The snow is beginning to fly in Silverton’s high country, and a temporary water treatment plant has been completed – in the nick of time – to handle the discharge from the Gold King Mine over the winter.
That hurry-up, stop-gap treatment option for the hundreds of gallons of heavy metal-laced water still draining each minute from the old mine comes with a hefty price tag – about $100,000 per day. That daily amount is being added to the $14.8 million already spent on the huge three-million-gallon spill that turned the Animas River an acid yellow on Aug. 5 and triggered emergency declarations in four states.
An EPA spokeswoman said she doesn’t know how long the temporary fix on the leaking mine will continue to rack up high daily costs. But she does expect that cost to drop as a command center in Durango is dismantled by the end of November and the crew at the Gold King high in the San Juan Mountains is chased out by winter conditions. The treatment facility sits at 10,500 feet in an area where temperatures regularly drop to -20, making any manual work at the treatment plant unsafe.
EPA spokeswoman Christie St. Clair said the treatment facility that pipes bad water from holding ponds at the mine to a treatment area nearby at the mining ghost town of Gladstone is being fine-tuned this week for “optimal performance.” It should then be able to operate through the winter without the 33 workers who have been at the site recently and the 29 officials who have been tackling the problem of the Aug. 5 leak from an office downstream in Durango.
The officials and the workers on the ground have included personnel from the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish & Wildlife and the Coast Guard. Four State of Colorado and New Mexico agencies have also had officials involved in the work.
The exodus of many of those leak responders, and the start-up of the treatment plant, doesn’t indicate the problem is solved, or even near to being solved.
Over the winter, federal, state and local officials will be tackling the tough question of what to do in the long term about this and other leaking mines that have troubled the Silverton area for decades. The EPA is waiting on reports from the Inspector General and the Department of Interior. Those entities are examining the leak that was caused by an EPA contractor when a plug was breached in a long abandoned mine.
The leak at the Gold King didn’t just put alarmed focus on a waterway in southwest Colorado, southeast Utah and northern New Mexico and Arizona. It drew attention to the tens of thousands of old hard-rock mines that pock the West’s landscape and, in thousands of cases, leak contaminated water that has collected in shafts and tunnels.
Some are being mitigated through Superfund designations that bring federal dollars – and federal decision-making – but that is not a universally popular option in Silverton.
Last week, the Sunnyside Gold Corp. renewed its pledge to put $10 million into building a permanent water treatment plant for acid drainage that runs into Cement Creek through Silverton and on into the Animas River. Sunnyside never operated the Gold King Mine, but the company did operate the nearby Sunnyside Mine and American Tunnel that are all part of an interconnected drainage problem. Sunnyside proposes using lime to treat contaminated water and is asking for no Superfund designation and no liability for the company in exchange.
Sunnyside’s option will be one of many kicked around this winter as officials try to come to an agreement on how to move forward with the spring thaw.
In the meantime, the EPA and some of the other involved agencies will continue to have a presence in Silverton sampling and monitoring water quality below the Gold King.
James Eklund, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, invoked his Western Slope heritage at a “Summit on the Colorado Water Plan” hosted Saturday in Rifle by the Garfield County commissioners.
“The mantra I grew up with in Plateau Valley was not one more drop of water will be moved from this side of the state to the other,” said Eklund, whose mother’s family has been ranching in the Plateau Creek valley near Collbran since the 1880s.
Eklund was speaking to a room of about 50 people, including representatives from 14 Western Slope counties, all of whom had been invited by the Garfield County commissioners for a four-hour meeting.
The commissioners’ stated goal for the meeting was to develop a unified voice from the Western Slope stating that “no more water” be diverted to the Front Range.
“That argument had been made, probably by my great-grandparents, my grandparents and my parents,” Eklund said. “And I know there are a lot of people who still want to make that argument today, and I get that. But it has not done us well on the Western Slope.
“That argument has gotten us to were we are now, 500,000 to 600,000 acre feet of water moving from the west to the east. So I guess the status quo is not West Slope-friendly. We need something different. We need a different path. And these seven points provides that different path.”
