Here’s an in-depth report from Emily Holden, Caty Enders, Niko Kommenda, and Vivian Ho that’s running in The Guardian. Click through and read the whole article and to check out the story map detailing the problem. Here’s an excerpt:
Millions of people in the US are drinking water that fails to meet federal health standards, including by violating limits for dangerous contaminants.
Latinos are disproportionately exposed, according to the Guardian’s review of more than 140,000 public water systems across the US and county-level demographic data.
Water systems in counties that are 25% or more Latino are violating drinking water contamination rules at twice the rate of those in the rest of the country.
America’s worst public water systems – those that have accrued more than 15 “violation points” for breaking standards over five years – serve more than 25m Americans, the research shows. An estimated 5.8m of these are Latino.
Texas, where millions of residents lost access to water and power during the recent storm, has the most high-violation systems, followed by California and Oklahoma. The average number of violations is highest in Oklahoma, West Virginia and New Mexico.
The six-month investigation of five years of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other data also shows how:
Access to clean drinking water is highly unequal in the US, based on race, income and geography
Poorer counties have more than twice as many violation points as wealthy ones
Some water systems report hundreds of violation points year after year without any action from the government and without being required to notify customers
Rural counties have 28% more violation points than metropolitan ones
Scientists and former government officials describe a water regulation system that is broken. “Most policymakers believe compliance with environmental rules is high,” said Cynthia Giles, the former head of enforcement at the EPA under Barack Obama, but that belief was “wrong”.
Experts are most concerned about systems serving smaller communities. They say Latinos are particularly at risk because they often live near industrial farms in California and the west that have polluted local water with nitrates in runoff from fertilizers and manure. They are also more likely to live in the south-west, where arsenic violations are common.
FromThe Glenwood Springs Post Independent (John Stroud):
Some of the work related to Grizzly Creek Fire impacts
Infrastructure improvements associated with Glenwood Springs waterworks system brought on in part by last summer’s Grizzly Creek Fire will likely mean multiple years of increasing water and sewer rates for customers.
In 2020, the city conducted a water and wastewater rate study, which identified several “critical infrastructure needs” over the next 10 years totaling about $36 million.
City council has been reviewing and will decide on a recommended tiered water and wastewater rate increase over those 10 years. It expects to make a decision this spring.
Glenwood Springs Public Works Director Matthew Langhorst presented two rate increase options at a Jan. 21 City Council work session.
Option 1 would increase rates 26.2% this year, followed by 8% for three years, then 7% in 2025 and 5% from 2026 to 2030.
The second option has a higher initial rate increase for this year at 36.8%, followed by 5% for years 2022 through 2030…
Both options also include standard Consumer Price Index (CPI) adjustments annually after 2030. Historically, the CPI has ranged between 1% and 4%.
Langhorst also presented a comparison of what an average user’s monthly bill would look like under both options in year one, assuming different gallon usage.
The average user consuming 5,000 gallons of water currently has an estimated bill of $92. Under Option 1, that would increase to $113. Option 2 would be slightly higher at $122.
Langhorst said that 5,000 gallons of water is equivalent to what a medium-sized home with some landscaping would consume. “Compared regionally, the increased rates are in line with other jurisdictions,” he said.
Some of the identified capital projects are related to the Grizzly Creek Fire, which severely impacted the city’s main No Name and Grizzly Creek water supplies. Others are due to routine replacement of aging infrastructure…
Other capital needs include replacement or rehabilitation of equipment and additional storage capacity for firefighting capabilities, city officials said.
Glenwood Springs operates a municipal water supply system that supplies drinking water to more than 10,000 residents. The city obtains its drinking water from three surface water intakes in the Colorado River watershed…
The work session provided a preliminary overview of funding options. Council is tentatively set to review and make a decision about rates sometime this spring, and will also discuss a possible low-income assistance program, according to the city’s release.
Various efforts along the river or tributaries annually remove about 1.2 million tons of salt. But the largest brine-removal system in the basin has been shuttered for two years over earthquake concerns. In December, President Donald Trump’s outgoing administration released a final environmental review on what to do about it.
The chosen course: No action, leaving the fate of the project and of salt removal murky. Now local suppliers say they will be pressing the Biden administration to do the opposite.
“For the last two years the salt has been flowing back into the river,” said Bill Hasencamp, chair of the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Forum, which represents all of the states that draw from the river. “We were very disappointed. There’s no plan to capture [it] going forward.”
Water suppliers have filed comment letters about the “no action” decision and sent letters to former Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. The average annual economic loss from salinity levels in the Colorado River is estimated to be $495 million, Reclamation said in its environmental review.
At issue is the Paradox Valley Unit near the Colorado-Utah border. The project, in operation since 1996, took saline groundwater before it could hit the Colorado and the Dolores River, a tributary, and injected it more than three miles beneath the surface into a well disconnected from the river system. About 95,000 tons of salt were removed each year.
But injecting, like hydraulic fracturing, can cause seismic shifts.
Reclamation shut down Paradox Valley in March 2019 after a magnitude 4.1 earthquake, which the U.S. Geological Survey considers moderate in size. Operations resumed for a six-week test at reduced use in spring 2020, but the well currently isn’t operating.
Technical experts are evaluating next steps and it’s too soon for the agency to propose a new salinity control plan, Reclamation spokeswoman Linda Friar said in an email.
The agency currently doesn’t plan to issue a record of decision, which would finalize the “no action” plan Reclamation selected, she said.
Hasencamp, also manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and others had pushed for that delay in comments filed with Reclamation earlier this month…
In its environmental review, Reclamation considered and rejected building a new injection well, using evaporation ponds for brine to be treated at the surface, and building a discharge facility to evaporate and condense water before sending salt to a landfill.
The “no action” alternative was “in the best interest of public health and safety,” Ed Warner, Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area office manager, said in a news release.
James Eklund, former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said when he served as the state’s representative on salinity control programs, he was “pretty adamant” that the bureau should switch from earthquake-causing deep injection wells to evaporating ponds in order to deal with the saltwater. Eklund is now at Denver-based Eklund Hanlon LLC…
But more than 600 miles south, the loss of Paradox Valley could increase salinity levels at Imperial Dam by 9 to 10 parts per million, which could lead to $23 million in estimated economic losses each year, Harris, from the Colorado River Board of California, said in a December letter to Burman, a Trump appointee no longer in office.
The EPA doesn’t have a drinking water standard for sodium chloride, but it has a voluntary standard of 250 parts per million for chloride, a component of salt. Voluntary standards are generally related more to aesthetic concerns like taste and appearance.
“It’s not huge, but we get essentially a ton of salt in every acre-foot of water,” said Tina Shields, water manager for Imperial Irrigation District, which borders Mexico. “If you don’t continue to implement these upstream salinity control measures by default, it can only go up.”
Nearly all farmers in the Imperial Irrigation District have drains installed beneath the surface to leach salt away from crops, which requires even more water. But that’s not a permanent solution.
Imperial is the last stop for water before it gets into Mexico, where the Colorado River delivers water to 2.3 million people and 500,000 acres of agriculture…
Urban areas will be able to weather the salt problem better than agricultural ones because they have mass treatment to comply with drinking water standards, said Patricia Mulroy, former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and owner of the consulting firm Sustainable Strategies.
Paradox Valley Location Map. Credit: Bureau of Reclamation
The Paradox Valley in western Colorado, a place with uranium mineral deposits. (Photo by Emily Hunnicutt via Flickr: Creative Commons)
FromThe High Country News [December 21, 2020] (Mark Olalde):
Decades have passed and millions of dollars spent, yet little has been done to restore the lake. California officials say it’s all been leading up to this moment.
This story is a collaboration between High Country News and The Desert Sun, part of the USA Today Network.
Red flags flutter outside the schools in Salton City, California, when the air quality is dangerous. Dust billows across the desert, blanketing playgrounds and baseball diamonds, the swirling grit canceling recess and forcing students indoors. Visibility is so poor you can’t see down the block. Those days worry Miriam Juarez the most.
Juarez, a mother of three and active volunteer at the schools, often received calls to pick up her 7-year-old son, Lihan, when sudden nosebleeds soiled his outfits. But she couldn’t leave her job, harvesting vegetables in the fields that form square oases in the Coachella Valley. So she began packing fresh clothes for him every day, before COVID-19 halted in-person learning. “It’s OK. Just go to the office,” she’d say. “The ladies will help you change.”
The doctor’s diagnosis was unclear: Perhaps Lihan had allergies. Then, Juarez’s 17-year-old daughter began suffering headaches and respiratory issues. Finally, Juarez got a runny nose and sore throat that lasted for days when the dust blew.
Juarez blames California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea. Only a few miles east of the family’s neatly kept house, it’s a cobalt-blue patch on Southern California’s Colorado Desert, a roughly 325-square-mile oblong oddity that’s twice as salty as the ocean.
It’s also toxic — a looming environmental and public health disaster. The Salton Sea’s shoreline is receding, exposing a dusty lakebed known as the “playa.” This sandy substance holds a century’s worth of agricultural runoff, including DDT, ammonia, possibly carcinogenic herbicides like trifluralin and other chemicals. Its windborne dust travels across Southern California and into Arizona, but nearby communities — many of them populated by Latino farmworkers — bear the heaviest burden.
The problem isn’t new. Yet California, though largely responsible for fixing it, has barely touched the more than 25 square miles of exposed playa. It’s been almost two decades since an agreement was signed in 2003, committing the Imperial Irrigation District, the Colorado River’s largest user, to conserve water that once flowed from farms into the lake and send it to other districts. Knowing the lake would recede, the state committed to mitigating the health and environmental impacts. The state and federal governments have spent about $70 million so far, largely on salaries and studies. Meanwhile, the high-water mark has fallen nearly 10 feet, and salinity continues to rise.
The politicians admit they’re years behind schedule, but they’re adamant that the course has been corrected, the money is being put to good use and the future is bright. Currently, 16 state employees are planning projects to tamp down dust or rebuild wetlands, and that will grow to 26 once new positions approved in the latest budget are filled. They’ve also nearly finished permitting projects that will cover 30,000 acres, a little more than a third of the area that could eventually be exposed.
Assembly Member Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, who represents the region surrounding the lake, is optimistic. “I believe 2021 will be a new story of the state of California living up to its responsibility and liability in terms of investing in what it signed up for at the Salton Sea,” he said.
Still, the state must overcome funding issues, disagreements with the feds, permitting bottlenecks and decades of inertia.
FOR YEARS, the government stood still.
Over tens of thousands of years, as it meandered across the West, the Colorado River occasionally filled the Salton Sea. The lake’s most recent iteration formed between 1905 and 1907, when an engineering disaster diverted the river into the basin. It has since been fed largely by agricultural runoff from the Imperial and Coachella valleys. It soon became clear that salinity levels would continue increasing. Since then, millions more people have begun relying on the Colorado River, even as climate change threatens the waterway. In response to competing demands, the 2003 agreement diverted water from the Imperial Valley. That meant that the lake’s level was guaranteed to drop. So, in 2007, the state released a sweeping proposal with an $8.9 billion price tag — unfortunately, just as the Great Recession took hold. “Folks got sticker-shocked and did not really pursue a full rehabilitation-restoration approach,” Garcia said.
Still, the agreement included 15 years of inflows to temporarily control salinity while the state decided on a plan. By late 2020, the California Natural Resources Agency had completed one dust-suppression project covering a mere 112 acres; the goal for the end of that year was 3,800 acres. “For a very long time, the enormity of the challenge at the sea was frankly overwhelming, and there was very little action at the state level until 2014 or 2015,” said Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, the lead department tasked with restoring the sea.
That one completed site, the Bruchard Road Dust Suppression Project, looks like someone tried to farm the surface of the moon. Tractors dug long, straight furrows through the white, sandy playa to catch the windblown dust. But more expensive wetland habitat restoration is needed; the lake has long been an important feeding ground along the Pacific Flyway, a migratory bird route on the Western Seaboard.
In order to “fix” the sea, government agencies, led by the state, will need to flood, plough or plant tens of thousands of acres to control dust and rebuild habitat. They’re racing against the clock. An estimated 131 square miles of playa will be dry and exposed to the air by the time the lake reaches a degree of equilibrium — meaning the inflow from three small waterways and agricultural runoff will maintain a smaller lake — in 2047.
For a shallow body of water, the Salton Sea holds a large amount of sunk costs. Years of studies, salaries and office supplies have been purchased, but few shovels have been put to work.
But Arturo Delgado, an assistant secretary with the Natural Resources Agency and the state’s Salton Sea czar, pointed out that a portion of the more than $355 million set aside for the lake — 99% of it from bonds — needed to be spent sorting out permits and access to a complex checkerboard of state, tribal, federal and private land. “The bulk of the funding that has been appropriated to date for the Salton Sea program has not been spent,” he said.
As of late November, state agencies had used about $53 million, most of it going to ledger entries, including “studies and planning activities,” “staffing and other design costs” and “annual surveys to monitor bird and fish populations.” Glaring zeros marked the “expended” column next to several construction budgets.
Years of indecisiveness mixed with land-access and permitting issues have bogged down the process; the state’s own efforts to clean up the ecological disaster got stuck in the compliance process. “Frankly, the permitting is probably more expensive right now than the actual projects,” said Tina Shields, water department manager at the Imperial Irrigation District, which, separate from the state, completed about 2,000 acres of dust suppression on its own land around the lake.
The state is appropriating some funds, but the federal government has been slow to pitch in. The U.S. Department of Agriculture kicked in about $8 million for dust-suppression projects, and over the past five years, the Bureau of Reclamation spent about $11 million on water-quality monitoring, wetlands projects along polluted rivers that empty into the lake, and studies on the feasibility of using salty water for dust mitigation.
When the Natural Resources Agency is finally ready for large-scale builds, the budget could get in the way. Individual construction sites are expensive, with one roughly 4,000-acre project set to break ground in 2021 costing an estimated $200 million. Another 160-acre design will cost $20 million. Cleanup along the New River, one of three small waterways flowing into the lake, comes with a $28 million bill.
And while California regularly calls on bonds to fund large projects, that money can’t be used for operations and maintenance. Crowfoot acknowledged that the state lacks a mechanism to fund long-term monitoring and upkeep. At the beginning of 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom promised an additional $220 million, but that was predicated on a bond. When the pandemic hit, that idea and a parallel measure Garcia introduced in the Legislature both died, although Garcia said he’ll reintroduce his bill in 2021.
For now, the state lacks a better funding plan. “We don’t have the reserves that we had prior to COVID-19,” Garcia said. “That money has been invested in our emergency response.”
IF THE SALTON SEA RESTORATION were to reinvigorate the Pacific Flyway, it would likely begin at the wetlands around Red Hill Bay on the lake’s southeastern corner, where various agencies are constructing new habitat. An October visit found it far from inspiring. A flat patch of dirt covered several hundred dry acres, dotted with a few dead trees. A sign, complete with typos, showed a hopeful rendering of a functioning wetland and promised: “Estimated construction in 2016.”
Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., introduced the federal Salton Sea Public Health and Environmental Protection Act in November to streamline permitting and unlock additional federal dollars. He acknowledged the delays, but called the Red Hill Bay Restoration Project “proof of concept that we can get a shovel-to-ground project started,” adding, “My number-one goal was to break ground on a project to rip that inertia to pieces and to start building momentum.”
The son of farmworkers, Ruiz grew up just miles from the lake. He returned home to practice medicine after studying at Harvard, and he still wears gym shoes with his suits, as if he’s about to run into the emergency room. Ruiz, who was struck by the high rates of respiratory illnesses in the area, compares the lake to a patient “in need of triage.”
A 2019 study conducted by researchers from the University of Southern California’s medical school and a local nonprofit called Comite Civico del Valle estimated that nearly one in four elementary school children in northern Imperial County, the area nearest to the Salton Sea’s exposed and emissive playa, suffered from asthma, about three times the national average. “Exposing this population to more and more poor air quality — in particular, particulate matter small enough to penetrate the lung-blood barrier that also carries toxins like arsenic, selenium and pesticides — would be devastating to the public’s health,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz said that divergent visions had stalled progress, while egos got in the way. Since entering Congress in 2013, he has tried to rally local lawmakers and called on the federal government to take a more active role. Juarez, in Salton City, welcomes the efforts but believes that if this problem affected a wealthier, whiter area like Palm Springs, it would’ve been addressed already. It’s a sentiment her elected representatives share. So, she asked, “Why is nothing getting done?”
In 2020, the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District slapped the state and feds with notices of violation for failing to complete dust-control projects. The Imperial Irrigation District wants the state to act, too, citing the 2003 water transfer agreement. California politicians argue the federal government needs to step up because the Bureau of Reclamation owns much of the land underneath the lake. The feds insist they occupy a supporting role, and agency heads from Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refused to attend a September congressional hearing to discuss the government’s role in cleaning up the lake.
The people in Salton City and other towns around the retreating lake are still waiting. For Juarez, who began working in the fields when she was just 15, the clock is ticking on the American dream her family built in the California desert. It’s difficult to find hope in stepwise permit approvals while dust fights through cracks in her home. She takes her children to the doctor every six months and worries about Lihan. “I’m nervous, and I’m scared to see my son like that,” Juarez said.
She doesn’t want to move away but is finally considering it. “I don’t want to stay here and see my kids sick,” she said.
Mark Olalde is an environment reporter for The Desert Sun. He is based in Palm Springs, California.
Mette Lampcov is a freelance documentary photographer from Denmark, and is currently based in the greater Los Angeles area.
The Salton Sea is a major nesting, wintering and stopover site for about 400 bird species (Source: California Department of Water Resources)
Aerial view of the Salton Sea from the north-northeast (from over Joshua Tree National Park), looking into the early afternoon sun. Photo credit: Dicklyon via Wikimedia Commons
The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake, covering 330 square miles, and a major drop along the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds. But it is receding, threatening to create a public health and ecological crisis. By NWSPhoenix – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56724223
Just above the horizon here, a haboob (dust storm) can be seen heading north. This was shot at what remains of the Salton Sea Naval Test Station. Photo credit: slworking2/Flickr
The New River, a contaminated waterway that flows north from Mexico, spills into the Salton Sea in southwestern California’s Imperial Valley. Transborder pollution is among Jayne Harkins’ priorities as U.S. IBWC Commissioner. (Image: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)
American Avocets in the Salton Sea. Photo: David Tipling/NPL/Minden Pictures. Screen shot American Audobon Society western water website, October 4, 2017.
Experts hope that with the incoming Biden administration, the federal government will finally regulate a class of chemicals known as PFASs
Many Americans fill up a glass of water from their faucet without worrying whether it might be dangerous. But the crisis of lead-tainted water in Flint, Mich., showed that safe, potable tap water is not a given in this country. Now a study from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit advocacy organization, reveals a widespread problem: the drinking water of a majority of Americans likely contains “forever chemicals.” These compounds may take hundreds, or even thousands, of years to break down in the environment. They can also persist in the human body, potentially causing health problems
A handful of states have set about trying to address these contaminants, which are scientifically known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). But no federal limits have been set on the concentration of the chemicals in water, as they have for other pollutants such as benzene, uranium and arsenic. With a new presidential administration coming into office this week, experts say the federal government finally needs to remedy that oversight. “The PFAS pollution crisis is a public health emergency,” wrote Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs, in a recent public statement.
Of the more than 9,000 known PFAS compounds, 600 are currently used in the U.S. in countless products, including firefighting foam, cookware, cosmetics, carpet treatments and even dental floss. Scientists call PFASs “forever chemicals” because their chemistry keeps them from breaking down under typical environmental conditions. “One of the unique features of PFAS compounds is the carbon-fluorine bond,” explains David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG. “That bond is incredibly strong.” Ultimately this means that if PFASs enter the environment, they build up. These chemicals can linger on geologic time scales, explains Chris Higgins, a civil and environmental engineer at the Colorado School of Mines…
Because of their widespread use, release and disposal over the decades, PFASs show up virtually everywhere: in soil, surface water, the atmosphere, the deep ocean—and even the human body. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web site says that the agency has found PFASs in the blood of nearly everyone it has tested for them, “indicating widespread exposure to these PFAS in the U.S. population.” Scientists have found links between a number of the chemicals and many health concerns—including kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, liver damage, developmental toxicity, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced preeclampsia and hypertension, and immune dysfunction.
