Drought, Excessive Use of Public Land, Top List of Mine Cleanup in Southwest Colorado

With 2020 in the rearview mirror, it’s time to take a look at the most pressing environmental issues facing Southwest Colorado in the coming year, and there is no shortage of them.

How will the prolonged drought affect the water supply if winter doesn’t provide a strong snowpack this year?

Will the Environmental Protection Agency, now five years in the Superfund program, finally start making improvements to the water quality of the Animas River?

And, after the COVID-19 pandemic sends record numbers of people into the backcountry, how will public land management agencies react to what could be an even more chaotic summer?

Here’s a look at some of the top environmental issues that are expected to make headlines in 2021.

Winter to the rescue?

Southwest Colorado has experienced prolonged drought in recent years, but whenever conditions seemed to turn critical (i.e. not enough water supply), a harsh winter presented itself to save .

In 2018, for example, a period of brutal drought was marked by the winter of 2018-19, which replenished the region’s reservoirs and water reserves.

The Animas River, on the left, was reduced to a trickle this fall due to a prolonged drought. The image on the right shows the river in May when the flows were higher.

Jerry McBride / Durango Herald File

But what if this winter had been a flop?

This is the question that water managers in southwest Colorado are asking themselves, while at the same time hoping for storm after storm. But that could be tricky given that most weather experts predict a below-average year for snow.

“Frankly, my concern is next spring,” Jarrod Biggs, deputy director of public services for the city of Durango, said in October. “I keep my fingers crossed that all meteorologists are wrong … but when I look at all the data presented to me … next year is not looking very good.”

Loved to death

With normal activities reduced this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as trips abroad or sporting events, locals looked at their roadmaps instead and circled southwest Colorado.

It has been a year of incredible (and unsustainable, according to land managers) use of public lands across the region.

Public land agencies say people unfamiliar with backcountry travel ignored the rules this summer, causing more damage to fragile landscapes. Ridgway photographer Tony Litschewski took this photo near Clear Lake, outside of Silverton.

Courtesy of Tony Litschewski

People rode ATVs off marked roads through fragile alpine tundra, left droppings near campsites, trashed local trails, camped in no-go areas, hiked off-trail, and damaged vegetation – the list goes on. .

“It’s like we have a different mindset these days where people think they’re too special for the rules to apply to them,” San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad said in August. “This year has been crazy.”

Case in point: On the popular Frozen Lakes Trail west of Silverton, a typical day can see 400 to 600 hikers.

The large number of visitors is pushing public land agencies to look for ways to better manage crowds in 2021.

In the most drastic measure, the US Forest Service has said it will put in place a permit system for the Ice Lakes Trail, although it is not clear if it will be in place for next summer. .

Other measures considered by public land managers include increasing the presence of volunteers strategically placed in the hinterland to educate people on best practices for visiting the mountains.

“Because we’ve seen fewer numbers (of visitors) in the past, it’s a big catching-up game right now to try and manage it,” Jed Botsford, district recreation manager, said this fall. by Columbine Ranger of the Forest Service. “That joy of visiting public lands is definitely here now.”

Bonita Peak Superfund site

The Environmental Protection Agency listed nearly 50 mining-related sites around Silverton in what’s known as the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund in 2016, about a year after the agency triggered the mine spill. Gold King.

In the years that followed, the EPA primarily devoted its time and attention to studying and understanding the Animas River Basin in order to better formulate a long-term cleanup plan. Millions of dollars have been spent ($ 75 million, at last count), but there has been no noticeable improvement in the water quality of the Animas River.

The EPA in 2021 is expected to seriously launch some of the larger projects that are expected to have a positive impact by removing heavy metals leaking from mine sites into the waters of the Animas.

It is not known, however, what these specific projects might be. An EPA spokesperson said staff members were out of the office this week and unable to provide a list of upcoming projects this summer.

Village at Wolf Creek

2020 has been a calm year, at least publicly, in the decades-long battle for the village of Wolf Creek, but that could change in the New Year.

Since the 1980s, the Leavell-McCombs joint venture – led by Texan billionaire BJ “Red” McCombs – has sought to develop a hotel, cabins and cabins at the base of the Wolf Creek ski area, at an elevation of about 10 000 feet and 20 miles from the nearest town.

Not much has happened publicly in the long battle for the village of Wolf Creek, but that could change in 2021.

Courtesy of the Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture

From the start, conservation groups fought to protect the fragile landscape from the environmental impacts of such a large development, arguing that political pressure from McCombs unduly influenced the project.

The problem for McCombs all these years, however, is that his property is surrounded by a national forest and he does not have access to the nearest road, US Highway 160.

The Forest Service in February 2019 granted McCombs road access, which was immediately challenged by conservation groups.

The battle continues to be tied to the court system, with the developers agreeing not to start construction until the litigation is resolved.

New kid on the natural gas field

Big changes are coming for the San Juan Basin natural gas field in 2021.

Natural gas production has fallen for some time now in the San Juan Basin, which stretches across southwestern Colorado and northern New Mexico, due to falling prices for natural gas and companies that find cheaper places to drill.

BP America Production Co. is expected to officially divest its assets in the San Juan Basin in 2021 to a European renewable energy company, IKAV.

Jerry McBride / Durango Herald File

The slowdown has caused the main operators of the natural gas field to leave and leave, prompting concern from county officials that the new, smaller companies taking over may not have the financial resources to manage the field. .

But it was a bit of a shock when the biggest operator, BP America Production Co., announced in 2019 that it was selling its stake – to a European renewable energy company, nothing less.

Over the past year, BP has continued to operate the natural gas field during the transition.

The renewable energy company, called IKAV, has remained silent and declined requests for interviews, so it remains unclear what its interest is in an ancient natural gas field believed to be past its prime.

However, the IKAV should fully take over in 2021.

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