#AnimasRiver: #GoldKingMine spill update

On April 7,  2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear. Eric Baker
On April 7, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
Eric Baker

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Federal steps toward a Superfund cleanup still consist mostly of meetings. The EPA decision on whether to designate the Gold King and other nearby mines a national priority disaster — crucial to secure cleanup funds — still hasn’t been made.

While the Gold King blowout boosted awareness of the tens of thousands of dormant mines draining into western waterways, Congress continues to debate remedies, failing so far to create a national cleanup fund and reduce Clean Water Act liability to encourage voluntary cleanups.

And Colorado lawmakers, too, have been considering the problem but haven’t yet acted to increase state mining regulators’ capacity. State inspectors have not begun planned visits of 140 leaking mines, those causing the worst harm along more than 1,800 miles of streams classified as impaired.

“The Gold King Mine release has prompted some activities, like the draining mines inventory and characterization efforts through the Mining Impacted Streams Task Force — but no new money for the Inactive Mines Program that the program wouldn’t potentially have received absent the Gold King release,” said Ginny Brannon, director of Colorado’s Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

“There’s nothing we can do now that we could not do before,” Brannon said.

So what is the overall legacy, one year later, of the Gold King disaster? It prompted Silverton and San Juan County to reverse their long opposition to a federally run cleanup. Numerous local forums have been held for planning what might be done. But conditions at the Gold King and hundreds of other inactive mines, steadily contaminating waterways to the point that fish cannot reproduce, remain the same as on Aug. 5, 2015, when EPA-led contractors botched efforts to open the portal and triggered a 3 million-gallon deluge.

“There’s much more awareness about the issue of abandoned mines,” said Peter Butler, chairman of the Animas River Stakeholders Group that for two decades drove efforts to deal the acid metals draining into mountains above Silverton.

Conservation groups acknowledged the lag but are hoping robust conversations after the disaster will lead to getting cleanups done.

“We really need a sense of urgency on this. Many of these old mines are leaching poisons into our rivers, day in and day out,” said Ty Churchwell, Trout Unlimited’s southwestern Colorado coordinator.

“It’s good to see some momentum in Washington, D.C. to address two big needs: liability protection, and funding for mine cleanups. We’re eager to roll up our sleeves and get to work on cleanups, but we need the tools to do it,” Churchwell said, referring to efforts by Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, and Rep. Scott Tipton, to push legal changes that would hold mining companies more accountable. “The sad truth is, mining pollution is forever. We need a sustainable, long-term fund for dealing with this long-term problem.”

No one at EPA has been punished. The Gold King site coordinator, Steve Way, retired in June. He was on vacation on Aug. 5, 2015, and fellow EPA coordinator Hays Griswold led efforts to gain access to the Gold King. A Government Accountability Office investigation and an internal EPA probe, demanded by House Republicans, haven’t been completed…

Nor have owners of the Gold King and adjacent Sunnyside mines been cleared as potentially responsible parties. Gold King owner Todd Hennis, and Canada-based Kinross, owner of Sunnyside, could be forced to pay cleanup costs if the EPA decides on a Superfund cleanup…

EPA officials would not discuss their efforts.

That agency has made internal changes to be more careful around toxic mines. EPA chiefs this year issued orders that, whenever anyone is working to open up a collapsed mine that could release fluids, senior officials in Washington D.C. must sign off first. EPA assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus issued a statement saying “additional consultation, coordination, and technical review prior to site work being conducted will help minimize the potential for uncontrolled fluid releases.”

Yet in other ways the EPA approach, working with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, still involves considerable expense and delay. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, visiting Colorado after the spill, vowed greater transparency. The agency communicates with reporters mostly through prepared statements, discouraging direct conversations, with instructions to reporters to attribute statements to officials. Neither McCarthy nor Denver-based regional director Shaun McGrath were made available for interviews.

And requested public documents — The Denver Post asked for Gold King-related records on Aug. 20, 2015, under the Freedom of Information Act — still are being reviewed by agency lawyers who said they are limiting the requested documents to about 75 that the EPA deems “responsive” and then redacting portions of those documents.

CDPHE water qualify officials have not received any new funding to deal with mines draining into streams, the agency’s senior hydrologist Andrew Ross said. However, the Gold King Mine incident has led to “a more coordinated effort between local, state and federal agencies that will, over time, be more successful at addressing water quality impairments from abandoned mines,” Ross said.