Concerned about PFASs’ persistence and potential harm, Andrews and his EWG colleague Olga Naidenko set out to assess Americans’ exposure to the chemicals via their drinking water. PFASs can get into this water in a variety of ways. For example, industrial sites might release the compounds into the water or air. Or they can leach from disposal sites. They can also percolate into groundwater from the firefighting foams used at airports and military bases. Andrews and Naidenko say there is a need for research into drinking-water levels because the federal government does not require testing water for PFASs. This leaves a gap in scientists’ understanding of overall exposure. Andrews and Naidenko focused their analysis on two types of these chemicals—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS)—because those compounds had the most available data. The two researchers pulled that information together from various sources, including state agencies, the federal government and the EWG’s own measurements.
The scientists estimated that more than 200 million people—the majority of Americans—have tap water contaminated with a mixture of PFOA and PFOS at concentrations of one part per trillion (ppt) or higher. Andrews and Naidenko say previous research shows that levels higher than one ppt can increase the risk of conditions such as testicular cancer, delayed mammary gland development, liver tumors, high cholesterol and effects on children’s immune response to vaccinations. “It’s a calculation of what would be a safe exposure level,” Andrews says. Even when the researchers shifted their analysis to a higher level of 10 ppt, they still found some 18 million to 80 million Americans to be exposed. Representatives of the chemical industry have disagreed with such concerns. “We believe there is no scientific basis for maximum contaminant levels lower than 70 ppt,” the American Chemistry Council said in statement to Scientific American…
Technologies to remove PFASs from drinking water exist on both household and municipal levels. Granular activated carbon filters and reverse osmosis are two options, but they are costly and high-maintenance—and the burden falls on taxpayers. “PFASs are produced by companies, for which they receive a profit,” DeWitt says. “And then residents end up paying to clean up the pollution.” On top of that, PFAS that is removed from drinking water may simply end up elsewhere, such as in a landfill or river.
Some states have instituted or proposed limits on PFASs in drinking water, but experts say federal action is needed to tackle such a widespread problem. President Joe Biden’s administration may finally address that need. His campaign’s environmental justice plan specifically called out forever chemicals. And the plan said that the president will “tackle PFAS pollution by designating PFAS as a hazardous substance, setting enforceable limits for PFAS in the Safe Drinking Water Act, prioritizing substitutes through procurement, and accelerating toxicity studies and research on PFAS.” The new administration could carry out all of these goals unilaterally through executive action, without Congress’s cooperation. Some experts appear optimistic about this prospect. “I’m hopeful that the incoming administration will reempower the EPA so that it can actually create regulations to protect public health,” DeWitt says. “That is the agency’s charge—that is its mission.”
For some ranchers in Troublesome Valley, the worst impacts of the wildfire that began near there in October might not arrive until summer — or even summers beyond.
Experts say the greatest danger of sedimentation from the East Troublesome Fire will occur during and after a hard rain, especially of an inch or more. That is when the severe soil damage from the fire will cause sediment to wash into the east fork of Troublesome Creek and into a diversion ditch used to irrigate 10,000 acres of hay.
“It’s a real concern for us,” said Kent Whitmer, one of seven ranch owners who get water from the ditch owned by the East Troublesome Mutual Irrigation Co.
Whitmer said he most fears sediment filling the ditch so badly that it overflows.
“That would be disastrous,” he said.
Agricultural and municipal water users will see broad, lingering effects of the 193,812-acre fire.
The East Troublesome Fire, which had been burning east of Colorado Highway 125, exploded on the afternoon of Oct. 21, driven by 70 mph winds. In all, the fire grew 100,000 acres in 24 hours, eventually becoming the second-largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history. The fire was formally designated as contained Nov. 30, although small plumes of smoke could be seen in the golf course area as recently as Christmas Day. All but about 5,000 acres of the fire burned in Grand County.
Denver Water may offer lessons useful to water managers, who will be dealing with impacts from the East Troublesome Fire for years, perhaps decades. Denver Water has struggled with sediment and debris clogging its two major reservoirs in the foothills southwest of Denver. The fires that caused problems for those reservoirs — Buffalo Creek in 1996 and Hayman in 2002 — fried soils, removing their ability to absorb moisture. Sediment has been washed up to 11 miles into Strontia Springs and Cheesman reservoirs, pushed by water during summer cloudbursts.
Denver Water has spent $28 million in reservoir dredging, facilities repair and landscape-restoration projects. It discovered that debris and sediment can travel downstream to cause problems in critical water infrastructure. At Strontia Springs, Denver Water dredged for sediment as recently as five years ago but may need to do so again this year.
“Dredging is very costly,” Denver Water watershed scientist Christina Burri said during the recent post-fire water impacts webinar. Retrieving sediment and debris can be challenging, and then there’s the issue of what to do with the debris. “Do you pile it? Do you burn it? Where can you take it?” Burri said.
The East Troublesome Fire might produce fewer problems. A fire assessment called burned-area emergency response was conducted by U.S. Forest Service land managers and shows mostly low to moderate soil burn severity, suggesting lesser impacts to water quality.
But water managers still expect significant challenges come spring, when melting snow produces debris and sediment that can clog bridges, culverts and reservoirs.
Assessing the damage
The fire came through in October “so quickly that it didn’t have a chance to do long-term scarring of the soil,” said Jeff Stahla, public information officer for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “However, this is still a sobering assessment because it really lays out the challenge we have going forward.”
Northern Water operates the Colorado-Big Thompson diversion project, which employs Willow Creek, Granby and Shadow Mountain reservoirs as well as Grand Lake to deliver water to more than a million people and 615,000 irrigated acres along the northern Front Range and in northeastern Colorado.
The district estimates the fire burned as much as 94% of the Willow Creek watershed, 90% of the area drained by Stillwater Creek, 29% of the Colorado River drainage above Shadow Mountain Reservoir and 42% of the North Inlet watershed. A more detailed assessment will be needed in the spring after snow has melted, Strahla said.
“It’s not as bad as Hayman, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bad,” Stahla said, referring to the 138,000-acre fire in 2002 that was the largest forest fire in Colorado’s recorded history until last year. In size, Hayman was eclipsed by the three Colorado fires in 2020: East Troublesome, Cameron Peak and Pine Gulch.
In assessing the damages caused by the East Troublesome Fire, resource specialists estimated 5% of the soil suffered high severity, 48% of it moderate severity and 37% of it low severity burns. Within the fire perimeter, 10% of the land was unburned.
The mapping for the 22,668 acres of the East Troublesome Fire within Rocky Mountain National Park has not yet been released.
Soil in severely burned areas has lost its structure, as the fire burned the forest litter and duff, weakening the roots of trees and other material that hold soil together.
Areas of severe damage include the basin drained by the east fork of Troublesome Creek, where the fire was first reported Oct. 14. There, the fire hunkered down, moving slowly but burning most everything. Other notable severe burn areas are near Willow Creek Pass, between Granby and Walden, and a gulch immediately north of Windy Gap Reservoir. Some areas near Grand Lake burned with surprising severity.
Erosion in high or moderate soil burn areas depends on the specific characteristics, such as the slope and soil texture, of each area, according to the burn report.
Watching the water
Impacts to drinking water in Grand County will vary. Well owners generally should have no problems with the debris.
“These folks will want to make sure that wellheads and components are not damaged, to test for coliform bacteria before drinking the water post-fire and to treat it if necessary,” said Katherine Morris, water-quality specialist for Grand County. “If a well is located in an area known to be down-gradient from an area where homes burned, it may be prudent to ensure that your water treatment is adequate.”
At Grand Lake, the town draws water from 80-foot wells.
“We have not seen anything yet,” said Dave Johnson, the water superintendent for Grand Lake. He said he doesn’t expect problems but that the water will continue to be monitored, as it has been.
But Grand Lake’s microhydro plant could have problems. Located on Tonohutu Creek, the small plant constantly generates 5 kilowatts of electricity used in treating the town’s domestic water.
“We can only filter out so much debris before we have to close the intake,” Johnson said.
In that case, the water treatment plant will be operated solely by electricity from Mountain Parks Electric.
Hot Sulphur Springs, which draws water from wells that tap the river aquifer, will be the only town in Grand County with municipal water supplies directly impacted by the fire. Kremmling also can tap the Colorado River, but it does so only in emergencies.
Hot Sulphur Springs Mayor Bob McVay said his town expects challenges when the snow melts this spring, producing ash-laden water and debris. The town already has set out to take precautions, but it’s not yet clear what will be required.
Upgrading of the filters in the town’s water treatment plant, a project that began a year ago, probably will be completed in January, providing duplicate filtering systems. But that might not be enough. Secondary wells in the groundwater along the river remain an option.
In Troublesome Valley, Whitmer hopes to consult the expertise of the Natural Resources Conservation Service about how to mitigate effects of the fire on the irrigation ditch. He also wonders whether beaver dams in the East Fork will trap at least some sediment.
For Northern Water, this was just one of several fires affecting its operations in 2020. It was impacted by fires on both sides of the Continental Divide, including the Cameron Peak Fire, the state’s largest wildfire, which affected the Poudre River and other creeks and drainages.
Stahla said managers attempt to prepare for wildfire and other contingencies, but they did not prepare for such a severe wildfire season.
“If you had come to us with a scenario that there is wildfire burning above Grand Lake, above Estes Park and throughout the Poudre River Basin, we probably would have pushed back, thinking that’s a little too over the top,” he said.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with Swift Communications newspapers. Our water desk is funded in part by the Catena Foundation. This story ran in the Jan. 16 edition of the Summit Daily News and the Jan. 15 edition of Sky-Hi News.
A forest burns during the High Park Fire West of Fort Collins in 2012. Photo credit: University of Colorado
A burnt sign on Larimer County Road 103 near Chambers Lake. The fire started in the area near Cameron Peak, which it is named after. The fire burned over 200,000 acres during its three-month run. Photo courtesy of Kate Stahla via the University of Northern Colorado
The East Troublesome Fire burns in Grand County in October 2020. Credit: Northern Water
FromThe Fort Collins Coloradoan (Miles Blumhardt):
Mesmerized by miles of mountainsides of blackened trees and seared soil that hugs the banks of the upper Poudre River, it’s difficult not to reflect on the 2012 High Park Fire and 2013 flood.
You can’t help but wonder, given the steepness of the slopes and the severity of the riverside scar left by the Cameron Peak Fire, if Northern Colorado is poised for a repeat of history regarding the Poudre River.
Come spring, snowmelt, rainfall and potential flash floods are almost certain to wash large amounts of ash from Colorado’s largest wildfire, soil and even entire trees into the river that serves as a source of drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people in Fort Collins and the surrounding area…
A recent Burned Area Emergency Response assessment for the Cameron Peak Fire indicated a 90% to 100% chance that water quality would be impacted by ash- and sediment-laden runoff, nutrient loading and potential debris flows within the first few years following the fire.
And that’s only the half of it.
Fort Collins receives half of its water from the Poudre River and the other half from Horsetooth Reservoir, whose water quality could be impacted by the East Troublesome Fire in Grand County.
An assessment for the East Troublesome Fire estimated 53% of the burn area suffered moderate (48%) or high (5%) soil burn severity compared to 36% — 30% moderate and 6% high — for the Cameron Peak Fire. The Cameron Peak Fire assessment also showed more than half the soil tested to be repellent to water absorption…
By the time the 112-day Cameron Peak Fire’s flames were finally extinguished on Dec. 2, a watershed recovery collaboration of area municipalities, Larimer County, federal and state agencies, water providers and organizations such as the coalition, was already meeting to start planning efforts to address the fire’s impact.
This isn’t the first fire for many of those stakeholders, and lessons learned from the High Park Fire are helping the group quickly prepare for this spring’s impacts.
That being said, the Cameron Peak Fire was more than twice the size of the High Park Fire and paired with the 193,812-acre East Troublesome Fire — the second-largest wildfire in state history — delivered a massive one-two punch to several watersheds, making recovery even more daunting…
Mark Kempton, the city of Fort Collins’ interim deputy director of Water Resources and Treatment, said the city has implemented steps since the High Park Fire to better equip it to handle the after-effects of a major fire.
He said the city has installed warning systems along the Poudre River that alert it several hours ahead of water turbidity issues so workers can turn off the water supply. When the city turns off the Poudre River supply, it can draw on Horsetooth Reservoir water. That was the case for 100 days during the High Park Fire.
The High Park Fire taught recovery leaders to include the use of shredded tree mulch instead of straw mulch to better prevent the mulch from blowing away for soil and slope stabilization. Strategically increasing culvert size also reduced damage to roads.
Kempton said another key component will be workers removing sediment by flushing the water treatment system more often and removing sediment from the river intake system and catch basins.
The sweeping criminal cases announced Thursday include Rick Snyder, the former Republican governor; Snyder’s top aide and his chief of staff; as well as both the state’s top doctor and health official during the crisis, who face the most severe charges: nine counts of involuntary manslaughter each, as well as official misconduct and neglect of duty for “grossly negligent performance.”
“The impact of the Flint water crisis cases and what happened in Flint will span generations and probably well beyond,” said Kym Worthy, one of the special prosecutors appointed to investigate the crisis. “This case has nothing whatsoever to do with partisanship. It has to do with human decency … and finally, finally holding people accountable for their alleged, unspeakable atrocities that occurred in Flint all these years ago. Pure and simple, this case is about justice, truth, accountability, poisoned children, lost lives, shattered families that are still not whole and simply giving a damn about all of humanity.”
Snyder, whose term as governor ended in 2018, had apologized to residents for letting them down. He was charged with two misdemeanor counts of willful neglect of duty and entered a not guilty plea…
The former governor’s closest aide, Rich Baird, was charged with four felonies: misconduct in office, perjury, obstruction of justice for attempting to influence the legal proceedings around the crisis, and extortion for “threatening” a state-appointed research team investigating the Flint water crisis — an incident that was first documented by FRONTLINE in Flint’s Deadly Water.
Baird also pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Randall Levine, told the Detroit Free Press that Baird is “innocent of any wrongdoing and is being unfairly prosecuted by the state’s Democratic attorney general.”
Overall, the indictments paint a grim portrait of a cast of officials not only failing to act to protect people’s health but concealing information, lying about the extent of the problems and threatening those trying to get the word out.
Among the others indicted on Thursday were Snyder’s chief of staff, Jarrod Agen, for perjury; Nancy Peeler, a state children’s health official accused of concealing, and later misrepresenting, data on blood-lead levels in Flint’s children; Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Earley, both state-appointed emergency managers in Flint charged with misconduct in office; and Howard Croft, Flint’s director of public works at the time, who faces misdemeanors for failing to protect the safety and quality of the water supply. He was the lone city official indicted in the case.
All nine officials indicted on Thursday entered not guilty pleas.
The two officials at the center of the prosecution, Nick Lyon, the former head of the state health department, and Dr. Eden Wells, the former state chief medical executive, could face 15-year prison sentences for each of nine counts of involuntary manslaughter. Both were also charged with willful neglect of duty. Wells faces an additional felony count of misconduct in office for attempting to prevent the distribution of information about Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County…
While much of the focus on Flint centered around lead contamination, many of the charges stemmed from a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ that occurred during the crisis. Officially, 90 people were diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease, and 12 died, according to state data. But a FRONTLINE investigation strongly suggests the actual death toll was much higher, as doctors unaware of the threat failed to properly diagnose and treat sickened patients. FRONTLINE also found many victims who succumbed to Legionnaires’ in the months and years following the outbreak, long after the state stopped counting the dead…
As Legionnaires’ cases began ticking upward in 2014, state officials, including Darnell Earley and Jerry Ambrose, exchanged emails speculating that Flint’s new water supply might be to blame. Some worried that word might get out. By the end of 2014, there were 40 confirmed cases of Legionnaires’, and three people had died.
By March 2015, emails show that at least three of Snyder’s aides and two cabinet members had been told about the outbreak, including Lyon.
At a press conference in January 2016, Snyder finally announced the Legionnaires’ outbreak — 18 months after it began. He was joined by Wells and by Lyon, who made a point of noting the outbreak couldn’t be linked to the water switch.
The governor also hastily convened a task force of prominent scientists to investigate the source of the outbreak. The scientists got to work but quickly began clashing with the administration over their findings, when they identified the presence of Legionella, the bacteria that causes the deadly disease, in the water filters of people’s homes.
In 2016, labor and community activists in Lansing, Michigan, called for Governor Rick Snyder to resign over the Flint water contamination crisis. The former governor did not step down—his term lasted through 2019. Photo by Jim West
FromThe Washington Post (Kim Bellware and Brady Dennis):
Former Michigan governor Rick Snyder (R) and several former officials are expected to be indicted in connection with the 2014 Flint water crisis that led to at least 12 deaths and dozens of illnesses in the predominantly Black city, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.
Snyder, his former health department director Nick Lyon and former adviser Rich Baird were among those notified by the office of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) of the pending indictments and advised to expect imminent court dates, the AP reported, citing unnamed sources familiar with the prosecution.
The nature of the criminal charges were not immediately clear.
Randall L. Levine, an attorney representing Baird, confirmed in a statement to the Post Tuesday that authorities notified him this week about indictments. He said Baird “will be facing charges stemming from his work helping to restore safe drinking water for all residents and faith in the community where he grew up.” But he added that Baird had not yet “been made aware of what the charges are, or how they are related to his position with former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s administration.”
Nessel’s office dropped all criminal charges in the case in 2019, shortly after she took office, effectively restarting the probe.
Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician whose research in 2015 first documented dangerously high lead levels in children’s blood, welcomed news of the reported charges.
“As a pediatrician privileged to care for our Flint children, I have increasingly come to understand that accountability and justice are critical to health and recovery,” Hanna-Attisha told The Post in a text message Tuesday. “Without justice, it’s impossible to heal the scars of the crisis.”
Hanna-Attisha, director of pediatric residency at the Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint, warned that while the news was a salve for the many families whose lives had been affected by the poisoned water, criminal charges are only part of the story…
“Residents of Flint were repeatedly told they were crazy. They were belittled. They were harmed by the water physically, emotionally,” Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) said in an interview Tuesday. “I’ve always said that I think criminal charges are important, because I think it’s criminal what happened to my town.”
Ananich emphasized that he doesn’t know the extent of the charges expected later this week, but he does hope they send a clear message: “No person, no politician, no one is above the law.”
For Flint families who continue to live with the irreversible effects of the tainted water, Tuesday’s news symbolized a level of vindication.
“I can’t believe it,” Gina Luster, a Flint community activist, told The Post in a message. “Finally, after 7 years of fighting for justice.”
FromThe Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan) via The Colorado Sun:
Under the settlement with the Navajo Nation, Sunnyside Gold Corp. — a subsidiary of Canada’s Kinross Gold — will pay the tribe $10 million
The Navajo Nation’s Department of Justice announced Wednesday it has settled with mining companies to resolve claims stemming from a 2015 spill that resulted in rivers in three western states being fouled with a bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals.
Under the settlement with the Navajo Nation, Sunnyside Gold Corp. — a subsidiary of Canada’s Kinross Gold — will pay the tribe $10 million…
The tribe said the toxic water coursed through 200 miles (322 kilometers) of river on Navajo lands…
The tribe’s claims against the EPA and its contractors remain pending. About 300 individual tribal members also have claims pending as part of a separate lawsuit…
The state of New Mexico also confirmed Wednesday that it has reached a settlement with the mining companies. Under that agreement, $10 million will be paid to New Mexico for environmental response costs and lost tax revenue and $1 million will go to Office of the Natural Resources Trustee for injuries to New Mexico’s natural resources…
The settlement was not an admission of liability or wrongdoing, but Sunnyside agreed to it “as a matter of practicality to eliminate the costs and resources needed to continue to defend against ongoing litigation,” Myers said in an email…
In August, the U.S. government settled a lawsuit brought by the state of Utah for a fraction of what that state was initially seeking in damages.
