The latest “The Current” newsletter is hot off the presses from the Eagle River Watershed Council

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

While the West has transformed and evolved greatly since the pioneer days, mining laws remain largely unchanged. Hardrock mining and extraction is, to this day, governed by President Ulysses S. Grant’s General Mining Law of 1872.

Five U.S. Senators, including Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, have introduced the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 in an attempt to reform that 140-year-old law and provide a modern mechanism by which we might cleanup abandoned mines throughout the West…

Kate is the education & outreach coordinator for the Watershed Council. Click here to read more about the proposed legislation.

Update for Ulysses S. Grant’s mining law on horizon? — Eagle River Watershed Council

Eagle Mine
Eagle Mine

From the Eagle River Watershed Council (Kate Burchenal):

While the West has transformed and evolved greatly since the pioneer days, mining laws remain largely unchanged. Hardrock mining and extraction is, to this day, governed by President Ulysses S. Grant’s General Mining Law of 1872.

Five U.S. Senators, including Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, have introduced the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 in an attempt to reform that 140-year-old law and provide a modern mechanism by which we might cleanup abandoned mines throughout the West.

Colorado’s past and present are intricately tied to the hardrock mining industry. In the late-1800s, pioneers ventured West in search of storied riches awaiting discovery beneath the earth. The pioneers were by no means the first people to occupy the land, but their capacity for appropriating and shaping the land far exceeded the practices of their Native American predecessors. Beginning with the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush in 1858 and lasting for decades, Colorado experienced an enormous population boom as people flocked to the area in search of gold, silver and other valuable minerals.

Today, mining still plays a large role in our economy, and active as well as abandoned mines dot the landscape. It is estimated that there are currently 7,100 abandoned mines in Colorado, more than 200 of which are collectively leaking thousands of gallons of acid mine drainage every minute.

“Disastrous spills like the Gold King Mine blowout are easy to see, but the unnoticed toxins leaking out of thousands of abandoned mines are doing enormous damage to our watersheds every day,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

Throughout the West, estimates soar upwards of 500,000 abandoned mines.

Under current law, companies can extract gold, silver, copper, uranium and other minerals from public land without paying any federal royalties. This is one of the last vestiges of the old public land giveaways that enticed and encouraged people to settle the Wild West. Oil, gas and coal companies, on the other hand, pay annual rental payments for extraction activities on public lands.

“Hardrock mining companies have enjoyed a sweetheart deal for nearly 150 years, leaving taxpayers on the hook to clean up hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines leaking toxins and threatening communities across the West,” said Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, who has been pushing for mining reform since he gained federal public office in 1998.

Current funding mechanisms fall far short of the tens of billions of dollars needed to clean up harmful mines around the West. A major component of the new bill would be the creation of a Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund, under which new mining companies would pay annual royalties into fund totaling 2 to 5 percent of gross income. In addition, new and existing active mines would pay reclamation fees totaling 0.6 to 2 percent of gross income. The fees alone are expected to generate upwards of $100 million annually. The Reclamation Fund would provide resources to aid abandoned mine reclamation projects and would be distributed to states, tribes and other organizations through a grant program.


Before the questions come pouring in, I will make it plain that this law would have zero impact on the cleanup effort underway at the Eagle Mine.

First of all, the new act has no retroactive power. Owners of inactive and abandoned mines would not pay fees or royalties; only active mining operations, both new and existing, would contribute to the Reclamation Fund.

Secondly, the royalties would not be sufficient to cover all abandoned mine cleanups, thus the distribution of funds will be prioritized to reflect immediate needs. We are extremely fortunate to have a willing and able responsible party at the Eagle Mine who has been an active partner in the cleanup effort for nearly three decades. In places around the state where there is no active responsible party, taxpayers (read: you and me) are footing the cleanup bill. The 2015 Act aims to shift the financial responsibility from taxpayers to mine operators; it is not intended to help responsible parties conduct ongoing cleanup efforts.

The Colorado Mining Association has released statements expressing concern with the new law. Stuart Sanderson, President of CMA, says the proposed legislation “doesn’t provide workable solutions associated with abandoned historic mines that operated prior to the era of modern mining regulation.”

