#AnimasRiver: Communities, state agencies await #EPA reimbursement from #GoldKingMine spill — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

Since Aug. 5, state and local entities estimate they’ve spent hundreds of thousands on expenses associated with the Gold King Mine spill. While the Environmental Protection Agency has footed the bill for some expenses, communities don’t know if and how much more they’ll be reimbursed.

The EPA, which triggered the spill that polluted regional watersheds with 3 million gallons of heavy-metal mine water, has reimbursed partial sums to state, tribal and local governments, and pledges to provide more. But on Wednesday, an EPA official told La Plata County commissioners and staff that reimbursement in full isn’t feasible.

And others are facing the same uncertainties.

In the spill’s aftermath, government, health and environment officials scrambled to understand the impacts, coordinate efforts, communicate with the public, seek money from the EPA and plan for the future. These efforts continue almost nine months later. Figures provided by the La Plata County finance department reflect expenditures of $472,714, for personnel, travel, water monitoring and other costs. For that, the county has received $197,792 reimbursement through the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and $6,170 through the state of Colorado, which leaves $258,966 unpaid.

In Silverton and San Juan County, the story is much the same.

The town and county were reimbursed $220,000 for costs associated with the spill from August to October, but are seeking an additional $110,000.

“We haven’t been promised anything at all from that amount,” said San Juan County Commissioner Ernie Kuhlman. “And that bothers me.”

Bill Gardner, the town administrator, said the costs to pursue a Superfund listing extended through February. The issue of reimbursement was a roadblock for the community in deciding to pursue the listing.

Ultimately, the town and county agreed to pursue the EPA’s hazardous cleanup program.

“Now the EPA is saying we can’t reimburse you for costs, but the costs are directly related to achieving a Superfund status, which everyone – the EPA, La Plata County and Silverton – agreed they wanted,” Gardner said.

“So it is frustrating.”

Kuhlman said in a public meeting with the EPA this week, representatives said the agency could not commit to paying any further reimbursements.

That, Kuhlman said, may have the adverse effect of Silverton and San Juan County not making any commitments themselves.

“We’re the smallest county in the state, and probably the smallest budget, so it was our expectation we would be paid back for this,” he said. “The EPA saturates you with paperwork, and it costs money to have people to process that paperwork, and I don’t recommend we spend anymore unless we get paid back.”

The city of Durango spent $444,032 in the wake of the Gold King spill, which includes revenue the city lost when irrigation was shut down for nine days. The sum also included helping close the Animas River, keeping the public informed and research and meetings on how to address the spill, among other costs, according to city documents. So far, the EPA has agreed to pay the city $2,471, but the city has not received a check.

The city has asked for about $5.7 million in compensation over the next 15 years, which would include the amount spent on the immediate response and ongoing monitoring of river health, said City Manager Ron LeBlanc.

“We just want the city to be made whole,” he said.

The EPA keeps changing the rules about reimbursement requirements and the Oct. 31 deadline seems arbitrary, he said. “The EPA, quite frankly, has not made anything clear to us,” LeBlanc said.

The EPA has encouraged communities to draft cooperative agreements outlining goals and anticipated costs related to the spill. But last week, an EPA official told La Plata County that the federal agency could not accommodate all requests. County staff considered that a reversal of what the EPA had told them.

“The intent is not that this co-op agreement would cover future activities,” EPA Superfund remedial program director Bill Murray told the county on Wednesday. “For Superfund sites, we don’t often have future costs included.” Murray also pointed out that the EPA will incur its own costs with Superfund remediation at the Bonita Peak Mining District.

Calls to legal staff for the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes were not returned, but the Southern Ute tribe said in September that response costs totaled about $200,000, with more expenses expected. The EPA reported it has reimbursed the Southern Ute tribe $116,372 to date…

Gov. John Hickenlooper said he spoke with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on Thursday and she said the EPA intends to stick with its commitments.

“I think the right way to do this is to sit down with the local county officials and municipal officials and some people from the state and some people from the EPA in an aggressive, but thoughtful, way, and make sure that what compensation should be taken care of, that gets paid and we hold the EPA’s feet to the fire and not budge an inch,” Hickenlooper said. “They made certain commitments that I think we should hold them to.”

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

EPA Bonita Peak Mining District superfund team lays out 2016 work plan

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

Environmental Protection Agency officials say by next month they intend to provide La Plata and San Juan counties a list of tasks it expects to complete in 2016 at the proposed Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.

“Next month, we could provide a more comprehensive briefing on 2016 activities, where we will collect data and figure out what questions that data will answer,” Superfund project manager Rebecca Thomas said in a brief meeting with Durango city councilors and La Plata County commissioners Thursday afternoon.

The rest of the year includes plans for a hydrology study to evaluate risks to human health and water quality as well as an evaluation of historic and cultural resources in the area.

