Denver school board directs district to better serve black students

Every Denver public school soon will be required to develop a plan to boost the success of African-American students by embracing their strengths rather than focusing on the challenges they face.

That’s according to a resolution unanimously passed Thursday night by the Denver school board. The resolution, which would also require district employees to take training on implicit bias, was shepherded by Jennifer Bacon, who was elected in 2017 to represent northeast Denver and is one of two black members on the diverse school board. Longer-serving board members said it was overdue.

“With good intentions, we were battling the idea that singling out a group of students was not acceptable,” said Happy Haynes, who has served on the board since 2011. “We were always talking about, ‘all students, all students.’ ”

In doing so, Haynes said, “we lost sight of so many of our students. So I really celebrate this change in our thinking.”

Read more at chalkbeat.org.

Chalkbeat Colorado is a nonprofit news organization covering education issues. For more, visit chalkbeat.org/co.

Colorado AG files brief supporting stronger vehicle fuel standard opposed by auto dealers

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has filed a legal brief in support of stronger vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, saying the state recently adopted its own rules because the Trump administration is pushing for weaker ones.

The friend-of-the-court brief Weiser filed Feb. 15 says the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to replace Obama-era rules has left states scrambling. In response, Colorado adopted a standard similar to California’s to boost gas mileage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the brief says.

The brief supports a lawsuit by California and 17 other states that challenges rolling back rules intended to significantly boost gas mileage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions

“The abrupt and arbitrary switch of EPA causes states like Colorado to scramble to evaluate, and in Colorado’s case adopt, California’s approach” of stronger rules, according to the brief.

The EPA didn’t follow the law when it announced in August that it would roll back the standards, a decision that “will cause more greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the severity of climate change and polluting our state,”  the brief states.

But Colorado’s decision to adopt California’s fuel-efficiency rule will drive up costs for Colorado car buyers and reduce their choices, the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association argues. A lawsuit by the association seeks to repeal low-emission rule approved late last year.

A consultant hired by the association to review the rule eventually approved by the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission said the rule will add an average $2,110 to a new vehicle’s sticker price in the state. The report by Energy Ventures Analysis in Virginia said adopting California’s standard for model years 2021 to 2025 would cost Colorado a cumulative $2.86 billion while saving less than $1 billion in fuel costs.

“Part of the added cost is having multiple standards,” said Tim Jackson, the association’s CEO and president. “It costs more to make different cars for different parts of the country.”

The report also says that Colorado regulators failed to address the effects of the state’s high altitude, which means the benefits of lower emissions and fuel costs could be overstated.

And there’s the fact that unlike California, about 75 percent of the vehicles sold in Colorado are trucks or sports utility vehicles, Jackson said.

When the Obama administration proposed boosting gas mileage, the EPA projected that the average per-vehicle cost would be roughly $1,100. In 2017, the agency estimated that people who took out a five-year car loan would see a payback within the first year and a net savings of $1,650 over the lifetime of the vehicle

“Unless you’re not planning to drive your car, we know that a fuel-efficient car will save you money over the long run,” said Danny Katz, director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group.

The Union of Concerned Scientists said a more fuel-efficient vehicle might cost slightly more upfront, but the state’s new rule should result in average savings in gas costs of $2,700 per Colorado household by 2030.

Advances in technology mean that the costs of making vehicles more fuel-efficient will likely be lower than the estimates by federal agencies, according to a report by the International Council on Clean Transportation. The costs will likely be from 34 percent to 40 percent lower than projected, said the nonprofit research organization that works on climate change and public health issues.

The Obama administration developed rules to nearly double vehicles’ mileage and reduce emissions that contribute to climate change.

In August, the EPA announced plans to replace the Obama-era rule with what it called more realistic standards that would give “a much-needed time-out from further, costly increases.” The administration said its proposal would cut regulatory costs by more than $250 billion and save car buyers $2,340 overall.

The administration is also targeting the waiver that allows California, which has long struggled to reduce smog, to set its own standard. States without waivers, like Colorado, can approve a separate standard as long as it’s identical to California’s.

Federal officials have conceded that easing the Obama administration’s rule would boost national fuel consumption by about a million barrels of oil per day and increase greenhouse-gas emissions.

The new Colorado rule requires automakers to boost fuel efficiency to 54.5 miles per gallon, which is the target goal on paper. The actual number for vehicles in real-world conditions works out to be roughly 39 miles per gallon. The rule will start affecting new lightweight and medium-duty vehicles in 2022.

Later this year, state regulators are expected to consider a rule based on California’s requirement that a certain percentage of vehicles sold in the state be electric.

50 million gallons of polluted water pours daily from mine sites across the U.S., including Colorado

By Matthew Brown, The Associated Press

RIMINI, Mont. — Every day many millions of gallons of water loaded with arsenic, lead and other toxic metals flow from some of the most contaminated mining sites in the U.S. and into surrounding streams and ponds without being treated, The Associated Press has found.

That torrent is poisoning aquatic life and tainting water supplies in Montana, California, Colorado, Oklahoma and at least five other states.

The pollution is a legacy of how the mining industry was allowed to operate in the U.S. for more than a century. Companies that built mines for silver, lead, gold and other “hardrock” minerals could move on once they were no longer profitable, leaving behind tainted water that still leaks out of the mines or is cleaned up at taxpayer expense.

Using data from public records requests and independent researchers, the AP examined 43 mining sites under federal oversight, some containing dozens or even hundreds of individual mines.

The records show that at average flows, more than 50 million gallons of contaminated wastewater streams daily from the sites. In many cases, it runs untreated into nearby groundwater, rivers and ponds — a roughly 20-million-gallon daily dose of pollution that could fill more than 2,000 tanker trucks.

MORE: Three years after the Gold King Mine spill there’s no fix to leaky abandoned mines. What’s the holdup?

The remainder of the waste is captured or treated in a costly effort that will need to carry on indefinitely, for perhaps thousands of years, often with little hope for reimbursement.

The volumes vastly exceed the release from Colorado’s Gold King Mine disaster in 2015, when a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cleanup crew inadvertently triggered the release of 3 million gallons (11.4 million liters) of mustard-colored mine sludge, fouling rivers in three states.

At many mines, the pollution has continued decades after their enlistment in the federal Superfund cleanup program for the nation’s most hazardous sites, which faces sharp cuts under President Donald Trump.

Federal officials have raised fears that at least six of the sites examined by AP could have blowouts like the one at Gold King.

Mine waste mixes with runoff at the Gold King Mine. (Provided by the Environmental Protection Agency)

Some sites feature massive piles or impoundments of mine waste known as tailings. A tailings dam collapse in Brazil last month killed at least 169 people and left 140 missing. A similar 2014 accident in British Columbia swept millions of cubic yards of contaminated mud into a nearby lake, resulting in one of Canada’s worst environmental disasters.