In that case, the EPA agreed to fund $3 million in Utah clean water projects and spend $220 million of its own money to clean up abandoned mine sites in Colorado and Utah.
After the spill, the EPA designated the Gold King and 47 other mining sites in the area a Superfund cleanup district. The agency still reviewing options for a broader cleanup.
From the Land Desk newsletter (Jonathan Thompson):
Whether the company [Kinross] is at all culpable for the spill is a question the courts have yet to answer. But there is definitely a connection, both hydrological and historical.
Here’s the short(ish) bulleted explanation:
The Gold King Mine workings are on one side of Bonita Peak (in the Cement Creek drainage) and the Sunnyside Mine workings are on the other side of Bonita Peak (in the Eureka Creek drainage). If you look at the two mines in a cross-section of the peak, they sit side-by-side, separated by a lot of rock.
In the early 1900s the owners of the Gold King started drilling the American Tunnel straight into Bonita Peak below the Gold King. The plan was then to link up with the Gold King in order to provide easier access. More than one mile of tunnel was dug, but the link was never completed, prior to the Gold King’s shutdown in the 1920s.
Photographic and other evidence suggests that prior to the construction of the American Tunnel, water drained from the Gold King Mine. However, after the tunnel’s construction the mine was said to be dry, suggesting that the tunnel hijacked the hydrology of the Gold King.
In 1959 Standard Metals continued drilling the American Tunnel through the mountain in order to provide a better access (from the Cement Creek side) to the then-defunct Sunnyside Mine.
After the Sunnyside shut down, the parent company at the time (Echo Bay), reached an agreement with the state to plug the American Tunnel with huge bulkheads to stop or slow acid mine drainage. They placed three bulkheads, one at the edge of the workings of the Sunnyside Mine (1996), one just inside the opening of the American Tunnel (2003), and another in between (2001).
Shortly after the bulkheads were placed, the Gold King ceased being a “dry” mine, and drainage resumed, eventually flowing at more than 250 gallons per minute. After the ceiling of the adit collapsed, water began backing up behind it until it was finally released in one catastrophic swoop in August 2015.
It seems pretty clear that one or more of the bulkheads caused water to back up inside the mountain and enter the Gold King Mine workings, eventually leading to the blowout. At this point, however, no one knows which bulkhead is the culprit, so no one knows whether the water is coming from the Sunnyside mine pool, or whether it is actually coming from the part of the American Tunnel that is still on Gold King property. Until that is determined, the root cause of the Gold King blowout will remain a mystery.
For the longer explanation of the Gold King saga, read my book, River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. And for more maps showing the relationship between the Sunnyside and the Gold King, check out my River of Lost Souls reading guide.
The water treatment plant, however, is located on a site known as Gladstone, about 8 miles north of Silverton up County Road 110, owned by the same person who owns the Gold King Mine, Todd Hennis.
Hennis, an entrepreneur based in Golden, has long had an interest in the mines that dot the San Juan Mountains around Silverton, and over the years, has been buying up old mine sites with the hopes of revamping the industry…
After the spill, Hennis agreed to let the EPA use the Gladstone property for a temporary water treatment plant, albeit somewhat begrudgingly.
“When the Gold King event happened, I gave the keys to (the EPA) for Gladstone, and said ‘Go ahead, use anything, just return it after you’re done,’” Hennis said in October 2015. “That rapidly changed into having the hell torn out of my land.”
The water treatment plant continues to operate to this day, and is seen by some invested in the cleanup of mines around Silverton as a possible long-term solution to improving water quality in the Animas River.
Since 2015, the EPA has operated on the Gladstone property through a “general access order,” though the agency has not paid Hennis for use of the land, said EPA spokeswoman Katherine Jenkins.
The EPA has, however, worked for years to come to a long-term lease agreement with Hennis that would include payments for use of the land based on fair market value, but those efforts have not been successful.
“Mr. Hennis has declined EPA’s multiple requests for long-term access and has rejected a long-term lease agreement for EPA’s use of the Gladstone property,” Jenkins said.
Because, in part, of the resources and staff time required to send Hennis monthly general access orders, the EPA on Jan. 6 sent him an “administrative order” that requires him to give the EPA full access to the Gladstone property.
An administrative order, according to the EPA website, is an enforcement tool under the Superfund program.
“We want to have consistent access to the water treatment plant so we can maintain and provide water treatment, that’s the reasoning,” Jenkins said.
When contacted, Hennis said, “I cannot comment on this development, other than to say the EPA currently has access to the site.”
Indeed, Jenkins said that while Hennis has refused to come to a long-term lease agreement, he has not blocked access to the site.
The long-term future of the water treatment plant is an issue high atop the list of priorities in the Superfund around Silverton, known as the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.
Some local officials and members of the public have called to expand the operating capacity of the plant to take in discharges from other mines around Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.
But questions have loomed about this prospect, namely who would be financially on the hook to operate the plant in perpetuity.
But for Hennis, all this is a moot point. He’s still adamant that there are plenty of metals, like gold and tellurium, to be mined in the mountains around Silverton.
“Some of you have government pensions to rely on when you retire,” Hennis said at a public meeting in October 2015. “My retirement is Gladstone. Sitting here, listening to people say Gladstone would make a perfect site for a remediation laboratory, having my land cavalierly dealt with, is not a happy feeling.
“I know you wouldn’t want your backyard or your retirement stolen from you,” he continued. “This is not going to happen. I’ve tried to be very reasonable.”
The EPA’s Jenkins said the administrative order would terminate if a lease agreement is signed or if access to the property is no longer needed by the EPA to conduct response activities at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.
Following more than a year of back-and-forth with state regulators, the Leadville Sanitation District has been issued a new wastewater discharge permit that will allow for the same amount of mercury to be present in treated water released into California Gulch.
The new permit, issued by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE), came after outside evaluations and public comments to the state agency called attention to Leadville Sanitation District’s (LSD) inability to meet proposed lower mercury limits without substantial upgrades.
The previous permit limited acceptable mercury levels in treated water to 0.077 micrograms per liter. Though CDPHE was going to require a lower limit of 0.044 micrograms per liter in the new permit, the limit will remain the same under the recently implemented five-year discharge permit.
While the new permit maintains the same limits for mercury levels, it requires the sanitation district to monitor for a number of contaminants not previously recorded, including uranium and radium, among others.
The permit, citing a 1989 report regarding the release of gasoline from underground storage tanks, also calls for new monitoring of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene given the potential for groundwater contamination from the Tabor Grand Hotel service site.
The permit went into effect on Jan. 1, and requires regular reporting of contaminant levels to CDPHE.
LSD has had issues meeting the 0.077 microgram-per-liter mercury limit in the past. The district was found to be out of compliance with state-determined mercury limits in 2017, prompting evaluations of the district’s collection system.
As the organization responsible for receiving, treating and releasing all of Lake County’s wastewater, LSD has since been evaluating the sources of entry for contaminants into the county’s wastewater system.
While the district has not been able to pinpoint the exact entry point for mercury and other contaminants, evaluations of the district’s aging collection system, made up of pipes and drains throughout Leadville, suggest that the intake system has leaks which may allow for contaminant infiltration and leakage.
After recording a lower-than-expected amount of incoming sewage based on the number of residences and businesses served in the sanitation district, CDPHE is requiring LSD address the issue under the new permit. In its explanation of the new requirement, CDPHE says the low input may be a result of sewage leaking from the collection system before reaching the treatment facility.
The new permit requires LSD to meet acceptable mercury limits stipulated in the 2021 permit by September 2023. The district is required to submit a report that identifies sources of cadmium, zinc, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene by Sept. 30 of this year.
A private ranch is seeking Colorado environmental regulators’ permission to inject the Blue River with phosphorus — a chemical regulated as a pollutant — as part of an experiment that could help improve trout habitat at a popular high-country fishing destination.
Kremmling-based Blue Valley Ranch, owned by the billionaire philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones II, proposes beginning the project as soon as next summer on an 8-mile stretch of the river running through its 25,000-acre ranch, which is located on both sides of the river between Green Mountain Reservoir and Colorado River.
The ranch has not yet applied for a state discharge permit, which it will need before beginning the project. In September, the Colorado Basin Roundtable, a 35-member group of water planners, voted to provide Blue Valley Ranch, which did not request a financial contribution, with a letter of support.
The ranch sits alongside the lower section of the river. Areas on this stretch that have public access are home to relatively large and abundant trout, earning a “gold medal” status from the state. The experiment may help explain why trout farther upstream above the Green Mountain Reservoir appear undernourished. The ranch expects that adding phosphorus to the river will grow more algae, a building block in the aquatic food-chain supporting fish.
If the project helps the fish, water managers could use a similar one to restore the gold-medal status of a section of the Blue River upstream from the ranch’s property that the state delisted in 2016. The designation is based on the size and abundance of fish in rivers with public access. The rare delisting on the river section, north of Silverthorne, was a blow to residents who saw the designation as a way to attract outdoor tourism to the region.
Scientists warn that adding too much phosphorus could create problems downstream. Excess phosphorus [enables algae blooms including cyanobacteria], an algae that can be toxic to humans. Last summer, such algae blooms prompted the state to issue warnings and closures to lakes across the state, from Steamboat Lake, north of Steamboat Springs, to Denver’s Cherry Creek Reservoir.
This is one reason why the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is working on new rules to limit phosphorus pollution based on the chemical’s ecological impacts. The state may soon require owners of large facilities, such as wastewater-treatment plants, to make costly upgrades to comply with new limits.
That same agency will have to decide whether to grant the ranch a discharge permit, weighing the possibility of improving trout habitat with the environmental risks. MaryAnn Nason, a spokeswoman for the state’s Water Quality Control Division, said in a statement that the state would evaluate whether the additional phosphorus protects aquatic life, drinking water and recreation, and complies with the state’s regulations on phosphorus.
The theory behind the project is that the river has too little phosphorus, a circumstance that may be preventing the growth of periphyton, an algae eaten by aquatic insects that state biologists say are “sparse” in the river. One of the reasons the river lacks nutrients is that the 231-foot dam in Silverthorne is causing it to back up. The dam was built in 1963 to create the Dillon Reservoir, which Denver Water uses to ship drinking water under the Continental Divide to residents on the Front Range. The dam traps nutrients such as phosphorus and prevents downstream flooding, a natural process that can pull phosphorus back into the river. In the 1980s, the state imposed strict limits on phosphorus pollution from wastewater-treatment plant operators in the basin, which has kept phosphorus concentrations to about 10 parts per billion in the reservoir to prevent algae blooms. That means the cold water flowing out of the bottom of the dam also is relatively low in phosphorus.
“This is a success story,” said William Lewis, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of its Center for Limnology and who has studied the reservoir’s chemistry for decades.
Whether the successes of curbing pollution are hurting fish habitat downstream is hard to say for sure, Lewis said. But supporters of the Blue Valley Ranch proposal say the experiment could test this one factor among the many affecting the river.
“We have to better understand those factors. And measure them. And then rate them,” said Richard Van Gytenbeek, the Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit that advocates for fish habitat and supports the ranch’s proposed experiment.
According to a presentation to the Colorado Basin Roundtable by Blue Valley Ranch, the company proposes placing jugs of liquid fertilizer at six sites along the river bordering its property, injecting it with as much as nearly 2,000 gallons per year. In an emailed statement from the company, it said it plans to increase the phosphorus concentrations in the river by 3 parts per billion. It would then sample the growth of periphyton, aquatic insects and the fish population. The company cites a project on Idaho’s Kootenai River in which researchers increased phosphorus levels of as much as about 12.5 parts per billion. Bob Steed, the surface water manager for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said the Kootenai River project has increased the size and number of fish without causing toxic algae blooms or other problems with water quality.
But scientists still have reservations. Lisa Kunza, a professor of chemistry biology and health sciences at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology who has studied the ecological impacts of the Kootenai River project, said she wondered whether Blue Valley Ranch plans to spend enough time studying baseline conditions before the experiment. And she wondered what’s motivating the company to do the project.
According to the company’s website, the ranch seeks “to be a leader in conservation.” Its owner, Jones, is an investor whose philanthropy has earned him recognition as a “conservationist.” Jones spent $805,000 on Highway 9 wildlife crossings north of Silverthorne as well as other projects across the county, including setting up a foundation aimed at protecting the Florida Mangroves. The property is known for its intensive management, such as using a diesel-powered backhoe to make the river narrower and deeper, and locals call the stretch of river flowing through the ranch “Jurassic Park.”
Brien Rose, a biologist with Blue Valley Ranch who has worked as a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey, has been giving presentations on the project and speaking with the Department of Public Health and Environment. Rose did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Before the ranch stepped up with the idea, the concept of its experiment was already being discussed among the region’s water managers, some of whom are monitoring conditions upstream and perhaps laying the groundwork for a similar project. The Blue River Watershed Group, which helps manage the river, is backing the project. Supporters see it as a way to help restore the river to a more natural state before the dam trapped its nutrients.
“Studies of the lower Blue River have shown that it is deficient in some nutrients because of the two upstream impoundments on the river. A major goal of this research is to add to the base of knowledge that will ultimately benefit other impounded rivers in the Western United States,” said Brett Davidson, a manager with Blue Valley Ranch, in an emailed statement.
But what the river looked like before the dam is unclear, researchers say. Aside from the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs, the Blue River has been impacted by hardrock mining and the growing mountain towns of Silverthorn, Frisco and Breckenridge. For decades, the state has been stocking the river with brown and rainbow trout, game fish that white settlers introduced to Colorado. One of the reasons the middle section of the Blue River lost its gold-medal status was because the state scaled back stocking.
Sarah Marshall, an ecohydrologist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program at Colorado State University, said she sees the value in Blue Valley Ranch’s experiment. She, too, wants to better understand the effects of phosphorus on a river’s ecology.
But Marshall said “further tinkering” with the river to restore it could have its risks. She added: “The proposed study sounds like a Band-Aid, rather than fixing the underlying causes of degraded stream habitat.”
This story ran in the Dec. 28 edition of The Aspen Times.
The historic wildfire season of 2020 could impact drinking water for more than a million Colorado residents. Environmental researchers and natural resource specialists have conducted a BAER Survey, which stands for Burned Area Emergency Response.
The survey evaluated how the record-breaking Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires could impact Colorado’s snowpack and watershed.
The Poudre and Upper Colorado River Basins provide drinking water for more than a million people in northern Colorado, and soon those in Thornton. The Colorado River also flows from Willow Creek Reservoir near Granby to Las Vegas and farther southwest.
The months-long battle with both blazes charred the natural filters along rivers and creeks, which eventually provide drinking water for most of the northern front range.
“Our concerns really are actually about the entire watershed,” said Jeff Stahla, spokesperson for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
In an interview with CBS4’s Logan Smith, Stahla said the approach to preserving and protecting the watershed in the years to come was directly altered by the High Park Fire of 2012, where researchers learned what to do and what not to do.
For example, pulling undersized culverts and digging water bars is more effective than reseeding or spreading hay bales.
“This is something you won’t be able to resolve by dropping seeds from a helicopter, the scale is so large,” Stahla said. “The concern is that if there is a large weather event that occurs over that area, that you will have uncontrolled removal of debris and sediment that will go in to our reservoirs.”
During the fires of 2020, water conservation experts monitored how the burn scar could impact drinking water.
“We recognized that it was no longer just a small localized event, but it was something that would effect the entire Upper Colorado River shed,” Stahla said.
Due to the extended period the fires burned, especially the Cameron Peak Fire, not every area of the burn scars impact nearby rivers and streams equally. While some portions of the terrain were significantly burned with hot fire that “resided” in the same spot for an extended period, others were more fortunate.
Stahla said many local water districts are now teaming up to help protect the health of the watershed in the years to come. By unifying and prioritizing the health of the water system as a whole, Stahla said the strength of the landscape and watershed can bounce back quicker…
Researchers hope to return to the burn scars in the spring once snow has melted to evaluate next steps. Local municipalities are working with the Bureau of Reclamation to expedite the process.
[A.J.] Carrillo is planning to convert his Deer Tree Farm from flood irrigation, which is commonly used in Western Colorado, to a new and much more efficient style of irrigation – microsprinklers.
Changing irrigation methods is something more and more Western Slope producers are doing, from small to large. With help from federal funding, they’re able to apply less water to grow their crops and make their land more resilient to drought. And more importantly, the switch also means that fewer pollutants run off their fields into the Colorado River, keeping it cleaner all the way down to Mexico.
Salt and selenium occur naturally in the shaly soils of the Gunnison Basin, leftovers from a prehistoric inland sea. Both substances are harmful to plants, fish and humans. Flood irrigation of fields allows water to penetrate deep into the soil, where it dissolves out salt and selenium.
The contaminated water then runs off into ditches that eventually dump into the Gunnison River, and from there into the Colorado. The result is that farms in the Gunnison Basin send more than 360,000 tons of salt into the Colorado River each year…
All that salt must be removed before water can be used for drinking or industrial purposes, which is expensive. And when salty river water is used for irrigation, it stunts crop growth and can eventually make farmland unusable if the salt builds to a high enough concentration, said Perry Cabot, a water resources specialist with Colorado State University…
In California’s Imperial Valley, which grows about 80 percent of the nation’s winter vegetables, irrigating with Colorado River water has caused some fields to become so salty that they have been abandoned.
Selenium is a problem too. It’s especially harmful to the Colorado River’s four endangered fish species, including the humpback chub and razorback sucker…
The same actions that reduce selenium – improving irrigation efficiency and reducing runoff – help reduce salt as well. And those programs have a far-reaching impact.
During the 1960s, so much salt flowed into the Colorado River from U.S. farms that Mexico, at the downstream end, could no longer use it for irrigation; a solution was finally negotiated in the 1970s requiring major reductions in the river’s saltiness. Laws were passed, and an array of federal program were created that gave farmers incentives to improve their irrigation methods.
Since then, the Colorado has gotten considerably cleaner. Casey Harrison, a soil conservationist who works with farmers through the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, is part of that cleanup effort. In the Gunnison River Basin, the NRCS spends about $7 million a year to help roughly 75 farmers and ranchers convert to microsprinklers and other efficient irrigation methods.
The NRCS tailors plans to each producer’s operations, Harrison said, no matter how large or small…
The federal financial support is key. The costs of installing new irrigation systems cannot be borne by farmers alone, CSU’s Perry Cabot said. Agricultural producers are running a business, and they do not want to spend tens of thousands of dollars to make a change unless there is some clear incentive.
“If we as a society value food production as part of our economic infrastructure, it’s unrealistic to expect them to just bear the burden without societal help,” Cabot said.
Back at Deer Tree farm, farmer AJ Carillo says the operation will have a new irrigation system by fall 2021, thanks largely to NRCS funding and support. The change to microsprinklers will give him greater precision and control in water use.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Winter may be the offseason when it comes to a lot of construction work, but for ongoing efforts to line local irrigation canals, it’s the only practical time for further pursuing multi-year efforts to line them.
Doing so locally helps address salinity problems throughout the Colorado River Basin, meaning that irrigation entities can tap federal funds to pay for much of the work. But it also provides the side benefit of making canals able to deliver water more efficiently, in higher volumes, multiplying the payback for the millions of dollars that get invested in such work.
In September, the federal Bureau of Reclamation announced that it will distribute $33.7 million for salinity control projects in western Colorado over the next three to five years. This includes nearly $4.7 million for the Grand Valley Water Users Association for continued lining of the Government Highline Canal, and about $1.23 million to the Grand Valley Irrigation Company for a fifth phase of lining it has been doing over the past decade or so thanks to Bureau of Reclamation salinity control funding.
Lining canals limits seepage of water into the ground, where that water can pick up salt before eventually reaching the Colorado River, which is relied upon by downstream states and Mexico. High salinity in the river reduces crop yields downstream for farmers reliant on the river water, and can increase water treatment costs and corrode things such as household appliances, reducing their useful life.
