Tag Archives: water quality

Preventing Water Pollution Starts in Your Backyard


Photo Credit: USDA

Agricultural runoff is a prominent source of excess nutrients in water sources, but this nonpoint source of water pollution can originate with excess fertilizer being used on urban landscapes as well.

On April 13, 2017, the Colorado Foundation for Water Education was joined by Steve Lundt with the Barr Lake and Milton Reservoir Watershed Association for a webinar about cyanotoxins, algal blooms, public health and efforts to reduce nutrients in our water. 

“[BMPs] apply to your own lawn, just as they do on a corn field in Weld County,” says Lundt. “Don’t [fertilize] before a storm event and do soil testing—you may not even need phosphorus to grow your lawn.”

Sam DeLong

Photo Credit: Sam DeLong

So, what can an urban lawn owner do when they want to grow a vibrant, healthy, lawn without contributing to nutrient pollution? The following blog post by American Turf & Tree Care discusses ways that people can reduce phosphorous pollution in Colorado’s water sources by ensuring that the way they care for their yard benefits not only their lawn, but also the environment.


Preventing Water Pollution Starts in Your Backyard

By American Turf & Tree Care


Photo Credit: Jasen Miller

There are a number of reasons why Denver and surrounding cities are among the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, but certainly, one draw is the immense natural beauty of Colorado. Beautiful mountains and flowing streams make our area an outdoorsman’s paradise—tourists and Colorado residents alike flock to the area for hiking, camping and a chance to take in the scenery.

With the uncertainty that accompanies recent EPA spending cuts and policy changes, many people in the area rightfully have concerns regarding sustainability and important environmental regulations that protect these natural resources. In light of this, it becomes ever more important for businesses and individuals to make responsible decisions about actions that may impact the future health and beauty of our area.

Mike Sinko

Photo Credit: Mike Sinko

Improper management of industrial waste, sewage and agricultural runoff are some of the worst offenders when it comes to pollution, but there are still a number of actions individuals can take to preserve Colorado’s water. Mindfulness, when it comes to the products you use in your backyard, can be a first step toward fighting pollution.

Phosphorus Pollution: Too Much of a Good Thing

Kevin Dooley (2)

Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley

Phosphorus is a natural ingredient found in soil that promotes root development and helps trees, shrubs and other plants mature and thrive. But if your lawn already has a sufficient level of phosphorus in the soil, fertilizer treatments can actually have a detrimental effect on the health of your grass and can lead to pollution.

Phosphorus works by attaching itself to soil particles, which are then absorbed by plants during their life cycle. When strong fertilizers are used in your lawn or garden, it can slow down the absorption process. In the meantime, heavy rains can wash phosphorus from your yard into ponds, streams, rivers and lakes nearby.


Photo Credit: Dr. Jennifer L. Graham

Phosphorus contamination can kill fish, cause algae to grow at alarming and dangerous rates, turn water green and lower water quality, leach into drinking water and eventually contribute to “dead zones” in the ocean. The good news is that this pollution is largely avoidable, as most excessive phosphorus present in the environment is washed into natural bodies of water as the direct result of human activities.

Regulation Is Only the First Step

Boston Public Library

Photo Credit: Boston Public Library

The damage caused by phosphorus pollution is so severe that many states, Colorado included, have enacted laws to limit the use of phosphorus-heavy fertilizers. The Colorado Fertilizer Law, as enforced by the Colorado Department of Agriculture, regulates fertilizers and soil conditioners sold in Colorado for agricultural and residential use. The law requires that fertilizers be properly labeled with their tested nutrient levels – but these limitations only work if businesses and homeowners share a commitment to choosing fertilizers with low to no phosphorus.

“Pay attention to the three number label on the fertilizer you buy,” says Brad Woods, owner of American Turf & Tree Care in Greeley. The first number is nitrogen, the second is phosphorus, and the third is potassium. “You want to look for a bag where the second number is a zero or is low.”

How You Can Go Phosphorus-Free

You may not need additional phosphorus in your lawn. “Most lawn care providers offer complimentary soil testing and they can tell you what nutrients you need to restore balance to your lawn,” says Woods.

“One common mistake homeowners make is trying to fertilize dormant grass. When grass looks like it’s dying, but it’s just at the natural end of its growth cycle for the year, dumping fertilizer on top will actually do more harm than good,” says Woods. “If your soil is lacking phosphorus, a lawn care company can help you fix it in a way that is safe for your family and the environment.”

There are also some techniques you can use as part of your normal lawn maintenance routine to keep your yard naturally rich in phosphorus without the use of fertilizers, including:

  • NancyBeeToo

    Photo Credit: NancyBeeToo

    Composting: There is no better source of natural phosphorus than composted fruits and vegetables.

  • Tapping Organic Sources: If you need phosphorus and do not have access to compost, bone meal, manure, bat guano or soy meal will also do the trick! These materials are rich in nutrients and release phosphorus slowly, without the risk of contaminating water.
  • Mowing: When you mow your lawn in spring and summer, don’t bag the clippings! Grass clippings are high in phosphorus, and as long as they don’t mat the grass and block sunlight and oxygen from reaching your soil, they can be helpful in returning nutrients to the soil.
  • Don’t Overwater: Not only is overwatering bad for general lawn health, but it increases the risk of washing phosphorus out of your landscape.
Zach Dischner

Photo Credit: Zach Dischner

Don’t wash the natural beauty of Colorado down the drain! Water pollution is far-reaching, and contamination can hurt local wildlife, impact the health of you and your family, and disrupt the environment at large.

Being conscientious about the products you or your lawn care team uses in your yard is a simple way to fight back against pollution and protect your local ecosystem.

American Turf & Tree Care is a locally-owned company in Colorado on a mission to educate the local community on the impact their lawn care products have on the environment.  For more information about American Turf & Care, please visit http://www.americanturfandtreecare.com/.

Listen to the recording of the April 2017 webinar presented by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and offered in partnership with Colorado Water Congress with support from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Read more about agricultural runoff as nonpoint source pollution in the CFWE blog post, The Runoff Conundrum.

hw_fall_2016_final_coverFind further coverage on these topics in the Public Health Issue of Headwaters Magazine and learn more about water quality in CFWE’s Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Quality Protection.

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.


Filed under Agriculture, Environment, Water Education and Resources, Water Quality

Change Brings Hope


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.


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.”


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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Filed under Colorado River, Environment, Instream Flow, Water Legislation, Water Quality, Watershed Groups

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.


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


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.


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.


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

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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Filed under Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Environment, Headwaters Magazine, Water Quality

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.


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.”


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.


Filed under Colorado's Water Plan, Environment, Water Quality, Watershed Groups

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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Filed under Energy, Water Supply, Watershed Groups

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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