This month, EPA officials announced they’d work at the Gold King portal and 30 feet inside, the stabilization initiated after the EPA-run crew triggered the disaster. “EPA initiated these stabilization efforts immediately following the August 5, 2015 release and continued efforts through November 2015, when winter weather inhibited further action,” according to an agency statement attributed to spokeswoman Nancy Grantham.

EPA crews have been sampling water and sediment and the agency gave funds for locals to test water. The EPA also is working on plans for “stabilizing a waste pile on site and installing steel bracing and concrete to continue stabilizing the portal,” the statement said. “This work is designed to prevent collapses and ensure safe access for future work.”

EPA officials said the portal should be safe by October.

At other toxic mines, EPA-run cleanups typically take more than 20 years.

Gov. John Hickenlooper and local leaders repeatedly have urged EPA officials to commit to keep running a temporary water treatment plant below the Gold King, reducing contamination of Animas headwaters until a final cleanup is done.

EPA officials say they’ll run the treatment system until November, but that they haven’t decided what to do after that.

“The EPA’s water treatment plant at the Gold King Mine is operating now to protect Colorado’s waterways and communities. We are assisting EPA on mine sites in the area and on the national priority listing, and we trust that cooperation will continue,” Hickenlooper said.

“We’re working with the EPA and others to ensure that an appropriate long-term plan is in place that ensures the health and safety of our waters and communities. The temporary water treatment facility is one part of that process.”

In Washington D.C., environment groups steadily pressed for a more aggressive approach to the mines that pollute western waterways.

“The main thing that has changed” is that the problem has received attention, said Alan Septoff of the advocacy group Earthworks. “In Congress, both the left and the right have focused attention on the issue of abandoned and inoperative mines in a way that hasn’t occurred since the early 1990s,” Septoff said.

Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood
Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood

Venetucci Farm suspends sales over water concerns — KOAA

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.
Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

From KOAA (Jessi Mitchell):

Venetucci Farm announced it would suspend the sale of its produce due to concerns over contamination in the Widefield aquifer.

The farm pumps its water from a well attached to the aquifer, and it was among the first properties to be tested for contamination. Those results are still pending, which led to Friday’s decision.

The EPA’s latest advisory level for PFCs is equivalent to one teaspoon of chemical in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools. It may not sound like a lot, but in drinking water there are proven health impacts. Scientists are still studying fruits and vegetables grown with the water, but restaurants like Tapateria in Old Colorado City are hoping for the best.

“I think we just had some beets in about two weeks ago,” says Tapateria chef Jay Gust of his dealings with Venetucci Farm. He gets much of his meat and produce from southern Colorado growers.

“There’s been a huge push in getting local farmers into restaurants and I think it’s great and we definitely need it,” says Gust. “We need more of it, and hopefully this is just a mild speed bump and get back on track and just keep on pushing local cuisine.”

The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers tell Venetucci managers it could be up to two more months before there are any conclusive answers showing just how many, if any, PFCs show up in fruits and vegetables grown on the farm. So far, the EPA only advises pregnant and breastfeeding women to avoid drinking contaminated water, but there are no advisories for food at this point.

The farm’s owner, Pikes Peak Community Foundation, is acting in an abundance of caution. CEO Gary Butterworth says, “The concern was in our distribution to restaurants that we would not be able to communicate that, convey that to the end user, so we have not been providing products to restaurants directly for a period of time.”

Here’s the release from the Pikes Peak Community Foundation:

The Pikes Peak Community Foundation (PPCF) has decided to temporarily suspend sales and distribution of Venetucci Farm products until results from water, soil and produce testing are complete.
Venetucci Farm draws its irrigation water from the Widefield Aquifer, which recently was deemed to have exceeded health advisory limits for perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) levels by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“While we do not believe there are any health risks associated with the consumption of Venetucci Farm products, it is with the best interest of the community in mind that we have decided to temporarily suspend sales and distribution of our products while we gather additional information and data,” said Gary Butterworth, CEO of the PPCF. “We are awaiting more conclusive water, produce and soil test results to inform our decisions moving forward. We feel this precautionary measure is the best course of action based on the information we have today.”

The Foundation will continue to work with officials in Widefield, Security, Fountain, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the El Paso County Public Health Department as these agencies and municipalities gather additional data.

ABOUT VENETUCCI FARM
Located on the southwestern edge of Colorado Springs, this historic 190-acre urban farm, known as the “Pumpkin Farm” was established by the Venetucci Family in 1936. In later years, Nick and Bambi Venetucci were known for giving away thousands of pumpkins each fall to area school children.
Wanting to preserve this valuable piece of land as a farm, the Venetuccis put it into conservancy and gifted it to the Pikes Peak Community Foundation in 2006. Thanks to the generosity of the Venetucci Family and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, Venetucci Farm is a working farm committed to growing healthy food and providing positive experiences for the Colorado Springs community.

