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Update for Ulysses S. Grant’s mining law on horizon?

Kate Burchenal headshotWhile the West has transformed and evolved greatly since the pioneer days, mining laws remain largely unchanged. Hardrock mining and extraction is, to this day, governed by President Ulysses S. Grant’s General Mining Law of 1872.

Five U.S. Senators, including Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, have introduced the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 in an attempt to reform that 140-year-old law and provide a modern mechanism by which we might cleanup abandoned mines throughout the West.

Colorado’s past and present are intricately tied to the hardrock mining industry. In the late-1800s, pioneers ventured West in search of storied riches awaiting discovery beneath the earth. The pioneers were by no means the first people to occupy the land, but their capacity for appropriating and shaping the land far exceeded the practices of their Native American predecessors. Beginning with the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush in 1858 and lasting for decades, Colorado experienced an enormous population boom as people flocked to the area in search of gold, silver and other valuable minerals.

Today, mining still plays a large role in our economy, and active as well as abandoned mines dot the landscape. It is estimated that there are currently 7,100 abandoned mines in Colorado, more than 200 of which are collectively leaking thousands of gallons of acid mine drainage every minute.

“Disastrous spills like the Gold King Mine blowout are easy to see, but the unnoticed toxins leaking out of thousands of abandoned mines are doing enormous damage to our watersheds every day,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

“Disastrous spills like the Gold King Mine blowout are easy to see, but the unnoticed toxins leaking out of thousands of abandoned mines are doing enormous damage to our watersheds every day,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

Throughout the West, estimates soar upwards of 500,000 abandoned mines.

Under current law, companies can extract gold, silver, copper, uranium and other minerals from public land without paying any federal royalties. This is one of the last vestiges of the old public land giveaways that enticed and encouraged people to settle the Wild West. Oil, gas and coal companies, on the other hand, pay annual rental payments for extraction activities on public lands.

“Hardrock mining companies have enjoyed a sweetheart deal for nearly 150 years, leaving taxpayers on the hook to clean up hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines leaking toxins and threatening communities across the West,” said Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, who has been pushing for mining reform since he gained federal public office in 1998.

Current funding mechanisms fall far short of the tens of billions of dollars needed to clean up harmful mines around the West. A major component of the new bill would be the creation of a Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund, under which new mining companies would pay annual royalties into fund totaling 2 to 5 percent of gross income. In addition, new and existing active mines would pay reclamation fees totaling 0.6 to 2 percent of gross income. The fees alone are expected to generate upwards of $100 million annually. The Reclamation Fund would provide resources to aid abandoned mine reclamation projects and would be distributed to states, tribes and other organizations through a grant program.

WON’T IMPACT EAGLE MINE

Before the questions come pouring in, I will make it plain that this law would have zero impact on the cleanup effort underway at the Eagle Mine.

First of all, the new act has no retroactive power. Owners of inactive and abandoned mines would not pay fees or royalties; only active mining operations, both new and existing, would contribute to the Reclamation Fund.

Secondly, the royalties would not be sufficient to cover all abandoned mine cleanups, thus the distribution of funds will be prioritized to reflect immediate needs. We are extremely fortunate to have a willing and able responsible party at the Eagle Mine who has been an active partner in the cleanup effort for nearly three decades. In places around the state where there is no active responsible party, taxpayers (read: you and me) are footing the cleanup bill. The 2015 Act aims to shift the financial responsibility from taxpayers to mine operators; it is not intended to help responsible parties conduct ongoing cleanup efforts.

The Colorado Mining Association has released statements expressing concern with the new law. Stuart Sanderson, President of CMA, says the proposed legislation “doesn’t provide workable solutions associated with abandoned historic mines that operated prior to the era of modern mining regulation.”

While the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 will not be a panacea capable of reversing the harmful legacy of mining in the West, we believe it is a step in the right direction.

Kate Burchenal is the education and outreach coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on November 15, 2015.

Eagle River has rebounded thanks to community support

Kate Burchenal headshotEditor’s note: This is the second of two parts. Click here to read Part 1.

As we all know, Colorado has a rich and fascinating history of mining that dates back to the late 1800s. Between 1991 and 1999, the Colorado Geological Survey inventoried abandoned and inactive mine sites on National Forest lands across the state. Of the 18,000 mine features they inventories, 900 presented environmental problems significant enough to warrant future study. About 250 of those were found to be causing significant or extreme environmental degradation.