But even short of a calamitous accident, many mines pose the chronic problem of relentless pollution.

AP also found mining sites where untreated water harms the environment or threatens drinking water supplies in North and South Carolina, Vermont, Missouri and Oregon.

Tainted wells

In mountains outside the Montana capital of Helena, about 30 households can’t drink their tap water because groundwater was polluted by about 150 abandoned gold, lead and copper mines that operated from the 1870s until 1953.

The community of Rimini was added to the Superfund list in 1999. Contaminated soil in residents’ yards was replaced, and the EPA has provided bottled water for a decade. But polluted water still pours from the mines and into Upper Tenmile Creek.

“The fact that bottled water is provided is great,” said 30-year Rimini resident Catherine Maynard, a natural resources analyst for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Where it falls short is it’s not piped into our home. Water that’s piped into our home is still contaminated water. Washing dishes and bathing — that metal-laden water is still running through our pipes.”

Estimates of the number of such abandoned mine sites range from 161,000 in 12 western states to as many as 500,000 nationwide. At least 33,000 have degraded the environment, according to the Government Accountability Office, and thousands more are discovered every year.

Officials have yet to complete work including basic risk analyses on about 80 percent of abandoned mining sites on federal lands. Most are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, which under Trump is seeking to consolidate mine cleanups with another program and cut their combined 2019 spending from $35 million to $13 million.

An abandoned mining site in Clear Creek County. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Perpetual pollution

Problems at some sites are intractable.

Among them:

— In eastern Oklahoma’s Tar Creek mining district, waterways are devoid of life and elevated lead levels persist in the blood of children despite a two-decade effort to clean up lead and zinc mines. More than $300 million has been committed since 1983, but only a small fraction of the impacted land has been reclaimed and contaminated water continues to flow.

— At northern California’s Iron Mountain Mine, cleanup teams battle to contain highly acidic water that percolates through a former copper and zinc mine and drains into a Sacramento River tributary. The mine discharged six tons of toxic sludge daily before an EPA cleanup. Authorities now spend $5 million a year to remove poisonous sludge that had caused massive fish kills, and they expect to keep at it forever.

— In Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, site of the Gold King blowout, some 400 abandoned or inactive mine sites contribute an estimated 15 million gallons (57 million liters) of acid mine drainage per day.

AP also found mining sites where untreated water harms the environment or threatens drinking water supplies in North and South Carolina, Vermont, Missouri and Oregon.

This landscape of polluted sites occurred under mining industry rules largely unchanged since the 1872 Mining Act.

State and federal laws in recent decades have held companies more accountable than in the past, but critics say huge loopholes all but ensure that some of today’s mines will foul waterways or require perpetual cleanups.

To avoid a catastrophe like Gold King, EPA officials now require advance approval for work on many mining sites. But they acknowledge they’re only dealing with a small portion of the problem.

“We have been trying to play a very careful game of prioritization,” said Dana Stalcup, deputy director of the Superfund program. “We know the Superfund program is not the answer to the hundreds of thousands of mines out there, but the mines we are working on we want to do them the best we can.”

The 43 sites examined by AP are mining locations for which officials and researchers have reliable estimates of polluted water releases. Officials said flow rates at the sites vary.

Average flows were unavailable for nine sites that only had high and low estimates of how much polluted water flowed out. For those sites, the AP used the lower estimates for its analysis.

Questions over who should pay

To date, the EPA has spent an estimated $4 billion on mining cleanups. Under Trump, the agency has identified a small number of Superfund sites for heightened attention after cleanup efforts stalled or dragged on for years. They include five mining sites examined by AP.

Former EPA assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus said more money is needed to address mining pollution on a systematic basis, rather than jumping from one emergency response to another.

“The piecemeal approach is just not working,” said Stanislaus, who oversaw the Superfund program for almost eight years ending in 2017.

Democrats have sought unsuccessfully to create a special cleanup fund for old hardrock mine sites, with fees paid by the mining industry. Such a fund has been in place for coal mines since 1977, with more than $11 billion in fees collected and hundreds of sites reclaimed.

The mining industry has resisted doing the same for hardrock mines, and Republicans in Congress have blocked the Democratic proposals.

MORE: Cory Gardner, Scott Tipton bring new “good Samaritan” bill to address abandoned mines and stoke solution for $50B problem

Montana Mining Association director Tammy Johnson acknowledged abandoned mines have left a legacy of pollution, but added that companies still in operation should not be forced to pay for those problems.

“Back in the day there really wasn’t a lot known about acid mine drainage,” she said. “I just don’t think that today’s companies bear the responsibility.”

In 2017, the EPA proposed requiring companies still operating mines to post cleanup bonds or offer other financial assurances so taxpayers don’t end up footing cleanup bills. The Trump administration halted the rule , but environmental groups are scheduled to appear in federal court next month in a lawsuit that seeks to revive it.

“When something gets on a Superfund site, that doesn’t mean it instantly and magically gets cleaned up,” said Earthjustice attorney Amanda Goodin. “Having money immediately available from a responsible party would be a game changer.”

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Colorado hunters warned about “zombie” deer as chronic wasting disease spreads

Colorado hunters looking ahead to next deer season are advised to be on the lookout for zombie deer.

Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife
A Colorado mule deer suffering from the effects of chronic wasting disease.

Chronic wasting disease, a contagious disease that kills deer, has now spread to 24 states, including Colorado. And, while it has yet to happen, there is some concern it could spread to humans who hunt and eat the meat.

The disease can cause drastic weight loss, lack of coordination and drooping ears, which prompted the nickname “zombie” deer disease.

Colorado has mandatory testing for deer harvests in certain regions, according to Jason Clay, a public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. This past hunting season, the region that includes Boulder County was a mandatory testing region.

“(Chronic wasting disease) is one area of increasing concern across Colorado,” Clay said. “We are looking to find adaptive management tactics for helping prevent further spread of CWD and controlling it in herds that are already affected. Controlling chronic wasting disease is critical for the long-term health of our herds.”

Read more at dailycamera.com

GMO food labels are coming. But with most products already using modified ingredients, battle lines have shifted.

While you were eating, some of the biggest controversies over genetically modified foods have largely been settled.

At least nine out of 10 kernels of corn grown in Colorado are GMO, as are 98 percent of the sugar beets and much of the alfalfa, canola and other commodity foods. Modified potatoes that can better handle aphids or a good bruising are on the way to the San Luis Valley. Altered super-growth salmon are now on the Canadian market, soon to ship over the border to the U.S.

Consumers who eat foods made with corn syrup, most cooking oils or refined sugar — just about everyone — are ingesting materials grown from GMO seeds.

And after years of consumer protest demanding that GMO foods at least be labeled as such — including a failed 2014 ballot issue in Colorado — nationwide labeling is now the law of the land, with USDA-approved symbols and codes set to appear in grocery stores next year.

