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Regional water update

Column by John Orr

Water – May 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel Update

Since the disaster declaration for the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel, it’s been learned that the actual cause of the rising water in the mine pool could be the result of a combination of factors including a collapse in the LMDT, increased precipitation over the last few years, and groundwater intrusion.

Lake County Commissioners are trying to focus some eyes on the Canterbury Tunnel collapse according to Commissioner Mike Hickman. Water quality at the LMDT treatment plant is of higher quality than it was historically. This would indicate a new source. That source, says Hickman, is probably the collapsed Canterbury Tunnel.

On April 10th, Hickman was hoping that State Representative Christine Scanlan would be successful in getting some money to perform dye testing to determine if the Canterbury Tunnel water is one of the sources for the rising water in the mine pool and if that water is moving into the LMDT. If so, Canterbury water could be pumped to the Arkansas River or connected to the Leadville water system at the Parkville plant. Leadville used to utililize more than a thousand gallons per minute from the tunnel prior to its collapse.

As luck would have it, the three federal agencies identified by Hickman as the “Three Stooges” really do have jurisdiction over different parts of the solution.

Reclamation is charged with treating the water from the LMDT. They will soon start treating additional water from an enlarged monitoring well upstream of the tunnel blockage on an emergency basis, without legislative authorization.

The EPA’s responsibility is to clean up the pollution around the superfund site. EPA has been trying to get Reclamation to implement the EPA’s recommendations to plug the LMDT above the current blockage and to pump water from a new well to treatment. This would likely involve increasing the current plant’s capacity.

The original letter that led to the disaster declaration was authored by the EPA, and it’s language was what worried the commissioners. “Due to the unknown condition of the tunnel blockages and the large volume of water behind the blockages,” the letter said, “we are concerned that an uncontrolled, potentially-catastrophic release of water to the Arkansas River from the LMDT is likely at some point. Not only endangering human life … the sudden release of water, rock, sediment, and heavy metals to the Arkansas River would be an environmental disaster.”

That’s pretty strong stuff.

According to Hickman, prior to the disaster declaration, the message from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment was, “We don’t have the money, we don’t want the liability, and we don’t have the authority.”

Commissioner Hickman told Colorado Central that once he saw the EPA letter, in early February, he decided to call a public meeting and a vote to declare the emergency. According to Hickman, “Until somebody gives the ‘all clear’ we’re going to keep pushing.”

Jennifer Lane, speaking on behalf of the EPA said, “I was taken by surprise by the disaster declaration.”

Without commenting on the commissioners’ declaration, Stan Christensen of the EPA said, “We stand by our statements.”

Reclamation does not see an emergency situation and therefore has been hesitant to commit to the EPA’s solution. Spokesperson Peter Soeth asks: What changed regarding the situation and data to cause the EPA to pen such a strongly worded message?

But the intent of the EPA’s letter was to get Reclamation to buy into the EPA solution for draining the mine pool, and that may in fact be the result.

Alamosa Salmonella Outbreak

Residents in Alamosa can trust their tap water again after Governor Ritter lifted a state boil order on April 11th. Early in March clinical microbiologists Johanna Aquino and Beth Ingal isolated the first case of salmonella. They followed procedure and reported it to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).

On March 19th, the state of Colorado told residents not to drink or cook with the water based on 33 or so cases identified in the week since the first cases started showing up. Nearly 400 citizens contracted the bacterial infection, 14 were hospitalized. A Denver Post writer said, “When you deal with minus-40 degrees in the winter, 80 mph winds in the spring, and tourists in the summer, a little mass poisoning isn’t so bad.”

The San Luis Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross, Alamosa Police Department, and the Alamosa Fire Department immediately stepped up to distribute bottled water. On March 21st, Governor Ritter declared an emergency in Alamosa County greasing the wheels for the state to help.

The cause of the outbreak may never be known but since the strain of salmonella found is the same as that found in birds, deer and warm-blooded animals, officials think that animal droppings got into the system somehow. Three theories are being considered: Cross-contamination from another water source; contamination of the city storage facilities; or a potential crack in one or more water lines.

The contamination did not come from Alamosa’s wells, according to Robin Koons, emergency response coordinator for the CDPHE. But the temperature of the water coming from the city’s deep supply wells is 70 to 80 degrees, which probably contributed to the outbreak.

Being the litigious society that we are, the notice of the first lawsuit was conveyed to the city on March 28th.

Short Takes

Outfitter Reed Dills (Buena Vista) scored a seat at the table when the Colorado Water Conservation Board meets. He will be joined by fellow Governor Ritter appointees, Bruce Whitehead (Hesperus) and Travis Smith (Del Norte).

Rachel Kullman is the new representative for Montrose and Olathe on the Gunnison Basin Roundtable.

Trout Unlimited weighed in on Colorado Springs’ proposed Southern Delivery System during the Reclamation comment period. They’re concerned about the pipeline’s effects on riparian health.

If you live around Deckers, all the excited shouting, laughter and splashing you heard earlier this year can be pinned on the future scientists and engineers taking part in Environmental Learning for Kids. They arrived from Denver to inventory bugs, pull samples, and help kids learn to assess their river’s health.

Water watchers in the Wet Mountain Valley are wondering if they’re in the gunsights of municipal suppliers after the recent purchase of the H2O Rranch by Fountain. The city plans to sell off the land after the switch of the water from agricultural to municipal use.

The days of the Upper Gunnison Project are pretty much over. In March, the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District abandoned the water rights for thirteen proposed projects dating to the 1960s.

The effort to build Canon City’s whitewater park — to be located on the Arkansas River adjacent to Duck Park — is $25,000 richer thanks to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

John Orr follows water issues at Please send story ideas and links to jworr [AT] operamail [DOT] com.