Proposal creates ‘monumental’ friction — the Valley Courier

Rio Grande del Norte National Monument via the Bureau of Land Management
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument via the Bureau of Land Management

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Proponents of an expanded national monument met with water leaders and some resistance on Tuesday in Alamosa.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Board Member Dwight Martin , who lives in the southern part of the San Luis Valley where the proposed expansion would occur, was clear in his opposition to expanding the existing Rio Grande del Norte National Monument northward from New Mexico into the San Luis Valley.

“I am adamantly opposed to this monument designation ,” Martin said. “We really don’t need this monument in Conejos County. I really don’t see what it serves.”

He added that the Conejos County commissioners are also opposed to the monument expansion. Martin said about 90 percent of Conejos County residents at a meeting he attended on the monument were opposed to the expansion, and he questioned why the expansion was needed.

Anna Vargas, project coordinator for Conejos Clean Water, the organization promoting the monument expansion, responded that the meeting Martin attended was a meeting hosted by opponents .

“There has been interest in supporting the national monument, and there has been opposition that has been raised,” Vargas said. “We have tried to address all the concerns.”

Vargas told water board members on Tuesday that Conejos Clean Water had accepted language recommended by the water district to safeguard water rights within the monument, if it is expanded into the Valley. The language also recognizes the existing Rio Grande Natural Area, which lies in the proposed monument expansion.

“We are not trying to trump any of the work that’s been done on the natural area,” Vargas said.

Vargas recently completed the intensive water leadership course sponsored by several water groups including the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. She said the course gave her a better understanding of water issues and rights, such as the Rio Grande Compact. She said she had not viewed the monument expansion as affecting water rights but as more of a land protection issue . She said she now understood the potential problem implied water rights could generate.

“We don’t want national monument designation to have any implied water rights,” she said. The goal of the monument expansion, she said, is to preserve the land for traditional uses.

The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, encompassing 242,500 acres, was designated by presidential proclamation in 2013. The expansion proposal would bring the monument north of the New Mexico state line into the southern part of the Valley and would encompass about 64,000 additional acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, Vargas explained.

She said the goal would be to preserve traditional uses such as piñon and wood gathering, hunting, fishing and other recreational uses. The monument would also prevent the land from being sold or leased for mining extraction. The turquoise mine would be “grandfathered in,” she said.

Vargas said proponents of the monument expansion want to be proactive in protecting the land from oil and gas activity.

“To us, that is a threat,” she said.

In 2007 that threat was real, she said, with four oil/gas sales involving 14,500 acres in the San Luis Hills and Flat Tops. The reason drilling did not occur, she added, was “basically because of a loophole” created because private landholders had not been notified of the sales.

“What we don’t want is a repeat of that,” she said. There might not be a loophole to prevent it in the future, she added.

Martin said, “This is really about oil and gas and not about protecting the land. All the monument will do is make it more restrictive for landowners.”

Vargas said that is why Conejos Clean Water is trying to get more community input and address these issues. She said there are rumors that the group is trying to prevent such uses as cattle grazing, but that is not the case. Such traditional uses are what the monument would protect, she said.

The land would continue to be BLM property, public lands, she said.

“We want it to stay publicly accessible.”

“Thank you for recognizing the concerns the district expressed,” RGWCD Attorney David Robbins told Vargas.

The district also sent a letter to the Department of the Interior and Colorado’s congressional delegation expressing the district’s concerns about the monument expansion without terms and conditions that would ensure water resources and the Rio Grande Natural Area are not adversely affected. The Rio Grande Natural Area, created through a federal, state and local partnership, integrates the management of federal and private properties along the Rio Grande between Alamosa and the state line to protect the riparian corridor for several purposes including Rio Grande Compact deliveries.

