Category Archives: Watershed Groups

Change Brings Hope

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Photo Credit: Riverhugger

By the Colorado Water Trust staff

In October 2016, The Durango Herald carried a modest story sporting the headline, Trout Discovered in Creek Long Devoid of Fish.  In the southwest corner of Colorado, where abandoned mines and contaminated streams have long been a part of the otherwise magnificent mountain landscape, this is encouraging news—especially for a community that, just two years ago, saw the Animas run yellow.

The San Antonio Mine complex, north of Silverton, Colorado, has been a fixture on the flanks of Red Mountain Pass for over 100 years. While most active mining ceased in the 1940s, the spoil piles and orange drainage from the Kohler Tunnel remained, contaminating streams with high concentrations of copper, lead, cadmium and zinc, and eliminating the fishery resource in Mineral Creek.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, several entities joined together with the hopes of improving water quality and restoring the natural function of the watershed. The Animas River Stakeholders Group, whose mission is to improve water quality and aquatic habitat in the Animas Watershed, determined that drainage from the Kohler Tunnel contributed the largest amounts of metals to the upper Animas Watershed. As a result, the stakeholders group designated the tunnel drainage as its highest priority for remediation.

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Photo Credit: USGS

Hydrogeological studies and other research conducted by the stakeholders group identified the Carbon Lake Ditch as the likely source of water seeping into the mine and the Kohler Tunnel, impacting water quality. The 50-year-old irrigation ditch diverts from the upper Mineral Creek Basin and winds its way across the mine complex to deliver water to the other side of Red Mountain Pass. Winter ice buildup in the ditch and heavy summer rains caused occasional breaches, resulting in erosion and surges of mine drainage from the tunnel. The obvious solution was to eliminate the source of water infiltrating the mine, so the stakeholders group targeted their efforts on the ditch.

With a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Animas River Stakeholders Group purchased the entire 15 cubic feet per second (cfs) Carbon Lake Ditch water right from the owners who were willing to part with their water right in favor of reliable, local water supplies. The stakeholders group removed the physical structures from the streams, completed ecological restoration of the ditch and plugged the Kohler Tunnel to prevent future drainage into the stream.

Discontinuing diversions and removing the headgate did not guarantee that the restored flows would stay in Mineral Creek to benefit the environment—legally, that water would be free for other uses under Colorado’s prior appropriation system. The next challenge was to find a way to protect those restored flows. The Animas River Stakeholders Group and project partner the San Juan Resources Conservation and Development Council reached out to the Southwestern Water Conservation District and a local law firm where the attorney consulted was a former Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) member with a wealth of knowledge about Colorado’s Instream Flow Program.

Colorado’s Instream Flow (ISF) Program was the linchpin in the stakeholders group’s success. In the early 1970s, the Colorado Legislature pioneered protections for the water-dependent natural environment by creating the ISF Program.  An instream flow is a statutorily recognized type of water right that protects a natural stream from an upstream point to a downstream point. These water rights are administered like any other water right in the state, with a priority date confirmed by water court decree. At the time, the program provided the CWCB with the exclusive authority to appropriate or acquire water for instream flows to preserve the natural environment.

The CWCB can appropriate new junior instream flow water rights or acquire senior water from willing water rights owners for instream flow use. Under this acquisition authority, once an agreement is reached with the willing owner, the CWCB changes the water right through the water court change process to instream flow use. The water right is then legally protectable in the river with its original priority date. It is CWCB’s acquisition authority that the stakeholders group sought to secure instream flow protections for the newly-purchased Carbon Lake Ditch water right.

In March 2001, the Animas River Stakeholders Group and the San Juan Resource Conservation and Development Council presented the CWCB with an offer to donate the Carbon Lake Ditch water right to the Instream Flow Program to protect restored flows in Mineral Creek and two tributaries. However, in the course of conducting routine investigations, CWCB staff identified a significant program limitation. The original statutes passed in 1973 placed sideboards on the CWCB’s authority, limiting water appropriations and acquisitions to the minimum amounts required to preserve the natural environment. In the case of Mineral Creek, the amounts required to preserve the environment were determined to be between 2.5 and 6.6 cfs.  Yet, the Carbon Lake Ditch water right was decreed for 15 cfs, and under the existing law, there was no way to protect all of the restored water with an instream flow right.

CaptureAs highlighted in CFWE’s spring 2004 Headwaters Magazine issue, “Changing Times, Changing Uses”, societal values change. In 2002, the legislature passed Senate Bill 156, allowing CWCB to acquire water rights to preserve and to improve the natural environment. This amendment, the first significant change to the Instream Flow Program in more than 30 years, broadened the CWCB’s authority and created statewide opportunities to restore streamflow to dewatered streams and to improve existing environmental conditions. After the bill was signed into law, the CWCB clarified the water right donation and changed the full 15 cfs of the Carbon Lake Ditch water right for instream flow use to preserve and improve the natural environment. Roughly 15 years after the legislative change and the CWCB’s acquisition of the Carbon Lake Ditch water right for instream flow use, we see tangible results.

“This is the first time in recorded history of a report of fish existing in the headwaters of Mineral Creek,” said Bill Simon, retired coordinator for the stakeholders group, in the 2016 Durango Herald article. “We are a bit surprised by the great results so soon after remediation.”

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Mineral Creek     Photo Credit: Larry Lamsa

The presence of a resident brook trout population with diverse age ranges is indicative of the dramatic improvement in water quality within the reach where flows were restored and are now protected by the CWCB’s instream flow right. The Durango Herald reports an amazing 70 percent reduction in zinc and copper, and a 50 percent reduction in cadmium in Mineral Creek since completion of remediation and flow restoration.

