They snowshoed through a campground hidden under soft drifts, stepped carefully to the banks of the Middle Fork of the Williams Fork River, then broke the ice to find free-flowing water.
Nick Riney and Tyler Torelli worked efficiently, dipping a long-poled scoop into the waterway and filling several pint-sized plastic bottles with samples of the cold, clear stream.
Sturdy even in finger-pinching cold, the two set up a make-shift lab on the back end of the Sno-Cat, pulled equipment out of chubby metal suitcases and ran field tests right on the spot. Twenty degrees and snowfall aren’t the ideal working conditions for most, but these guys consider it a “pretty good office” all the same.
And their work on a mid-February day in Grand County gave Denver Water’s Water Quality Operations team an early look at how last summer’s Williams Fork Fire, which burned nearly 15,000 acres northeast of Silverthorne, might have affected the water flowing through the area.
See and hear what’s required to do this work:
By sampling water as it pours through the mountains, long before it reaches any reservoirs or treatment plants, Denver Water can understand what’s happening on the landscape. Samples that veer from typical readings could indicate unexpected pollution, echoes of old mining activity or, increasingly, the impacts of forest fires.
Understanding those impacts helps prepare water quality experts for potential impacts to reservoirs or treatment processes.
The field test results came back in a healthy range, with no indication yet that a significant amount of sediment left by the summer of record fires in Colorado had ended up in the water.
“That’ll change,” Riney said, as the winter turns to spring and melting snow and monsoons more readily pull soil and ash from the scorched hillsides to the east of the tributary.
“But right now, this water is clean. Turbidity is low. We like to see that,” he said. “We’ll keep tracking these spots every month and try to understand just how much damage this fire did to the landscape.”
To be sure, the burned lands around the Williams Fork River don’t present a risk to Denver’s drinking water, primarily because this water travels to an “exchange” reservoir, where it will be sent down the Colorado River to make up for other West Slope water that is diverted to the Front Range.
Even so, understanding the impacts of the fire on water quality is important, allowing Denver Water and its partners, including the U.S. Forest Service, to take steps to prepare for, and reduce, those effects.
Denver Water recently began making monthly treks to this high-country stream to monitor a wetland protection project nearby. The utility has long made quarterly trips to the area as part of its broader field-testing program to track water quality across its mountain watershed.
To collect samples from the Middle Fork stream, Riney and Torelli towed a Sno-Cat up and over Ute Pass Road off Highway 9, turned south in County Road 30 and went to work near Sugarloaf Campground.
“This sampling work keeps us well attuned to what’s happening in our watershed and can at times serve as an early warning for issues we may need to be watching out for further downstream,” said James Berrier, water quality monitoring supervisor at Denver Water. “We want to understand, is this just a temporary issue or something that could have a longer-term impact?”
Sampling teams measure for an array on indicators. In the field, they look at temperature, pH (which measures acidity), conductivity (which helps determine salt levels), turbidity and dissolved oxygen, which is an important factor for aquatic life.
Other water samples are transported back to Denver Water’s laboratory at the Marston Treatment Plant in southwest Denver (which will be moving in the future to its new home at Denver’s emerging National Western Center). Tests there include measuring for fluoride, chloride, nitrates, E. coli, nutrients and dissolved metal.
Samples collected a few months from now may shed light on how much damage the Williams Fork fire did to the land.
Burn levels also can show up in water quality, through indicators such as ash, sediment, metals and other signatures.
“Soil erosion modelling predicts that post-fire erosion rates are generally very low (close to pre-fire conditions) in areas with minimal fire impacts on ground cover and soils. However, rates of erosion increase dramatically … in moderate and high soil burn severity areas, especially on steeper slopes,” according to the response team’s December 2020 assessment.
Denver Water has already accumulated significant expertise and partnerships related to wildfire impacts. Collaborative efforts include From Forests to Faucets, a team approach from Denver Water, the Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Colorado State Forest Service.
These agencies, together with local groups, address overgrown forests on the front end with tree-thinning projects and repairing landscapes damaged by the kind of intense fires that dramatically slow the recovery of soils and vegetation.
“We have experience, unfortunately, with the havoc that wildfires and their aftermath can wreak on our water quality,” Berrier said, referencing major fires in the late 1990s and early 2000s that put enormous strain on reservoirs and treatment on the south end of Denver Water’s collection system, challenges that the utility is still working to overcome today.
“Tracking impacts to the water once the fires are out is a key step in getting our arms around what might be in store in the years to come.”
Skeptics and public health officials dueled over the issue of water fluoridation during Wednesday’s meeting of the Loveland Utility Commission, which last heard similar concerns in 2014.
The skeptics failed to sway the commission, however, which voted at the suggestion of Loveland Water and Power director Joe Bernosky to recommend the city continue its practice of water fluoridation.
An anti-fluoridation panel spoke first, led by Traudl Renner, whose comments before the City Council in October prompted the meeting. She argued that emerging science has called into question the safety of fluoridation, which Loveland has undertaken since 1954.
She cited a study that indicated fluoride could damage the immune system (a panelist supporting fluoridation qualified this by saying the quoted section considered very high doses of the element)…
She also questioned the effectiveness of ingested fluoride in preventing tooth decay, which is the reason why communities such as Loveland introduce fluoride compounds into their water.
Renner and fellow anti-fluoride panelist Kathryn Jordan also brought up how accidents at water treatment facilities occasionally cause dangerous amounts of fluoride to be introduced into drinking water.
Joe Bernosky, director of Loveland Water and Power, later said he and water utilities manager Roger Berg were not aware of any such accidents having ever occurred in the city.
Jordan questioned the expense of programs such as Loveland’s, and asked why the city wouldn’t receive the chemical, which she said is the byproduct of certain industrial processes, for free…
Chris Neurath, research director for the American Environmental Health Studies Project, said studies also suggest the element is neurotoxic and notably dangerous for pregnant women and young children…
Neurath’s characterization of multiple studies was challenged by fluoridation advocates, particularly pediatrician Patricia Braun and dentist William Bailey of the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus. The latter called water fluoridation an “ideal public health measure.”
“There’s nothing that you have to remember to do,” he said. “You don’t have to make an appointment. You don’t have to stand in line. You don’t have to go to the doctor. All you have to do is drink and use the water. It’s inexpensive. It helps tremendously with dental disease.”
“Community fluoridation is the most cost-effective and far-reaching strategy we have to prevent cavities,” Braun said, adding that tooth decay was the number one reason she saw children going into surgery.
Braun and Katya Mauritson, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s dental director, also spoke about the savings in medical expenses seen by communities that fluoridate their water, with Mauritson estimating that Loveland’s program saves residents more than $2 million in medical bills every year.
Commissioners voted unanimously to recommend the city keep up its water fluoridation program.
The city’s water utility introduces a fluoride compound into its drinking water to raise the concentration of the element to 0.7 milligrams per liter. About 0.2 milligrams of fluoride are naturally present in the water before it passes through the Loveland Water Treatment Plant.
Cities commonly add fluoride to their drinking water because of its effects on dental health. Loveland began fluoridating its water in 1954. Since then, the consensus among public health experts has been that fluoride is not harmful at the levels achieved by fluoridation.
The efficacy of water fluoridation is supported by the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Dental Association, American Water Works Association, U.S. Public Health Service and other agencies.
In October, Loveland resident Traudl Renner told the council that she and others believe water fluoridation causes various health problems and suppresses the immune system.
Council members ultimately agreed with a suggestion by City Manager Steve Adams that the topic be brought before the Loveland Utilities Commission, which advises the council on matters related to the city’s water and electric utilities.
The commission last addressed the fluoridation question in 2014 — after weighing presentations from health care professionals as well as citizens who voiced concerns similar to Renner’s, it voted to recommend the city continue adding fluoride to its water.
Wednesday’s meeting will be structured in a similar way, starting with presentations from a fluoride-skeptic panel, followed by a panel of doctors and representatives of agencies that support the practice.
Loveland Water and Power director Joe Bernosky said he expects the commission will vote to recommend whether the city should continue fluoridating its water, and he will write a memo summarizing the meeting to be reviewed by the council…
The Zoom webinar will be accessible at http://zoom.us/s/98404604379. To make a video comment, Zoom attendees should use the “raise your hand” feature and wait to be unmuted.
The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Michael S. Regan, the former top environmental regulator for North Carolina, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and drive some of the Biden administration’s biggest climate and regulatory policies.
As administrator, Mr. Regan, who began his career at the E.P.A. and worked in environmental and renewable energy advocacy before becoming secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, will be tasked to rebuild an agency that lost thousands of employees under the Trump administration. Political appointees under Donald J. Trump spent the past four years unwinding dozens of clean air and water protections, while rolling back all of the Obama administration’s major climate rules.
Central to Mr. Regan’s mission will be putting forward aggressive new regulations to meet President Biden’s pledge of eliminating fossil fuel emissions from the electric power sector by 2035, significantly reducing emissions from automobiles and preparing the United States to emit no net carbon pollution by the middle of the century. Several proposed regulations are already being prepared, administration officials have said.
His nomination was approved by a vote of 66-34, with all Democrats and 16 Republicans voting in favor..
Mr. Regan will be the first Black man to serve as E.P.A. administrator. At 44, he will also be one of Mr. Biden’s youngest cabinet secretaries and will have to navigate a crowded field of older, more seasoned Washington veterans already installed in key environmental positions — particularly Gina McCarthy, who formerly held Mr. Regan’s job and is the head of a new White House climate policy office…
But most of the opposition centered on Democratic policy. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, called Mr. Biden’s agenda a “left-wing war on American energy.”