New U.S. Department of Agriculture labels are designed to help consumers recognize food products that have been genetically modified.

With many of the most common commodities nearly exclusively GMO, “there isn’t much room for growth above 90 percent,” said Patrick Byrne, a professor of plant breeding and genetics at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

That doesn’t mean food and safety advocates have given up. They are still fighting to toughen up the federal labeling rules announced in December, and seeking stringent government review of the relatively new food production process of “gene editing.”

“GMO foods should absolutely be labeled. The issue is incredibly simple, if GMOs are safe there is no reason not to label products that contain them and the industry would have absolutely nothing to hide,” said Elana Amsterdam, a popular Colorado food blogger and cookbook author at elanaspantry.com.

“The new labeling law is not enough since it allows highly refined ingredients from GMO crops to be used in food products without labeling them as such,” Amsterdam said. “This is the opposite of transparency for the consumer.”

Gene editing versus genetic modification

In gene editing, one existing DNA trait is turned off — for example, to stop potatoes from turning brown. Genetically modified foods, by contrast, add traits from a different species — in salmon, for example, adding genes from a less-desirable fish that eats and grows faster year-round.

Battles also are brewing over Roundup, the pesticide most associated with the GMO controversy. Most corn and some other crops use seeds modified to survive when Roundup is applied to fields as a weedkiller. Food advocates and some European health officials have raised alarms about the cancer-causing potential of Roundup’s key ingredient, glyphosate.

A $289 million jury judgment in August for a California groundskeeper who said Roundup’s glyphosate caused his cancer further fueled public activism against the chemical. In statements after the verdict, Monsanto said it was appealing and that “researchers have conducted more than 800 scientific studies and reviews that support the safe use of glyphosate.”

While Roundup’s maker, Monsanto and its parent, Bayer, say glyphosate at current levels poses no harm, the Colorado Public Interest Research Group and others are sponsoring chemical tests of common drinks using corn syrup to show alleged traces of glyphosate. CoPIRG says the group’s national coalition will be out with the test results soon.

In the meantime, local fights over Roundup application have stirred Boulder and Colorado Springs, among other cities. The city of Boulder stopped spraying glyphosate products on open space, and Boulder County continues to work toward removing GMO crops from open space leased to local farmers.  

CoPIRG embarked on the food testing as part of a strategic campaign to educate consumers before “going city to city” demanding laws, said Colorado director Danny Katz. “We’re heading in that direction as we try to better demonstrate this is really dangerous.”

Colorado farmers, meanwhile, feel they are on an education campaign of their own: Teaching consumers that they employ GMOs and genetic editing to produce healthy, cheaper food, and to lower their pesticide use.

Plant and animal breeding for characteristics

GMO defenders are also eager to point out that genetic modifications are as old as agriculture itself. Humans have always tried to speed up the mutation-and-natural-selection cycle by cross-breeding plants, grafting trees and selectively breeding animals for better traits. The newer science does not taint the genetics of consumable food, they point out.

“There have been so many scientific studies that there’s no difference” for health or nutrition between GMO crops and traditional seeds, said Nikki Weathers, whose family raises cattle and grows corn for silage, alfalfa and other hay outside of Yuma. She said she is proud that her generation and her father-in-law’s generation “embraced that technology.”

Nikki Weathers poses for a photo in a field of last year’s corn crop on her farm near Yuma, Colorado, on Feb. 13, 2019. Weathers and her family raise cattle and grow both GMO and non-GMO corn. (Austin Humphreys, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“That’s what we have to do to raise enough food for a growing population, and to afford enough corn to feed our cattle,” Weathers said.

As for labeling, Weathers said she was previously skeptical because there’s no nutritional difference, and so it just seemed like a marketing tactic for some holistic foods companies to raise their prices for a “non-GMO” label. She would know — her family raises non-GMO popcorn sold under the Snappy brand name with that fact highlighted, even though there is not currently any GMO popcorn grown in the U.S.

Now that the federal rules will label GMOs, Weathers hopes consumers will return her trust to a U.S. food system that has “the safest food in the world.”

“As a mom I would only ever feed my family things that are safe, and raise food the same way,” she said.

National labeling does not satisfy food safety advocates, who wanted states to be allowed to develop their own stringent labeling laws before President Barack Obama signed a pre-empting federal bill in 2016. The rules don’t require a GMO label if the food is so refined that GMO markers can no longer be detected, which means large volumes of consumer goods with corn syrup, sugar and cooking oils won’t have the label, said Food & Water Watch’s Patty Lovera.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which wrote the final rules, is also allowing various forms of a “label” with options including a scannable code that says nothing about GMO, or an offer to get an explanatory text from the manufacturer.

“You shouldn’t have to have a smart phone and a digital plan that’s not maxed out in order to find out what’s in your food,” Lovera said. “It’s not strong enough to give people what they need.”

Still unclear is how USDA will handle the new generation of modified foods that are genetically “edited.” Developers of those seeds say there’s no need for the foods to go through the extensive USDA and FDA reviews given to GMO crops because there is no cross-species introduction, only a canceled-out gene. Food & Water Watch and allies want all such foods to have full government review.

“We’d like to know more about what else did this ‘switch’ do that you turned off,” Lovera said. “We feel there’s a lot more to the genetic code than that.”

Incoming products with genetic modifications include potatoes that don’t turn brown when they are bruised, primarily raised in the U.S. northwest; a new variety of corn made drought tolerant by switching off a defensive marker; non-browning mushrooms; and salmon, referred to derisively by Alaskan members of Congress as “frankenfish,” that has been approved in Canada and is on its way to U.S. markets.

San Luis Valley potato growers are not yet using the non-browning potatoes, which are controlled by Idaho’s J.R. Simplot Company, said James Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee in Monte Vista. They are more interested in creating a potato that would resist an aphid that cuts into yields, Ehrlich said.

“That would be huge for us,” he said. The growers are talking about funding research projects on the idea with Colorado State University specialists.

As for labeling, Ehrlich said he is personally in favor of promoting transparency and consumer comfort, though valley farmers debate whether the labels raise more questions than they answer.

Potato growers would be happy to show curious consumers how farms work in the valley, he added. “If they want to know what’s in their food, they should visit farmers.”   

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Why Denver Zoo’s new CEO thinks the zoo of the future will likely have fewer animals

Bert Vescolani took over as Denver Zoo’s new CEO late last summer, but he says it’s a position he’s been working toward for decades.

As a kid in Michigan, his family would take winter breaks from laboring in his father’s sporting goods shops to go skiing in Colorado, and, as an adult teaching high school science, he says he would spend his summers hiking and mountain biking around the West. As an executive at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and then later as the leader of the John Ball Zoo in Michigan, he said he was wowed by the innovation of Denver Zoo’s Predator Ridge exhibit. And as the CEO of the St. Louis Science Center, he said he was impressed with Denver Zoo’s collaborative staff.

