Tag Archives: water quality

World Water Day 2017: Why Waste Water?

Today is World Water Day 2017!wold waterday

In 1993, March 22 was designated as World Water Day by the United Nations (U.N.), thus setting aside a day for the world to focus its attention on finding solutions to the world water crisis.

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Photo Credit: Oxfam

Currently, 1.8 billion people around the world do not have access to safe drinking water, resulting in nearly 1 million annual deaths. Launched in 2015, the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals to Transform the World include the goal of all people having access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2030.

 

World Water Day is a great day to concentrate on making that goal a reality!

The emphasis of this year’s campaign is wastewater—the water that runs down the drain after washing your hands or out into the street when you water your lawn. Wastewater from our homes, cities, industry and agriculture, most often finds its way back into the ecosystem untreated, contributing to pollution, and without being reused, wasting a limited resource.

Wastewater Treatment Stages

           Wastewater Treatment Stages             Photo Credit: Annabel

There are ways to treat and reuse wastewater responsibly and safely in order to return it to the environment. In doing so, water can be stretched to its maximum potential.

Why waste water when it has so much left to give? To learn more about wastewater and its place in the water cycle, check out the  2017 Fact Sheet.

Water DropWorld Water Day is a day to educate ourselves on what we can do today, and throughout the year, to secure our collective water future—making water work for everyone. You can join the global conversation and share your water story using the hashtag #MyWaterStory.

Together, we can make a difference when we protect our most precious resource—WATER!

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Filed under Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Environment, Water conservation, Water Quality

A Plan for Our Drinking Water

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Photo Credit: USDA

In 2012, city officials in Flint, Michigan, began to investigate the possibility of saving money by switching water providers. Projecting a savings of $200 million over the course of 25 years, they decided to build their own pipeline to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) instead of continuing to receive water from Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). Officials then searched for an additional water source to bridge the gap between the loss of water being provided by DWSD and the completion of their connection to KWA.

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Flint River

They settled on using the Flint River.

On April 25, 2014, Flint—a city where 40 percent of its people live in poverty—began drawing water from the Flint River for public use. Officials did not implement corrosion control treatment at the Flint Water Treatment Plant—a standard practice that prevents supply pipes from leaching lead. Shortly after switching the water supply, residents complained about water quality, but it was not until early 2015 that city tests verified what people had suspected—levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. An independent test done by Virginia Tech found lead levels at 13,000 parts per billion (ppb). The EPA limit for led in drinking water is 15 ppb and water is considered hazardous waste at 5,000 ppb.

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Photo Credit: Ildar Sagdejev

The decisions officials made in Flint brought to light the environmental struggles faced by poor, rural and underserved communities across the nation, forever changing the perception of public drinking water, and prompting people to ask one very pertinent question that they had not previously considered:

How do I know if my drinking water is safe?

550px-environmental_protection_agency_logoOn November 30, 2016, EPA published the results of its six month review of the nation’s drinking water strategy in their report, Drinking Water Action Plan. This plan includes six priority areas, along with recommended actions to improve water quality and health in the United States.

The six priority areas are:

  • Drinking water infrastructure financing and management in low-income, small and environmental justice communities
  • Oversight for the Safe Drinking Water Act
  • Strengthening the protection of water sources
  • Addressing unregulated contaminants
  • Improving overall transparency, public information and risk communication
  • Reducing lead risks
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Photo Credit Steve Johnson

Circle of Blue, an online news source affiliated with the Pacific Institute and founded by journalists and scientists who conduct data analysis and document emerging and recognized crises, states that approximately 27 million Americans are served by public water utilities that are in violation of federal drinking water standards. Millions more draw their drinking water from unregulated, contaminated, household wells. And while 99 percent of Americans have access to an improved water source, underserved communities sometimes receive water from sources that present a health hazard.

These priority areas and actions for improvement would have an impact on Colorado’s rural water supplies, which have seen their own fair share of struggles when it comes to ensuring that the water is safe and free from contaminants. Headwaters magazine article, “The Rural Water Conundrum,” speaks to that exact issue. According to the article, 98 percent of Colorado’s water systems serve communities smaller than 10,000 people. These small communities could benefit from the improved support outlined in EPA’s new action plan.

Implementing change will not only require billions of dollars to be spent in order to update inefficient and outdated infrastructure, but will also call for the cooperation of government officials, water utility services and the public. Currently, the future of the Drinking Water Action Plan is in question, and only as time passes will we know if EPA’s suggestions will take shape in the form of solid action.

Until then, the public will continue to ask: Is my drinking water safe?

hw_fall_2016_final_coverKnowing what is in your water and how policy makers can impact public health is the first step being able to make decisions that will have a positive impact on your personal well-being. Read more about water and its connection to public health in the latest issue of Headwaters magazine, Renewing Trust in the Safety of Public Water.

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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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.”

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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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Real-time water use and treatment dashboard

Wow! This time it’s not your water, Colorado, it’s Oberlin, Ohio’s– as displayed on this cool real-time online dashboard. And hey, it could be your water, if we created dashboards for Colorado’s different regions. Although the Colorado Foundation for Water Education hasn’t taken on such a project, it’s a pretty great tool– take a look at Oberlin’s dashboard to see how much water is being used, processed and circulated throughout the city, and check out water quality too. Read about what they’ve done in Ohio, as reported by Public Radio International’s Living on Earth:oberlinmap

Petersen said the goal of the dashboard was to take very complex, technical information and translate it into an accessible, easily understood presentation.