“Mr. Regan has plenty of experience,” Senator McConnell said. “The problem is what he’s poised to do with it.”
In his testimony before the Senate last month Mr. Regan assured lawmakers that when it comes to E.P.A. policies, “I will be leading and making those decisions, and I will be accepting accountability for those decisions.”
Mr. Regan has a reputation as a consensus-builder who works well with lawmakers from both parties. North Carolina’s two Republican senators, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr voted to support his nomination. Even Senate Republicans who voted against him had kind words.
Denver drainage carries contaminants into waterways at levels up to 137 times higher than federal safety limit
Colorado health officials this week declared water quality in the South Platte River as it flows through Denver highly deficient, pointing to E.coli contamination at levels up to 137 times higher than a federal safety limit.
This intestinal bacteria indicates fecal matter and other pollution from runoff after melting snow and rain sweeps Denver pollution through drainage pipes into the river. To deal with the problem, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment has imposed, in a permit taking effect next month, stricter requirements for managing runoff water pollution.
But Denver officials are fighting those requirements and twice petitioned the state health department to relax the new permit.
“What the new requirements do is drastically increase the amount of expensive system maintenance beyond what could make a meaningful impact on E.coli concentrations,” city spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn said.
Colorado public health officials last month rejected Denver’s latest appeal. They issued a statement standing by their demands for the city to reduce its water pollution, saying the agency hopes to avoid litigation.
A more aggressive approach is required, state health officials said in the statement, “because the South Platte remains in bad shape for pathogens.”
Denver officials told The Denver Post on Wednesday “no lawsuit has been filed” challenging the permit in state court and that they are “having conversations with the state on five or so new requirements with the hope of reaching compromise.”
“Denver’s storm sewer system is a clear part of the problem,” CDPHE permitting officials said in an email. When inspectors in 2019 sampled water flowing out of city drainage “outfall” pipes into the South Platte, they detected E.coli at levels as high as 1,970 cfu from one pipe and 8,400 cfu from another, state data shows…
“Denver has never opposed the numeric limit of 126 cfu per 100 milliliters,” [Nancy Kuhn] said, but opposes “the specific measures that CDPHE is mandating to achieve that limit.”
A consultant analyzing Denver stormwater runoff in 2018 proposed, in a document included in a 419-page state fact sheet accompanying the new permit, a comprehensive effort to slow down drainage flows, treating runoff water as a useful resource for re-greening in a semi-arid area. He recommended wide use of low-cost measures such as flattening crowned streets, installing small dams in alleys to re-direct culvert-bound gushing runoff, and converting sidewalks to “semi-pervious” surfaces that let water sink between stones into the soil.
Denver’s population growth and development boom have worked against greening to improve water quality. Developers have paved over more surfaces, leaving Denver as one of the nation’s most paved-over cities — especially in newly developed areas — sluicing away runoff water at high velocity without removing contaminants.
Denver officials directed contractors at the city’s new Globeville Landing outfall drainage pipe, in a park built over a former toxic dump site, to install an ultraviolet light. This light, city officials say, zaps away more than 90% of E.coli before runoff water reaches the river.
Wild animals such as raccoons in storm sewers add to the fecal pollution contaminating runoff, Kuhn said, and “dog waste that people don’t pick up is a huge problem and a significant source of E.coli.”
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.”
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.
Here’s the release from Aurora Water (Greg Baker):
Aurora Water has won the 2020 Outstanding Water Laboratory Award from the Rocky Mountain Section of the American Water Works Association (RMSAWWA). RMSAWWA is a nonprofit, scientific and educational association serving members in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming that is dedicated to effectively managing and treating water. The annual award recognizes a drinking water analysis lab for its exceptional performance, dedication and teamwork. Aurora Water’s Quality Control Lab is a repeat winner of this prestigious award, having won the honor a total of seven times since 2008.
Aurora Water’s quality control staff of 10 laboratory specialists conduct dozens of tests daily at the Quality Control Laboratory. Hundreds of water samples are collected each month from source to tap, ensuring that the water provided to Aurora residents is consistently and reliably safe.
“This award recognizes the hardworking professionals at Aurora Water’s Quality Control Laboratory, who are dedicated to providing excellent service to our citizens,” said Aurora Water’s Environmental Compliance Principal Sherry Scaggiari. “Through their rigorous sampling, testing and reporting on every aspect of our water and waste water system, they maintained the highest level of service, even during a pandemic.
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.
Funds will upgrade plants, replace aging pipelines
An increase in monthly water and sewer service rates in Dolores will go into effect in January.
The base water rate will increase by $5 to $30.84 per month, up from $25.84.
The base sewer rate will increase by $2.50 to $31.16 per month, up from $28.66.
Rate increases were approved by the town board in March, but implementation was delayed until 2021 because of economic challenges due to the pandemic.
The last time water and sewer rates were raised was in 2015. The town is reviewing a senior, income-based exemption from the latest rate increase.
Inflation and the need for infrastructure upgrades are the reasons for the rate increase, said Mayor Chad Wheelus.
While both the sewer plant and water plant are in good condition, outdated pipelines are deteriorating and need replacement.
Many water service pipelines are more than 50 years old, and their 4-inch diameter size is insufficient. The undersized pipes puts limitations on fire protection needs.
Wheelus said the town has replaced aging leaking water and sewer collection lines, more needs to be done…
Priority needs for the water and wastewater pipeline system in Dolores are estimated to cost $2.7 million, according to a recent assessment from SGM Engineering.
Rate increases will help cover current and future repairs and upgrades at the water and sewer plants over several years, town officials said during recent budget discussions.
In the fall, 10 deteriorated water lines passing under Colorado Highway 145 were replaced. The job was a priority because the highway through town is scheduled to be repaved by Colorado Department of Transportation in 2021. An upgrade to the water treatment plant also was completed this year.
To cover the approximate $800,000 cost, the town secured a $292,363 grant from the Department of Local Affairs, and a $25,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Remaining costs were covered from town reserves and a loan from Dolores State Bank.
The water rate increase will go toward paying off the loan…
According to town documents, there are numerous other infrastructure needs pending within the next 5 to 10 years in Dolores. The rate increase will help build up the reserve to pay for future water and sewer upgrade and maintenance projects.
The increase will also help offset ordinary inflation of costs to operate and maintain water and sewer utilities, officials said.
Dolores has significant remaining capacity in both treatment plants, they said, and both plants are also meeting state standards for water quality. Regarding water quantity, SGM said water supply, and the water and sewer treatment systems are sufficient, and the plants have capacity to meet growth in town without major repairs or expansion.
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.
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.
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 release from Rice University (Jade Boyd):
Boron nitride coating is key ingredient in hypersaline desalination technology
A thin coating of the 2D nanomaterial hexagonal boron nitride is the key ingredient in a cost-effective technology developed by Rice University engineers for desalinating industrial-strength brine.
More than 1.8 billion people live in countries where fresh water is scarce. In many arid regions, seawater or salty groundwater is plentiful but costly to desalinate. In addition, many industries pay high disposal costs for wastewater with high salt concentrations that cannot be treated using conventional technologies. Reverse osmosis, the most common desalination technology, requires greater and greater pressure as the salt content of water increases and cannot be used to treat water that is extremely salty, or hypersaline.
Hypersaline water, which can contain 10 times more salt than seawater, is an increasingly important challenge for many industries. Some oil and gas wells produce it in large volumes, for example, and it is a byproduct of many desalination technologies that produce both freshwater and concentrated brine. Increasing water consciousness across all industries is also a driver, said Rice’s Qilin Li, co-corresponding author of a study about Rice’s desalination technology published in Nature Nanotechnology.
“It’s not just the oil industry,” said Li, co-director of the Rice-based Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment Center (NEWT). “Industrial processes, in general, produce salty wastewater because the trend is to reuse water. Many industries are trying to have ‘closed loop’ water systems. Each time you recover freshwater, the salt in it becomes more concentrated. Eventually the wastewater becomes hypersaline and you either have to desalinate it or pay to dispose of it.”
Conventional technology to desalinate hypersaline water has high capital costs and requires extensive infrastructure. NEWT, a National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center (ERC) headquartered at Rice’s Brown School of Engineering, is using the latest advances in nanotechnology and materials science to create decentralized, fit-for-purpose technologies for treating drinking water and industrial wastewater more efficiently.
One of NEWT’s technologies is an off-grid desalination system that uses solar energy and a process called membrane distillation. When the brine is flowed across one side of a porous membrane, it is heated up at the membrane surface by a photothermal coating that absorbs sunlight and generates heat. When cold freshwater is flowed across the other side of the membrane, the difference in temperature creates a pressure gradient that drives water vapor through the membrane from the hot to the cold side, leaving salts and other nonvolatile contaminants behind.
A large difference in temperature on each side of the membrane is the key to membrane desalination efficiency. In NEWT’s solar-powered version of the technology, light-activated nanoparticles attached to the membrane capture all the necessary energy from the sun, resulting in high energy efficiency. Li is working with a NEWT industrial partner to develop a version of the technology that can be deployed for humanitarian purposes. But unconcentrated solar power alone isn’t sufficient for high-rate desalination of hypersaline brine, she said.