While the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 will not be a panacea capable of reversing the harmful legacy of mining in the West, we believe it is a step in the right direction.

Kate Burchenal is the education and outreach coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit

Superfund tour through Colorado paints positive picture — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

It was a long, difficult road as the community of Leadville went through a more-than-20-year process through the Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous cleanup Superfund program. But local government officials here on Thursday told a large constituency of Southwest Coloradoans that, ultimately, it was worth it.

Various agencies from the Animas River watershed are on a three-day tour of several Superfund sites in Colorado, hoping to gain knowledge on the process as stakeholders look to make a decision about long-term water treatment in the Animas basin.

The situation in Leadville, in many ways, has a striking similarity with the leaking mine network north of Silverton – with its long mining history, relative isolation and fragile economy…

But after more than a century of unregulated mining in Leadville, a two-hour drive west of Denver, an adit suffered a blowout, causing a die-off along the Arkansas River down to Pueblo. In 1983, Leadville was placed on the EPA’s Superfund list, just a few years after the program was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.

It wasn’t until 2007 that the town was officially taken off the National Priorities List. After the many battles between local, state and federal agencies, local officials there said it left a bittersweet feeling throughout the community.

“In the beginning, it definitely had an impact on our economic development,” said Howard Tritz, an assessor at the time. “It was a real obstacle. But the stigma of being a Superfund site has pretty much blown away; people are starting to come back here. It was bittersweet.”[…]

Melissa Sheets, a reclamation project manager with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said this week’s tour, which includes a number of stakeholders, is a sign the agencies have learned from past mistakes in dealing with local communities.

“I think we’re learning as Superfund grows up,” Sheets said. “Unfortunately for this community (Leadville), they got the Superfund designation when this program was brand new, so I think they got a lot of the bumps in the road. This outreach we’re doing is absolutely unprecedented. We’re trying to make sure everyone has an opportunity for input.”

After visiting Leadville, the group went to Minturn’s Eagle Mine Superfund site, where residents said there really was no other option beside Superfund.

“There’s always some tension and disagreement as to what cleanup measures are going to be most effective,” said Bob Weaver of Leonard Rich Engineering. “But it’s really important to realize everybody wants to achieve the same goal. You’re not always going to agree, but it’s a lot better than doing nothing.

Representatives from the Animas River were sure to point out the many differences between Leadville and Minturn, ranging from potentially responsible parties to differences in geology. But San Juan County Commissioner Ernie Kuhlman said overall it’s been a productive trip.

“I’ve learned a hell of a lot,” he said. “Anything we’re going to get is from working together. That’s what we’re doing here.”

Durango Mayor Dean Brookie said seeing the actual physical implementation of Superfund helped push the decision-making process…

Leadville Mayor Jaime Stuever offered one last bit of advice for the group before a tour of the California Gulch Superfund site.

“We live in an environment in today’s world were we have problems,” he said. “If you look at how many years mining took place here, you realize it takes a long time to clean up a mess that’s been here many, many years. How could we have done it ourselves? We couldn’t have done it ourselves.”

#COWaterPlan: Even with wording changes, the basin roundtables recommend that the CWCB not adopt the framework

Alan Ward stands at the Ewing Ditch headgate
Alan Ward stands at the Ewing Ditch headgate,

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Brent Gardner-Smith):

Letters sent to the Colorado Water Conservation Board in September about the draft Colorado Water Plan reveal a range of opinions about potential new transmountain diversions and the merits of using a “conceptual framework” to evaluate them.

Various Front Range water providers and interest groups told the CWCB that the conceptual framework should not be included in the water plan, should not be a regulatory requirement, and should not apply to transmountain diversion projects already in the planning and approval stage.

“Even with wording changes, the basin roundtables recommend that the CWCB not adopt the framework as it is a work in progress that may be modified as dialogue continues,” wrote the S. Platte and Metro basin roundtables, two of nine regional water-supply groups that meet under the auspices of the CWCB, in a combined Sept. 17 comment letter.

But a number of organizations based on the Western Slope or that focus on the Colorado River basin say the framework is a good step forward.

Officials at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado Boulder, for example, gave an enthusiastic endorsement of the framework.