In Colorado, salinity control efforts by the Bureau of Reclamation also include the operation of a deep injection well for salty groundwater in Montrose County’s Paradox Valley. While that project has been highly effective in salt removal, it is increasingly causing earthquakes and the future of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Paradox desalination program is uncertain as the well nears the end of its serviceable life.
23,426 TONS OF SALT A YEAR
In the Grand Junction area, groundwater reaching the river percolates through Mancos shale associated with an inland sea that left salt deposits behind tens of millions of years ago. The Bureau of Reclamation estimates that a total of $37.2 million it will distribute to 11 projects in western Colorado and Wyoming over the next few years will keep about 23,426 tons a year from entering the Colorado River.
The last lining work the Grand Valley Water Users Association did on the Government Highline Canal was finished last year and ended at 36-3/10 Road in the Palisade area. The work being undertaken now will pick up from there and run to 35 3/10 Road, covering some 6,100 feet of canal length, said Mark Harris, the association’s general manager.
The canal is operated by the association and owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. The project the new funding will cover most of will take place over three winters, and Grand Valley Water Users Association is covering about 10% of the cost through cash and in-kind contributions.
The funding the Grand Valley Irrigation Company is getting will be used for work on close to a mile of the Grand Valley Canal over multiple years, on stretches running by Bookcliff Gardens and the Crown Point Cemetery area. Phil Bertrand with the Grand Valley Irrigation Company said the hope is to get about 300 or 400 feet lined in the first phase of that work this year.
Grand Valley Irrigation’s project involves a little more than $149,000 in matching funding, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
Harris said the work on the Government Highline Canal will include restoring its shape where needed. A fuzzy geotextile layer will be laid down to help protect the water-sealing PVC liner that’s put on top of it from the underlying earth and rocks. The PVC liner is covered with another fabric liner, and then three inches of concrete are added on top to help protect the canal from abrasion from sand and silt flowing through the canal.
A drainage system also is being installed below the canal to help control the accumulation of underlying groundwater that can damage the canal lining when it is drained due to pressure exerted on it. The water in the canal when full otherwise counters that pressure…
Canal lining also reduces seepage that can impact adjacent private property. In addition, it can reduce the amount of selenium that also leaches along with salt into the river. High selenium levels in soil are particularly a concern in the Gunnison River Valley, and high levels in the Gunnison and Colorado rivers can threaten wildlife including endangered fish…
Harris said some sections along the Government Highline Canal cause more salt loading in the river than others. Localized levels of salt underground, the underground geological structure in an area and how much water that seeps from the canal actually makes it to the river all can play roles in salt loading, and areas of the canal with a lot of seeping aren’t necessarily where lining results in the most reduction of salt…
The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association got more than $5 million in funding, and Grandview Canal & Irrigation Co. in the Crawford area received more than $6.3 million. Needle/Rock Ditch Company, also in the Crawford area, is receiving about $4.24 million, and Pilot Rock Ditch Company in eastern Delta County is getting more than $940,000. The Turner Ditch Company near Paonia will receive about $6.15 million.
All of those projects entail installing pressurized pipe. Some involve matching funds and others are being completely paid for by the Bureau of Reclamation.
A local initiative called the Lower Gunnison Project tries to take advantage of salinity-control funds and leverage them with other funding sources to make projects go further, Kanzer said. That project’s goals are wide-ranging, from reducing salt and selenium loading in the Gunnison River, to pursuing more efficient delivery and on-farm application of irrigation water, to improving soil health and boosting agricultural productivity…
Canal-lining projects also can have wetlands projects associated with them. Where wetland habitat is destroyed as a result of the work, it has to be replaced elsewhere, Harris said. In the case of the Grand Valley Water Users Association project, crews will be creating new wetlands at the Colorado River Island State Wildlife Area south of D Road. Harris said the project will involve some 1,500 plantings and will result in creation of habitat far superior to what is being replaced…
The Grand Valley Water Users Association’s canal project is occurring as the association also is in the middle of work to replace electrical and operating equipment at the Grand Valley Diversion Dam, the roller dam in De Beque Canyon. Harris said such projects “all kind of fit together” in improving water delivery in the Grand Valley, but are expensive. It’s hard for the association to pay for something like the current lining project internally through assessments, he said.
Bicycling the Colorado National Monument, Grand Valley in the distance via Colorado.com
The Government Highline Canal, in Palisade. The Government Highline Canal near Grand Junction. The Grand Valley Water Users Association, which operates the canal, has been experimenting with a program that pays water users to fallow fields and reduce their consumptive use of water. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The Grand River Diversion Dam, also known as the “Roller Dam”, was built in 1913 to divert water from the Colorado River to the Government Highline Canal, which farmers use to irrigate their lands in the Grand Valley. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism
These are hills of exposed Mancos shale in Delta County. Selenium is a natural element found in the soil type that is common in the Uncompahgre and Grand valleys. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil/Aspen Journalism
Delta County farmer Paul Kehmeier stands atop a diversion structure that was built as part of a project to improve irrigation infrastructure completed between 2014 and 2019. Kehmeier served as manager for the ditch-improvement project, which was 90% funded by the Bureau of Reclamation and serves 10 Delta County farms with water diverted from Surface Creek, a tributary of the Gunnison River. Lining and piping ditches, the primary methods used to prevent salt and selenium from leaching into the water supply, are critical to the protection of endangered fish in the Gunnison and Colorado river basins. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil/Aspen Journalism
Because the existing brine injection well is nearing the end of its useful life, the Bureau of Reclamation investigated alternatives for disposing of the brine. Reclamation has prepared and released a Final Environmental Impact Statement. The FEIS review period is from December 11, 2020 to January 11, 2021. Alternatives analyzed in the FEIS include a new injection well, evaporation ponds, zero liquid discharge technology, and no action.
After weighing the benefits and impacts of the alternatives analyzed in the FEIS, the Bureau of Reclamation has identified the no action alternative as the preferred alternative.
The no action alternative achieves the best balance among the various goals and objectives outlined in the FEIS, including: optimizing costs; minimizing adverse effects on the affected environment; minimizing the use of nonrenewable resources; consistency with Bureau of Land Management Resource Management Plans; and being in the best interest of the public, including considerations of health and safety.
The Paradox Valley Unit injection well will continue to operate until it becomes infeasible. New technically, environmentally and economically viable alternatives may be investigated in the future to continue salinity control at Paradox Valley.
From the University of Colorado (Kelsey Simpkins):
A long-term trend of ecological improvement is appearing in the mountains west of Boulder. Researchers from CU Boulder have found that Niwot Ridge—a high alpine area of the Rocky Mountains, east of the Continental Divide—is slowly recovering from increased acidity caused by vehicle emissions in Colorado’s Front Range.
Their results show that nitric and sulfuric acid levels in the Green Lakes Valley region of Niwot Ridge have generally decreased over the past 30 years, especially since the mid-2000s. The findings, which suggest that alpine regions across the Mountain West may be recovering, are published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences.
This is good news for the wildlife and wildflowers of Rocky Mountain National Park to the north of Niwot Ridge, which depend on limited levels of acidity in the water and soil to thrive. Colorado’s Rocky Mountains are also the source of a lot of water for people living in the Mountain West, and the integrity of these ecosystems influences both the quantity and the quality of this water.
“It looks like we’re doing the right thing. By controlling vehicle emissions, some of these really special places that make Colorado unique are going back to what they used to be,” said Jason Neff, co-author on the paper and director of the Sustainability Innovation Lab at Colorado (SILC).
Almost every area in the world, including Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, has been affected in the past 200 years by increased acidic nutrients, like nitrogen, contained in rain and snow. Nitrogen oxides, like nitrate, are produced primarily from vehicles and energy production. Ammonium is a main ingredient in common agricultural fertilizers.
Nitrogen is a fundamental nutrient required in ecosystems. But when nitrogen levels increase too much, this changed soil and water chemistry can make it difficult for native plants to thrive or even survive—leading to a cascade of negative consequences.
In the summer, the sun heats up the Eastern flanks of the Front Range, causing the warmer air to rise—bringing nitrogen from cars, industry and agriculture with it. As this air cools, it forms clouds over the Rocky Mountains and falls back down as afternoon thunderstorms—depositing contaminants, explained Neff.
In the 1970s, so-called “acid rain” hit East Coast ecosystems much harder than the Mountain West, famously wiping out fish populations and killing trees across large swaths of upstate New York. But scientists are still working to understand how increased levels of acidic nutrients affect the alpine region and how long these ecosystems take to recover.
To fill this gap of knowledge, the researchers analyzed data from 1984 to 2017 on atmospheric deposition and stream water chemistry from the Mountain Research Station, a research facility of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) and CU Boulder located on Niwot Ridge. They found that around the early 2000s, levels of nitric and sulfuric acid stopped increasing in the Green Lakes Valley. In the mid-2000s they started decreasing.
Their findings were not all good news, however. Levels of ammonium from fertilizer have more than doubled in rainfall in this area between 1984 and 2017, indicating a need to continue monitoring this agricultural chemical and its effects on the mountain ecosystem.
From field work to statistics
This work builds on decades of field work by Colorado researchers at CU Boulder and beyond.
Niwot Ridge is one of 28 Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network sites in the U.S., funded by the National Science Foundation. Its 4 square miles stretch from the Continental Divide down to the subalpine forest, 25 miles northwest of Boulder. Researchers at CU Boulder, as well as Colorado State University and the United States Geological Survey, have been collecting data here since the mid-1970s, hiking through snow, sleet and rain to get it.
In the 80s, 90s and 2000s they worked to bring attention to increasing acidification in Colorado mountain ecosystems as a need for pollution regulation in the Front Range.
This new research was made possible by these dedicated scientists, stresses Neff.
“We used water quality modeling and statistical approaches to analyze the long-term datasets that Niwot researchers have been collecting for decades,” said Eve-Lyn Hinckley, a co-author on the paper and fellow of INSTAAR. “The data are available for anyone to download. Our modeling approaches allowed us to evaluate the patterns they hold in a rigorous way.”
Since 1990, Bill Bowman, director of the Mountain Research Station and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has been looking into how nutrients like nitrogen affect plants in mountain ecosystems. He’s found that alpine environments are unique in how they respond to these nutrients.
“It’s a system that is adapted to low nutrients, as well as a harsh climate and a very short growing season—and frost in the middle of the season. These are very slow growing plants. And they just simply can’t respond to the addition of more nitrogen into the system,” said Bowman, also a fellow in INSTAAR.
He has also found that these ecosystems recover quite slowly, even after acidic elements like nitrogen are no longer being added. But like Neff, who completed his undergraduate honors thesis with Bowman in 1993 using Niwot Ridge data, he sees this research as encouraging.
Even if it’s slow going, they said, these results show that the ecosystem has a chance to recover.
“We still have air quality issues in the Front Range. But even with those air quality issues, this research shows that regulating vehicle and power plant emissions is having a big impact,” said Neff.
Additional authors on this paper include lead author John Crawford of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) and CU Boulder.
There’s new evidence about the extent of pollution from PFAS compounds—the so-called “forever chemicals”—that were used in non-stick cookware and many other products like firefighting foam and food packaging. PFAS has been linked to suppressed immune function, cancers, and other human health issues. Now, the compounds have been found in a mosquito pesticide, Anvil 10+10, which has been widely applied across the country and could be contaminating water supplies with the toxins.
Anvil is sprayed from helicopters, airplanes, and trucks and is used in at least 25 states from Massachusetts to California. A group known as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) found PFAS in Anvil samples, and as the Boston Globe reports, the state of Massachusetts confirmed the pesticide contains the compounds. Given the widespread use of the pesticide over the years, specialists say it’s likely that the chemicals have leached into groundwater and other water sources.
The Clarke company, which makes the product, said no PFAS ingredients are used in the formulation of Anvil, but acknowledged the chemicals could have been introduced though manufacturing or packaging. Officials at EPA, who’ve been criticized for delaying new standards to reduce PFAS exposure, said they were looking into the findings and plan to conduct their own analysis.
A representative of PEER said it’s frightening that we do not know how many other pesticides, insecticides, or even disinfectants contain PFAS.
Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter declared that these findings shock the conscience and that states likely have unknowingly contaminated communities’ water with PFAS hidden in pesticides, and she charged that, once again, the EPA has failed to protect the American people from harmful pollution.
Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection AgencyK:
Aggressively addressing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the environment continues to be an active and ongoing priority for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Today, the agency is announcing two important steps to address PFAS. First, EPA issued a memorandum detailing an interim National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting strategy for addressing PFAS in EPA-issued wastewater permits. Second, EPA released information on progress in developing new analytical methods to test for PFAS compounds in wastewater and other environmental media. Together, these actions help ensure that federally enforceable wastewater monitoring for PFAS can begin as soon as validated analytical methods are finalized.
“Better understanding and addressing PFAS is a top priority for EPA, and the agency is continuing to develop needed research and policies,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “For the first time in EPA’s history, we are utilizing all of our program offices to address a singular, cross-cutting contaminant and the agency’s efforts are critical to supporting our state and local partners.”
“Managing and mitigating PFAS in water is a priority for the Office of Water as we continue our focus on meeting 21st century challenges,” said EPA Assistant Administrator for Water David Ross. “These actions mark important steps in developing the underlying science and permitting techniques to address PFAS in wastewater where the discharge of these chemicals may be of concern.”
EPA’s interim NPDES permitting strategy for PFAS provides recommendations from a cross-agency workgroup on an interim approach to include PFAS-related conditions in EPA-issued NPDES permits. EPA is the permitting authority for three states (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico), the District of Columbia, most U.S. territories including Puerto Rico, Indian Country, and certain federal facilities. The strategy advises EPA permit writers to consider including PFAS monitoring at facilities where these chemicals are expected to be present in wastewater discharges, including from municipal separate storm sewer systems and industrial stormwater permits. The PFAS that could be considered for monitoring are those that will have validated EPA analytical methods for wastewater testing, which the agency anticipates being available on a phased-in schedule as multi-lab validated wastewater analytical methods are finalized. The agency’s interim strategy also encourages the use of best management practices where appropriate to control or abate the discharge of PFAS and includes recommendations to facilitate information sharing to foster adoption of best practices across states and localities.
In coordination with the interim NPDES permitting strategy, EPA is also providing information on the status of analytical methods needed to test for PFAS in wastewater. EPA is developing analytical methods in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Defense to test for PFAS in wastewater and other environmental media, such as soils. The agency is releasing a list of 40 PFAS chemicals that are the subject of analytical method development. This method would be in addition to Method 533 and Method 537.1 that are already approved and can measure 29 PFAS chemicals in drinking water. EPA anticipates that multi-lab validated testing for PFAS will be finalized in 2021. For more information on testing method validation, see https://www.epa.gov/cwa-methods.
EPA continues to make progress under its PFAS Action Plan to protect the environment and human health, including:
Highlighted Action: Drinking Water
In December 2019, EPA accomplished a key milestone in the PFAS Action Plan by publishing a new validated method to accurately test for 11 additional PFAS in drinking water. Method 533 complements EPA Method 537.1, and the agency can now measure 29 chemicals.
In February 2020, EPA took an important step in implementing the agency’s PFAS Action Plan by proposing to regulate PFOA and PFOS drinking water.
EPA also asked for information and data on other PFAS substances, as well as sought comment on potential monitoring requirements and regulatory approaches.
In November 2020, EPA issued a memo detailing an interim National Pollutant Discharge Elimination (NPDES) permitting strategy for PFAS. The agency also released information on progress in developing new analytical methods to test for PFAS compounds in wastewater and other environmental media.
The recommendations provide a starting point for making site-specific cleanup decisions and will help protect drinking water resources in communities across the country.
In July 2020, EPA submitted the Interim Guidance on the Destruction and Disposal of PFAS and Materials Containing PFAS to OMB for interagency review. The guidance would:
Provide information on technologies that may be feasible and appropriate for the destruction or disposal of PFAS and PFAS-containing materials.
Identify ongoing research and development activities related to destruction and disposal technologies, which may inform future guidance.
EPA is working on the proposed rule to designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under CERCLA. In the absence of the rule, EPA has used its existing authorities to compel cleanups.
Highlighted Action: Monitoring
In July 2020, EPA transmitted the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule 5 (UCMR 5) proposal to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for interagency review. EPA anticipates proposing nationwide drinking water monitoring for PFAS that uses new methods that can detect PFAS at lower concentrations than previously possible.
Highlighted Action: Toxics
In September 2019, EPA issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking that would allow the public to provide input on adding PFAS to the Toxics Release Inventory toxic chemical list.
In June 2020, EPA issued a final regulation that added a list of 172 PFAS chemicals to Toxics Release Inventory reporting as required by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020.
In July 2020, EPA issued a final regulation that can stop products containing PFAS from entering or reentering the marketplace without EPA’s explicit permission.
Highlighted Action: Scientific Leadership
EPA continues to compile and assess human and ecological toxicity information on PFAS to support risk management decisions.
EPA continues to develop new methods to test for additional PFAS in drinking water.
The agency is also validating analytical methods for surface water, groundwater, wastewater, soils, sediments and biosolids; developing new methods to test for PFAS in air and emissions; and improving laboratory methods to discover unknown PFAS.
EPA is developing exposure models to understand how PFAS moves through the environment to impact people and ecosystems.
EPA is working to develop tools to assist officials with the cleanup of contaminated sites.
In July 2020, EPA added new treatment information for removing PFAS from drinking water.
Highlighted Action: Technical Assistance
Just as important as the progress on PFAS at the federal level are EPA efforts to form partnerships with states, tribes, and local communities across the country.
EPA has provided assistance to more than 30 states to help address PFAS, and the agency is continuing to build on this support.
These joint projects allow EPA to take the knowledge of its world-class scientists and apply it in a collaborative fashion where it counts most.
Highlighted Action: Enforcement
EPA continues to use enforcement tools, when appropriate, to address PFAS exposure in the environment and assist states in enforcement activities.
To date, across the nation, EPA has addressed PFAS in 15 cases using a variety of enforcement tools under SDWA, TSCA, RCRA, and CERCLA (where appropriate), and will continue to do so to protect public health and the environment.
Highlighted Action: Grants and Funding
Under this Administration, EPA’s Office of Research and Development has awarded over $15 million through dozens of grants for PFAS research.
In May 2019, EPA awarded approximately $3.9 million through two grants for research that will improve the agency’s understanding of human and ecological exposure to PFAS in the environment. This research will also promote a greater awareness of how to restore water quality in PFAS-impacted communities.
In September 2019, EPA awarded nearly $6 million to fund research by eight organizations to expand the agency’s understanding of the environmental risks posed by PFAS in waste streams and to identify practical approaches to manage potential impacts as PFAS enters the environment.
In August 2020, EPA awarded $4.8 million in funding for federal research to help identify potential impacts of PFAS to farms, ranches, and rural communities.
Highlighted Action: Risk Communications
EPA is working collaboratively to develop a risk communication toolbox that includes multimedia materials and messaging for federal, state, tribal, and local partners to use with the public.
State water-quality officials will soon evaluate whether two water-improvement programs in the Gunnison River basin have successfully reduced a chemical that is toxic to endangered fish.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Division is analyzing five years of data on selenium levels in the Gunnison, where heightened selenium and salinity have harmed Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker populations.
If selenium levels stay at or below the state standard of 4.6 micrograms per liter in any of the segments of river that are analyzed by division staff, those segments will be reclassified from a water body that threatens aquatic life to one that meets state water-quality standards, said Skip Feeney, assessment workgroup leader for the Water Quality Control Division.
After analyzing selenium data, the division will submit a proposal after the first of the year to the CDPHE Water Quality Control Commission recommending a status change if necessary, Feeney said.
“Our goal is to provide an accurate, defensible proposal to the commission and let the commission make an informed decision,” Feeney said. In an October interview, he said he didn’t yet know “what the water-quality status is looking like.” He added: “That’s just part of the process — we’re just getting started.”
