Denver: Big bump in storm and sanitary sewer rates in the works

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From The Denver Post (Jon Murray):

Denver homeowners on average would pay $116 more in storm drainage and sewer fees over the next five years under a rate increase proposal that city officials will unveil this week.

The proposed rates, which would accelerate already scheduled automatic increases based on inflation, would bolster city plans for upgrades and projects through 2021 for the storm and sanitary sewer systems. Those aim to improve storm drainage, reduce flood risk and improve the quality of water discharged into the South Platte River. For the sanitary system that connects to homes and buildings, plans call for more maintenance and expansion of aging sewer pipes in several areas.

Storm drain and open channel improvements between the East Rail Line (38th & Blake Station) and the South Platte River (Globeville Landing Outfall), Stormwater detention/conveyance between the East Rail Line (38th & Blake Station) and Colorado Blvd, (Montclair Basin) Stormwater detention/ conveyance immediately east of Colorado Blvd. (Park Hill Basin).
Storm drain and open channel improvements between the East Rail Line (38th & Blake Station) and the South Platte River (Globeville Landing Outfall), Stormwater detention/conveyance between the East Rail Line (38th & Blake Station) and Colorado Blvd, (Montclair Basin)
Stormwater detention/ conveyance immediately east of Colorado Blvd. (Park Hill Basin).

A big controversial project also is in the mix. About a quarter of the rate increases would help cover costs for northeast Denver’s “Platte to Park Hill” stormwater drainage projects, which have drawn opposition in part because of links to the planned Interstate 70 expansion and plans to regrade City Park Golf Course for stormwater detention.

Overall, storm drainage rates, which are billed annually by the city, would increase nearly 66 percent through 2020 — or 45 percent after annual inflation adjustments are taken into account.

The sanitary sewer rates that Denver Water customers pay monthly would increase 24 percent in that period. On top of the inflation adjustments, the new increase would amount to 8.6 percent.

Though Denver Public Works’ increase proposal was expected, the details were revealed this week for the first time in advance of a planned Wednesday presentation to the City Council’s Infrastructure and Culture Committee.

The proposal could advance to a final vote by the full council as early as May 23.

With the city facing an estimated $1.5 billion backlog in upgrades to stormwater pipes and an aging sewer system, Denver city officials portray the increases as necessary to step up progress.

“Just like so many other things in our city, we have huge infrastructure needs that are incredibly expensive,” said Councilman Jolon Clark, who chairs the infrastructure committee. “And we don’t have a way to pay for them,” requiring balanced plans.

If the rate increases win council approval, the money available each year for storm drainage system improvement and water quality projects would grow from $20 million to $30 million. For sanitary sewers, the city says the rate increase would boost annual spending for maintenance and new projects from $2.5 million to $8 million.

Public Works spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn said the sanitary increase also would help the city “keep pace with increasing water treatment costs, update aging infrastructure and prepare the system for the city’s future expected population growth.”

Among the proposal’s major upshots:

• Sanitary sewer fee proceeds would grow from $86 million a year to $104 million in 2020.

• The total annual storm drainage fees generated would grow from $41 million before the increase to nearly $69 million by 2020.

• The fee increases would enable borrowing of up to $206 million for the Platte to Park Hill projects, completing a funding puzzle estimated at $267 million to $298 million in scope.

But the proposal would hit homeowners and businesses in the wallet as the city ratchets up both the storm drainage and sanitary sewer rates each year through 2020, starting in July. Subsequent increases would hit each January, starting in 2017.

The annual increase for an average single-family home, which paid $320.28 last year, would range from $21.56 this year to $25 in 2020, city estimates show.

A study provided by the city says that current average combined bill is about $100 less than the average for a selection of other Front Range systems and large cities around the state. Denver’s estimated combined bill in 2020 would rate slightly above today’s average.

Clark said he probed planned water-quality improvements during a briefing he received on the proposal. In 17 years of working for The Greenway Foundation, he focused heavily on the Platte, which at times has measured E. coli bacteria levels exceeding safety standards. Other contaminants, including trash, also have been a problem.