“They just always seemed to be a team, and that’s what resonates with me,” he said. “I want to be part of a culture that works together and finds ways of doing things that make a difference.”

But he takes over the zoo at a critical point in its long history.

Many of its exhibits are aging and in need of modernization — part of the reason the zoo sent away its popular polar bears to different zoos with no timeline for a return. Many of its animals are growing older, as well. Two giraffes at the zoo, including one that was the oldest in North America, have died in the past six months.

More people are visiting the zoo than ever, but funding to address some of the problems is tight, after the zoo asked for $70 million from a general obligation bond package passed by Denver voters but received only $20 million. That’s causing the zoo to rethink how it implements its master plan.

So where does the zoo go from here? Vescolani said the zoo will have to become “probably more focused in our collection,” but he talked about a lot more than that during a recent interview with The Colorado Sun.

The following Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity.


“This is what I really love”

The Colorado Sun: What brought you to Denver after seven years of running a nature and science museum?

Bert Vescolani: There’s always been this kind of getting back to this industry. I always loved it. I missed it. There was someone who said to me, a colleague of mine, who said, “Everytime you talk about your zoo experience and your aquarium experience, that’s when your face really lights up, that’s when you get really excited.” And I went, “You know, why am I fighting this? This is what I really love.”

CS: You started your career in zoos and aquariums as a volunteer then worked your way up. What was the No. 1 lesson you learned when you stepped from an executive role to the executive role?

BV: I think the hardest thing is moving out of programmatic management to not owning programs anymore. And, when I say owning them, they’re your babies. When you develop an education program or we had this whole diver program we established around safety and training programs for our sharks, those are your babies. You hatched (the programs) as a team and you worked really hard at that.

So giving them up was tough, and the more senior you got, the more responsibilities you got, the less you could do that.

CS: Did you say … training sharks?

BV: Yeah. In the animal care field, the optimal opportunity to take the best care of those animals almost always is around training. And if you can find an animal that is food-motivated — like sharks — you can train them. Or at least we believed we could, and we had success with it.

So we developed a shark training program. It was target training. You used a stick with a ball on the end. The shark would come up and put his nose on it; you’d feed him. After a bunch of times, it worked out so that we could get a really good look at that animal so we wouldn’t have to get in the water with them all the time.

CS: You’ve talked about the admiration you’ve had for Denver Zoo throughout your career. What’s made the zoo stand out nationally, in your view?

BV: Predator Ridge was the first big innovation. … It was one of the first — there may have been one or two others that were pushing the edge on this — but it really was the first place in time where they had taken a multi-species approach to different yards. Habitats that were changeable that you could move different animals in and out throughout the day — which is a little bit more like it would happen in nature. The ability to move them around, with the scents and all the other things that come with having multiple animals in those spaces, that was pretty innovative.

The way they built the movement of the animals behind the scenes for safety and training and for aspects of care was also pretty unique. It was complicated, but it worked. And it still works.

Veterinarians at Denver Zoo perform an exam on a tiger on March 7, 2013. (Courtesy of Denver Zoo)

The zoo’s place in a modern Colorado

CS: This gets to a pretty big challenge for zoos, the potential conflict between caring for animals and providing viewing experiences for visitors. What do you see as the best, highest purpose of the Denver Zoo?

BV: For sure, education is at its heart. That is the core of all zoos and aquariums across the country. No matter what they do in their other things, that’s what we’re all about. And we’re all about that because of some ends, right? And some of those ends are — wildlife needs us. There’s no doubt about it that we are in a time where animal life, plant life, habitats, ecosystems are all under pretty major threats. And some of that, we can identify and work with.

And zoos and aquariums are involved in conservation and try to help create awareness and buzz, if you will, around issues that are out there. And some of that is about helping people find the right behaviors and things they can do in their own life. And we’ve stopped a little bit short of that here, but you will start to see more of that.

CS: What’s an example?

BV: It’s interesting, when I first got here, I was living in a hotel room. And I’d turn on the news, and I’d see all these reports about bears. Bears are in someone’s backyard; bears are in someone’s garage. They broke into someone’s car; they’re in someone’s restaurant.

So, as people have gone further out and bears’ habitat is being encroached on, how do we help people cope with that? How do we help the bears stay where bears are supposed to be and people stay where people are supposed to be? You know, be conscious of these are big, aggressive animals and they can do harm, but their intention — they’re looking for food is what they’re doing. And so how do we better prepare people for that?

So as we think about the future, what’s our role? How can we help people connect with nature in a different way? We utilize this environment because you can see them close. And some of the animals we have, people will never see in the wild, either because they’ll never go to those places or because they’ll be gone before they get there.

Cranbeary, one of Denver Zoo’s former polar bears, is photographed in her exhibit on July 27, 2016. She was moved to a zoo in Alaska in October 2018. (Courtesy of Denver Zoo)

“Exhibit changes need to happen”

CS: As you’re trying to implement this vision, how do you deal with the zoo’s limitations — its age and its size?

BV:  It’s a 123-year-old facility. With an aging infrastructure that we have, it’s looking at the magnitude of change you can make, how much disruption you can manage and — money, right? Twenty-five-ish percent of our revenues come from city, county support. The rest of that, we earn and raise. So, in a $40 million to $42 million budget, that’s a lot of money.

…We’ve got to figure out how to do that in the best possible way we can — managing our resources, managing expectations and opportunities. So, exhibit changes need to happen. They’re just not cheap to build.

CS: When you’re changing exhibits, what will they look like? Are they bigger? More naturalistic?

BV: Not everything needs bigger space, but where they do, yes. Naturalistic is definitely much more appealing to the guest. It doesn’t always translate to the animal. It might surprise you. Sometimes they’re much better in an environment that’s a little safer for them, which might not have dead trees and big rocks and so on and so forth.

And you say, “Well, in nature they would have that, why not here?” They may be geriatric animals that, in the wild, would not be alive. So we’ve got to develop habitats and exhibits that match the animal needs and public needs, but animal needs first.

…Safety, security and their well-being are the three bigs. And then after that, it becomes a guest experience perspective. If we can’t exhibit them well to the guest, we probably shouldn’t have them.

CS: Can you make these changes while keeping the same number of species? How many animals does the zoo of the future have?

BV: Probably in pure numbers, probably less. And probably more focused in our collection. The animals in our care, we want to make sure we’re being really thoughtful about it. And that master plan expressed that. That was the focus of the master plan.

…I would love for people to have that experience where they see the awe of seeing a lion and they say, “How are lions doing in the wild? How can we make a difference?” And we help them navigate that.

An artist’s rendering of what Denver Zoo’s new animal hospital will look like. Construction began on the facility in February 2019, and it is scheduled to be completed in 2020. (Courtesy of Denver Zoo)

Aging animals, limited money

CS: If there’s going to be fewer species here, how do you decide what stays and what doesn’t?