Reclassifying the river has been a goal since the establishment nearly a dozen years ago of the Selenium Management Program, a collaboration among government agencies, nonprofits and stakeholders.
Observers have found elevated selenium levels throughout the basin, but a key river segment of focus is the main stretch of the lower Gunnison that winds for 58 miles from Delta to the confluence with the Colorado River in Grand Junction. This section, which begins at the confluence with the Uncompahgre River, was designated in 1994 as essential to pikeminnow and razorback survival by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Historically, this segment, which runs through the basin’s most populated and developed corridor, has contained selenium levels toxic to the two species of fish, according to Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer for the Colorado River Water Conservation District and a member of the Selenium Management Program.
During the last regulation cycle, which used data gathered from multiple different entities from 2010 to 2015, the calculated level for selenium in the mainstem of the Gunnison was 6.7 micrograms per liter, a level that is 2.1 micrograms above the state standard, according to MaryAnn Nason, the communications and special-projects unit manager at CDPHE.
Yet, the past five years of U.S. Geological Survey data show that selenium levels have stayed below 4.6 micrograms. Each yearly average was below 4.6, with the average for all five years sitting at 3.2, according to an analysis by Aspen Journalism.
Kanzer cautioned that the calculation using only USGS data was “not directly applicable to the CDPHE listing methodology” — because it doesn’t take into account all available data — but he said “it does tell a good story.”
To calculate the final selenium load for each segment in the Gunnison River, CDPHE is analyzing data from the past five years from the USGS; Colorado River Watch, an environmental advocacy organization; the state; and United Companies, a Grand Junction-based construction company that is required by the state to monitor selenium levels near the gravel pits that the company operates.
Selenium’s origins and pathway to the rivers
Selenium is a natural element found in Mancos shale, a soil common throughout the Uncompahgre and Grand valleys in the Gunnison River basin. When irrigators transport water to and through their farms in open canals, selenium dissolves in the water and either percolates into groundwater or gets carried into drainage ditches that discharge into the Gunnison.
“Where we have good flows of water, (selenium) concentrations are not an issue because of dilution,” Kanzer said. “But smaller tributaries, smaller water areas or backwater areas where you don’t have good circulation, you get selenium that can accumulate in the ecosystem, really in the sediment and in the food web.”
Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker exist only in the Colorado River basin, said Travis Schmidt, a research ecologist for the Wyoming-Montana Water Science Center. The species are able to swim between the Colorado and Gunnison rivers with the aid of a fish passage at the Redlands Diversion Dam on the lower Gunnison, accumulating selenium and transferring the element to their offspring.
Selenium gathers in fish tissues when females ingest algae or smaller fish. It then is transferred to offspring during the egg-laying process, Schmidt said.
“Selenium replaces sulfur in protein bonds, so anything that lays an egg can transfer a lot of selenium to its progeny,” he said.
Once transferred to fish eggs, the element causes neurological, reproductive and other physiological deformities in a significant proportion of both species of fish, Schmidt said. A study that analyzed fish-tissue samples collected by federal and state agencies from 1962 to 2011 found that 63% of Colorado pikeminnows and 35% of razorback suckers exceeded healthy selenium tissue concentrations in the upper Colorado River basin.
’A happy, fringe benefit of salinity control’
Selenium was first addressed by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009 in a document written for the Bureau of Reclamation. The document analyzed the effects of the Aspinall Unit — a series of three dams on the upper Gunnison River — on Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker recovery. In the document, the service concluded that in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act, the Bureau of Reclamation had to increase spring flows downstream of the Aspinall Unit and initiate a management program to reduce selenium in the Gunnison. As a result, the Selenium Management Program was founded in 2009.
“It’s a two-prong type of plan,” Kanzer said of the program’s goals.
The first objective is to meet the state standard for dissolved selenium throughout the Gunnison River basin, particularly for the 58-mile main segment, Kanzer said. The second goal is to help transition the pikeminnow and razorback sucker from endangered populations to self-sustaining populations, Kanzer said.
Program members help irrigators obtain funding from the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Agriculture, said Lesley McWhirter, the environmental and planning group chief for the bureau’s Western Colorado Area Office. Individual farmers can apply for funding for on-farm irrigation projects through the Department of Agriculture, and ditch companies can apply for funding projects that deliver water to farms through the Bureau of Reclamation’s Salinity Control Program.
The goal of the salinity program, which was started in 1974, is to reduce salt loading into the Colorado River basin. The program awards grants to ditch companies every two to three years. In the last grant cycle, in 2019, the Bureau of Reclamation awarded 11 ditch companies a combined $37 million to line irrigation systems. Of the 11 companies, eight are located in Mesa, Montrose and Delta counties, where the Gunnison River runs, according to McWhirter.
Mancos shale is rich in salt and selenium. So, when farmers receive funding to reduce salt loads, selenium often decreases as well. This is exemplified by a USGS analysis that found selenium loads had decreased by 43% from 1986 to 2017 and by 6,600 pounds annually from 1995 to 2017.
“The selenium control is a happy, fringe benefit of salinity control,” said Delta County farmer Paul Kehmeier.
CDPHE plans to submit proposal in January
CDPHE plans to submit its proposal to the Water Quality Control Commission in early January, Nason said.
If the main segment of the Gunnison River is found to have selenium levels below the state standard, it would mean the Selenium Management Program is closer to obtaining the dual goals of fish protection and selenium reduction, Kanzer said.
Even if the main segment of the Gunnison is reclassified, the Selenium Management Program will continue efforts to reduce selenium in the Gunnison basin, Kanzer said. These efforts include data gathering and analysis and facilitating meetings among government agencies, nonprofits and stakeholders.
The Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker depend on the entire Gunnison basin, so other segments containing toxic selenium levels require reduction efforts. If any new research shows that fish are harmed by selenium at levels lower than 4.6 micrograms per liter, the state could lower the selenium standard, reclassifying segments of the Gunnison as a danger to aquatic life, Kanzer said.
“The jury’s still out — we’re still trying to understand what levels are acceptable and not acceptable,” he said. “There’s always room for refinement of that standard, and that dialogue is ongoing.”
After the division submits its proposal to the commission, the proposal will be released to stakeholders and anyone who has applied to receive hearing notices or track Colorado’s regulations. The public can submit their own proposals or comments by emailing the commission. In May, the commission will review all proposals and comments to make a decision on the river segment’s 2020 status, Feeney said.
This story ran in the Dec. 3 edition of The Aspen Times.
Glenwood Springs is spending more than $10 million on repairs and upgrades to water supply infrastructure following Grizzly Creek Fire.
The Grizzly Creek Fire was not even 10% contained. Jumbo jets still were dousing flames as firefighting teams from across the country scrambled to protect Glenwood Springs and a critical watershed above the Colorado River. And teams of scientists were in Glenwood Canyon, too, battling alongside firefighters.
Those hydrologists, biologists, geologists, archaeologists and recreation specialists are still there, even after the flames are gone, waging a behind-the-scenes battle to protect water and natural resources…
Burned Area Emergency Response — or BAER — teams typically come in when a fire is 50% contained to assess damage and create a multi-year restoration plan. Roberts and the Grizzly Creek Fire BAER crew were on the ground when less than 10% of the fire was contained as both forest and fire managers recognized threats to water supplies. In less than three weeks, they had a map detailing where the Grizzly Creek Fire burned hottest, which helped the Colorado Department of Transportation identify areas where rockfall hazards increased in the fire.
In a twist on the BAER assessment — which usually focuses on protecting resources after a fire — the team helped build an emergency communication plan that helped firefighters in the canyon, and identified areas where they could swiftly take cover in the event of rockfall or a sudden rainstorm that could sweep debris and rocks off canyon walls…
It was this early assessment that sparked an urgent plea for help from Glenwood Springs. As firefighters battled back flames on the western edge of the wildfire, the city’s leaders rallied politicians far and wide to acknowledge damage to the city’s water supply infrastructure. Barely three weeks after the wildfire sparked along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, the city had a list of immediate work needed to protect the city’s watershed.
Sen. Michael Bennet prodded the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to unleash millions from the federal Emergency Watershed Protection program. Glenwood Springs was first in line, with a clear message that spring snowmelt, or even a rainstorm, could cripple the city’s water supply…
It didn’t take long for Glenwood Springs to identify immediate repairs and upgrades to protect water systems from expected sediment and debris flowing from scorched canyon walls. First on the list were intake systems on Glenwood Canyon’s Grizzly and No Name creeks. The city also needed an upgrade to a backup water intake on the Roaring Fork River, should the systems in the canyon go down. And finally, the city is eager to finish a long-planned bridge that could help residents flee a wildfire on the south end of town.
By early September, less than a month after the Grizzly Creek Fire started, the city had a list of $86 million in projects. And the money started flowing almost immediately.
The city secured more than $1 million from the NRCS’s Emergency Watershed Program for projects to protect intake infrastructure on No Name and Grizzly creeks, high above the Colorado River…
The city asked the NRCS for wiggle room on the requirement that municipalities pay 25% of the total grant. The service agreed to an 80-20 split, which meant the city needed a little less than $200,000 to protect the structures that funnel millions of gallons of water a day into the city’s water treatment plant.
Work on the Grizzly Creek intake started first, with helicopters ferrying workers 3.8 miles up the drainage. The workers put in steel plates to protect the diversion and valve systems from debris that could clog the intake during the next big rain or spring melt. They stabilized the banks upstream and downstream of the intake, which required flying 11 cubic yards of cement up the drainage.
The team finished in October and then turned to No Name Creek, where intake diversions and valves are accessible by truck. That work included similar protections as Grizzly Creek, plus a concrete wall to keep debris from hitting a city structure on No Name Creek.
The No Name work also included upgrades to a 1962 tunnel near the bottom of the creek, with new strainers and filters designed to remove bulky sediment before water reaches the treatment plant. The No Name work is ongoing but will be completed before the spring melt.
In addition to the intake repairs and upgrades, Glenwood Springs this month secured an $8 million loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The money was among the first awarded through the board’s 2020 Wildfire Impact Loan program, which streamlines funding for municipalities racing to protect watersheds after a wildfire. The program offers 30-year loans with no payment necessary for the first three years.
The $8 million will help design and construct new pipelines from the city’s pump station on the Roaring Fork River, which delivers water uphill to the Red Mountain Water Treatment Plant. Glenwood Springs has two water sources: the intake systems on No Name and Grizzly creeks and the pumps on the Roaring Fork River. The Roaring Fork water is a backup in case either of the intakes on the creeks above the Colorado River go down. But the intakes in Glenwood Canyon and the pumps on the Roaring Fork cannot run at the same time, and the city is building a second pipeline into the Red Mountain Water Treatment Plant so the two sources can deliver water simultaneously, if needed.
“This will give us a lot of resiliency moving into the future. Not just fire resiliency, but it gives us a lot of water resource resiliency,” said Matt Langhorst, the public works director for Glenwood Springs. “Having one water source is not acceptable. We need two or three and this would give us three.”
Glenwood Springs is applying for a Department of Local Affairs grant for the pipeline running from the Roaring Fork River, which would reduce its loan amount from the CWCB.
A third project, still part of that $8 million from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, will plan and construct a concrete basin above the Red Mountain Water Treatment plant that will mix water coming from the Grizzly Creek and No Name intakes with the water from the Roaring Fork River. The mixing basin helps remove sediment and creates a consistent type of water so technicians do not need to overhaul various treatment processes to accommodate different sources of water.
A fourth project — and the biggest — would upgrade the entire Red Mountain Water Treatment Plant, which has not been updated since 1977. An upgraded plant, with new technology, would be able to more quickly and efficiently remove sediment from higher volumes of incoming water…
Sprinkling special-made seeds
The Colorado Water Conservation Board’s emergency loan program was developed in response to the 2013 floods. The idea was to get emergency funds approved by the board ahead of time so communities do not have to wait through a prolonged application and review process. The board’s emergency loan program distributed $23 million in emergency watershed protection funding following the devastating floods in September 2013…
With the fire climbing out the canyon by the middle of September and the risk to crews reduced through communication plans and safety maps, Roberts’ BAER team of specialists started their work on emergency stabilization and long-term restoration.
They created a second burn severity map along with a satellite-derived data map of vegetation in the burn zone. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Landslide Hazards Program also created a similar map identifying areas where debris flow could be heaviest during a rainstorm.
The BAER team started hiking into the canyon, sometimes driving up to the top of the canyon and dropping in from above, and sometimes hiking up. They scoured the soil in burn areas for organic, woody debris and intact roots, which raise the likelihood of natural recovery. Roberts said new plants already are pushing through the charred topsoil.
“What we have seen to date is there is a lot of that organic material and native seed left in the soil that is allowing a lot to come back,” Roberts said, describing a patchy burn in a “mosaic” pattern. “We see good potential for recovery.”
Roberts and her team assisted the natural recovery process, sprinkling seeds as soon as rain and snow dampened the soil. They walked all the fire suppression lines where bulldozers hastily cleared entire swaths of forest and yanked out non-native weeds that took root. And they threw seeds everywhere.
Roberts collected native grass seed from the nearby Flat Tops to create a seed mix for Glenwood Canyon. The mix will produce resilient grasses that help stabilize soil and combat invasive weeds. The team’s reseeding of suppression lines is nearing completion as the snow piles deeper. The stabilization work will continue into next summer.
Emergency trail and road stabilization will pick up in the spring, when Roberts will move into the restoration phase, which includes aggressive mitigation to prevent non-native weeds and monitoring vegetation growth.
Researchers with Utah State University also joined Roberts in the field and launched a year-long study of how the Grizzly Creek Fire impacts runoff and erosion. The researchers expect the data — gathered from USGS gauges upstream and downstream of the burn zone as well as monitoring equipment inside the canyon — will help better calibrate the models used to predict debris flow in areas burned by wildfire.
Latino voters, regardless of partisan differences, support legislation that makes real and lasting climate progress while also growing the economy, according to a new poll from Latino Decisions and Environmental Defense Fund Action.
Scientists have warned time is running out to change course to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, but Esther Sosa, diverse partners project manager with Environmental Defense Action Fund, said too often the focus has been on saving starving polar bears on melting icebergs.
The group’s new poll finds Colorado’s Latino residents — from communities located disproportionately in the shadows of refineries and coal-fired power plants — support policies to reduce pollution by switching to clean energy sources.
“We don’t talk enough about the people whose health and quality of life are harmed,” Sosa said. “The poll found that Latino voters understand the connection between a clean environment and their health.”
The poll says across the political spectrum, more than 90% of Colorado Latino voters want drinking water to be protected from contamination, and 82% want environmental protections reinstated that were rolled back under the Trump administration.
While the administration took steps to prevent job loss in the fossil-fuel sector, nearly 8 in 10 Latino voters want the next president and Congress to jump-start the post-COVID economy through long-term investments in clean energy, including wind and solar.
Latinos earning less than $50,000 a year who lost jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic are more likely to support investments in clean-energy jobs. Sosa said Latino voters understand communities that have long relied on the fossil-fuel sector for good-paying jobs need other options…
Sosa said the poll contradicts long-held assumptions that working-class communities of color aren’t interested in environmental issues. She said it also confirms that communities forced to live in areas subject to air and water pollution, through redlining and other policies, care deeply about the environment and are concerned about further exposure to the worst impacts of climate change.
Like anyone that has so far avoided getting COVID-19, I am most thankful for that this year. I could easily stop there.
However, yesterday the Army Corps of Engineers announced the denial of a permit for the Pebble Mine that was to be constructed in the most important salmon fishery in the world. And, to my surprise the environment and the Clean Water Act won out.
The Army Corps of Engineers today formally denied a permit for the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska.
In August, the Corps found the mine “cannot be permitted” as proposed under the Clean Water Act following a determination that discharges at the mine site would cause unavoidable, adverse impacts and significant degradation of aquatic resources in Bristol Bay.
Last week, the mine’s developers submitted a new plan for how it would abate the mine’s threat to this globally significant salmon fishery. The developer did not release the plan and the Corps declined to make it available for public comment.
The following is a statement by Lynn Scarlett, chief external affairs officer for The Nature Conservancy:
“Today’s decision affirms what the science and local communities have said all along: Pebble is the wrong mine in the wrong place. The decision is a win for this world-class salmon fishery and the Alaska Natives who have thrived in this region for millennia. This is a commendable and necessary determination that will help protect this watershed and the economies it supports. We appreciate the Army Corps for making the right decision to deny the permit for Pebble Mine, and we’re grateful for the many people who have spoken up with their perspectives and expertise for years so that we could reach this moment.
“Even with this encouraging development, without permanent protection, Bristol Bay’s future is far from certain. Any outcome for the region must align with the health and well-being of Indigenous communities, including a focus on economic opportunity. This can only happen with collaboration, transparency and through decisions informed by science. We will continue supporting Tribal and local governments, Alaska Native corporations, businesses, and other stakeholders in their efforts to chart a sustainable and equitable future for Bristol Bay.”
FromThe Washington Post (Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis):
In a statement, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska Commander Col. Damon Delarosa said that a plan to deal with waste from the Pebble Mine “does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines,” and that “the proposed project is contrary to the public interest.”
While the Trump administration has pressed ahead to weaken environmental protections and expand energy development before the president’s term ends in January, the decision to torpedo the long-disputed mine represents a major win for environmentalists, fishing enthusiasts and tribal rights.
“Today’s decision speaks volumes about how bad this project is, how uniquely unacceptable it is,” Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has fought the mine for years, said in an interview. “We’ve had to kill this project more than once, and we’re going to continue killing for as long as it takes to protect Bristol Bay.”
Trump officials had allowed the Pebble Limited Partnership, a subsidiary of a Canadian firm, to apply for a permit even though the Obama administration had concluded in 2014 that the firm could not seek federal approval because the project could have “significant” and potentially “catastrophic” impacts on the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. As recently as July, the Corps concluded that the mine would have “no measurable effect” on area fish populations.
State and federal agencies warned that the project would permanently damage the region, destroying more than 2,800 acres of wetlands, 130 miles of streams and more than 130 acres of open water within Alaska’s Koktuli River watershed. The proposed site lies at the river’s headwaters.
An unlikely coalition of opponents formed when President Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Vice President Pence’s former chief of staff, Nick Ayers — who all have enjoyed fishing or hunting around Bristol Bay — joined with traditional environmental groups and the region’s tribes in opposition to the project.
Opponents received a major boost in September when the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released recordings of secretly taped Zoom calls in which the project’s top executives boasted of their influence inside the White House and to Alaska lawmakers to win a federal permit. Alaska’s two GOP senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, issued statements saying they opposed the plan and within days Pebble’s chief executive, Tom Collier, resigned.
Both senators praised the administration’s decision.
“Today, the Army Corps has made the correct decision, based on an extensive record and the law, that the project cannot and should not be permitted,” Sullivan said. He added that he supports mining in Alaska, but given the project’s potential impact on the state’s fisheries and subsistence hunting, “Pebble had to meet a high bar so that we do not trade one resource for another.”
Pebble issued a plan to the Corps this fall outlining how it would compensate for any damage inflicted by the project, which would span more than 13 miles and require the construction of a 270-megawatt power plant, natural-gas pipeline, 82-mile double-lane road, elaborate storage facilities and the dredging of a port at Iliamna Bay…
Bristol Bay Native Corporation President Jason Metrokin, also its chief executive, said his group and others will keep working “to ensure that wild salmon continue to thrive in Bristol Bay waters, bringing with them the immense cultural, subsistence and economic benefits that we all have enjoyed for so long.”
“The credit for this victory belongs not to any politician but to Alaskans and Bristol Bay’s Indigenous peoples, as well as to hunters, anglers and wildlife enthusiasts from all across the country who spoke out in opposition to this dangerous and ill-conceived project,” [Adam Kolton] said in a statement. “We can be thankful that their voices were heard, that science counted and that people prevailed over short-term profiteering.”