ABOUT PIKES PEAK COMMUNITY FOUNDATION
The Pikes Peak Community Foundation (PPCF) was founded in 1996. The Foundation creates custom-designed charitable gift funds for individuals, families, and businesses, including donor-advised funds, donor-designated funds, endowment funds, memorial funds, and scholarship funds, providing flexible and inexpensive alternatives to setting up private or family foundations. PPCF also makes grants to support nonprofit organizations and community projects for the benefit of our community and stewards Venetucci Farm and Aspen Valley Ranch. For more information, visit http://PPCF.org.

Aurora Water sells $437 million in bonds to re-fund water plant debt — The Denver Post

prairiewaterstreatment

From the City of Aurora via The Denver Post:

Looking to capitalize on historic-low bond rates, Aurora Water on Thursday sold $437 million in bonds toward re-funding debt associated with its Prairie Waters Project, making it the largest municipal bond issue in the state this year.

With a net savings of $68.6 million, the issue consolidates two other issues and a state loan, water department officials said in a news release.

The Prairie Waters Project was completed in 2010 at a cost of $637 million. It recaptures water Aurora already owns in the South Platte River, beginning in Weld County, and makes full use of Aurora’s mountain and agricultural water rights, increasing the city’s water supply by up to 12 million gallons per day. The water comes from 23 wells that use a riverbank filtration process, pulling water through hundreds of feet of sand and gravel to remove impurities.

The bonds were offered on July 20 and July 21, with first priority given to Colorado residents and businesses.

Peterson Air Force Base to supply $108,000 in bottled water to some #Colorado Springs-area residents — The Colorado Springs Gazette

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.
Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Jakob Rodgers):

Private well owners and people in several small water systems south of Colorado Springs will be eligible to receive the bottled water, said Steve Brady, a base spokesman.

Those places include the Fountain Valley Shopping Center, Security Mobile Home Park and NORAD View Mobile Home Park, according to the installation’s news release.

“It’s in place as an interim solution until they can figure out a long-term solution,” Brady said.

The water distributions will not include people relying on larger water systems, such as the Security Water & Sanitation Districts, the Widefield Water and Sanitation District and the city of Fountain, Brady said. That is because the smaller systems “don’t have any other options,” he said.

Thursday’s announcement is part of a $4.3 million initiative by the Air Force to address the presence of perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, in drinking water across southern El Paso County.

The bulk of that money is expected to be spent on granular activated carbon filters installed on wells tapped into the contaminated Widefield aquifer, which runs along Interstate 25 from the Stratton Meadows area to Fountain and extends east to the Colorado Springs Airport.

The filters are viewed as vital to keeping contaminated water from flowing to the three larger water systems. But the filters are expected to take months to install, and no announcements have been made on how many filters water systems in Security, Widefield and Fountain will receive.

In the meantime, each water district has been working to reduce their reliance on the aquifer, often by pumping in PFC-free water from the Pueblo reservoir. That strategy has allowed Fountain to wean itself completely from the aquifer.

Security and Widefield, however, cannot meet demand without using contaminated well water – meaning some residents, particularly those along the western portion of each community, still receive PFC-laden tap water.

One stopgap measure for Widefield involves a water distribution site for people living along the community’s western edge.

@USGS: Groundwater Discharge to Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin Varies in Response to #Drought #COriver

Spring sampling location along Little Sandy River in southern Wyoming. Photo credit: Chris Shope, USGSPublic domain
Spring sampling location along Little Sandy River in southern Wyoming. Photo credit: Chris Shope, USGSPublic domain

Here’s the release from the USGS:

USGS scientist collects noble gas sample from spring site near Roaring Judy, Colorado. Photo credit: Bert Stolp, USGS. Public domain
USGS scientist collects noble gas sample from spring site near Roaring Judy, Colorado. Photo credit: Bert Stolp, USGS. Public domain

Assessing age of groundwater to determine resource availability

Groundwater discharge that flows into the Upper Colorado River Basin varies in response to drought, which is likely due to aquifer systems that contain relatively young groundwater, according to a new U.S. Geological Survey study published in Hydrogeology Journal.

The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to more than 40 million people in seven states, irrigate more than 5.5 million acres of land, and support hydropower facilities. More than half of the total streamflow in the UCRB originates from groundwater. Reductions in groundwater recharge associated with climate variability or increased water demand will likely reduce groundwater discharge to streams.

