#AnimasRiver: A silver lining to a toxic orange legacy? — Environment America


Here’s a call to action from Environment America (Russell Bassett):

“Catastrophe!” read the local headlines after 3 million gallons of metal-laden muck spilled into Colorado’s Animas River earlier last month.

The spill forced the city of Durango to close its drinking water intake, and local business that depend on the river were shut down for weeks. The spill traveled through Colorado into New Mexico and Utah, creating concerns for drinking water, crops, and wildlife all along its path.

The orange river made international news, but it also helped highlight a problem that is long overdue for a solution. Hard rock metal mining is the most destructive industry in the world. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, metal mining is the nation’s top toxic water polluter.

Mining in the western United States has contaminated headwaters of more than 40 percent of the watersheds in the West. Remediation of the half-million abandoned mines in 32 states may cost up to $35 billion or more.

The main reason for this wide-scale degradation of our waterways is an antiquated law that still governs hard rock mining throughout the country. The 1872 Mining Law allows foreign and domestic companies to take valuable minerals from our public lands without paying any royalties, and it still allows public land to be purchased and spoiled for mining at the 1872 price of less than $5 an acre — that’s the price of one mocha for an acre of public land.

Gold King Mine entrance after blowout August 2015
Gold King Mine entrance after blowout August 2015

This outdated law contains no environmental provisions, allowing the mining industry to wreak havoc on water supplies, wildlife and landscapes. For example, abandoned mines are still leaking 540 to 740 gallons a MINUTE of acid drainage into the Animas River headwaters, degrading miles of the watershed. This was the case before the Gold King Mine spill and is still the case after the spill, and there are many more examples throughout much of the West. In fact, it’s estimated that there are half a million abandoned mines throughout the nation.

While the Animas River spill was a tragedy of the first order — and some polluters friends in Congress want to turn it into a witch-hunt of the Environmental Protection Agency — the spill should be the much-needed motivation to enact a solution to clean up after mining’s toxic legacy.

The Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015 (HR 963) would fix the problem, but, unfortunately, due to the current political situation in both houses of Congress, this bill has basically zero chance of getting passed. And we need action now because several proposed mines throughout the country could be approved before a real solution to mining’s toxic legacy is passed by Congress.

The Pebble Mine in the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, Upper Peninsula Mine near Lake Michigan, Black Butte Mine on Montana’s Smith River, and the Canyon Mine near the Grand Canyon are just a few examples of proposed mines that could wreak havoc on local ecosystems and potentially contaminate watersheds for generations to come.

People from across the country travel to raft and fish in these rivers and lakes. It’s time to protect them from toxic mining pollution. Tax payers are bearing the brunt of cleaning up after the mining industry through superfund designation and other federal funding programs. Using public funds to clean up after a toxic industry, while at the same time allowing that industry to continue to create new mines, is unacceptable. Since Congress won’t do what’s needed, our president should act quickly and decisively.

President Obama has the authority to put a moratorium on all new mines near our waters on public lands. The mining industry should not be allowed to use our public lands to build new mines in and around our cherished waterways until it cleans up from past mining operations. Please tell President Obama to reject all new mine proposals near our rivers until the mining industry cleans up its act. Let’s find the silver lining to the toxic orange river. Please add your voice now.

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton on Thursday [October 1, 2015] expressed concerns with the prospect of federal officials moving forward with a Superfund listing for Silverton near the inactive Gold King Mine.

A divide has emerged over the Superfund question, with some residents and officials of Silverton worried the listing would be a stain on the community. Silverton and San Juan County officials in August clarified their perspective, suggesting that they are open to a listing but that they have not “foreclosed any options.”

In comments before the U.S. Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, Tipton, a Cortez Republican, stated: “Designating Silverton a Superfund site … could severely damage the town’s reputation and prove costly to the local economy.”[…]

Andy Corra, owner of 4Corners Riversports in Durango, who spoke at the same hearing, pushed officials to pursue a Superfund listing.