BV: I think that’s a process. We are constantly thinking about, as we’re making exhibit changes and modifications, it’s not as simple as saying, you’ve got an elderly animal and ultimately when that animal fulfills its life here, we may not replace him, that group of animals. That’s how we make most of our decisions around that. We let them live their life where it makes sense.

Sometimes we get recommendations for breeding purposes. Most animals in zoological settings were born in zoos, and they’ve been multi-generational zoo-born animals. So the population genetics is managed at a national and international level.

CS: You mentioned the zoo’s master plan. The money from the general obligation bond wasn’t as much as you were hoping for. So will the plan need to be rewritten?

BV: Rewritten is not what I would want to do. There’s so much good work that went into that. I think it’s a scale thing. Let me put it this way: The first project on that master plan was the hospital. The hospital will be amazing. It will be truly a state-of-the-art focused space that will allow us to do the work we already do really well but will give us the best tools possible.

After that, we’re doing the grizzly bear exhibit. And that will be that story — how do you live with grizzly bears in the wild and in your own backyard.

CS: This is in the former polar bear space?

BV: Right. … The spirit of (the master plan) is still very much where we’re going. Many of the big pieces of that master plan, we’ll do. It’s just scale. I’m definitely committed to polar bears. I want to bring polar bears back. I think seals and sea lions — sea lions make a lot of sense for us in the future. It’s a really important story for us to tell, from the meltwater all the way to the ocean and the challenges that oceanic wildlife are dealing with right now.

CS: Any desire to expand the zoo’s overall footprint?

BV: Well … not now. Not really. It’s really this: We’re in a park; there’s nowhere else for us to go here. This is a community park, we have neighbors that are the Nature and Science Museum. It’s a public space. It’s well used. The golf course is across the street. This is good.

I think if we had to think about the future, it’s working collaboratively with other zoos in other places to think about how we work together differently. And that might expand the footprint of any of the three of us accredited zoos in the area — the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Pueblo and us. But that’s way down the road.

A Lake Titicaca frog is seen in its enclosure at Denver Zoo in March 2016. The zoo has a long-running conservation project in Peru to preserve the frog. (Courtesy of Denver Zoo)

The beauty of ugly creatures

CS: When looking at the species that are part of the master plan, how much do economic considerations come into play and the visitor draw? Sea lions can do performances but seals generally don’t.

BV: So consideration for optimal care is always first. Habitat, animal wellness, all those things are generally first and foremost. The second consideration is what are the things around those animals that may be cost-prohibitive. So maybe they have a special diet and that special diet has to be flown in from some special place. And that becomes a question mark. What happens if you can’t get that diet or it becomes cost-prohibitive?

The public appeal is definitely part of it. There are some animals that may have no public appeal that we have on exhibit, and we’re going to keep them on exhibit because we think there is a really important conservation story.

CS: What’s an example?

BV: Lake Titicaca frogs. Have you ever seen a Lake Titicaca frog?

CS: Probably here?

BV: To some, they are a not overly attractive frog. But their story is so important. They live in a lake that is — we’ve got a project in Peru — and that lake has gone through the worst it can go through. And will it ever come back? What are some of the important species and indicator species for us to have? And frogs are this really kind of interesting intermediary, right? They eat the insects and they provide food, and they’re just kind of one of those, in the food chain, a pretty important animal.

We’re committed to doing that for as long as we need to from a standpoint of replacing those into the wild or helping people understand how to raise them. But no one is standing in line to go see the Lake Titicaca frog.

So it’s a blend. There are animals that are very charismatic that people get drawn to. And those are opportunities to help people see those not-so-charismatic animals that people aren’t so drawn to but are still an important part of that balance of nature. … So, yes, we’re committed to those not-so-attractive animals that we think are important stories to tell.

Rising Sun

More from The Colorado Sun

Fouled waters reveal lasting legacy of U.S. mining industry

RIMINI, Mont. — Every day many millions of gallons of water loaded with arsenic, lead and other toxic metals flow from some of the most contaminated mining sites in the U.S. and into surrounding lakes and streams without being treated, The Associated Press has found.

That torrent is poisoning aquatic life and tainting drinking water sources in Montana, California, Colorado, Oklahoma and at least five other states.

The pollution is a legacy of how the mining industry was allowed to operate in the U.S. for more than a century. Companies that built mines for silver, lead, gold and other “hardrock” minerals could move on once they were no longer profitable, leaving behind tainted water that still leaks out of the mines or is cleaned up at taxpayer expense.

Using data from public records requests and independent researchers, the AP examined 43 mining sites under federal oversight, some containing dozens or even hundreds of individual mines.

The records show that at average flows, more than 50 million gallons (189 million liters) of contaminated wastewater streams daily from the sites. In many cases, it runs untreated into nearby groundwater, rivers and ponds — a roughly 20-million-gallon (76-million-liter) daily dose of pollution that could fill more than 2,000 tanker trucks.

The remainder of the waste is captured or treated in a costly effort that will need to carry on indefinitely, for perhaps thousands of years, often with little hope for reimbursement.

The volumes vastly exceed the release from Colorado’s Gold King Mine disaster in 2015, when an EPA cleanup crew inadvertently triggered the release of 3 million gallons (11.4 million liters) of mustard-colored mine sludge, fouling rivers in three states.

At many mines, the pollution has continued decades after their enlistment in the federal Superfund cleanup program for the nation’s most hazardous sites, which faces sharp cuts under President Donald Trump.

Federal officials fear that at least six of the sites examined by AP could have blowouts like the one at Gold King.

Some sites feature massive piles or impoundments of mine waste known as tailings. A tailings dam collapse in Brazil last month killed at least 169 people and left 140 missing. A similar 2014 accident in British Columbia swept millions of cubic yards of contaminated mud into a nearby lake, resulting in one of Canada’s worst environmental disasters.

But even short of a calamitous accident, many mines pose the chronic problem of relentless pollution.

Tainted Wells

In mountains outside the Montana capital of Helena, about 30 households can’t drink their tap water because groundwater was polluted by about 150 abandoned gold, lead and copper mines that operated from the 1870s until 1953.

The community of Rimini was added to the Superfund list in 1999. Contaminated soil in residents’ yards was replaced, and the EPA has provided bottled water for a decade. But polluted water still pours from the mines and into Upper Tenmile Creek.

“The fact that bottled water is provided is great,” said 30-year Rimini resident Catherine Maynard, a natural resources analyst for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Where it falls short is it’s not piped into our home. Water that’s piped into our home is still contaminated water. Washing dishes and bathing — that metal-laden water is still running through our pipes.”

Estimates of the number of such abandoned mine sites range from 161,000 in 12 western states to as many as 500,000 nationwide. At least 33,000 have degraded the environment, according to the Government Accountability Office, and thousands more are discovered every year.

