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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

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Water Education Colorado

Toolkit to Innovation

By Jayla Poppleton

Many of Colorado’s watershed groups are breaking trail with innovative strategies and technologies to confront the challenges in their watersheds. Here are a few of their stories to inspire and unleash a wave of creative mettle amongst community organizers everywhere.

Mushrooms to the rescue
In a lifeless fork of southwestern Colorado’s Mancos River, the local watershed group is eyeing a bioremediation technology based on mushroom spores to bind up heavy metals responsible for the river’s inhospitable environment. The East Mancos River from the Rush Basin to its confluence with the West Mancos is state-listed under section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act as impaired for high levels of copper and zinc. “Of course there are other metals in there too,” said Felicity Broennan, who recently left her position as program director of the Mancos River Watershed Project, where she’d been for four years.

Broennan discovered the idea of using the mushrooms to chelate—or bind up—metals, a process called mycoremediation, at an April 2009 talk given by Paul Stamets, author of “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.” Since then, the group has been evaluating the potential of taking straw bales or aspen that are sporulated, or injected with the mushroom spores, to build a filtration system in the river. “It’s a really interesting new process,” said Broennan. However, no successful models of mycoremediating in a climate comparable with the Mancos watershed exist. Stamets has experimented with his spores in the Pacific Northwest, where winters are milder. Although, the mighty metal-accumulators might not survive the Colorado winter, the group is considering giving it a try.

“We know what kinds of mushrooms we need,” said Broennan. Now they’re scouting potential partnerships. Though the project would be fairly low-cost—in the thousands as opposed to millions of dollars for other solutions, according to Broennan—property owners would need to give their permission for accessing the river at key locations. The group would have to sample the growing mushrooms as often as every six weeks and then find a lab willing to test their level of heavy metal hyper-accumulation. “It’s basically the logistics of pulling in partners,” explained Broennan. “[The mushrooms] would be considered a hazardous material.”

Once the mushrooms become saturated, they would need to be harvested and safely disposed of, or, best-case scenario, the residual metals could be reused. “If the metal-laden mushrooms are not removed, they’ll just decompose and the metals will return to the soil,” said Broennan. “And then you obviously haven’t done anything.”

Racing to clear “land mines”
Most people might not equate their behavior, or their dogs, with non-point source pollution, but that’s exactly what the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition is trying to help them do by sponsoring Crested Butte’s annual Poo Fest. Poo Fest is a light-hearted and community-centric approach to dealing with a winter’s worth of rotten poo, unveiled by the first snow-melt each spring in a town where there’s one dog for every five people. According to Anthony Poponi, director of the coalition, dog feces contains fecal coliform, E.Coli and other contaminants that, if left on the ground, can migrate to nearby waterways.

In 2004, resident artist Kate Seely, less motivated by pathogens than the town’s “aromatic edge,” rallied her neighbors with the challenge of scooping up the most dog poo on a SaTURDay in spring. She enlisted the support of local businesses, readied the scales and charged competitors five dollars to register. Participants are entered in a toilet bowl drawing for donated booty, which includes bottles of wine, gift certificates and outdoor gear. Registration also includes implements—little scoops and buckets and a clear plastic bag—and a “poop shooter,” a spiked coffee drink to take the edge off with its double shot of espresso, chocolate-covered beans and splash of Baileys.

Two hours later, everyone converges to weigh-in the waste. After six years, the record cumulative weight of canine feces retrieved in a single day is just under 1 ton. Seely hopes to ultimately use the waste to create some kind of bio-energy, rather than sending it all to the landfill: “I’d love to see poo-digesting machines on every corner.”
She keeps the event fun and rewards random contestants with $100 bills hidden in matchboxes she designs for the occasion. “The payoff has to be worth it, and that’s why it works,” she says.

For Poponi and the coalition, which sponsored Poo Fest in 2009 and again on May 8, 2010, the event provides a contact point with the public. “We support Poo Fest because it helps us spread the message about how we’re addressing other types of non-point source pollution, like mines and roads, while also getting residents to understand they can be part of the problem.” And, as Seely has shown, part of the solution.

Isotopic identification
South of Telluride, on the Howard Fork of the San Miguel River, the San Miguel Watershed Coalition together with the Trust for Land Restoration is using water isotopes to craft a remediation strategy to reduce acid mine drainage.

For eight years, the partnership between the watershed coalition and the trust has been monitoring acid mine drainage from mine openings and mine waste piles in the Howard Fork Basin, including metal-laden discharge from an abandoned mine called the Carbonero. Curiously, contaminated water drains from the Carbonero’s collapsed, but open, entry point 2,500 feet above the valley floor, high above the nearest visible water source. Pat Willits, executive director of the Trust for Land Restoration, said the groups set out in 2006 to “figure out where the water comes into the mine and if there is a way of intercepting it or diverting it before it becomes contaminated.”

Working with the Environmental Protection Agency’s national groundwater expert Mike Wireman and Dr. Mark Williams of the University of Colorado’s Institute of Alpine and Arctic Research, they used isotope sampling to “fingerprint” the water. Wireman explained that the isotopes provide information about the age of the water molecules exiting the mine, as well as the source of the water and the pathways it traveled.