“We’re trying to create these sort of compelling animated graphics that convey to people in a way how their resource consumption is actually affecting the world around them,” he said.

The Oberlin project is out in front of a wave of projects designed to illustrate energy flows and energy uses.  Especially over the past 10 years, the initiatives have really taken off. But Petersen insists his project is slightly different from these existing efforts.

“We’re trying to monitor not just resource flows in individual buildings, but resource flows at the whole community scale — as well as environmental quality,” he said.

If you load up the dashboard, you’re given the choice of looking at a city view, a view specific to an individual building.

“You’re looking at the freshwater treatment plant, the wastewater treatment plant, the electricity production facility, the river that drains our community,” he said. “And you’re watching electrons flow down power lines; you’re watching water flow down pipes.”

Because Oberlin is powered largely by coal, the power plant spews black smoke clouds every few seconds, a reminder of the impacts of power generation in the real world. But nearby are wind turbines and solar panels, indicative of how the energy mix is starting to change.

Clicking over to the water dashboard, the site presents information about water use, waste water processing and even the storage level of a local reservoir.

“If you look at that in the morning, you’re going to see high use because people are taking showers. There are times of day when our little bit of light industry within Oberlin is going to be using more water,” Petersen said.

The dashboard also shows individual electricity use, air quality, water quality — all indicators of community health.

So far, all the information has captivated parts of the community, Petersen said. Especially school children.

“We do actually see children as being central to this process,” he said. “Not just as recipients of information, but one of the things that we’re most excited about with environmental dashboard, is the community voices section where we’re taking images, and messages drawn from community members and displaying them to the community.”

Ultimately, Petersen is hoping the dashboard will help people to make decisions about their behaviors and alter them in a way that is more environmentally sustainable.

But in the short-term, the goal is merely to get people to engage with the dashboard, so they can make decisions, Petersen said, that are consistent with sustainable community life.

“We’re just as interested in having people think about how they are interacting with other community members, how they’re voting in local elections,” he said. “We want them to think about all of those things as they relate to resource use.”

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The Common Cup

Traditional water fountains

In the early 1900s water fountains were viewed as a technological solution to the common cup problem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today marks the 100th anniversary of an early public health and water quality regulation– the regulation banning the Common Cup.

This refers to the popular custom, prior to 1912, of using a single cup for the water cooler aboard trains. Disease transmission as a result of this common cup was a serious problem. Read more about the history of the common cup in this blog post.

On October 30, 1912 the federal government established the very first national drinking water regulation that banned the use of the common cup aboard interstate train carriers. (Common Drinking Cups 1912) One author has explained the arc of drinking water regulation extending from the common cup to Cryptosporidium. (Roberson 2006)

Consider the strides we’ve since made in sanitation,  regulations and technology. Thanks to our many dedicated and reliable water utilities for their work delivering clean drinking water.

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Denver Area Students Participate in World Water Monitoring Day

Today more than 100 fifth-grade students from the metro-area are participating in water quality testing as part of Denver’s fourth annual World Water Monitoring Day event at Confluence Park.

Students from Denver’s Teller Elementary School and Aurora’s Fletcher Intermediate School are testing the water quality of the South Platte River. Through this event, the students will gain first-hand experience with water quality monitoring assessments, designed to be a basic “checkup” for the river. The goal of the event is to promote environmental stewardship by teaching students about their local water resources and empowering them to take ownership in protecting our environment. At the completion of the event, students will share the results of the water quality tests in a global database.

Beyond water testing, students will participate in a number of activities to teach them about water quality. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Trout Unlimited will help students identify aquatic insects, which are indicators for ecosystem health. Students will also learn about stormwater runoff by participating in an interactive role-playing game facilitated by Earth Force and the Colorado Department of Transportation.

The World Water Monitoring Day event is sponsored by The EPA, CH2M HILL, Denver Public Works’ Keep It Clean program, Earth Force, Trout Unlimited and the Colorado Department of Transportation.   Denver’s Keep It program and Earth Force develop and implement water quality education programs in Denver Public Schools.

World Water Monitoring Day™ is an international education and outreach program that builds public awareness and involvement in protecting water resources around the world by engaging citizens to conduct basic monitoring of their local water bodies.

Do you know of other World Water Monitoring Day events happening near you? Share them!
Do you monitor water quality regularly? Set up a volunteer water monitoring group in your hometown by working with Colorado River Watch. 


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Top Colorado Water News: April 24-May 4

From drought restrictions to fracking hearings, water has played a starring role in recent news. Here are some of the stories you need to know about. Comment on this post to tell us about the Colorado water news stories you’re following.

1. Denver Water Begs Us to Use Less Water
During an incredibly high-snowpack year like 2011, it’s easy to forget that Colorado is considered semi-arid. But the drought-dry conditions that contributed to March’s North Fork fire, as well as the dismal rainfall Denver has received this spring, are good reminders of just how dry the state really is. Denver Parks and Recreation has already said it would trim its use by 10 percent this summer. Meanwhile, Denver Water announced on April 25 that it was implementing stage 1 drought restrictions. Click here to find out what that means for you.

The average household uses a whopping 130,340 gallons per year. Where is all that water going? Continue reading

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