The fight over the mine’s fate has raged for more than a decade. The plan was scuttled years ago under the Obama administration, only to find new life under President Trump. But opposition, from Alaska Native American communities, environmentalists and the fishing industry never diminished, and recently even the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., a sportsman who had fished in the region, came out against the project.
On Wednesday, it failed to obtain a critical permit required under the federal Clean Water Act that was considered a must for it to proceed. In a statement, the Army Corps’ Alaska District Commander, Col. Damon Delarosa, said the mine, proposed for a remote tundra region about 200 miles from Anchorage, would be “contrary to the public interest” because “it does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines.”
Opponents said the large open-pit operation, which would dig up and process tens of millions of tons of rock a year, would irreversibly harm breeding grounds for salmon that are the basis for a sports-fishing industry and a large commercial fishery in Bristol Bay. Salmon are also a major subsistence food of Alaska Natives who live in small villages across the region…
Lindsay Layland, deputy director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, which has fought the project for years, said that while the decision means the project may be dead, the threat remains that the gold and copper ore could still be mined in the future. “It doesn’t mean that those minerals aren’t going to be in the ground tomorrow,” she said. “We need to continue to push for long term and permanent protections down the road.”
The environmental impact statement was finalized in July by the Corps, which had authority to approve or deny a permit under the federal Clean Water Act. But a few weeks later the Corps said that the company’s plan to compensate for environmental damage from the mine was insufficient, and requested a new plan…
The new plan, which was not publicly released but was believed to designate land near the mine to be permanently protected, was submitted last week.
The mining industry and many state officials have supported the project for the revenue and other economic benefits it would bring. But some important Alaskan politicians, notably Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, had been noncommittal, saying the mine should go forward only if it could be shown to be environmentally sound.
In a statement on Wednesday, Senator Murkowski said the Corps’ decision affirmed “that this is the wrong mine in the wrong place.”
“This is the right decision, reached the right way,” she added.
Under the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency reversed an earlier ruling, allowing the environmental review by the Corps to proceed. Under the Clean Water Act, the Corps reviews any dredging and filling activities in waterways, including wetlands like those in the area of the proposed project.
The scope of federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act remains perplexing, particularly now that Colorado is the only state in the nation where the Navigable Water Protection Rule did not take effect June 22, 2020. In the context of a lengthy “stakeholder” process, on November 20, 2020, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) issued a White Paper addressing its regulatory options in light of the new federal WOTUS rule. Construction companies, developers, and other businesses seeking to permit activities around wetlands, ephemeral waters, and intermittent streams in Colorado would benefit from reviewing this comprehensive discussion of the multitude of dilemmas Colorado and others states face in light of the new rule.
The state’s White Paper includes background on these topics –
Federal permitting including Section 402 and 404 permits.
State waters and the state’s regulation of discharges to state waters.
The Supreme Court’s Rapanos decision and subsequent guidance.
The 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule.
Litigation of the 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule.
And perhaps most importantly –
Potential impacts of the 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule if it were to go into effect in Colorado.
Of most significance in terms of the impacts to state regulatory programs, the White Paper states:
The rule includes several definitions that further limit how the EPA and the Corps will define WOTUS in contrast to the existing regulatory framework. First, it restricts the definition of protected “adjacent wetlands” to those that “abut” or have a direct hydrological surface connection to another jurisdictional water “in a typical year.” 33 C.F.R. § 328.3(c)(1); 40 C.F.R. § 120.3(3)(i). Wetlands are not considered adjacent if they are physically separated from jurisdictional waters by an artificial structure and do not have a direct hydrologic surface connection. The 2020 Rule also limits protections for tributaries to those that contribute perennial or uncertain levels of “intermittent” flow to traditional navigable waters in a “typical year,” a term whose definition leads to additional uncertainty. 33 C.F.R. § 328.3(c)(12); 40 C.F.R. § 120.2(3)(xii); 33 C.F.R. § 328.3(c)(13); 40 C.F.R. § 120.2(3)(xiii).
Collectively, these new definitions in the 2020 Rule will reduce the scope of waters subject to federal jurisdiction in Colorado far below that of the 2008 Guidance. The state waters that would no longer be considered “waters of the United States” under the 2020 Rule have been referred to as “gap waters” and are further described in Section II below. Historically, not all of Colorado’s state waters have been considered WOTUS. However, the [CDPHE] has maintained that the number of state waters considered WOTUS under the 2008 Guidance is far more than would be considered WOTUS under the 2020 Rule. [Emphasis added.]
A proposed $641-million settlement of water crisis lawsuits was filed in U.S. District Court last week, $20 million of which would come from a city insurance policy — if approved by the Flint City Council.
If approved by Judge Judith Levy, the settlement would establish a claims process for those harmed by Flint water and ultimately payouts depending on which of 30 categories individuals fall into, the extent of damages and how many claims are filed.
The council is scheduled to address the settlement in a closed session at 5:30 p.m. Monday, but several members have blocked similar private briefings in the past, saying that the overall settlement that’s been proposed doesn’t provide enough money to those harmed by Flint water or doesn’t divide the settlement fairly.
Flint children who were 6 years old and younger at the time they were first exposed to Flint River water would receive 64.5 percent of the proposed settlement.
Council President Kate Fields has urged other members to be briefed on the city’s portion of the settlement so that they can be informed on the deal before they vote to accept or reject it.
Attorneys involved in negotiating the settlement say lawsuits will continue against the city and its employees in state and federal courts if the settlement is not approved by the council.
More than 100 lawsuits are pending related to the water crisis, alleging parties including the city and the state have responsibility for the distribution of water with elevated levels of lead, bacteria and chlorination byproducts in Flint in 2014 and 2015.
In addition to having had regulatory responsibility for Flint water, the state appointed emergency financial managers to run the city before and during the water crisis.
The briefing at 2 p.m. Monday is designed to give residents the chance to hear “directly from the city’s attorneys on what this settlement would mean to residents,” Neeley said in a statement issued by the city. “This is about transparency and about making sure that residents have access to accurate information regarding the proposed water lawsuit settlement.”
Because the settlement documents were filed in federal court on Tuesday, Nov. 17, city officials said they can now openly discuss them.
Here’s the releaseThe Colorado School of Mines (Emilie Rusch):
Published today in Environmental Science and Technology, the research was led by Mines’ Chris Higgins and Juliane Brown
If state and federal regulators focus only on the safety of drinking water, the public could still be exposed to concerning levels of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) via the vegetables on their dinner plate if those vegetables are grown with PFAS-impacted water, according to a new study from researchers at Colorado School of Mines and engineering firm Geosyntec.
Published today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the study is the first of its kind to examine PFAS in water that is used to grow crops. Researchers compiled available data on how much individual PFASs are taken into vegetable crops irrigated with contaminated water – in this case lettuce – to estimate the daily dietary exposure intake through vegetables of these so-called “forever chemicals” for both adults and children.
“While there has been an emphasis on identifying and cleaning up drinking water impacted by PFASs, much less attention has been given to assessing risks from consuming produce irrigated with PFAS-contaminated water,” said Juliane Brown, an environmental engineering PhD candidate at Mines who led the research. “This study brings much needed attention to this issue and highlights the potential risks associated with this critical exposure pathway.”
PFASs are a large and diverse group of synthetic chemicals used in many commercial and household products, including Class B fire-fighting foams, nonstick-coated cooking pan production, food contact materials, waterproof textiles and many others. An emerging body of evidence shows PFAS exposure can cause cancer and developmental, endocrine, renal and metabolic problems.
Globally, PFAS contamination of irrigation water and soils in agricultural areas has arisen from a variety of sources, including the use of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) on military bases and airfields, the application of treated sewage sludge as agricultural fertilizer and releases from nearby industrial facilities.
But currently, many state and federal agencies are primarily focused on drinking water exposure, missing a potentially importance exposure pathway via irrigation water, said Christopher Higgins, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Mines and senior author of the study.
“Even when drinking water has been treated and is considered safe, there is a potential for exposure from vegetables irrigated with contaminated water or grown in contaminated soil,” Higgins said. “This study shows that regulations that solely target perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in drinking water are inadequate to protect human health risks from PFASs.”
By using statistical modeling techniques akin to the election model prediction forecasts, the Mines-led team was able to consider a range of variability and uncertainty to identify the “most likely” intake and hazard associated with consuming PFAS-contaminated vegetables, using lettuce as a proxy for produce. The team also predicted risk-based threshold concentrations in produce and irrigation water to provide screening levels for assessment. These represent the range of concentrations for individual PFASs in irrigation water predicted to be below a level of concern for human health.
Using the lowest available human health toxicity reference values and a conservative 5th percentile approach, estimated risk-based threshold concentrations in irrigation water were 38 nanograms per liter (ng/L) for PFOA and 140 ng/L for PFOS, two PFASs commonly targeted by regulators.
In the case of PFOA, this suggests that even if irrigation water meets the current 70 ng/L PFOA and PFOS U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lifetime health advisory for drinking water, this may not be fully protective of PFOA exposure due to vegetables grown in that water, at least compared to toxicity reference values used by the State of California, which has the lowest toxicity reference value for PFOA in the U.S., Higgins said. Importantly, PFAS contamination also typically includes more than just PFOA or PFOS.
“Another major implication of this study is we really need to come up with a plan to address PFAS mixtures, as these chemicals are nearly always present as a mixture,” Higgins said
The team used real-world data from PFAS-contaminated groundwater to conduct a hazard analysis of a theoretical farm comparing different risk estimates based on established state, federal, and international toxicity reference doses. This analysis showed estimated exposures to most PFASs exceeding available or derived human health toxicity reference values – indicating water-to-crop transfer is an important exposure pathway for agricultural communities with PFAS-impacted irrigation water.
The full study, “Assessing human health risks from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)-impacted vegetable consumption: a tiered modeling approach,” is available online at https://dx.doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.0c03411. In addition to Brown and Higgins, co-authors were Geosyntec principal scientist Jason Conder and project scientist Jennifer Arblaster.
This research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (under Assistance Agreement No G18A112656081.)
Here’s the abstract:
Irrigation water or soil contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) raises concerns among regulators tasked with protecting human health from potential PFAS-contaminated food crops, with several studies identifying crop uptake as an important exposure pathway. We estimated daily dietary exposure intake of individual PFASs in vegetables for children and adults using Monte Carlo simulation in a tiered stochastic modeling approach: exposures were the highest for young children (1−2 years > adults > 3−5 years > 6−11 years > 12−19years). Using the lowest available human health toxicity reference values (RfDs) and no additional exposure, estimated fifth percentile risk-based threshold concentrations in irrigation water were 38 ng/L (median 180 ng/L) for perfluorooctanoate (PFOA) and 140 ng/L (median 850 ng/L) for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). Thus, consumption of vegetables irrigated with PFAS impacted water that meets the current 70 ng/L of PFOA and PFOS U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory for drinking water may or may not be protective of vegetable exposures to these contaminants. Hazard analyses using real-world PFAS- contaminated groundwater data for a hypothetical farm showed estimated exposures to most PFASs exceeding available or derived RfDs, indicating water-to-crop transfer is an important exposure pathway for communities with PFAS-impacted irrigation water.
Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Mary Guiden):
A team of scientists at Colorado State University has received an award of nearly $50,000 from the National Science Foundation to study snowpack, streams and sediment in waterways in the areas affected by the largest wildfire in Colorado history.
Stephanie Kampf, principal investigator and a professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability, said the team came up with the study concept as they watched the Cameron Peak Fire begin to burn northwest of Fort Collins in August 2020.
The fire was at 92% containment as of Nov. 18.
“Given that the fire was burning in our local watershed, everyone is curious about what would happen with our waterways,” she said. “The Cameron Peak Fire has been unique, since it started at and burned a large area at high elevation.”
Kampf said the fire is the fifth largest in a high-elevation persistent snow zone in the Western United States since 1984.
“As researchers started looking for examples of other high-elevation fire studies, we realized that not much research has been conducted,” she said.
CSU Assistant Professor Sean Gallen and Professor Sara Rathburn, Department of Geosciences, and Assistant Professor Ryan Morrison, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, are co-investigators on this project. Kampf said that scientists from the United States Geological Survey will also collaborate on the research.
Historic wildfire provides unique research opportunity
Morrison, who will study how stream channels and floodplains in the Cache la Poudre River basin are impacted by changes in sediment transport and flow after the fire, agreed that the Cameron Peak Fire had unique aspects to study.
“The Cameron Peak Fire in northern Colorado has burned nearly 20% of the upper Cache la Poudre River basin, which supplies water to meet municipal and agricultural needs in the region,” he said. “The fire has also expanded to lower elevations, burning both transitional and intermittent snow zones.”
Morrison said water providers, including cities in northern Colorado, are concerned about the impacts of erosion on streams and reservoirs. Snowpack is crucial for the water supply in Colorado.
“This project will collect critical data for the first snow accumulation and melt season after the fire to address how the fire affects snow processes, flow paths and sediment movement,” he said.
Kampf said previous research on the impacts of wildfires on snowpack have been quite variable.
“When there’s a fire, we can see increased snow accumulation, due to fewer trees intercepting the snow,” she said. “But this doesn’t always happen. Sometimes greater exposure of the snow to the sun leads to lower snowpack after fire.”
And while snow melt doesn’t usually create high elevation snow hazards, Kampf said it’s possible that having greater snowpack in the burn area may cause other hazards like debris flows.
The research team only recently received approval to go into the burn area and begin field work. They hope to complete as much research as possible before there’s a lot more snow on the ground.
Additional researchers on this project at CSU include Paul Evangelista and Tony Vorster (Natural Resource Ecology Lab), Dan McGrath and Ellen Wohl (Department of Geosciences), Peter Nelson (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering), Steven Fassnacht (Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability), and Kristen Rasmussen (Department of Atmospheric Science).
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Legacy Management (LM) is collaborating with Gunnison County, Colorado, to connect more domestic residences with private water wells within the groundwater contamination boundary at the former Gunnison uranium mill site to a municipal water supply.
“This is a major milestone that reflects LM’s mission of protecting human health and the environment,” said Jalena Dayvault, site manager for LM’s Gunnison, Colorado, Site. “Gunnison County Public Works Director, Marlene Crosby, worked diligently to get remaining domestic well users on-board so this project could move forward.”
The Gunnison site is a former uranium ore processing site located about a half-mile southwest of the city of Gunnison. The mill processed approximately 540,000 tons of uranium ore between 1958 and 1962, providing uranium for national defense programs. These ore processing activities resulted in contaminated groundwater beneath and near the site.
In 1994, a water treatment plant, storage tank, and distribution system were partially funded by DOE and installed to supply municipal drinking water to all residences within the contaminated groundwater boundary. This project was part of the remedial action plan at the former uranium mill site and is considered a protective measure in case the contaminated groundwater plume was ever to affect domestic well users within this boundary.
A small handful of homeowners with domestic wells in use before the cleanup continue to use those wells for drinking water. As part of LM’s long-term stewardship activities at the site, the office has monitored these wells annually to verify that mill-related contaminants have remained below U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maximum concentration limits for the groundwater.
Working closely with Gunnison County Public Works, LM made funds available in September 2020 to support Gunnison County Public Works in connecting more residences with domestic wells to the municipal water supply. Excavation work began in November to connect the first residence to the alternate water supply.
“We started putting a game plan together back in early January of this year, reaching out to homeowners to get their buy-in and preparing a scope of work and budget for the project,” said Joe Lobato, site lead for the Legacy Management Support Partner (LMSP). “The LM and LMSP team has a great working relationship with Gunnison County.”
A Texas A&M AgriLife-led team will work with the Colorado Livestock Association and a large team of Colorado stakeholders to refine and evaluate management practices to reduce agricultural ammonia emissions into Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.
Agricultural operations along the northern Front Range of Colorado, including livestock operations, are believed to be a significant source of gaseous ammonia and other reactive nitrogen species in the atmosphere. Some of these may travel with air masses into Rocky Mountain National Park under so-called “upslope” conditions.
The Colorado Livestock Association, CLA, has been at the forefront of the nitrogen deposition issue for the last 15 years. Over that period of time, the association has acknowledged that animal agriculture is a source of ammonia and does contribute to ammonia deposition.
Last year, CLA conducted a survey of feedlot and dairy operations in Weld and Larimer counties to determine their use of best management practices recognized as effective in reducing ammonia emissions and the related barriers to adoption of those practices. Going forward, CLA is committed to communicating to the ag community and the public about the progress and results of the research.
Texas project outlined for Rocky Mountain work
Reducing ammonia emissions from livestock operations during upslope events will be the goal of the project led by Brent Auvermann, Ph.D., a Texas A&M AgriLife Research biological and agricultural engineer and Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center director, Amarillo.
“Upslope conditions bring rain and snow to the eastern side of the Continental Divide,” Auvermann said. Some of the reactive nitrogen in the atmosphere ends up dissolved in that precipitation and lands inside the national park, a process known as “wet deposition.”
Auvermann’s research team has operated a wet-deposition monitoring site on the rim of North Cita Canyon in Palo Duro Canyon State Park south of Amarillo since 2008.
“Our site is nearly identical to the monitoring sites in the (Rocky Mountain National) Park, where ecologists first discovered nitrogen enrichment changing the park’s vegetation and water chemistry,” he said.
Although not all of the atmospheric ammonia along the Front Range comes from agriculture, agriculture has an important role to play, he said.
“It doesn’t all come from Front Range sources either,” Auvermann said, noting that some of the nitrogen drifting into the national park comes from hundreds of miles away. “Still, we can make some good headway with the emitters nearby.”
Joining Auvermann on the research team are Ken Casey, Ph.D., AgriLife Research air quality engineer, Amarillo; and David Parker, Ph.D., research agricultural engineer and leader of the Livestock Nutrient Management Research Unit, USDA-Agricultural Research Service, Bushland.
The research team has a lot of experience with ammonia from cattle feed yards and dairies, having developed the emissions-reporting mechanism that was adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2009 to 2019.
“EPA’s reporting instrument was based on research conducted right here in the Texas Panhandle,” Auvermann said. “Dr. Casey and Dr. Parker are widely known for their expertise in reactive nitrogen emissions.”
The new research project is funded by a Conservation Innovation Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service, NRCS.
Colorado’s “glidepath” approach
Stakeholders, consultants, and state and federal agencies have been working on a strategy to reduce nitrogen enrichment in Rocky Mountain National Park for nearly 20 years, Auvermann said.
Their ultimate goal is to return the national park’s nitrogen budget to where it was many years ago using a strategy called the “glidepath.” The glidepath’s goal is to reduce the rate of nitrogen wet deposition in the park to 1.5 kilograms per hectare, or 1.34 pounds per acre, per year by 2032, with milestones along the way.
“That’s a little less than half of what’s landing in the park right now,” Auvermann said.
The Colorado team designed an early warning system, EWS, to notify crop and livestock producers of weather events that are expected to move the atmospheric nitrogen from Colorado’s eastern plains toward the Continental Divide.
“With a little advance notice, we think producers can make short-term changes that will reduce nitrogen loads in the park,” said Auvermann. “Now we need to figure out how to optimize those changes and make them work cost-effectively.”
Auvermann said while the effectiveness of those practices is proven scientifically, their project will deal with timing, amount, frequency, mode and operational variations of those practices. These details have not been worked out within the specific context of the EWS and components such as the forecast timing, duration and intensity of the upslope conditions.
Details determine management practices success
“We plan to help develop a decision tool for the voluntary implementation of two key practices by livestock producers in northeastern Colorado, both of which are intended to reduce ammonia emissions,” Auvermann said.
The two tools are:
Applying water to open-lot pen surfaces via sprinklers or water trucks. Variations include timing, depth and frequency of application, plus injection of acidifying or enzyme-inhibiting agents.
Diluting irrigated wastewater with fresh water having a low concentration of dissolved nitrogen. Variations include the method of dilution – in-pipeline mixing, alternating effluent and freshwater applications – and injecting acidifying or other ammonia-suppressing agents.
Once the research is complete, the team will work with producers to optimize site-specific operational variables, and gain consensus for including those practices in cost-sharing programs, such as NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program, EQIP.