The district’s letter to congressmen regarding the monument expansion stated: “Every federal withdrawal or designation carries with it an implication that sufficient water will be made available to support the purposes of the designation unless specifically disavowed. The flows of the Rio Grande and the Conejos rivers in this area of the San Luis Valley are intimately tied to the economic and social health of the entire region, and reflect 150 years of water use practices that support the entirety of the San Luis Valley’s population as well as a water management structure designated to allow Colorado to freely utilize its share of the Rio Grande and its tributaries pursuant to the Rio Grande Compact. Any new federal land use designation that could impact or interfere with the water use practices in the San Luis Valley or Colorado’s ability to utilize the water resources to which it is entitled must be strenuously resisted by our elected federal representatives , as well as all of our state officials . This matter is of enormous importance.”

Representatives of the district also personally met with congressmen and Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor.

The district presented language protecting the Rio Grande Natural Area that it requested be included in the monument designation, were that to occur, and Conejos Clean Water has agreed to that language.

Robbins said the Valley’s congressmen and Department of Interior also assured the district they would not move forward with a monument expansion unless the district’s concerns were properly addressed.

Vandiver ends water district service — The Valley Courier

Steve Vandiver enjoys a river float.
Steve Vandiver enjoys a river float.

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Steve Vandiver’s final meeting as Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) general manager on Tuesday was peppered with emotion as attendees wished Vandiver well in retirement and expressed their gratitude for his decade of service at the helm.

“What a pleasure it’s been to work with Steve Vandiver as the district manager,” said long-time RGWCD Attorney David Robbins. “He’s been a true leader.”

He added, “He’s advanced the interests of everyone in the Valley significantly.”

Robbins said the new building the district recently completed is a testament to Vandiver’s ability to see the future clearly and move forward . The April 19th meeting was the district board’s first opportunity to meet in the new facility, which was ironically Vandiver’s last meeting as general manager.

Cleave Simpson is the new general manager, and he thanked Vandiver for his guidance during the transition process.

“Thank you for your leadership ,” Simpson told Vandiver. “You set the bar pretty high.”

RGWCD Program Manager Bob Phillips added, “A large part of the success of Subdistrict 1 is on account of Steve Vandiver.” He said he appreciated working with Vandiver, adding “you are a wonderful asset for this community .”

RGWCD Board President Greg Higel told Vandiver, “Thank you for everything you have done. It’s been a pleasure.”

Vandiver is only the third manager since the district was formed in 1967, following Franklin Eddy and Ralph Curtis. Simpson will be the fourth in that nearly 50-year history.

Vandiver acknowledged the staff members who have worked with him and proven their dedication to the district and its mission for the Valley.

“I have been privileged to work with the highest quality staff,” he said, adding that he knew he was leaving the district in capable hands. He also acknowledged Robbins’ law firm and Davis Engineering for their “incredible help to me and the district.”

He thanked Ralph Curtis for leaving the district in such excellent fiscal shape that it was able to build the new structure it is in now, and he thanked his predecessor at the Division of Water Resources, Mac McFadden for his service and his friendship.

Vandiver said it had been a privilege to serve as the general manager for this board. He previously served as the long-time division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources and moved almost immediately to his new position at the RGWCD.

Vandiver said since its formation in 1967, the water district has taken on projects that no other entity in the Valley could have accomplished alone, from the Closed Basin Project to the Rio Grande Natural Area and the fight against AWDI.

“It’s been a progressive, thoughtful board from 1967 to now,” he said. “It’s been an amazing group of individuals .”

He commended the district and its board for bringing so many diverse groups together.

“I think that’s probably one of the most important things this group does is provide a forum for a lot of people to come together and work together for the betterment of this Valley,” Vandiver said.

He said there have been a handful of people who have thrown rocks, and he was not sure why, but so much more can be accomplished when people work together to address problems.

Vandiver acknowledged the dedication of the late Ray Wright and Doug Shriver “who didn’t sit around and wait to see where the chips were going to fall; they got up and they did something for the betterment of the Valley.”