Thomas said the sampling will answer the question of which mining sites, if any, can be quickly remedied and removed from the National Priorities List, such as those contributing to Mineral Creek, which is less complex than the areas surrounding the Upper Animas River and Cement Creek.

Thursday’s meeting was largely a repeat of information from the EPA, though local officials had questions and comments about the process.

“There are a lot of people in Durango concerned it could happen again,” City Councilor Sweetie Marbury said, referring to the EPA-triggered Gold King Mine spill on Aug. 5 that ejected 3 million gallons of metal-laden water into regional watersheds.

“How will you identify the risk areas to prevent another spill happening?”

Thomas said one of the leading priorities for the Superfund team will be to examine draining adits to assess their structural stability.

Thomas said the EPA is deciding whether to expand the Gold King Mine treatment facility to treat other nearby drainage sources.

The Bonita Peak Mining District near Silverton contains 48 mine-related sites and was recommended for placement on the Federal Register for Superfund designation on April 7. The EPA now seeks comments from the public, which can be submitted online at the EPA Superfund Program Bonita Peak Mining District page.

The Superfund managerial team will return for updates the week of May 23.

Meanwhile, Animas River pollution has many sources. Here’s a report from Jonathan Romeo writing for The Durango Herald

With much of the recent focus on the Cement Creek drainage, the major sources for metal loading into the reaches of the Upper Animas River remain a bit of a mystery for researchers.

Yet Sunnyside Gold Corp.’s four massive tailings ponds along the Upper Animas River – about a mile northeast of Silverton, above the confluence with Cement Creek – have long been under suspicion.

“From Arrastra Gulch down to Silverton, there is a substantial amount of metal loading, and it’s not clear where that is coming from,” said Peter Butler, a coordinator with the Animas River Stakeholder’s Group. “The sources are not as identifiable as Cement Creek.”

From the late 19th century to the early 20th century, miners routinely dumped any by-product from metal extraction directly into rivers or lakes throughout the highly productive Silverton caldera.

In the 1930s, Sunnyside began hauling ore from Gladstone through Silverton and up what is now County Road 2 to the Mayflower Mill for processing. Only 5 percent of the ore contained precious metals.

The leftover 95 percent of waste rock, which usually contained heavy metals that included cadmium, copper and lead, was dumped beside the mill until 1992. The four piles now stretch about a mile and a half.

Sunnyside over the years has conducted numerous projects to reduce the leeching of metals into the Upper Animas, including covering the piles with clay to reduce the entry of water and digging diversions to prevent groundwater from seeping into the ponds.

Still, high concentrations of metals continue to load, according to data collected by the stakeholder’s group. Butler said in March and April, more concentrations of metals can enter the river along that stretch than all the loading that discharges from Cement Creek, considered the worst polluter in the mining district.

On Tuesday, Silverton native Larry Perino, a spokesman for Sunnyside, revealed the results of sampling conducted last year during high-flow and low-flow points to the stakeholder’s group.

Water samples taken within the tailings pond showed levels of cadmium, copper and six other metals that exceeded Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment standards. Within the Animas River along that stretch, cadmium and copper were the only metals in excess.

However, the results leave many gaps for researchers characterizing the watershed. Testing occurred only a few days in May and September, and neglected the historically high period of metal concentrations that occur in March and April.

When questioned, Perino doubted the veracity of the historical data and cited the company’s tight time frame for testing. He later added those months would have been difficult to take samples given the inclement weather.

“I think it’s impossible (to draw conclusions) unless you’re out there weekly,” said Perino, adding the company has no further plans to test this summer.

Regardless, the next steps for remediating the tailings ponds are unknown. The site, owned mostly by Sunnyside, a subsidiary of mining conglomerate Kinross, is included on the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Superfund listing, raising uncertainty over jurisdiction and responsibility. Sunnyside, one of the region’s largest and longest running mining operations, could be targeted as a potentially responsible party, despite years of undergoing voluntary cleanup projects aimed at being cleared of further liability.

“Right now, there are no formal agreements between EPA and Sunnyside,” said Rebecca Thomas, the EPA’s manager for the Superfund site. “So if they chose to collect data, that’s certainly their prerogative. We’ve had a cooperative relationship historically, and I think that will stay.”

Doug Jamison with the state health department said it’s too early to draw conclusions on just how much Sunnyside’s tailings contribute to the overall metal loading in the Animas watershed.

“I think there’s a lot of evaluation that needs to be done,” he said. “On the other side of the valley, there are also some potential sources.”

Indeed, of the 48 mine-related waste sites included in the Superfund listing, nearly 30 are along the stretches of the Upper Animas.

Perino said testing was done at Howardsville, above the tailings, to compare how water quality changed during its flow downstream, but he did not have that information available.

In the coming summer months, the tailings – designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000 – will be the subject of further scrutiny.

“In general, I think people were hoping (Tuesday) for a more definitive answer,” Butler said. “But I think what we learned is that it’s a difficult thing to figure out.”

