensive and effective pesticide that has been on the market since 1965. According to the EPA, approximately 5.1 million pounds of chlorpyrifos have been used annually in recent years (2014-2018) on a wide range of crops, including many different vegetables, corn, soybeans, cotton and fruit and nut trees.
Until 2000, chlorpyrifos was also used in homes for pest control. It was banned for indoor use after passage of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, which required additional protection of children’s health. Residues left after indoor use were quite high, and toddlers who crawled on the floor and put their hands in their mouth were found to be at risk of poisoning.
2. What’s the evidence that chlorpyrifos is harmful?
Researchers published the first study linking chlorpyrifos to potential developmental harm in children in 2003. They found that higher levels of a chlorpyrifos metabolite – a substance produced when the body breaks down the pesticide – in umbilical cord blood were significantly associated with smaller infant birth weight and length.
These findings touched off a battle to protect children from chlorpyrifos. Some scientists were skeptical of results from epidemiological studies that followed the children of pregnant women with greater or lesser levels of chlorpyrifos in their urine or cord blood and looked for adverse effects.
Epidemiological studies can provide powerful evidence that something is harmful to humans, but results can also be muddled by gaps in information about the timing and level of exposures. They also can be complicated by exposures to other harmful substances through diet, personal habits, homes, communities and workplaces.
3. Why did it take so long to reach a conclusion?
As evidence accumulated that low levels of chlorpyrifos were probably toxic to
humans, regulatory scientists at the EPA and in California reviewed it – but they took very different paths.
At first, both groups focused on the established toxicity mechanism: acetylcholinesterase inhibition. They reasoned that preventing significant disruption of this key enzyme would protect people from any other neurological effects.
Scientists working under contract for Dow Chemical, which manufactured chlorpyrifos, published a complex model in 2014 to estimate how much of the pesticide a person would have to consume or inhale to trigger acetylcholinesterase inhibition. But some of their equations were based on data from as few as six healthy adults who had swallowed capsules of chlorpyrifos during experiments in the 1970s and early 1980s – a research method that now would be considered unethical.
California scientists questioned whether risk assessments based on the Dow-funded model adequately accounted for uncertainty and human variability. They also wondered whether acetylcholinesterase inhibition was really the most sensitive biological effect.
In 2016 the EPA released a reassessment of chlorpyrifos’s potential health effects that took a very different approach. It focused on epidemiological studies published from 2003 through 2014 at Columbia University that found developmental impacts in children exposed to chlorpyrifos. The Columbia researchers analyzed chlorpyrifos levels in the umbilical cord blood at birth, and the EPA attempted to back-calculate how much chlorpyrifos the babies might have been exposed to throughout pregnancy.
On the basis of this analysis, the Obama administration concluded that chlorpyrifos could not be safely used and should be banned. However, the Trump administration halted this decision one year later, arguing that the science was not resolved and more study was needed. The Trump administration subsequently abandoned the human epidemiological studies and reverted to using the Dow-sponsored model and acetylcholinesterase inhibition endpoint that was used back in 2014.
History indicates that both political and scientific considerations likely accounted for the long delays. Although the conclusions clearly shifted with different federal administrations, the epidemiological studies and the acetylcholinesterase model also pointed in different directions – one suggested high health risks in humans, and the other suggested relatively lower risks. Policy conclusions thus depended partly on which data scientists chose as the basis for evaluating health risks.
4. What convinced California to impose a ban?
Three new papers on prenatal exposures to chlorpyrifos, published in 2017 and 2018, broke the logjam. These were independent studies, conducted on rats, that evaluated subtle effects on learning and development.
The results were consistent and clear: Chlorpyrifos caused decreased learning, hyperactivity and anxiety in rat pups at doses lower than those that affected acetylcholinesterase. And these studies clearly quantified doses to the rats, so there was no uncertainty about their exposure levels during pregnancy. The results were eerily similar to effects seen in human epidemiological studies, vindicating serious health concerns about chlorpyrifos.
California reassessed chlorpyrifos, using these new studies. Regulators concluded that the pesticide posed significant risks that could not be mitigated, especially among people who lived near agricultural fields where it was used. In October 2019, the state announced that under an enforceable agreement with manufacturers, all sales of chlorpyrifos to California growers would end by Feb. 6, 2020, and growers would not be allowed to possess or use it after Dec. 31, 2020.
Two months after the California decision, the European Union voted to ban chlorpyrifos due to concerns about neurodevelopmental harm. New York, Hawaii, Oregon and Maryland also moved to end use of the pesticide within their borders. On the same day that California sales of the pesticide ceased, the main manufacturer of chlorpyrifos, Corteva Agrosciences, announced that it would stop producing the chemical.
In late April 2021, a federal court in California ordered the agency to either ban use of chlorpyrifos on food within 60 days or show that it was safe. “The EPA has had nearly 14 years to publish a legally sufficient response to the 2007 Petition,” the ruling stated. “During that time, the EPA’s egregious delay exposed a generation of American children to unsafe levels of chlorpyrifos.”
With the agency’s Aug. 18 announcement, that delay is finally over.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on Jan. 23, 2020.
Fossil fuels don’t just damage the planet by emitting climate-warming greenhouse gases when they are burned. Extracting coal, oil and gas has a huge impact on the surface of the earth, including strip mines the size of cities and offshore oil spills that pollute country-sized swaths of ocean.
Years of research has shown how the fracking boom has contaminated groundwater in some areas. But a study published on Thursday in the journal Science suggests there is also a previously undocumented risk to surface water in streams, rivers and lakes.
After analyzing 11 years of data, including surface water measurements in 408 watersheds and information about more than 40,000 fracking wells, the researchers found a very small but consistent increase in three salt compounds—barium, chloride and strontium—in watersheds with new wells that were fracked. While concentrations of the three elements were elevated, they remained below the levels considered harmful by the EPA.
Such salts are commonly found in water coming from newly fracked wells, making changes in their levels good markers for fracking impacts on surface water, said co-author Christian Leuz, professor of international economics at the University of Chicago. The three economists who did the research specialize in studying the effectiveness of environmental regulations.
Though the impact the researchers detected was small, the data came from diluted water in rivers and streams that were often far from wells, Leuz said, so the concentrations could be higher farther upstream and closer to the fracking operations.
The findings suggest that the rapid pace of “unconventional oil and gas development,” like fracking, may be outrunning scientists’ ability to monitor its impacts on surface water. “Better and more frequent water measurement is needed to fully understand the surface water impact of unconventional oil and gas development,” said economist co-author Pietro Bonetti, with the University of Navarra, Spain.
The researchers said they couldn’t determine human health impacts from the elements for two reasons, Leuz said.
First, “there is not enough public data to analyze potentially more dangerous substances,” he said, and second, ”there are limitations in available water-quality measurements.” Even though some states require fracking companies to disclose chemicals in their fluids, they aren’t always listed in public water monitoring databases, Leuz added.
The 2005 amendment to the Safe Water Drinking Act, known as the Halliburton Loophole, also made tracking harder by exempting hydraulic fracturing fluids from the Safe Drinking Water Act, preventing the EPA from regulating fracking fluids…
The data needs to be further analyzed to understand if requiring drilling companies to be transparent about what’s in their fracking fluids led them to clean up their operations, she said, but the study published today also provides important information for drafting regulations and focusing future monitoring and research on potential trouble spots that are more vulnerable to pollution.
Early research on fracking impacts was mostly on groundwater contamination, but in 2016, the EPA published a report with a “more complete record of localized evidence,” that found the potential for surface water pollution under certain circumstances, Michelon said.
Wildlife crews and water quality experts struggle to even assess the damage, as emergency management officials warn of threats to the western lifeline for years to come.
After decades of fierce arguments over damming up more of the water that rightfully belongs in the Colorado River, nature built a new dam in 5 minutes.
What happened to the fish? What happened to the river channel? What happened to drinking water downstream? Where did all the rafters go?
The relative silence about the river itself stems in part from immediate questions of who is in charge. For the highway, it’s CDOT. For the river, from the federal side, at least three different branch offices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have a say in any fixes, said emergency services director Mike Willis.
“Albuquerque, Sacramento and Omaha, just for a few miles’ stretch of the river,” Willis said,of the Army Corps involvement. Others who need to be consulted on any river rehab include the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and many more.
Sorting out changes to the river could take years, not just months, Willis said. The debris, from rockslides made worse by wildfires that burned up binding vegetation, blocked the Colorado River channel completely at Blue Gulch before the relentless river cut its way through the pile within minutes.
“The channel has changed now in several places. And so we have to be thoughtful about it, do we put the river back in its original channel or live with the channel as it is, and mitigate and protect the critical infrastructure downstream,” Willis said.
One of the first problems, Willis noted, is that the altered river flow may endanger the all-important highway. The changing channel has pushed debris up against the canyon’s complex bridge structures and overhangs, and the continual push of the water could undermine the road.
“In fact, the CDOT engineers have identified some areas where that is the case,” Willis said. “And so we need to assess that carefully and in those instances, we probably will push the river back to its original flow.”
As for wildlife recovery efforts in Glenwood Canyon, Willis said, the multi-agency task force dealing with the Colorado River has not given Parks and Wildlife full access in the slide area to start making detailed assessments…
Parks and Wildlife northwest division manager Matt Yamashita said biologists were still gathering information about the slide’s impact and waiting for full access to the river bed. But he’s concerned about mud smothering food and breeding spots for Colorado River species for miles downstream…
The Colorado and its tributaries are also vital resources for humans living along the riverbanks, long before the waterway delivers farm water to Arizona or drinking water to Los Angeles. Glenwood Springs takes its drinking water out of Grizzly Creek and No Name Creek before they hit the Colorado, and sometimes from the Roaring Fork River, if necessary, city public information officer Bryana Starbuck said.
“All of our water source intakes are below burn scars (Grizzly Creek fire and Lake Christine fire) which means that the landscape is very sensitive to heavy rainfall, which causes these debris flows or high sediment-transport incidents,” Starbuck said in an email response to questions. “Given the nature of burn scars, stabilization of the land will take time and impacts will continue to develop.”
Just as highway engineers in the canyon are looking uphill to design ways to keep future slides off the highway, Willis said, naturalists will have to work with them to think of ways to keep new slides from cutting off the river itself for years to come.
“We do not feel like this is a one time deal,” Willis said. “It’s not a one and done.”
Colorado water commissioners declined to upgrade water quality rules for the urban stretch of river, though conservation groups say they are finally being heard.
Public officials, conservation groups and citizen speakers pleaded with the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission [August 9, 2021] to reverse a 2020 decision and strengthen protections for the South Platte River in north Denver and Adams County, but the commissioners declined.