“The energy intensity is limited with ambient solar energy,” said Li, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. “The energy input is only one kilowatt per meter square, and the production rate of water is slow for large-scale systems.”
Adding heat to the membrane surface can produce exponential improvements in the volume of freshwater that each square foot of membrane can produce each minute, a measure known as flux. But saltwater is highly corrosive, and it becomes more corrosive when heated. Traditional metallic heating elements get destroyed quickly, and many nonmetallic alternatives fare little better or have insufficient conductivity.
“We were really looking for a material that would be highly electrically conductive and also support large current density without being corroded in this highly salty water,” Li said.
The solution came from study co-authors Jun Lou and Pulickel Ajayan in Rice’s Department of Materials Science and NanoEngineering (MSNE). Lou, Ajayan and NEWT postdoctoral researchers and study co-lead authors Kuichang Zuo and Weipeng Wang, and study co-author and graduate student Shuai Jia developed a process for coating a fine stainless steel mesh with a thin film of hexagonal boron nitride (hBN).
Boron nitride’s combination of chemical resistance and thermal conductivity has made its ceramic form a prized asset in high-temperature equipment, but hBN, the atom-thick 2D form of the material, is typically grown on flat surfaces.
“This is the first time this beautiful hBN coating has been grown on an irregular, porous surface,” Li said. “It’s a challenge, because anywhere you have a defect in the hBN coating, you will start to have corrosion.”
Jia and Wang used a modified chemical vapor deposition (CVD) technique to grow dozens of layers of hBN on a nontreated, commercially available stainless steel mesh. The technique extended previous Rice research into the growth of 2D materials on curved surfaces, which was supported by the Center for Atomically Thin Multifunctional Coatings, or ATOMIC. The ATOMIC Center is also hosted by Rice and supported by the NSF’s Industry/University Cooperative Research Program.
The researchers showed that the wire mesh coating, which was only about one 10-millionth of a meter thick, was sufficient to encase the interwoven wires and protect them from the corrosive forces of hypersaline water. The coated wire mesh heating element was attached to a commercially available polyvinylidene difluoride membrane that was rolled into a spiral-wound module, a space-saving form used in many commercial filters.
In tests, researchers powered the heating element with voltage at a household frequency of 50 hertz and power densities as high as 50 kilowatts per square meter. At maximum power, the system produced a flux of more than 42 kilograms of water per square meter of membrane per hour — more than 10 times greater than ambient solar membrane distillation technologies — at an energy efficiency much higher than existing membrane distillation technologies.
Li said the team is looking for an industry partner to scale up the CVD coating process and produce a larger prototype for small-scale field tests.
“We’re ready to pursue some commercial applications,” she said. “Scaling up from the lab-scale process to a large 2D CVD sheet will require external support.”
NEWT is a multidisciplinary engineering research center launched in 2015 by Rice, Yale University, Arizona State University and the University of Texas at El Paso that was recently awarded a five-year renewal grant for $16.5 million by the National Science Foundation. NEWT works with industry and government partners to produce transformational technology and train engineers who are ready to lead the global economy.
Ajayan is Rice’s Benjamin M. and Mary Greenwood Anderson Professor in Engineering, MSNE department chair and a professor of chemistry. Lou is a professor and associate department chair in MSNE and a professor of chemistry.
The research was supported by NSF. Additional co-authors include Hua Guo and Ruikun Xin, both of Rice; and Menachem Elimelech and Akshay Deshmukh, both of Yale.
…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.
The Rocky Mountain Section of the American Water Works Association recently recognized the Ute Water Conservancy District Treatment Plant with an award for its work.
The award was the 2020 Outstanding Water Treatment Plant Award for utilities serving over 50,000 customers and is based on a number of factors including water quality, maintenance, professionalism and safety.
Ute Water Process Control Technician Tony Ibarra nominated the plant for the award and said he was glad to see the work of the staff recognized. He said they have worked to continuously improve plant operations through facility upgrades, as well as staff training and certification…
The Ute Water Treatment Plant has undergone facility improvements in recent years including pump station rehabilitations, pre-treatment facility upgrades, filter improvements and a motor control center replacement, among others, according to a news release.
Treatment Plant Superintendent Ben Hoffman said he was happy to receive the recognition and noted that previous winners included larger Front Range districts. He said, typically, water districts make the news for negative reasons, but that he was happy to have something positive to share.
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.”
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.
The Energy Policy Act of 1992, passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by Republican President George H.W. Bush, set the maximum flow rate for showers at 2.5 gallons per minute. President Trump is proposing to increase the rate, which he calls inadequate to wash his “beautiful hair.”
On Aug. 13, the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to amend the existing standard for showerheads. The documentation prints out at 25 pages of mind-numbing rationalization. Its definition of showerheads exemplifies the byzantine logic behind this policy shift.
For example, the proposed rule provides three images of fixtures with between three and eight heads attached to a single pipe coming out of the wall. So long as none of the individual heads has a flow greater than 2.5 gallons per minute, the measure asserts that each fixture satisfies Congress’s quest for water and energy conservation.
How can the Energy Department allow shower fixtures with as many as eight heads, each emitting 2.5 gallons per minute? For context, Webster’s dictionary defines a showerhead as a “fixture for directing the spray of water in a bathroom shower.”
But the proposed rule interprets “showerhead” to mean “an accessory to a supply fitting for spraying water onto a bather.” With this sleight of hand, a congressional rule limiting showerhead flows can be deftly avoided by installing a hydra-headed fixture with multiple “showerheads,” each flowing at 2.5 gallons per minute.
The agency also released a fourth image of a wall fixture with seven nozzles, which the rule would not subject to the 2.5 gallons per minute maximum. The Energy Department deems these fixtures a “body spray” rather than a showerhead because they are “usually located” below the bather’s head. (Of course, the person showering may be short, or the plumber may install the fixture high on the shower wall.) Body sprays may have six or eight nozzles with no flow limits.
The sad part of this foolishness is that the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense program, which identifies water-efficient projects and promotes water conservation, has been spectacularly successful, at virtually no cost to consumers or the regulated community. Showers constitute 17% of residential water use. That’s 40 gallons per day for the average family, or 1.2 trillion gallons annually in the United States.
COVID-19 has helped to make the affordability of water a national issue. Some rural areas, such as the Navajo Nation, where many people need to haul water to their homes and villages, have higher rates of coronavirus infection. People who have lost their jobs find themselves unable to pay their water bills, which in turn compromises the financial stability of water providers.
Allowing showers to use more water would have several unfortunate consequences for cities across the country. It would increase the amount of water cities must treat; raise the chances of raw sewage overflows at water treatment plants – especially in cities such as Washington, D.C. that combine storm and sewer water; and increase the amount of energy used to pump and treat water.
Disrupting low-flow fixture rules would create special hardships for western cities, such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas, that have struggled with water shortages for decades. Both cities remarkably reduced their total water use between the 1980s and 2020, despite rapid population growth, partly by converting residences to low water-use fixtures.
Water is not just another natural resource. Without it our bodies cease to function, our crops dry up, and our economy grinds to a halt. We can’t make any more water, so it makes sense to use the water we have wisely.
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.”
Click here to score a copy of the paper (William J. Raseman, Joseph R. Kasprzyk, R. Scott Summers, Amanda K. Hohner, and Fernando L. Rosario-Ortiz). Here’s the abstract:
This paper introduces a novel decision-making framework for the optimization of water treatment plant operations. Managers at water utilities face increasing tensions between cost, public health risk, public perception, and regulatory compliance. Multi-objective optimization techniques have been developed to generate innovative solutions to environmental problems with competing objectives. By integrating these optimization techniques with water quality scenarios, water treatment modeling, and interactive visualization, our framework enables water managers to choose among an ensemble of optimal treatment operations. By automating the generation of treatment options, this paradigm represents a shift toward exploration and insight discovery in drinking water decision making. To illustrate this framework, we create a disinfection byproduct (DBP) management problem that incorporates the influence of competing risks and cost objectives on decision making. Using data from the Cache la Poudre River—a source water in Colorado with seasonally-varying water quality—and a hypothetical conventional treatment plant, we evaluate the impact of organic carbon increases on the performance of optimal treatment operations. These results suggest that the hypothetical utility should consider infrastructural improvements if organic carbon concentrations increase more than approximately 25% of maximum historical levels. An interactive exploration of the optimization results reveal to what extent there are tradeoffs between solids handling costs, chemical costs, and DBP exposure. A k-means clustering of these data illustrates that the utility can achieve compliance through a variety of treatment strategies depending on decision maker preferences for cost and risk.
Project needs approval from Sunnyside Gold, a company potentially on hook for costs
It appears the Environmental Protection Agency has found a place for long-term storage of mine waste near Silverton.
The EPA announced this week it is proposing a waste repository for the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site on top of the existing tailings impoundment near the Mayflower Mill, about 2 miles northeast of Silverton off County Road 2.
The site, EPA officials say, would serve as a long-term option to store waste that is generated from Superfund cleanup actions, as well as sludge from the water treatment plant that takes in discharges from the Gold King Mine.
“It’s going to be there for the long haul to accommodate any waste we’ll need to remove,” said Christina Progess, the EPA’s lead for the Superfund site.
The proposal comes with one caveat, however: The property is owned by Sunnyside Gold Corp. The EPA has asked for approval from Silverton’s last operating mining company and has yet to hear back.