“I think this plan will have marked improvements on water quality in our streams and rivers,” Clark said. “And it’s a really good start, but this isn’t the end of the conversation on water quality.”

Besides the automatic inflation adjustments, the city most recently increased sanitary sewer rates a cumulative 83 percent from 2011 through 2013. The storm drainage rate was increased 20 percent in 2011.

A presentation prepared for the council committee says the city could aid ratepayers by asking Denver Water to add the storm drainage fee — now billed annually — to water customers’ bills, on a monthly or quarterly basis. The storm fee factors in a lot’s size and the amount of impermeable surface area.

Officials also are exploring “potential affordability program options” to aid low-income households.

#AnimasRiver: Communities, state agencies await #EPA reimbursement from #GoldKingMine spill — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

Since Aug. 5, state and local entities estimate they’ve spent hundreds of thousands on expenses associated with the Gold King Mine spill. While the Environmental Protection Agency has footed the bill for some expenses, communities don’t know if and how much more they’ll be reimbursed.

The EPA, which triggered the spill that polluted regional watersheds with 3 million gallons of heavy-metal mine water, has reimbursed partial sums to state, tribal and local governments, and pledges to provide more. But on Wednesday, an EPA official told La Plata County commissioners and staff that reimbursement in full isn’t feasible.

And others are facing the same uncertainties.

In the spill’s aftermath, government, health and environment officials scrambled to understand the impacts, coordinate efforts, communicate with the public, seek money from the EPA and plan for the future. These efforts continue almost nine months later. Figures provided by the La Plata County finance department reflect expenditures of $472,714, for personnel, travel, water monitoring and other costs. For that, the county has received $197,792 reimbursement through the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and $6,170 through the state of Colorado, which leaves $258,966 unpaid.

In Silverton and San Juan County, the story is much the same.

The town and county were reimbursed $220,000 for costs associated with the spill from August to October, but are seeking an additional $110,000.

“We haven’t been promised anything at all from that amount,” said San Juan County Commissioner Ernie Kuhlman. “And that bothers me.”

Bill Gardner, the town administrator, said the costs to pursue a Superfund listing extended through February. The issue of reimbursement was a roadblock for the community in deciding to pursue the listing.

Ultimately, the town and county agreed to pursue the EPA’s hazardous cleanup program.

“Now the EPA is saying we can’t reimburse you for costs, but the costs are directly related to achieving a Superfund status, which everyone – the EPA, La Plata County and Silverton – agreed they wanted,” Gardner said.

“So it is frustrating.”

Kuhlman said in a public meeting with the EPA this week, representatives said the agency could not commit to paying any further reimbursements.

That, Kuhlman said, may have the adverse effect of Silverton and San Juan County not making any commitments themselves.

“We’re the smallest county in the state, and probably the smallest budget, so it was our expectation we would be paid back for this,” he said. “The EPA saturates you with paperwork, and it costs money to have people to process that paperwork, and I don’t recommend we spend anymore unless we get paid back.”

The city of Durango spent $444,032 in the wake of the Gold King spill, which includes revenue the city lost when irrigation was shut down for nine days. The sum also included helping close the Animas River, keeping the public informed and research and meetings on how to address the spill, among other costs, according to city documents. So far, the EPA has agreed to pay the city $2,471, but the city has not received a check.

The city has asked for about $5.7 million in compensation over the next 15 years, which would include the amount spent on the immediate response and ongoing monitoring of river health, said City Manager Ron LeBlanc.

“We just want the city to be made whole,” he said.

The EPA keeps changing the rules about reimbursement requirements and the Oct. 31 deadline seems arbitrary, he said. “The EPA, quite frankly, has not made anything clear to us,” LeBlanc said.

The EPA has encouraged communities to draft cooperative agreements outlining goals and anticipated costs related to the spill. But last week, an EPA official told La Plata County that the federal agency could not accommodate all requests. County staff considered that a reversal of what the EPA had told them.

“The intent is not that this co-op agreement would cover future activities,” EPA Superfund remedial program director Bill Murray told the county on Wednesday. “For Superfund sites, we don’t often have future costs included.” Murray also pointed out that the EPA will incur its own costs with Superfund remediation at the Bonita Peak Mining District.