For those of you who read the previous installment of this series and have been thinking that the story of the Gold King Mine and the Animas River sounds familiar, you’re correct. One of these abandoned mines happens to be in our backyard, right here in Eagle County. In 1984, that particular mine spilled thousands of gallons of metal-laden water into the Eagle River. The river ran orange, wiping out fish populations and causing Vail Resorts to blow orange snow on their mountains.

But where our story differs somewhat from the Gold King Mine is that we have been fortunate to have willing partners in the cleanup effort. In some parts of the state, mine owners will spend millions of dollars in court to avoid cleaning up harmful mines; here, those millions have gone to greatly improving the situation.

The Eagle mine has been listed as a Superfund site for the better part of three decades. Much progress has been made in that time thanks to coordinated efforts from entities such as the Eagle Mine Limited, Eagle River Watershed Council, Eagle River Water and Sanitation, CBS (the mine owner), Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Water Treatment

The main goal is and has been to treat all contaminated water before putting it back into the Eagle River, and to divert fresh, clean water around the mine so it remains uncontaminated and out of the water treatment plant. The water treatment facility treats 250 gallons of water every minute and removes 251 pounds of metals from the water passing through each day.

That is not to say, however, that the problem has been solved. Quite the opposite actually, since the mine tunnels and metal-rich rocks below Gilman aren’t going anywhere. This is an issue that will be with our community in perpetuity and so we must guard against complacency. We haven’t seen any large-scale, dramatic spills recently, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

Our Best Defense

From here, the best defense we have against a spill like the one at the Gold King Mine is to emphasize existing and augmented preventative measures. While we can’t rule out the possibility of future spills from the Eagle Mine, we can do our best to implement preventative and proactive measures that safeguard our river and our community.

The cleanup contractors have a regular maintenance and monitoring schedule to keep the pipeline – which carries contaminated water to the treatment facility – functioning properly, free of leaks and other issues. This aspect is critical, and very much achievable. Adding in satellite technology will provide remote, real-time monitoring for spills and leaks. This equipment will not eliminate the need for having people on the ground inspecting the mine and pipeline, but rather will provide an added layer of security.

The initial, catastrophic spill from the Eagle Mine in 1984 made the river uninhabitable for the entire fishery that once called it home. Today, hardier fish such as brown trout have returned, while species more sensitive to metals – such as rainbow trout and sculpin – are less prevalent. Though the species diversity is not what we would like to see, this return is a big accomplishment in and of itself.

We have seen this progress because our community pushed for it. The stakeholders in the mine cleanup listened, collaborated and took action. But we can’t pat ourselves on the back too heartily; as a community, we must stay engaged. The Gold King Mine spill is a reminder of what could happen and why we can’t let our guard down.

Kate Burchenal is the education and outreach coordinator for the Eagle River Watershed Council. The council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on August 23, 2015.

Snow and rain: A tortoise and hare story

Kate Burchenal, Education & Outreach Coordinator for the Eagle River Watershed Council.

Here in Colorado, we tend to think of precipitation in discrete, measured amounts: Inches of snow, cubic feet per second, acre feet of water. In an arid region often afflicted by drought, this is an understandable way to perceive our water situation. But if we dig deeper, the issues we face surrounding water are much more nuanced than simple measurements. Two other factors related to precipitation, the timing and type, are just as important as the amount, if not more so.

As any boater or skier will tell you, a storm bearing an inch of rain in July is very different from a system dropping an inch of rain in January. Though they may produce the same amount of precipitation, all storms are not created equally. Rain and snow are both welcome forms of precipitation and serve their own purposes, but the effects and consequences of each are quite different.

It is a classic case of “the tortoise and the hare.” Rain, the hare, moves quickly through watersheds, rapidly passing from cloud to ground to waterway and beyond. On the other hand, snow (the tortoise) stockpiles water in winter, gradually releasing it into waterways through spring runoff. Rain has more immediate benefits to and effects on the system, while the impacts of snow are on a time delay. I think we all remember who wins the metaphorical race.

For our rivers and streams and for our recreation-based economy, it is imperative that the majority of our annual precipitation (approximately 80 percent) comes in the form of snow. For a few important reasons, rain just won’t cut it.