“We knew that water quality in the upper part of Mineral Creek had dramatically improved,” said Peter Butler, Animas River Stakeholders Group coordinator, “but we didn’t expect it to support trout.”

The fantastic success story for Mineral Creek and the stakeholders group is a testament to the possibilities when local communities, state agencies and the legislature work together to solve problems. With CWCB’s ability to acquire water to improve the natural environment, this is a success story for the entire state of Colorado. The benefits achieved in Mineral Creek can, over time, be realized on many other streams, too.

Colorado’s ISF Program, now in its 45th year, operates statewide and the acquisition tool is available to any water right owner interested in donating, leasing or selling all, or a portion of, their water to preserve or improve the natural environment. The Colorado Water Trust, a nonprofit created in 2001 to restore flows to streams and rivers in need, works closely with the CWCB and can help facilitate temporary and permanent water transactions throughout the state.

Learn more about how to use water to benefit the natural environment by visiting the Colorado Water Trust and Colorado’s Instream Flow Program websites.

The Colorado Water Trust is a non-profit organization created in 2001 to restore flows to Colorado’s rivers in need.  The Water Trust uses voluntary, market-based tools to develop projects with water right owners to help keep Colorado’s rivers flowing. The Water Trust works closely with the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state’s Instream Flow Program to ensure flows are protected. For more information about the Water Trust or completed projects, please visit www.coloradowatertrust.org.

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2017 New Year’s Resolution: Invest in Water Quality to Invest in Your Health

By Trisha Oeth, Commission Administrator, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Commission
The views represented are those held by the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment or the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission. 

 

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Credit: Ondrejk, Wikimedia Commons

It’s that time of year again—time for making New Year’s resolutions. Many of our resolutions will involve personal health or investment goals for 2017. But are you tired of setting weight-loss or money-saving goals? This year, consider investing in water quality as an investment in your own and your family’s health.

Safe and readily available water is one of the most vital components of our health. We have already seen our watersheds affected by major floods and wildfires. As climate change occurs and population doubles in Colorado, our waters will come under more pressures. We need to create resilient watersheds that can handle these pressures to avoid catastrophic conditions in our water. Watersheds that support strong ecosystems will produce the ecological diversity integral to our food chain and plants and minerals that someday could be used in medicines.

Water also is fundamental to our mental health. Studies show humans’ mental health improves with time near water. Set a goal this year to stroll on a path along a stream once a week and reflect on the soothing sound of the water. Imagine being connected to the source of our water and where it goes when we flush our toilets, wash our cars and water our lawns. Being connected in this way reminds us about the importance of investing in water, the essence of our existence.

Most of us understand that water is a basic necessity in our lives. We all want clean and safe water in our taps and in our streams. And yet, do any of us know how much we are paying our local utilities to ensure protection of this resource? When was the last time we readily and voluntarily agreed to increase our investment? None of us like increasing costs, but an increase in our water utility bill is not just a rate increase. It’s a proactive step to invest in our health. We know our water and wastewater infrastructure is aging. Reports show if we don’t start investing now, by 2040 we will have a $152 billion funding gap for needed infrastructure. This year, consider changing that trend and instead stand behind your utility when it proposes a rate increase.

The challenges that utilities face are immense. Utilities can use increased funds to protect our water at its source, replace aging pipes that deliver water to our homes, and upgrade treatment processes to keep up with current science and technology. Imagine if we all took the money we might routinely spend on two sugary beverages a month and instead invested it in water quality. Imagine if businesses that provide charitable donations or hold fundraisers directed that money to water quality. Imagine the possible replacement of lead-laden pipes and the removal of arsenic and other metals. Imagine algae-free streams and rivers available for swimming and fishing. Check in with your local utility or watershed group to see what work needs to be done in your area. Maybe it’s aging pipes, stream bank restoration or an upgrade to a water treatment plant. Then ask how you can get involved.

As you are reflecting on the past year and embarking on another, ask yourself how much it is worth to turn on your tap at home and know the water will be good for your health. This New Year, how much are you willing to invest in your and your family’s health?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATrisha Oeth is the Administrator for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Colorado Water Quality Control Commission. In that role she provides policy advice and analysis regarding rules, regulations, and policy priorities on all aspects of water quality programs in Colorado. She began working on water quality issues after graduating from CU Law School, and practiced law in the private and public sector. In her free time Trisha enjoys trail running, cooking with her husband and daughters, and learning piano.

hw_fall_2016_final_coverRead more about water and public health in the new issue of CFWE’s Headwaters magazine available here.

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Collaborative Watershed Management Highlights in the Roaring Fork Basin

By Chelsea Congdon Brundige, Public Counsel of the Rockies

In Colorado, everyone from irrigators and municipalities, law-makers and water districts, regulators and conservationists are scrambling to find ways to restore and protect the state’s over-tapped rivers. A top priority of the 2015 Colorado water plan is to balance the needs for water in agriculture, cities and industry with the need for water to protect healthy rivers and the iconic wildlife, recreation and alpine landscapes that sustain Colorado’s values, lifestyle and economy.