Calls to legal staff for the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes were not returned, but the Southern Ute tribe said in September that response costs totaled about $200,000, with more expenses expected. The EPA reported it has reimbursed the Southern Ute tribe $116,372 to date…

Gov. John Hickenlooper said he spoke with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on Thursday and she said the EPA intends to stick with its commitments.

“I think the right way to do this is to sit down with the local county officials and municipal officials and some people from the state and some people from the EPA in an aggressive, but thoughtful, way, and make sure that what compensation should be taken care of, that gets paid and we hold the EPA’s feet to the fire and not budge an inch,” Hickenlooper said. “They made certain commitments that I think we should hold them to.”

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

La Plata County recently received $9,700 from the Environmental Protection Agency for costs related to the Gold King Mine spill, which county officials say is a fraction of what it is owed.

Earlier this year, the county received about $200,000 from the EPA for costs incurred immediately after the Aug. 5 EPA-triggered spill of 3 million gallons of contaminated mine drainage into the Animas and San Juan rivers.

But county staff calculated the federal agency should cover an additional $249,224 in expenses related to the spill, and $9,817 to cover costs related to a tour of Superfund sites officials attended last fall to determine the feasibility of Superfund designation for the Bonita Peak Mining District.

“Last week, we received an award of $9,786 to reimburse for the majority of the costs incurred on the feasibility of the Superfund designation,” County Finance Director Diane Sorensen said. “The $249,224 is still unpaid.”

The county applied to establish a cooperative agreement with the EPA, asking for a total of $2.4 million, which includes the $249,224, over a 10-year period for remediation efforts directed toward water quality and mine cleanup. The federal agency is reviewing that agreement.

County commissioners were dismayed with receiving only $9,786 and the lengthy process.

“This has been an expensive education,” Commissioner Brad Blake said.

County officials plan to meet next week with the EPA’s Superfund remedial program director, Bill Murray, to discuss the proposed cooperative agreement.

The call for reimbursement is regional. Last month, the New Mexico Environment Department called for the EPA to issue $1.5 million for costs related to short-term emergency response efforts. The collective request came from 14 New Mexico state agencies, university organizations and communities.

The city of Durango recently received about $2,471 of a initial $444,000 request. The city applied for its own cooperative agreement for $5.6 million to be paid over a 15-year period for incurred and ongoing remedial expenses.

“The initial ($9,786) award to La Plata County was solely to reimburse them for some verifiable costs toward activities they participated in, referring to the Superfund tour to evaluate eligibility for the National Priorities List,” said Cinna Vallejos, who leads the regional Ecosystems Protection and Remediation Support Program for the EPA. “It’s not uncommon for these agreements to be funded incrementally.”

Vallejos said the EPA will continue to evaluate cooperative agreement applications from the county, city and other entities and determine what is allowable. She said they stand to receive more in the future but could not say if the requested amounts will be awarded in full.

She could not disclose details about the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s application for reimbursement or amounts awarded.

The EPA’s recommendation to designate the Bonita Peak Mining District as a Superfund site was added to the Federal Register on April 7.

Gold King Mine entrance after blowout August 2015
Gold King Mine entrance after blowout August 2015

Arkansas River Basin Water Forum recap: “There is no such thing as an average year” — Nolan Doesken

Upper Colorado River Basin May 2015 precipitation as a percent of normal
Upper Colorado River Basin May 2015 precipitation as a percent of normal

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Many of those who attended the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum showed up wearing short sleeves and enjoyed rafting or fishing adventures on the first day of the event.

Thursday, it was spitting snow.

Nothing better could illustrate the “trend” of climate in Southern Colorado.

State Climatologist Nolan Doesken illustrated this by flashing up a series of graphs that showed historical temperatures, precipitation and snowpack moving up and down seemingly at random. One graph showing multiple years with brightly colored lines looked more like an Op Art poster from the 1960s than weather data.

“It could be a hot summer. Rain? Who knows?” Doesken shrugged. “When in doubt, put out your rain gauge. There is no such thing as an average year.”