This is the first study that examines the short-term response of groundwater systems to climate stresses at a regional scale by assessing groundwater age. USGS scientists determined the age of groundwater by sampling the water flowing from nineteen springs in the UCRB. Age-tracing techniques can assess how long it takes groundwater to travel from the time it enters the aquifer system as precipitation to when the groundwater exits to springs and streams. Scientists compared eight of the springs with historical discharge and precipitation records with the groundwater age to better understand how aquifers have responded to drought. These findings helped scientists understand the variability and timing of groundwater discharge associated with drought.

“About half of the springs analyzed in the Upper Colorado River Basin contained young groundwater, which was surprising,” said USGS scientist and lead author of the study John Solder. “These findings suggest that shallow aquifers, which are more responsive to drought than deeper systems, may be significant contributors to streamflow in the region.”

Results show that if springs contain mostly older water, groundwater discharge is less variable over time and takes longer to respond to drought conditions. Springs that contain predominately young water, around 80 years old or less, are more likely to vary seasonally and respond rapidly to drought conditions. These results indicate that young groundwater resources are responsive to short-term climate variability.

“Sampling 19 springs in a very large basin is just the start, and further studies are needed to better understand the groundwater resources of this specific region,” said Solder. “Determining groundwater age has promise in predicting how these systems will respond in the future and allows us to assess resource vulnerability where no historical records are available.”

This study was funded by the USGS National Water Census, a research program focusing on national water availability and use at the regional and national scales. Research is designed to build decision support capacity for water management agencies and other natural resource managers.

Water quality and sampling equipment deployed at spring site near Roaring Judy, Colorado. Public domain
Water quality and sampling equipment deployed at spring site near Roaring Judy, Colorado. Public domain

Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District board meeting recap

View of runoff, also called nonpoint source pollution, from a farm field in Iowa during a rain storm. Topsoil as well as farm fertilizers and other potential pollutants run off unprotected farm fields when heavy rains occur. (Credit: Lynn Betts/U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service/Wikimedia Commons)
View of runoff, also called nonpoint source pollution, from a farm field in Iowa during a rain storm. Topsoil as well as farm fertilizers and other potential pollutants run off unprotected farm fields when heavy rains occur. (Credit: Lynn Betts/U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service/Wikimedia Commons)

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A district formed in 2002 to keep water in the Arkansas Valley is turning its attention toward the quality of that water.

“We cannot stick our heads in the sand,” General Manager Jay Winner told the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District board Wednesday. “There’s going to be a paradigm shift to water quality.”

Winner’s comment followed an assessment of how state regulations on nutrients in water will shift in the near future by Peter Nichols, the district’s attorney and a former chairman of the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission.

Nichols explained that four large dischargers in the Arkansas River basin — Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Fountain and Security — are headed toward state standards that will require them to further treat discharged wastewater to meet numeric standards for nutrients by 2022.

In addition, there will be more limits on nonpoint source pollutants, those which do not have a defined source. While the state enforces water quality, the directives are issued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“What they’ll look at is whether the levels are protective to uses downstream,” Nichols said.

That would affect the largest user of water in the basin: large-scale, commercial irrigated agriculture.

“This is a very large problem,” Nichols said. “The state has taken an incremental approach to fund projects to get (the numbers) under control.”

The Lower Ark has taken an active role in flood control on Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River in the past, Winner said. It will now be more concerned about projects that improve water quality as well.

There also is concern that regulations for irrigators on water quality could tighten, and the Lower Ark’s Super Ditch program, which fallows some land so water can be leased, would benefit water quality, according to ongoing studies by Colorado State University- Fort Collins.

The Lower Ark also is developing a pilot project on 2,000 acres to see how improvements like sprinklers or drip systems could improve water quality. This would complement past studies that show water quality gains by changing irrigation patterns.

#RioGrande: Texas gets boost in New Mexico water fight — Midland Reporter-Herald

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins
Rio Grande and Pecos River basins

From The Texas Tribune (Jim Malewitz) via The Midland Reporter-Herald:

More than three years after Texas filed a complaint in the U.S. Supreme Court alleging that New Mexican farmers were slurping up too much water along the river — illegally curbing the flow downstream into Texas — the justices appear likely to take up the challenge.

That’s after Gregory Grimsal, a court-appointed special master, issued a draft report recommending that the court deny New Mexico’s motion to dismiss the complaint, a major development in the high-stakes dispute.

“This is a big victory for the state of Texas,” said Russell Johnson, a water rights lawyer who is not involved in the case. “The special master has in essence swept aside the impediments to Texas pursuing a claim.”