As director of the Water Program of Public Counsel of the Rockies, I have been working in the Roaring Fork watershed to design and implement projects that improve efficiency, accountability and collaboration in water management. Public Counsel brings strategic leadership to these projects, focusing on opportunities to leverage our local successes in the Roaring Fork watershed so they can serve as templates for efforts in other basins. I am thrilled that we will be able to share this work as part of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s Collaborative Water Management Tour on September 12, 2016  so that participants can learn what we are doing and can take some ideas home.

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Installing the gauge in Aspen.

Our projects address several “gaps” in Colorado water policy and management. For example, while the water plan prioritizes finding ways to balance the allocation of water between consumptive and non-consumptive uses, for the most part, stream flow gauges are not in place to record baseline flows or support administration of instream flows. Without accurate measurement, there is no way to know if instream flow rights are being met, how proposed water diversions might affect healthy baseflows, and how changes in flow are correlated to changes in stream health.

In Aspen, we partnered with Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) in 2014 to address the need for greater accountability and transparency in water management through better gauging and data collection. To this end, we helped site and install a prototype stream flow monitoring gauge on the Roaring Fork River in the heart of Aspen. The new gauge records and transmits data on flow, and captures pictures of the river corresponding to those flow levels. The data are accessed remotely and published by ACES. Plus, a City of Aspen interpretative sign at the river’s edge in the John Denver Sanctuary describes the issues of river health and benefits of monitoring flows.

This gauge is the first of several that can be installed as part of ACES’ Forest Health Index to collect data to support stewardship of our forests and watershed. Data from the gauge helps us correlate the condition of our rivers with the condition of our forest, and provides a baseline for resource management decisions. As importantly, the gauge is strategically located to allow water rights administration and water accounting for several imminent projects designed to deliver water to this distressed reach of the Roaring Fork to enhance instream flows. We have worked with many partners to bring this stream gauge prototype project to fruition including: ACES, City of Aspen, the Colorado Water Trust, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and the Colorado River District. Here is a link to the streamflow data.

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A reach of the Crystal River.

Colorado’s Water Plan identifies stream management planning as critical for 80 percent of priority river basins in the state, and identifies the need for greater stakeholder engagement around water management—but there are few examples to draw on. Beginning in 2012, Public Counsel began working with Roaring Fork Conservancy and Lotic Hydrological to plan, fund, and lead a state-of-the-art stream management plan for the Crystal River, from Marble to the confluence with the Roaring Fork. During drought years, the combined demands for water in irrigated agriculture and demands for water in the Town of Carbondale for municipal use and irrigation of parks and open space lead to water shortages for some agricultural producers and impairment of river and riparian health. This plan, completed in December 2015, provides a detailed, science-based assessment of the “health” of the river, meter by meter and reach by reach, based on dozens of metrics. Our team developed an Ecological Decision Support System (EcoDSS) to evaluate countless water management and restoration options (including costs) for restoring this river. Beginning in October 2015, Public Counsel launched and professionally staffed a collaborative process with all irrigators and other stakeholders on the Crystal to prioritize projects that can be implemented to restore the River.

This project is one of the first stream management plans in Colorado. Our approach, modeling and stakeholder process are serving as blueprints for planning efforts just getting off the ground in the San Miguel watershed, the Gunnison, the Upper Roaring Fork through Aspen, and the Upper Colorado River basin. Building on our work on the Crystal River, Public Counsel is poised to leverage our successes and “lessons learned” to advance stream management planning and stakeholder collaboration around water management. Find the Crystal River Management Plan here

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On the Crystal River.

Finally, Public Counsel has been working on behalf of the Snowmass Capitol Creek Caucus in a multi-decade effort to guarantee the maintenance of healthy stream flows in Snowmass Creek. Snowmass Creek supplies water for agriculture, municipal uses, domestic needs and snowmaking in two basins, the Snowmass Creek basin and the Brush Creek basin (where the Town of Snowmass Village is located). The history here is long, but in recent years, the caucus developed a sophisticated analysis enabling water managers to project future instream flows in the Creek as a function of growth, climate change and other factors.

This analysis has informed the efforts of the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District (in the neighboring Brush Creek basin) to operate Ziegler Reservoir and other components of their water infrastructure to help buffer Snowmass Creek from diversions during periods of low flow. The district has aggressively invested in leak detection and other measures to dramatically reduce treated water losses and increase water conservation. The caucus, in turn, has used the same analysis to develop water conservation guidelines for residents in the Snowmass Creek valley and has published a Water Users Guide for Protecting Flows in Snowmass Creek—find a link to the guide here.

On September 12, CFWE is hosting a tour so that participants can see and learn first-hand about these and other exemplary collaborative water management projects throughout the Roaring Fork watershed. I look forward to the opportunity to share these projects in person. Don’t miss it… come ready to learn, ask questions and discuss. Find the agenda and register here.

Learn more about collaborative work in the Roaring Fork watershed in August 2016 blog post, “A rancher, a scientist, an angler and a conservationist walk into a room.”

CCB on AJAX2 Chelsea Congdon Brundige is a water strategist with Public Counsel of the Rockies engaged in developing collaborative and innovative practices to improve the long-term stewardship of western rivers. Since 2012, Chelsea has been working in partnership with local watershed organizations and hydrologists to design highly visible and replicable projects in the Roaring Fork watershed that improve accountability and stakeholder engagement around water management. This work focuses on distressed river reaches in the Roaring through Aspen, on Snowmass Creek, and on the Crystal River. In December 2015, Ms. Brundige — working in partnership with Roaring Fork Conservancy and Lotic Hydrological — completed an 18-month stream management plan and stakeholder process to characterize the health of the Crystal River and prioritize restoration options.