The “seven points” form the basis of a “draft conceptual framework” for future negotiations regarding a potential transmountain diversion in Colorado.
The framework is the result of the ongoing statewide water-supply planning process that Eklund is overseeing in his role at the CWCB.
Eklund took the helm two years ago at the CWCB after serving as Gov. John Hickenlooper’s senior deputy legal counsel, and he’s been leading the effort to produce the state’s first water plan, which is due on the governor’s desk in December.
The second draft of the plan includes the seven points, even though the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, which meets monthly in Glenwood Springs under the auspices of the CWCB, is still on the record as opposing their inclusion in the water plan. That could change after its meeting on Monday.
Not legally binding
The “seven points” seeks to define the issues the Western Slope likely has with more water flowing east under the Continental Divide, and especially how a new transmountain diversion could hasten a demand from California for Colorado’s water under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
“The seven points are uniquely helpful to Western Slope interests because if you tick through them, they are statements that the Front Range doesn’t necessarily have to make,” Eklund said in response to a question. “If these were legally binding, the Western Slope would benefit.”
Under Colorado water law a Front Range water provider, say, can file for a right to move water to the east, and a local county or water district might have little recourse other than perhaps to fight the effort through a permitting process.
But Eklund said the points in the “conceptual framework” could be invoked by the broader Western Slope when negotiating a new transmountain diversion.
As such, a diverter might at least have to acknowledge that water may not be available in dry years, that the diversion shouldn’t exacerbate efforts to forestall a compact call, that other water options on the Front Range, including increased conservation, should be developed first, that a new transmountain diversion shouldn’t preclude future growth on the Western Slope, and that the environmental resiliency of the donor river would need to be addressed.
“We’re just better off with them than without them,” Eklund said of the seven points.
A cap on the Colorado?
Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River District, which is based in Glenwood Springs and represents 15 Western Slope counties, told the attendees that three existing agreements effectively cap how much more water can be diverted from the upper Colorado River and its tributaries above Glenwood Springs.
The Colorado Water Cooperative Agreement, which was signed in 2013 by 18 entities, allows Denver Water to develop another 18,000 acre-feet from the Fraser River as part of the Moffat, or Gross Reservoir, project, but it also includes a provision that would restrict other participating Front Range water providers from developing water from the upper Colorado River.
A second agreement will allow Northern Water to move another 30,000 acre feet of water out of the Colorado River through its Windy Gap facilities, but Northern has agreed that if it develops future projects, it will have to do so in a cooperative manner with West Slope interests.
And a third agreement known as the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding will allow Aurora and Colorado Springs to develop another 20,000 acre feet of water as part of the Homestake project in the Eagle River basin, but will also provide 10,000 acre feet for Western Slope use.
“So effectively these three agreements, in effect, cap what you’re going to see above Glenwood Springs,” Kuhn said.
The Moffat, Windy Gap and Eagle River projects are not subject to the “seven points” in the conceptual agreement, and neither is the water that could be taken by the full use of these and other existing transmountain projects.
“So when you add all that up, there is an additional 100,000 to 150,000 acre-feet of consumptive use already in existing projects,” Kuhn said.
But beyond that, Kuhn said Front Range water providers desire security and want to avoid a compact call, just as the Western Slope does.
“We’ve been cussing and discussing transmountain diversions for 85 years,” Kuhn added, noting that the Colorado Constitution does not allow the Western Slope to simply say “no” to Front Range water developers.
“So, the framework is an agenda,” Kuhn said, referring to the “seven points.” “It’s not the law, but it is a good agenda to keep us on track. It includes important new concepts, like avoiding over development and protecting existing uses.”
Vet other projects too?
Rachel Richards, a Pitkin County commissioner, told the attendees that she would like to see more water projects than just new transmountain diversions be subject to the seven points.
As part of the state’s water-supply planning efforts, state officials have designated a list of projects as already “identified projects and processes,” or IPPs, which are not subject to the seven points.
“We would like to see the same environmental standards, and community buy-in standards, applied to increasing existing transmountain diversions or IPPs,” Richards said, noting that the “IPPs” seem to be wearing a halo.