Officials have yet to complete work including basic risk analyses on about 80 percent of abandoned mining sites on federal lands. Most are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, which under Trump is seeking to consolidate mine cleanups with another program and cut their combined 2019 spending from $35 million to $13 million.

Perpetual pollution

Problems at some sites are intractable.

Among them:

  • In eastern Oklahoma’s Tar Creek mining district, waterways are devoid of life and elevated lead levels persist in the blood of children despite a two-decade effort to clean up lead and zinc mines. More than $300 million has been committed since 1983, but only a small fraction of the impacted land has been reclaimed and contaminated water continues to flow.
  • At northern California’s Iron Mountain Mine, cleanup teams battle to contain highly acidic water that percolates through a former copper and zinc mine and drains into a Sacramento River tributary. The mine discharged six tons of toxic sludge daily before an EPA cleanup. Authorities now spend $5 million a year to remove poisonous sludge that had caused massive fish kills, and they expect to keep at it forever.
  • In Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, site of the Gold King blowout, some 400 abandoned or inactive mine sites contribute an estimated 15 million gallons (57 million liters) of acid mine drainage per day.

This landscape of polluted sites occurred under mining industry rules largely unchanged since the 1872 Mining Act.

State and federal laws in recent decades have held companies more accountable than in the past, but critics say huge loopholes all but ensure that some of today’s mines will foul waterways or require perpetual cleanups.

To avoid a catastrophe like Gold King, EPA officials now require advance approval for work on many mining sites. But they acknowledge they’re only dealing with a small portion of the problem.

“We have been trying to play a very careful game of prioritization,” said Dana Stalcup, deputy director of the Superfund program. “We know the Superfund program is not the answer to the hundreds of thousands of mines out there, but the mines we are working on we want to do them the best we can.”

Questions over who should pay

To date, the EPA has spent an estimated $4 billion on mining cleanups. Under Trump, the agency has identified a small number of Superfund sites for heightened attention after cleanup efforts stalled or dragged on for years. They include five mining sites examined by AP.

Former EPA assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus said more money is needed to address mining pollution on a systematic basis, rather than jumping from one emergency response to another.

“The piecemeal approach is just not working,” said Stanislaus, who oversaw the Superfund program for almost eight years ending in 2017.

Democrats have sought unsuccessfully to create a special cleanup fund for old hardrock mine sites, with fees paid by the mining industry. Such a fund has been in place for coal mines since 1977, with more than $11 billion in fees collected and hundreds of sites reclaimed.

The mining industry has resisted doing the same for hardrock mines, and Republicans in Congress have blocked the Democratic proposals.

Montana Mining Association director Tammy Johnson acknowledged abandoned mines have left a legacy of pollution, but added that companies still in operation should not be forced to pay for those problems.

“Back in the day there really wasn’t a lot known about acid mine drainage,” she said. “I just don’t think that today’s companies bear the responsibility.”

In 2017, the EPA proposed requiring companies still operating mines to post cleanup bonds or offer other financial assurances so taxpayers don’t end up footing cleanup bills. The Trump administration halted the rule, but environmental groups are scheduled to appear in federal court next month in a lawsuit that seeks to revive it.

“When something gets on a Superfund site, that doesn’t mean it instantly and magically gets cleaned up,” said Earthjustice attorney Amanda Goodin. “Having money immediately available from a responsible party would be a game changer.”

Arizona will miss U.S. deadline for Colorado River drought plan, officials say

PHOENIX — Arizona won’t have all the pieces of a Colorado River drought plan finished by the federal government’s deadline to finalize protections for water used by millions across the U.S. West, state water officials said Tuesday.

It’s the latest hurdle threatening the plan between seven states to take less water from the drought-starved Colorado River, which supplies 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland. Missing the March 4 deadline could allow the federal government to step in and decide the rules.

About half of the 15 agreements that Arizona needs to secure among water users will be ready by March 4, said Ted Cooke, director of the Central Arizona Project, which brings Colorado River water to the sprawling cities and farm fields around Phoenix and Tucson.

“That’s an artificial deadline, and these are very complex agreements and very complex negotiations, and we will take the time that we need to do them properly,” Cooke told reporters Tuesday following a meeting of water users working on the drought plan.

He said he hopes to finalize all the agreements within 60 days.

Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada have joined drought contingency plans for the Colorado River, while Arizona and California are still working on plans.

Arizona lawmakers have approved the drought plan, but U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Director Brenda Burman has said the state also must finalize the complex agreements needed to implement it.

If that’s not done by March 4, Burman says she will ask governors what should happen next — starting a process that could result in federally mandated cuts instead of the voluntary plans negotiated by the states. That’s particularly worrisome in Arizona, which has the lowest-priority water rights on the Colorado River.

Cooke repeatedly declined to speculate on what would happen if the state doesn’t finish its work by the deadline. But he said Arizona would probably be done before the federal government could get very far down an alternative path.

Also Tuesday, Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers put a measure on hold that angered a key player in several agreements the state is trying to finalize. The Gila River Indian Community has said it will back out of the drought plan without assurances the legislation will die, and it wasn’t clear if Bowers’ move would be sufficient.

The measure would alter the state’s five-year “use it or lose it” water rights law, which the tribe says would undermine its rights to water from its namesake river, secured in 2004 following decades of litigation.

“The community cannot be singled out for legislative attack by the most powerful members of the Arizona House of Representatives and still view itself as a genuine partner in solving the state’s water crisis,” Gila River Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said. “We view this as slap in the face of the community.”

Bowers put off his measure following a public hearing in a House committee, where several farmers from eastern Arizona told lawmakers that they were concerned about preserving their income and way of life.

“This not only affects us, but it affects our children and grandchildren who have farming in their blood and would love to continue our family farming operation,” Lois Reynolds said.

Bowers said he wants to talk to lawyers and see if there’s another way to allow farmers to fallow their fields for more than five years without surrendering their water rights.

Don Pongrace, a lawyer for the Gila River Indian Community, said it wasn’t clear if the measure was dead so that the tribal council could schedule a vote on joining the drought plan.

Arizona will miss deadline for Colorado River drought plan that impacts water for millions, officials say

By Jonathan J. Cooper, The Associated Press

PHOENIX — Arizona won’t have all the pieces of a Colorado River drought plan finished by the federal government’s deadline to finalize protections for water used by millions across the U.S. West, state water officials said Tuesday.

It’s the latest hurdle threatening the plan between seven states to take less water from the drought-starved Colorado River, which supplies 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland. Missing the March 4 deadline could allow the federal government to step in and decide the rules.

About half of the 15 agreements that Arizona needs to secure among water users will be ready by March 4, said Ted Cooke, director of the Central Arizona Project, which brings Colorado River water to the sprawling cities and farm fields around Phoenix and Tucson.

“That’s an artificial deadline, and these are very complex agreements and very complex negotiations, and we will take the time that we need to do them properly,” Cooke told reporters Tuesday following a meeting of water users working on the drought plan.