“Right now, adding the Animas Basin’s offending mines to the EPA’s Superfund National Priorities List is really the only clear path forward,” Corra said.

Listening to the hearing was Colorado U.S. Sens. Cory Garner, a Republican, and Michael Bennet, a Democrat. They joined Tipton in pushing for good Samaritan legislation, which would allow private and state entities to restore inactive mines without the fear of liability. [ed. emphasis mine]

From the Associated Press via The Colorado Springs Gazette:

A rafting company owner, a county commissioner and a chamber of commerce official told the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee that they don’t yet know the full economic impact of the spill, but it has been devastating so far, scaring away visitors and triggering layoffs at travel-related businesses…

La Plata County Commissioner Bradford Blake said outdoor recreation companies, farms, greenhouses and other businesses that rely on the river and its water suffered immediate losses ranging from $8,600 to $100,000 each. “Clearly, we do not know yet what the long-term impact of the Gold King spill, and the publicity generated by it, might be,” he said.

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

Navajo Nation leaders on Friday announced they are asking the federal government for a preliminary damage assessment in the wake of the August Gold King Mine spill upstream in Colorado.

Navajo President Russell Begaye on Thursday sent a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency seeking the estimation.

Begaye said it is the first step in the application process for public assistance for recovery from a disaster for eligible applicants.

“The spill caused damage to the water quality of the San Juan River to such a massive extent that a state of emergency was declared by the Navajo Nation,” Begaye in the letter. “All of the economic, health, cultural and other impacts to the Navajo people are not yet known.”

#COWaterPlan “…lays out a path by which we may start saving our rivers” — Ken Neubecker

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office
Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Ken Neubecker):

It has been pointed out several times that the recent mine spill into the Animas River was, in one sense, a good thing. It re-awoke the public to Colorado’s checkered mining heritage, and the damage done to our rivers for more than a century. But Colorado’s mining legacy is more than old mines polluting mountain streams. It also gave us the fundamental laws and traditions that govern our rivers and the water they hold.

In 1859, David Wall dug a small ditch from Clear Creek to irrigate his two-acre garden, from which he sold produce to the miners up stream in Gregory Gulch. People back east objected to Wall’s diversion to land not directly adjacent to Clear Creek. But the miners from California who had come to Colorado brought with them a new idea of water allocation called prior appropriation. On November 7, 1859, the territorial legislature passed a law making Wall’s and any other agricultural diversion legal under the “rules of the diggings.”*

For the next 114 years dams and diversion projects were built with no concern for rivers or the health of the ecosystems they support. Water left in the stream was considered a waste and many rivers were severely degraded from altered flows and lack of water. That began to change in 1973, with the passage of Colorado’s in-stream flow water rights program. While not perfect, and not as protective as some might want to think, it recognized the natural environment as a beneficial user of water.

Now Colorado is developing a coordinated plan for the growing water needs of farms, ranches, communities, and — for the first time — the environment and the recreational economy that supports so much in Colorado. Rather than a simple endorsement for more projects that could further harm rivers, this water plan lays out all of the anticipated needs and myriad ideas for meeting them. Indeed, it lays out a path by which we may start saving our rivers.

The Colorado Water Plan has been in the making for more than 10 years, crafted by water stakeholders and the public from all across the state through the Basin Roundtables. Ranchers, farmers, municipal water providers and utilities have worked closely with many from the environmental and recreational communities to make sure that the plan incorporates serious consideration of the health of rivers, including bringing them back from the damage caused by past projects.

This has not been an easy task, and completion of the Colorado Water Plan does not guarantee success. A lot of time has been spent simply building trust after a long history of distrust between people with competing needs and values, and there are still stark differences between competing water uses that must be overcome. Colorado faces a daunting future — balancing the needs of agriculture, cities and rivers will not be easy. Growth, climate change, new economies and values, the need to fulfill downstream compact obligations and the simple reality of living in an arid region where water supply is shrinking, all make the transition from the Colorado of Dave Wall’s irrigation ditch to 21st century water management complex and challenging. Solving the puzzle of our water needs and restoring rivers will take all of us, working together, looking to the future, not the past.