Some practices may be part of routine agricultural management and can be delayed or rescheduled due to the upslope conditions with little additional cost or management effort. Others, however, may be more labor-intensive or costly, in which case producers may incur significant costs in increased expenses and/or foregone revenue.
The team believes eligibility to receive EQIP cost-sharing funds to help defray the cost of implementation will increase the potential for voluntary adoption of those practices.
“Rocky Mountain National Park is the crown jewel of the national park system as far as I am concerned,” Auvermann said. “It’s a real privilege to be invited to help protect her.”
Rate changes are needed to help pay for Denver Water’s Lead Reduction Program, officials said.
Denver Water has been notifying Littleton residents of rate increases, which are set to begin Jan. 1.
Most residents can expect rate increases of less than 70 cents if they use water at similar volumes to 2020, the agency said.
The rate changes will help Denver Water pay for its Lead Reduction Program. The agency has sent letters to hundreds of Littleton homes — those built between 1983 and 1987 — to warn of possible lead contamination. The water does not contain lead, but the homes may have lead solder between copper pipes that could contaminate the water.
To protect customers from lead in drinking water, Denver Water raised the pH of the water in March to reduce corrosivity, and the agency will be replacing all customer-owned lead service lines over the next 15 years, officials said.
Fort Collins City Council members approved the rate increases, 3% for electricity and 2% for water, with some hesitation in light of COVID-19’s continued economic impacts on the community. For the typical household in Fort Collins, the rate increase will mean an average monthly increase of $2.36 for electricity and $0.96 for water.
Several council members said the city should consider a possible moratorium on service shut-offs if COVID-19 risk factors trigger another stay-at-home order. Cases and hospitalizations continue to mount in Larimer County, and the health department elevated restrictions on public gatherings Wednesday.
Fort Collins Utilities recently notified about 4,000 customers that service shut-offs will resume after Nov. 13. The city is encouraging residents and businesses to apply for financial assistance with their bill or set up a payment plan…
The 3% electricity rate increase will cover a bump in wholesale power costs and bolster Utilities reserves to prepare for future capital improvements. The 2% water rate increase is a result of the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome wildfires, which have ripped across Fort Collins’ watershed and are expected to cost the city between $1 million and $4.3 million in mitigation costs…
The city had planned to request a 2% water rate increase for 2022, but moved it ahead one year because of the fire, said Lance Smith, Utilities strategic finance director. Utilities is likely to propose another modest rate increase for 2022.
The Cameron Peak Fire, approaching full containment at nearly 209,000 acres, is the biggest fire in Colorado history. Utilities staff said earlier in October they expect its impact on the city’s water quality to be similar to the 2012 High Park Fire, which filled the Poudre River with ash, soil and sediment and infamously turned the stream black for a brief period. The 2013 flood eventually washed out much of the remaining debris, but city leaders consider it unlikely that Fort Collins will get another flood of that magnitude again soon…
That means the Cameron Peak Fire’s fallout will probably persist for longer, degrading water quality in the river that makes up about 50% of Fort Collins’ water supply. The city’s share of post-fire recovery work will drain an estimated $1 million to $4.3 million from Utilities funds, and the projected 2021 rate increase will produce roughly $600,000 to offset that cost.
Fort Collins Mayor Wade Troxell said he understands the necessity of the unexpected water rate increase given the “extraordinary” circumstances…
The electricity rate increase will cover a 0.3% wholesale cost increase from Platte River Power Authority and partially address a gap between Utilities’ revenues and operating expenses. Utilities has also put a hiring freeze in place and won’t give salary increases in 2021 to address the gap between revenue and expenses…
Council members agreed to approve the rate increases but keep the door open for future discussion about lingering utility rate issues. The time-of-day rate structure, which charges customers higher rates for electricity used during peak-use hours, has been in place for about two years. But council members are still hearing from residents who are dissatisfied with the perceived unfairness of the change and uncertain about how to navigate the rate structure without significantly disrupting their daily routines.
Time-of-day rates, which use cost signals to flatten the community’s peak electricity demand, make “logical, connect-the-dots, engineering sense,” council member Ross Cunniff said, “but it has not made intuitive sense for most of our residents, and that’s risky.”
The city would pay a fine of $2 million and commit to an additional $43 million in stormwater projects over 15 years, Mayor John Suthers announced earlier this week.
Suthers said “an agreement in principle” exists for a settlement between the city — the defendant in the case — and the plaintiffs including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Pueblo County and the lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.
“We’re now entering a 30-day comment period,” he said. “At the end of it, the judge will evaluate whether he wants to approve the settlement. I suspect he will.”
The mayor said that in the next few weeks, city officials will explain settlement details to the public, and that he already has City Council approval to pay the penalty.
“The federal government would get $1 million of the fine, and the state would get the other half,” he said. “The state’s share actually goes into a current project in the Arkansas River. That’s a lot better than a $12 million fine that was initially discussed.”
As a result of the penalty, however, Suthers said the city will have to raise its stormwater fee to homeowners and businesses over the next 15 years to pay the penalty…
Suthers said the city’s stormwater issues were a result of inaction by previous city councils, but upon his election as mayor in 2015 he pledged to address the issue and heal the rift between Pueblo County leaders, who had threatened to sue the city.
In fact, in the spring of 2016, Pueblo County agreed on a long-range plan in which the city would spend $460 million over 20 years on 71 stormwater projects, maintenance and enforcement.
To help generate the needed revenue, Suthers in 2017 pushed for the re-establishment of a stormwater fee ultimately passed by voters that November…
The city hoped its progress on stormwater issues would prevent a lawsuit, but in November 2016 the EPA initially filed suit and the other plaintiffs joined in. U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch presided over the weeklong bench trial in Denver in September 2018, and issued his ruling two months later.
After years of hard feelings in Pueblo County and the Lower Arkansas River valley about Colorado Springs’ degradation of Fountain Creek and the river, a resolution is on the horizon.
That city, government clean water agencies, Pueblo County and a lower valley water conservancy district have decided how to solve their dispute in order to improve the quality of water flowing in the creek from the city into Pueblo County and eastward down the river.
On Thursday, they submitted a 169-page proposed agreement, known as a “Consent Decree,” to Senior Judge John L. Kane Jr. of the U.S. District Court for Colorado.
The plan would require Colorado Springs to spend millions of dollars to improve its storm water sewer system in order to better control pollution discharges and excessive flows into the creek…
Meanwhile, Jay Winner, general manager of the water conservancy district, told The Chieftain the plan will benefit both Pueblo and the lower valley.
“This will be of great help in the lower part of the basin improving water quality,” Winner,said. “Water quality is the next great paradigm shift throughout the world.”
All of the litigants — the five parties to the case –negotiated for the past year what the city would do to remedy the violations.
The discharges damaged the creek bed and caused flooding, as well as creating a public health risk. Key agricultural regions of the lower valley have been affected by the polluted water and excessive volume.
The plan requires Colorado Springs to perform $11 million of mitigation to offset the environmental harm caused by its alleged violations, and pay the United States a $1 million civil penalty.
In addition, instead of receiving a civil penalty payment, the state “agrees that the city shall satisfy the state civil penalty through performance of a State approved supplemental environmental project valued at $1 million, to be performed” by the water conservancy district, according to a document filed Thursday in court…
Winner pointed to several benefits that the agreement would bring.
“The communities that have wells in the alluvium should get a much higher quality of water,” he said. The plan “should remove just enough silt so that the river stays in the channel and does not spread out due to an increased bed load, leaving more water in the channel as opposed to flooding areas such as North La Junta.
“This should keep more water in the ditches to help farmers,” Winner said. “When the river crests its banks that water belongs to farmers and they are unable to use it.”
From the Rifle Citizen Telegram (Ray K. Erku) via The Glenwood Springs Post Independent:
Following Rifle City Council’s approval Wednesday to hire outside firm JVA, Inc. to conduct water and wastewater studies, which include analyzing potential capital improvements, utility maintenance and infrastructure needs, city manager Scott Hahn said it’s likely residential and commercial rates won’t see a heavy increase.
“I think you probably won’t see a decrease (in the water rate) unless the council chooses to do so,” Hahn told the Citizen Telegram on Friday. “We’ve got a nice, healthy balance in the water fund. It may need to be higher – I don’t know. But it all depends on the values.”
Over the next several months JVA will determine where water rates and reserves should be and do a full financial assessment of where city “water and wastewater stands,” Rifle civil engineer Craig Spaudling told city council on Oct. 21. According to the project’s timeline, a final presentation is scheduled for Feb. 22.
Among the certain areas of assessment, however, chances are wastewater rates will receive the most attention.
“We’ve got issues with copper that is going through the wastewater plant and going into the river that we need to try and mitigate,” Hahn said. “And I don’t know all the codes that we’ve faced over the last 15 years, but I know from my experience as city manager… that the EPA keeps handing down tighter and tighter restrictions.”
There are two major causes to certain levels of copper leaching into the Colorado River, Hahn said. One, typical household plumbing systems are made from the red-brown metal. Once water drains through the pipes, it carries small increments of copper, which then collects at the municipal wastewater treatment plant…
Another reason, natural copper ore is commonly found in the sedimentary rock in the river itself…
The city’s current water and wastewater master plan is based from 2006, according to JVA’s proposal. Residential and commercial rates have increased annually at relatively low increments – with city code stating no more than a 5% increase each year since 2006.
…while a significant portion of the water supply that is held and accessed by the project that serves the northern Front Range communities is impacted by the fires, the water supply itself is not in danger.
According to Jeff Stahla, public information officer for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District — or simply Northern Water — the near-term supply is fine.
The decision to close off a tunnel — which transports water pumped from Lake Granby to Shadow Mountain Reservoir before traveling by gravity through the tunnel through Rocky Mountain National Park to Lake Estes and elsewhere, before eventually settling in Horsetooth Reservoir and Carter Lake in Fort Collins and Loveland — will not impact the water supply that’s eventually drawn from those two reservoirs to supply much of Northern Water’s million-plus customers in Northern Colorado, including Greeley.
That’s because, Stahla explained, the system is proactive. While new water will not be replenished quite according to the normal schedule in the Horsetooth and Carter Lake reservoirs, that water is, in essence, paying down a future withdrawal that won’t happen for a year or more…
“The water coming out of your faucet now, if it’s this project’s water, was probably snow that fell in maybe 2018,” Stahla explained. “It ran off in spring of ’18 and filled up Lake Granby, and then around the end of 2018 into 2019, it would’ve been used to fill up reservoirs on the front range. That would’ve happened over winter of 2018-2019, and then it would’ve been in reservoirs all of 2019 and probably drawn out now in 2020. This project works on a multi-year cycle of gathering runoff, feeding reservoirs and serving the public.”
The water is still in Lake Granby, but temporarily won’t be pumped up to Shadow Mountain because of concerns that the fire will impact the power supply to the pump at Lake Granby…
However, that water is only a portion — a very sizable portion, close to half — of the water that is used by Greeley customers, according to city of Greeley water and sewer director Sean Chambers.
And, truly incredibly, the other major sources of water, four in total, from which the city draws its 20,000 to 25,000 acre feet-per-year supply are also being impacted by these unfathomable wildfires.
“We have water from four different river basins,” Chambers said. “We get water from the Poudre River Basin, that’s where the year-round treatment plan by Bellevue, northwest of For Collins is. The top of the Poudre is where the fire started. You go north and cross into Laramie River Basin — the Laramie flows north into Wyoming but we have a system of ditches and tunnels that brings water back into the Poudre. The fires burned a bit of the headwaters of the Laramie. We also get water from the Big Thompson Basin, and the Cameron Peak Fire spread southeast over the last ten days, blown over the ridge line and the divide into the Big Thompson Basin. And then the last basin is the Colorado River Basin, which is where the East Troublesome Fire comes from.”
Chambers, marveling, called this phenomenon the first time “in recorded history” that this has happened, where all four major water sources are affected by fires at the same time…
Further, while snow melt over burned land could well impact other water sources as well, there are plans in place, Chambers said.
“When the High Park Fire happened, that fire had these post-precipitation water-quality events in the river, where Fort Collins and Greeley and others, who take water directly off the Poudre River for municipal treatment, we turned off our intakes and let the bad water go by, let the water quality improve. We can do that because of the beautiful supplemental supply in the Colorado Big Thompson project.”
The flexibility requires planning, though, including, Chambers said, installing source-site filtration systems where snow runoff on its way the river systems are filtered prior to entering the water supply…
In the immediate moment, though, the water supply even well into next year is in good shape, regardless of the fires Stahla said.
“Not even just into early next year,” Stahla said. “Reservoirs are there for that kind of demand management that you can have some stocked away close to meet your needs. As of now, there’s no operational changes because of the wildfires to the water supply on the Northern Front Range. Those reservoirs will be refilled by next spring.”
Like many inventions, the discovery of Teflon happened by accident. In 1938, chemists from Dupont (now Chemours) were studying refrigerant gases when, much to their surprise, one concoction solidified. Upon investigation, they found it was not only the slipperiest substance they’d ever seen – it was also noncorrosive and extremely stable and had a high melting point.
In 1954 the revolutionary “nonstick” Teflon pan was introduced. Since then, an entire class of human-made chemicals has evolved: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS. There are upward of 6,000 of these chemicals. Many are used for stain-, grease- and waterproofing. PFAS are found in clothing, plastic, food packaging, electronics, personal care products, firefighting foams, medical devices and numerous other products.
But over time, evidence has slowly built that some commonly used PFAS are toxic and may cause cancer. It took 50 years to understand that the happy accident of Teflon’s discovery was, in fact, a train wreck.
Typically, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assesses chemicals for potential harm, it examines one substance at a time. That approach isn’t working for PFAS, given the sheer number of them and the fact that manufacturers commonly replace toxic substances with “regrettable substitutes” – similar, lesser-known chemicals that also threaten human health and the environment.
A class-action lawsuit brought this issue to national attention in 2005. Workers at a Parkersburg, West Virginia, DuPont plant joined with local residents to sue the company for releasing millions of pounds of one of these chemicals, known as PFOA, into the air and the Ohio River. Lawyers discovered that the company had known as far back as 1961 that PFOA could harm the liver.
The suit was ultimately settled in 2017 for US$670 million, after an eight-year study of tens of thousands of people who had been exposed. Based on multiple scientific studies, this review concluded that there was a probable link between exposure to PFOA and six categories of diseases: diagnosed high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
PFAS are often called “forever chemicals” because they don’t fully degrade. They move easily through air and water, can quickly travel long distances and accumulate in sediment, soil and plants. They have also been found in dustand food, including eggs, meat, milk, fish, fruits and vegetables.
Children are even more vulnerable than adults because they can ingest more PFAS relative to their body weight from food and water and through the air. Children also put their hands in their mouths more often, and their metabolic and immune systems are less developed. Studies show that these chemicals harm children by causing kidney dysfunction, delayed puberty, asthma and altered immune function.
PFAS have become so ubiquitous in the environment that health experts say it is probably impossible to completely prevent exposure. These substances are released throughout their life cycles, from chemical production to product use and disposal. Up to 80% of environmental pollution from common PFAS, such as PFOA, comes from production of fluoropolymers that use toxic PFAS as processing aids to make products like Teflon.
In 2009 the EPA established a health advisory level for PFOA in drinking water of 400 parts per trillion. Health advisories are not binding regulations – they are technical guidelines for state, local and tribal governments, which are primarily responsible for regulating public water systems.
I am part of a group of scientists from universities, nonprofit organizations and government agencies in the U.S. and Europe that has argued for managing the entire class of PFAS chemicals as a group, instead of one by one. We also support an “essential uses” approach that would restrict their production and use only to products that are critical for health and proper functioning of society, such as medical devices and safety equipment. And we have recommended developing safer non-PFAS alternatives.
As the EPA acknowledges, there is an urgent need for innovative solutions to PFAS pollution. Guided by good science, I believe we can effectively manage PFAS to reduce further harm, while researchers find ways to clean up what has already been released.
Dignitaries from throughout the nation, including U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, gathered at Lake Pueblo for the groundbreaking of a pipeline that will deliver clear water to the Lower Arkansas River Valley…
As the conduit will bypass the Arkansas River, including the portion on Pueblo’s lower East Side where the heavily polluted Fountain Creek dumps into the river, it is seen as a regional solution to drinking water quality problems facing rural communities of Southeastern Colorado…
It may be a decade or more before the conduit will be built, but the project is well on its way now.
When completed, the conduit will serve an estimated 50,000 people in Southeastern Colorado via some 260 miles of pipeline.
Bill Long, president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and former Bent County commissioner, said: “It’s kind of an emotional event because generations have actually worked on this project and to finally see this kind of progress where we can deliver safe water to folks, which also provides a great opportunity for economic development is close to unbelievable. It truly is a great day.”
John Singletary, former chairman of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, agreed:
“As a young boy in the Arkansas Basin, I sold gold frying pans to support the effort that eventually lead to President Kennedy coming to Pueblo to sign the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project into a law,” Singletary said. “This was the first step in seeing the Arkansas Valley Conduit built. In the decades since, people like Senator Michael Bennet have never lost sight that this project is more than politics. The Conduit is a vision turned reality to help reduce dry-up of farm ground and provide clean drinking water for 50,000 people in 40 communities east of Pueblo.”
The total project cost is estimated at somewhere between $564 and $610 million to complete over a 15-year period and about $30 million a year for the next 15 years will need to be appropriated to see it finished.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, who also has spent a lot of time and effort on the project throughout his career, echoed Long’s comments about ground finally being broken for the conduit.
“It is a testament to the commitment of generations of people in the Lower Arkansas Valley to bring clean drinking water to communities that were promised it in the early ’60s and never had that promise fulfilled,” Bennet said. “One of the first things I heard about when I became a senator was the Arkansas Valley Conduit because of Bill (Long) and because of Ray Kogovsek, who had been the congressman for that area, and made the case about how important it was.”
Bennet said the progress made on getting the conduit built has been a true bipartisan effort in which Democrats and Republicans have worked hand-in-hand…
The conduit, part of the original Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, would bring water from Pueblo Dam to Lamar and Eads, serving about 40 communities along the route. As it will bypass the Arkansas River, including the portion on Pueblo’s lower East Side where Fountain Creek dumps into the river, it is seen as a regional solution to drinking water quality problems facing rural communities of Southeastern Colorado.
Many of those water providers are facing enforcement action for high levels of naturally occurring radionuclides in well water. A new source of clean water through the Arkansas Valley Conduit is the least expensive alternative, according to a 2013 Environmental Impact Statement.
While the project is breaking ground, there is still a long way to go, Bennet cautioned.
The total project cost is estimated at somewhere between $564 and $610 million to complete over a 15-year period and about $30 million a year for the next 15 years will need to be appropriated to see it finished.
“It’s not going to be easy to do but we’re going to fight for it,” Bennet said.
With five of Greeley’s six high mountain reservoirs in the burn area, erosion is expected to carry sediment into Greeley’s water supply. Left untreated, that could affect the city’s water quality. But officials are already planning to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“When fires burn, if they’re hot enough, they can actually burn underbrush and soil,” said Adam Jokerst, Greeley’s deputy director of Water Resources, adding that vegetation is burned up as well. “With the lack of the vegetation … you can get increased erosion when it rains or when the snow melts.”
That erosion carries sediment into the Poudre River, which pulls water from the reservoirs to supply water for the city. Water with high sediment content can be harder to treat, Jokerst said, but it is possible to treat safely.
For better or for worse, Jokerst said, Greeley water officials have a lot of experience handling erosion into the water supply after dealing with the impacts of the High Park Fire in 2012. That fire burned more than 87,000 acres, making it the sixth-largest in state history.
There are at least a few steps to take to mitigate erosion impacts: aerial mulching, felling trees and adding flocculants during the treatment process. For aerial mulching, crews drop shredded wheat chips or straw from a helicopter. The mulch reduces erosion and helps with revegetation. Cutting down the burned trees and letting them fall into the gullies and rills — the channels created in the soil by water erosion — prevents stormwater and meltwater from carrying added erosion into the water supply.
