The headwaters of the Dolores River share space with century-old mines similar to the Gold King mine that spilled 3 million gallons of wastewater into the Animas River this August.
But the long-abandoned Argentine Mine Complex near Rico is receiving proper pollution controls to reduce the risk of such an accident, mining officials say.
The St. Louis and Blaine mine tunnels once provided access to a vast network of hard-rock tunnels bored into the Rico Mountains.
Now the tunnels act like drains for snowmelt and rain, which accumulate unnatural levels of heavy metals that has to flow out somewhere.
The mine entrances have collapsed, but the wastewater continues to drain out of them within yards of the Dolores River.
“It’s a hazard we need to pay attention to because the Dolores River supplies water for four towns, and for McPhee Reservoir depended on for irrigation,” said Paul Hollar, emergency manager for Montezuma County.
Mine drainage from St. Louis and Blaine flow through an on-site wastewater treatment system that is working properly, according to the EPA and state mining officials.
Eleven settling ponds remove heavy metals, and the water meets state health standards when it returns to the river.
For the past 15 years, the treatment system has being upgraded and maintained under a cooperative effort by former mine owners Atlantic Richfield Co., the EPA, and the Colorado Division of Reclamation and Mine Safety.
“While you can never be sure what is happening two miles back in these tunnels, we feel the mine entrances are under control,” said Allen Sorenson, project manager and engineer with the state’s inactive mine program…
It was also discovered in 1996 that a concrete plug in the nearby Blaine Tunnel was failing, releasing orange-colored, toxic water directly into Sliver Creek, a tributary of the Dolores River.
The Blaine Tunnel plug is designed to redirect drainage through the St. Louis Tunnel, and into the settling ponds.
In 2013, the Blaine plug was successfully repaired, Sorenson said, at a cost of $350,000.
“The mine entrance was shored up, and diversion structure installed,” he said. “There is no surface discharge out of Blaine.”[…]
To monitor whether that is happening at the Rico mines, wells with piezometers that measure water pressure and water level were installed behind the collapsed St. Louis Tunnel.
“Investigating whether they are backing up is ongoing,” Sorenson said. “It is being tracked, and if problems are observed they will be addressed.”
The Blaine Tunnel does not have the piezometers, he said, but it is checked several times a year by inspectors to make sure the diversion structure is working and to monitor flow rates.
Sorenson warned that the nature of underground mine tunnels make them unpredictable, and there are no guarantees a scenario like the Gold King mine won’t happen again.
“It’s a significant issue,” he said. “We eliminate risk to the extent possible, but you can’t rule out what a massive surge of water will do.”
Snowmass Village water district users overwhelmingly want fluoride returned to the local water system, according to results released Monday by the public accounting firm hired to tabulate ballots for the 3,099 users.
Of the 1,168 total surveys received, 753 respondents (64 percent) want fluoridated water, while 404 people (35 percent) are against its return. Eleven responses were considered neutral (either unmarked or marked both “yes” and “no”), according to Dalby Wendland & Co. of Grand Junction.
“We as a board have no other choice but to reconsider our decision,” said Joe Farrell, the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District board member who was the lone fluoride supporter in the 3-1 decision made in July. Those favoring its removal were Dave Dawson, Michael Shore and Willard Humphrey.
“The whole purpose of the advisory question was to get the pulse of our paying customers, and they have clearly spoken,” Farrell added.
The board will discuss the results of the non-binding survey during its next regularly scheduled meeting, which is 8:30 a.m. on Oct. 21. The meeting has been moved to the Snowmass Club to accommodate what is anticipated to be a large crowd.
Nine weeks after the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. drained Grizzly Reservoir in early August due to the failure of an outlet gate in the dam across Lincoln Creek, repairs have been made and reservoir operations are returning to normal.
But the usually obscure company is now also facing questions in state water court about its diversions through its larger system, which moves about 40,600 acre-feet of water a year from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River east to Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West.
On Tuesday, a new seal was installed on the bottom of the dam’s outlet gate, according to Scott Campell, general manager of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.
The installation of the relatively simple rubber seal was done underwater by crews standing in knee-deep water, reaching down to tighten the bolts on new steel straps holding the seal in place.
By working this way, they didn’t have to release the remaining dirty water at the bottom of the reservoir, as was done Aug. 10, when 10 to 20 acre-feet of muddy, yellowish water was released from the bottom of the reservoir and sent down Lincoln Creek and the Roaring Fork River.
