Federal Water Tap, October 26: Report: Gold King Mine Spill A Result of Technical Errors and Mistaken Priorities

The Rundown

The Gold King mine spill was a series of common blunders. The Bureau of Reclamation reports on water availability in the Santa Fe River Basin. The Army Corps makes accessing water data easier. The South Carolina floods broke records. The U.S. Geological Survey tracks nitrate pollution in Washington state.

“The incident at Gold King Mine is somewhat emblematic of the current state of practice in abandoned mine remediation. The current state of practice appears to focus attention on the environmental issues. Abandoned mine guidelines and manuals provide detailed guidance on environmental sampling, waste characterization, and water treatment, with little appreciation for the engineering complexity of some abandoned mine projects that often require, but do not receive, a significant level of expertise.” — Bureau of Reclamation review of the Gold King mine spill that occurred August 5, 2015, in southwest Colorado.

By the Numbers

17: Stream gauge records broken in South Carolina during the October floods. (U.S. Geological Survey)

Reports and Studies

Santa Fe Basin Study
New Mexico’s capital city, assuming there is no change in water-consuming practices, faces an average gap between supply and demand of 30 percent by 2055, according to a Bureau of Reclamation analysis. That figure is based on historic conditions. The gap rises to 65 percent when hotter, drier conditions are taken into account.

“If no adaptation actions are taken to offset the growing gap between supply and demand in the Santa Fe Basin, deficits discussed above would severely impact the ability to deliver enough water to meet demands, leading to grave regional economic impacts,” the study states. “Additionally, water-based recreation and flow and water dependent ecological resiliency are likely to be impacted by decreased flow in the Rio Grande and the Santa Fe River, especially in summer months.”

But all is not hopeless. The purpose of these basin studies is also to identify adaptation strategies. Among those considered in the Santa Fe study: conservation, reuse of treated wastewater, and purchase of additional water rights from outside the basin.

Gold King Mine Report
The mine spill that turned the Animas River the color of Gatorade was the result of a series of mistakes going back decades, according to a technical evaluation by the Bureau of Reclamation.

The conditions that led to the Gold King blowout are “surprisingly prevalent,” the report states. There are guidelines for opening old mines but few requirements to ensure technical competence. In the case of Gold King, the mine portal was improperly closed in 2009 and groundwater conditions in the mine were not well understood when it was reopened for cleanup by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The report was reviewed by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Nitrate Tracking Tool
The U.S. Geological Survey used computer models to trace backward the flow of nitrate-contaminated groundwater in the Yakima Valley of Washington, a farming and dairy center. The modeling will help pinpoint sources of nitrate pollution.

Researchers sampled wells in 121 locations that exceeded federal standards for nitrate, which, in infants, interferes with the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen. Looking at groundwater flow in reverse, they were able to roughly identify surface areas in which the groundwater originated.

Local farm politics, however, obstructed funding for computer modeling that would have examined the flow of nitrates into groundwater. Fear of lawsuits against individual farms prevented that study, the Yakima Herald reports.

News Briefs

Army Corps Water Data
Precipitation, storage, reservoir releases: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has collected major water data for its locks and dams and placed it in an easy-to-use, graphics-heavy website.

Chesapeake Bay Science
The U.S. Geological Survey will focus on four core science areas in the Chesapeake Bay over the next decade, according to a new research strategy. The four are:

  • Habitat conservation and restoration
  • Water quality
  • Climate change and land use change on ecosystems
  • Management to achieve multiple benefits

On the Radar

Congressional Republicans Say: Store El Nino Rains
Fourteen members of the California congressional delegation wrote a letter to President Barack Obama and Governor Jerry Brown.

The representatives want to know the state and federal plans for capturing El Nino rainfall this winter.

“As California faces a persistent, catastrophic drought, we write today to request that you direct federal and state agencies and departments to take all necessary steps to prepare to capture, store, and move water to northern, central, and southern California in the event that El Nino-related precipitation materializes this winter,” the letter states.

Sacramento River Flood Management
The Army Corps will begin an environmental review of the flood-management structures around Sacramento. The goal: revive ecosystems while reducing flood risks. Comments of the scope of the review should be emailed to daniel.f.artho@usace.army.mil by November 23.

Mining and Streams
On October 27, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing to discuss regulatory changes to protect streams from mining waste. The Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation, and Enforcement proposed in July new rules that require stricter pollution monitoring but do not impose mandatory setback distances from rivers.

Big Data for Ag
On October 28, the House Agriculture Committee will discuss big data — the steady stream of information from satellites, sensors, and soil probes. Boosters applaud the potential to increase farm productivity and cut water consumption, while some worry about data privacy.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.

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