“They need to go through just as much vetting for concern of the communities as a new transmountain diversion would, and we’re probably going to see a lot more of them first,” she said.
At the end of the four-hour summit on the statewide water plan, Garfield County Commissioner Mike Sampson said he still had “real concerns” about the long-term viability of Western Slope agriculture and industry in the face of growth on the Front Range, but he offered some support for the seven points.
“I think the seven points is probably a good starting position,” Sampson said.
He also said Garfield County would make some edits to a draft position paper it hopes will be adopted by other Western Slope counties.
On Saturday, the draft paper said “the elected county commissioners on the Western Slope of Colorado stand united in opposing any more major, transmountain diversions or major changes in operation of existing projects unless agreed to by all of the county(s) from which water would be diverted.”
But Sampson was advised, and agreed, that it might be productive to reframe that key statement to articulate what the Western Slope would support, not what it would oppose.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water. The Post published this story online on July 25, 2015.
Pumphouse site to get new play feature for boaters
FRISCO — Along with the incredible natural terrain of the Colorado River through Gore Canyon, boaters will soon also have an artificial place to play. The Kremmling Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management this week announced approval of the proposed Gore Canyon whitewater park at the Pumphouse Recreation area, west of Kremmling in the Upper Colorado River Valley.
Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office
West portal Moffat Water Tunnel
Colorado transmountain diversions via the University of Colorado
Denver Water’s collection system via the USACE EIS
Colorado-Big Thompson Project Map via Northern Water
Fryingpan-Arkansas Project via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District
From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Lauren Glendenning):
Climate change might not be the end-all, be-all in the state’s water discussion, but Brad Udall knows it needs to at least be a part of it.
“The proper way to deal with climate change is to get out of the scientific battles and deal with it as a risk,” said Udall, who is the director and principal investigator of the University of Colorado-National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Western Water Assessment.
While Colorado isn’t dealing with what Udall says is the biggest climate change impact, sea level rise, it is dealing with impacts of the overall water cycle. The West faces an unprecedented 14-year drought, resulting in low water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, supply-demand gaps, power losses and threats to conservation.
As the atmosphere warms, it also holds more moisture, resulting in water cycle changes. Udall said the effects are already appearing as more rain and less snow, earlier runoff, higher water temperatures and more intense rain.
The higher water temperatures are something that water conservation folks throughout the Western Slope are concerned about. At a recent Colorado Basin Roundtable meeting, Holly Loff, executive director of the Eagle River Watershed Council, introduced to the group a recent assessment of the Upper Colorado River. The study shows that elevated water temperatures are occurring in the Upper Colorado that are above the known thermal tolerance of trout.
Loff said more transmountain diversions out of the basin to the Front Range would only further affect aquatic life, which goes beyond just fish and bugs.
“It impacts everything that uses the riparian area, which is every creature,” Loff said. “Temperature, that is huge. When you take the water out [of the streams for diversions], the water that’s left heats up more. Water temperatures rise, and it completely changes the fish that want to be in that water. Our fishermen are going to see that.”
Loff said she isn’t so quick to join in on the finger-pointing to the Front Range. The Front Range has cut back on wasteful bluegrass lawns, for example, and is doing a great job in terms of per-capita water use.
“They’re actually doing much better than we are” in per-capita water use, she said. “We are all going to have to make some changes.”[…]
[Martha Cochran] points out that agriculture efficiencies could help improve water supplies, but the use-it or lose-it concept hampers progress.
Use-it or lose-it means that a water user who fails to divert the maximum amount of water that their right allows loses some of their rights the next time they go to court to transfer those rights.
“Sprinkling systems for agriculture are more efficient and use less water, they’re easier to control, you can direct them better, they’re more specific about how and when,” Cochran said. “And that’s a good thing, but it’s not [a good thing] if it means you lose your water rights because you’re not using all the water you traditionally used.”[…]
As the state crafts the Colorado Water Plan, one development holds out hope that East and West Slope entities can work together. Just last year, the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement was signed between Denver Water and Western Slope water providers and municipalities. The agreement is a long-term partnership that aims to achieve better environmental health in the Colorado River Basin, as well as high-quality recreational use.