Gina Myers, a spokeswoman for Sunnyside Gold, said in an email to The Durango Herald that “SGC … had previously offered EPA the use of Mayflower ground for storage of sludge from the underutilized treatment plant.”
Myers did not clarify whether Sunnyside Gold will allow EPA access or not.
The need for a centrally located, permanent dump site for mine waste has been an ongoing issue for EPA ever since the Superfund was declared in fall 2016, about a year after the agency triggered a blowout at the Gold King Mine.
The water treatment plant constructed after the blowout generates up to 6,000 cubic yards of sludge a year – or about a football field buried in 3 feet of muck – and there’s little room on-site for storage. And in the future, the EPA will need a place to take waste removed from other projects…
In August 2019, Sunnyside Gold offered the EPA access to its property at the Mayflower tailings repository, a large series of four impoundments of historic mine waste rock that operated until the early 2000s.
“(The site) is an ideal and proven site for a repository for the water-treatment plant, and, in the interest of good faith and improving water quality, SGC has granted EPA access for this evaluative work,” the company said at the time.
Progess said the EPA sent Sunnyside Gold a consent for access request and hopes to hear of a final decision by mid-August…
If access were granted, the EPA would start a phased approach at the Mayflower tailings, Progess said. A liner would be placed on top of the existing piles for the new waste, which would then be capped.
All told, the EPA’s plan would have the capacity to store up to 609,000 cubic yards of mine waste and sludge. Use of the site, however, would vary year to year, depending on current projects and need…
The Mayflower tailings are suspected of leaching heavy metals into the Animas River, which has prompted Sunnyside Gold to conduct its own multi-year investigation into the matter.
Progess said the investigation remains ongoing, and the EPA would use a different, more stable location at Impoundment 1 on the site to store its waste to begin with. She said leaching is suspected at Impoundment 4.
“We feel comfortable starting the work at Impoundment 1,” she said. “That will allow us years of use while the investigation on Impoundment 4 can continue.”
The public can comment on the proposed plan until Aug. 27. A virtual public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. Aug 11.
Progess said the EPA hopes to have the site constructed and ready for use by fall 2021, about the time storage at the water-treatment plant for the Gold King Mine is expected to reach capacity.
Here’s the release from Rice University (Jade Boyd):
Rice’s trap-and-zap strategy for antibiotic resistant bugs becomes wrap, trap and zap
A shield of graphene helps particles destroy antibiotic-resistant bacteria and free-floating antibiotic resistance genes in wastewater treatment plants.
Think of the new strategy developed at Rice University as “wrap, trap and zap.”
The labs of Rice environmental scientist Pedro Alvarez and Yalei Zhang, a professor of environmental engineering at Tongji University, Shanghai, introduced microspheres wrapped in graphene oxide in the Elsevier journal Water Research.
Alvarez and his partners in the Rice-based Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT) have worked toward quenching antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” since first finding them in wastewater treatment plants in 2013.
“Superbugs are known to breed in wastewater treatment plants and release extracellular antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) when they are killed as the effluent is disinfected,” Alvarez said. “These ARGs are then discharged and may transform indigenous bacteria in the receiving environment, which become resistome reservoirs.
“Our innovation would minimize the discharge of extracellular ARGs, and thus mitigate dissemination of antibiotic resistance from wastewater treatment plants,” he said.
The Rice lab showed its spheres — cores of bismuth, oxygen and carbon wrapped with nitrogen-doped graphene oxide — inactivated multidrug-resistant Escherichia coli bacteria and degraded plasmid-encoded antibiotic-resistant genes in secondary wastewater effluent.
The graphene-wrapped spheres kill nasties in effluent by producing three times the amount of reactive oxygen species (ROS) as compared to the spheres alone.
The spheres themselves are photocatalysts that produce ROS when exposed to light. Lab tests showed that wrapping the spheres minimized the ability of ROS scavengers to curtail their ability to disinfect the solution.
The researchers said nitrogen-doping the shells increases their ability to capture bacteria, giving the catalytic spheres more time to kill them. The enhanced particles then immediately capture and degrade the resistant genes released by the dead bacteria before they contaminate the effluent.
“Wrapping improved bacterial affinity for the microspheres through enhanced hydrophobic interaction between the bacterial surface and the shell,” said co-lead author Pingfeng Yu, a postdoctoral research associate at Rice’s Brown School of Engineering. “This mitigated ROS dilution and scavenging by background constituents and facilitated immediate capture and degradation of the released ARGs.”
Because the wrapped spheres are large enough to be filtered out of the disinfected effluent, they can be reused, Yu said. Tests showed the photocatalytic activity of the spheres was relatively stable, with no significant decrease in activity after 10 cycles. That was significantly better than the cycle lifetime of the same spheres minus the wrap.
Deyi Li of Tongji University, Shanghai, is co-lead author of the paper. Co-authors are Xuefei Zhou and Zhang of Tongji and Jae-Hong Kim, the Henry P. Becton Sr. Professor and Chair of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at Yale University. Alvarez is the George R. Brown Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, a professor of chemistry, of materials science and nanoengineering, and of chemical and biomolecular engineering and director of NEWT.
The National Science Foundation, the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the National Key R&D Program of China supported the research.
Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University’s Office of Public Affairs.
Here’s the release from the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Chris Woodka):
The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District applauded state approval of a $100 million financing package for the Arkansas Valley Conduit that will allow construction to begin in the near future.
The Colorado General Assembly passed the annual Colorado Water Conservation project bill which contains the funding earlier this month, and Governor Jared Polis signed the bill into law on Monday.
“The Arkansas Valley Conduit will be a lifeline for the Lower Arkansas Valley for generations to come,” said Bill Long, President of the Southeastern District. “Governor Polis, the General Assembly and the CWCB have all shown vision and foresight with this support of the AVC. This goes beyond just financing a pipeline, because really it’s an investment to assure clean drinking water for the future.”
Long also noted the strong bipartisan support the AVC enjoys from the entire Colorado congressional delegation, and noted in particular the leadership of Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, and Congressmen Scott Tipton and Ken Buck.
“I want to thank the CWCB board and staff for including this funding in their annual bill, and express our sincere gratitude to the legislators from the Arkansas Basin for their leadership and support,” said Kevin Karney, chairman of the District’s AVC committee. “The recognition by the State of Colorado of the benefit of partnering with the Bureau of Reclamation on this project is an enormous boost.”
The AVC is estimated to cost between $564 million and $610 million to complete over a 15-year period. The $100 million in state funding would include $90 million in loans and $10 million in grants over the life of the project. When complete, the AVC will provide clean drinking water to 50,000 people in 40 communities.
The AVC had received funding since 2010 to prepare for construction of the 130-mile pipeline which will deliver a safe drinking water supply to the Lower Arkansas Valley. In February of this year, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that $28 million of FY ’20 funding was being directed to the conduit, in an effort to move from planning and design into construction. An additional $8 million has been requested for FY ’21 and is under consideration by Congress.
“The unanimous approval of this funding package by the CWCB board last November was the absolute catalyst for an improved federal funding picture,” said Southeastern District Executive Director Jim Broderick. “Colorado, like other Western states, recognizes developing a strong partnership with Reclamation allows us to overcome water quality and water supply challenges in rural areas.”
Following a number of delays, the monochloramine conversion process within the city’s water department is scheduled to officially start on Monday, May 11 at 10 a.m.
According to a press release from the City of Craig Water & Wastewater Department Director Mark Sollenberger, the city’s water department has resolved a number of issues and is ready to get the project, previously scheduled to start on March 31, underway.
“After numerous weeks of working on the primary disinfection portion of the treatment plant upgrade, our engineers, staff, and contractors have finally resolved many of the issues preventing the original March 3 start date for the chloramine conversion process,” Sollenberger said in the press release. “Be assured that we are now ready to proceed and that the entire conversion process of the water plant, and roughly 80 miles of water distribution system, will still take approximately 3 weeks to be fully completed.”
Sollenberger added that the city will continue to flush fire hydrants in the distribution system throughout the entire conversion process to help move chloraminated water around the entire water system and support normal system maintenance.
“The public should please note that fire hydrant flushing can cause discolored water or pressure fluctuations at your home. If you encounter these problems, they should clear up quickly if you run your water faucets throughout the house for a short period of time. We apologize for this inconvenience,” Sollenberger said.
The controversial monochloramine project to add monochloramines to the current use of chlorine for water disinfection has the city’s water department monitoring water quality now, and moving forward, Sollenberger added.
“Please be assured that throughout the chloramine conversion process, and long afterwards, the City Water Department staff will be monitoring the water quality in the water distribution system to make sure it always remains safe and is of the highest quality we can deliver to our customers,” Sollenberger said.
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From Water Education Colorado (Laura Paskus and Caitlin Coleman):
When Water Justice is Absent, Communities Speak Up
Two years ago, a company that analyzes property data crunched the numbers on more than 8,600 zip codes in the United States and found that America’s most polluted neighborhood was in northeast Denver. The study, from ATTOM Data Solutions, shows that Denver’s 80216 zip code, which includes Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and River North, topped its “environmental hazard index.” As of 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory reported that 22 facilities were still releasing toxic chemicals in 80216, chemicals such as nickel, lead, methanol, creosote and more.