#AnimasRiver: “All in all, we are farmers, and farmers must farm” — Duane “Chili” Yazzie

The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)
The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)

From The Farmington Daily Times (Noel Lyn Smith):

This month, personnel from the Navajo Nation Irrigation Office in Shiprock have been clearing debris and completing maintenance on the system of canals that serves farms in chapters along the San Juan River. They are preparing the canals to receive water after they were closed last year in response to the Gold King Mine spill. That incident released more than 3 million gallons of contaminated mine waste into the Animas and San Juan rivers last August, and tribal officials issued water-use restrictions for the river water.

Gadii’ahi is served by the Cudei canal, which receives river water through a pipeline or siphon that runs under the river from the Hogback canal.

The Hogback canal delivers river water to the Shiprock and Tsé Daa K’aan chapters. Together, the system runs 30 miles from the Hogback diversion to the Gadii’ahi-Tokoi Chapter. A separate system — the Fruitland Irrigation canal — serves the Nenahnezad, San Juan and Upper Fruitland chapters.

During the weeks that followed the mine spill, chapters determined whether to resume irrigating with river water or keep the canals closed.

Shiprock Irrigation Supervisor Marlin Saggboy said the Fruitland canal started operating in early April.

Meanwhile, chapter members served by the Hogback and Cudei canals decided to reopen the system after listening to results on April 15 from water and soil testing conducted by the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency and New Mexico State University in addition to a joint study by the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University.

Saggboy said the Irrigation Office understands there were several concerns expressed by residents, but hearing the results, including a recommendation by the Navajo Nation EPA to reopen the canals, eased those worries.

Farmers are not obligated to use river water, he said, adding that individuals can close their irrigation head gates.

Saggboy said crews will be flushing the A and B canals in the Tsé Daa K’aan Chapter today as part of the efforts to have that system fully operational by next week.

After the tribe eased water-use restrictions last year, the Shiprock and Tsé Daa K’aan chapters continued to oppose reopening the Hogback Irrigation canal due to concerns about the amount of heavy metals released during the mine spill into the river.

The Gadii’ahi-Tokoi Chapter approved resuming irrigation activities, and the tribe’s Department of Water Resources installed pipelines and pumps to deliver river water to fields.

Gilbert Harrison is the farm board member for the Gadii’ahi-Tokoi Chapter and president of the San Juan River Farm Board. He said the farmers were satisfied with the information they received April 15 about the testing completed on the soil and river water.

“We look forward to it and (are) glad the water is back on,” Harrison said about the canal openings.

The Shiprock and Tsé Daa K’aan chapters approved separate resolutions this month to open the Hogback canal.

Shiprock voted 46-14 in favor of the measure with 10 abstentions on April 17, and the Tsé Daa K’aan Chapter voted 17-4 in favor of it with nine abstentions on April 18, according to a press release from the Shiprock Chapter.

Shiprock Chapter President Duane “Chili” Yazzie said in the press release the decision was “anticlimactic,” and concerns remain, but chapter members “made efforts to reassure” themselves.

“All in all, we are farmers, and farmers must farm, so the people have spoken,” Yazzie said.

Jean Jones, the farm board member for the Tsé Daa K’aan Chapter, said chapter members voted on the matter after hearing testing results, which indicated the water is safe to use for agricultural purposes.

“I guess it’s good,” Jones said adding a number of farmers are glad the Hogback canal is operating.

#AnimasRiver: “…shift here from skepticism toward energetic stewardship” — The Denver Post #GoldKingMine

Confluence of Cement Creek and the Animas River from the Coyote Gulch archives (11/21/2010)
Confluence of Cement Creek and the Animas River from the Coyote Gulch archives (11/21/2010)

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Animas River headwaters contamination exceeds state standards for cadmium, copper, lead and other toxic acid metals draining from inactive mines, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and Sunnyside Gold Corp. revealed Tuesday.

Until now, federal pronouncements after the EPA-triggered Aug. 5 Gold King blowout touted a return to pre-disaster conditions along the river.

But the move toward an ambitious Superfund cleanup of 48 mine sites in southwestern Colorado has catalyzed cooperation and a far more aggressive, comprehensive and precise approach toward acid mine drainage.

At Tuesday’s Animas River Stakeholders Group forum, locals along with EPA and Sunnyside officials all said they now find those “pre-spill conditions” intolerable. Fish haven’t been able to reproduce in the Animas for a decade, even 50 miles to the south through Durango.

Beyond the Gold King and other Cement Creek mines, “there are elevated levels (of heavy metals) in all three drainages” flowing into the Animas, said Rebecca Thomas, the EPA’s project manager. “It is a much broader look now.”


EPA officials this week are holding forums in tribal communities, Durango and Silverton to discuss their Superfund process, which usually drags out for more than a decade. An official listing of the Animas area as a National Priority List disaster, a step toward funding for cleanup, isn’t expected until fall.