Opponents of the commission’s decision last year thought they had one last chance in a “town hall” feedback format to urge the commissioners to revisit the controversial vote, which rejected a staff recommendation to upgrade the South Platte to higher water quality protections. They pointed to the recent weeks of high heat and air pollution in metro Denver, as well as a new climate change report showing irrefutable and irreversible damage to the environment, as more reasons to protect the river with tougher regulations…
“We cannot wait five more years to upgrade or revisit what’s happening to the communities in north Denver,” said Ean Tafoya, Colorado director of the nonprofit GreenLatinos.
The commissioners, who are appointed by Gov. Jared Polis to oversee the Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said they would not reverse their 2020 decision now. The coalition favoring more protections said after the town hall they would consider trying to force the commission to reconsider through a petition process, by taking legal action…
But some commissioners appeared to leave the door open to further discussions and to seek more community input on future river decisions…
Those who want to elevate the South Platte’s urban stretches used the commission’s town hall comment period to attack the 2020 decision. The staff of the water quality division last year had recommended that the South Platte River through north Denver and Adams County, long plagued by industrial releases and wastewater effluent, be upgraded to the next higher level of stream protections.
The higher level would have forced existing polluters in that section, like Metro Wastewater, Suncor or Molson Coors, to avoid further degrading water quality with any new activity unless they could prove it was essential to their continuing business. As it stands now, those existing polluters have “protected use” status that permits them to degrade the water, even though water quality in those central urban streams has improved in recent decades.
The Colorado division of Parks and Wildlife, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Adams County Commissioners and others had supported the staff request for a river protection upgrade. The water commissioners rejected the idea last year, and then again in June.
Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio said he wanted to be frank with the water commissioners that not enough opponents were prepared for the discussion ahead of the 2020 decision.
“Back in 2020 we did not know how this specific decision would affect our river and our communities,” O’Dorisio said.
Jeff Neuman-Lee, describing himself as a citizen speaker for the town hall forum, pointed to Colorado’s air fouled by wildfire smoke and heat-generated ozone in recent weeks.
“We’ve been just degrading our Earth over and over and over again, and we can’t tolerate any more,” he said. “It’s depressing to see that we’re allowing water quality to go unheeded; to create stretches of our rivers and say we don’t care about them, we’re just going to let them go.”
Some of Monday’s speakers said they were concerned that leaving the South Platte’s water quality protection where it is now will weaken the current permit renewal process underway for the Suncor refinery, which borders Sand Creek as it empties into the South Platte. The state health department is reviewing and answering public comments on Suncor’s permit application, and conservationists and neighborhood groups want Suncor’s water and air pollution caps cut way back.
“This idea of grandfathered legacy pollution,” Tafoya said, “just because they always have, doesn’t mean they should continue to.”
Here’s an in-depth report from Laura Paskus that’s running in The Santa Fe Reporter. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
Today, we know the [firefighting] foam contained toxic chemicals responsible for polluting the water around hundreds of military bases nationwide, including Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases in New Mexico. And the toxic chemicals are present in the drinking water of millions of Americans…
Over the years, [Kevin] Ferrara has learned that the military knew Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) was dangerous—and so did the companies that manufactured it. But without federal regulations that set drinking water standards or hazardous waste limits, states like New Mexico still can’t hold the Pentagon accountable for the pollution that has crept from the bases into the wells of local residents and businesses. Meanwhile, military firefighters like Ferrara wonder what’s happening within their own bodies—and the bodies of those whose water they polluted.
In the waning days of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) was grappling with a problem. A “forever” problem, as it turns out.
Contractors hired by the military were investigating whether AFFF used at the state’s three Air Force bases had contaminated groundwater with PFAS.
In an August 2018 conference call, Air Force officials told state officials that PFAS had been found in wells at Cannon Air Force Base at concentrations above the US Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion. Further studies showed the levels exceed 26,000 parts per trillion—more than 370 times that EPA health advisory—and that PFAS was also in off-base wells that supply homes and dairies in Clovis.
In October, NMED, the New Mexico Department of Health and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture publicly announced the presence of the contamination on and off the base. They advised private well-owners within a 4-mile radius of the base to use bottled water. NMED issued a notice of violation against the Air Force for breaking state regulations. The agency issued “corrective action permits” with cleanup mandates for the military’s state permits.
But in January 2019, just after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took office, the US Department of Defense sued New Mexico, challenging the state’s authority to mandate cleanup.
And although the state made no announcements nor issued any corrective actions, a report the Air Force submitted to NMED during the Martinez administration showed that groundwater samples of PFAS at Holloman Air Force Base were as high as 1.294 million parts per trillion. In February 2019, NMED issued a notice of violation against the Air Force over Holloman, too.
The following month, in March 2019, New Mexico filed its own lawsuit, asking a federal judge to compel the Air Force to act on, and pay for, cleanup at Cannon and Holloman.
But that hasn’t worked out as planned.
“We wanted action quickly. When that wasn’t available, or that wasn’t on the table, that’s when we litigated,” NMED Secretary James Kenney says in an interview.
The lawsuit has been lumped in with hundreds of other PFAS-related lawsuits. One court in South Carolina now oversees all cases regarding PFAS and the military’s use of the AFFF—more than 750 separate actions.
Even though New Mexico has tried to extricate itself from the multidistrict litigation, hoping to pursue its case against the Air Force without being tied to those hundreds of other cases, a judge has denied that request. And in June, the Biden administration’s Defense Department called New Mexico’s attempts to compel cleanup under state permits “arbitrary and capricious.”
In summary, three years after the Air Force notified New Mexico of the PFAS pollution, there are no clean-up plans in place at Cannon or Holloman, though earlier this year, Cannon announced an on-base pilot project to test the best ways to remove PFAS from water. And even though the military knows when, why and how the contamination happened, it has sued New Mexico to say the state can’t make it clean up the problem.
Meanwhile, state Environment Sec. Kenney says the EPA needs to set federal pollution standards for the toxic substances.
In 2016, the EPA established a lifetime health advisory for two types of PFAS found in firefighting foams, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). But that advisory of 70 parts per trillion isn’t a regulatory limit. That means states like New Mexico don’t have any legal tools to require that polluters like the military clean up PFAS.
Todd Hennis claims the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has occupied part of his property near the Gold King Mine but hasn’t compensated him for doing so
The owner of an inactive southwestern Colorado mine that was the source of a disastrous 2015 spill…has filed a lawsuit seeking nearly $3.8 million in compensation for the federal government’s use of his land in its ongoing cleanup response…
Todd Hennis claims the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has occupied part of his property near the Gold King Mine but hasn’t compensated him for doing so since the August 2015 spill, The Durango Herald reports. He also claims the EPA contaminated his land by causing the spill, which fouled rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah with a bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals.
Hennis is seeking nearly $3.8 million in compensation in the suit filed [August 3, 2021] in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. He contends EPA actions have violated his Fifth Amendment rights to just compensation for public use of private property.
In 2020, Colorado battled the four largest wildfires in its history, leaving residents anxious for another intense wildfire season this year.
But last week, fires weren’t the issue—it was their aftermath. When heavy rains fell over the burn scar from the 2020 Cameron Peak fire, they triggered flash flooding and mudslides northwest of Fort Collins which destroyed homes, killed at least three people and damaged major roads. Flooding along the 2020 Grizzly Creek and East Troublesome burn scars also unleashed mudslides across Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon and in Grand County just west of Rocky Mountain National Park.
These tragic events make it clear that the effects of wildfire don’t end when the flames go out. There can be environmental consequences for years to come—and keeping an eye on water is key.
CU Boulder Today spoke with Professor Fernando Rosario-Ortiz, an environmental chemistry expert who studies how wildfires impact water quality; and Assistant Professor and CIRES Fellow Ben Livneh, a hydrologist who studies how climate change affects water supplies and how fires and rain influence landslide risk, about how fire may shape the future of water in the West.
What happens to water in lakes, rivers and streams after a nearby wildfire?
Rosario-Ortiz: When you have open flames, a lot of gaseous reactions and solid phase reactions, it results in the transformation of chemicals and alterations to the soil, and we observe the effects once we look at the water quality. For example, we observe the enhancement in the concentration of nutrients in water, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can cause subsequent issues in the reservoirs like algae blooms. There can also be a mobilization of metals and enhanced concentration and activity of what we call organic carbon as well as turbidity, which can then impact water treatment production and formation of disinfection byproducts.
How do city water suppliers and treatment plants deal with these impacts?
Rosario-Ortiz: Ideally, you want to have a secondary water source. In Fort Collins, back in 2012 after the High Park fire, the river was impacted but the reservoir was not impacted. So they could draw from the reservoir and wait for the worst to pass.
If you don’t have that option, some of the challenges after wildfire and rain events include increased sediment mobilization, which is very challenging for water treatment operations. Those are short-term effects that might give you a headache, but they can also become long-term challenges. Never mind the fact that you may have issues with infrastructure.
How can wildfire affect water quantity and timing in a landscape?
Livneh: In the western U.S. we really rely on water that flows in rivers and streams, and that fills the reservoirs for our supply. So when we think about even small changes to the amount of water that comes off of the hill slope, or across the landscape, that can have a big impact on the total availability of water.
One of the most notable things that happens in a fire is that the texture of the soil changes. Initially, less rain will soak into the soil, and more rain will become surface runoff. There’s a lot of reason to think that you will get more total water—but it’ll be much more “flashy” when it comes.
On one hand, that can be good if you have a reservoir to collect it. But we’ve heard of water utilities actually turning off their intakes after a fire if the quality of the water is too low. And that’s tricky, because often drought is involved in some fashion. So there’s often this competing need for more water, and yet the quality is low.
What are the factors that affect the likelihood of floods or mudslides after wildfire?
Livneh: When water carries enough stuff with it, we call it a debris flow, which is a type of landslide. The bigger and bigger it gets, the more impactful it is. We have research funded by NASA where we looked at 5,000 landslide sites around the world. We found that sites that had a fire in the past three years required less precipitation to cause a landslide.
But there’s also a lot of local variability that really matters. Moderately steep, heavily vegetated areas, types of soils—especially sandier soils—increase risk. Also we now have a lot of people who have built structures on steep slopes in these areas, so there’s a human element there, too. And the time of the year that it happens can matter. A fire right before your rainy season is an important factor.
What does this all mean for the future of Colorado and the western U.S.?
Rosario-Ortiz: When homes burn, you’re not just combusting houses, you’re combusting everything inside those homes. You might now be combusting electric vehicles, for example, with a large battery.
