Author Archives: Mollie Schreck

The 2 Year Anniversary of the Gold King Mine Spill

 

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The Gold King Mine Spill released heavy metals to the Animas River. Photo courtesy of the EPA

The Gold King Mine spill occurred two years ago on Aug. 5, 2015 in Silverton, Colorado. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was investigating the release of water from the mine and was hoping to remove material that had collapsed at the mine’s entrance. During removal, the loose material gave way, opening the mine tunnel and causing thousands of gallons of pressurized water to gush out of the tunnel and into Cement Creek, a tributary to the Animas River. This water had a low pH and was saturated with heavy metals which caused the Animas River to be slightly lower in pH as well. Luckily, the Animas watershed and abandoned mine lands had been studied extensively by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Colorado Department of Natural Resources. This provides a baseline for water quality standards in the watershed and can help to determine if the water is safe for human consumption, domestic usage and/or agricultural use, but also to understand when downstream water bodies will recover.

Millions of people rely on water data, and on the water managers and public health officials who collect and analyze that data, for a safe and dependable water supply. When emergencies happen, like the Gold King Mine spill, citizens and water managers track water data to see what has changed, how much it has changed, and whether or not the water is safe—in such situations, up-to-date and accurate water data is crucial.

Data has played an important role in informing the cleanup of streams that have been affected by acid mine drainage from abandon mines. According to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, there are over 23,000 abandoned mines in Colorado and over 1,800 miles of stream that have suffered the negative impacts of acid mine drainage.

Since August 2015, USGS and other researchers have collected water samples from numerous sites downstream of the Gold King spill site and along the Animas River. After the spill, scientists from many different organizations and agencies including the Mountain Studies Institute (MSI), the Southern Ute Water Quality Program (WQP), the EPA and USGS, tested water samples from the Animas River. Drinking water samples were taken every 30 minutes to track pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature and conductivity for two weeks. Drinking water samples were also taken every day for two weeks after the spill to determine whether the water was safe.

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A slew of heavy metals from the spill turned the water a orange yellow color. Photo courtesy of Riverhugger.

From August 6, 2015 to August 11, 2015 MSI sampled the river. The tests on that water showed a slight increase in heavy metals but the levels did not exceed toxic water-quality levels. MSI estimates that a person would have to ingest two liters of water a day, four days per week for 16 weeks to experience any adverse health effects from the water.  EPA Sediment samples taken on August 10th, August 12th, and August 13, 2015 from the Animas River showed that metal concentration levels were trending toward pre-event levels. This new data was then compared to the historic data from USGS and the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, where the tribe has been collecting water quality data since 1992 to create tribal water quality standards.

Today, the Animas River is healthy although, each spring, runoff from snowmelt turns the river a light shade of orange as the runoff stirs up old sediment. The WQP continues to take monthly water samples, semi-annual macro invertebrate samples, and annual fish tissue samples, while the state continues to monitor the fish population in the area.

USGS uses two different methods to collect data on the impacts of abandoned mine sites in Colorado and around the country—field studies and computer simulation models. Field studies collect water quality data to track the contaminants in the river and downstream of the release site, while computer models are used to quantify the transport of dissolved metals in streams. Data from both of these are then used in comparative analysis. In Cement Creek, scientists use the data to evaluate best management practices to meet and create standards for total maximum daily load. In Mineral Creek, scientists use the computer simulation models to accurately forecast post-cleanup water quality in the stream. Then, scientists compare pre-cleanup water quality data with post-cleanup water quality data to evaluate how accurate the model was.

Despite tests showing there was a minimal impact on the water quality of the Animas River, various parties such as the state of New Mexico and the state of Utah, are suing the EPA for damages to farms, tainted wells, and lost revenue from tourism. Among those parties is the Navajo Nation, suing for damages to crops and monitoring costs. According to the Denver Post, the president of Navajo Nation, Russell Begaye, has shown concern for his people and how they have been treated by the EPA, ”we need to hold the US EPA to their word according to their testimony. We are still waiting for reimbursement.” The Navajo Nation is looking for $162 million from EPA, including $3.1 million for reimbursement costs and $159 million for water development projects and monitoring. So far EPA has reimbursed the Navajo Nation almost $700,000 but claims that the river returned to its pre-spill state in September 2015, discrediting the lawsuit put forth by Navajo Nation.