“This is a revolutionary document and a quantum leap forward in Colorado water history,” Lawerence MacDonnell and Anne Castle, both of the Getches-Wilkinson Center, wrote in a Sept. 17 letter to the CWCB. “The conceptual framework is a critically important part of the Colorado Water Plan and should be formally adopted in the plan and by the CWCB, not just monitored.”

The final water plan is expected to be approved by the CWCB board of directors at their meeting on Nov. 19 at the History Colorado Center in Denver.

The conceptual framework includes seven principles “to guide future negotiations between proponents of a new TMD and those communities who may be affected were it built.”

The concepts covered include a recognition that there may not be water to divert in dry years, that new diversions should not increase the likelihood of a compact call from California, that municipal conservation should also be pursued and that environmental needs must be addressed.

Brent Newman, a program manager in the water supply planning section of CWCB, said Friday that the framework is going to be included in the final water plan and will be called “Colorado’s Conceptual Framework.”

“Folks may not agree with every single principle, or even with discussing the concepts of a transmountain diversion out loud, but it represents a historic milestone in Colorado water policy that’s a long way from ‘Not One More Drop’ or ‘We’ll See You in Court,’” Newman said, citing the long-held positions of the Western Slope and the Front Range, respectively.


Comments on the second draft of the water plan were due Sept. 17 and water-focused organizations filed more than 50 substantive letters.

It’s not hard to pick up on the differing views in the letters about the framework, which was developed over the last two years by members of the Interbasin Compact Committee, which serves as an executive committee for the CWCB’s nine basin roundtables.

Those who don’t think new transmountain diversions are a good idea tend to support the framework. But those who see new diversions as necessary diminish the framework’s authority and reject its potential restrictions.

Castle and MacDonnell of the Getches-Wilkinson Center clearly support the framework, but they see big problems with taking more water from the upper Colorado River basin.

The pair told the CWCB that “development of significant new Colorado River supplies increases the risk of future curtailment to all existing, post-1922 Colorado River water users, reduces the production of renewable hydropower at Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs, and could ratchet up unwelcome and counterproductive political dynamics among the Colorado River basin states.”

But officials at Colorado Springs Utilities, while aware of potential issues with downstream water users in other states, see new TMDs as a likely necessity.

M. Patrick Wells, the managing engineer for water resource planning for CSU, told the CWCB in a Sept. 17 letter that the draft water plan “consistently overlooks the fact that one or more new TMDs will ultimately need to be constructed to address Colorado’s water supply gap.”

As such, Wells said the final water plan “should contain a definitive statement that a new TMD will be constructed, even if no formal concept has been proposed.”

Wells also said CSU has “a significant concern” that adhering to the framework will become a regulatory requirement of new water projects.

The utility “strongly requests” that language be added to the water plan to “make it abundantly clear that the conceptual framework is not a statement of state policy, and is not in any way to be interpreted or construed as a basis for any conditions or requirements in any water court case, state or federal permitting process, or contract negotiation.”

The members of the Front Range Water Council agree with Colorado Springs Utilities on this point.

In its Sept. 15 letter, the council pointed to recent remarks about the framework made by John McClow, a CWCB board member from the Gunnison River basin.

“As board member McClow stated in his remarks at the summer Colorado Water Congress convention, the framework has no regulatory force or effect. Rather, it is guidance, the implementation and use of which will depend on the positions taken by the parties who engage in good faith negotiations on the construction of future specific proposed projects.”

The council includes Denver Water, Aurora Water, Colorado Springs Utilities, Northern Water, the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., and the Board of Water Works of Pueblo.


A few organizations have told the CWCB that the framework should apply to both potential new transmountain diversions and the “firming” of existing transmountain water supplies.

Today, about 600,000 acre-feet of water a year is sent east under the Continental Divide and over 500,000 acre feet of that is diverted from headwaters in Grand, Summit, Eagle and Pitkin counties.

And another 120,000 to 140,000 acre-feet of water could be sent east after changes are made to existing transmountain diversion systems, according to the Colorado River basin roundtable.

Included in that 140,000 acre-feet figure is 20,000 acre-feet more from the Windy Gap project in Grand County, 18,000 acre-feet more from the Moffat Collection System above Winter Park, and 20,000 from the Eagle River MOU project, which potentially includes an expansion of Eagle Park Reservoir at the Climax Mine and a new dam and reservoir on lower Homestake Creek.