The shift here from skepticism toward energetic stewardship is reflected in more community groups demanding, and in some cases conducting, increased testing of river water and sediment to monitor contamination.

The Mountain Studies Institute, a Durango-based research group, did an investigation of aquatic insects that live in sediment on river banks and found that copper levels increased between 2014 and 2015.

Sunnyside Gold Corp. manager Larry Perino presented data from tests of mining wastewater launched last fall on the day of the Gold King disaster. Contractors sampled on Sunnyside properties a couple of miles east of Silverton — a different drainage from Cement Creek — where mining waste tailings sit along the main stem of the upper Animas.

Those tailings as water rushes over them apparently are leaking the cadmium, copper and six other metals at levels exceeding Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment standards. The cadmium and copper had dissolved into Animas headwaters.

Sunnyside shared the data at Tuesday’s meeting in Silverton.

Dan Wall of the EPA then presented federal data showing lead contamination of soils along Cement Creek and in water near the tailings heaps containing elevated cadmium, zinc, manganese and copper.

EPA crews have done tests around Animas basin for decades and increasingly are trying to pinpoint mine site sources of contamination.

“We have to do more high-resolution work before we start talking smoking guns,” Wall told the locals at the forum.

A broadening cooperation is happening despite EPA efforts to target Sunnyside, owned by the global mining giant Kinross, as a responsible party obligated to pay a share of Superfund cleanup costs.

“Just because you are a potentially responsible party doesn’t mean it has to be adversarial,” Perino said.

Conservation groups such as Trout Unlimited have raised concerns about possible re-churn of heavy metals from the 3 million-gallon Gold King deluge as snow melts, increasing runoff into the upper Animas. But biologists also point to benefits of dilution to reduce concentrations of dissolved heavy metals.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Jim White confirmed that, since the shutoff of a water treatment plant on Cement Creek in 2005 when Sunnyside’s American Tunnel was plugged, fish populations deteriorated along a 30-mile stretch of the Animas south of Silverton.

There are few rainbow and brown trout today, and brook trout decreased by 80 percent after 2004, White said.

“It is not healthy. Things have gotten worse in the Animas River since 2004 or 2005,” he said. “We’ve seen this consistent dropoff — the primary thing is the dissolved metals” including zinc, cadmium and aluminum.

Even 50 miles south in Durango, the fish put into the river in stocking programs have not been able to reproduce, he said.

“We’re just not seeing young fish surviving, in Durango as well,” White said.

Other forces, such as sediment from urban development and fertilizer runoff, also play a role downriver in addition to acid metals drainage from inactive mines.

Hundreds of inactive mines continue to drain more than 1,000 gallons a minute of toxic acid heavy metals into Animas headwaters. It is one of the West’s worst concentrations of toxic mines.

For at least a decade before the Gold King disaster, the mine drainage reaching Animas canyon waters along a 30-mile stretch south of Silverton “had a hideous impact,” Trout Unlimited chapter president Buck Skillen said.

“We’ve lost almost all of the trout and a number of bugs,” Skillen said. “We’ve had the equivalent of the Gold King spill every four to seven days over the last 10 years. But the water didn’t turn orange. So it wasn’t on everyone’s radar.”

Southwestern Water Conservation District 75th Anniversary

The San Miguel River near its headwaters in Telluride, Colorado. @bberwyn photo.
The San Miguel River near its headwaters in Telluride, Colorado. @bberwyn photo.

From the Water Information Program:

The Southwestern Water Conservation District (SWCD or District) was created by the Colorado General Assembly in 1941, thereby marking the District’s 75th anniversary this year! The SWCD encompasses Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma, San Juan, San Miguel and parts of Hinsdale, Mineral, and Montrose counties. In a press release issued by SWCD board president John Porter, and recently printed in the Durango Herald, Porter shares some lessons learned in the past 75 years, ones that will be carried through the next 75:

Lesson No. 1: Adaptability is a Necessity

Times have changed since 1941. Colorado statute charges the district with “protecting, conserving, using and developing the water resources of the southwestern basin for the welfare of the district, and safeguarding for Colorado all waters of the basin to which the state is entitled.” Following this mandate, the district worked tirelessly for decades to ensure water supplies would meet growing demand by filing for storage project water rights in almost every major river basin. SWCD lobbied for federal dollars to be spent on project construction in our area. The philosophy was, and continues to be, to plant the seed and help it grow.

This work resulted in the establishment of the Florida Water Conservancy District and Lemon Reservoir; the Pine River Project extension; the Dolores Water Conservancy District and McPhee Reservoir; the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District; Ridges Basin Reservoir; Long Hollow Reservoir; the San Juan Water Conservancy District; and the proposed Dry Gulch Reservoir.