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How Austin, Texas got Water Wise Using Data

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At the most recent Colorado WaterWise Lunch n’ Learn, Robb Barnitt talked about the success of Austin Water’s pilot program with Dropcountr.

Ever forgotten to lock the front door or close the garage when leaving the house? Luckily there are home security apps that will fix that for you, but what if a faucet is leaking in your home or the hose outside is still on? There’s an app for that, it’s called Dropcountr.

Colorado WaterWise, an organization that serves as a leader in efficient water use in Colorado, featured Dropcountr during their most recent Lunch n’ Learn on July 13 with a presentation from Robb Barnitt explaining how the app saved 41 million gallons of water in Austin, Texas. The Dropcountr app gives homeowners and water utilities access to real-time water-use data in an organized format.

Austin Water tested Dropcountr with their users and saved 41 million gallons of water over the first year. Austin, Texas, one of the fastest growing metro areas in the United States, relies on Texas’ Colorado River and groundwater to hydrate their people, lawns and animals. Austin Water was looking for a way to accommodate the water needs of their fast growing city and encourage water conservation.logo-1[1]

Water data can be intimidating and difficult to understand because of the sheer amount of data. For most people, looking at water bills can be confusing, time consuming, and difficult to understand their home water use. To address this issue, Austin Water started a pilot program with the Dropcountr app in June 2015 with about 8,500 customer accounts. The app provides the user with a dashboard that shows water usage data every hour, data from previous weeks, months, and years, and will allow the user to compare their household with other similar households in the neighborhood. The app can send alerts if it detects a leak in your home, making homeowners more aware so they can fix leaks in order to save water and money. Users also have the opportunity to set goals for water usage. This encourages people to conserve water and provides homeowners with tips for how to conserve and rebates for purchasing high efficacy appliances. Austin Water saw a nine percent reduction in water usage. In the top 20 percent of highest water users, they saw reduction of 17 percent.

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Dropcountr shows real-time water usage amounts as well as data from past months and years.

Dropcountr estimates users save 30 gallons per day because they are aware of how much water they are using or aware of leaks in their home. This type of access to real-time water data will bring awareness to the amount of water that is being used in a household and provide tips for conservation.

For Austin Water, the app seemed like a no-brainer as everyone has a cell phone on them at all times so it seemed like the most efficient, effective way to reach water users.

Denver Water is also involved in an pilot program with Dropcountr! Are you a Denver resident? Download the app and start tracking your usage and data.

summer2017datahwcoverFind further coverage of water data in the Summer 2017 Data Issue of Headwaters magazine. Intrigued with access to real-time water-use data? Check out the story on page 16 of Headwaters and listen to the latest episode of our radio series, Connecting the Drops Using Real-Time Data to Encourage Water-Wise Habits.

Not a Headwaters subscriber? Visit yourwatercolorado.org for the digital version. Headwaters is the flagship publication of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and covers current events, trends and opportunities in Colorado water.

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The Internet of Water

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Courtesy of Ximeg of Wikimedia

Turning on the tap seems so mundane, between the dishes, the washing machine, taking a shower, and simply getting a glass of water, most people don’t think twice about the quality, how much they use, or where their water comes from. Why? Because useful, meaningful data is not accessible for most people. The importance of water data has gone unnoticed in the past. When water resources run low or the water smells or tastes different, it then becomes imperative to find the problem and the solution—that’s when we turn to data. Water data is helpful to inform water managers and users and allow them to foresee shortages or quality issues. Open water data that’s publicly accessible, makes it possible for people to do their own analysis on that data in order to hold government accountable and make informed decisions. Continue reading

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South Platte Bike Tour June 2017

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The 2017 Urban Waters Bike Tour started at Johnson Habitat Park and ended at Globeville Landing Park.

Each year, the Colorado Foundation for Water Education leads an urban waters bike tour through Denver. This tour is open to water professionals and citizens alike to learn about the South Platte Watershed and what is being done to make the 8-mile stretch of the river more user-friendly.  On my first day as a Colorado Foundation for Water Education intern, I was able to participate in the 2017 bike tour, offered by CFWE in partnership with the Barr Lake and Milton Reservoir Watershed Association and the Colorado Stormwater Council. We started at Johnson Habitat Park and ended at Globeville Landing Park, with a few stops in between, where we heard from multiple guest speakers about the health of the South Platte, opportunities for recreation, and current and upcoming projects along the river.