Jokerst said it’s common to see the water get murkier during the runoff season every year. To provide clean, clear drinking water when that happens, crews use more flocculants, which are chemicals that help to separate the water from the sediment, in the treatment process. If there’s very high sediment content at the Bellvue Treatment Plant, officials can turn off the plant so it stop pulling water from the Poudre, Jokerst said. The city can then use the Boyd Treatment Plant…
If the fire keeps on into snowfall season in the winter, Jokerst said crews will have to wait until the spring to start on erosion control measures. Greeley officials are working with the city of Fort Collins, Northern Water and the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed, a nonprofit Jokerst said will be a key entity in the post-fire recovery.
Since the 2016 revelation that groundwater in Fountain Valley, which provided drinking water for Security-Widefield and Fountain, was contaminated with toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which include a number of individual chemicals such as PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS and PFHpA, government agencies, residents and community activists have been struggling to come to terms with what is arguably one of the largest ecological contaminations in Colorado’s history.
On Aug. 4, Chris Reh, associate director of the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), led a virtual information session for residents of Security-Widefield and Fountain regarding its ongoing PFAS exposure assessment. The assessment will randomly select participants and test blood, urine and tap water for levels of PFAS chemicals. According to Reh, the assessment will identify how people might be exposed to chemicals, calculate the extent of exposure and determine if there is a threat to health.
ATSDR’s exposure assessment is the first part of a process that will continue in 2021 with the Pease Study, a national multi-site study conducted locally by the Colorado School of Public Health that will look at the human health effects of PFAS exposure through drinking contaminated water. While the sites chosen for this study are near Air Force operations, PFAS exposure extends far beyond Air Force bases. Much of the focus in El Paso County is on Fountain Valley, but the Air Force Academy on the city’s Northside also released PFAS chemicals, and residents of Woodmen Valley report health concerns as well, though they are not included in the ATSDR exposure assessment.
El Paso County is one of eight sites nationwide identified by ATSDR for exposure assessments related to PFAS chemicals. The sites, located in Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, Washington and West Virginia, are co-located with Air Force bases that used aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), a type of chemical used to extinguish fuel fires and that contains PFAS chemicals…
Since 2016, community activists have been working to raise awareness of this environmental threat, and Colorado legislators have recently passed laws to address PFAS contamination. While much of the blame, and legal consequences, for this massive and widespread contamination have been aimed at companies that produce PFAS chemicals, such as DuPont and 3M, the military has known of the potential dangers of these chemicals since at least 1989.
The Air Force Occupational and Environmental Health Laboratory published a study titled “Biological Analysis of Three Ponds at Peterson AFB [Air Force Base], Colorado Springs CO” in November 1989 that raised concerns about contamination coming from the installation. “A series of three man-made ponds on the golf course at Peterson AFB, Colorado Springs CO were analyzed to determine their current ecological status and future potential for recreational fishing,” notes the report, which goes on to identify that “Pond 3 cannot be recommended for stocking with fish in its current condition. Low species diversity suggests that this pond is being stressed by an unknown pollutant.” The report identifies a nearby storm drain as a “chronic source of pollutants for this pond.” While the Air Force analyzed a number of factors, such as pH and the levels of phytoplankton and zooplankton, it was quick to identify AFFF as a possible problem, noting that it “was accidentally spilled into pond 3 shortly before the first fish kill. A subsequent restocking resulted in a second fish kill.”
Stephen Brady of the Peterson-Schriever Garrison Public Affairs office commented, “When there is a potential our missions are having, or may have had, an adverse impact on communities, we take appropriate measures to protect it. When PFOS was discovered in the aquifer south of base in 2016, we immediately stopped using the legacy foam during fire response and training. We replaced the legacy foam in our fire response vehicles in November 2016 and in the hangar fire suppression systems in 2018 with a more environmentally responsible foam. Our first responders will only use the new environmentally responsible firefighting foam for emergency life-saving response, and do not discharge it during training. The Air Force takes environmental stewardship seriously, and continuously strives to meet or exceed environmental standards.”
By the early 2000s DuPont and 3M were facing lawsuits from residents near their plants and increased scrutiny from the Environmental Protection Agency, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the EPA formally issued a health advisory regarding PFAS chemicals and set advisory levels of contamination at 70 parts per trillion (ppt)…
While Rosenbaum was organizing FVCWC, the Colorado School of Public Health began to study exposure and health effects from PFAS chemicals. The study was named “PFAS Aware.” In 2018 the PFAS Aware team began sampling water in Fountain Valley. Initial results published in December 2018 showed that “total PFASs in untreated well water ranged from 18 – 2300 ppt” and that “PFASs detected are typical of fire-fighting foam-impacted groundwater.”
On Sept. 18, 2019, the Air Force Academy sent a notice to Woodmen Valley residents, signed by Col. Brian Hartless, the installation commander, warning them that “firefighting foam containing PFOS and PFOA was used for firefighter training at the Academy from the 1970s until 1990, when we began to consolidate all of our training at Peterson Air Force Base. After that time, the equipment used to dispense the foam was periodically tested until approximately 2005.” Hartless did note that “this firefighting foam has never been used to extinguish a petroleum-based aircraft fire at the Academy” and that “the foam now in use at the Academy is a more environmentally friendly formula that we began using in approximately 2017.” Hartless went on to inform residents that the Air Force would begin sampling wells within the Woodmen Valley Fire Protection District.
According to Hartless, Air Force Civil Engineer Center representatives “identified 37 private wells used for drinking water at homes closest in proximity to the southern base boundary for sampling. To date, 35 of the 37 wells have been sampled.”
Bill Beaudin, a Woodmen Valley resident since 1978, questions the Air Force’s testing process. “The north border of our property is the south border of the Academy,” he says. “We live on six acres. For many years until 1995 we all used well water. We were offered to go on city water at that time and most of us took that option. About 38 families chose not to go on city water for whatever reason.”
Longtime residents like Beaudin were concerned about the fact that the Air Force only tested the wells still in use. “The rest of us all drank that water and so did our children for all of those years in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s until we went on city water,” says Beaudin, “and yet the Air Force Academy chose to just do this select group.”
On March 24, the Air Force announced in a news release, “recent well water monitoring tests on the southeast perimeter of the U.S. Air Force Academy show Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) below the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lifetime Health Advisory level of 70 ppt.”
While the Air Force reported PFOS and PFOA levels below the EPA advisory limits, Rosenbaum says that doesn’t tell the whole story. ”There’s 4,700 different types [of PFAS],” she says, “PFHxS is toxic firefighting foam, which may or may not have PFOA, which is Teflon, or PFAS, which is Scotchgard water-repellent. So when the Air Force Academy said ‘we’re below levels of PFOA and PFAS,’ all of us activists who have been doing this for four years were like, ‘duh.’ You don’t have a Teflon pan company. You don’t have a Scotchgard water-proofing company. You have toxic firefighting foam, so here, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility [PEER] did a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act request] to try to get the PFHxS levels, and they are really high.”
On March 12, 12 days before the Air Force’s statement, PEER reported that “The Air Force Academy test data of neighboring drinking water wells found levels of two individual PFAS chemicals, PFHxS and PFHpA, at more than 200 ppt in two locations” and “combined PFAS levels at a single well of 503.9 ppt and 537.8 ppt across two separate tests.”
The consternation over the levels of PFAS chemicals in the water stems from concerns over the health effects of exposure to these chemicals. Heightened levels of PFAS chemicals have been linked to health problems such as increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, decreased vaccine response in children and increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, according to Rachel Rogers, an environmental health scientist with ATSDR.
“A neighbor that was four houses away, her husband died of testicular cancer,” says Beaudin. “A neighbor who has since passed away died from both kidney and bladder cancer. They were longtime neighbors of ours.”
Rosenbaum notes, “The main health issues here are kidney cancers, prostate cancer and a lot of autoimmune diseases.” Autoimmune disease are often difficult to diagnose because symptoms can come from other common conditions…
Lawmakers in Colorado addressed problems with PFAS contamination during the 2019 legislative session. Tony Exum, D-House District 18; Lois Landgraf, R-House District 21; Pete Lee, D-Senate District 11; and Dennis Hisey, R-Senate District 2, sponsored House Bill 1279, which bans the use of AFFFs that use PFAS chemicals for testing or training purposes. In 2020 the same group of legislators sponsored House Bill 1119, which further regulates the use of PFAS chemicals.
On July 10, The city of Colorado Springs and Colorado Springs Utilities, along with the cities of Aurora, Greeley, Fountain and a number of water districts filed a motion to vacate an administrative action hearing by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) in regards to a proposed new policy to address PFAS contamination, referred to as policy 20-1. The motion states, “The Joint Parties recognize the importance of assuring that drinking water supplies are not contaminated by PFAS, and that water supplies contaminated by PFAS are cleaned up. Vacating the administrative action hearing will not preclude the cleanup of PFAS; it will require that regulatory measures imposed by the Water Quality Control Division are properly authorized through a rulemaking hearing.”
Rosenbaum was confused by the motion. “At first the injunction was pretty difficult to understand,” she says. “Here we are Saturday morning and it came across that they wanted all the PFAS discussions taken out of the meeting. This is our fifth contamination to our water district here. We have to do something completely different and drastic and start writing new policy. The state health department wasn’t making a new law, they were adding language to the policy they already had in place.
According to Jennifer Kemp, a public affairs specialist with Colorado Springs Utilities, “The reason for our joining several other Front Range entities on the motion to vacate is because we did not agree with the WQCC’s approach to regulating PFAS. Under Colorado’s State Administrative Procedure Act, a policy is a general statement of interpretation that is not meant to be a binding rule. Therefore, we joined other stakeholders in asserting that the regulation of PFAS is so important that it should have been accomplished with a thorough rulemaking process to establish a statewide PFAS standard.”
On July 14 the WQCC adopted policy 20-1. “What this policy does,” explains Rosenbaum, “is it forces wastewater to test for PFAS. Your drinking water is fine, it’s not contaminated yet, but do you have an industry that’s dumping everything into the wastewater? We have the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, so they’re not dumping in rivers anymore but they’re dumping into wastewater.
Now we’re making that accountable in our state. Now we’re explicitly stating in writing CDPHE [Colorado Department of Health and Environment] will receive extra funding to help that water district do an investigation of the industries that are connected to the wastewater system to see if they have PFAS. If they do, now they have to filter it at their site. If you own a restaurant, you have a grease trap. You can’t just dump in the wastewater. If you have a dental office, it’s explicitly written that they have to filter mercury. We’re not doing anything different, we’re just directly applying it where they’ve gotten away with no rules because they’ve been allowed to self-regulate.”
While ATSDR completes their current study, Rosenbaum is planning her next steps. “We need to set maximum contaminant levels in this state,” she says. “What we can do is stop the industry from adding more [PFAS contamination] in. New Hampshire set it at 18 ppt, where the state health department wanted to set it at 700 ppt for PFHxS, which is stupid. The EPA isn’t monitoring PFHxS, they’re just doing PFOA and PFAS, so we brought in evidence from other states saying PFHxs is actually the more harmful one because it’s more prevalent.”
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Marlon Duke)
The Bureau of Reclamation has awarded a total of $37.2 million for 11 salinity control projects in Colorado and Wyoming through its Basinwide and Basin States Salinity Control Programs. When the salinity control features are installed, these projects will prevent approximately 23,426 tons of salt each year from entering the Colorado River.
“The projects, when complete, will help provide higher quality water to municipal and agricultural water users in Arizona, Nevada, and California, preventing economic damages,” said Kib Jacobson, program manager for Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Program.
Economic damages caused by high salinity in the Colorado River water often means reduced crop yields for farmers, growing a more salt-tolerant but lower-value crop, or extra expenditure of water to remove salt from the soil. High salinity can also shorten the useful life of household appliances and increase water treatment and facility management costs.
These projects were selected through a competitive process, open to the public. Reclamation solicits, selects and awards grants through funding opportunity announcements to projects sponsored by non-federal entities that control salt loading in the Upper Colorado River Basin. One of the primary selection criteria is the lowest cost per ton of salt controlled. The average cost per ton of salt for those awarded this year is $60.22. This is comparable to average cost per ton of salt of the 2017 FOA that averaged $58 per ton of salt.
Project proposals often include funding from other sources, and this year an additional $8.7 million in funding will go toward the salinity control projects selected, for a total of $45.9 million.
Reclamation will distribute the $37.2 million over the next 3 to 5 years: $33.7 million for projects in western Colorado and $3.4 million in southwestern Wyoming.
To learn more about the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Program and Reclamation’s Basinwide and Basin States Salinity Control Programs, visit http://www.usbr.gov/uc/progact/salinity. To learn more about the funding opportunity announcement process, visit grants.gov.
Water restrictions will be implemented for residents of Fort Collins following extreme drought conditions and wildfires which have the area facing a potential water shortage, the city announced on its website.
The water use restrictions will take effect Oct. 1 and will remain in effect until the order is lifted by the city manager…
Ongoing drought conditions, the Cameron Peak Fire burning near Walden and an infrastructure repair project known as Horsetooth Outlet Project (HOP) have the city facing a projected water shortage unless action is taken, the city said.
Typically, utilities receives about 50% of its water from Colorado-Big Thompson shares via Horsetooth Reservoir and 50% from the Cache la Poudre River. During HOP, utilities will have limited access to water supplies in Horsetooth and will rely more heavily on the Poudre River.
If conditions during HOP – like continued drought or poor water quality due to the Cameron Peak Fire – prevent or limit the ability to deliver water from the Poudre River, a temporary backup pump system will convey water from a different Horsetooth Reservoir outlet to the Utilities Water Treatment Facility.
The capacity of this backup system is expected to supply only average utilities winter water demands, which does not include irrigation or other seasonal outdoor uses.
Lawn watering will not be allowed beginning Oct. 1. Trees, gardens for food production and other landscapes may be watered by hand or drip systems only. There are also restrictions on vehicle washing, power washing and street sweeping, among other things.
Now environmental and water quality experts are bracing for more substantial impacts on the Poudre River and the people who depend on it for drinking water, farming, industry and recreation. Degraded water quality, enhanced flood risk and threats to aquatic wildlife are all distinct possibilities as the blaze takes its toll on a delicate, far-branching river ecosystem that had largely recovered from the impacts of the High Park Fire.
The coming weeks and months will bring more news about what the Cameron Peak Fire will mean for the Poudre River. Until then, some staff of the agencies that monitor the river are in a similar position to the rest of us: Stuck in an anxious waiting game as the blaze continues, temperatures warm up and many details about the fire remain obscured in the ever-present haze.
“There are still so many uncertainties,” said Jen Kovecses, executive director of the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed. “We’re certain about how big the fire is, but we’re not certain about its intensity on the landscape and what it will look like. That’s going to be the missing puzzle piece that we need to understand the full suite of post-fire impacts from this event.”
The aftermath of the High Park Fire offers a glimpse, albeit not an ironclad preview, of some impacts that could come from the Cameron Peak Fire. It all starts with the fire burning away the carpet of leaves, twigs, branches and other vegetation on the forest floor, known as “duff.”
“The fire can consume both the forest canopy and the material on the ground, which is a big problem, because now we have bare soil exposed,” said Pete Robichaud, a research engineer with USDA Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. “That forest floor duff layer is like a big sponge. It absorbs the water when it rains, it allows the water to percolate slowly into the soil — it’s great. Well, now the fire removes that, and when the rain comes, there’s no sponge.”
The other problem is smoke, which can seep into the forest floor and cling to soil particles as it cools and condenses, making them hydrophobic — or water repellent.
The two forces combined can leave the soil vulnerable to even a mild afternoon thunderstorm. Water reverbs off the forest floor and travels downslope to the river, dragging soil, sediment and ash along for the ride.
That’s what happened after High Park, which infamously turned the Poudre black in summer 2012.
“Without the ability to soak up water and temper the intensity of rain events, the system overall became a much flashier system,” said Jill Oropeza, director of sciences for Fort Collins Utilities’ Water Quality Services Division. “You’d see water levels rise really quickly; you’d see material from the hillslopes move into the river channel really quickly, and then the quality would change really quickly as well. You just had tons and tons of ash and sediment that got mobilized into the stream channel and then eventually conveyed downstream.”
The Office of Mountains, Deserts and Plains will take charge of remediating abandoned mine lands, including the Gold King Mine in southwest Colorado
The Environmental Protection Agency is creating a new office in Lakewood that will focus on cleaning up abandoned hardrock mining sites west of the Mississippi River, including the Bonita Peak Mining District where the Gold King Mine disaster originated in 2015.
The Office of Mountains, Deserts and Plains will be located in the EPA’s regional office at the Denver Federal Center, the agency announced during a news conference at the Western Museum of Mining and Industry in Colorado Springs on Wednesday. EPA’s National Mining Team Leader Shahid Mahmud will be the acting director, and the team will have nine full-time staff positions.
The office, which will use existing agency funds, will primarily focus on remediation work at Superfund sites and other abandoned mining locations, which release millions of gallons of pollution into streams each year. Remediation efforts will include cleaning up sites and the surrounding environment, and in some cases rebuilding the mine for operations.
There are more than 63 Superfund Mining and Mineral Processing Sites west of the Mississippi River, including nine in Colorado. In Colorado alone, there are roughly 23,000 abandoned mines.
Many historic mining sites don’t have an owner or operator to facilitate cleanup operations themselves, placing it in the EPA’s hands…
The new office will also help speed up project timelines, including to clean up hundreds of abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation.
An agreement finalized in February designated funding and resources to clean up 24 of the highest priority mines, five years after the federal government and tribe first reached a settlement on the mines…
Another goal of the office is to make it easier for so-called “good Samaritan” cleanup operations, such as those facilitated by Trout Unlimited or The Nature Conservancy. Current law says that if a group wants to contribute to cleanup efforts, they could be responsible for finishing the job, whether they’re capable of doing so or not. While the law is what it is, Benevento said, the new office will do what it can to make collaborative cleanup efforts “as unbureaucratic as possible.”
In 2012, the state of Colorado passed Regulation 85, or Reg 85, which dealt with point source and nonpoint source water contaminants. Point sources, like wastewater treatment plants, were hit with strict measures for managing pollutants. Nonpoint sources, like parks, golf courses and agriculture, were not.
However, Reg 85 began a 10-year period where the agricultural community is encouraged to do voluntary measures for managing nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Agricultural organizations like the Colorado Livestock Association and Colorado Corn Growers Association were involved in those early discussions and pushed back against the assumption that agriculture is the main contributor of nutrients to streams and rivers in Colorado.
In 2022, the Water Quality Control Commission will determine if the agricultural community needs regulations or if we will continue voluntary measures. The first hearing on Reg 85 is in October, and it is an opportunity for the agricultural community to tell their story and keep Colorado as a voluntary state.
The main issue is not the voluntary measures. Farms and ranches throughout the state have been changing and adapting their practices constantly. Many practices, which have been implemented to simply keep a farm or ranch efficient or profitable, have also improved the management of nitrogen and phosphorus. Colorado producers will continue to invest and adopt practices that manage nutrients and are compatible with their operations.
The issue is telling this story to those outside of the agricultural community, and there are multiple opportunities to do just that.
A team with Colorado State University is conducting multiple edge-of-field studies to show the benefit of specific operations and practices on nutrient management. These studies provide us with valuable data to show the positive benefit of practices on the majority of farms and ranches today.
Additionally, these studies can help the landowner have a better understanding of their own application rates of nitrogen and phosphorus and how well those are being used by the crop.
There is also work being done to demonstrate past improvements through programs like EQIP — Environmental Quality Incentives Program —administered by Natural Resources Conservation Services. Every year, millions of dollars in federal and private funding are spent on Colorado farms and ranches that have had positive impacts on managing nitrogen and phosphorus. These studies can show us how much work has been done throughout the state in reducing loads of nitrogen and phosphorus because of new agricultural practices.