If Texas ultimately prevails, it could receive more than just extra water. New Mexico could be forced to fork over hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, experts say.

Like most interstate water skirmishes, this one is complicated and has deep historical roots. Grimsal’s report, currently in draft form, spans 273 pages.

Here are five things you should know about the battle.

  • — The Rio Grande holds some of the most studied and squabbled-over waters in North America. And it’s drying up.
  • The river is lifeblood for folks in three U.S. states and Mexico. It’s an international border. It’s ravaged by drought. The river begins about 12,000 feet above sea level in Colorado and flows southeast after cutting through New Mexico. It forms the Texas-Mexico border between Chihuahua State and El Paso, where it flows through a concrete channel.
  • Elephant Butte Reservoir back in the day nearly full
    Elephant Butte Reservoir back in the day nearly full
  • Before reaching Texas, the Rio Grande collects at New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Reservoir, which is currently just 13 percent full.
  • Of the American West’s four iconic river basins, the Rio Grande is “facing the largest climate-change water-supply deficits,” according to a December 2015 report in the journal Ecological Applications.
  • — The three-state Rio Grande Compact prevents states from claiming more than their fair share of the water. Except when it doesn’t.
  • In the 1910 Rio Grande Project, the federal government established an irrigation system aimed at helping agriculture and industry in the states the river flows through. But that project, which also upheld a 1906 treaty that promises Mexico 60,000 acre-feet of water annually, didn’t specifically address state-by-state allocation. Historically, Texas has received 43 percent of the water, with New Mexico getting 57 percent.

    Congress approved the Rio Grande Compact in 1938, which determined how much water folks in Texas — the most downstream state — should get before those upstream sucked it up. Or so Texas argues.

    Now, the states are fighting over whether the compact actually requires New Mexico to cede a certain amount of water to Texas.

    — Both states’ arguments have quirks.

    Texas claims New Mexico is siphoning off more water than the compact allows by drawing too much from the river itself and pumping too much groundwater from wells nearby.

    The groundwater argument “is probably what makes New Mexico go batshit crazy,” said Johnson, the water rights attorney.

    That’s because Texas law does not recognize the nexus between groundwater and surface water — that over-pumping can lower river levels. Since New Mexico’s law does make the connection, however, Texas argues that it has the responsibility to ensure its wells are not curbing the river’s flow.

    New Mexico points out that the compact does not explicitly state that it must deliver 43 percent of water to the state line. Rather, the agreement aims only to ensure enough water flows into the Elephant Butte Reservoir and is properly stored, the state claims. Previous agreements, in fact, had split the water between the two states.

    That line of defense may be “ignoring reality,” Johnson said. “That seems to fly in the face of what the compact was intended to do — apportion the water between the states.”

    — This time, the feds are siding with Texas

    Despite Texas’ often-testy relationship with the federal government, the Obama administration actually supports the state’s position here.

    In 2014, the U.S. solicitor general filed a motion to intervene on the Lone Star State’s side, arguing that the 43 percent figure of water New Mexico must send into Texas was “frozen” by the time the compact took effect.
    The federal government also believes it has a stake in the outcome because of its international duties to provide Rio Grande water to Mexico, as detailed in the 1906 treaty.

    But the federal government might not get the chance to make those arguments before the justices. That’s because Grimsal, the special master, recommended that the court dismiss the federal motion “to the extent that it fails to state a claim” under the compact.

    New Mexico officials have focused on that partial victory in their public statements.

    “We applaud the Special Master’s suggestion to limit the claims of the United States, and we will continue to work diligently in protecting the interests of all New Mexicans and our water,” Attorney General Hector Balderas, a Democrat, said in a statement this week.

    — Resolving this case could still take years and plenty of taxpayer money.

    It’s not clear when the Supreme Court will decide whether to accept the case. And if the challenge moves forward, that will take some time.

    Though Grimsal’s report was filled with plenty of facts for the justices to evaluate, his job could be just beginning. If the case continues, he would oversee a full-fledged trial — complete with extensive discovery — before the justices ever heard oral arguments.

    Together, the states and federal government have already been charged nearly $400,000 for Grimsal’s services, according to court documents. That tab will likely grow.

    Meanwhile, the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has spent nearly $116,000 litigating the case, its records show.

    Paxton declined to comment on the case.

    A spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said that agency agrees with Grimsal’s recommendation. “We believe we have a strong case and the draft opinion validates the need to litigate Texas’ concerns,” Terry Clawson said in an email.

    Each party has until Aug. 1 to comment on the report. Grimsal can still make changes before submitting his final recommendations.