As population pressure threatens to dry up agriculture, and regulations and constituent values have expanded to include environmental protections and recreational use, the district’s mission has adapted necessarily. When the A-LP Project debate was underway, for example, SWCD was integral in the formation of the San Juan Recovery Program, established to recover endangered fish species populations in the San Juan River in New Mexico downstream of the proposed reservoir. SWCD currently funds a variety of essential work, including stream flow data collection and mercury sampling in local reservoirs. To address mounting concerns regarding future compact curtailment and drought, SWCD supports water supply augmentation through winter cloud seeding and exploring creative solutions like “water banking.”

Lesson No. 2: Be at the Table

Participation at the local, state and federal levels is essential to protecting our resources. That’s why the District is a member of Colorado Water Congress, a state entity focused on water policy.

The District takes positions and engages in debate on water-related bills during the state legislative season. We keep a close eye on federal water management policies, often submitting public comments and working with federal and state partners to ensure continued state control of water rights. The District is supportive of the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s instream flow program to establish minimum stream flows for the environment, and is working to improve the program’s ability to adapt to rural community needs for future development. As for the broader Colorado River system, SWCD participates in dialogue among Upper Basin states through the Upper Colorado River Commission.

At the local level, the district has represented water development interests in the collaborative River Protection Workgroup, which resulted in the Hermosa Creek Watershed Act. SWCD worked with other Roundtable members to ensure our corner of the state was heard in the Colorado Water Plan.

Lesson No. 3: Reinvest Local Tax Dollars Locally

It’s a not-so-well-kept secret that SWCD’s grant program supports water work across the district: domestic supply and irrigation infrastructure improvements, recreational development, habitat rehabilitation, collaborative community processes and water quality studies. Here are a few recent examples:

  • Archuleta, Mineral and Hinsdale counties: Rio Blanco habitat restoration by the San Juan Conservation District, watershed health via the San Juan Mixed Conifer Group.
  • La Plata County: Initial studies for Long Hollow Reservoir, the La Plata West Water Authority’s rural domestic water system.
  • San Juan County: Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies dust-on-snow research, mining reclamation through the Animas River Stakeholders Group.
  • Montezuma and Dolores counties: The Dolores River Dialogue (a collaboration focused on issues below McPhee Dam), irrigation efficiency improvements by the High Desert Conservation District.
  • San Miguel and Montrose counties: The San Miguel Watershed Coalition’s watershed studies and irrigation diversion improvements to allow fish and boater passage, domestic system upgrades for the town of Norwood.
  • Lesson No. 4: Educate the Next Generation of Leaders

    For more than 20 years, the district has spearheaded regional water education by sponsoring an Annual Children’s Water Festival for students across the basin and administering the Water Information Program with contributions from participating entities. SWCD played an instrumental role in creating the statewide Colorado Foundation for Water Education, and continues to sponsor the organization. As generations of water leaders step back, new stewards must step forward to ensure that the Southwest Colorado we know and love continues.

    From The Pine River Times (Carole McWilliams):

    “The water is our life blood that feeds all of us,” Southern Ute Tribal Chairman Clement Frost told participants in the 34th annual Water Seminar on April 1 in Durango.

    The seminar is organized by the Southwestern Water Conservation District (SWWCD). This year’s event celebrated the district’s 75th anniversary…

    The Animas/ La Plata Project and the now completed Lake Nighthorse were mentioned by Frost and other speakers as examples of choosing collaboration over litigation. They settle Ute water rights claims going back to 1868, senior to any other rights.

    “The tribes and water users have a relationship that’s quite unique” versus other places where entities end up in court fights that can last for decades, explained Christine Arbogast with the lobbying firm of Kogovsek and Associates. “Here the tribes and non-Indian community decided in the early 1980s to negotiate and not litigate.”

    The negotiations started in 1984 and concluded in 1986, she said, but they still needed congressional approval, which came in 1988 with bipartisan support from the Colorado delegation. But an irrigation water delivery system to the Dry Side had to be eliminated as part of that.

    Arbogast called that a painful compromise, “that we all looked at the stewardship of water together and the preciousness of water together.”

    Frost said, “I have the most admiration for the ranchers who gave up their rights to irrigation water. They understood it was necessary for Animas/ La Plata to move ahead.”

    He commended the help of SWWCD “in helping us get things done. We all march together to take care of a problem, and not march apart to continue a problem.”

    Speakers through the day cited the water district’s financial and other help in their various missions.

    The district was formed in 1941 by the state legislature and is one of four such districts around the state, district Director Bruce Whitehead said. The district covers all of six counties and parts of three others. The district’s directive is to protect and develop all waters in the basin that the state is entitled to, he said.

    District Board President John Porter noted there are nine river systems within the district, and they all flow out of state.

    “Indian water rights cases couldn’t have been solved without storage,” he said. “Without that, non-Indians wouldn’t have much water after July 1” each year, when rivers tend to go on call.

    The district is funded with property taxes. It has a $1.5 million annual budget and over the past 30 years has awarded almost $9 million in grants, Porter said.

