Category Archives: Data

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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A Single Drop

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Photo Credit: Louise Docker

Each year brings warnings of drought and with it, the implementation of water conservation measures. How do climatologists know if a lack of precipitation is a drought indicator or simply part of the earth’s natural cycle?

In a word: Data.

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Pike’s Peak Weather Station      Photo Credit: NOAA

Everything water related, including drought, begins with precipitation. Systematic weather reporting in Colorado began in the 1870s and 1880s, with the first weather reports coming from Pike’s Peak in 1873. In the late 1880s, the Colorado General Assembly passed legislation supporting the “Colorado State Weather Service” and in 1890, the U.S. Department of Agriculture took over climate monitoring and reporting. It was also in 1890 that the Cooperative Observers, a group of now more than 8,700 volunteers, began providing observational meteorological data in real time.

Today, precipitation in Colorado is tracked by a statewide network made up of the National Weather Service (NWS) and the Cooperative Observers. Together, they have set the standard for mapping and monitoring precipitation—recording the data that provides a history of precipitation across the state and thus sets a baseline for drought.

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Cooperative Observer Station      Photo Credit: NOAA

Currently, there are 200 to 250 weather stations in Colorado—some have operated continuously since the late 1800s. The longer a station has been compiling data, the better for revealing precipitation patterns and detecting abnormalities, which indicate something more serious. Still, a lack of data points across the state has kept climatologists from having a complete picture of Colorado’s precipitation.

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Photo Credit: Greg Goebel

Early on, data was not representative of mountain precipitation—a large part of Colorado—because gauges were primarily located in valleys, where the majority of people lived. With the help of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, data gaps were filled in the 1980s when they installed rain gauges in mountain forest clearings. Those mountain gauges improved coverage, but it was another 15 to 20 years before climatologists could establish a record that allowed them to truly understand Colorado’s climate.

With its vast size, it seems nearly impossible for there to be enough technology, information or data points to cover the entire state of Colorado. Tracking precipitation data has always been a time-consuming process. “When I started working here [Colorado Climate Center] in 1977, everything was done by hand,” says Nolan Doesken, Colorado State Climatologist with the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University (CSU). “Each week, we would receive the precipitation reports from around the state, add up the totals, plot them on a huge map, draw the contour maps and then write up a report.”

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Photo Credit: USDA

Surprisingly, this hands-on approach continued until 2000, when computers were finally used for precipitation mapping. However, the use of technology comes with its own set of issues. “Creating a map by hand was a more intimate process,” Doesken acknowledges. “You were more likely to question outliers in data. With a computer, people are less likely to question the results. They trust the computer.”

Regardless of technological improvements, including the addition of weather satellites, there have always been, and still are, limitations to what technology can achieve. Some areas are difficult to reach for installing rain gauges, others have low populations or populations of people who are not interested in reporting precipitation data—fewer rain gauges means fewer data points from which to gather information.

“Weather satellites only tell part of the story,” says Doesken. “Radar might show that precipitation is falling in a particular area because it is collecting information from 12,000 feet above a field; however, that rain is evaporating before it reaches the ground. We need data from the ground level to see the whole picture.”

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Rain Gauge      Photo Credit: Famartin

The 1997 Fort Collins floods revealed that rain gauges were not showing the variability of rain and snow across the state; the heaviest rainfall leading up to the flood missed all of the official gauges, creating a situation where city officials were unaware of what was coming. This weather event resulted in the creation of The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) in 1998; a way to improve the quality of precipitation data, both locally and internationally.

CoCoRaHS is comprised of a community of volunteers 600px-Community_Collaborative_Rain,_Hail_and_Snow_Network_logo.svgdedicated to monitoring precipitation in their own, literal, backyards. After collecting precipitation data—rain, hail and snow—volunteers send their results to CoCoRaHS. Where there are more volunteers, there are more data points. Increased data points result in comprehensive data. CoCoRaHS volunteers cover gaps where there are no other weather stations and provide ground-level information that cannot be gathered by satellites.

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March 2003 Blizzard, Evergreen        Photo Credit: NOAA

Data collected by CoCoRaHS members during Colorado’s historic March 2003 blizzard proved to be invaluable. “Volunteers did a fantastic job of monitoring precipitation,” Doesken exclaims. “Without their data, we would not have known that there was a hole in the storm, just over Lyons, Colorado. The town was surrounded by areas receiving several feet of snow, while Lyons received only 2 to 3 inches. We never knew what we were missing before!”

As methods for precipitation data collection continued to improve, it became clear that past methods of determining drought were woefully inadequate. In the late 2000s, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) came online and a clearer picture of drought emerged.

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Photo Credit: USDA

When the USDA started using NIDIS to determine if certain counties qualified for drought relief, Doesken and his coworkers were forced to acknowledge that their picture of drought was incomplete. “We discovered that our assessments of drought were crude,” Doesken says. “In reality, we probably don’t get drought depiction right. We realized that we needed to be doing a better job of depicting drought on a local level, particularly on the Eastern Plains.”

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Photo Credit: USDA

They discovered that drought is far more locally dependent than they originally thought. For example, in Phillips County—a population of 4,356 and an area of 688 square miles—drought is reliant on something as simple as a farm’s location in the neighborhood. While one farm has plenty of water, the next farm over is experiencing a drought. Without data proving that the farmer is experiencing drought, grants and loans that provide drought relief will not be available to them.

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Photo Credit: Ken Lund

Precipitation across Colorado has been monitored for more than 100 years. The data collected has helped climatologists determine the risk of drought which allows policymakers to plan for the future. While the system is imperfect, weather satellites and radar have improved, and on-the-ground data collection has increased. We are learning where there are breaks in coverage and knowledge, providing the opportunity for further improvements and a better understanding of how precipitation and drought impact our state.

Collecting precipitation data informs the way that we plan for the future. Keep an eye out for the upcoming summer 2017 issue of Headwaters Magazine, which will focus on how water data can impact policy decisions, public safety, water conservation and our own personal behavior.

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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