Then what are some of the other potential concerns with exposure to air? Water? That’s going to be something that we will need to explore further over the next few years.
Livneh: Some estimates say the amount of forest area being burned each year in the western U.S. has doubled in the last 25 years. And it really poses risks to communities, especially in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Managing it is largely a kind of a policy problem, but in the next 10 years or so we’re going to continue to have these big fires.
First and foremost, people need to be paying attention to these flood watches and to local guidance on evacuation. The most important thing is saving lives.
What can we do to prepare for the future?
Rosario-Ortiz: Utilities might have to be thinking about potential upgrades in facilities. That means we may have to also consider financing of these projects and how to improve overall resiliency.
Livneh: One of the most robust features of climate change is warming, right? As rain becomes more prevalent, we’re just going to have to continue expanding our portfolio of things we do to keep up. The more open-minded we can be about managing for these things is important. I’m kind of an optimist. As humans, we’ve overcome so many technical challenges; it’s not going to be something we can’t solve our way out of.
Here’s the release from the New Mexico Office of the Natural Resources Trustee (Elysia Bunten):
The New Mexico Office of the Natural Resources Trustee (ONRT) is in the preliminary stages of soliciting ideas for projects that will restore natural resources in New Mexico injured by the 2015 Gold King Mine release.
We welcome stakeholder engagement in our process and invite you, as a stakeholder who was affected by the contamination, to participate in this process. Please see the attached letter containing details about ONRT’s funding, process, upcoming information session, and timetable.
At Hays Market, gallon jugs of drinking water have been flying off the shelves for the better part of two weeks. According to grocery manager Daniel Gehring, the store has gone from ordering several cases of water to palates of it, and not because of the hot weather.
“The town’s water is smelly, funny and has a dirt taste to it, so people are buying the heck out of the gallon water,” Gehring said.
For the grocery store, the business is a plus, but around town, folks like David Salls are concerned. He’s recently turned to filtering all of the water anyone in the family drinks, including his dogs…
Town manager Matt LeCerf says the odor is harmless, and the result of chemical compounds created by algae blooms in the Lone Tree Reservoir, the city’s main water source.
Normally, the water travels into town via a pipeline and drainage ditch, but this year the drainage ditch is not being used because of the nearby Cameron Peak and East Troublesome Fire burn scars…
According to LeCerf, the ditch into town naturally aerates and filters the water more than the pipeline.
“We’re basically in a position where we have to run our water through the reservoirs where we do have that standing water that’s causing some of the taste and odor issues,” LeCerf said.
After hearing similar concerns in the past, the town approved a new $2 million granular activated carbon system earlier this year, which LeCerf said is 90% effective in removing the taste and odor. Construction has been underway for more than two months, and the system is expected to be online Wednesday…
The carbon filtration system isn’t the only improvement in the works for Johnstown. According to LeCerf, the town is also upgrading its water treatment plant and putting special buoys in the reservoir that use ultrasonic wavelengths to help mitigate algae growth.
Here’s the release from Colorado Springs Utilities:
Pikeview Reservoir, a popular fishing spot in central Colorado Springs and part of our water system, has tested positive for blue-green algae. While the reservoir is still safe for fishing, humans and pets are prohibited from entering the water until further notice. Anglers are directed to thoroughly clean fish and discard guts.
Pikeview has been removed as a source for drinking water until the reservoir is determined to be clear of the algae. There are no concerns about this affecting water supply for the community.
“It’s our responsibility to provide safe, reliable drinking water to our community and to always consider public safety at our reservoirs. We will continue to closely monitor our reservoirs and take appropriate actions,” Earl Wilkinson, Chief Water, Compliance and Innovation Officer said.
We conduct more than 400 water quality tests a month and collect approximately 12,000 water samples throughout our water system annually. With the increased risk of the blue-green algae, we are increasing the frequency of testing reservoirs at lower elevations.
In the past several years, there’s been increasing occurrence of toxic blue-green algae in reservoirs across the United States, forcing limitation of recreational access to the bodies of water for public safety.
Sickness including nausea, vomiting, rash, irritated eyes, seizures and breathing problems could occur following exposure to the blue-green algae in the water. Anyone suspicious of exposure with onset of symptoms should contact their doctor or veterinarian.
Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency:
[July 12, 2021], the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Draft Contaminant Candidate List 5 (CCL 5), which provides the latest list of drinking water contaminants that are known or anticipated to occur in public water systems and are not currently subject to EPA drinking water regulations. As directed by the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA’s CCL 5 identifies priority contaminants to consider for potential regulation to ensure that public health is protected.
“This important step will help ensure that communities across the nation have safe water by improving EPA’s understanding of contaminants in drinking water,” said EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox. “On PFAS, the agency is working with the scientific community to prioritize the assessment and regulatory evaluation of all chemicals as contaminants.”
The Draft CCL 5 includes 66 individual chemicals,12 microbes, and three chemical groups – per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), cyanotoxins, and disinfection byproducts (DBPs). These contaminants have been identified as agency priorities and contaminants of concern for drinking water. PFAS are proposed as a group, with the exception of PFOA and PFOS because the agency is moving forward with national primary drinking water standards for these two contaminants. This action is in keeping with the agency’s commitment to better understand and ultimately reduce the potential risks caused by PFAS.
CCL 5 was developed under an improved process that included new approaches to rapidly screen a significantly larger number of contaminants, prioritizing data most relevant to drinking water exposure and the potential for the greatest public health concern, and better consideration for sensitive populations and children. EPA continues to collect data and to encourage further research on the listed contaminants to better understand potential health effects from drinking water exposure before making any regulatory determinations.
EPA plans to consult with the Science Advisory Board (SAB) on the Draft CCL 5 in the fall of 2021. The agency will consider public comments and SAB feedback in developing the Final CCL 5, which is expected to be published in July 2022. After a final CCL is published, the agency will undertake a separate regulatory determination process to determine whether or not to regulate contaminants from the CCL.
Developing the CCL is the first step under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in potentially regulating drinking water contaminants. SDWA requires EPA to publish a list of currently unregulated contaminants that are known or anticipated to occur in public water systems and that may require regulation. EPA must publish a CCL every five years. The CCL does not create or impose regulatory burden on public water systems or state, local, or Tribal governments. EPA has completed four rounds of CCLs since 1996. The last cycle of CCL, CCL 4, was published in November 2016. EPA began the development of the CCL 5 in 2018 by asking the public to nominate chemicals, microbes, or other materials for consideration for the CCL 5. The agency received 89 nominations and evaluated the nominated contaminants and other contaminant data and information in developing the Draft CCL 5.
Recruitment for a large-scale study on the health effects of “forever chemicals” will start in the Fountain Valley this month and its results could help set federal limits on the chemicals in drinking water.
The work is part of the second large-scale study in the country to examine exposure to perfluorinated compounds — a family of manmade chemicals that linger in the body and have earned the nickname “forever chemicals” — and the health risks they pose.
The first large-scale study was done 15 years ago in Ohio and West Virginia and found probable links between the chemicals and conditions including high cholesterol, thyroid disease, kidney and testicular cancers, said epidemiology professor Anne Starling, with the University of Colorado.
This study through the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is set to investigate health effects of the chemicals including impacts to the immune system, kidneys, liver and thyroid. It will also help determine if the chemicals change neurobehavioral outcomes in children trough tests of their attention, memory and learning abilities. The study was expected to begin last fall but it was delayed by the pandemic, Starling said.
Researchers plan to study 7,000 adults and 2,100 children exposed to perfluorinated compounds across seven states, including 1,000 adults and 300 children 4 and older in the Fountain Valley…
The study will also be the first to include people with high levels of a chemical found in firefighting foam in their blood, Starling said.
Firefighting foam from used by the military at Peterson Air Force Base contaminated the aquifer that residents in Widefield, Security and Fountain used for drinking water, studies have determined. After the contamination was found in 2016, drinking water providers for all three communities worked to ensure the water was safe. Since then, the Air Force has paid $41 million for three new water treatment plants to bring the level of chemicals down to nondetectable levels.
Researchers will take one-time blood and urine samples to help determine how the chemicals may have affected residents’ kidneys, liver and sex hormones, among other bodily functions. It will not examine whether the chemicals cause cancer.
The urine samples will likely be more indicative of forever-chemicals residents have recently been exposed to, Starling said…
The tests and residential histories should allow researchers to estimate the cumulative lifetime exposure residents have had to the chemicals, according to a news release.
The work will also examine the neurobehavioral effect of the chemicals in children because some smaller studies have suggested that exposure to the forever chemicals early in life may affect children’s development and response to vaccines, but the connection is not yet well established, she said.
The researchers plan to have children complete puzzles and problem-solving tasks, similar to activities they might do in school, as part of the study, she said…
The neurobehavioral tests will not diagnose problems in individual children, she said.
The upcoming study expects to build on a recent study of 220 residents in the Fountain Valley that found the median level of a chemical specific to firefighting foam in residents was 10 times higher than the national median. Some residents had levels of the chemical that were much higher, said Colorado School of Mines Professor Christopher Higgins, a lead researcher on the study…
Scientists don’t know whether the chemical specific to the foam is more or less dangerous than other forever chemicals, Starling said.
The levels of chemicals in residents seem to be dropping and that may be good if some of the health effects are reversible. But some people may still be experiencing long-term health effects…
Study participants will receive individual test results that could be shared with their doctor. The test results may not indicate a problem, but more and more doctors are becoming aware of the potential health effects of forever-chemical exposure, Starling said.
In the long-term, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Academies of Science could use results from this study to help set enforceable limits on water contamination. No federal maximum limits on forever chemical contamination of drinking water exist, she said.
Recruitment for the study is expected to start later this month and researchers have set up an office in Fountain to meet with residents. Data collection could take 12 to 18 months. The entire study could be completed in 2024, although researchers should have results to share before that, Starling said.
Monument is planning to install a new water treatment system in the coming months that will remove radium from one of its wells allowing it to start serving the town again.
The town expects to spend about $1.5 million on the new water treatment system, an associated building and lab space. The work will expand an existing facility at Second Street and Beacon Lite Road, said Tom Tharnish, Monument’s public works director.
Extended exposure to radium, a naturally occurring element and common along the Front Range, can cause cancer and other health problems over time, according to the Environmental Protection Agency…
The problem was discovered in the city’s 9th well about four years ago and no unsafe levels of radium ever reached residents’ taps. Monument’s engineers designed a system that diluted the radium to safe levels, but that proved to be only a temporary fix. The well was shut down late last year while the town worked on a more permanent solution, Tharnish said.