“The neighborhood is parked between gas refineries, the former airport, and then, also, what was at one time an Army base making mustard gas,” says University of Denver law professor Tom Romero, II, who has spent his career dissecting the factors behind environmental injustices in Colorado. There are two Superfund sites and six brownfield sites in 80216, plus the knot of Interstate 70 and Interstate 25 severs the neighborhood from the rest of Denver and increases pollution from highway traffic. The area is also home to a predominantly low-income, Hispanic and Latinx community, says Candi CdeBaca, Denver City Councilwoman for northeast Denver’s District 9.
Last year, CdeBaca became the first person from the neighborhoods to represent on the Denver City Council, ever. She points to an opposition campaign to the Central 70 Project as the beginning of the neighborhood rallying to achieve representation against environmental inequities.
The Central 70 Project broke ground in 2018 to widen the highway through Denver. It will demolish the viaduct that carries I-70 over Elyria-Swansea, replacing it with a below-grade highway. Residents had a list of worries: losing their homes to eminent domain, living even closer to the highway, and unearthing a Superfund site, which they feared would re-expose harmful heavy metals and increase health risks, CdeBaca says.
Their opposition campaign didn’t stop the highway work, but the community came together and won in one sense—the Colorado Department of Transportation will pay for a long-term health study, collecting data to determine whether toxins in the air, soil and water are making residents sick. They also gained a louder voice. “Those losses were the first start of me galvanizing some community power around environmental racism,” says CdeBaca. “Now we have this amplification of groups who never had representation in our government from the neighborhoods that were polluted.” She points to the importance of local voice and representation in all issues, particularly for communities that want to bring about environmental justice. “There is nothing that I support more than activating people power,” CdeBaca says.
With water affordability, access and quality challenges—all of which can translate into health impacts—the role of water in Colorado isn’t always one of fostering healthy communities, yet it could and should be. What contributes to these less-than-whole communities? And what does it take to recognize the issues and how they evolved, address power imbalances, engage the community, and restore equity where it’s been missing?
What is Environmental Justice?
Environmental injustices in Colorado, or anywhere, can span cities and suburbs, sovereign tribal lands, and rural communities. They have their roots in narratives of immigration, development and industry, and political power dynamics, further influenced by evolving legal and regulatory frameworks.
In 1990, EPA Administrator William Reilly created an Environmental Equity Workgroup to assess evidence that “racial minority and low-income communities bear a higher environmental risk burden than the general population.” The agency, which went on to establish an Environmental Equity office in 1992, later changing its name to the Office of Environmental Justice in 1994, defines environmental justice as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” It has since expanded to offer a range of programs that provide services from grant funding to technical assistance and training. It also runs a National Environmental Justice Hotline.
Another early definition of environmental justice came from University of Michigan professor Bunyan Bryant, who said it refers to places “where people can interact with confidence that the environment is safe, nurturing and productive. Environmental justice is served when people can realize their highest potential.”
Scholars add additional layers to the term—it’s not just about identifying who is or isn’t harmed but includes some form of restitution, says Kelsea MacIlroy, an adjunct professor and PhD candidate in the sociology department at Colorado State University.
“There are a lot of different ways to talk about justice that aren’t just about who and how but also about a long-term social justice component,” MacIlroy says. “Does the community actually have an authentic seat at the table in addressing the ills?”
80216 may feel it all. “Denver was segregated, and that segregation manifested itself in a variety of ways in terms of water,” Romero says. “It meant that Denver’s communities of color, particularly African Americans and Mexican Americans, were living in close proximity to the areas with heavy industry, where the affordable housing is.” That’s a pattern and practice, he says, that was established in the 20th century and continues today. Many environmental justice cases have similar roots, as repeated practices that ultimately create winners and losers.
When Government Fails
Americans watched one of the most high-profile environmental justice cases unfold in Flint, Michigan, in 2015 and 2016 when corroded lead pipes poisoned the population.
To save money, in April 2014, the city switched its drinking water source and began supplying residents with Flint River water that wasn’t treated under federal anti-corrosion rules. The population was predominantly black, and more than 40 percent of residents were below the poverty threshold. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, no level of lead exposure is safe but higher lead exposure leads to more health challenges including anemia, kidney and brain damage, heart disease, decreased IQ and more. In children, the impacts are especially toxic.
Residents began noticing a rusty tint to their tap water in the summer of 2015, but it wasn’t until October 2015 that the governor ordered Flint’s water source switched. By then, though the new water was safe, the plumbing wasn’t—corroded pipes continued to leach lead into drinking water. Bottled water and free faucet filters to remove lead at the point of use were distributed.
More than five years after the crisis in Flint began, the city and its residents are still recovering. The city’s FAST Start program is removing and replacing lead and galvanized steel service lines across the city, but it’s a big, expensive job. FAST Start has been funded with $25 million from the State of Michigan and $100 million allocated by Congress through the Federal Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act of 2016. As of December 2019, less than 40 percent of the city’s pipes had been replaced, with many residents still relying on faucet filters or bottled water.
Fifteen state and local officials were charged with various crimes, including involuntary manslaughter—some took plea deals and most cases were dropped. Residents now mistrust their water and water providers. That mistrust has flooded the nation, with many more communities now coping with elevated lead levels and lead pipe replacement.
According to the independent Flint Water Advisory Task Force’s final report, released in 2016, breakdowns in protocol, dismissal of problems, and failure to protect people occurred at nearly every level of government. Not only were customers supplied with unsafe drinking water, government officials were slow to acknowledge the problems and rectify the issue by providing safe water. According to the 2016 report, the Flint water crisis is a “story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental justice.” Had there been local control of resources and decisions, they write, the problems wouldn’t have occurred in the first place.
Coping with Forever Chemicals
Flint’s toxic water is not unlike the water quality issues discovered in 2016 in the Colorado towns of Fountain and Security-Widefield. That’s when water providers and residents learned that PFAS chemicals, short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, were detected at levels above EPA’s new 2016 health advisory levels. The source of the chemicals: firefighting foam used for decades to extinguish training fuel fires at the U.S. Air Force’s Peterson Air Force Base. The Air Force now uses a replacement foam at the base, and in 2019, the Colorado Legislature enacted restrictions and bans on PFAS foam, but the damage has been done. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they bioaccumulate and remain in the environment for a long time, with half lives (the amount of time it takes the chemical to decrease to half its original value) in humans of two to eight years, depending on the chemical. They have been linked to cancers, liver and kidney damage, high cholesterol, low infant birth weight, and other ailments.
“We ended up having 16 family members that lived within that area that had cancer, and five of them died of kidney cancer,” said Mark Favors, during a public event on PFAS at Colorado School of Mines in January 2020. Favors is a former resident of Security, a U.S. Army veteran, a PFAS activist, and member of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition. “A lot of [my family] are military veterans. One of my cousins, while he was doing two combat tours in Iraq, the Air Force was contaminating their drinking water. That’s the crazy part. How they’ve admitted it and it’s just hard to get any type of justice on the issue,” Favors says.
These southern El Paso County towns aren’t home to what are often considered disadvantaged populations—the poverty rate is between 8 and 9 percent, slightly less than the statewide average; about 60 percent of residents are white, and about 20 percent are Hispanic or Latinx, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. However, census numbers don’t represent military personnel who temporarily reside in the area. According to El Paso County’s Health Indicators report, published in 2012, four military bases in the county employ 40,500 military personnel and about 21,000 contract personnel.
When EPA tightened its health advisory levels in 2016, they were 10 times more restrictive than what the agency had previously advised, and water providers realized they had a problem. They acted quickly to provide residents with free bottled water and water filling stations while they suspended use of the aquifer, then worked to broker deals to purchase clean water from other municipalities. Some of those deals were only temporary. Since June 2018, the City of Fountain has worked to get back on its groundwater supply, treating the groundwater with granular activated carbon units provided by the Air Force. Now it is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct a full, permanent groundwater treatment plant. The story in Security is similar—the Security Water and Sanitation District has been importing water, primarily from Pueblo Reservoir, to meet the needs of its residents since 2016, which involved building new pipelines and purchasing extra water from Colorado Springs Utilities—an added cost. Security avoided raising water rates for a time, paying those costs out of its cash reserves. By 2018, residents had to absorb a 15 percent rate increase, with another 9.5 percent increase in 2019.
The Army Corps of Engineers is constructing a treatment facility in Security, too, which should be complete by the end of 2020. Once the plant is finished, Security will switch back to a combination of groundwater and surface water, and rates should stabilize once the costs of those pipelines are recovered, says Roy Heald, general manager at Security Water and Sanitation Districts.
Who pays to protect the health of those who rely on this water? “What responsibility did [the Air Force] have in rectifying this? What about the local sanitation districts? They have to deal with this. It’s not their fault but they’re tasked with giving clean water,” says MacIlroy at Colorado State University.
“The Air Force really has stepped up,” Heald says. But they may have to step up further—in 2019, the Security Water and Sanitation Districts and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, another affected entity, sued the Air Force to recoup the costs of purchasing and piping in clean water. Their lawsuit cites negligence for disposal of chemicals, remediation of contamination, and breaching a responsibility to prevent dangerous conditions on the defendant’s property. Heald wouldn’t comment on the pending lawsuit, but says, “As long as [cash] reserves are at an adequate level, if we received a windfall there would be no place else for it to go besides back to our customers.” Those recouped costs would likely take the form of lower or stabilized rates.
Residents are also pushing for justice through a class-action lawsuit brought by the Colorado Springs-based McDivitt Lawfirm, which has teamed up with a personal injury law firm in New York to file against 3M, Tyco Fire Products, and other manufacturers of the firefighting foam.