In addition to those, the water quality and quantity committee of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments told the CWCB that there are other projects in the works that could send more water east, including “future Dillon Reservoir diversions, firming in the upper Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers, and Colorado Springs Utilities expanded diversions from the upper Blue River.”

In the language of the Colorado Water Plan, these projects already on the books are called IPPs, for “identified projects and processes.”

The Pitkin County commissioners, in a Sept. 15 letter, told the CWCB that the county “wholeheartedly endorses” the framework but “strongly believes” the framework’s core principles need to be “expanded in scope to apply equally to the various IPPs that involve trans-basin diversions.”

The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board, a tax-funded organization dedicated to leaving more water in the Roaring Fork River and its tributaries, feels the same way.

“The IPPs are the result of simple community canvassing to obtain information as to any potential plans or processes that are being contemplated around the state,” the board wrote in a Sept. 17 letter. “The IPPs have not been vetted and vary widely in size, impact and feasibility. “


Trout Unlimited, which has been paying close attention to the development of the water plan, said it supports the framework.

But it also gave the CWCB some plain-language criteria it thinks should be used to judge new TMDs.

“These transmountain diversions of water can cause severe economic and environmental damage to the areas of origin,” wrote Richard Van Gytenbeek, the Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited, in a Sept. 17 letter to the CWCB.

As such, Gytenbeek told the CWCB it “should reject all new TMDs” unless the project proponent is already “employing high levels of conservation,” can show “that water is available for the project,” and “makes commitments that guarantee against environmental or economic harm to the basin of origin.”

The Colorado River District, which has board members from 15 Western Slope counties, said it supports the framework.

The river district’s general manager, Eric Kuhn, has been instrumental as a member of the IBCC in developing many of the framework’s key concepts.

“Admittedly, there are elements of the framework that we would prefer to edit but recognize there are others who would address those same edits in an opposite fashion,” the River District told the CWCB in a Sept. 17 memo.

However, the River District said the framework “represents a ‘way forward’ for constructive discussion about possible development of Colorado River basin water resources for out-of-basin use.”

Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Post Independent and The Aspen Times and on coverage of statewide water issues. More at…


1. East Slope water providers are not looking for firm yield from a new TMD and the project proponent would accept hydrologic risk for that project.

2. A new TMD would be used conjunctively with East Slope supplies, such as interruptible supply agreements, Denver Basin Aquifer resources, carry-over storage, terminal storage, drought restriction savings and other non-West Slope water sources.

3. In order to manage when a new TMD would be able to divert, triggers are needed. Triggers are operating parameters that determine when and how much water a potential new TMD could divert, based upon predetermined conditions within the Colorado River System.

4. A collaborative program that protects against involuntary curtailment is needed for existing uses and some reasonable increment of future development in the Colorado River System, but it will not cover a new TMD.

5. Future West Slope needs should be accommodated as part of a new TMD project.

6. Colorado will continue its commitment to improve conservation and reuse.

7: Environmental resiliency and recreational needs must be addressed both before and conjunctively with a new TMD.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the University of Colorado
Colorado transmountain diversions via the University of Colorado

Eagle River cleanup: Steady progress over 30 years as a superfund site

Eagle Mine
Eagle Mine

From the Eagle River Watershed Council (Kate Burchenal):

As we all know, Colorado has a rich and fascinating history of mining that dates back to the late 1800s. Between 1991 and 1999, the Colorado Geological Survey inventoried abandoned and inactive mine sites on National Forest lands across the state. Of the 18,000 mine features they inventories, 900 presented environmental problems significant enough to warrant future study. About 250 of those were found to be causing significant or extreme environmental degradation.

For those of you who read the previous installment of this series and have been thinking that the story of the Gold King Mine and the Animas River sounds familiar, you’re correct. One of these abandoned mines happens to be in our backyard, right here in Eagle County. In 1984, that particular mine spilled thousands of gallons of metal-laden water into the Eagle River. The river ran orange, wiping out fish populations and causing Vail Resorts to blow orange snow on their mountains.