From the Boulder Daily Camera (Nick Payne):

As important as the Colorado Water Plan is to the future of our state and its hunting and angling heritage, we can’t lose sight of what is happening in Washington, D.C. Several pieces of legislation are working their way through Congress to respond to drought in California and throughout the West. Federal agencies are pumping millions of dollars into drought-relief efforts and scrambling to find ways to make our country more resilient to future droughts, too.

Lawmakers can help sportsmen by spurring and supporting state and local solutions that work for entire watersheds, making it less likely that we will reach a crisis point in future droughts. We can build in assurances by using federal water programs to create:

Flexibility. In an over-allocated system like the Colorado River, we need federal programs that allow the transfer of water voluntarily and temporarily to other users in times of need without jeopardizing property rights, sustainable farming and ranching, or healthy fish and wildlife populations.

Incentives. Watershed groups demonstrating successful drought solutions on the local level — where they work best — should be rewarded, and the federal government should encourage the development of similar groups in other watersheds.

Access. With dozens of programs available across multiple federal agencies to improve water resources, it is difficult for Coloradans to know where to turn for assistance or how to navigate the different bureaucracies. We can get more out of limited resources by making these programs more accessible and decreasing the transaction costs of working with the federal government.

Healthier watersheds, overall. It’s the most cost-effective means of increasing water supply, reducing wildfire threats, protecting against floods, and improving drought resilience, and improving watersheds is something we can start doing right now.

From the fisherman pulling trout out of a high mountain reservoir to the Front Range city responsible for providing drinking water to its residents, we are all in this together. Colorado’s representatives in Congress must advance widely-supported conservation and efficiency measures, along with creative financing mechanisms, to meet water demands while protecting and restoring healthy river flows. Sacrificing species or targeting agriculture are not lasting solutions.

Grizzly Reservoir update

Grizzly Reservoir via Aspen Journalism
Grizzly Reservoir via Aspen Journalism

From The Aspen Daily News (Chad Abraham):

The effort to repair the gate at Grizzly Reservoir that forced the lake to be drained, sending water laden with heavy metals into the Roaring Fork River in August, began Friday.

And there are now protocols in place so officials, residents and river users are not caught off guard, as they were when the river turned from its usual gin-clear shade to an ugly yellowish-brown on Aug. 11, if future reservoir work is expected to impact the Roaring Fork.

There could again be some discoloration in the Fork and Lincoln Creek from silt stirred up during the “dewatering” of the work site, according to a Roaring Fork Conservancy press release. The dewatering must occur so the gate can be fixed.

But crews with the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., the owner and operator of the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System that has purview over Grizzly Reservoir, have set up a silt fence and straw bales and wattles (a formation involving stakes interlaced with slender tree branches) to trap sediment.

Grizzly Reservoir had to be drained because the nonfunctioning gate could have led to a much more serious incident in which the dam failed, said Scott Campbell, the reservoir company’s general manager, shortly after the drainage.

Tests of water and soil samples showed there were levels of iron and aluminum that exceeded state standards for aquatic life. But officials do not believe the material from the 19th-century Ruby Mine will have a long-term impact on the Roaring Fork ecosystem.

Still, the fact that the drainage and discoloration happened so soon after the Animas River pollution disaster alarmed many people, and Campbell has acknowledged that notification about the reservoir work should have been better.

More coverage from The Aspen Times (Jason Auslander):

Those who criticized Grizzly Reservoir officials for draining the lake in August and sending polluted water down the Roaring Fork River for days take note: You’ve been heard.

“I get it,” said Scott Campbell, general manager of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. “And I’m sorry I didn’t make those calls” in August warning downvalley communities of the impending drainage.

Now, as repair work is slated to begin on a broken reservoir gate — the reason for the drainage in the first place — officials from Twin Lakes and from downvalley governments and other organizations have established protocols designed to prevent similar surprises in the future.