“There’s going to have to be some sort of accountability and justice for these people who unknowingly, for years, drank colorless, odorless high amounts of PFAS,” says Favors. He calls for better oversight and demands that polluters are held accountable.
As for coping with PFAS-related health challenges, there are still a lot of unknowns, but El Paso County was selected to participate in two national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies to better assess the dangers of human exposure to PFAS, and to evaluate exposure pathways.
Locally, the study and lawsuits might help recoup some financial damages—but PFAS-related water contamination isn’t isolated to these Colorado communities. In July 2019, the Environmental Working Group mapped at least 712 documented cases of PFAS contamination across 49 states. Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives, hoping to implement a national PFAS drinking water standard, estimate the number is even higher: 1,400 communities suffer from PFAS contamination. A U.S. Senate version of a PFAS-regulating bill has yet to be introduced. But in February, EPA released a draft proposal to consider regulating PFOS and PFOA, just two of the thousands of PFAS.
Justice through Water Rights
Environmental justice isn’t exclusively an urban issue. Injustices involving pollution, public health, access, affordability and water can be wrought anyplace—including rural and suburban areas. For rural communities, the issue comes to a head when people, organizations or entities in power seek more water for their needs at the cost of others.
In southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, acequia communities fought for years to protect their water rights and way of life. Acequias are an equity-based irrigation system introduced by the original Spanish and Mexican settlers of southern Colorado. “What it means is that the entire community is only benefitted when all resources are shared,” says Judy Lopez, conservation project manager with Colorado Open Lands. There, Lopez works with landowners to preserve wildlife habitat, forests, culturally significant lands, and ag lands—including those served by acequias.
The Town of San Luis, the heart of Colorado’s acequia community, is one of the most economically disadvantaged in the state. It’s in Costilla County, where more than 60 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latinx—more than any other county in Colorado—and 25 percent of the population live in poverty, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. But the people there are long-time landowners, never separated from the land their ancestors settled, four to seven generations back, Lopez says. They have the state’s original water rights to match, including Colorado’s oldest continuously operated water right, the San Luis People’s Ditch, an acequia established in 1852.
Prior to statehood, the territorial government recognized acequia water rights. But when the Colorado Constitution established the right of prior appropriation, the priority scheme of “first in time, first in right” became the law, challenging communal rights.
“It was very difficult for [acequias] to go to water court and say, ‘This guy is taking my water,’” Lopez says. “It was very difficult to quantify the use and who was using it.”
It wasn’t until 2009 that the Colorado Legislature passed the Acequia Recognition Law. The law was developed by Rep. Ed Vigil with the help of the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, an entity that represents more than 73 acequias and 300 families who depend on them. Amended in 2013, the law solidifies the rights of acequia users. According to the Colorado Acequia Handbook, it allows “acequias to continue to exercise their traditional roles in governing community access to water, and also strengthens their ability to protect their water.”
In order to be recognized under the Acequia Recognition Act, acequias needed bylaws. Over the past six years, Colorado Open Lands, the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, and the University of Colorado Boulder have partnered to help 42 acequias write bylaws, thereby protecting their water. “The bylaws were still based, in large part, on those oral traditions,” Lopez says, “and included protective language that said, ‘If a water right is sold, or a piece of land is sold, that acequia gets the first right to purchase those rights.’”
Even having water rights doesn’t guarantee water access: Over the past few decades, the federal government has settled longstanding water rights cases with sovereign tribes, in many cases backdating tribal water rights to the dates of their reservations’ establishment. Although the tribes now have the nation’s oldest established water rights, they haven’t always, and they still come up against structural and financial barriers that prevent them from developing water and getting the real benefit of those rights.
Of the more than 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States, as of 2019 only 36 tribal water rights settlements had been federally approved. The Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes in Colorado are among that small number, but despite their long journey, the tribes still don’t have access to all the water they own.
Tribal water rights have their roots in the Winters Doctrine, a 1908 case which established tribal water rights based on the date the federal government created their reservations—thereby moving tribal water rights to “first in line” among users.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, the U.S. government filed and worked through claims on behalf of the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes to surface waters in southwestern Colorado. In the 1980s, Congress approved a settlement between the tribes, the federal government and other parties; in 2000, the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act was amended, entitling tribes to water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s proposed Animas-La Plata Project (A-LP), as well as from the Dolores Project’s McPhee Reservoir. Construction on A-LP began in 2001, and the project’s key feature, Lake Nighthorse—named for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell—began filling in 2009.
Prior to the Dolores Project, many people living in Towaoc, on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, did not have running water and instead trucked it in to fill water tanks at their homes, says Ernest House, Jr., senior policy director with the Keystone Policy Center and former director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. His late father, Ernest House, Sr., was pivotal in that fight for water. “I was fortunate, my father was able to see A-LP completed. I think he probably, in his own right, couldn’t believe that it would have been done and could be done,” he says. But even today, some Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute communities still lack access to water, and aging infrastructure from the 1980s needs updating and repairs.
“Our tribes as sovereign nations cannot maintain or move forward without access to water,” House says. “We have to remind people that we have tribal nations in Colorado, and that we have other tribes that continue to call Colorado home, that were removed from the state, either by treaty or forced removal,” he says, adding that acknowledging the difficult past must be a part of conversations about the future.
Those conversations include state, regional, and federal-level water planning. The Colorado tribes are engaged in Colorado’s basin roundtable process, with both tribes occupying seats on the Southwest Basin Roundtable, says Greg Johnson, who heads the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Water Supply Planning Section (and serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees). Through the roundtables, local stakeholders conduct basin-wide water planning that is eventually integrated into the statewide Colorado Water Plan. However, until recently, tribal involvement in regional Colorado River negotiations between the seven U.S. basin states and federal government has been nonexistent. Change is brewing—a 2018 federal Tribal Water Study highlighted how tribal water resources could impact Colorado River operations, while a new Water and Tribes Initiative is working to build tribal capacity and participation in water negotiations throughout the basin.
“The Utes have been in what we call Colorado for the last 10,000 to 12,000 years,” House says. “It would be a shame if we were left out of the conversations [about water].”
The External Costs of Industry
Government is vital to addressing the legacy of environmental injustice, and preventing future problems, but finding solutions also demands reconsidering how business is done.
Consider Colorado’s relationship with the extraction industry, visible in the 19th-century mines that pock mountain towns, uranium-rich communities like Nulca, and the escalation of oil and gas drilling today. Colorado is an “epicenter” of extraction and environmental justice issues, says Stephanie Malin, associate professor at Colorado State University and a sociologist who studies energy development and extraction.
Lack of local control in the past has been especially frustrating, Malin says, since private corporations earn profits off the resources but then outsource the impacts. In the end, extractive industries have a track record of leaving communities and governments to bear the costs of cleanup.
Take Gold King Mine as one high-profile example. In August 2015, wastewater from an abandoned mine in San Juan County contaminated the Animas River between Silverton and Durango. Contractors hired by EPA accidentally caused 3 million gallons of mine waste, laden with heavy metals, to wash into the Animas. New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation all filed to sue EPA, with farmers reporting that they couldn’t water their crops and others saying they had to truck in alternative water supplies. But those responsible for the contamination were long-gone. Like tens of thousands of other mines in the region, the Gold King Mine was abandoned in the early 20th century.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)—more commonly called Superfund—which Congress passed in 1980, was originally set up as a “polluter tax” on oil, gas and chemical companies at risk of contaminating communities or the environment. But Congress never reauthorized the tax, which expired in 1995. By the early 21st century, the fund was bankrupt. Today, these cleanups are funded entirely by taxpayers.
“It’s part of a bigger pattern of privatizing profit and nationalizing, or socializing, risk,” Malin says. “Then, communities and the environment are left holding the ‘external’ costs.” Those external costs, she says, are nearly unquantifiable: “The intergenerational impacts in particular are so hard to gauge, in terms of what the communities are absorbing.”
While these problems can seem intractable, there are solutions, Malin says. For example, the bond amounts companies are required to pay up-front should better reflect the actual cost of cleanup, she says. Last year, Colorado lawmakers made strides to unburden taxpayers in just that way, with an update to Colorado’s old mining law.
The new Colorado law, HB19-1113, makes sure water quality impacts from mining are accounted for and long-term impacts are avoided. The law says that the industry can no longer self bond—a practice that allowed mine operators to demonstrate they had the financial resources to cover clean-up costs rather than providing the resources up front. Without self bonding, taxpayers won’t be left paying for remediation if the company goes bankrupt. It also requires mine operators to factor water quality protection costs into their bond—and requires most to develop a water quality treatment plan. This means that reclamation plans must include a reasonable end date for any needed water quality treatment, hopefully ensuring Colorado will avoid new perpetually polluting mines.
State lawmakers are currently looking at a more encompassing environmental justice bill, HB20-1143, introduced in January 2020. At press time the bill was still under consideration. If it moves forward as introduced, the bill would increase the maximum civil fine for air and water quality violations—from $10,000 per day to $47,357 per day, which would be adjusted annually according to the consumer price index—reallocating some of the financial burden back on polluters. It would also authorize the use of the money in the state’s water quality improvement fund, which is where those water quality violation fines go, to pay for projects addressing impacts to communities. The bill would also bolster the state’s environmental justice efforts, with a new environmental justice advisory board and environmental justice ombudsperson who would run the advisory board and advocate for environmental justice communities.