Ms. Brundige’s work with Public Counsel of the Rockies draws on her 2 decades of professional experience as a water resource specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in California and Colorado, and her work in communication as a writer and producer with First Light Films, an independent film and television company based in Snowmass, Colorado.

Chelsea graduated from Yale University in 1982, magna cum laude.  She earned a M.A. from the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California in Berkeley in 1989. Chelsea served as a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Future of Irrigation from 1994 to 1996. She currently serves on the Board of Trustees of Western Resource Advocates, Colorado Rocky Mountain School, and the Snowmass Capitol Creek Caucus.

 

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A rancher, a scientist, an angler and a conservationist walk into a room…

By Christina Medved, Watershed Education Director and Heather Lewin, Watershed Action Director at Roaring Fork Conservancy in Basalt, CO.

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Spring at Mt Sopris Colorado. The Roaring Fork River is in the foreground and located just outside Carbondale CO. Credit: Steve Wiggins

A rancher, a scientist, an angler and a conservationist walk into a room… “Wait a minute,” you say, “I’ve heard this one before! Something about water being for fighting, right? Remind me the punchline again?” Well, this isn’t the same old story with the same old punchline. Roaring Fork Conservancy (RFC), currently in its 20th year, is working with an empowered group of stakeholders to rewrite the story of water in the Roaring Fork Valley. The privilege of living with ready access to cold mountain streams, abundant trout, vibrant agriculture and spectacular scenery is one we do not take for granted which is why we continue to work to bring together the diverse groups invested in their protection.

If you have not encountered us before, RFC is a local watershed organization, bringing people together to protect our rivers from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork high above Aspen to its confluence with the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, from the Gold Medal waters of the Fryingpan River, to the banks of the free-flowing Crystal River, we continually assess and work to improve the health of our rivers, and we empower the community and next generation to do the same—reaching over 100,000 individuals since our inception.

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A geomorphology field trip with the Roaring Fork Conservancy. Credit: Christina Medved

Inspiring people to take action requires not only scientific knowledge, but also experiential knowledge and a common ground, or common water in this case! Through our work with the recreational and agricultural communities, our knowledge is enhanced. Learning from the people who are working the land and on the rivers each day (as sometimes we wish we could be!) provides insights that might not be documented anywhere except the mind of the water user. By working with these stakeholders, we are able to craft studies to address real needs with real benefits to the river. In turn, we are able to share our learnings with the greater community through adult and school programs throughout the year.

Through proactive science and watershed planning, RFC helps inform decision-makers at the municipal and county levels and direct on-the-ground improvement and restoration projects. All of RFC’s endeavors—scientific studies, restoration project, policy work and educational campaigns—are rooted in the Roaring Fork Watershed Plan published in 2012, and focus on water quantity and quality and riparian health. The thread through all of our projects is building relationships with each stakeholder. Here are some examples of RFC’s work in action:

Crystal River Management Plan: During the 2012 drought, the Crystal River experienced significantly low flows, to the tune of 1 cubic foot per second (cfs) in the lower reach where the instream flow right is 100cfs. The Crystal Valley, mecca for both ranching and recreation, was feeling the demand gap of the drought. How could it be possible to look out for the interests of all water users involved, including the river? You listen to the concerns from stakeholders and work together to answer the tough questions about how to efficiently and fairly use and share the invaluable water resource. To tackle this complex issue, RFC partnered with Public Counsel of the Rockies and Lotic Hydrological to produce the Crystal River Management Plan, one of the first stream management plans in Colorado.

The Crystal River Management Plan relies on a robust science-based and stakeholder-centered approach to consider complex interactions between the physical components driving watershed structure; the biological components of riverine ecosystems; the social context of competing perspectives, needs, and values; and the existing legal and administrative frameworks governing water use in an effort to identify and evaluate management and structural alternatives that honor local agricultural production, preserve existing water uses, and enhance the ecological integrity of the river.

Stakeholder meetings held throughout the planning process served to clarify outstanding questions, summarize results from previous studies, refine planning goals and objectives, and evaluate the feasibility of various management alternatives.

The Plan combines river science and community values to offer feasible and effective water management alternatives for improving ecological health of the Crystal River recognizing the competing demands for water to sustain agricultural and municipal needs as well as other environmental and recreational values in the community.

 

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The Fryingpan River. Credit: Mark Fuller.

Lower Fryingpan River Comprehensive Study: Citizens and angling guides approached RFC with concerns about low winter flows, formation of anchor ice, and an abundance of algae, we would later come to name Didymosphenia geminata—better known as didymo or “rock snot”—on the Gold Medal waters of the Fryingpan River. Concerned about these potential impacts on the river resource, interested citizens along with RFC voiced these concerns to the Bureau of Reclamation, who manages the flows on the Fryingpan. From these encounters, RFC partnered with the Natural Resource Management Program at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, Dr. Bill Miller, Delia Malone, and the Economics Department at Colorado State University to develop a scientific study to evaluate the macroinvertebrate population, water temperature, didymo, American Dipper population, and the economic impact of the Fryingpan Valley.

Here are a few highlights from the study:

  • The macroinvertebrate population indicates a healthy river system.
  • Didymo prefers oxygenated (moving) water and its presence declined after high flows.
  • The Fryingpan Valley is sustaining 28 mating pairs of American Dippers. Their success is dependent on 50m of undisturbed riparian habitat upstream and downstream of nesting sites.
  • The economic impact of fishing the Lower Fryingpan River is $3.8 million annually and contributes to 38.3 jobs to the region!