The new protocols were laid out in a meeting Tuesday at Grizzly Reservoir. They call for government officials in Aspen and Pitkin County as well as those with the Roaring Fork Conservancy to be notified if any changes occur in the operation of Grizzly Reservoir that might affect the Roaring Fork Valley, said April Long, stormwater manager for the city of Aspen.

“They were apologetic and wanted to take the proper steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Long said.

Long said she’s satisfied that the new protocols will prevent another surprise discharge from occurring.

More coverage from Jason Auslander writing for The Aspen Times:

Grizzly Reservoir is a “toxic waste pond,” and if it is ever drained again, people and governments downstream need to know in advance.

That was the word Thursday from Healthy Rivers and Streams Board Chairman Andre Wille, though his fellow board members seemed to agree with the sentiment.

“This is the single biggest water-quality disaster we’ve ever seen in the Roaring Fork River,” Wille said during the board’s meeting Thursday evening. “I just don’t think it was thought through.”

Officials with the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which runs Grizzly Reservoir, decided to drain the lake around Aug. 8 in order to fix an outlet gate that was jammed by a tree, according to a report that analyzed water samples taken from the discharge.

Future of public lands fund in doubt after D.C. inaction — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel #electionsmatter

Black Canyon via the National Park Service
Black Canyon via the National Park Service

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Outdoors advocates are lamenting the failure of Congress to extend the life of a program that has helped fund public-land projects for half a century, including many in western Colorado.

But some members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, say the Land and Water Conservation Fund program is in need of reform.

Congress failed to reauthorize the program before it expired on Wednesday, despite hopes from some in Congress, including U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., that reauthorization be included in a stopgap funding bill that was passed before that same deadline.

Bennet and U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., also signed a bipartisan letter from dozens of senators calling for permanent reauthorization of the fund. The letter calls it “America’s most successful conservation and recreation program.”

The letter adds, “Investments in LWCF support public land conservation and ensure access to the outdoors for all Americans, in rural communities and cities alike.”

The program uses no taxpayer dollars, and instead is funded primarily by royalties paid to the government by companies doing off-shore oil and gas development.

According to Bennet’s office, the fund “supports the conservation of parks, open spaces, and wildlife habitat for the benefit of hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation.”

Regionally, some of the program’s beneficiaries have included the Colorado and Dinosaur national monuments, Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison national parks, and White River and Uncompahgre national forests.

Will Roush, conservation director for the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop group, said that statewide the fund has paid for more than $250 million in conservation and recreation projects.

According to the Center for Western Priorities conservation group, more than half of members in the U.S. House of Representatives support the program. But it says U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, “is holding LWCF hostage,” having vowed to block the program unless reforms are made, but not introducing a bill or allowing consideration of the program’s renewal.

In a statement released Sept. 25, Bishop countered that it’s special interests who “seek to hijack LWCF to continue to expand the federal estate and divert even more monies away from localities.”

He said any reauthorization of the fund will prioritize funding for local communities as originally intended under the program.

Bishop has been an advocate of transferring federal lands to state control.

In a statement, Tipton said that the Land and Water Conservation Fund “is a valuable tool for conservation, but after 50 years, some reforms are needed to ensure it is still achieving its original mission and that the federal government is properly managing the lands it already has.

“Managing nearly 640 million acres in the United States, the federal government is by far the largest landowner in most Western states. Rather than increasing LWCF funding in order to obtain more federal property, land management agencies should focus on managing the lands they already have. LWCF reauthorization provides an opportunity for reforms that support addressing the growing maintenance backlogs for national parks, roads, trails and facilities.”

Building a new vision for the High Line Canal — The High Line Canal Conservancy

Highline Canal Denver
Highline Canal Denver

Here’s the release from the High Line Canal Conservancy:

High Line Canal Conservancy launches a public outreach planning process to create future visions for the High Line Canal, preserving the recreational and environmental amenity for generations to come.