He said he hopes to finalize all the agreements within 60 days.

MORE: Amid drought, a changing climate and population growth, can Colorado’s unique water law system survive?

Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada have joined drought contingency plans for the Colorado River, while Arizona and California are still working on plans.

Arizona lawmakers have approved the drought plan, but U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Director Brenda Burman has said the state also must finalize the complex agreements needed to implement it.

If that’s not done by March 4, Burman says she will ask governors what should happen next — starting a process that could result in federally mandated cuts instead of the voluntary plans negotiated by the states. That’s particularly worrisome in Arizona, which has the lowest-priority water rights on the Colorado River.

Cooke repeatedly declined to speculate on what would happen if the state doesn’t finish its work by the deadline. But he said Arizona would probably be done before the federal government could get very far down an alternative path.

Also Tuesday, Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers put a measure on hold that angered a key player in several agreements the state is trying to finalize. The Gila River Indian Community has said it will back out of the drought plan without assurances the legislation will die, and it wasn’t clear if Bowers’ move would be sufficient.

The measure would alter the state’s five-year “use it or lose it” water rights law, which the tribe says would undermine its rights to water from its namesake river, secured in 2004 following decades of litigation.

“The community cannot be singled out for legislative attack by the most powerful members of the Arizona House of Representatives and still view itself as a genuine partner in solving the state’s water crisis,” Gila River Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said. “We view this as slap in the face of the community.”

The headwaters of the Colorado River in Grand County. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Bowers put off his measure following a public hearing in a House committee, where several farmers from eastern Arizona told lawmakers that they were concerned about preserving their income and way of life.

“This not only affects us, but it affects our children and grandchildren who have farming in their blood and would love to continue our family farming operation,” Lois Reynolds said.

Bowers said he wants to talk to lawyers and see if there’s another way to allow farmers to fallow their fields for more than five years without surrendering their water rights.

Don Pongrace, a lawyer for the Gila River Indian Community, said it wasn’t clear if the measure was dead so that the tribal council could schedule a vote on joining the drought plan.

Rising Sun

More from The Colorado Sun

Nederland’s Barker Reservoir shoreline marches away from town

Nederland Mayor Kristopher Larsen is a planetary scientist who worked years ago on testing Mars rovers before their deployment to the red planet. Researchers would take their hardware places such as the Mohave or Black Rock deserts to do so.

Lately, Larsen’s had an odd thought when driving past Nederland’s Barker Reservoir, its wintertime shoreline now receded eastward away from town far enough to expose several football fields’ worth of arid brown dirt and scattered rocks.

“I’m looking at it thinking, we could do Mars rover testing there,” he joked.

“The other day, the wind was gusting 85, 86 mph, and there was a dust cloud coming off the dried part; I had never seen that big a dust storm,” Larsen said. “It looked like something you would see down in Arizona.

“But other than aesthetics, I don’t think there’s really any effect” of the lake being so low.

Larsen said a number of people around his mountain town, who are used to seeing Barker Reservoir drawn down during the winter, are nevertheless talking about its shrunken contours this winter and contending that it exceeds what they recall seeing in recent years.

To read the full story, go to the Boulder Daily Camera

Colorado drought report: Southwest faces long road back to normal; Front Range dry but better off

The drought that has gripped much of Colorado since late 2017 didn’t abate in 2018, and despite recent snowfall — which added to the all-important snowpack in the high country — the prospect of relief is still well down the road.

Western Colorado, particularly the Four Corners region, was ground zero for an “extreme” and “exceptional” drought, according to the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s drought monitoring map. The effects have been wide-reaching: dry soils have reduced farmers’ crop yields, low reservoirs have hampered irrigation and Denver was roasted with another dry year.

Snowfall in the capital city this winter has been below average, capping the third dry year in a row. The lack of precipitation has caused many of the important reservoirs for Denver to dip below full. But, conservation from consumers and the complex network of streams and rivers the city draws from have helped mitigate potential drought impacts, said manager of raw water supplies for Denver Water, Nathan Elder.

“Right now we are feeling pretty good,” Elder said.

Other areas of the Front Range have not fared as well. Patches of parched landscape have caused once-green golf courses to close and limited golf cart use, the Greeley Tribune reported.

The entire state’s 2018 water year, which restarts on Sept. 30, was the second driest and hottest on record, according to the Western Water Assessment, a program funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and run by the University of Colorado Boulder.

Hardest hit has been Colorado’s agriculture industry, with damages rippling across other industries, impacting forest health and worrying firefighters.

Farms and ranches feeling the heat

Agriculture generates more than $5 billion dollars for the Colorado economy. Water is the resource that makes the industry go. Less water has meant less profit.

The impact has been felt beyond the fields and pastures. Secondary industries across the state that rely on farmers buying their equipment have seen a downturn, said Taylor Szilagyi, a Colorado Farm Bureau spokeswoman.

On the Western Slope, rancher Janie VanWinkle nursed her cattle through a “miserable” summer. A fourth-generation rancher in Mesa County, she watched as the dry heat sucked the life from her herd. By fall, a lack of water meant she had to sell off more than 50 head of cattle.

Less water meant less yield on the crops she and her husband grow for winter feed, forcing the VanWinkles to offload at a time when cattle prices were nearly half of what they have been.

The immediate loss is $50,000, VanWinkle estimates. But that is just the start of a financial hole that could take years to climb out of, she said. Gone with the cattle are their genetics and breeding ability, a loss she said is immeasurable.

AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post
Janie VanWinkle gets her equipment set to deliver protein supplements to her stock on her ranch Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. The protein supplement is used in winter months when feed becomes dry.

For farms south of her in the San Luis Valley, the lack of water has been more than just a hit to the wallet, it has been a hit to personal hydration.

Recently, after a hard day working on the small, organic Sol Mountain Farm in Rio Grande County, farm manager Isaac Manobla returned to the farmhouse in need of a drink. Parched, nothing poured from the tap. The well at Sol Mountain Farm had dried up, as it has daily for the past few weeks.

In need of a drink, Manobla turned to his refrigerator, which was only stocked with beer, not the beverage he wanted at the time.

“It is super stressful not to have water,” he said.

Manobla and the others at Sol hope that snowmelt in the spring, along with water-conserving irrigation techniques, will bring much-needed relief to their well.

Experiences like Manobla’s and VanWinkle’s are not unique. Szilagyi has heard from farmers for months about their struggles.

“It is just a really hard time right now to be in a drought,” Szilagyi said. “Water is already a scarce resource.”

Drier forests, more fires

Beyond the arid farmland, forests across the state are also hurting from the drought. With less water, trees have less fuel to build defenses against tree-killing beetles. The impact is two-fold: dry and hot conditions help the beetle populations surge, and then the insects flood into once-healthy forests, said Dan West, a Colorado State Forest Service entomologist .