For details about this study and additional results, please click here.

So, a rancher, a scientist, an angler and a conservationist walk into a room… with a shared love and desire to protect western Colorado’s most precious resource: water. Please join us on the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s tour of the Roaring Fork watershed on September 12 to see these one-of-a-kind areas for yourself and learn about the benefits of RFC’s work and partnerships. Learn more and register here.

For additional details about Roaring Fork Conservancy please visit www.roaringfork.org .

Medved HeadshotChristina Medved, Watershed Education Director
Christina calls Cleveland, OH, her hometown and the infamous Cuyahoga River her home watershed. Having spent a lot of time on lakes as a child, she quickly fell in love with rivers while working as a Field Instructor within Cuyahoga Valley National Park near Akron, OH. She then became the Education Programs Manager and Leaf Pack Network® Administrator at Stroud Water Research Center, near Philadelphia, PA. During that time she coordinated two watershed treks which gave high school students a full-immersion experience in tracing the drinking water supply of New York City and Wilmington, DE, and, had the opportunity to teach stream ecology workshops across the United States as well as in villages of Costa Rica and Peru. Christina has a B.S. in Environmental Science from Ashland University in OH and an M.A. in Communication Studies from West Chester University in PA. When not teaching or on the river, Christina enjoys cooking, biking, snowshoeing and dabbling in photography.

Heather Lewin photoHeather Lewin, Watershed Action Director
Heather has worked with Roaring Fork Conservancy in the areas of land conservation and policy since 2010. She has B.S. in biology from Providence College and a Master’s in Environmental Science and Policy from Johns Hopkins University. She has also completed a residency in environmental education at Teton Science School. With Roaring Fork Conservancy, Heather is working on Colorado 303d water quality listings, land conservation efforts, and policy issues. Heather is also a certified raft guide and ski instructor.

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Reducing abandoned mine water pollution in Colorado

By Skip Feeney, Water Quality Scientist, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division

Recently, I stayed at the Polar Star Inn, a hut in the 10th Mountain Division Hut system. Within an hour of arriving several children reported back that they had found a large hole in the ground that went really deep! It turned out to be a mine. Actually this hut got its name from an abandoned silver mine named the Polar Star Mine. It is not hard to stumble upon abandoned mines in Colorado. In fact there are an estimated 23,000 abandoned or inactive mines in Colorado alone.

Colorado and mining have a long history together. According to the History Colorado website, “The Pike’s Peak Gold Rush brought unprecedented numbers of people into the region…culminating in the admittance of Colorado to the Union in 1876.” Most Colorado hard rock mining activity predates the passing of current environmental regulations in the 1970s and 1980s. Before this time many mining companies did not restore the mined area,  leaving physical hazards and human and environmental impacts.

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Credit: Ashley Bembenek, Coal Creek Watershed Coalition

One key environmental impact to water quality is acid mine drainage. This occurs when oxygen from the air and water react with sulfide minerals, increasing the acidity of the water. The acidic solution dissolves metals and flows into streams, lakes and groundwater. Acid mine drainage is exacerbated by mining practices when excavated materials leave voids in the moutain, increasing surface area for the acid mine drainage reaction to occur.  

High levels of metals harm fish and aquatic ecosystems. These contaminants also impact drinking water and agricultural water sources. This problem is significant with 1,800 miles of Colorado streams, not meeting water quality standards due to acid mine drainage related pollutants.

Unfortunately solving the water quality issues related to abandoned mines has its share of challenges. Abandoned mines are expensive to address—often in the millions of dollars with ongoing treatment costs. Many historic mining companies are no longer in business and therefore are not able to pay for restoration costs, and existing government funding sources are not sufficient to clean up all of the abandoned mines. Plus, liability concerns over treatment of mine drainage to Clean Water Act standards prevent many agencies and environmental groups from volunteering to clean up abandoned mines.

After the Environmental Protection Agency inadvertently caused a discharge at the Gold King mine, one year ago, a spotlight was shone on the statewide problem of abandoned mines. The Colorado Water Quality Control Division launched the Mine Impacted Streams Task Force to determine the extent and magnitude of abandoned mine impacts to water quality. The task force is made up of staff members from the Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division, the Water Quality Control Division and the Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety. The task force supports two initiatives: 1) An abandoned mine inventory and 2) a water quality study of draining, abandoned mines.  

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Credit: Ashley Bembenek, Coal Creek Watershed Coalition

The abandoned mine inventory project combines and presents the existing unique and separate federal and state abandoned mine data sets. The inventory aims to better understand the number of abandoned mines and their locations and make this information available to water users, restoration professionals and the public. While prioritization of mine restoration activities is defined within each agency, the inventory will provide tools to help agencies work together to restore abandoned mines. The inventory steering committee includes the above mentioned state agencies, Colorado Geologic Survey, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Environmental Protection Agency, National Parks Service, Department of Energy, U.S. Geologic Survey and other organizations.

The Draining Mines Water Quality Study is a Governor directed initiative that will survey and measure the water quality of roughly 150 draining mines within the state. This study has begun and a final report will be published in 2017. Of the mines being studied, all of them that are presumed to negatively impact water quality are abandoned and lack recent investigation. The study will provide a water quality snapshot from which risk assessment and restoration prioritization can begin. The Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety and the Water Quality Control Division are partnering to execute this study.