With the support of Denver Water, Arapahoe County and other governmental organizations along the High Line Canal (Canal), The High Line Canal Conservancy (Conservancy) is building a strong coalition of community leaders and stakeholders to support region wide, long-term planning for the future of the Canal. Over the past several years, these organizations have discussed a vision for the long-term care of the entire Canal corridor, comprising 71 miles long and 100 feet wide, focusing on its critical importance as a recreational and natural amenity to the Denver metro region. The Canal is at a turning point in its future that calls for reassessment and planning that will preserve and protect the Canal for all people forever.

“The 71 miles of the High Line Canal urban trail surpasses the scale and impact of any similar existing or proposed initiative in the U.S. today. The High Line Canal is a unique opportunity to create a significant enduring recreation and cultural greenway legacy – celebrating the rich and diverse physical and social mosaic that we call Denver.” – Tony Pickett, Conservancy Board Member, Vice President, Master Site Development The Urban Land Conservancy.

The Conservancy has commenced the planning initiative through the release of a request for qualifications for a visioning process consisting of extensive public outreach. This broad visioning process will collect the interests, attitudes and needs of citizens – resulting in an exciting future vision for preserving and enhancing the Canal along its entire reach. The Conservancy recognizes the role of the Canal as an invaluable recreational and environmental resource for the Denver metro region and is committed to:

  •  enhancing its recreational opportunities;
  •  preserving the vegetation and wildlife along the corridor; and,
  •  providing practical solutions for the water channel.

“Through the generosity of Denver Water and the stewardship of the Conservancy and its partners, we see a tremendous opportunity to fully realize the potential of the Canal as an extraordinary amenity for the metropolitan community. Much like the national Rails to Trails program, a historic utility shall be repurposed as a regional recreational treasure.” – Nina Itin, Conservancy Board Chair, Community Leader.

For information on the RFQ process, please visit the Conservancy blog: http://www.highlinecanalconservancy.wordpress.com. The Conservancy seeks planning teams to submit qualifications for the upcoming High Line Canal Outreach and Visioning Phase of the greater master planning process by October 12, 2015. A group of teams will be selected for a follow-up request for proposals process.
About the High Line Canal Conservancy

The Conservancy was formed in 2014 by a passionate coalition of private citizens to provide leadership and harness the region’s commitment to protecting the future of the High Line Canal. With multijurisdictional support and in partnership with Denver Water, the Conservancy is connecting stakeholders in support of comprehensive planning to ensure that the High Line Canal is protected and enhanced for future generations.

High Line Canal Regional Context map via the High Line Canal Conservancy
High Line Canal Regional Context map via the High Line Canal Conservancy

Ask The Towers

Originally posted on Your Water Colorado Blog:

By Greg Hobbs

Why did the builders build you?

Because the bees led us to the water pockets
And raven played lookout over farmsteads,

See here!  See here! He cried out loud,
Climb down!  Climb down!

Taste the rain a cavern ceiling drips
with lightning from the sky

You can paint upon a water jar.

Every morning, every evening
Sleeping Man is with you,

In the slant the seasons make
and the Ancestors,

When it’s time to plant
and time to harvest.

(in Celebration of the Wright Paleohydrologic Survey Hovenweep National Monument 9/ 27-29/ 2015)

square towerSquare Tower. Credit: Greg Hobbs

Beeline to farmsteadsBeeline to farmsteads. Credit: Greg Hobbs

Water Pocket Rimrock above check damWater Pocket Rimrock above check dam. Credit: Greg Hobbs

Raven on Hovenweep CastleRaven on Hovenweep Castle. Credit: Kyle Wright

Seep line springSeep line spring. Credit: Greg Hobbs

Sleeping Ute Mountain to the east of Square Tower UnitSleeping Ute Mountain to the east of Square Tower Unit. Credit: Greg Hobbs

Blood Moon Harvest Moon Eclipse Moon over HovenweepBlood Moon Harvest Moon Eclipse Moon over Hovenweep. Credit: Kyle…

View original 56 more words

Progress restoring Tenmile Creek, Peru Creek and other streams in Summit County

From the Summit Daily News (Ali Langley):

Mining, logging and railroad and highway construction in generations past dumped sediment in the Tenmile Creek near Copper Mountain.