Speaking up for Tomorrow’s Climate
Environmental justice can’t be about a single issue, says Lizeth Chacón, executive director of the Colorado People’s Alliance, a racial-justice, member-led organization based in Denver and Pueblo. That means looking at water-focused environmental justice alongside related issues such as climate change, racial justice, inequities, poverty, housing, power dynamics, and more.
“When we are talking to our members, we are talking to them about the fact that they are working two jobs and still cannot put dinner on the table in the week, talking that they live in fear of being deported and being separated from their families, talking about the fact that they are sick, or have headaches, or have to spend money on water because they can’t drink the water coming out of their tap like other people can,” she says. “It can’t be seen as one issue … This work has to be holistic.”
Currently, the Colorado People’s Alliance is working on a climate campaign directed by its members in Commerce City. “They said, ‘This is something that’s impacting all of us, regardless of where we’re from, whether we’re undocumented or documented, what our economic status is,’” she says. The Alliance is focused on greenhouse gas emissions, which have immediate health impacts and long-term water effects.
Another approach in northeast Denver is proceeding thanks to an EPA environmental justice grant, in which organizers will convene youth, local leaders, and scientists to create a community science project that leads to a more fishable and swimmable Denver South Platte River. The river flows through Elyria-Swansea and Globeville, but it used to be a dumping ground, with a landfill beside its banks. Clean ups and improved recreational access, much of which has been spearheaded by the nonprofit Greenway Foundation since its founding in 1974, have created opportunities for kayakers downtown, but river access in northeast Denver, beyond the popular Confluence Park, is limited. In addition, E. Coli levels are often high, making swimming inadvisable. Access to a healthy waterway makes communities more vibrant and whole, supporting health, wellbeing, recreation, and cultural and spiritual practices, but also connection. This may be the only recreational water access available to some urbanites.
“Rivers are one of the major pathways to healing the environment and healing ourselves,” said Jorge Figueroa at an initial workshop for this project in December 2019, where they began to establish a youth advisory board. Figueroa runs El Laboratorio, an organization that brings people together from different disciplines and cultures to creatively solve environmental challenges. (He is also on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.) He’s working on this project with Lincoln Hills Cares, a nonprofit that provides outdoor education, recreation and experiences to youth who may not otherwise have these opportunities; and Colorado State University, which is developing a new campus at the National Western Center, called Spur, in the neighborhood. The partners expect to have a plan ready by the end of 2020, and the project should begin in 2021.
Figueroa, who grew up and has family in Puerto Rico, also witnessed, up close, the wave of climate refugees who left his home state after Hurricane Maria devastated it in 2017.
“It’s critical for us to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure and in the reliability of our municipal potable water systems,” Figueroa says. “But from an equity perspective, we need to ensure that the more than a trillion dollars that will be invested in the nation’s public water systems provide the most benefit to the most people.” His suggestion to build climate resiliency in an equitable way: water conservation. “Water conservation can be a supreme water equity tool: It provides cheaper water for the community and more resiliency and reliability for the system. It’s not only an ideal climate change adaptation strategy but also is one of the top, by far, equity water strategies.” When you don’t consider equity in water decisions, you can make vulnerable communities more vulnerable, he says.
Whether working to improve environmental justice structurally and physically through conservation and resiliencies, or politically and financially through new regulations, bonding or taxation, there are many opportunities to do better. But there are also social justice elements to work on. Chacón recommends involving community members at the beginning of a process—not at the end. She says it’s important to listen—and to not dismiss people when they disagree.
Looking forward, it’s up to everyone in positions of power to actively create space for disadvantaged communities to lead, says Chacón. “To us, the people who are closest to the pain are the ones closest to the solution because they know what’s happening in their community best of anyone.”
Some of the principles of engaging communities in these situations are “almost universal,” says Colorado’s Michael Wenstrom, an environmental protection specialist in EPA’s Environmental Justice Program. Wenstrom worked in Flint over the course of a year following the water emergency, “assisting them to connect with processes, in understanding what their rights are, and helping them learn how to raise their voices effectively,” he says.
He says that where communities and families are already overburdened—with poverty, crime, racism—they often don’t have time, expertise or resources to recognize the problems, nevermind address them. “In addition, people in low-income communities may be less inclined to raise their voices for various reasons,” Wenstrom says. Reasons could include racism, job discrimination, or, for some, the fear of being identified as an illegal resident.
He says officials like him who come into communities as outsiders must be careful, persistent, and work to build trust. “As trust builds, we can then start pointing people toward tackling issues related to pollution or public health,” he says. But, Wenstrom cautions, if people don’t believe they can make a difference, they won’t raise their voices in the first place.
Laura Paskus is a reporter in Albuquerque N.M., where her show, “Our Land: New Mexico’s Environmental Past, Present and Future,” airs on New Mexico PBS. Caitlin Coleman is editor of Headwaters magazine.
Town officials say private property owners are needed to see more improvements in Gore Creek water quality
The Vail Town Council on Tuesday told staff to draft a stream protection ordinance that would apply to private property in town. The creek in 2013 landed on a state list of “impaired waterways,” along with many other mountain towns. The town, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and other organizations have been working since then to improve water quality in the creek.
Much of that work starts with cleaning up what runs into the creek, including runoff from paved areas, pesticides and other pollutants.
In an April 7 presentation, town watershed education coordinator Pete Wadden reminded council members that after a few years of improvement, the creek’s scores regarding macroinvertebrate populations — the bottom of the creek’s food chain — dipped in 2018. Most of that was due to a change in the way those populations are counted, but those are the figures used by state officials.
Wadden noted that the town has made “huge progress” on its own property along the stream, but not as much on private property.
Wadden said the ordinance the staff is recommending includes a two-tiered setback, with more stringent rules closer to the stream.
Wadden added that the ordinance could restrict pesticide use in town, but the Colorado Legislature will have to pass a law that allows towns to pass those regulations.
At a regular meeting of the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors on March 12, District Manager Justin Ramsey noted that COVID-19 cannot be spread through drinking water.
“It’s very susceptible to chlorine,” Ramsey said. “We do keep chlorine in our water.”
However, COVID-19 can be found in sewage, Ramsey noted, adding that there are other unhealthy things found in sewage as well…
The only way PAWSD could be affected by COVID-19 is if too many staff members were to get sick, Ramsey added later.
According to Ramsey, the state of Colorado has put together a program, called CoWARN [Colorado Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network] that allows PAWSD to “share” equipment and staff.
“So if PAWSD gets hit real hard with this, I can call Durango and say ‘I need two water operators’ and if they have them available, they’ll send them to us,” he said. “It sets out how we’re going to pay for it and pay them back and so on and so forth.”
In a follow-up interview on March 17, Ramsey noted that PAWSD is now a part of CoWARN.
Additionally, Ramsey noted that PAWSD has run into issues with citizens using and flushing items that cause problems with PAWSD’s infrastructure.
“It is causing somewhat of a problem. It’s not a major catastrophe, but it is definitely clogging some pumps and causing a little bit of issues,” he said.
On March 17, PAWSD’s administrative offices closed to the public indefinitely, Ramsey explained in an email.
PAWSD customers will still receive regular water and wastewater service, Ramsey noted.
The Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors briefly discussed fluoride in drinking water at its meeting on Feb. 13.
PAWSD stopped putting fluoride in the local water supply in 2005.
“The state has contacted us, and they would like to give us a presentation on the pros and cons of [fluoridation of] the water,” PAWSD Manager Justin Ramsey said. “We do not put fluoride in the water. I have no wish to put fluoride in the water. I told the state I’ll be happy to sit through their little spiel.”
Asked for comment on the fluoride issue, San Juan Basin Public Health’s (SJBPH) Brian Devine, Water and Air Quality Program manager, sent the following statement via email: “SJBPH supports the evidence-based practice of public water providers distributing water with the optimal levels of fluoride for public health. For some water providers, that means adding fluoride to drinking water, for others in naturally highly-fluoridated areas, it means removing it. Optimal levels of fluoride strengthen growing teeth in children and protect tooth enamel from plaque in adults, leading to less tooth decay. This means lower lifetime health costs and improves the opportunity for everyone to live a healthier life. These benefits led community water fluoridation to be named one of the top ten public health achievements of the twentieth century by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Presenting to City Council Feb. 11, SGM Water Engineer Rick Huggins told councilors that the project has gone as expected locally, after the city’s recent water quality plans were set into motion when the Colorado Department of Public Health increased disinfectant residual requirements for water systems, which Craig couldn’t meet in 2016.
Previously, Craig was using free chlorine to keep its water clean, but due to the failure to meet state requirements, the City of Craig had to act.
According to Huggins, after months of studies and workshops, council members decided a few key upgrades along with treating the city’s water system with monochloramine was the most cost-effective solution to keep the water safe. The project was expected to cost $5.2 million, requiring the city to increase rates to help finance the entire project.
According to Huggins, SGM expects the project to cost $3.128 million in the end, which is below the $3.375 million the company estimated costs would be at the start of the project.
The city announced to residents in their latest water bill that the monochloramine changeover will be implemented sometime in March…
Huggins did add that the project has run into scheduling issues that has pushed the project back 4-6 weeks, but he said that SGM anticipates that they’ll have Craig’s water treatment system compliant with state regulations by April 1.