The team was able to rule out its original theory that water was migrating from another basin through the Carbonero’s tunnels. Instead, the isotopes pointed toward groundwater. And historical records, which suggest miners hit a large, underground water source in the 1950s, back up the new theory.

In late summer or early fall of 2010, the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety will help the groups drill holes from above to investigate the condition of the Carbonero’s tunnels. With the aid of a submersible TV camera, they’ll judge whether the Carbonero is a good candidate for a bulkhead remedy, in which the problem water can either be channeled for treatment or diverted back into the ground. If it proves economically viable, the Carbonero’s landowner even hopes to run the water through turbines, capturing the energy of its 2500-foot descent en route to treatment. Either way, if the groups succeed in stopping the drainage, they’ll cut metal loading into the Howard Fork by more than half, said Willits.

The isotope sampling technique, which Wireman and others at the EPA have used routinely over the past 10 years, has only more recently been used by watershed groups. It’s important, said Wireman, especially when considering potential remedies where a lot of money is on the line, “to understand the hydrology of an underground mine so that you can fix it.”

A bright future in power
The Clear Creek Watershed Foundation has spent 20 years turning “brownfields” to “greenfields” through creative projects like building a recreation center on an old mill site in Idaho Springs and turning a mill tailings pile into a boat launch in Dumont. Now they’re looking to turn some remaining “brownfields” to “brightfields,” said founder and board president Ed Rapp, by promoting wind and solar energy development on abandoned hillsides pocked with waste rock and tailings piles.
One of the foundation’s goals is to help Clear Creek County identify sustainable income streams. If the county succeeds in bringing in utility-scale renewable energy, it would be a huge boon. “There’s very little to work with to develop the economy,” said Diane Kielty, project development coordinator for the foundation, especially when 68 percent of the county’s land is owned by the U.S. Forest Service.

The foundation is also expectant that developers would consider using some of the watershed’s contaminated waste rock as backfill around wind turbine foundations and solar panel support stanchions, effectively “killing two birds with one stone.” The advantage, said Rapp, would be the tradeoff of materials right on the ground. Developers wouldn’t need to transport as much material, and the watershed would benefit as mine waste is isolated from waterways.

“We’ve begun a study to characterize some waste piles for their potential to be used for construction purposes,” explained Kielty. Working with the EPA and the Colorado School of Mines, the foundation hopes to provide information that will encourage developers to move forward.

Spurred by the foundation, the county passed a resolution in 2008 stating its intent to achieve 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy and energy efficiency by 2018. The county is well-positioned to meet its goal. Two 230-kilovolt lines and a 115-kilovolt line run through the middle of the county and are operating below capacity. “Existing transmission is a huge plus,” emphasized Kielty. Another asset is the 300-megawatt Cabin Creek pumped hydropower plant, where water is pumped vertically and later released through turbines to produce energy. Cabin Creek could store energy when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining for use when it’s not.

Roused by the foundation’s vision for renewables, in 2007 the Clear Creek Power Company began studying the area’s wind potential and is poised to move forward with the area’s first major project—contingent on approval from the county and the Forest Service. The company’s Highland Park Project could be online by 2013, generating 100 megawatts, or enough to power 40,000 homes.

In the meantime, the watershed foundation will continue to promote its renewable energy initiative. “I see us as the catalysts,” said Christine Crouse, outreach coordinator for the foundation. “It is our goal to help turn concepts into reality for current and future generations of this area.”

Together we float
The Roaring Fork Conservancy has worked diligently for three years toward a unifying plan for its jurisdictionally-challenged watershed. With the goal of getting a diverse group of entities to support the final stage of the project and to generate more public involvement and awareness of the plan, the group took key players out on the river.
On June 10, the group hosted a floating summit on the lower Roaring Fork between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. They invited elected officials and agency staff to come discuss issues and potential solutions for the watershed.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy has hosted a public float each summer to educate citizens about the watershed and to celebrate the river. But the focus this year was unique. “The timing seemed right to invite elected officials and agency staff to do a float and come together around the Roaring Fork Watershed Plan,” said Tim O’Keefe, education director for Roaring Fork Conservancy. As of press time, O’Keefe said Sen. Gail Schwartz and Rep. Kathleen Curry would attend and that Gov. Bill Ritter may get on a raft as well. But the focus was primarily on city and county officials. “Unlike a lot of watershed groups in the state, we’ve got parts of four counties and six municipalities within our watershed, and helping them talk to each other has been a goal for a long time. This event will further that.”

One issue the group was hopeful participants would discuss is water quantity. “With two of the five largest transmountain diversions in the state, we definitely focus on water quantity,” said O’Keefe, “because protecting that trickles down to everything else.”

The summit also floated “through some great habitat that’s been protected through conservation easements,” said O’Keefe, as well as some areas that have been degraded. “We put a water resources person on each boat to facilitate some dialogue. The gist was to get people talking, but we let participants drive the conversations.”
As for building momentum around the watershed plan, Roaring Fork Conservancy hopes the summit participants will embrace it and generate awareness amongst their constituents. “We’ve got a very diverse group of stakeholders,” explained O’Keefe. “The hope is to give a collective voice in saying how we, as a watershed, want to move forward and manage and protect our resource.”

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