Still, scientists and engineers are determined to put numbers to this chaotic system.

Doesken described last year’s Miracle May, which boosted water supply, but got hoots from some water managers because of the flooding problems it caused. On a graph, it produced a fat bulge seldom equaled in many parts of the state.

And the effects of that month of moisture are still felt one year later.

Garrett Marcus, engineer for the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, outlined the current reservoir storage for the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project.

Release of water stored in Lake Pueblo this year seemed likely because of high storage levels coupled with a revision of capacity because of sedimentation. But cooperative efforts in March, coupled with a lack of precipitation, allowed levels to reach the mark deemed necessary for flood control by mid-April.

New snow now is improving the outlook for water supply.

“The last couple storms gave us the jump we needed,” Marcus said.

Bill Tyner, assistant division engineer for the state Division of Water Resources, talked about storage. The basin has 118 reservoirs, which can store up to 1.7 million acre-feet of decreed water rights.

The five largest reservoirs (John Martin, Pueblo, Twin Lakes, Turquoise and Nee Noshe) could hold 1 million acre-feet. Of those, John Martin and Nee Noshe are typically largely empty, but fuller than usual because of the 2015 rains.

The others are small, and in some cases restricted.

“To maintain the storage we think we have, we’ll have to spend a lot of money,” Tyner said.

Tammy Ivanenko, of the U.S. Geological Survey, outlined water use in Colorado and the Arkansas River basin based on the agency’s five-year reports from 1985-2015.

Surprisingly, state municipal water use has plateaued during that time, despite a growth in population to 5 million people from 3.5 million in 1985.

She speculated that conservation efforts, including water smart appliances, have caused the decreasing per capita use.

In the Arkansas River basin, about 68 percent of the water is used for irrigation, an amount lower than is often cited. Power generation uses about 15 percent; public supply, 8 percent; and industrial, 5 percent, according to the USGS data.

FEMA open house draws large crowd in Buena Vista — The Chaffee County Times

From The Chaffee County Times (Mason Miller):

Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Chaffee County and the town of Buena Vista were in attendance April 27 for an open house meeting and presentation on the recently completed preliminary Flood Insurance Study and its accompanying Draft Flood Insurance Rate Maps.

The maps includes base flood information and areas subject to significant flood hazards along Cottonwood Creek within Chaffee County and the town of Buena Vista.

Before the presentation, representatives from FEMA and CWCB met with residents to go over impacts the FIRM and FIS will have on property owners.

During the presentation, Thuy Patton with CWCB said the map updates had been ongoing for 7 years and said the primary focus of the updates was to digitize the maps and provide information on flood risks.

She said the map updates were currently in the post-preliminary processing phase and said the town and county’s 90-day appeal period had begun March 10, noting it would be around another year before the FIRM and FIS became effective, following a 6-month compliance period after the 90-day appeal window. Town administrator Brandy Reitter said the compliance period was required for the Buena Vista board of trustees to pass and adopt an ordinance approving the FIRM.

During the appeal period, Patton said residents will need scientific evidence proving FEMA’s original flood hazard determinations were technically or scientifically incorrect.

“With our new studies and hydrology, we’ve been able to put that on a map so you can know what the (flood) risks are,” Patton said about the map updates and said the FIRM and FIS allows for current and future residents to assess flood risks on their property.

During the question and answer portion of the meeting, residents expressed frustration over the amount of time left in the 90-day appeal period and the fact that town and county administration were not more proactive in informing residents sooner about the potential impacts the studies will have on their properties.

“Our 90 days is halfway over and we’re just getting good information,” one resident said.

While there were several questions submitted throughout the meeting, organizers did not ask residents to state their name or write their name on question cards, so question askers remained anonymous.

“This is probably a lesson for us,” Diana Herrera with FEMA said. “We need to look at the timing of our community meetings and (consider) moving those up.”

While going over information on flood insurance rates through the National Flood Insurance Program residents asked why property owners in the high risk flood areas would be paying the same rates as residents in places like New Orleans and Houston, some of which are below sea level. Herrera said it was a national rate and said the potential for flooding was the same.