The agreement, which included 43 parties from Grand Junction to Denver, states that future water projects on the Colorado River will be accomplished through cooperation, not confrontation. It’s debatable whether that will happen, given the finger-pointing cropping up during the draft stages of the Colorado Water Plan process.
James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and head of the development of the Colorado Water Plan, believes it can happen, but he admits it won’t be easy.
“The idea is to take that paradigm shift that occurred with the Cooperative Agreement and exploit that and replicate and scale that up to the entire state,” he said. “Doing that is going to require some work.”
But positions like Loff’s that are 100 percent against more transmountain diversion projects are widespread on this side of the Continental Divide, and it’s going to take more than some conversations and a few handshakes to find some middle ground.
“The biggest thing for us, and the entire basin, is that we want to make it perfectly clear that having another transmountain diversion over to the Front Range is really going to damage our recreation-based economy,” she said. “And that it’s going to have more impacts on the environment and on agriculture. They need to understand that we’re not saying we don’t want to share the water, it’s just that there isn’t any more water to share. We have obligations through the compact [to downstream states with legal rights], so more water leaving our basin — that water doesn’t ever come back.”[…]
So that will be part of the process in the coming months as each of the nine basins drafting implementation plans polish up their drafts before sending them off to the state. Two of the Front Range basins, Metro and South Platte, are combining theirs into one document, for a total of eight plans being rolled into the Colorado Water Plan.
It’s like a community development plan that lays out a vision and direction, but it will require execution, said Jim Pokrandt, communications and education director for the Colorado River District.
“Hopefully it will address how we can get down the path of efficiency and the land use discussion,” he said. “It’s a very painful discussion, but not as painful as the need to start digging a new transmountain diversion tomorrow.”
The nascent Colorado Water Plan has begun to materialize in the form of draft implementation plans for each of the state’s eight largest river basins. And Front Range interests are once again looking toward the Colorado River to cushion water demand in the face of rising populations and interstate water obligations on the other side of the divide…
Each roundtable released its draft plan last week, and the joint draft plan from the South Platte and Metro roundtables, which includes the Denver Metro Area, identifies new Colorado River water supplies as one of the “four legs of the stool” to address water needs in the South Platte River Basin.
The draft plan cites a growing population in the South Platte River Basin and obligations to send water to other states as major factors that justify additional trans-mountain diversion.
As of yet, the South Platte and Metro roundtables haven’t established just how much extra water it would need to divert from the Colorado River.
“There’s a lot of speculation out there from different folks, but I think the basin plan was very deliberate not to put a number to it because it really seemed to stall the conversation,” said Sean Cronin, the chair for the South Platte Roundtable. “It really felt like it was more prudent that we ought to be having a discussion about additional supplies, and we ought to be having a discussion about what those additional supplies would look like.”
The South Platte and Metro roundtables saw that the gap between water supplies and water demands on the West Slope left room for additional diversions, Cronin said. Additional diversions would also be limited to wet years, when more water is available.
“In the end, it really wasn’t a matter of how much water,” Cronin said. “It was simply a matter of do we want to pursue this idea for the greater good for Colorado.”
But the Colorado River Basin Roundtable’s draft plan doesn’t view its resources as expendable.
“We think that a new project should be the last thing that’s sought in that there still might not be enough resources or water to make that viable,” said Jim Pokrandt, chair of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable. “We base that on the fact that the we are already big donors of water to the Front Range.”[…]
But as Mark Koleber, chair of the Metro Roundtable, explained, Denver Water doesn’t supply all of the Denver-Metro area and outlying parts of the South Platte River Basin.
“The metro area is much larger than that outside of the Denver water system,” Kobeler said. “So what might be provided by the Moffat-Gross expansion wouldn’t necessarily go to areas outside of the Denver Water service area unless they have a contract for it.”
This means another entity could seek permitting for a transmountain diversion project from the Colorado River, which wouldn’t fall under the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement.