As mentioned above there are many challenges to addressing this problem. However, the abandoned mine inventory and draining mines water quality study will provide information for all agencies, watershed groups and mining companies to make more informed prioritization and restoration decisions. This will help to maximize the money invested in reducing pollution from abandoned mines.  

HalfMoonCreekSkip Feeney holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Health. He has worked in the water quality industry for 15 years. This includes private sector work in regulatory, program and data management consulting for municipal agencies and public sector work with the Colorado Water Quality Control Division as a water quality assessor. In his role with the Division he championed the development and implementation of a Measurable Results Program to evaluate the water quality impacts derived from pollution control projects funded through the Division. Projects within this program include wastewater treatment plant upgrades and abandoned mine restorations. He is currently taking a leading role with the Mine Impacted Waters Task Force. The task force supports two initiatives: 1) An abandoned mine inventory and 2) a water quality study of 150 draining, abandoned mines.

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The Orange Animas

Last week, an estimated three million gallons of mine sludge poured from the dormant Gold King Mine, north of Silverton, Colorado, into Cement Creek, sending an orange plume of acid mine drainage down Cement Creek into the Animas River, through Durango, into New Mexico, where it met the San Juan River and flowed into Utah—the plume is still en route to the Colorado River. Officials estimate about three million gallons of wastewater were released after a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency crew accidentally breached a dam while investigating how to stop existing leakage from the mine on August 5. From the EPA:

The intent of the investigation was to assess the on-going water releases from the mine and to treat mine water and to assess the feasibility of further mine remediation. The plan was to excavate the loose material that had collapsed into the cave entry back to the timbering. During the excavation, the loose material gave way, opening the adit (mine tunnel) and spilling the water stored behind the collapsed material into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.

Abandoned mine drainage is nothing new for old mining communities, or the Animas.  It occurs when surface water comes into contact with rocks and minerals that contain sulfur—in this case, pyrite—and oxygen, resulting in sulfuric acid and dissolved iron. This often happens in old abandoned mines—prior to the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act,  mine reclamation was unregulated. From a KUNC story:

For years, miners were not required to do anything with this water. In fact, most of them would dump it right into a creek, or put it in ponds with their tailings, where it became even more acidic.

“In the old days there was very little control and not much attention paid to control [of acidic water from mines],” said Cohen [Ronald Cohen, an environmental engineer at the Colorado School of Mines].

Fast forward to 2015, and the state of Colorado is dotted with abandoned mines — 22,000, according to the state’s Division of Mining, Reclamation and Safety — filling up with water that runs into its streams. And the mines outside of Silverton? They’re some of the worst.

The resulting sulfuric acid can release naturally occurring heavy metals contained in rocks such as manganese, lead, cadmium, copper and zinc, leaching those metals into the water and resulting in a toxic fluid. That contaminated water then flows out of the mine adits, but many have been blocked off or reclaimed (and some, though blocked, are leaking, as the Gold King Mine was).

What did this release of three million gallons of acid mine drainage do to the river? Find the EPA’s initial report of water samples collected after the breach here.  It shows elevated levels of iron, manganese, zinc and copper below the mine breach. By the time the plume reached Durango, the levels of those metals were lower, but still elevated. The Mountain Studies Institute has also been collecting samples, which are still being processed. From a High Country News article: 

A test by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, in which trout in cages were placed in the river prior to the plume’s arrival, has so far shown no acute effects: Only one of 108 fish had died during the first 24 hours in contaminated water. Meanwhile, the Mountain Studies Institute has been monitoring macro-invertebrates, and their results have been similarly positive.

The flowing mine water is being treated in a series of settling ponds near the mine portal by raising the pH through the addition of lime and sodium hydroxide and adding flocculant to increase sedimentation, this is effective, according to the EPA. Long-term impacts on the river, economy, agriculture and other affected sectors are still unknown.

In the Animas River’s drainage, the Animas River Stakeholders Group, which formed in 1994,  just after the last mine in the area had closed, works to improve water quality in the basin. The group, a collaboration between concerned citizens and representatives from industry and agencies, formed to fend off  Superfund designation. Although Superfund comes with the cash and assistance to remediate  such environmental problems, locals feared that such designation would destroy tourism. The group began with a lot of work to do, from a recent blog post on the Animas River Stakeholders Group:

In its first years of operation, the group sampled some 200 abandoned mine sites, then prioritized 33 in need of the most work. The group directly sponsored close to 20 mine remediation projects in the upper Animas River watershed and was indirectly involved in 40 more, considerably improving the water quality in several tributaries to the Animas River, including Mineral and Cement creeks. They also developed recommendations for a number of site-specific water quality standards that were ultimately adopted by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission.

Because of the liability stemming from the Clean Water Act that is associated with directly treating polluted mine drainage, most of the Animas Stakeholders’ remediation projects have focused on prevention through isolation of reactive mineralized material from water, either by removing tailings and waste rock from a drainage (and in a few cases reprocessing it at a local mill), capping it with an impermeable material, or diverting water that previously fed into old mine workings and tailings piles to minimize metal-loading.

An unplugged tunnel at the Gold King mine in the upper Cement Creek drainage

A turning point in the Animas River Stakeholder Group’s mission came after the last mining company to operate in Silverton, Sunnyside Gold Corp., built three massive bulkheads inside the vast underground workings of the Sunnyside Mine in the upper Cement Creek drainage starting in 1996 as part of an agreement with the State of Colorado that released the mine company from environmental liability.