Attendees making reports to the water district board on Tuesday thanked Vandiver for his service and commitment to the water community.

“It’s been a tremendous pleasure working with you,” said Allen Davey, engineer for the district.

Travis Smith, who has served on state water boards with Vandiver, said he has worked with Vandiver since 1978 and shared many great memories with him, like the spilling of Elephant Butte Reservoir in 1985.

“Steve, thank you for your friendship.”

He added, “Steve has served the Valley and the state of Colorado at a high level.”

Nelson Tunnel/Commodore Rock Pile Superfund Site update — EPA lawsuit

Commodore waste rock superfund site Creede
Commodore waste rock superfund site Creede

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Federal and state officials have agreed in principle to a $6 million settlement with a mining company to recover cleanup costs at the Superfund site just north of town.

A proposed consent decree with Denverbased CoCa Mines was filed in U.S. District Court in Denver Thursday.

The proposal would still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and the approval of the court.
Through last June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had spent $10 million on the Nelson Tunnel/Commodore Waste Rock Pile Superfund site.

More than half of that money went toward the stabilization of the waste rock pile and the reinforcement of the West Willow Creek channel that runs along side it during an emergency response in 2008 and 2009.

In a complaint filed the same day as the proposed consent decree, EPA alleged that a company operating under a joint venture partnership with CoCa had sent 500 tons of mine waste onto the waste rock pile and contributed to its destabilization.

The complaint also alleged that CoCa inherited liability for the site when it bought out its former partner in 1989 and thereafter failed to conduct cleanup.

CoCa Mines owned and operated in an area that’s now part of the Superfund site from 1973 to 1993.
Cleanup work at the Superfund site has come to a halt while EPA conducts a feasibility study on potential remedies for the Nelson Tunnel, which is responsible for the majority of the contaminants in West Willow Creek.

One potential option would involve the dewatering of the collapsed tunnel, although it would be dependent upon the initiation of mining by Rio Grande Silver at the nearby Bulldog Mine. The tunnel, completed in 1902, was used to drain and ventilate mines along the Amethyst vein, while also providing a route to haul ore out of the mines.

EPA initiates lawsuit over Nelson Tunnel/Commodore Mine Waste Rock Pile Superfund Site

From The Denver Post (Kirk Mitchell):

The Environmental Protection Agency has sued a mining company operating in Mineral County in federal court to recoup hazardous waste cleanup costs.

The U.S. sued Coca Mines Inc. for cleanup of hazardous substances in the Nelson Tunnel and the Commodore Waste Rock Pile Superfund Site.

The superfund site is in the San Juan Mountains less than 2 miles from the town of Creede. Shafts were dug in a series of hard-rock silver mines operated between 1889 and the 1980s tapping the “Amethyst Vein.” Horizontal tunnels also were bored, including the Nelson Tunnel.

The Nelson Tunnel is partially collapsed but continues to drain acid runoff.

The Commodore Waste Rock Pile, just outside the entrance of the Nelson Tunnel, included a water conveyance system that failed around 1995, releasing mine waste containing heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, lead, manganese and zinc into West Willow Creek.

The creek flows into the Rio Grande River 4 miles below the site.

In 2008 and 2009, the EPA conducted waste removal studies at the waste pile site.

The EPA is now in the process of completing a feasibility study of remedial actions for the site.

Through June 30, 2015, the EPA incurred nearly $10 million in costs. Some of those costs were covered by the Asarco Environmental Trust.

The lawsuit says the discharge each day from the Nelson Tunnel into Willow Creek carries 375 pounds of zinc, 1.37 pounds of cadmium and 6.39 pounds of lead. Zinc levels have hit 25,000 parts per billion, hurting fish reproduction for more than 4 miles down to a confluence with the main stem of the Rio Grande, where dilution eases the impact.