At Johnson Habitat Park, we heard from the executive director of The Greenway Foundation, Jeff Shoemaker. Shoemaker spoke about the days when the river was ecologically dead, especially at that specific location because it used to be a dump so the water was heavily polluted, and no fish were present in the water. In 1974, The Greenway Foundation started to clean up the pollution and restore the riparian environment by using rocks and plants to create a more natural, less urban setting. Today there are many cold water species such as carp and rainbow trout that not only live in the South Platte, but thrive in it. For The Greenway Foundation, the main focus in recent years has been restoring and creating riverfront parks along the South Platte to provide areas for recreation and learning opportunities for children. In addition, we heard from Scott Schreiber, a stream restoration engineer at Matrix Design Group who also serves as president of the Denver Trout Unlimited (DTU) chapter. Schreiber spoke about water quality and maintaining a healthy river. There are about 70 days out of the year when no water flows through the South Platte, which is of concern because the more water that is present in the river, the healthier it will be. In order, to address this problem, DTU negotiated with Denver Water to release 10 acre-feet on those no-flow days.

We then pedal our bicycles along the South Platte River to our first stop at Weir Gulch, where we heard from Jill Piatt-Kemper with the City of Aurora. Jill spoke about ways that the cities of Denver, Lakewood, and Aurora are working together to ensure that they handle stormwater properly, as it can be a source of pollution for the South Platte. Pavement and concrete increase the rate at which runoff from storms reach the river, and the water picks up pollution from parking lots or roads it flows through, depositing that pollution into the river. Piatt-Kemper’s work aims to keep water away from homes so that storms and flooding cause minimal property damage, create a habitat for wildlife

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Tour participants learn about stormwater at Weir Gulch.

along the riparian zone, and filter the runoff using grass. Filtering runoff is important because fish can’t survive when nutrient levels are too high in the river. The excess nutrients cause more plants to grow, therefore increasing the biological oxygen demand (BOD). An increase in BOD means that the plants are using all of the oxygen in the water, starving the fish of oxygen.  The grass along the riparian zone will filter these nutrients out, use the nutrients to grow, and deliver fresh water to the river.

Our next stop was at Shoemaker Plaza at Confluence Park. There, we heard from Mike

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Mike Bouchard with the City and County of Denver describing the reconstruction of Shoemaker Plaza at Confluence Park.

Bouchard who is a landscape architect with the City and County of Denver. Bouchard spoke about the reconstruction of Shoemaker Plaza and the history of Confluence Park which is where the city of Denver first started. In the early years, parts of the South Platte and Cherry Creek were used as the city’s sewer and dump, and became channelized as a result of urbanization. In 1965, a flood drowned the city and caused millions of dollars in damage. As a result, Chatfield Reservoir was built, making areas along the South Platte safe and accessible again. In order to increase river access, Denver started construction on Shoemaker Plaza in 1974. In spring 2016, reconstruction started to make the plaza larger and more user-friendly as the area is seeing more use. However, two months into the project, workers found coal tar, a byproduct of energy production. They had to stop construction in order to clean up

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Shoemaker Plaza at Confluence Park is under construction to improve river accessibility.

all of the coal tar to ensure that it did not make its way into the water. The site is now clean and construction can continue to create a place where people today and future generations will be able to come and enjoy Colorado’s most precious resource.

Our last stop was Globeville Landing Park where we heard from Celia Vanderloop from the City and County of Denver. Celia spoke about the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative Project in the Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are historically poor and have been neglected. This project will create a water feature that will hold water during large rain events in order to control flooding and give access to a green space, restore walkability, water quality, and water accessibility. Part of this project is to clean up the Superfund site near the Denver Coliseum.

As Denver continues to urbanize, there is an increased environmental impact. The challenge is to integrate having a thriving city and a thriving environment. Denver has done a great job in ensuring that the balance is met and that everyone has access to a green space or park where their children can explore and appreciate nature in our beautiful state.

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