The new filtration system will employ a resin that will filter out the radium at the end of the water treatment process, he said…
The new technology will also come with ongoing maintenance costs. The resin will need to be replaced every year to 18 months and will require between $18,000 to $20,000, Tharnish said…
Monument’s board of trustees approved drilling a 10th well in November to help offset the loss of water from the well that had to be shut off because of radium pollution. The work was expected to cost $624,975. The new well is expected to be in production next week, Tharnish said.
The community is also seeking additional water rights, so that it doesn’t need to rely as heavily on its groundwater, Wilson said.
As North America enters its peak summer growing season, gardeners are planting and weeding, and groundskeepers are mowing parks and playing fields. Many are using the popular weed killer Roundup, which is widely available at stores like Home Depot and Target.
In the 1990s Monsanto began packaging glyphosate with crops that were genetically modified to be resistant to it, including corn, soybeans, cotton and canola. Farmers who used these “Roundup Ready” seeds could apply a single herbicide to manage weeds during the growing season, saving time and simplifying production decisions. Roundup became the highest-selling and most profitable herbicide ever to appear on the global market.
China still dominates the pesticide industry – it exported 46% of all herbicides worldwide in 2018 – but now other countries are getting into the business, including Malaysia and India. Pesticides used to flow from Europe and North America to developing nations, but now developing countries export many pesticides to wealthy nations. More pesticide factories in more places leads to oversupply and even lower prices, with critical implications for human health and the environment.
The question of whether glyphosate causes cancer in humans has been hotly debated. In 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organization, classified it as a probable human carcinogen based on “limited” evidence of cancer in humans from actual real-world exposures and “sufficient” evidence of cancer in experimental animals.
There also are questions about possible linkages between glyphosate and other human health problems. A 2019 study found that children whose mothers experienced prenatal exposure to glyphosate had a significantly higher risk of autism spectrum disorder than a control population.
However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the European Food Safety Authority maintain that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer in humans and does not threaten human health when used according to the manufacturer’s directions.
A challenge for regulators
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the world community adopted several groundbreaking agreements to restrict or monitor sales and use of hazardous pesticides. These agreements – the Stockholm and Rotterdam conventions – target compounds that are either acutely toxic or persist in the environment and accumulate in animals, including humans. Glyphosate does not appear to meet these criteria, but humans may be more exposed to it because of its ubiquity in soil and water and on food.
Today a handful of countries, including Luxembourg and Mexico, have banned or restricted the use of glyphosate, citing health concerns. In most countries, however, it remains legal with few restrictions.
Scientists are unlikely to reach consensus soon about glyphosate’s health and environmental impacts. But that has also been true of other pesticides.
For example, DDT – which is still used in developing countries to control mosquitoes that spread malaria and other diseases – was banned in the U.S. in 1972 for its effects on wildlife and potential harm to humans. But it was not thought to cause cancer in humans until 2015, when scientists analyzed data from women whose mothers were exposed to DDT while pregnant in the 1960s, and found that these women were more than four times as likely to develop breast cancer than others who were not exposed. This study was published 65 years after the first congressional testimony on DDT’s human health impacts.
Science can take a long time to reach conclusive results. Given how widely glyphosate is used now, we expect that if it is definitively found to harm human health, its effects will be widespread, difficult to isolate and extremely challenging to regulate.
In our view, growing concerns about glyphosate’s effectiveness and possible health impacts should accelerate research into alternative solutions to chemical weed control. Without more public support for these efforts, farmers will turn to more toxic herbicides. Glyphosate looks cheap now, but its true costs could turn out to be much higher.
This article has been updated to remove a reference to glyphosate detection in breast milk, which was based on a study that was not peer-reviewed.
The Arkansas Valley Conduit promises to bring clean drinking water to more residents of southeast Colorado
n the 1940s, the Arkansas River was dammed south of town to build [John Martin Reservoir], a place locals call the Sapphire on the Plains. The reservoir was tied up in a 40-year battle until Colorado and Kansas came to an agreement, in 2019, to provide an additional water source to help keep the levels high enough for recreation and to support fish.
Forty years may seem like a long time to develop a plan to save fish and improve water levels for a reservoir, but southeastern Colorado is used to long fights when it comes to water…
For nearly a century, leaders in southeastern Colorado have worked on plans to bring clean drinking water to the area through the proposed Arkansas Valley Conduit, but progress on the pipeline project stalled after a major push in the 1960s. Pollution, water transfers and years of worsening drought amid a warming climate continue to build stress for water systems in the area. Adding to that, the area continues to see population decline combined with a struggling economy.
The water needed for the conduit will be sourced from melting snowpack in the Mosquito and Sawatch mountain ranges [ed. and Colorado River Basin]. Under the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project Act, passed in the early 1960s, the water has been allocated for usage in the Lower Arkansas Valley. The water will be stored at Pueblo Reservoir and travel through existing infrastructure to east Pueblo near the airport. From there, the conduit will tie into nearly 230 miles of pipeline to feed water to 40 communities in need.
Renewed plans to build a pipeline to deliver clean drinking water to the Lower Arkansas Valley are bringing hope for many people in southeastern Colorado. But in an area that is inextricably linked to its water, the future can seem unclear…
“Deliver on that promise”
“It was nearly 100 years ago, in the 1930s, that the residents of southeast Colorado recognized that the water quality in the lower valley of the Arkansas River was quite poor,” said Bill Long, president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and a former Bent County commissioner.
Water systems in the district, which includes Pueblo, Crowley, Bent, Prowers, Kiowa and Otero counties, have two main issues affecting drinking water.
The first is that a majority of those systems rely on alluvial groundwater, which can have a high level of dissolved solids. This can include selenium, sulfate, manganese and uranium, which are linked to human health concerns.
Second, the remaining systems in the water district rely on the Dakota-Cheyenne bedrock aquifer that can be affected by naturally occurring radionuclides. Radium and other radionuclides in the underlying geologic rock formation can dissolve into the water table and then be present in drinking water wells, also carrying health risks.
In 1962, residents in southeastern Colorado thought President John F. Kennedy was delivering a solution to their drinking water problem during a ceremony in Pueblo. Congress had passed the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project Act, and Kennedy came to Pueblo to authorize the construction of a pipeline to deliver clean drinking water…
Residents of the 1930s began working on ideas to deliver clean drinking water to southeastern Colorado. By the 1950s, they were selling gold frying pans to raise money to send backers to Washington, D.C., to encourage Congress to pass the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project Act. But it wasn’t until 1962 that the pipeline authorization became a reality.
Fast forward 58 years, and two more politicians came to Pueblo to address a crowd about the same pipeline project. This time, on Oct. 3, 2020, it was at the base of Pueblo Dam. Because of funding shortfalls, the Arkansas Valley Conduit was never built after it was authorized in 1962.
The Colorado communities could not afford to cover 100% of the costs, as initially required, so in 2009, the act was amended to include a 65% federal share and a 35% local cost share. Additionally, in 2020, Congress appropriated $28 million more toward the project, according to the water conservancy district.
That October day, Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner took turns talking about the importance of the project. They told a small crowd that when the pipeline is built, it will provide clean drinking water to 50,000 residents in southeastern Colorado…
The water conservancy district estimates the pipeline project’s cost will range from $546 million to $610 million…
Physical construction of the pipeline won’t start until 2022, according to the water district…
“The solution to pollution Is dilution”
A hand-painted sign with stenciled letters welcomes travelers on Highway 96 into Olney Springs. The highway cuts across four blocks that make up the width of the small town with around 340 residents.
Olney Springs is one of six water systems in Crowley County that plans to have a delivery point, known as a spur, on the Arkansas Valley Conduit. The plans for the pipeline call for two spurs in Pueblo County, three in both Bent and Prowers counties, and one in Kiowa County. Out of the 40 total participants, the remaining 25 are in Otero County…
Located along the Arkansas River about 70 miles east of Pueblo, La Junta is the largest municipality in Otero County. With its population around 7,000 and a Walmart Supercenter, a Holiday Inn Express and Sonic Drive-In, La Junta can feel like a metropolis when compared to Olney Springs.
La Junta is one of two Arkansas Valley Conduit participants, along with Las Animas, that uses reverse osmosis to remove potentially harmful and naturally occurring toxins from the water. Reverse osmosis is a process that uses pressure to push water through a membrane to remove contaminants. According to the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation’s Arkansas Valley Conduit Environmental Impact Statement, reverse osmosis can treat source water to meet standards, but the brine from the process “is an environmental concern, and operation costs are high.”
The other participants use conventional methods to treat water. The environmental impact statement said those methods can be as simple as adding chlorine for disinfection and filtration or adding chemicals to remove suspended solids, but that those treatments “…cannot remove salt or radionuclides from water.”
Tom Seaba, director of water and wastewater for La Junta, said out of a total of 24 water districts in Otero County, 19 were in violation with the state due to elevated levels of radionuclide.
Four of the 19 came into compliance with the state’s drinking water standards after La Junta brought them onto its water system. The remaining 15 are still in violation with the state, according to Seaba.
La Junta spent $18.5 million to build a wastewater treatment plant that came online in 2019 to help meet water standards for its community. But the city’s water treatment came with its own issue: selenium.
After La Junta treats its water using reverse osmosis, the water system is left with a concentrate, which is safe drinking water. However, it’s also left with a waste stream high in selenium. “That wastewater has to go somewhere,” Seaba said. It goes to the city’s new wastewater treatment plant…
According to the environmental impact statement, “La Junta’s wastewater discharge makes up about 1.5% of average annual flow in the Arkansas River.” The study goes on to say that during drought or low-flow events, the wastewater discharge can contribute up to half of the streamflow downstream from the gage.
Seaba is looking to the Arkansas Valley Conduit as a possible answer. “The solution to pollution is dilution,” he said. The water from the pipeline will not have a selenium problem, Seaba explained. By blending water from the conduit with the selenium waste from reverse osmosis, La Junta hopes to reduce costs and stay compliant with Environmental Protection Agency standards to discharge into the river.
The environmental review studied a section of the Arkansas River from where Fountain Creek runs into the river east to the Kansas border. The study found that a section of the river was impaired by selenium…
“I sure don’t drink it”
The EPA sets a maximum contaminant level in drinking water at 5 picocuries per liter of air for combined radium and 30 micrograms per liter for combined uranium. If contaminant levels are above those numbers, the water system is in violation of drinking water regulations, which the state enforces.
According to data provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Patterson Valley Water Company in Otero County, one of the 40 pipeline participants, had the highest result of 31 picocuries per liter for combined radium in 2020. In that same county, Rocky Ford, another pipeline participant, had a high result of 0.2 picocuries per liter for combined radium. According to the state health department, Rocky Ford’s combined radium sample numbers were last recorded in 2013.