Importance of Snowpack

Generally the highest flows of the year are fueled by the spring snowmelt, not rainfall. The intensity and volume of water during peak runoff scours river beds, making them more suitable habitats for fish and bug populations. Through the dry summer months, runoff from the remaining high-altitude snowfields bolster low flows and help maintain cool water temperatures for sensitive trout species. And finally, decreased snowfall negatively affects groundwater recharge. As previously mentioned, rain water (the hare) moves quickly through a watershed, increasing the likelihood of flooding and decreasing the ability of the ground to absorb precipitation into the water table.

Snow Water Equivalent

Skiers are constantly tuned into the snowpack for many reasons: To understand snow stability and avalanche danger as well as to know how this season stacks up to seasons past. In the water world, we are acutely aware of the snowpack as well. However, we aren’t looking at the base reports from ski areas or the season snowfall totals. Instead, we look at a measurement called the snow water equivalent. While snow water equivalent is also measured in inches and is inextricably connected to the measurements previously mentioned, it is used to understand how much water is stored on our slopes at any given time.

This year, throughout Colorado, we have been hovering at or a bit below the average snow water equivalent. As I write this article, the basins range from 73 percent to 101 percent of average (the San Juan and South Platte basins, respectively) with the Upper Colorado Basin at 91 percent. While we would certainly rather be above average, we are in a much better position than our friends a few states to the west.

A quick perusal of California’s Sierra Nevada shows snow water equivalents ranging from 0.1 percent to 25.8 percent. Yes, you interpreted that correctly. The snowiest place in California is currently sitting on just over a quarter of its average snow water equivalent. These numbers are clearly devastating for California’s ski industry, but the negative consequences are and will be much more far-reaching than that.

We all may be sick of shoveling and slick roads by the end of winter, but we can’t forget how vital snow is to our economy, our environment and our mountain way of life. So let’s all root for the tortoise and pray for snow!

Kate Burchenal is the Education & Outreach Coordinator for the Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on March 20, 2015.

Collaboration is Key for Water Solutions

Increasingly, water in Colorado (and around the West, for that matter) is becoming a fierce battleground with distinct lines drawn in the sand. We see environmentalists and recreationists squaring off against water suppliers; farmers duking it out with so-called “water grabbers”; and, unfortunately, the Front Range pitted against the Western Slope.

Kate Burchenal, Education & Outreach CoordinatorAnd it’s no wonder we see tension mounting with each passing year. We have a very finite amount of water at our disposal and seemingly innumerable ways in which we, as Coloradans, want to use that water. Drinking water, landscaping, agriculture, recreation, dust suppression, fire protection, industrial uses, snowmaking, power generation, environmental in-stream flows, and the list goes on. Each and every use is important in its own right, but finding the balance between these uses has proven to be extremely difficult.

Watersheds Conference

So one would think that when water professionals with various backgrounds get together in a room it would be all-out war, right? Wrong, actually. The Eagle River Watershed Council staff recently attended the Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference, an assemblage of water professionals from around the state, where that notion is shattered every year.

This was the ninth annual conference hosted by three nonprofit organizations: the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, the Colorado Riparian Association and the Colorado Watershed Assembly. Each of these organizations has a mission to better, in some way, the responsible use of water resources in the state of Colorado.

With nearly 55 speakers covering as many topics, there was no shortage of interesting subject matter to capture the attention of the 300 water professionals attending the conference. During the course of three days, we learned about groundwater, flood recovery, wildfires, resiliency, water quality, stream assessments and much more.

Collaborative Management

The session that most caught my attention was the one entitled “Collaborative Water Management.” Representatives from a municipality, a water utility and a nonprofit came together to speak about their experiences working with other entities to use water in non-traditional ways. One example was from the Front Range, others from the Western Slope, but the unifying factor was that these collaborations relied upon the strengths of various groups to use water in ways that benefited more than just the individual organizations.

Collaboration between entities, organizations and individuals on both sides of the Continental Divide is the answer to Colorado’s complex water issues. The conference highlighted this, perhaps unintentionally. People from around the state came together to learn from one another’s successes and failures, to network and to create partnerships that will help us to solve our problems, both locally and statewide.

Cooperative Agreement

There is always talk about the battle in the water world, but innovation and collaboration are abundant here, too, and it isn’t hard to find examples. Just look at the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, which brought Denver Water together with 42 Western Slope groups to draft a historic agreement that benefits water quality, the environment, recreation and water supplies on the Front Range and the Western Slope.