Rio Grande Roundtable meeting recap

1869 Map of San Luis Parc of Colorado and Northern New Mexico. "Sawatch Lake" at the east of the San Luis Valley is in the closed basin. The Blanca Wetlands are at the south end of the lake, via Wikipedia.
1869 Map of San Luis Parc of Colorado and Northern New Mexico. “Sawatch Lake” at the east of the San Luis Valley is in the closed basin. The Blanca Wetlands are at the south end of the lake, via Wikipedia.

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Finding out where the San Luis Valley’s wetlands and irrigated acreage used to be could help determine where they should be in the future.

Chronicling that history to chart a future course is one of the focuses of a proposed watershed assessment project that Wetland Dynamics is seeking funding for. How those wetlands relate to wildlife habitat is another big component.

Cary Aloia and Jenny Nehring of Wetland Dynamics made an initial presentation and request for $37,000 to the Rio Grande Roundtable this week. The formal presentation and decision will be made next month. The project total is $164,000.

Although no one objected to the project, it sparked discussion about whether or not the roundtable should fund a project through an individual business, rather than a nonprofit organization, as previous funding requests have been made.

Aloia and Nehring said they were simply cutting out the middleman, and the costs for the project would probably increase $4,000-10 ,000 if it had to go through a nonprofit, which would take its portion and then contract with Wetland Dynamics to perform the work.

Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) Program Manager Craig Godbout said individuals and businesses are not eligible for statewide account funds, but individual roundtables have discretion with regard to basin-allocated funds.

“There are no restrictions that I am aware of on what type of entity can be awarded basin accounts,” Godbout said.

Wetland Dynamics is seeking funds allocated to the Rio Grande Basin.

Funding for water projects around the state through CWCB and the basin roundtables is derived from severance tax revenues.

Nehring said this project will provide a Valleywide perspective about how drought and other changes have affected the wetlands that provide habitat to a variety of wildlife. She said several agencies and groups are monitoring their portion of the picture, but this would encompass the entire Valley and bring those agencies and groups together.

Aloia added that this project meets many of the environmental , recreational, agricultural and water administration goals of the roundtable.

She explained that this project will be completed by two entities: Intermountain West Joint Venture, which already has funding in place to provide historic and current wetland and agricultural uses in the Valley through its GIS model (and has completed similar projects in other parts of the western U.S.); and Wetland Dynamics, which will coordinate the project and bring everyone together to identify priority species, future water delivery projects and the best way to use water and land to benefit habitat.

“We are working cooperatively and collaboratively,” Aloia said.

Nehring said historical information is available as far back as the 1870’s through General Land Office surveys, which can be coupled with imagery captured from 1984 to the present. She said this information will show how wet areas in the Valley have ebbed and flowed through the years.

This information will help determine where habitats still exist and areas that can be targeted for conservation.

Nehring said Intermountain West Joint Venture will begin its work next month and will complete its part of the project in 18-24 months. Wetland Dynamics plans to complete its portion next year and will spread the $37,000 over a two-year period.

Aloia said there is a great deal of information, but it is in different places and with different agencies.

“We need to compile all of that,” she said.

Then priority species lists will be compiled and habitat areas identified for those species. All of the groups will then be able to cooperatively manage their water better to serve those habits, Aloia explained.

Brian Sullivan, wetlands program coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said the department sees many benefits for this project and is firmly behind it. For example, it will provide information on the quantity and quality of wetlands for wildlife habitat and will help justify financial investments in the basin, he said.

Sullivan said Colorado Parks and Wildlife has pledged $46,000 towards this project, and he urged the roundtable to also support it. He said this project would be a great tool, “and you can’t have too many tools in the tool box.”

Kevin Terry, Rio Grande project coordinator for Trout Unlimited, added his endorsement of the project. One of the benefits , he said, would be consolidation of data in one place where it would be accessible to the different agencies.

Aloia said another outgrowth of the project will be identification of knowledge gaps, which can be the basis for future projects.