After the release of water in August, the flow in the Roaring Fork near Aspen jumped up from fewer than 70 cubic feet per second to more than 160 cfs in a few hours and alarmed residents notified local public officials about the color of their local river.
Subsequent testing Aug. 13 by Lotic Hydrological for the city of Aspen found “elevated levels of several dissolved metals including aluminum, copper, iron, manganese and zinc” in Lincoln Creek and the Roaring Fork River because sediment in the bottom of Grizzly Reservoir includes material washed down from the historic Ruby Mining District and the naturally acidic upper Lincoln Creek Valley, according to a report provided by the city of Aspen.
The levels of aluminum and iron exceeded state standards, but no fish kills were reported. The city is awaiting results of recent testing for insect health on the river, according to April Long, Aspen’s stormwater manager.
With the repairs in place, water is now backing up again behind the dam on Lincoln Creek, and the reservoir, which normally holds 570 acre-feet of water, is expected to contain 300 acre-feet by Oct. 20, Campbell said.
The small reservoir primarily acts as a forebay to Tunnel No. 1, which allows for as much as 625 cfs to be moved from Grizzly Reservoir under the Continental Divide and into to the south fork of Lake Creek and down to Twin Lakes Reservoir.
Tunnel No. 1 and Grizzly Reservoir are the central components of the larger Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System, which is owned by the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. and diverts water from the Roaring Fork River and Lincoln, Grizzly, New York, Brooklyn, Tabor and Lost Man creeks through a series of dams, ditches and tunnels.
The water rights for the Independence Pass system have a priority date of 1930 and a court-issued decree from 1936. The water originally was diverted to grow crops in the lower Arkansas River Valley, but cities gradually bought the rights to the water.
On May 29, Twin Lakes filed an application in Division 5 Water Court in Glenwood Springs to make 21.33 cfs of its conditional water rights, as specified in its 1936 decree, “absolute.”
It offered evidence to the court that it has now physically diverted an additional 21.33 cfs of water through the Lost Man Canal, which today can carry as many as 272.33 cfs of water from Lost Man Creek to Grizzly Reservoir.
The Stillwater Ranch subdivision is on the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen, and the Caines own a home on Wildwood Drive west of Independence Pass.
Craig Corona, a water attorney in Aspen representing Stillwater Ranch and the Caines, said the application from Twin Lakes raises questions “as to Twin Lakes’ accounting of its diversions and administration by the state.”
Corona specifically points to a 1976 decree, which includes limits and conditions on Twin Lakes’ right to divert water.
“Twin Lakes must show that they diverted water in accordance with their water court decrees, including the restrictions the court included in the 1976 decree from Case W-1901 regarding storage in Twin Lakes Reservoir and the amount of water available to the Colorado Canal,” Corona said.
The decree, for example, states that if there is enough water in the Arkansas River to provide a certain amount of water to the Colorado Canal, then Twin Lakes does not have the right to divert water for that purpose.
Laura Makar, an assistant Pitkin County attorney specializing in water cases, said the county filed its statement of opposition to ensure that Twin Lakes was held to “strict proof” regarding its historical diversions.
“This involves transbasin diversions, and the county always wants to know what is going on if there is water leaving the basin,” Makar said. “We want to make sure all diversions have been in accordance with all prior relevant decrees.”
The resulting water court process could shed more light on the operations of the Independence Pass system and could do so just as a new level of communications has been established between Twin Lakes and various officials.
Rush of water
In early August, when Scott Campbell realized that Twin Lakes had lost the ability to store water in Grizzly Reservoir behind a damaged and leaking outlet gate, he made the rare call to drain the reservoir.
But in his rush to prevent a catastrophic release of water, he had failed to inform local and state officials of the pending release of muddy water from the bottom of the reservoir on Aug. 10, an oversight he has since acknowledged and regrets.
Over the past two months, Campbell has been working to repair both the seal on the outlet gate in the dam and his relationships with various officials.
In a sign of progress on both fronts, Campbell sent out a notice Friday that the repairs were complete and that by Tuesday, the reservoir would begin releasing about 1 cfs of water and do so through a sediment-trapping system below the reservoir.
Through a prearranged notification system, Campbell sent his update on Friday to the Pitkin County dispatch center, which in turn sent it out to various officials.
“We’re doing things that we’ve never even contemplated before,” Campbell said Friday, referring to the sending of updates to various officials. “But we’ve learned from this. We’ve made changes. And our intent is to operate as a good neighbor.”
When asked about the water court case, Campbell referred questions to Kevin Lusk, president of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.