    Longtime Assistant County Manager Joanne Spina said $50,000 from SWWCD and $25,000 from the Southwest Water Roundtable helped the 18-lot Palo Verde subdivision near Three Springs install a water line to get Durango water when residents’ domestic wells started failing.

    Travis Custer with the High Desert and Mancos Conservation Districts said education efforts on more efficient irrigation methods are part of “the idea that we are responsible for our resources. Water saved on the farm benefits everyone… It’s mitigation rather than emergency response. It doesn’t have to come at the cost of an ag operation.” Instead, it can be an enhancement, he said.

    “We’re looking at ways to replicate efficiencies in the larger area,” Custer said. “We have to work together, agencies with agencies and with producers to build trust. In the West, these situations aren’t going to get any better. No new water will be created.”

    Asked how more efficient irrigation might have consequences with the doctrine of “use it or lose it,” Custer said that doctrine has a lot of gray areas. “We have to look at opportunities to adjust our thought process and legislate to address the current situation. We want to keep land in ag. Legislation that prohibits conservation needs to be addressed,” he said.

    The keynote speakers were water attorney and former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs and Bill McDonald, a former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and a lead negotiator on the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Agreement and the implementing legislation.

    “Remember your history is lesson 1,” McDonald said. He gave a brief history of water issues in Colorado and called water “the state’s liquid gold.”

    Debates over trans-mountain water diversions started in the 1930s with the Colorado/ Big Thompson water project to bring water to northeastern Colorado. In 1937, a Governor’s Water Defense Association was created to defend against downstream states. In-stream flow rights became an issue in the 1970s.

    Hobbs said about two-thirds of the water that originates in Colorado flows out of state to 18 downstream states. In the 1980s, he and fellow attorney David Robbins won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to keep Ute water rights cases in state rather than federal courts. They also defended the constitutionality of in-stream flow rights.

    “In-stream flow has been our safety valve to show we can preserve the environment in the name of the people,” Hobbs said. “It was a great day when that was upheld.”

    The seminar finished with Peter Butler from the Animas River Stakeholders Group and discussion of toxic mine drainage from above Silverton. SWWCD helped with funding for four stream gauges near Silverton. The one on Cement Creek is how it was determined that the Gold King mine spill last August was 3 million gallons, he said. SWWCD also helped them get in-stream flow rights and has supported “Good Samaritan” legislation, he said and thanked the district for its support over the years.

    The day included a tribute to Fred Kroeger, who was on the SWWCD board for 55 years and served as board president for 33 years. He died last year at age 97. He also served on various other state and local water-related boards and community service groups. He and buddy Sam Maynes Sr. were known for the lame jokes they told at the water seminars as well as for their water project advocacy including A/LP and McPhee on the Dolores.

    “He set the standard by which we behave in the water business,” water engineer Steve Harris said of Kroeger. “Be a diplomat, dignified, a gentleman. Be willing to compromise. Don’t be a wimp. Don’t give up. Be involved.”

    Arbogast added: “You never heard him call anybody a name. In today’s political environment, that would be pretty refreshing, wouldn’t it?”

    Here’s a photo poem from Greg Hobbs. He was one of the keynote speakers at the shindig:

    Southwestern District’s 75th Anniversary

    Dominguez and Escalante peered into this ancestral
    Great Kiva looking for the Colorado River

    Where the Shining Mountains and their waters also lead us on.


    East of the Divide where snowmelt’s stored for so many newer Coloradans


    A slender ribbon, the South Platte, slices through the High Plains


    Into the high country’s lift off.


    Over the Sangres winging


    Over the circles of San Luis Valley harvesting


    Up the Rio Grande into its headwaters


    West for the San Juans!


    Riding the billows


    Of Southwestern’s embrace


    The fellowship of shared communities


    The River runs through.


    Students of the land


    Gather to honor


    The heritage of so many


    Who came before these Young


    Who wear the beads of service


    Keeping faith with the Ute


    And Navajo neighbors


    In the leavening


    Of Lake Nighthorse and Durango


    #AnimasRiver Water Quality at Rotary Park, Durango, Colorado — Mountain Studies Institute #GoldKingMine


    Here’s the release from the Mountain Studies Institute:

    The fact that people in the community noticed when the Animas River was distinctly yellow-brown in color on February 15, 2016 reflects a heightened awareness of changes in water quality since the Gold King Mine release. Warm temperatures in mid-February initiated the first increase in runoff since last fall’s storms, picking up sediment in the process.

    Mountain Studies Institute (MSI), a nonpartisan independent research station, has been monitoring water quality of the Animas River since before, during, and after the Gold King Mine release. MSI received lab results back from water quality samples collected from the Animas River at Rotary Park on February 15, and March 1, 2016.

    “These samples are the first in a series of sampling that will occur as part of a monitoring program that aims to understand changes in water quality during 2016 storm events and spring runoff” said Scott Roberts, MSI’s aquatic ecologist. The monitoring program is part of a partnership between MSI and the City of Durango to convey Animas River water quality information to the public.