Manzanola, also in Otero County and a pipeline participant, topped the list with the highest result of 42 micrograms per liter for combined uranium in 2020. In contrast, 19 other pipeline participants, from across the valley, had results of 0 micrograms per liter for combined uranium, according to the most recent numbers from the state health department.
Levels of the two carcinogens are sporadic throughout the valley. The average of the highest results of all 40 participants in the pipeline for combined radium is roughly 8 picocuries per liter and combined uranium is roughly 5 micrograms per liter. According to Seaba, averaging the members’ highest results might seem unfair to some individual water systems because it brings their numbers up, but what those averages do show is that water in Pueblo Reservoir, which will feed the future conduit, is approximately three times less affected by combined radium and combined uranium than the average of current water used by pipeline participants. In 2020, the highest result of combined radium in the Pueblo Reservoir was 2.52 picocuries per liter, and the highest result of combined uranium was 1.7 micrograms per liter…
“I sure don’t drink it,” said Manny Rodriquez. “I don’t think anybody in town drinks the water.”
Rodriquez, who grew up in and still lives in Rocky Ford, was not sure if the water at his apartment was in violation of the state’s clean drinking water act or not. State data showed at that time his water was not in violation. Colorado is required to notify residents if their water system is in violation of the clean drinking water act…
MaryAnn Nason, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, used an example to show how violations can add up: “If a public water system has two entry points that fail for both combined radium and gross alpha (measures of radionuclides), and they have those same violations for 10 years each quarter, that is going to appear as 160 violations on the website. But really, it is one naturally occurring situation that exists for a relatively long time,” Nason said.
For some residents like Ruby Lucero, 83, it makes little difference to her if her water is in violation with the state or not. She plans to buy her drinking water no matter what the results say about her tap water…
“The struggling farmer”
In the past decade, Otero County has seen a 2.9% drop in population. Residents have a ballpark difference of $38,000 in the median household income compared to the rest of the state, and the county is not alone. All six counties that are part of current plans for the Arkansas Valley Conduit are seeing economic hard times.
Adding to those factors is drought. Years of drought keep hitting the area’s No. 1 industry: agriculture.
The Rocky Ford Ditch’s water rights date back to 1874, making them some of the most senior water rights in the Arkansas River system. In the early 1980s, Aurora was able to buy a majority of those water rights. Over time, Aurora acquired more shares and has converted them to municipal use…
“We still have a heavy lift before us”
Planned off the main trunk of the Arkansas Valley Conduit, a pump station near Wiley will push water along a spur to support Eads in Kiowa County. Water that ends up in Eads will have traveled the longest distance of the pipeline project. The majority of the pipeline will be gravity-fed, but this section will need to be pumped uphill.
The journey is a good representation of Eads’ battle with water. Not only is clean drinking water needed, but the area is also desperate for relief from years of drought exacerbated by climate change…
Long said that Eads is different from a majority of the other participants in the project because it is not located along the Arkansas River…
The domestic water that will be delivered via the conduit is even more important for a town like Eads, said Long. “It’s very difficult to attract new industry when you have a limited supply of very poor water.”
Long believes the conduit will make a huge difference to support communities in the Lower Arkansas River Valley…
Long has been working on the Arkansas Valley Conduit project for nearly 18 years.
“After such a long fight, to finally be where we are feels good, but honestly I can say it doesn’t feel as good as I thought it would. Only because I know we have so much work still to do, and I know how difficult the past 18 years have been,” Long said. “We still have a heavy lift before us.”
FromThe Santa Fe New Mexican (Scott Wyland) via The Taos News:
U.S. regulators aim to repeal a contentious Trump-era rule that stirred fierce opposition from conservationists and many New Mexico leaders because it removed most of the state’s water from federal protection.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s head said the agency and the Army Corps of Engineers had determined the rule was causing substantial harm to water bodies and pointed to New Mexico and Arizona as among the states most affected.
The current rule, which has spurred a string of lawsuits, only protects waterways that flow year-round or seasonally and connect to another body of water.
It excludes as “ephemeral” storm-generated streams as well as tributaries that don’t flow continuously to another water body – disqualifying most of New Mexico’s waters. Unregulated storm runoff can carry contaminants into rivers used for drinking water, conservationists say.
Water advocates see the announced change as an encouraging move, but warned it will take time to repeal and replace the rule…
After the EPA states its intention to scrap “the dirty water rule” in the Federal Register, a 30-day public comment period will follow and then the agency can work to repeal it, said Rachel Conn, projects director for Taos-based Amigos Bravos.
Establishing a new rule will take considerably more time, Conn said, but in the meantime it’s crucial to get rid of a standard that is leaving most of New Mexico’s waters unprotected…
Conn and other critics of the current rule have worried it would nix the EPA’s oversight of heavily polluted runoff from Los Alamos County into the Río Grande – a prime source of drinking water – and that it might disqualify the Gila River from protection because that waterway runs dry before reaching the Colorado River.
“After reviewing the Navigable Waters Protection Rule as directed by President Biden, the EPA and Department of the Army have determined that this rule is leading to significant environmental degradation,” EPA administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.
The lack of protections is especially significant in arid states such as New Mexico and Arizona, where nearly every one of over 1,500 streams has been found to be outside federal jurisdiction, the EPA said in a news release.
Regan said the agency is committed to creating a “durable definition” of U.S. waters based on Supreme Court precedents, learning from past regulations and getting input from a variety of interested parties. The agency also will consider the impacts of climate change, he said…
New Mexico is one of just three states that has no authority from the EPA to regulate discharges of pollution into rivers, streams and lakes under the Clean Water Act, which leaves it at the mercy of whomever is in the White House, Conn said…
If the rule is repealed, the regulations will revert to more stringent ones enacted in 1987, said Charles de Saillan, staff attorney for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center…
Congress should intervene and create well-defined and permanent updates to the Clean Water Act to stop the political seesawing that happens every change of administration, de Saillan said.
Congressional action would be much better than having the U.S. Supreme Court make rulings on it, de Saillan said. The last high court decision on which waters merited federal protection was ambiguous, causing more confusion and legal battles, he said.
Members of the Water Quality Control Commission said they were shocked by the blowback to a proposed change that would have made it easier for industry, utilities to send more pollution downstream.
The state Water Quality Control Commission has delayed for at least a decade a controversial proposal that would have allowed further degradation of Colorado waters already challenged by pollution
In a scheduled review of the state’s “antidegradation” provision — a key to the federal Clean Water Act — some on the commission had sought to broaden chances for industries to discharge more pollutants into streams already considered heavily impacted by historic degradation. The rule currently in place says polluters must make a compelling argument that worsening the conditions of a stretch of river is unavoidable in creating economic growth for a community.
Colorado waters are divided into three categories: “outstanding” waters, where no degradation can be permitted; “reviewable,” meaning degradation is only allowed if there is no other way for the economic activity to move forward; and “use protected,” where industrial or city dischargers can degrade existing water quality in heavily impacted streams in order to maintain or expand their operations.
Conservation groups and multiple local and state officials argued last week that the commission’s proposed change would have allowed many more Colorado streams to fall under “use protected,” even when the entity seeking higher pollution permits was the one responsible for historic pollution.
Heavy industrial users, such as Metro Wastewater Reclamation, which treats all metro area sewage, could have used the opening to say they didn’t need to further clean up their discharge.
Citing the intense blowback against the proposed change by dozens of conservation and community groups testifying earlier in the week, the commission late Friday said current protections would stay in place until at least 2031.
“The decision comes after extensive stakeholder engagement with the EPA, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, environmentalists and regulated entities, and it maintains the regulations as they are for the time being,” the state Water Quality Control Division said in a statement…
Opponents of the change said it would open the door for existing permitted polluters such as Molson Coors, Suncor and Metro Wastewater to discharge more pollutants if they could show the water was already degraded beyond a chance for improvement. The industries could have asked for the leeway even if they were the ones whose waste had previously damaged streams, such as on the South Platte River through Adams County. In that stretch of river, discharge from Metro Wastewater’s treatment facility makes up most of the stream volume for much of the year.
Groups testifying against the change ranged from Adams County commissioners to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, to Trout Unlimited and Green Latinos. Industrial dischargers, meanwhile, had argued in submitted filings that their use of waters supported important economic interests for communities, and that some heavily used Colorado streams simply won’t support more aquatic life than they already do…
Conservation groups did not get the relief on Friday that they’d sought since a 2020 commission decision declining to upgrade protections for urban stretches of the South Platte River and Clear Creek, which flows past the Molson Coors plant. They said they will continue to seek ways to tighten down on pollution discharges into those waters and give them a chance to recover further.
Responding to concerns from residents about the taste and smell of the town’s water, Johnstown officials have announced the planned installation of three new systems to help mitigate the issues.
The town is installing the three systems at the end of June with the goal to improve the water service, according to a June 14 news release. Residents can look forward to a new Granular Activated Carbon feeder system, a Powdered Activated Carbon filtration system and an ultrasonic buoy.
Residents of Johnstown should see difference in their water with the new installations, according to the release.
The GAC system, installed at the town’s water treatment plant, removes contaminant and controls taste and odor. The PAC system, located at Lone Tree Reservoir, will filter out organic components, which can contribute to taste and odor problems.
The last portion of the new systems is the ultrasonic buoy that will reside in the Johnstown reservoir. This system prevents algae’s growth in the surface of the reservoir, and reduces algae from impacting the water’s odor and taste.
This isn’t the first strive towards better-tasting water in Johnstown. At the beginning of this year, new water and sewer rates and fee schedule were created to provide better water service to residents.
Two oil stains within eight days at Sand Creek near the Sankoa Energy Refinery have caused state health officials to worry that the 20-year-old underground clay wall containing toxic chemicals isn’t working. ing.
More than a year ago, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment ordered Sanko to replace a wall that stretched about 2,000 feet below about 30 feet parallel to Commerce City’s creek, records show. That mission came after a similar oil slick, And Suncor is set to begin designing wall modifications at the end of July.
“The refinery is in the final stages of planning to improve the boundary barrier system and is working with CDPHE on these plans. Work is expected to be completed in 2021 and will be more effective along Sand Creek. A barrier system will be built, “said Suncor spokeswoman Mita Adesanya in an email.
This is a sensitive moment for Suncor.Colorado officials Review Company application to update Outdated business license. Due to equipment failures and other failures at the refinery, 15 accidents occurred between March 27 and April 22 this year, and more than 100 failures occurred at the refinery in the last five years. , Air pollution has exceeded the permissible range. Since 2011, Colorado has settled at least 10 proceedings against Suncor.
