Tag Archives: water 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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Successful Implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan Requires a Data-Driven Mindset

nicolebc2014webNicole Seltzer, the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s former executive director moved on last week from her position at CFWE to pursue a personal goal of spending more time enjoying Colorado’s mountains. While working at CFWE, Nicole led the organization through a period of growth by doubling staffing levels, diversifying programs, and increasing the budget by over 60 percent. She has become a strong voice and leader for Colorado’s water community. Although she hasn’t gone far to her new home on the West Slope, we’ll miss Nicole at CFWE. Before leaving, Nicole wrote a number of letters to impart some of her wisdom—read some thoughts from the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s December newsletter, on data-driven water education:

In the 15 years that I’ve conducted water education and outreach in Colorado, I’ve learned that the conversation never stops at water. To have an intelligent conversation about water, I also need to understand western history, ecology, forest health, economic development, recreation management and so much more. There are thousands of public policy issues you can connect back to water.

I think this is why I’ve so appreciated my time as the executive director of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. As someone who enjoys making connections between people and issues, CFWE is the perfect home to explore meaningful topics through a lens of water. Even seemingly disconnected topics like leadership skills or behavior change are absolutely relevant to water conversations.

I’ve recently had the pleasure to work alongside Colorado Water Conservation Board staff to discuss implementation of the education and outreach strategies in Colorado’s Water Plan. The conversation initially focused on the actions outlined in Chapter 9.5 to examine current gaps in water education, and use that information to support dedicated funding for outreach activities statewide. This is sorely needed, and will be a great starting point.

The plan contains much to be proud of, from goals around municipal water conservation to integration with land use planning to stream health to funding mechanisms. While they are wide ranging and diverse, I believe there is a common thread that connects them. None, in my opinion, are achievable without dedicated outreach and engagement strategies that have clear goals and metrics to measure success.

Good water education increases awareness of the severity and complexity of water issues, creating concern and the desire to get involved. Good water education broadens perspectives and helps us walk a mile in another’s shoes, developing compassion for other viewpoints and a willingness to explore rather than disengage in the midst of disagreement. Good water education widens the number of people invested in our water and river systems, producing collaborative solutions that meet multiple needs. Good water education promotes uncommon alliances by connecting people around common interests instead of dividing them with their differences.

How, as the Colorado water community, can we support the CWCB as it seeks to implement these goals we’ve adopted together? From my vantage point, I see one fundamental priority that would put us on the right path. Adopting a data-driven mindset about water education would immediately increase the amount, quality and effectiveness of these programs, which is a backbone of water plan implementation.

Our profession is driven by and beholden to numbers: gallons per capita per day, milligrams per liter, pounds per square inch. But we rarely apply the same logic to outreach and education programs, or if we do, it is through proxies like the number of people at an event or how many factsheets were handed out. What if we began to hold ourselves to a higher standard? Instead of collecting no or loosely relevant data, we clearly identified the outcomes we sought, and developed robust mechanisms to track them?

Two actions would help us move in the right direction, both of which are currently being considered by CWCB as they work to prioritize implementation of water plan goals.

First, the development and funding of a centralized, regularly repeated statewide survey of public knowledge, attitudes and values. We need a baseline as a state against which we can measure the success of education and outreach programs. There are numerous surveys that have been completed in the last 5 years, but most seek to answer a narrow set of questions, are limited to a certain geography and are never repeated. Just like we track the water quality in a stream before, during and after a project, we should measure shifts in public opinion and knowledge on water. To be truly useful, this undertaking must be a statewide partnership that is developed, funded and used by a wide variety of entities. And it must be repeated on a regular basis to have lasting value.

Second, we must create a set of consistent metrics that water education professionals could opt to use to gauge their effectiveness. You cannot understand that which you do not measure. A standardized set of metrics that can be used by all outreach and education programs in Colorado will help us set collective goals, hold ourselves accountable to meeting them, and create an ethic of outcomes-based success that does not currently exist.

CFWE has already taken several strategic steps that align well with water plan goals. These include fostering our Water Educator Network to increase the amount, quality and effectiveness of water education programs in Colorado, developing our Water Fluency program which empowers community leaders who are not currently engaged in water to critically think about these issues, and focusing our print and online content to examine a wider array of public policy issues through a lens of water. We also collect a large amount of both quantitative and qualitative data on the impact of our work, and use that to regularly reflect and improve upon our programs.

As Colorado’s leader in water education, CFWE is excited to be CWCB’s partner in the planning and execution of these important and far-reaching goals. Though I will step down as executive director in December, CFWE will remain committed to its core values of maintaining an unbiased, objective viewpoint that encompasses diverse perspectives on water resource issues and producing high‐quality educational tools and experiences. We will use our expertise to help lead the way in implementing Colorado’s outreach and education goals, and foster the conversations necessary to get there. And of course, we’ll do all of this while also having a good time.

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