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Central Colorado Water Roundup

Article by John Orr

Water – December 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

Rising Water in the Leadville Mining District

Water levels are rising in the Leadville Mining District and officials are hoping to get a handle on the cause and find a solution. At this point, a collapse of the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel appears to be the probable cause. But finding a solution is complicated by the mix of local, state and federal agencies involved with the Superfund cleanup site.

Lake County officials held a meeting this fall to discuss solutions. During the meeting a representative from the Bureau of Reclamation indicated that water being treated at the Leadville Tunnel treatment plant is cleaner than in the past leading him to comment that dirty mine water may not be getting through the tunnel to treatment.

One suggestion is to drill a horizontal well into the Canterbury Tunnel to keep good water from mixing with contaminated water. This idea would send some water to Parkville for treatment while letting the rest flow untreated into the Arkansas River. Another approach would pump water from the tunnel into the Parkville system.

Current EPA thinking has them looking for a permanent solution, that is, they’re looking to drain the mining district permanently. Reclamation and Envi- ronmental Protection Agency will both require additional funds for any new programs. Reclamation is limited to working only with water treatment for the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel; work outside of that area would require new federal authorization.

In other Leadville cleanup news, the EPA has indicated what it will take to get the site off the list of most polluted sites in the U.S. The EPA is charging local officials with the responsibility to enact permanent land use restrictions and other safeguards to prevent exposure to heavy metals.

The EPA indicates that some of the 12 major cleanup projects have been successful, citing the restoration of the Arkansas River, but the agency is seeing new leaching of heavy metals indicating little or no progress on other cleanup projects. The EPA is pushing for binding agreements between Lake County and the mining companies to cover funding for the water treatment plant and other programs, such as monitoring blood-lead levels in children.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District Groundwater Management Sub-District #1

The Acting State Engineer has approved a management plan for the sub-district which includes details about operations. Objectors to the state decision have until November 26th to file their objections in water court in Alamosa.

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District has also approved the new sub-district which is located in the closed basin area of the San Luis Valley north of the Rio Grande River. Objectors to that approval had until November 5 to file, and three objectors surfaced prior to the deadline: Farming Tech, Skyview Cooling and Bill Ellithorpe.

Irrigators and water suppliers are hoping that the new management plan will keep state officials from shutting down wells without compensation as has happened along the South Platte and Republican Rivers. Many hope the plan will evolve over time but feel it’s good enough to put into practice now.

Sustainable water supplies and development

Rep. Kathleen Curry (D-Gunnison) is considering legislation for next session that would make a sustainable long-term water supply a pre-requisite for new developments. She is targeting Front Range developers, since water there is over-appropriated, leading to pressure to divert water from Western Slope rivers.

Details for the proposed legislation are sketchy right now. One big question is, “What is a sustainable water supply, is it 50 years or 100 years?” Curry and others hope to respond to situations such as the one in Douglas County where growth is dependent on the Denver Basin Aquifers. The Denver Basin is being drawn down rapidly without an available supply for the future.

Curry is also planning on sponsoring a bill next year (along with State Senator Jim Isgar D-Hesperus) that will change how the state allocates water from the Colorado River.

Projects keep surfacing to use Colorado’s unappropriated water under the 1922 Colorado River Compact (i.e. Aaron Million’s pipeline and the Yampa pumpback). The Colorado River District has argued for years that managers of the Colorado River need to take an inclusive approach that accounts for tributaries such as the Gunnison, San Juan and Dolores along with tributaries to the Green River like the Yampa and White.

The compact allocates 75 million acre feet over any 10-year period to the lower-basin states (which are currently in an extended drought). If they issue a call on the river, the upper basin states must let the water down the river. The compact is the number one law on the river, according to Isgar.

The legislation will bar junior rights holders, with a decree after the legislation passes, from drawing water from the system unless system storage is at a certain level (i.e. 70%). Exact conditions have not been set yet. Chris Treece sees the legislation as necessary to avoid the, “Train wreck of a compact call.”

Curry expects resistance from Front Range lawmakers and water users, but feels that the legislation must get done in the next session.

In other Colorado River news the final environmental impact study for the drought management plan proposed by the seven compact states has been released by Reclamation. The agreement was hammered out last year and is awaiting final approval.

Federal water legislation</P>

The U.S. Congress has been busy this fall working on legislation of interest to central Colorado. In November, they voted to override President Bush’s veto of H.R. 1465, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). The $23 billion package includes $120 million for projects across Colorado, including money for a statewide Selenium study and $25 million for the Rio Grande Environmental Management Program.

The House also worked on H.R. 2242, the Clean Water Restoration Act of 2007. This bill is designed to put the teeth back into the Clear Water Act after a U.S. Supreme Court decision restricted clean water protections to “navigable waters” only. Colorado has very little navigable water.

H.R. 2262, the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act was another darling for the U.S. House this fall. The act would update the 1872 General Mining Act, requiring royalties on gross income, shifting the burden of cleanup from taxpayers to the mining industry and provides for citizen review, every three years, for reassessment of a mining project’s bond and permit.

Short takes

Salida is proposing a new watershed protection district including a five-mile area above all diversion points for the city. They’re hoping to regulate 16 activities including stock grazing, application of fertilizers and pesticides, along with vegetation removal. There are a lot of hurdles to jump before the regulations will go into effect including whether or not the city can require permits on federal land.

In the spirit of Sun-tzu’s, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” the Arkansas Basin Roundtable snuggled up to the Metro Roundtable and South Platte Roundtable for a combined meeting in November.

The EPA is causing grief all over central Colorado by tightening drinking water standards. Buena Vista residents are looking at a possible 20% increase in rates. Expansion of the plant is also being discussed.

In other EPA mandated news the Alamosa Public Works Department is ahead of schedule on their new treatment plant designed to remove arsenic from domestic supplies. The plant is scheduled to be online in May 2008 and fully operational in August 2008.

Colorado finished the water year looking good for precipitation. Totals for the year include 108% for the Arkansas Basin, 101% for the Gunnison and 108% for the Rio Grande and 98% for the South Platte.

Aquifer levels in the San Luis Valley increased more than 200,000 acre feet this year without the usual decline at the end of the summer. Late summer monsoon rains are credited.

Happy 35th birthday to the Clean Water Act. The world class fishery on the Arkansas is a beneficiary.

Teachers looking for ideas in water education can find help at

The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District has filed suit to halt Aurora’s long-term contract with Reclamation for storage in Lake Pueblo and the subsequent trades for Fry-Ark water. The city has a few options if the lawsuit prevails, including the proposed Box Creek Reservoir, between Twin Lakes and Turquoise Lake.

The Colorado Water Quality Control Board is looking for $100,000 to help set a baseline for water quality in the Arkansas River Basin. Work will start in 2008 if they get some funding.

Here’s a new word for you, albedo. The albedo of an object is the extent to which it reflects light. Clean snow reflects nearly 100% of the light that hits it. When winter storms add dust to the snowfall it lowers the albedo and increases early snowmelt.

The Colorado Environmental Coalition is looking to get the pro-conservation legislature to enact laws for minimum stream flow. One area they’re working on is eliminating the so-called consumptive use penalty where a farmer who loans water for stream flow can lose his rights to that water. Another bill hopes to use tax credits for instream flow donations.

Send comments, links and suggestions to jworr [AT] operamail [DOT] com. John Orr covers Colorado water issues at