A Sanko official said in an email on Friday that he was investigating the cause of the recent oil slick. On May 22 and May 31, Sand Creek’s public bike paths and green roads popular for fishing Occurred along.
Sanko and state officials do not expect permanent effects on creeks and wildlife, but “trends in groundwater data indicate that walls are less effective.” Was sent by director Jennifer Opira, according to a June 2 email received by The Denver Post, to local government officials in CDPHE’s Hazardous and Waste Management Department.
The cause of the May 22 spill has not been identified, Opila said in an email, but said it could have been due to a “May 20 power outage.” The refinery side of the wall, she said.
“It’s likely that groundwater levels have risen during this closure,” she wrote, and petrochemicals “flowed on and through walls,” she wrote. An emergency generator was installed to pump contaminated groundwater from the refinery side of the wall.
On May 31, a fuel leak at the refinery flowed down the road into an outdoor basin and then reached a stream, according to state officials. Suncor deployed three orange booms and vacuum trucks to clean them.
Along the green road on Thursday, fisherman Mike Medina threw a fishing line for carp in a Burlington irrigation ditch near the spill site…
According to state records, benzene levels at the time of the spill were as high as 3,900 ppb in refinery groundwater. This is more than the federal drinking water standard of 5 ppb. Colorado’s current water quality standards have been relaxed in industrial areas, allowing up to 5,300 ppb of benzene in Sand Creek.
Benzene levels found in pipes discharged to Sand Creek first soared beyond Sanko’s permit limits in the first week of June, but soon disappeared, according to state officials.
Clean water advocates say a state commission is preparing to double down on a bad decision last year that failed to protect Clear Creek and the South Platte, and that a broader ruling may endanger more pristine streams.
year ago, the state’s water quality commissioners overruled not only their staff but other state agencies like Colorado Parks and Wildlife, along with a broad and very angry coalition of conservation groups.
Now, according to the conservation groups, the commission is about to do the same thing again. Only this time, the river advocates say, their proposals threaten every river in the state, weakening a bedrock 33-year-old rule the state uses to implement the federal Clean Water Act.
Colorado industries and city wastewater plants could legally dump more pollution into state rivers if water quality commissioners endorse this year’s plan while also sticking with last year’s changes, conservation groups say.
They argue the actions would mean the potential reversal of intensive efforts to clean city waters flowing past low-income areas already heavily impacted by economic and environmental problems.
They claim it opens the way for water dischargers like Metro Wastewater, Molson Coors and others to seek permits for discharges that would further degrade waters they themselves have already tainted.
“It’s just going to roll the clock backwards on pollution,” said Mely Whiting, legal counsel for the Colorado chapter of Trout Unlimited.
Last year, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife division argued to upgrade protection of the South Platte and Clear Creek by saying there is “no evidence that pollution is irreversible,” according to supporting statements filed at the state. The Water Quality Control Commission in June rejected stronger protections for those urbanized stretches of water, including Clear Creek, which flows out of Golden and past the Molson Coors plant on its way to the South Platte.
“I’ve always felt that a strong anti-degradation policy is very important in Colorado,” Water Quality Control Commission Paul Frohardt said during last year’s hearing about the South Platte and Clear Creek. “But I also believe that that policy makes sense and will have broad public support when it’s focused on truly high quality waters.”
Now the commission is taking on a scheduled five-year review of the anti-degradation rule applying statewide. Conservationists fear the commission is leaning toward loosening the strictest level of water quality review for all streams.
The “anti-degradation” rule currently in place says polluters seeking a new or renewed water quality permit must make a compelling argument that worsening the conditions of a stretch of river is an unavoidable part of an important economic development or civic improvement.
They must offer this proof even if the given stretch of water is already better than EPA water quality minimums. The state has until now effectively raised the floor of quality as a stream improves, and says those waters can’t be “degraded” below the new floor.
The Water Quality Control Commission has proposed new rules critics say would weaken that long-standing practice, by allowing dischargers to degrade the overall quality of a stream if even one regulated contaminant in the stream is already high.
Fierce opposition by conservationists
Big water dischargers who opposed the upgrade of urban river protections in written statements last year include Metro Wastewater, whose treated discharge makes up most of the water in the South Platte through Commerce City, and heavy industrial water users like Coors, according to state documents.
Metro Wastewater declined to comment. Molson Coors spokesman Marty Malone said in an emailed statement, “We have an established track record of leading water protection initiatives in our industry. We do not support degradation of water quality.”
Now that commissioners are pushing for a statewide weakening of the anti-degradation rule at their June 14 meeting, environmental advocates from Audubon to Trout Unlimited to Conservation Colorado are combining to mount fierce opposition.
Decades of intense and expensive cleanup efforts on urban streams like the South Platte, including by Metro Wastewater, have improved water quality and given the river a chance at more fish, wildlife and recreation, the coalition says. The state’s job is to keep pushing for even cleaner water, Whiting said, not to clear the way for backsliding…
At last year’s hearing, commission chairman Frohardt mentioned concerns of Metro Wastewater and others that they shouldn’t be responsible for further cleaning up river sections like the urban South Platte, because the waters are unlikely to ever support a major improvement in fish and wildlife beyond what they’ve recently achieved…
State officials said Thursday they are writing alternate versions of the change that they hope will satisfy concerns of the conservation groups. The commissioners will hear the various proposals and arguments about them in their June 14 meeting…
State officials have struggled, though, to explain why the regulations need to be changed. Clarifying the rules, Oeth said, will help establish how Colorado rivers got to their current water condition, and “to provide more clear direction to the commission about how to apply that past when they’re considering the specific example of segments in the future.”
The conservation alliance said the draft alternatives are also unacceptable unless they come with much stronger language guaranteeing the state will include economic justice concerns, and the voices of impacted neighborhoods, when considering controversial water discharge permits.
Clear Creek, Standley Lake watersheds including the Standley Lake Canal Zone via the Clear Creek Watershed Foundation.
The South Platte River Basin is shaded in yellow. Source: Tom Cech, One World One Water Center, Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:
Join us June 11 or 12 along Cottonwood Creek for the inaugural Urban Water Cycle Bike Tour in Colorado Springs!
Join us for a fun, free regional bike tour along Cottonwood Creek in Colorado Springs. This tour will connect community members to local water and recreation resources through an approximately 9-mile (mostly downhill) ride.
Both tour days start at Frank Costello Park, with a short ride to Cowpoke Flood Detention and Development. You will then ride downhill all the way to a creek restoration site on Monument Creek. With a short ride back uphill, you will end at Crit Cafe for our final speakers, networking and refreshments on your own.
Tour topics include:
What are the Cottonwood Creek, Fountain Creek, and Arkansas River watersheds?
Why water quality is important? What is stormwater? What is point source and nonpoint source pollution?
How is Colorado Springs conserving water and planning for its future water supply?
How are community partners connecting neighborhoods to trails and creeks?
How can maintaining pipes allow us to restore creeks?
How do we ensure our water is clean and safe?
How can you protect stream health?
We thank our supporters at Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, Colorado Springs Utilities, El Pomar Foundation, and Fountain Creek Watershed District. In addition, our partners at the Trails and Open Space Coalition and the City of Colorado Springs Stormwater Enterprise (SWENT) and Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Services made this tour possible. We look forward to a fun and educational day along Cottonwood Creek!
Here’s the release from the USGS (Sarah Stackpoole):
A new USGS study of pesticides in U.S. rivers and streams reports that, on average, 17 pesticides were detected at least once at the 74 river and stream sites sampled 12 to 24 times per year during 2013–2017. Herbicides were detected much more frequently than insecticides and fungicides.
The number of pesticides detected at a site over the study mirrored the intensity of pesticide use in the region where the site was located. Pesticide use intensity was greatest in the Midwest (49 kg/km2), where 25 pesticides were detected, on average, at each site. Herbicides were heavily used in agricultural settings and were consistently detected in surface waters at concentrations >100 ng/L (nanograms per liter). In contrast, insecticides had lower agricultural-use intensities and surface-water detection frequencies at concentrations >100 ng/L were rare.
An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chronic aquatic-life benchmark—estimates of the concentrations below which pesticides are not expected to represent a risk to aquatic life—was exceeded at least once at more than half of the stream sites in every region—Midwest, South, Northeast, West, and Pacific. Such exceedances indicate the potential for harmful effects to aquatic life such as fish, algae, and invertebrates like aquatic insects. However, an EPA human-health benchmark was exceeded only four times (1.1% of samples).
Of the 221 pesticides measured, just 17 were responsible for the aquatic-life benchmark exceedances. Many of these 17 were herbicides, which frequently occurred at relatively high concentrations that exceeded benchmarks for fish, invertebrates, and plants. Others were insecticides, which occurred at lower concentrations, but which are much more toxic to aquatic invertebrates than herbicides.
Here’s the abstract from the study (Sarah M.Stackpoole, Megan E.Shodab, Laura Medalie, Wesley W.Stone):
Pesticides pose a threat to the environment, but because of the substantial number of compounds, a comprehensive assessment of pesticides and an evaluation of the risk that they pose to human and aquatic life is challenging. In this study, improved analytical methods were used to quantify 221 pesticide concentrations in surface waters over the time period from 2013 to 2017. Samples were collected from 74 river sites in the conterminous US (CONUS). Potential toxicity was assessed by comparing surface water pesticide concentrations to standard concentrations that are considered to have adverse effects on human health or aquatic organisms. The majority of pesticide use is related to agriculture, and agricultural production varies across the CONUS. Therefore, our results were summarized by region (Northeast, South, Midwest, West and Pacific), with the expectation that crop production differences would drive variability in pesticide use, detection frequency, and benchmark exceedance patterns. Although agricultural pesticide use was at least 2.5 times higher in the Midwest (49 kg km−2) than in any of the other four regions (Northeast, South, West, and Pacific, 3 to 21 kg km−2) and the average number of pesticides detected in the Midwest was at least 1.5 higher (n = 25) than the other four regions (n = 8 to n = 16), the potential toxicity results were more evenly distributed. At least 50% of the sites within each of the 5 regions had at least 1 chronic benchmark exceedance. Imidacloprid posed the greatest potential threat to aquatic life with a total of 245 benchmark exceedances at 60 of the 74 sites. These results show that pesticides persist in the environment beyond the site of application and expected period of use. Continued monitoring and research are needed to improve our understanding of pesticide effects on aquatic and human life.
Liz Roberts is digging into snow-soaked dirt just above the banks of Grizzly Creek in western Colorado. With bare fingers she sifts through the dark soil, looking for life amid the ruins of last summer’s devastating Grizzly Creek fire.