    “Because we know that people are curious to see the data, MSI has posted water quality monitoring results and an explanation of those results on our website, http://www.MountainStudies.org” said Marcie Bidwell, MSI’s director. “By posting updated information on our website, we hope to keep the public informed as the season progresses. Links will also be available on the City’s website, http://www.durangogov.org.”

    Results from the spring samples indicate some encouraging news. Metals of concern for human health (Arsenic, Lead, and Mercury) and those thought to be most harmful to aquatic life (Copper, Zinc, and Selenium) were found to be at levels considered safe by Colorado Department of Health and the Environment (CDPHE) water quality standards. All metals analyzed from these two spring samples were at levels considered safe for agriculture and domestic water supply use (based on CDPHE water quality standards). Additionally, all metals were below Environmental Protection Agency’s recreational screening levels, which represents the level at which no adverse health effects are expected to occur in humans consuming 2 liters of filtered water per day, from the Animas, orally, for 64 days each year for a total of 30 years.

    However, the yellow-brown color of the Animas River at Rotary Park in Durango on February 15th did contain high levels of certain metals. Concentrations of Aluminum and Iron surpassed chronic water quality standards set by CDPHE to protect aquatic life from persistent, long-term exposure to metals. The brief exceedances of chronic water quality standards from one sample on one day do not necessarily indicate potential harm to aquatic life unless these levels persist continuously over a 30-day period.
    The visible yellow or orange color of the river is mostly Iron and Aluminum. Iron particles of various sizes are suspended in the water column. Other metals, such as Zinc, readily bond to the Iron particles.

    “MSI’s data supports the conclusions of local, state and federal partners that, from a public health standpoint, this year’s spring runoff is unlikely to be different from previous years. Monitoring and notification procedures are also in place to notify the public if conditions change.” said Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Health (SJBH). “SJBH advises the public that it is always good practice to wash with soap and water after exposure to any untreated body of water, including the Animas River. Further information and more health tips for river users are available on our website at http://sjbhd.org/public-health-news/animas-river-health-updates/.”

    In a partnership with the City of Durango, MSI plans to continue to monitor the water quality of the Animas River throughout 2016, focusing on understanding chronic exposure to aquatic life before runoff, during runoff, and into the summer season.

    Please keep in mind that these observations are from only one location (Rotary Park in Durango) on the Animas River and may not be indicative of the entire Animas River watershed.

    Visit http://www.MountainStudies.org to learn more about MSI’s monitoring efforts and results.

    From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott):

    Runoff from autumn storms kicked up the levels of some contaminants in a southwestern Colorado river after a massive spill of toxic mine waste, but concentrations of other pollutants declined or didn’t change, researchers said Friday.

    A report released by the Environmental Protection Agency could offer clues about what will happen to the Animas River this spring and summer when melting snow from the San Juan Mountains makes the waterway run higher, potentially stirring up pollutants that had settled to the bottom after the spill.

    But the researchers said they couldn’t be sure that the pollutants they measured came from the Gold King Mine — source of the 3-million-gallon spill last August — or if they were from other mines that riddle the area. They also said they didn’t have enough historical data to know whether storms that hit after the Gold King spill stirred up more pollutants than ones before it…

    Most of the metals settled to the bottom of the Animas before reaching the San Juan River in New Mexico, the EPA said. Experts have differed on whether and how much those metals will be stirred up when river flows increase after storms and from the spring snowmelt.

    The nonprofit Mountain Studies Institute in Silverton monitored the river for the EPA in Durango, Colorado, about 60 miles downstream from the mine, and compiled a report.

    Seven storms increased the flow of the Animas in Durango between Aug. 9 and Oct. 26. Concentrations of six contaminants increased after some of those storms, including aluminum and copper, the institute’s report said.

    Levels of mercury and five other contaminants decreased after some storms, while the levels of seven others didn’t change.

    State water officials don’t expect floods or above-normal flows in the Animas this spring and summer. The San Juan Mountain snowpack that melts into the river was only 66 percent of the long-term average on Friday.

    Even if a weekend storm drops up to 2 feet of snow on the San Juans as predicted, it probably won’t be enough to cause the Animas to flood, said Kevin Houck, chief of watershed and flood protection for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

    #AnimasRiver: Gov. Hickenlooper, members of federal delegation send letter to #EPA requesting additional support

    Here’s the release from Governor Hickenlooper’s office:

    Gov. John Hickenlooper and members of Colorado’s federal delegation yesterday sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy asking for additional support for the Bonita Peak Mining District. Senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, and Congressman Scott Tipton joined Hickenlooper on the letter in support of the local communities including the Towns of Silverton and Durango, San Juan and La Plata Counties.

    “As part of Superfund designation process, we reiterate the importance of addressing the concerns expressed by the Town of Silverton and San Juan County and that cleanup moves forward in a way that works for all affected localities,” said Hickenlooper.