The bulkheads were intended to act as corks, simply preventing water from draining out of the mine. The first one worked well, but when two more were added downstream in the tunnel six years later, the bulkheads collectively ended up functioning more as a bathtub plug, causing the water table inside the mountain to rise and eventually gush out of other mine adits—horizontal passages leading into a mine for the purposes of access or drainage—higher in the upper Cement Creek drainage.

As of March, mine drainage water poured out of a group of adits on the same slope—the American Tunnel, the Red and Bonita, the Mogul…and the Gold King—in an amount equal to the contributions of the 33 most-polluting mines the Animas Stakeholders group identified during its initial study 15 years ago. From that same blog post:

Collectively, these leaky adits have created one of the largest untreated mine drainages in Colorado, a festering sore oozing a toxic cocktail of heavy metals including zinc, cadmium, copper, manganese, iron, aluminum and lead.

But of course, as of last week, contaminated waters poured from the Gold King. As reported by KUNC, when the spill occurred, the Gold King was not the object of the EPA’s cleanup:

The agency had planned to plug a mine just below it, the Red and Bonita Mine, with the goal of reducing acid runoff from that mine.

Since mines are interconnected, however, and a plug in one can lead to more water flowing out the other, the agency planned to “remove the blockage and reconstruct the portal at the Gold King Mine in order to best observe possible changes in discharge caused by the installation of Red and Bonita Mine bulkhead.”

That project began July 2015. The Gold King Mine released its toxic load at 10:30 a.m. August 4, 2015.

 

Today, emotions of anger, fear and frustration and running strong, as reported by the New York Times. The U.S. EPA has published information about its claims process for compensating citizens who have suffered injury or property damage caused by the U.S. government’s actions.

While others have refocused that frustration, from an editorial in Parting the Waters: 

All development of the natural environment carries risk to our water resources. I suppose it’s human nature to ignore that fact and instead focus on the bright orange river staring you in the face.

 

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Animas River Stakeholders Group: An Unlikely Alliance for Watershed Health in the San Juans

By Samantha Wright

Gold King mine 3

The Red and Bonita mine near Silverton is a target of the Animas River Stakeholders Group’s work to repair water quality in the Animas River watershed.

For 21 years, an unlikely alliance of mining companies, environmental organizations, landowners, local governmental entities, and state and federal regulatory and land management agencies has converged faithfully on the third Thursday of almost every month in the tiny, isolated town of Silverton in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.

Collectively known as the Animas River Stakeholders Group, the coalition’s mission is to clean up the unfinished business of previous centuries—the environmental damage wrought by abandoned mines—by improving water quality and habitats in the Animas River through a collaborative process.

As such, the group is a poster child for a key goal of the draft of Colorado’s Water Plan, which in Chapter 7 supports the development of watershed coalitions and watershed master plans, while emphasizing the ways in which stakeholders can work together to promote watershed health.

It is a critical mission. According to Trout Unlimited, more than 500,000 abandoned hard-rock mines remain across the western United States with an estimated cleanup cost ranging from $36-72 billion. In Colorado, heavy metals draining from an estimated 23,000 abandoned mines are a primary culprit in the state’s approximately 9,548 impaired river miles.

A toxic legacy

Hundreds of these abandoned and inactive mine sites dot the mountainsides of the upper Animas watershed surrounding Silverton, where metal mining was an economic mainstay from the 1870s through the early 1990s. In addition to their picturesque ruins and colorful histories, the mines bear the unfortunate legacy of metal-loading to alpine streams and creeks, adding to natural metal-loading that already occurs in this highly mineralized area.

The Animas River Stakeholders Group coalesced in 1994, just after the last mine in the area had closed, to fend off the specter of a Superfund designation in the upper Animas River Basin, and to come up with a process for determining attainable water quality standards in the basin.

ARSG 1

The Animas River Stakeholders Group has operated for 21 years to convene concerned landowners, mine operators, experts from federal and state agencies, and members of environmental groups and local government in a collaborative, grassroots process.

In its first years of operation, the group sampled some 200 abandoned mine sites, then prioritized 33 in need of the most work. The group directly sponsored close to 20 mine remediation projects in the upper Animas River watershed and was indirectly involved in 40 more, considerably improving the water quality in several tributaries to the Animas River, including Mineral and Cement creeks. They also developed recommendations for a number of site-specific water quality standards that were ultimately adopted by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission.

Because of the liability stemming from the Clean Water Act that is associated with directly treating polluted mine drainage, most of the Animas Stakeholders’ remediation projects have focused on prevention through isolation of reactive mineralized material from water, either by removing tailings and waste rock from a drainage (and in a few cases reprocessing it at a local mill), capping it with an impermeable material, or diverting water that previously fed into old mine workings and tailings piles to minimize metal-loading.

An unplugged tunnel at the Gold King mine in the upper Cement Creek drainage

An unplugged tunnel at the Red and Bonita mine in the upper Cement Creek drainage began leaking after the water table rose due to nearby installed plugs.

A turning point in the Animas River Stakeholder Group’s mission came after the last mining company to operate in Silverton, Sunnyside Gold Corp., built three massive bulkheads inside the vast underground workings of the Sunnyside Mine in the upper Cement Creek drainage starting in 1996 as part of an agreement with the State of Colorado that released the mine company from environmental liability.

The bulkheads were intended to act as corks, simply preventing water from draining out of the mine. The first one worked well, but when two more were added downstream in the tunnel six years later, the bulkheads collectively ended up functioning more as a bathtub plug, causing the water table inside the mountain to rise and eventually gush out of other mine adits—horizontal passages leading into a mine for the purposes of access or drainage—higher in the upper Cement Creek drainage.