But where our story differs somewhat from the Gold King Mine is that we have been fortunate to have willing partners in the cleanup effort. In some parts of the state, mine owners will spend millions of dollars in court to avoid cleaning up harmful mines; here, those millions have gone to greatly improving the situation.

The Eagle mine has been listed as a Superfund site for the better part of three decades. Much progress has been made in that time thanks to coordinated efforts from entities such as the Eagle Mine Limited, Eagle River Watershed Council, Eagle River Water and Sanitation, CBS (the mine owner), Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Water Treatment

The main goal is and has been to treat all contaminated water before putting it back into the Eagle River, and to divert fresh, clean water around the mine so it remains uncontaminated and out of the water treatment plant. The water treatment facility treats 250 gallons of water every minute and removes 251 pounds of metals from the water passing through each day.

That is not to say, however, that the problem has been solved. Quite the opposite actually, since the mine tunnels and metal-rich rocks below Gilman aren’t going anywhere. This is an issue that will be with our community in perpetuity and so we must guard against complacency. We haven’t seen any large-scale, dramatic spills recently, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

Our Best Defense

From here, the best defense we have against a spill like the one at the Gold King Mine is to emphasize existing and augmented preventative measures. While we can’t rule out the possibility of future spills from the Eagle Mine, we can do our best to implement preventative and proactive measures that safeguard our river and our community.

The cleanup contractors have a regular maintenance and monitoring schedule to keep the pipeline – which carries contaminated water to the treatment facility – functioning properly, free of leaks and other issues. This aspect is critical, and very much achievable. Adding in satellite technology will provide remote, real-time monitoring for spills and leaks. This equipment will not eliminate the need for having people on the ground inspecting the mine and pipeline, but rather will provide an added layer of security.

The initial, catastrophic spill from the Eagle Mine in 1984 made the river uninhabitable for the entire fishery that once called it home. Today, hardier fish such as brown trout have returned, while species more sensitive to metals – such as rainbow trout and sculpin – are less prevalent. Though the species diversity is not what we would like to see, this return is a big accomplishment in and of itself.

We have seen this progress because our community pushed for it. The stakeholders in the mine cleanup listened, collaborated and took action. But we can’t pat ourselves on the back too heartily; as a community, we must stay engaged. The Gold King Mine spill is a reminder of what could happen and why we can’t let our guard down.

Kate Burchenal is the education and outreach coordinator for the Eagle River Watershed Council. The council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects.

The latest “The Current” newsletter from the Eagle River Watershed Council is hot off the presses

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Eagle River Watershed Council has teamed up with the U.S. Forest Service for the inaugural year of our Citizen Science program. This program aims to identify creeks and streams on Forest Service land that currently house populations of native cutthroat trout or could in the future. Participants were trained to collect Environmental DNA samples and assess the physical habitat of streams.

We are no longer accepting new volunteers for the Citizen Science program this year, but there will certainly be ways to get involved in 2016! Email to sign up for next year or simply to find out more.

Eagle River Basin
Eagle River Basin

The September 2015 issue of “The Current” is hot off the presses from the Eagle River Watershed Council

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Animas spill may stimulate watershed solutions

On August 5, about 3 million gallons of contaminated water burst out of an abandoned mine above Silverton and sent a plume of cloudy, orange water down Cement Creek to the Animas River, through the heart of Durango, and on into the San Juan River in New Mexico, the Navajo Nation and Utah. Downstream: Lake Powell.

The plume of acidic orange water, containing arsenic, lead and other toxic heavy metals, had built up as a result of historic mining activity dating back to the 1870s… The massive plume was set loose by workers for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency attempting to assess and remediate the source of an ongoing trickle of pollution from the Gold King mine…

In assessing how this catastrophe fits into the overall regional water picture, it is instructive to zoom out geographically and look back in time. The 3 million gallons of contaminated water from the spill translate to a little over 9 acre-feet of water. This quantity is dwarfed by the approximately 13 million acre-feet currently in Lake Powell, despite the fact that it is only 54 percent full…

Hannah Holm is the coordinator for the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University. Holm is a friend of the Watershed Council and wrote this article for our monthly Vail Daily column, The Current. Click here to read on.