“It will highlight things we still don’t know,” she said. “It’s really a stepping stone for future projects.”

It will identify, for example , places where there could be restoration projects in the future to help bring back water resources that were present historically but are no longer present, she explained.

The information gathering and assessment will encompass the Valley floor up to 8,500 feet. Roundtable member Ed Nielsen said this sounds like a good project, but he believed it needed to encompass the mountains and headwaters too. He said it seems fragmented at this point.

Nehring said this a joint venture, and Intermountain West Joint Venture is setting the scope of this project. Aloia added that agricultural use, which is a key component of this project, is centered on the Valley floor.

Sullivan explained that the focus is on the irrigated landscape, which is where the biggest changes in wetlands have occurred.

Former Rio Grande Roundtable Board Chairman Mike Gibson said he personally had a problem with the roundtable funding an individual entity, because requests in the past have come through nonprofit organizations or state agencies. He said it had nothing to do with Wetland Dynamics, but he was concerned about the roundtable losing control over how money is administered and spent if the roundtable starts funding individual entities. He said he believed the roundtable had more oversight over projects going through nonprofit groups.

“I have a real concern,” he said.

Roundtable member Travis Smith said this is a worthy project, but it sounded like the roundtable needed to clarify some protocol issues.

“This application is about shared partnerships and getting agencies to talk to each other about water resources,” Smith said.

Roundtable member Dale Pizel said this seemed like a good project and he would hate for it not to be conducted simply because the roundtable had never funded projects through individual businesses before.

“If we need to have that discussion, let’s have it,” he said.

Roundtable member Judy Lopez agreed the discussion needed to be held. She also agreed this was a good project but was taking the roundtable into uncharted territory.

She asked if Billy Bob’s Excavating came in with a request for river restoration funding, would the roundtable fund it?

Pizel said if it fit with the roundtable’s goals, he did not have a problem funding “Billy Bob.” He said every project needs to have oversight to make sure it is performed correctly and fiscally responsibly.

Lopez said she did not think anyone had a doubt about how fiscally responsible Wetland Dynamics would be, but the roundtable needed to determine if it wanted to open this door and decide who could go through it. She said Aloia and Nehring are people of integrity, and this project meets many of the roundtable’s goals.

Godbout said his office requires reports and specific information, and he reviews that information carefully. He said he makes sure that the invoices match the work completed.

Roundtable member Rio de la Vista said, “So there is some oversight I think we can feel good about.”

Roundtable member Ron Brink said he was apprehensive about opening the gates to this type of funding.

Roundtable Chairman Nathan Coombs said, “The door can be opened. Just because it has not been opened doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. We should look at the project on its merits, if it accomplishes our goals.”

Continental Dam update: $4.6 million renovation of the spillway and dam complete

Continental Reservoir behind Continental Dam, Hinsdale County. Photo via Tom C.
Continental Reservoir behind Continental Dam, Hinsdale County. Photo via Tom C.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Irrigators in the San Luis Valley may get a boost thanks to the completion of a $4.6 million overhaul of a high country reservoir near Creede.

The Santa Maria Reservoir Co. completed the renovations on Continental Reservoir and its spillway last fall, making the reservoir eligible to have storage restrictions lifted later this summer should it pass muster from state inspectors.

The Continental was completed in 1928 and has a capacity of 27,000 acre-feet.

But seepage through the reservoir’s dam spurred the imposition of state restrictions in the late 1980s that have limited storage to about 15,000 acre-feet, reservoir company manager Jay Yeager said.

An acre-foot is roughly 326,000 gallons of water.

The added water would be a boost to the company’s 250 shareholders who irrigate on 70,000 acres on the valley floor.

“It helps the stockholders have more options to store more water for other entities and they can store more for their needs,” Yeager said.

While the Continental is not a large reservoir — less than a tenth of the size of Pueblo Reservoir — the added storage is significant given the small amount of storage on the Rio Grande’s headwaters.