When she finds tiny dormant roots, she smiles and exposes more soil to show visitors that this ground, just two or three inches down, is filled with plant matter that will grow and bloom in the summer when the snow melts.
But farther along this same trail, in the White River National Forest just east of Glenwood Springs, there is thick ash beneath the snow, and few dormant roots. This means the soil was so injured by the fire, which burned for more than four months, that it has become disconnected from the mountainside, and the ash lying unrooted above it will be carried into the creek this spring as the water melts.
In unburned forests, the spring snowmelt is a glorious, annual event.
But not this year.
Roberts and other forest experts know that the spring runoff will carry an array of frightening heavy metals and ash-laden sediment generated in the burned soils, posing danger to the people of Glenwood Springs, who rely on Grizzly Creek and its neighbor just to the west, No Name Creek, for drinking water.
Raging wildfires…are easy to see. But what is rarely seen is the devastation to the natural mountain collection systems, where water starts as snow before melting in the spring and flowing down into creeks and eventually into water systems for towns and agricultural lands.
As soils burn, naturally occurring substances that would normally be locked in place are released.
“Sometimes we see lead, mercury, cadmium, possibly arsenic,” said Justin Anderson, Roberts’ colleague and a U.S. Forest Service hydrologist. “They can be dangerous, especially in high concentrations.”
Like other Western states, Colorado is in red alert mode this year, in part because these new megafires, triggered by drought and climate change, ravaged not just Glenwood Springs’ water system, but other major systems as well. Northern Water, for example, manages the Colorado Big-Thompson Project, which serves more than 1 million people and hundreds of farms on the northern Front Range and Eastern Plains. Burning at the same time as the Grizzly Creek fire, the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires rampaged through the project’s mountain collection system, affecting water supplies for Fort Collins, Greeley, Boulder, Broomfield and Loveland, among others.
Even as communities across the state keep their eyes on a 2021 fire season expected to be as bad as that of 2020, when the state saw the largest fires in its history explode, they are racing to create high-tech water treatment programs capable of filtering out the toxins now present in their once-pristine water, and replacing the pipes, intake flumes and grates damaged beyond repair last year.
Esther Vincent, Northern Water’s director of environmental services, expects the agency to spend more than $100 million over the next three to five years, restoring hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand County and along the Front Range in Boulder and Larimer counties. That is nearly triple the agency’s $40 million reserve fund.
Ravaged pipes, reservoirs
“Over half of our major watersheds were affected,” Vincent said. “In some of them 90 percent is burned. Because there is no option to bypass the runoff that is going to come into our system, it will enter our reservoirs and affect all of our infrastructure on the West Slope.”
Restoring forests is an undertaking that requires decades of work and whole new industries to execute effectively.
Mike Lester is Colorado State Forester. Thanks to Colorado’s rapid recovery from the Covid-19 budget crisis and federal relief funds expected later this year, his agency has more money than it’s ever had to help restore forests.
”We’re going to be pretty well supported this year,” Lester said. The state added $6 million this past year for restoration work and it is expecting another $8 million July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.
Colorado has some 24 million acres of forest, most of which is owned by the federal government, and to a lesser extent, private landowners. Roughly 10 percent of those acres are in need of immediate attention to protect towns and homes in the wildland urban interface, Lester said. Colorado’s wildland urban interface, also known as the WUI, has become increasingly populated, creating greater risk to lives and infrastructure and complicating forest management.
Repairing the forests, thinning trees so the fires don’t burn with such intensity, and stabilizing hundreds of thousands of scarred mountain slopes requires skilled personnel and methods for utilizing the downed timber.
“We’re way short of resources,” Lester said. “We don’t have a huge amount of logging and professional forestry in Colorado. There is only so much money you can spend well before you run into capacity issues.”
In the short-term communities are focused on doing what they can now to keep their water systems safe.
Matt Langhorst is Glenwood Springs’ director of public works. When the Grizzly Creek fire ignited last August, he could tell almost immediately that the flames were going to engulf the water system’s intake structures in the White River National Forest high above the town at the top of Grizzly and No Name creeks.
“The second I saw the smoke coming over the hill, I knew it was right around our two watersheds. I picked up the phone and called the fire department and said, ’We’re going to have a problem.’”
A massive loss
Nine months later, Langhorst and his crews have reworked the high mountain intake structures and they’ve finished a complete rebuild of the town’s small water treatment plant so that it can remove the pollutants expected to contaminate its once-clear waters, and filter out massive sediment loads that are already beginning to come down into the creeks as they enter the Colorado River just east of town along I-70.
“We are expecting it to change the water quality for three to seven years, but it could be longer than that,” Langhorst said. “It is a massive loss.”
And costly. Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes said the work needed to repair and rebuild its water system, and create a safe evacuation route if Glenwood Canyon is shut down again as it was last summer, will likely cost three times its annual operating budget of $19 million.
“It’s something we can’t afford,” Godes said. “But we can’t afford not to do it.”
In response, state agencies are rethinking how they provide emergency funds as natural disasters such as these megafires happen more frequently.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), last fall, was able to offer Glenwood Springs $8 million in a matter of days so that Langhorst and his crews could get into the high country to do critical construction work before winter snows arrived.
Kirk Russell oversees the CWCB’s loan funds. He said the agency was able to move quickly because it had seen the damage done and the loan delays that occurred after the state’s catastrophic floods of 2013. Back then, federal emergency funds took months to reach devastated Front Range communities and farm irrigation systems that were blown out by powerful flood waters.
“Fast forward to the wildfires that we saw last year and we foresaw there was going to be a need to respond quickly,” Russell said.
Now the agency has new emergency rules that provide for quick approvals on three-year, no-interest loans when water systems are harmed by wildfires.
“Do we need more money and more flexibility? Absolutely,” Russell said.
The state also needs a more cohesive response to managing and restoring forests and the water systems embedded in them. Key to that effort is a two-year-old initiative called the Colorado Forest and Water Alliance, an advocacy group that includes federal and state forest officials, water utilities, logging industries and environmental groups.
Ellen Roberts, a former state lawmaker from Durango, has helped spearhead the fledgling effort and is working on other local initiatives designed to work effectively across city and county boundaries, as well as private, public and federal lands.
Colorado’s lawmakers and the federal government have pledged more than $20 million this year to quickly jumpstart the work.
“I am very encouraged by that,” Roberts said. “A good chunk of the money will need to go to immediate post-fire work, but we need to shift gears soon to put the money in at the front end [to thin the over-grown forests]. Hopefully we will be seeing both with the money that has been set aside. This is not a one-and-done investment. It has to be viewed as being chapter one of a very, very long book.”
Water comes down
Back out in the White River National Forest, the annual snowmelt above Grizzly and No Name creeks has begun.
And Matt Langhorst is waiting, hoping that the residents of Glenwood Springs, who have enjoyed more than 115 years of clear mountain water, won’t notice any difference in how their water tastes.
He got hundreds of calls last August when the town was forced to shut off its fire-engulfed water system and use an emergency source temporarily.
Each call was roughly the same, he said.
“Everyone wanted to know, ‘What happened to my water?’”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) have released the initial results of exposure assessments conducted in communities near current or former military bases known to have had per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their drinking water.
Individuals who participated in the assessments provided blood and urine samples to CDC and ATSDR for analysis. The assessment focused on El Paso County near Peterson Air Force Base, in the Fountain Valley and Security-Widefield areas.
The assessments measured the levels of three specific PFAS chemicals in 346 residents’ bodies: PFOS, PFHxS, and PFOA, and found levels higher than in the general U.S. population, as measured by National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS and have PFAS in their blood…
While levels of PFOA and PFOS chemicals were only slightly higher than the general population, levels of PFHxS in El Paso County residents were higher than any other population surveyed, except the people who manufactured the chemicals in Alabama. “What we’ve been fighting for, for five years, is identifying how contaminated we are from the toxic firefighting foam, the PFHxS,” said Rosenbaum. “We are highly contaminated in El Paso County.”
The most recent results from the CDC and ATSDR were presented alongside results from the 2018 and 2019 PFAS Aware study conducted by the Colorado School of Public Health, and showed a slight decrease in PFAS levels overall. “[PFAS Aware] did a 200 person blood study and then a final 50,” said Rosenbaum. “I was in the 200 and the final 50, and my levels dropped from 19 [micrograms per liter, μg/L] to 12 [μg/L]. You can see just how high we are from 2019, and it’s dropping a little by 2020, because as we’re not drinking this water, it’s not bio-accumulating in our system. What’s been in our system is slowly filtering out as we go to the bathroom.”
A new study conducted by researchers from The University of New Mexico has found that wildfires — which have been increasing in frequency, severity and extent around the globe — are one of the largest drivers of aquatic impairment in the western United States, threatening our water supply.
The research, “Wildfires increasingly impact western U.S. fluvial networks,” was published recently in Nature Communications. Authors include former UNM graduate students Grady Ball (now at the U.S. Geological Service) and Justin Reale (now at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers); former postdoctoral researcher Peter Regier (now at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory); associate professor Ricardo González-Pinzón (Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering) and research assistant professor David Van Horn (Department of Biology).
The study found that about 6 percent of the length of all the streams and rivers in the western U.S. were directly affected by wildfire disturbances (defined by being located in burned areas) between 1984 and 2014, and that every year there are about 342 new kilometers of them directly affected. When the researchers accounted for the longitudinal propagation of water quality disturbances within and across watersheds, it was estimated that wildfires affect about 11 percent of the total stream and river length.
“More than 10 percent of the rivers in the western U.S. have been impacted by wildfires,” González-Pinzón said. “That’s a lot and puts wildfires as one of the top causes of water impairment in the country. It’s a big deal.”
The authors said that there have been few studies on the impact of wildfires on fluvial (river) networks, so this study is significant because it was the first large-scale analysis to utilize remote sensing of burn perimeter and severity, in-situ water quality monitoring, and longitudinal modeling to determine estimates of stream and river length impacted by wildfires at a continental scale.
“It is distressing to realize how little we know about the impacts of wildfires to rivers,” González-Pinzón said. “Especially because this is relevant to the daily life of those living in the western part of the country and particularly in New Mexico, a state that is currently and commonly experiencing up to 100 percent severe droughts.”
Although the direct impact of wildfires in places such as California has been widely reported, particularly in terms of lives and structures lost (the 2018 California wildfire season claimed 100 lives, damaged 24,000 structures and resulted in $2 billion in insurance claims, the study reports), the direct and extended impacts of wildfires have not been thoroughly quantified.