One Year After EPA Pledged to Act on PFAS Exposure, Key Parts of the Strategy Have Yet to Be Implemented
Today, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet joined a group of senators in a letter to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler requesting he provide an updated timeline for when the EPA will implement commitments made in the agency’s plan to combat exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The EPA released its PFAS Action Plan one year ago today and has yet to implement many of the commitments outlined in the strategy. Bennet, who raised concerns about flaws in the EPA’s initial plan, is an author of the PFAS Action Plan of 2019 and has long worked to address contamination issues across Colorado.
“As you are aware, communities across the country are struggling to respond to the widespread issue of PFAS contamination. The human health risks from this class of chemicals, which include birth defects, various forms of cancer, and immune system dysfunction, are still being examined, and the uncertainty has caused great concern among our constituents,” wrote Bennet and the senators in the letter.
The lawmakers went on to underscore that the PFAS Action Plan alone is insufficient to address the full scope and urgency of the problems associated with PFAS exposure, which is why failure to take an initial step to implement this plan is particularly concerning. They also highlighted that the EPA committed to establish federal drinking water standards last year for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), two of the most prevalent PFAS chemicals, but have also failed to follow through on that pledge.
In their letter, the senators also addressed other parts of the plan that have not been prioritized, including important remediation efforts to help expedite cleanup of PFAS contamination under the EPA Superfund law.
“Yet, despite then-Administrator Scott Pruitt committing the EPA to designating these materials [PFOA and PFOS] as hazardous substances in May 2018, the EPA has not even sent a proposal to the Office of Management & Budget for interagency review, let alone published it for public comment,” wrote Bennet and his colleagues.
The senators closed their letter with a request that the EPA provide an update on the status of every commitment made in the PFAS Action Plan, as well as an update on the timeline for executing the priorities included in the strategy.
Bennet has long worked to address the health effects, cleanup, and reimbursement issues associated with PFAS, chemicals used in firefighting foams that have contaminated drinking water sources near military bases across the country, including at Peterson Air Force Base (AFB) in Colorado Springs.
Bennet pushed for a nationwide study on the health effects of PFAS and for additional funding for remediation and clean up.
Bennet secured $10 million for the nationwide Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study in the 2018 omnibus package.
Bennet secured an additional $44 million in funding for Air Force environmental restoration and remediation in the 2018 omnibus package. A significant amount of that funding was used for remediation around Peterson AFB in Colorado.
Bennet supported a provision in the Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that required a plan on how the Department of Defense might reimburse state or municipal agencies that expended funds to provide alternative water supplies.
Bennet wrote to the CDC to ask that the nationwide study include communities in Colorado near Peterson AFB.
Bennet visited communities around Peterson AFB to receive an update on remediation efforts. There, Bennet also received an update on the challenges water districts are having receiving reimbursement for steps they took to clean up drinking water.
Bennet demanded the Trump Administration (CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)) release the results of a study regarding what levels of certain chemicals are safe in drinking water. According to news reports at the time, the EPA had been working to block the release of results from a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) study on the toxicity of certain PFAS.
Bennet passed an amendment to provide funding for the Department of Defense to reimburse state and municipal water authorities for actions they took to clean up and mitigate PFAS in drinking water. The amendment was included in the Department of Defense-Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations bill, which passed the Senate in 2018. The provision was not included in the final version of the bill that was signed into law.
Bennet wrote to the CDC/ATSDR to voice disappointment that the CDC will not include military and civilian firefighters in its investigations of the human health effects of PFAS contamination pursuant to Section 316 of the FY19 NDAA.
Bennet and his colleagues introduced the PFAS Action Plan of 2019, legislation that would mandate the EPA, within one year of enactment, declare PFAS as hazardous substances eligible for cleanup funds under the EPA Superfund law, and enable a requirement that polluters undertake or pay for remediation.
Bennet introduced an amendment to the NDAA to authorize the U.S. Air Force to reimburse local water districts, like those around Peterson AFB, for actions they took to treat and mitigate PFAS contamination.
Following Bennet’s 2018 letter calling on the CDC to include Colorado communities near Peterson AFB in the nationwide study on the health effects of PFAS, Bennet praised the agency’s decision to include these communities.
More than 12,000 El Paso County water users have been impacted by the chemical, which tainted the Widefield aquifer.
In 2016 the EPA lowered its health advisory levels for the compounds, vastly expanding the number of southern El Paso County residents considered at risk for exposure. A subsequent study tied the contamination to the decades-long use of a firefighting foam at Peterson Air Force Base.
Water districts in the towns of Security, Widefield and Fountain have either tied into uncontaminated water from Colorado Springs Utilities, or installed filtering systems to eliminate the chemicals.
In the letter, the senators say they believe the agency has not acted quickly enough to make water safe…
The lawmakers are asking for the EPA to prioritize the establishment of a maximum contamination level for drinking water and to allow cost-recovery for cleanup by labeling PFAS as hazardous substances.
FromThe La Junta Tribune-Democrat (Bette McFarren):
Director of Water and Waste Water Tom Seaba reported this week that Colorado Department of Health and Environment has conducted its permit inspection of the new waste water treatment plant, and the results are good.
Speaking at the Tuesday meeting of the Utilities Commissioners, Seaba said the total cost of the project was about $18.86 million. Three loans were obtained for the construction of the plant from the Colorado Water Resource and Power Development Authority. The first was for nearly $13.6 million, the second for $3 million, and the third for $3 million…
Seaba also said he was pleased with the performance of his reverse csmosis plant crew. Through observation and careful maintenance, they were able to extend the life of the A and C Train membrane replacements — to 131 months from 58 months on the A Train, and to 137 months from 52 months on the C Train. They have saved one complete replacement of all three trains, at a savings of $386,442.
In other news, the back-flow prevention survey is continuing. For businesses that do not have any back-flow prevention or cross connection control, the survey will consist of a visual inspection of the plumbing and building information. Reminder letters have been mailed to those consumers that have a known back-flow prevention device registered with the city.
The Town of Palisade is moving forward with a study exploring solutions to either replace its aging sewer plant with a new facility or pump the waste to the Clifton Sanitation District, Town Administrator Janet Hawkinson said.
The town’s current plant uses lagoons and is situated on the east side of Riverbend Park. Those lagoons must be decommissioned, Hawkinson said.
The town, utilizing grant money awarded by the Department of Local Affairs, tasked an engineering firm to study the amount of waste the town produces, the cost to install a new plant and the cost to send the waste to Clifton…
The cost of a new Palisade sewer plant would likely be much more expensive than sending the waste to Clifton, Hawkinson said.
The study will be completed in approximately six weeks, Hawkinson said, at which point the Board of Trustees will need to weigh in on the next steps in the process.
Water treatment upgrades
Not to be confused with its sewer plant, Palisade’s water treatment plant is getting an upgrade after the Board of Trustees voted to spend nearly $40,000 to upgrade its computer systems.
Hawkinson said the water treatment plant is a newer facility, which uses advanced safety features as well as solar power in its design. Since the facility is newer much of it is computerized, Hawkinson said, and needed updates to its software.
Local groups call for plugging of discharging mines
Todd Hennis, owner of the Gold King Mine, is not happy about the proposed Superfund cleanup around Silverton, saying the suggestion to plug more mines only redistributes potentially toxic water and doesn’t solve the problem…
In December, two community groups formed to help guide the Superfund process – the Citizens Advisory Group and the Silverton-San Juan County Planning Group – submitted letters to the EPA with a similar recommendation.
The main message: focus on the sites – namely the Gold King, American Tunnel, Mogul and Red & Bonita – which are contributing the most amount of contaminated metals into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.
According to data from the now-defunct Animas River Stakeholders Group, almost half of all metal loading from the 120 draining mines sampled around Silverton comes from these four sources.
And the suggested solution? Place more bulkheads.
“While currently the (Bonita Peak) enjoys high-priority status as a Superfund site, the (community group) is quite concerned its priority could change in the future,” the CAG wrote. “… Bulkheads can be funded with manageable, annual budgeting, unlike a large water treatment facility, which may need a big financial infusion all at once.”
Hennis, for his part, has long maintained that the original bulkheads placed on the American Tunnel caused his mines to start to discharge mine wastewater. Sunnyside Gold has adamantly denied the Sunnyside Mine is connected geologically to Hennis’ mines.
Regardless, Hennis said he was “shocked and appalled” to learn the community groups were in favor of more bulkheads as a main treatment option.
“Bulkheading doesn’t work,” Hennis wrote. “It appears all they accomplished in the long term was to re-distribute acid mine water flows elsewhere, and in the same volume as the original problem.”
Hennis says that if the Gold King and Red & Bonita are plugged, it could shift water back into the American Tunnel, where bulkheads there could be overwhelmed.
“Rolling the dice on a potential catastrophic failure of the American Tunnel bulkheads makes no sense whatsoever,” he said. “If a release of 3 million gallons of mine water from the Gold King raised absolute havoc downstream, a potential release of billions of gallons from the Sunnyside Mine Pool would have unthinkable consequences.”
Hennis instead said the only long-term solution would be to drain the Sunnyside Mine pool, treat the water and shut off spots where water gets into the Sunnyside Mine network.
But this could be costly.
Richard Mylott, spokesman for EPA, said the agency is working to understand the impacts that bulkheading would have on water quality and water levels within the Cement Creek area…
Mylott said EPA has installed several wells to monitor the groundwater system when it tests the closure of the Red & Bonita.