The Continental is only one of four reservoirs whose combined storage amounts to just under 130,000 acre-feet.

The repairs to the reservoir included the layering of sand and gravel on the dam’s exterior designed to filter out sediment from the seeping.

While it won’t stop the seep completely it eliminates the sediment’s potential to make that seepage worse.

The project also included the repair of the siphon and canal system that connects the Continental to the Santa Maria Reservoir, which was also under state restrictions.

But full capacity might not be reached this season.

“It could take several years before it could really be full unless Mother Nature kicks in,” Yeager said.

#Colorado’s share of the Rio Grande outsized and ill-timed according to #NM water users

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

From Taos News (J.R. Logan):

Shortly after midnight last Friday (April 1), irrigators in Colorado’s San Luis Valley opened the gate on a diversion dam and pushed 80,000 gallons-a-minute of the Río Grande into a canal system that includes 210 miles of ditch and serves hundreds of farmers.

April 1 marks the beginning of irrigation season for the valley’s farmers. The Río Grande is at the heart of the valley’s massive agricultural industry, and farmers waste no time in taking their share…

Agriculture is big business north of the border. An incredibly complex infrastructure of dams and canals spreads water from the river across the valley, most of it to fill shallow aquifers that feed hundreds of center pivot sprinklers. But the water demands of the industry on that side of the state line in spring often leave little water in the river by the time it hits New Mexico. At times in recent years, the river at the border was more than 90 percent smaller than when it entered the valley.

Environmentalists complain that dramatically altering the natural pulse of spring runoff has devastating ecological effects that extend far downstream. And rafting outfitters in Taos County have said Colorado irrigators sucking most of the river dry hurts their business by making popular sections of the river — namely the Taos Box through the Río Grande del Norte National Monument — impassible. “They’re starting earlier, and it’s more intense,” says Cisco Guevara, outfitter and owner of Los River Runners. Guevara and other outfits started running the Taos Box in March, when early runoff swelled the river enough to get a boat through. But between April 1 and April 5, flows at the state line dropped by more than half…

Exactly how low the flow will go depends on the snowpack in the Río Grande’s headwaters in Colorado. Under the Río Grande Compact — a water sharing agreement struck by Colorado, New Mexico and Texas nearly 80 years ago — Colorado must “deliver” a certain percentage of the river to the state line every year. That percentage varies, depending on the total amount of water that goes downriver each year.

The catch – for New Mexico – is that the delivery is calculated on an annual basis, meaning Colorado can let every drop of the river go to New Mexico during the fall and winter while taking most of the river during the spring and summer and still fulfill its debt to New Mexico.

Unfortunately for river rats like Guevara, peak rafting season happens to coincide with irrigation season.

Still, the demands of thirsty irrigators in Colorado don’t necessarily mean the river will shrink to a trickle at the state line. Peak runoff is still weeks off, and when ample snowpack melts in earnest and the Río Grande really gets rolling, farmers can only take so much water, meaning there’s plenty left for those downstream…

As of Wednesday (April 6), snowpack in the Río Grande headwaters was at 86 percent of the 30-year average, suggesting flows this year will be slightly below average. But that could change if the mountains see additional spring snow storms that bolster snowpack, as was the case last year.

Raft guides aren’t the only ones griping about the way water in the Río Grande is shared.

In 2014, Santa Fe-based environmental group WildEarth Guardians served notice of its intent to sue the state of Colorado, arguing extreme diversions for agricultural use imperiled the habitat of the endangered silvery minnow in the Middle Río Grande Valley.

No such lawsuit has been filed. Instead, the group is suing the state of New Mexico, hoping to compel the state engineer to limit the amount of water that can be diverted by the Middle Río Grande Conservancy District, which serves farmers in the center of the state.

Westwide SNOTEL map April 10, 2015 via the NRCS.
Westwide SNOTEL map April 10, 2015 via the NRCS.