A modest proposal
Lusk is also a principal senior engineer with Colorado Springs Utilities, which owns 55 percent of the shares in Twin Lakes.
The Pueblo Board of Water Works owns 23 percent of the shares in Twin Lakes, while the Pueblo West Metro District owns 12 percent and the city of Aurora owns 5 percent.
Lusk characterized the water court application from Twin Lakes as modest.
“Our case itself is one to just make a little bit more of a certain portion of the system absolute,” Lusk said. “It does not change the amount of water that we can bring to the East Slope in any way.”
Lusk also said the city of Aspen’s opposition to its application was routine.
“This is what we in the business typically call a smiley-faced objection, Lusk said. “It really is just a way to be more involved in the court case.”
He also said that Phil Overeynder, a senior utilities engineer for the city of Aspen, had called him in advance about the city’s filing of a statement of opposition.
“Phil assured me this is not an indication of any change in our cooperative relationship,” Lusk said.
The city is working with Twin Lakes on the management of other water rights that may allow more water to remain in the Roaring Fork River for environmental reasons, city officials have said recently.
But it remains to be seen how hard Pitkin County and the parties represented by Corona, the Aspen water attorney, will push on the issue of whether Twin Lakes has strictly adhered to the requirements of the 1976 decree.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015 and the Post Independent published it on Monday, Oct 12, 2015.
Bill McCormick, chief of dam safety for the water resources division, said the agency worked with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the reservoir owner, to determine the source of water that was saturating a hillside beneath the reservoir and above Two Rivers Road. The water isn’t leaking from the dam, he said, but water is saturating the hillside when the reservoir is full.
“It’s not a dam-safety issue, but it is a public-safety issue,” McCormick said.
The hillside got so saturated the weekend of April 18 and 19 that mud and debris sloughed onto Two Rivers Road. The town of Basalt had to use heavy equipment to remove the debris. The water resources division and wildlife division came up with a plan to determine the source of the water. Lake Christine’s water level was lowered and increased throughout the summer to gauge the effect on the seepage, according to Perry Will, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. He said Basalt Mountain is riddled with natural springs, including some in the area of Lake Christine. The springs continued flowing even when the reservoir was at its lowest level, he said.
“The dam is fine,” McCormick said. The test established that water seeps into the surrounding terrain when water is above a certain level. That makes the hillside unstable and creates the potential for slides that could endanger people traveling on the road below, McCormick said.
The water resources division hasn’t established yet what level of water is allowable in Lake Christine. The seepage appears to occur when the reservoir’s water level is above 9 feet, or about 10 acre-feet, according to Erin Gleason, a dam safety engineer in Glenwood Springs for the Division of Water Resources. The normal storage when full is about 15 feet high and 30 acre-feet, she said.
The division needs to collect more information before formally issuing the water restriction, Gleason said.
The accidental spill from a holding pond at the Standard Mine reclamation project west of Crested Butte is not expected to have any negative impact on the town’s drinking water. The spill occurred late Wednesday and is believed to have involved approximately 2,000 gallons of water and gray-colored sentiment.
The town issued a press release Thursday afternoon stating that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notified them of the accident Wednesday evening. The town was told that a contractor had been dewatering the pond “containing un-mineralized sediment from drilling operations and water from the lower mine adit. The contents had been treated to a neutral PH of 7. The treated water from the pond was being discharged into Elk Creek as part of a planned maintenance activity. A vacuum truck siphoning clear water from the surface of the pond accidentally dipped into gray-colored sentiment leading to the accidental discharge of sediment and gray-colored water into Elk Creek. The discharged material contained a mixture of PH-neutral rock slurry and water from the mine.”
In a statement from the EPA headlined “Standard Mine Vacuum Truck Release”, the agency said local and state governments were notified right away. “EPA immediately notified the Town of Crested Butte water treatment plant and called the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment spill hotline that an EPA contractor dewatering a sediment pond into Elk Creek at the Standard Mine Superfund Site released an estimated 2,000 gallons of water and sediment into nearby Elk Creek,” the statement relayed.
“Based on the neutral pH levels, the quantity of water released, and flow levels downstream in Coal Creek, the Town of Crested Butte did not close its water intakes. Subsequent investigation found no visible plume or signs of significant impacts in downstream locations. All work on the sediment pond is complete. The EPA continues to coordinate closely with Crested Butte officials on this matter.”
The town’s statement on the matter explained that based on the size and content of the spilled material, the flow levels downstream and the 10-million gallon storage reservoir at the Crested Butte treatment plant, “the Town Department of Public Works has determined that any impact to the town’s drinking water would be negligible.”
The Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center at CMU is showing the Great Divide next weekend. Here’s an interview with Jim Havey from Laurena Mayne Davis writing in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
“The Great Divide” is both a documentary and a companion coffee table-style book explaining the complexities of Colorado water issues in relatable narrative, while underscoring the urgency that all Coloradans become informed and involved in how their water is used and conserved.
Stephen Grace, of Boulder, wrote the book and served as screenwriter for the film, which was produced by Havey Productions, of Denver, which since 1979 has specialized in telling the stories of the American West. Jim Havey produced the film and provided images for the companion book.
Grand Junction on Saturday will host a free screening of “The Great Divide” as part of a 10-city film tour.
Laurena Mayne Davis: Who, or what, was the main driver behind the film and the companion book?
Jim Havey: Havey Productions specializes in historical documentaries on Colorado and the American West. We initially saw this as a compelling thread weaving through Colorado history and a new way to look at the state’s heritage.
Davis: Why did you feel it was important to be involved?
Havey: The urgency behind this film and book is the need for a more informed and inclusive public conversation concerning looming critical decisions on the management and allocation of water in Colorado. The Department of Natural Resources anticipates a gap in the demand for water, in the not too distant future, and the ability of our water providers to supply that water. Most Coloradans have very little knowledge of where their water comes from and what it takes to deliver it to their taps.
Davis: You had a KickStarter campaign, multiple sponsors and grants. What was your budget for this project, and how did the funding piece come together?
Havey: Our fundraising goal was $350,000. My associate producer, Blair Miller, led the effort, and we attended conferences and met water leaders throughout the state, learning about issues and attitudes while asking for sponsors to bring this film to the screen. After three years we successfully completed the funding with 55 sponsors and a $20,000 KickStarter campaign.
Davis: Talk about the photos in the book. They are a combination of your photos, contributed photos and historical photos. Did you oversee their collection?
Havey: The book includes a compilation of visual material from contemporary and archival photos to maps, paintings and illustrations. My film editor, Nathan Church, and I took most of the contemporary photos, which include some shot as stills and some pulled from video frames filmed for the movie. Nathan led the search for archival material, which came from the water archive at the Colorado State University library, the Western History collection at Denver Public Library, History Colorado, Denver Water, Library of Congress and many other sources.
Davis: How did the collaborative creative process work with book author and screenwriter Stephen Grace?
Havey: Steve Grace is an immensely talented and lyrical writer, and I was thrilled to have him on board for this project. We worked on the structure and drafts of the script for over a year before the book deal emerged from Steve’s contacts and reputation in the publishing world. But the publisher needed the book to be ready in about a six-week timeframe, and Steve worked round the clock researching, writing narrative, editing interviews, writing photo captions, and cataloging references to get it done. My team worked on the visuals. Then I edited the book narrative into the narrative script for the film and included lots of more recent interview material with some of the interviews in the book and worked with Steve to fine-tune everything.
Davis: I imagine the audience conversations at film presentations on the Western Slope (where most of the water naturally flows) are significantly different from those on the Front Range (where most of the state’s population grows). You’ve been on both sides of the divide now on your film tour. What are you expecting to hear in Grand Junction?
Havey: There are many points of view regarding water on both sides of the divide, and West Slope audiences are justifiably concerned about the growth projections for the Front Range and further depletions to their water supplies. The days of anyone getting something for nothing in water are long gone and we have entered a new era where negotiated agreements are far more desirable than court battles.
Davis: Agriculture, an important economic driver in the Grand Valley, accounts for some 85 percent of the water use in the state. What are the most realistic ways to make agriculture more water-efficient, and do you expect farmers and ranchers will be open to those changes?
Havey: Most farmers and ranchers are as concerned about conserving water as anyone and they are very aware that their water use is being carefully scrutinized as part of the solution for supplying the growing needs of Front Range and West Slope cities.
Agriculture has changed considerably in the last 50 years, and irrigation techniques are much more efficient today. As a state we all need to be concerned about threats to our rural communities in the face of buy-and-dry deals that turn hay meadows to shopping malls. Ag-urban transfers, rotational fallowing and more efficient irrigation technologies offer some solutions.
Davis: What do you want viewers and readers to do with their greater understanding of Colorado water issues? In other words, what’s your best hope for a more water-aware state populace?
Havey: My hope is that the film and book impress audiences with the urgency and complexity of western water issues, and the growing need to find collaborative solutions.