The study alerts that there is growing evidence that wildfires trigger cascading impacts in river networks. Although wildfires are not specifically mentioned on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Assessment, wildfire disturbances contribute to at least 10 of the top 20 most critical disturbances listed in the assessment, such as elevated sediments, nutrient enrichment, organic enrichment and oxygen depletion, elevated temperature, elevated metal concentrations, habitat alterations, elevated turbidity, flow alterations, elevated salinity and/or total dissolved solids, and changes to pH and conductivity. Since forested watersheds supply drinking water for around two-thirds of those living in the western U.S., the impact is massive, in terms of both economics and water security.
The authors point out that wildfires impact water flow and quality since they originate on hillslopes and cause decreased infiltration capacity and groundwater recharge, a severely reduced capacity for vegetation to grow on impacted land, and a higher frequency of landslides and avalanches. Also, dangerous substances including metals in levels that exceed the World Health Organization’s safe drinking water standards are found in surface water long after wildfires are extinguished.
Van Horn said one of the motivations for this study was witnessing the impacts of the 2011 Las Conchas wildfire, the second-largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history, resulting in rapid and massive flooding in the burned area and a measurable decrease in the water quality of the Rio Grande near the burned site of hundreds of kilometers downstream.
“We were fortunate in a sense to have the fire in our highly instrumented back yard, where we could study its impacts as it was happening,” he said.
There was a dramatic decrease in oxygen in the water, as well as the transportation of large quantities of ash and sediment that forced a two-month shutdown of the City of Albuquerque’s only surface water intake, which provides about 70 percent of the drinking water to the area.
“Wildfires are impacting fluvial networks in time and spatial scales that we don’t fully understand,” Van Horn said. “Thus, we need to investigate how long and how far they remain an issue in watersheds.”
“What we found was concerning, and there is a huge need for more research to be done,” González-Pinzón said.
In the near future, their team will focus on creating rapid response teams that can conduct research safely, on-demand, soon after wildfires are contained. That research will focus on answering how far downstream can wildfire disturbances propagate in fluvial networks and what are the main controlling factors. Due to climate change and current forest management practices that have allowed fuels to build up instead of naturally burning in smaller fires, wildfires are only predicted to become worse in the future.
“We can’t really engineer an easy solution to this because it occurs at the scale of continents, but we definitely need to improve how we can increase the resilience of aquatic ecosystems and alert people about the impacts of water quality degradation driven by wildfires to their day-to-day lives; that means that we need to acknowledge that wildfires will continue to happen and that we need to learn how to deal with them,” González-Pinzón said.
Funding for this study was provided by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Upper Rio Grande Water Operations Model.
Recently, the Middle Colorad Watershed Council was awarded a grant from the Colorado River District to help fund water quality testing related to the impacts of the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar. This $50,000 grant is matched by resources from the United States Geological Survey (USGS). The USGS will provide real-time data to downstream water users about the quality of water flowing down the Colorado River…
This grant ensured that four USGS Next Generation Water Observing System continuous water quality testing locations were installed or enhanced between the east end of Glenwood Canyon and the west end of De Beque canyon. The grant also covers discrete sampling at four sites between Grizzly Creek and South Canyon. Timing was critical for the organizations to capture baseline water quality data before spring runoff and any monsoon events began transporting material off the scar and into streams.
Continuous observing systems test water quality as it passes by, in-stream. According to USGS Supervisory Hydrologist Cory A. Williams, “concentrations of suspended sediment, nutrients, dissolved organic carbon and other naturally occurring constituents from a burned landscape can increase in downstream water bodies after wildfires.” The monitoring equipment measures water temperature, specific conductance, dissolved oxygen, pH and turbidity, and sends it to the USGS National Water Information System (NWIS) website…
According to Stepp, most of the towns along this section of the river rely on water directly from the Colorado River, though some have multiple sources. MCWC is eager to provide outreach to regional water managers, to make sure they have access to this new data in hopes it protects regional water infrastructure. Anyone can visit the USGS site and set up an NWIS water alert, which will send automated email or text messages when water quality measurements exceed a threshold for selected criteria at a specific location…
As of May 5, the USGS had not yet seen unusual data from spring runoff due to the burn scar. Again, Williams: “So far, recent rainfall has decreased water temperatures and specific conductance levels, and has increased turbidity levels, with minor changes to dissolved oxygen and pH. These changes follow the typical ranges and patterns we would expect at this time of year and do not appear to show a strong influence from the wildfire.”
FromThe Boulder Daily Camera (Katie Langford) via The Burlington Record:
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment designated a stretch of Boulder Creek from the mouth of Boulder Canyon through Boulder’s Eben G. Fine Park as impaired in December 2019, and that assessment has not changed…
The city is continuing its program to better understand sewer sheds and creek inflow, Owen said, though it continues to be a “very challenging problem” not only in Boulder, but across the state.
City officials cannot prevent people from entering the creek, but the city has installed signs cautioning people about entering the water, Owen said…
The state continues to monitor Boulder’s progress on reducing E. coli levels, Nason said, and will likely reevaluate water quality in 2023 and updating the creek’s impairment status in 2025.
Here’s the release from the Center for Biological Diversity (Melissa Hornbein, Taylor McKinnon, Grant Stevens, Brett Henderson, Natasha Léger, Jeremy Nichols):
Conservation groups filed a lawsuit [May 10, 2021] challenging the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service’s 2020 approval of a plan that allows fracking across 35,000 acres of Colorado’s Western Slope. The North Fork Mancos Master Development Plan allows 35 new fracking wells in the North Fork Valley and Thompson Divide areas of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests.
Today’s lawsuit says federal agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws by failing to fully assess the potential for water pollution and harm to the climate, and by refusing to analyze alternatives that would minimize or eliminate harm to the environment. The plan would result in about 52 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution, equivalent to the annual pollution from a dozen coal-fired power plants.
“The Trump administration charted a course to destroy public lands and our shared climate,” said Peter Hart, a staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “This master development plan is a 30-year commitment to the disastrous ‘energy dominance’ agenda which ignored significant impacts on the communities and spectacular values of the North Fork. We are determined to hold our federal government accountable to a more sustainable future for Colorado’s public lands, wildlife, people and climate.”
“Fossil fuel development and sustainable public lands don’t mix, especially in the roadless headwaters of the Upper North Fork Valley,” said Brett Henderson, executive director of Gunnison County-based High Country Conservation Advocates. “This project is incompatible with necessary climate change action, healthy wildlife habitat, and watershed health, and is at odds with the future of our communities.”
“We are in a megadrought in the North Fork Valley and the Western Slope. The water used to frack in the watershed risks precious water resources and only exacerbates the climate and the water crisis,” said Natasha Léger, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community. “This 35-well project is the beginning of much larger plans to extract a resource which should be left in the ground and for which the market is drying up.”
“This dangerous plan promises more runaway climate pollution in one of the fastest-warming regions in the United States,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re suing to force federal agencies to stop ignoring the climate emergency. Like the planet, the Colorado River Basin can’t survive a future of ever-expanding fossil fuel development.”
“It is past time for the federal government to meaningfully consider climate change in its oil and gas permitting decisions,” said Melissa Hornbein, attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “Gunnison and Delta Counties have already exceeded 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming; the project failed to meaningfully analyze impacts to climate, roadless areas, and the agriculture and ecotourism centered economies of the North Fork Valley. More drilling is projected to harm Delta County’s tax revenue, not help it. These communities need land management that serves the public interest.”
“This case is about confronting the Trump administration’s complete disregard of law, science and public lands,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “We can’t frack our way to a safe climate and we certainly can’t afford to keep letting the oil and gas industry run roughshod over Colorado’s irreplaceable and vital public lands.”
Colorado’s Western Slope is already suffering from severe warming. The Washington Post recently featured the area as the largest “climate hot spot” in the lower 48 states, where temperatures have already risen more than 2 degrees Celsius, reducing snowpack and drying Colorado River flows that support endangered fish, agriculture and 40 million downstream water users.
In January 574 conservation, Native American, religious and business groups sent the then president-elect a proposed executive order to ban new fossil fuel leasing and permitting on federal public lands and waters. In February the Biden administration issued an executive order pausing oil and gas leasing onshore and offshore pending a climate review of federal fossil fuel programs. In June the Interior Department will issue an interim report describing findings from a March online forum and public comments.
Fossil fuel production on public lands causes about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. Peer-reviewed science estimates that a nationwide fossil fuel leasing ban on federal lands and oceans would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year, ranking it among the most ambitious federal climate-policy proposals.
Oil, gas and coal extraction uses mines, well pads, gas lines, roads and other infrastructure that destroy habitat for wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Oil spills and other harms from offshore drilling have inflicted immense damage to ocean wildlife and coastal communities. Fracking and mining also pollute watersheds and waterways that provide drinking water to millions of people.
Federal fossil fuels that have not been leased to industry contain up to 450 billion tons of potential climate pollution; those already leased to industry contain up to 43 billion tons. Pollution from the world’s already producing oil and gas fields, if fully developed, would push global warming well past 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
The Western Environmental Law Center uses the power of the law to safeguard the wildlife, wildlands, and communities of the American West in the face of a changing climate. As a public interest law firm, WELC does not charge clients and partners for services, but relies instead on charitable gifts from individuals, families, and foundations to accomplish our mission.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Conservation groups are suing federal agencies to challenge their approval last year of a proposal by Gunnison Energy to drill 35 oil and gas wells across some 35,000 acres of the upper North Fork Valley.
The groups say the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service violated federal laws by failing to properly assess the climate impacts of the project or analyze alternatives that would have minimized environmental impacts.
The suit was brought by the Western Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, WildEarth Guardians, Citizens for a Healthy Community in Paonia and High Country Conservation Advocates in Crested Butte.
The project’s location is in Gunnison and Delta counties west of McClure Pass. Some 25,800 acres of the affected acreage is U.S. Forest Service land, 8,648 acres are private and 468 involve BLM land.
The company plans to drill wells down and then out horizontally into the Mancos shale formation from five well pads, three of them new. It has estimated the project could produce up to 700 billion cubic feet of gas over 30 years. That equates to about 2.5% of the gas consumed in the United States last year.
The project also would require about 21 million gallons of water to hydraulically fracture each well, the company has estimated. And conservation groups said in a news release that it would result in about 52 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution, which they said is the same as what a dozen coal-fired power plants emit in a year…
The suit says that in evaluating the project, the BLM and Forest Service failed take a hard look at methane emissions related to the project. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. The suit also says the agencies failed to use “tools or methods generally accepted in the scientific community to evaluate the impact” of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions, such as the social cost of carbon and global carbon budgeting.