“This area is nothing like Houston, yet we’ll be paying the same rate?” one resident asked, noting places like Houston and New Orleans flood more frequently and more significantly than Buena Vista. Herrera said depending on the FIS and FIRM, residents may pay the same rates as those areas.

In regards to if residents would be able to rebuild or build on a floodway or floodplain, Jamie Prochno with CWCB said residents would be able to rebuild on the same footprint as the previous structure if flooding was to happen, but said if residents want to expand or build within a floodplain or floodway, they would need to work with local government to obtain a permit.

“There’s nothing that says you can’t build in a floodplain. However, you have to get a permit from your local government, meet all those standards, meet any local standards that could be higher than our state standards,” Prochno said. “Generally in a floodplain that’s going to be much simpler because you just have to build your structure high enough … if it’s in a floodway, it’s a little more difficult because that’s a hazardous area, you have to show that there’s no rise to the base flood elevation. Keep in mind, these aren’t just lines on a map, that water has to go somewhere.”

Doering said in March that according to the maps, there are 276 residents inside of Buena Vista town limits affected by the floodways or floodplains. He said the majority of those residents are on the east side of the railroad, along Cottonwood Creek.

Buena Vista
Buena Vista

History in the Making: SDS Starts Water Delivery [April 28]

Here’s the release from Colorado Springs Utilities:

One of the largest water infrastructure projects completed in the U.S. this century started delivering water today to homes and businesses in Colorado Springs, Colo. The commencement of the Southern Delivery System (SDS) culminates decades of planning and nearly six years of construction.

See video.

“The Southern Delivery System is a critical water project that will enable the continued quality of life southern Coloradans enjoy. The water provided through SDS means future economic growth for our community,” said Jerry Forte, Chief Executive Officer of Colorado Springs Utilities.

Not only does SDS meet the immediate and future water needs of Colorado Springs and its project partners Fountain, Security and Pueblo West through 2040, it also increases system reliability should other parts of the water system need maintenance or repairs. The project will also help provide drought protection, a significant benefit in the arid west.

Construction started in 2010 and concluded in 2016. Originally forecast to cost just under $1 billion, SDS is started on time and more than $160 million under budget costing $825 million.

“On time and under budget are words rarely used to describe large infrastructure projects,” said John Fredell, SDS Program Director. “We adopted a philosophy that ‘these are ratepayer dollars’ and managed the project with exceptional rigor. It was the responsible approach to spending hundreds of millions of dollars of public money.”

Components of SDS
SDS is a regional project that includes 50 miles of pipeline, three raw water pump stations, a water treatment plant (pictured above), and a finished water pump station. It will be capable, in its first phase, of delivering 50 million gallons of water per day and serving residents and businesses through 2040.

Key permits and approvals for SDS required $50 million in mitigation payments to the Fountain Creek Watershed District, funding for sediment control, habitat improvements and other environmental mitigation measures. Additionally, Colorado Springs and Pueblo County, just this week, both approved an intergovernmental agreement requiring Colorado Springs to invest $460 million over 20 years to improve the management of stormwater that makes its way into Fountain Creek.

Early on in the project, SDS program leaders agreed to spend at least 30 percent of construction dollars on local contractors. More than $585 million, or about 70 percent of the SDS budget, went to Colorado businesses.

“SDS is one of the most important projects many of us will ever work on,” said Forte. “This is a legacy project – one that benefits so many people today, tomorrow and for generations to come. This is an amazing day for our organization and for southern Colorado.”

The new north outlet works at Pueblo Dam -- Photo/MWH Global
The new north outlet works at Pueblo Dam — Photo/MWH Global

From the Associated Press via The Aurora Sentinel:

Water has begun flowing into Colorado Springs through a new 50-mile pipeline from the Arkansas River.

The city says the $825 million Southern Delivery System started operating Thursday.

The system is designed to handle growth in the state’s second-largest city until 2040 and provide a backup for its current aging system.

Pueblo West, Fountain and Security also get water from the pipeline.

The project includes modifications to Pueblo Dam on the Arkansas River, three pumping stations and a treatment plant.