Or, for example, the Minute 319 agreement in which the U.S. and Mexico came together in an effort to reconnect the Colorado River with the Gulf of California, where river waters hadn’t flowed since the 1990s. This experiment also paid for infrastructure maintenance and ecosystem restoration in the mighty delta of the Colorado River; a great example of wide-ranging benefits stemming from one bilateral agreement.

As the same folks that attended the conference continue to draft a state water plan that protects their own water interests, it is important to reflect on these past successes in collaboration. Solutions most often lie in collective effort rather than in disparate fighting.

Kate Burchenal is the education and outreach coordinator for the Eagle River Watershed Council. The council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Call the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org for more information.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on October 31, 2014.

Hope remains for Colorado River Delta

In the current climate, speaking about water can often be disheartening: Water gaps, profound drought, escalating contention. But while those themes are extremely pertinent, they don’t tell the whole story. One experiment in particular reaffirms the notion that water law need not be stagnant; real, exciting changes can happen and are happening right now.

Kate Burchenal, ERWC's Education & Outreach Coordinator

Kate Burchenal, ERWC’s Education & Outreach Coordinator

Water law in the West revolves around the historic Colorado River Compact. Formed in 1922, the Compact governs water allocation and use among the seven states in the Colorado River watershed: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California. A 1944 treaty expanded upon this agreement to include Mexico, in recognition of the fact that the Colorado River runs through Mexico on its final push to the sea.

At least it used to. Historically, the mighty Colorado has coursed over 1,400 miles from its headwaters in the mountains of Colorado to its confluence with the ocean and the Gulf of California. Since the 1960s, however, the Colorado River has not consistently reached its lush delta. In fact, it hasn’t reached the sea at all since the early ’90s.

Biodiverse Ecosystem

The Colorado River Delta was once an extremely biodiverse ecosystem, home to hundreds of resident and migratory species. It was an important connector along the Pacific Flyway, giving birds a welcome place to rest, feed and drink on their long journeys up and down the coast. Now, without water flowing through the delta, only 10 percent of the historical wetlands remain and much of the life is gone.

But all is not lost. As Sandra Postel wrote for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative, “the delta is not dead. It is merely dormant, waiting for water to return … the delta is resilient. With the addition of water, life comes bouncing back.” This is where the innovation and excitement comes in.

In November 2012, members of the International Boundary Water Commission from the US and Mexico agreed upon an amendment to the original 1944 treaty. This binational agreement, called Minute 319, solidifies subtle changes to the way the two countries share water from the Colorado River. With so much contention and disagreement surrounding water issues within our own borders, this international agreement is quite a milestone.

One of the major changes outlined by Minute 319 is that Mexico is now able to store its allocation of Colorado River water (or some portion thereof) in Lake Mead. For Mexico, a country with very little water storage capacity, this is very important.

A Natural Defibrillator

Since Minute 319 went into effect, Mexico has been utilizing this new storage arrangement in Lake Mead for one very important purpose: to restore the Colorado River Delta.

At the end of March, the amazing experiment began as this stored water was released, creating a pulse of water large enough to mimic historical spring runoff flows in the Colorado River. The water’s progress has been slow as much of the water is absorbed by the parched landscape, but the Colorado River is once again making its way toward the Gulf of California.

In preparation for the arrival of the pulse flow, local organizations have been planting native vegetation such as cottonwood and willows, along what used to be the banks of the river. The hope is that the water will inundate the floodplain, simulating spring flows and encouraging the growth and seed dispersal of these plants. The hope is that the pulse flow will act like a cardiac defibrillator, shocking the system back into its routine.

These experimental flows began nearly two months ago and, though there was no certainty that the river would reach the sea, it looks as though it will do just that. There is also no guarantee how the delta will respond to this experimental pulse. It is important to note that the amount of water meandering toward the delta as I write this is a far cry from the rushes of water typical of the spring runoff decades ago. Yet it is a grand and worthy experiment all the same.