But Pokrandt said any additional diversions to the South Platte, in theory, would have to come from other basins like the Yampa or the Gunnison.
“Some new big transmountain diversion would probably have to go somewhere else,” Pokrandt said. “It would have to go somewhere else that’s not hard hit.”[…]
The draft basin implementation plan issued from the Colorado River Basin Roundtable has found that additional transmountain diversion would damage agriculture and degrade environmental conditions in the Colorado River basin.
“There’s already so much water taken out of the headwaters that we don’t think that there’s any more water to give without severe economic and environmental degradation,” Pokrandt said…
Each roundtable will submit its final plan to the Colorado Water Conservation Board in April 2015. The board will submit the final state water plan to the governor in December 2015.
Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands — Graphic/USBR
Flood irrigation — photo via the CSU Water Center
Crop circles — irrigated agriculture
Grand Valley Irrigation Ditch
Upper Basin States vs. Lower Basin circa 1925 via CSU Water Resources Archives
Colorado River Basin in Colorado via the Colorado Geological Survey
Drought affected Lake Mead via the Mountain Town News
Glen Canyon Dam — Photo / Brad Udall
From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Jim Pokrandt):
It’s almost time for football training camps, so here’s a gridiron analogy for Colorado River water policy watchers: Western Colorado is defending two end zones. One is the Colorado River. The other is agriculture. The West Slope team has to make a big defensive play. If water planning errs on the side of overdeveloping the Colorado River, the river loses, the West Slope economy loses and West Slope agriculture could be on the way out.
This is how the Colorado River Basin Roundtable is viewing its contribution to the Colorado Water Plan ordered up by Gov. John Hickenlooper. A draft plan will be submitted this December and a final plan in December 2015. The Roundtable is assessing local water supply needs and environmental concerns for inclusion into the plan and there is plenty of work to consider in the region. But the big play may very well be the keeping of powerful forces from scoring on our two goal lines.
Here’s why: Colorado’s population is slated to double by 2050. Most of it will be on the Front Range, but our region is growing too. Mother Nature is not making any new water. We still depend on the same hydrological cycle that goes back to Day 1. So where is the “new” water going to come from? Right now, there seems to be two top targets, the Colorado River and agriculture (where 85 percent of state water use lies in irrigated fields). Colorado needs a better plan.
The Colorado Basin Roundtable represents Mesa, Garfield, Summit, Eagle, Grand and Pitkin counties. This region already sends between 450,000 and 600,000 acre feet of water annually across the Continental Divide through transmountain diversions (TMDs) to support the Front Range and the Arkansas River Basin.
That water is 100 percent gone. There are no return flows, such as there are with West Slope water users. On top of that, this region could see another 140,000 acre feet go east. A number of Roundtable constituents have long-standing or prospective agreements with Front Range interests wrapped around smaller TMDs. Existing infrastructure can still take some more water. That’s the scorecard right now. We assert another big TMD threatens streamflows and thus the recreational and agricultural economies that define Western Colorado, not to mention the environment.
In the bigger picture, the Colorado River Compact of 1922 requires Colorado to bypass about 70 percent of the river system to the state line to comply with legal limits on depletions so six other states can have their legal share of the water. Failure to do so, by overdeveloping the river, threatens compact curtailments and chaos nobody wants to see. For one thing, that kind of bad water planning could result in a rush to buy or condemn West Slope agricultural water rights.
The Roundtable has heard these concerns loudly and clearly from its own members across the six counties as well as from citizens who have given voice to our section of the water plan, known as the Basin Implementation Plan (BIP). A draft of the BIP can be viewed and comments offered by going online to http://coloradobip.sgm‐inc.com/. It is under the “Resources” tab.
The federal agency, charged with evaluating and disclosing impacts of the proposal, claims that Denver Water customers could experience periodic raw water and treated water shortages in dry years, with Arvada, Westminster and the North Table Mountain Water and Sanitation District especially vulnerable to raw water shortages.
“Severe and more frequent mandatory watering restrictions, including surcharges, may result in a reduced quality of life and place financial burdens on customers. Though still infrequent…