Separately, Colorado Springs had to commit $460 million to reduce sediment in Fountain Creek. The sediment harms downstream communities in Pueblo County, and the county threatened to revoke a required permit for the pipeline if the issue wasn’t addressed.

Southern Delivery System to be turned on today after decades — The Pueblo Chieftain

Southern Delivery System map via Colorado Springs Utilities
Southern Delivery System map via Colorado Springs Utilities

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Colorado Springs Utilities plans to begin using the Southern Delivery System today, more than seven years after getting the green light from Pueblo County and the Bureau of Reclamation to build it. “We plan on 5 million gallons a day initially, but we may go less. It depends on how we use it,” said John Fredell, SDS project director. “On Thursday, the water we pump will be turned into our system.”

SDS will be able to operate after an agreement was reached on Fountain Creek stormwater control on issues not explicitly covered in Pueblo County’s 1041 permit. The new agreement contains funding benchmarks that were not originally in place.

Over the next 40 years, the amount of water pumped through SDS could increase to as much as 75 million gallons a day. Another 18 million gallons a day could be pumped to Pueblo West, which through a special agreement already is using SDS for its water supply.

The treatment plant as built can treat up to 50 million gallons per day, but eventually could be expanded to treat up to 100 million gallons per day.

As part of SDS, the city of Fountain can receive more of its water through the Fountain Valley Conduit, a line built from Pueblo Dam in the early 1980s as part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project.

The other partner in SDS is Security Water and Sanitation, which serves an unincorporated area south of Colorado Springs and has an immediate need for a new water source because of well contamination.

Construction on the $825 million project began in 2011, one year after the Bureau of Reclamation approved the final contract for the use of Lake Pueblo as part of the project. In 2009, Reclamation issued a record of decision that allowed the project to be built.

Also in 2009, Pueblo County commissioners approved a land-use permit under the 1974 HB1041, which lets cities or counties regulate projects that cross their boundaries.

SDS includes a new connection built at Pueblo Dam, three pump stations, a water treatment plant and a treated water pump station. The North Outlet Works, Juniper Pump Station just northeast of Pueblo Dam and about 17 miles of buried 66inch diameter pipeline are the features of SDS in Pueblo County.

The project grew out of water resources plans that began in the late 1980s, when Colorado Springs purchased controlling interest in the Colorado Canal system in Crowley County.

In order to use the water, as well as provide redundancy for its other sources of water, Colorado Springs developed a Water Resource Plan in 1996. That plan identified other alternatives to bring water to Colorado Springs, including a route from a new reservoir at Buena Vista, a Fremont County pipeline and a line from Crowley County.

By the early 2000s, the Buena Vista reservoir was eliminated by environmental protests, and Utilities ruled out Crowley County because of the expense of overcoming water quality issues. By 2008, Fremont County and Pueblo Dam were being seriously considered.

The Pueblo Dam option was chosen in Reclamation’s record of decision as the route.

In the second phase of SDS, which is anticipated to begin between 2020-25, two reservoirs would be built on Williams Creek east of Fountain. The upper reservoir would be terminal storage for the pipeline from Pueblo Dam, while the lower one would regulate return flows from Colorado Springs’ wastewater treatment plant into Fountain Creek.

SDS is designed to serve a population of 900,000, about twice the current number living in Colorado Springs.

The 1996 water resources plan came at a time when Colorado Springs’ population had increased from 70,000 in 1960 to 330,000 in 1996. Utilities already is working on a 50-year plan to meet its future water resource needs.

More Coyote Gulch Southern Delivery System coverage here and here.

#AnimasRiver: “…shift here from skepticism toward energetic stewardship” — The Denver Post #GoldKingMine

Confluence of Cement Creek and the Animas River from the Coyote Gulch archives (11/21/2010)
Confluence of Cement Creek and the Animas River from the Coyote Gulch archives (11/21/2010)

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Animas River headwaters contamination exceeds state standards for cadmium, copper, lead and other toxic acid metals draining from inactive mines, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and Sunnyside Gold Corp. revealed Tuesday.

Until now, federal pronouncements after the EPA-triggered Aug. 5 Gold King blowout touted a return to pre-disaster conditions along the river.