Even beyond the ecological and experimental significance, Minute 319 represents a great compromise between nations — one that gives us reason for optimism when examining our own water struggles

Kate Burchenal is the education and outreach coordinator for the Eagle River Watershed Council. The council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Call the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org for more information.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on May 18, 2014

Volunteers clean Vail Valley’s roadways

Despite an impending winter storm warning, families, friends, companies and organizations gathered to beautify our valley Saturday during Eagle River Watershed Council’s 14th annual Community Pride Highway Cleanup presented by Vail Resorts Echo. With 90 individual teams tackling 140 miles of highway, the valley underwent a makeover in just a few hours.

clockwise from left: one of our four-legged helpers; the Golden Toilet Seat was awarded to the Ruggs Benedict team for finding the most unusual piece of trash -- a full set of dentures!; volunteers getting down & dirty on Highway 6 near GypsumMany volunteers have participated in the cleanup for years, reclaiming their familiar stretch of highway each April. But new teams also bring new energy, and individual volunteers add to teams up and down the valley. Dave Mott, a longtime supporter of the highway and river cleanups, guessed that this was the biggest-ever turnout for the thank-you barbecue at the Broken Arrow Restaurant in Arrowhead.

Chip Bair, a recent addition to the Watershed Council’s board of directors, was participating in his second cleanup. Bair led a team cleaning up Highway 6 near his house in Eagle and also helped out at the barbecue.

“I was happy to see that there was less trash this year,” he said. “Last time, we picked up 20 bags along our mile. This year, there were only 14 bags.”

THANKING PARTICIPANTS

Eric Pottorf, food and beverage director at Vail Resorts, kicked off the barbecue with a thank you to all who were involved. Vail Resorts Echo was again the presenting sponsor of the cleanup and had many employees helping out.

A big winner of the day was the Ruggs Benedict team, which captured the coveted Golden Toilet Seat Award. Each year, the trophy is awarded to the team that finds the most bizarre piece of trash. This year that came in the form of full dentures found along Highway 6 near Gypsum.

Looking at water by the numbers

Did you know that Colorado is home to more than 700,000 miles of rivers, streams and creeks? Think about that: 700,000 miles. Considering that the Earth’s circumference is approximately 25,000 miles, end to end; Colorado’s waterways could circle the globe 28 times. And if we want to take this comparison to outer space, then one could travel to the moon and back and still have more than 200,000 miles to spare! Ready for more staggering numbers? Colorado’s population recently surpassed the 5 million mark, 5.18 million actually, which equates to 7.4 people per river mile.

Here in Eagle County, we love the waterways that meander through our towns and lives. Eagle County houses the entire 77 miles of the Eagle River from the headwaters on Tennessee Pass to its confluence with the Upper Colorado in Dotsero. We also play host to 55 miles of the Colorado River as it skirts through the northwestern part of the county. Fifty-five miles amounts to a mere 3.8 percent of the total length of the river, but we are nevertheless glad to have that access and proximity to the mighty Colorado.

As the population of Colorado grows, so will the tension on water supplies and water quality due to potential for increased pollution. But there’s passion among our population. People are moving to Colorado in droves to gain access to our skiing, rafting, hiking, fly-fishing and clean-air-breathing! And most of us care deeply about our watersheds and show that dedication if given the chance. So, why not put that passion to work monitoring water quality on our rivers?

Colorado River Watch

Since 1989, Colorado River Watch has provided such an opportunity by “work(ing) with voluntary stewards to monitor water quality and other indicators of watershed health and utiliz(ing) this high-quality data to educate citizens and inform decision makers about the condition of Colorado’s waters.” It coordinates water sampling by volunteer groups from around the state: middle and high school classes, local governments, environmental organizations and concerned individuals.

During the years, River Watch has collected data from more than 3,000 sites around Colorado on more than 300 of our local waterways. Each month, volunteers collect water samples from their stations to test for six main parameters: heavy metals, dissolved oxygen, pH, alkalinity, nutrient levels and hardness. Twice a year, volunteers add the collection of macroinvertebrate samples to understand the health and composition of the bug population.

Every sample is processed and carefully chronicled by River Watch in its Fort Collins lab. This information is then used by the Water Quality Control Commission (the administrative agency responsible for developing state water quality policies) to set statewide standards for allowable levels of constituents in the water, particularly metals. That’s right, River Watch training and quality control standards are so stringent that information collected by average residents is utilized to set state standards!

Here in the Eagle Valley, we have more than 12 stations in the hands of numerous River Watch partners: The Eagle River Watershed Council, the town of Vail, individuals and local classrooms. We want to get even more people out on the water taking part in this exciting program whether it is a class, a community group, an after school activity program or a family. It’s a great learning tool and a wonderful way for everyday people to have a hand in state water quality issues.