Report: State water quality declining |

Report: State water quality declining

Bob Berwyn
Summit County correspondent

SUMMIT COUNTY ” Continued population growth, together with oil and gas development, represent intensifying threats to water quality in the state, according to a new report from Environment Colorado.

Using data from the EPA and the Colorado Water Quality Control Division (WQCD) the report concludes that water quality in Colorado has declined in recent years.

The percentage of Colorado streams deemed fishable or swimmable declined by seven percent, while the number of stream segments classified as impaired rose 53 percent between 1998 and 2006.

But at least part of that reported decline is due to better data collection and monitoring, said WQCD director Steve Gunderson.

“The number one reason we see more impairments is we have more data. And standards are tighter,” Gunderson said. The most common pollutant statewide is selenium, affecting 25 percent of all impaired stream reaches. Second on the list is zinc, a common pollutant from abandoned mines that affects Summit County’s watersheds.

With cleanups in various stages of planning and execution, and stringent controls on discharges, water quality in Summit County is holding its own, said Lane Wyatt, of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.

A fairly complete historical record of data shows that water quality in Dillon Reservoir remains outstanding, Wyatt said. Similarly, monitoring from some other locations shows improved water quality, including Straight Creek (flowing down from the Eisenhower Tunnel to Dillon).

Intensive work by the Colorado Department of Transportation has paid off in that drainage by measurably reducing sediment loading, according to Wyatt.

Several projects recently completed under the leadership of the county’s open space department are also promising improved waters, including a Horseshoe Basin mine cleanup high in the Peru Creek drainage and a Blue River restoration project at Fourmile Bridge, between Frisco and Breckenridge.

A water treatment plant in French Gulch at the abandoned Wellington-Oro mine is under construction.

That facility will significantly reduce zinc loading downstream in the Blue River.

Although there is plenty of ongoing monitoring of Summit County streams, making a basin-wide assessment is still a challenge, Wyatt said.

The U.S. Geological Survey is working on a broad-scale look at the Blue River watershed that should help, but the report is about a year overdue, according to Wyatt.

Making a statewide assessment of water quality is not easy, Gunderson said.

The number of streams and rivers being monitored continues to grow, and with new information coming in, the picture keeps changing.

But in some parts of the state, water quality has clearly improved since passage of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s, he said.

Concluding that water quality has declined statewide in the past six years is an over-simplification, Gunderson said.

But he acknowledged that pressures from population growth, development, oil and gas drilling, as well as climate change, represent very real threats.

The issue of non-point source pollution (mainly agricultural and urban runoff) continues to vex water quality experts.

The lack of statewide data to make a comprehensive assessment of water quality is addressed directly by the Environment Colorado report.

“There just aren’t enough cops on the beat,” said Stpehanie Thomas, the primary author.

Thomas said, that, based on the data reported by the state and the EPA, she stands by the conclusion that Colorado’s water is in worse shape than it was half a decade ago.

“Water quality declined and we expect it to continue,” Thomas said.

With only a small staff of field inspectors, the WQCD is swamped when it comes to enforcing the myriad non-point sources of pollution, she said.

Thomas said that less than one percent of sites under stormwater runoff permits are inspected annually.

“That’s not enough to have a deterrent effect,” she said.

Gunderson acknowledged the staffing challenges and said the WQCD has made some progress in the past few years, winning funding from the Colorado Legislature to add personnel.

He said the WQCD also partners with contractors to meet its goal of inspecting 10 percent of permitted sites.

The report’s conclusions about inspections and enforcement were echoed in Summit County by Doug Trieste, who works with local contractors to try and encourage best managemement practices and compliance with building permits.

Trieste said that, based on his observations, about 10 percent of local sites are in full compliance with their permits.

“They’re just not out there looking at it,” he said of the WQCD’s staff.

Trieste said he can only recall one local case when state officials stepped in, after particularly egregious violations were reported in the local press at a Breckenridge Highlands development several years ago.

In general, Trieste said the larger development projects are well-managed, with most problems coming from single-family home construction, where the chain of accountability breaks down.

The main problem is fairly simple.

When builders and developers don’t meet all the stormwater permitting requirements, it means that sediment is probably leaving the site.

The amount from any one single-family home site may not be huge, but taken cumulatively and over time, that runoff does have the potential to significantly affect local water quality, Trieste said.

Some local jurisdictions have fallen far short of living up to their permitting responsibilities, by approving inadequate stormwater and erosion control plans in the first place, and then by not following up with monitoring and enforcement, Trieste said.

Just like Thomas, Trieste said non-existent enforcement means there is absolutely no deterrent effect.

Violations of Clean Water Act permit requirements can technically result in stiff fines. But in reality, the local program is almost totally voluntary, relying on the goodwill of contractors.