But the move toward an ambitious Superfund cleanup of 48 mine sites in southwestern Colorado has catalyzed cooperation and a far more aggressive, comprehensive and precise approach toward acid mine drainage.

At Tuesday’s Animas River Stakeholders Group forum, locals along with EPA and Sunnyside officials all said they now find those “pre-spill conditions” intolerable. Fish haven’t been able to reproduce in the Animas for a decade, even 50 miles to the south through Durango.

Beyond the Gold King and other Cement Creek mines, “there are elevated levels (of heavy metals) in all three drainages” flowing into the Animas, said Rebecca Thomas, the EPA’s project manager. “It is a much broader look now.”

[…]

EPA officials this week are holding forums in tribal communities, Durango and Silverton to discuss their Superfund process, which usually drags out for more than a decade. An official listing of the Animas area as a National Priority List disaster, a step toward funding for cleanup, isn’t expected until fall.

The shift here from skepticism toward energetic stewardship is reflected in more community groups demanding, and in some cases conducting, increased testing of river water and sediment to monitor contamination.

The Mountain Studies Institute, a Durango-based research group, did an investigation of aquatic insects that live in sediment on river banks and found that copper levels increased between 2014 and 2015.

Sunnyside Gold Corp. manager Larry Perino presented data from tests of mining wastewater launched last fall on the day of the Gold King disaster. Contractors sampled on Sunnyside properties a couple of miles east of Silverton — a different drainage from Cement Creek — where mining waste tailings sit along the main stem of the upper Animas.

Those tailings as water rushes over them apparently are leaking the cadmium, copper and six other metals at levels exceeding Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment standards. The cadmium and copper had dissolved into Animas headwaters.

Sunnyside shared the data at Tuesday’s meeting in Silverton.

Dan Wall of the EPA then presented federal data showing lead contamination of soils along Cement Creek and in water near the tailings heaps containing elevated cadmium, zinc, manganese and copper.

EPA crews have done tests around Animas basin for decades and increasingly are trying to pinpoint mine site sources of contamination.

“We have to do more high-resolution work before we start talking smoking guns,” Wall told the locals at the forum.

A broadening cooperation is happening despite EPA efforts to target Sunnyside, owned by the global mining giant Kinross, as a responsible party obligated to pay a share of Superfund cleanup costs.

“Just because you are a potentially responsible party doesn’t mean it has to be adversarial,” Perino said.

Conservation groups such as Trout Unlimited have raised concerns about possible re-churn of heavy metals from the 3 million-gallon Gold King deluge as snow melts, increasing runoff into the upper Animas. But biologists also point to benefits of dilution to reduce concentrations of dissolved heavy metals.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Jim White confirmed that, since the shutoff of a water treatment plant on Cement Creek in 2005 when Sunnyside’s American Tunnel was plugged, fish populations deteriorated along a 30-mile stretch of the Animas south of Silverton.

There are few rainbow and brown trout today, and brook trout decreased by 80 percent after 2004, White said.

“It is not healthy. Things have gotten worse in the Animas River since 2004 or 2005,” he said. “We’ve seen this consistent dropoff — the primary thing is the dissolved metals” including zinc, cadmium and aluminum.

Even 50 miles south in Durango, the fish put into the river in stocking programs have not been able to reproduce, he said.

“We’re just not seeing young fish surviving, in Durango as well,” White said.

Other forces, such as sediment from urban development and fertilizer runoff, also play a role downriver in addition to acid metals drainage from inactive mines.

Hundreds of inactive mines continue to drain more than 1,000 gallons a minute of toxic acid heavy metals into Animas headwaters. It is one of the West’s worst concentrations of toxic mines.

For at least a decade before the Gold King disaster, the mine drainage reaching Animas canyon waters along a 30-mile stretch south of Silverton “had a hideous impact,” Trout Unlimited chapter president Buck Skillen said.

“We’ve lost almost all of the trout and a number of bugs,” Skillen said. “We’ve had the equivalent of the Gold King spill every four to seven days over the last 10 years. But the water didn’t turn orange. So it wasn’t on everyone’s radar.”