“It was just sort of 100 years of abuse,” said Jim Shaw, board treasurer for the nonprofit Blue River Watershed Group, which led the restoration effort.

Climax Molybdenum was the biggest offender. The mine’s dams, built to contain toxic drainage from waste rock, failed, and blowouts caused tons of sediment to rush down the steeper parts of the creek and settle in the flatter parts, destroying habitat and wiping out native flora and fauna.

The 1970 Clean Water Act forced Climax to improve its water treatment process, and the mine was no longer an issue, but the damage remained, Shaw said.

In 2013, a multi-year $800,000 effort began to restore the roughly 2,800 feet of stream impacted. Contributing partners included Climax, Copper Mountain Resort, the Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, CDOT, Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, the National Forest Foundation and the town of Frisco.

Now Shaw said the project is essentially done except for three days of re-vegetation work next week and some planting of shrubs and willows in June. The wetlands have been created, and the oxbows — or U-shaped river bends — have been completed…


As the Tenmile closes on completion, so does another watershed improvement project across the county.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Colorado Department of Reclamation and Mining Safety (DRMS, pronounced dreams) have been leading a collaborative cleanup effort of the Pennsylvania Mine for the last few years.

In early September, the partners installed a second bulkhead deep inside the mine above Peru Creek east of Keystone. The two bulkheads, or giant concrete plugs, will greatly reduce or eliminate negative impacts from the mine’s acid drainage to water quality and fish habitat.

About eight years ago, the Penn Mine experienced a blowout and sent orange water down into the Snake River and Dillon Reservoir. It’s not the latest mine in Summit County to do so.

The Illinois Gulch Mine above the Stephen C. West Ice Arena blew out a couple years later, and the Blue River ran orange and red through Breckenridge and again into Dillon Reservoir.

Now the EPA and DRMS are doing preliminary investigative work in Illinois Gulch, in partnership with the private property owner who owns the land where the mine pollution is coming from, in hopes of starting a cleanup.

“That issue everybody understands, but there hasn’t been a group to take it on yet,” Shaw said. “The state has made it clear that they’ll find money to help.”


For now, the water quality restoration focus in Summit is shifting to the Swan River.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado Basin Roundtable together awarded a $975,000 grant to the county to support a large-scale restoration project on the Swan in March.

The restoration area includes about 3,500 feet of river along Tiger Road, 11 miles northeast of Breckenridge, on public land jointly managed by the county and the town of Breckenridge where dredge mining turned the riverbed upside down.

Over the last month or two, the same contractors who did the Tenmile project studied the first quarter of the Swan River project. Work on that section will start in 2016 and finish in 2017, said Brian Lorch, director of the county Open Space and Trails Department.

The county is leading the project with many of the same partners as the Tenmile stakeholders as well as the town of Breckenridge, Trout Unlimited and two private landowners. The $2 million project is also supported in part by a tax increase voters passed in 2014.

The plan for the rest of the Swan River restoration is less certain as the upper three-quarters is covered by rocks about 40 feet high.

Shaw said the project partners could tackle restoration over perhaps 15 years as an excavation company removes and sells the rock. The other option is to pursue larger grant funds and private donations that would expedite the effort but mean maybe 10 times higher costs and more complicated logistics…

Another restoration project in the works lies on the Blue River north of Breckenridge.

The town plans to start a restoration project in the coming years through a 128-acre town parcel known as the McCain property, which borders Highway 9 to the west, north of Coyne Valley Road.

Lorch said the collectives that have made local restoration projects possible deserve credit as do the various stakeholders, which include nearly every government agency and nonprofit concerned about water quality or fisheries in Summit County.