    Specifically, the letter urges the EPA to expand the scope and planned timeline to operate the temporary water treatment plant on Cement Creek as well as provide adequate funding and collaborate with local governments, tribes, and the state to conduct long-term monitoring along the Animas River and at sites of specific concern to each community. The letter also reiterated support for an expedited claims and reimbursement process for the communities.

    Click here to read the letter.

    From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

    Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton this week asked EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy for extra support — emphasizing the EPA role triggering the Aug. 5 Gold King disaster.

    They’re demanding that the EPA ensure sufficient funding for cleanup as promised, that Silverton and nearby communities get a seat at the table as promised, and robust interim cleanup of creek water as promised.

    “We urge you to prioritize funding for this project as soon as possible to restore the health of the Animas River watershed, protect public health, and maintain the local recreation and tourism economy,” Hickenlooper and the lawmakers said in a letter to McCarthy.

    While EPA officials have proposed a priority listing of mine sites around Silverton and say they’ll treat the Gold King cleanup like any other site, the Colorado leaders insisted that “the EPA must recognize its role in the most recent spill and its subsequent obligation to this community.”

    They contend a temporary treatment plant on Cement Creek “may not operate” beyond this fall and that “this facility has the ability to treat more of the acid mine drainage in the watershed.”

    They asked EPA officials to expand the scope of those water-cleaning operations, to be continued until overall cleanup is done, and to speed up reimbursement of costs that towns, counties, tribes and businesses incurred due to the 3 million-gallon deluge — caused by botched EPA efforts to drain the Gold King Mine.

    “We also have heard significant concerns from local communities that the current water quality monitoring on the Animas River is not sufficient,” the letter said. “It is likely that spring runoff will remobilize the sediments and metals deposited during the spill. … The EPA must provide adequate funding. … The funds pledged to date by EPA for these needs are insufficient.”

    Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress continue to harass the EPA. Here’s a report from Matthew Daly writing for the Associated Press via 12NewsNow.com:

    Senate Republicans vowed Tuesday to issue a subpoena to force the head of the Environmental Protection Agency to appear at a field hearing in Phoenix next week on a toxic mine spill that fouled rivers in three Western states and on lands belonging to two Native American tribes.

    Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso said the Senate Indian Affairs Committee will vote Wednesday on a plan to subpoena EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

    Barrasso chairs the Indian Affairs panel, which is conducting an April 22 hearing on the 3-million gallon spill at Colorado’s abandoned Gold King Mine. The Aug. 5 spill contaminated rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, as well as in the Navajo Nation and Southern Ute Reservation.

    If approved, the subpoena would be the first issued by the Indian Affairs panel since 2004, during the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Abramoff was a prominent Republican lobbyist who pleaded guilty to charges including conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion in the purchase of gambling cruise boats. He spent 3 and 1/2 years in prison…

    Barrasso said the EPA has been “reckless,” first in causing the spill and then in failing to address it.

    “They took their eye off the ball,” Barrasso said of the EPA. “They caused this toxic spill and now they are still not focused on cleaning up the mess they caused.”

    An EPA spokeswoman said Tuesday that McCarthy was never invited to attend the hearing; an official who oversees emergency management was asked to testify.

    In a letter to the committee, the EPA said it will make two high-ranking officials available to testify, including Mathy Stanislaus, an assistant EPA administrator who originally was invited to testify. Stanislaus initially said he had a scheduling conflict. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter Tuesday night.

    Spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said earlier that the agency has agreed to provide written testimony for the hearing, scheduled for Earth Day.

    McCarthy testified before the Senate Indian Affairs and Environment committees on the spill last year.

    Barrasso called the agency’s initial response another indication that the EPA “has grown too big, too arrogant, too irresponsible and too unaccountable” to the American people.

    “On Earth Day, the EPA ought to be there to confess the failures of the (Obama) administration” to those affected by the spill and specify “what they are going to do to correct it,” Barrasso said.

    Barrasso cited news reports indicating that McCarthy is likely to be among U.S. officials joining Secretary of State John Kerry in New York at an Earth Day ceremony to sign a global climate change agreement reached in Paris last year. The agreement calls for the U.S. and nearly 200 other countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.

    McCarthy would rather be in New York “talking about what happened in Paris instead of going to Arizona to face the people who her agency has abandoned,” Barrasso said. “That’s what she thinks is more important.”

    McCarthy plans to spend Earth Day in Washington, Harrison said.

    The EPA recently announced it would spend $157,000 to help the Navajo Nation recover costs incurred during the response to the Gold King spill. The money is in addition to more than $1.1 million spent by the EPA in response costs for the Navajo immediately following the spill.

    The EPA has awarded the Navajo more than $93 million in grants to develop environmental and infrastructure programs, Harrison said.

    Photo via the @USGS Twitter feed
    Photo via the @USGS Twitter feed