Today, the volume of polluted water pouring out of a group of these adits, all on the same slope—the American Tunnel, the Red and Bonita, the Gold King, and the Mogul—is equal to the contributions of the 33 most-polluting mines the Animas Stakeholders group identified during its initial study 15 years ago.

Collectively, these leaky adits have created one of the largest untreated mine drainages in Colorado, a festering sore oozing a toxic cocktail of heavy metals including zinc, cadmium, copper, manganese, iron, aluminum and lead. Making matters worse, once it is exposed to the open air, the water draining from the mines becomes highly acidic due to the weathering of iron pyrites.

An open tunnel, or adit, of the abandoned Gold King Mine continues to leak acidic heavy metals into upper Cement Creek.

An open tunnel, or adit, of the abandoned Gold King Mine continues to leak acidic heavy metals into upper Cement Creek.

In short, all of the hard-won gains in water quality that the Animas River Stakeholders Group made in its first decade were washed away as the water quality of the Animas River below Cement Creek worsened between 2005 and 2010. Metal-loading in the stream killed off three out of four fish species as well as a host of bugs and insects that formerly lived there, and sent toxic levels of zinc as far downstream as Baker’s Bridge near Durango.

Seeking a solution

Today, the Animas Stakeholders group is primarily focused on finding a solution to this problem that is amenable to everyone at the table.

The most comprehensive—and expensive—fix would be to install a permanent limestone water treatment plant in the upper Cement Creek drainage, which would cost upwards of $17 million to build and at least a million dollars a year to operate in perpetuity. This solution would likely only be feasible if a Superfund site were declared, potentially putting Sunnyside and its parent Kinross Gold Corp., an international mining conglomerate that has generated billions in annual revenue in recent years, on the hook to help foot the bill.

Sunnyside has threatened legal action if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pursues a Superfund designation, and the community of Silverton is also largely opposed to the idea, fearing it would scare away tourists as well as prospective new mine operations, thus damaging an economy that is as already as fragile as alpine tundra.

Rather than squabbling over the politics of Superfund, the Animas Stakeholders (whose members include designees from both EPA and Sunnyside) are working to determine if it is possible to reduce the volume of water coming out of the leaky mines in the upper Cement Creek drainage by putting in new bulkheads, thereby perhaps eliminating the need for a permanent water treatment plant—and Superfund designation.

The EPA plans to install the first of these new bulkheads in the Red and Bonita Mine this summer.

“If you could get even a 50 percent reduction in the amount of metals coming out of there, that would be a big win,” said Peter Butler, one of three co-coordinators for the Animas River Stakeholders Group and former chair of the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission. “That would still be a lot cheaper than treating it.”

The group is also interested in finding alternative water treatment techniques that would cost less to operate than a full-scale water treatment plant.

Finding money…and success

In recent years, money for abandoned mine reclamation projects has become increasingly scarce due to state and federal cutbacks to two of the Animas Stakeholder’s primary funding sources.

Congress has steadily hacked away at the EPA’s Section 319 Grant Program, which was established by amendment to the federal Clean Water Act in 1987 to provide funding for efforts to reduce nonpoint source pollution. Making matters worse, the application process for 319 grants has become “much more cumbersome as the EPA keeps adding more and more requirements,” Butler said.

Meanwhile, the State of Colorado has lately taken to raiding its mineral severance tax revenues to balance the state budget, leaving less of those funds to pay for reclamation projects through the state’s Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find funding,” Butler said. “Fortunately, there are not many mine waste piles left that we want to address.”

The Animas Stakeholders’ ongoing operations expenses are paid for through a variety of sources including 319 grants, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Southwestern Water Conservation District, and Sunnyside Gold Corp.

Meanwhile, funding for the bigger problem of treating polluted mine drainage “is mostly nonexistent at this point,” Butler said, because of liability issues stemming from the Clean Water Act. “Those projects will be expensive and will have ongoing expenses over time.”

ARSG 2

Meetings of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, pictured in early 2015, are held monthly in Silverton and are open to the public.

The structure of the Animas River Stakeholders Group is unique among the 85 groups listed in the Colorado Watershed Assembly’s 2014 Watershed Group Directory. It is not an incorporated entity, and it operates by informal consensus, thus sidestepping the hassle of determining which interest would have how many seats on the board of directors and how much say-so they would have.

“We just wanted to avoid that,” Butler said. “Particularly because initially there was a lot more contention between different people participating in the group.”

The sheer volume of water sampling and remediation projects that the group has executed over the past two decades has made it a role model for neighboring watershed groups, such as the recently incorporated Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership, which has embarked on its own journey to improve the water quality of impaired segments of the Uncompahgre River through passive remediation at abandoned mines on the other side of Red Mountain Pass.

What’s the secret to the Animas Stakeholders’ success? “We have a lot of very sharp, capable people,” Butler said. “Everyone is highly motivated, because the alternative is potentially having an outside government agency step in and take over.”

Samantha Wright mugshotSamantha Wright is an independent journalist based in southwestern Colorado. She is a founding member of the San Juan Independent (http://sjindependent.org/), a nonprofit online news source offering in-depth reporting on issues of importance in the western San Juan Mountains. Visit her online at http://samanthatisdelwright.pressfolios.com/.

 

webwqcoverFor more information, read the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Quality Protection. And consider attending The Mining Institute’s San Juan Mining and Reclamation Conference, which will be held May 28 and 29 in Telluride.

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