“Every day I am thinking about what area of this state is being impacted by a drier and warmer climate,” West said.

One fifth of Colorado’s forests have been killed off by beetles, causing ripple effects across the ecosystem and leaving spark-ready tinder on the forest floor, West said.

“In Colorado, it correlates pretty well with our increased fire frequency (and) severity and drought,” said Rocco Snart , planning branch chief for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

Last year was one of the worst wildfire seasons in Colorado, a trend that correlates with other wildfire seasons that have blazed through drought-stricken forests, Snart said.

Snow might not be enough

In mountain states like Colorado, snowpack acts as an important reserve for water, but an average spring runoff does not guarantee a return to normal, said Taryn Finnessey, senior climate change specialist for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. For reservoirs and the larger farms and municipalities that rely on them, average won’t be enough.

Droughts can take months, even years, to recover from and each one impacts Colorado differently, she said.

“Just because we have snowpack doesn’t mean it will manifest into usable water,” Finnessey said. Some of the snow could evaporate before it makes it to the spring runoff.

In Montezuma County in southwestern Colorado, McPhee Reservoir on the Dolores River is one of those reservoirs that needs more than just average precipitation. With little rain and little snowpack runoff since late 2017, the reservoir has been bottoming out at 62 feet below full, on par with the drought in 2002, Ken Curtis, an engineer at the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said.

It took McPhee nearly three years to bounce back to full levels after the 2002 drought. A heavy snow year in 2005 helped to top off the reservoir, Curtis said. For a water system that needs regular input, irregularity has become the new normal.

“We just have not had a lot of consecutive good years since to 2000,” he said.

Low reservoirs across the West have exacerbated the use of the Colorado River. Drought has pressed lawmakers to negotiate over use of the river, as the federal agency in charge of regulating it could dramatically cut its overuse.

The Ute Mountain Reservation has felt the downstream impacts of the low McPhee Reservoir.  A 7,700-acre tribe-owned farm and ranch has been operating at lower capacity since the drought began in 2017. Even once the reservoir is replenished, the farm will need more than its usual take of water to rehydrate the dry soil, said Peter Ortega, general counsel for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe.

“I don’t anticipate it being near normal anytime soon,” Ortega said.

Arizona lawmaker accused of endangering Colorado River drought plan

PHOENIX — Top Arizona Democrats on Friday accused the Republican House speaker of risking the collapse of a drought plan for the Colorado River by pushing legislation that has angered the Gila River Indian Community, a key player in the negotiations to protect the water supply for 40 million people.

But Speaker Rusty Bowers dug in, saying he has no plans to withdraw the measure that Gila River Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said threatens water rights that the tribe gained through a landmark settlement in 2004 at the culmination of a decadeslong battle.

Arizona and California are the last of seven states to finalize plans for ensuring enough water exists for cities, farmers and others or risk the federal government drawing up rules as a drought threatens supplies from the river.

“I don’t know what the speaker hopes to accomplish with this,” House Democratic Leader Charlene Fernandez of Yuma said in a statement. “But if it’s federal control of our drought contingency measures and the destruction of our Central Arizona agriculture economy, it looks like he’s on the verge of getting it.”

Sen. Lisa Otondo, a Yuma Democrat, said Bowers was sabotaging the drought plan and “deliberately attempting to upend years of hard work that went into it.”

Bowers’ measure would change the state’s “use it or lose it” water rights law. He said he introduced it because a group of farmers has been “financially destroyed” by lawsuits from the Gila River community. He said it’s “unfortunate and inappropriate” that the tribe is leveraging its support for the drought plan to defeat his measure.

If the tribe wants to back out of the drought deal, Bowers said, “that is their choice. We hope they will reconsider.”

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has given Arizona and California a March 4 deadline to get agreements from all parties within their states, including the Gila River community, or the agency will start gathering comments from Western governors about what to do next. The agency is under the Interior Department, which has broad but unspecified authority over the lower Colorado River basin.

Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico in the upper basin have finished their drought plans, as has Nevada in the lower basin.

The Gila River leader spoke out against Bowers’ measure when it was introduced and issued another rebuke after a committee hearing was scheduled for next week. As speaker, Bowers wields significant leverage over other lawmakers if he decides to use it to push his measure through the Legislature.

“This step may very well prevent us from being in a position to approve the (drought plan) in time to meet the very real deadline established by the Bureau of Reclamation, or in fact ever,” Lewis, the tribal governor, said in a statement.

He said the tribe would not sign on to the drought plan “unless the bill were withdrawn or the community were to receive some other reliable indication that it will not be moving forward.”

Gov. Doug Ducey’s office declined to offer that Friday, saying Ducey is focused on action in Washington, D.C., despite the challenge at home.

“Our current focus is on working with the other basin states to pass enabling legislation through the United States Congress,” Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak said. “We’re committed to seeing (the drought contingency plan) through.”

Under the drought plan, the Gila River community would provide water for farmers in central Arizona who otherwise would lose it and would store water in Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border that is instrumental to the drought plan. A group that crafted the plan in Arizona is meeting for the final time next week.

The Gila River Indian Community established along the Gila River faced severe water shortages after the river was dammed upstream in the 1920s. But in 2004, following a decadeslong battle, it acquired enough water through one of the largest-ever American Indian water rights settlements to fill nearly 313,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools annually.

About half of the community’s entitlement flows through Central Arizona Project canals that deliver water to Arizona’s major metropolitan areas, making the tribe the largest CAP customer statewide. The tribe has been trying to revive its once-thriving agriculture tradition.

___

Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca contributed from Flagstaff.

Tri-State loses bid to keep Colorado Public Utilities Commission out of contract dispute

A Colorado rural electric association won an important round Thursday in its effort to sever ties with Tri-State Generation and Transmission when state regulators agreed to hear the dispute.

The Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association's ...
Andy Cross, The Denver Post
The Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association’s Nucla coal-fired power plant on Oct. 17, 2017.

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission denied Tri-State’s request to dismiss a complaint filed by the Delta-Montrose Electric Association, which wants to break its contract with the wholesale power supplier. The electric cooperative has said it wants out of its contract with Tri-State because of its rates and the desire to get more power from renewable energy sources.

Tri-State argued the utilities commission doesn’t have the authority to weigh in on a contractual matter between it and a member association. Tri-State is a member-owned association, not an investor-owned utility like Xcel Energy-Colorado, and the commission usually doesn’t hear cases involving it.

But the commission agreed with its staff that it has authority under state laws dealing with electric utilities to hear Delta-Montrose’s complaint. The cooperative said the contract buy-out fee Tri-State wants is unjust and unreasonable.

The commission scheduled a hearing on the cooperative’s complaint for June 17-21.

Commissioner John Gavan, a former Delta-Montrose board member, recused himself.

“The Commission is right to reject Tri-State’s claim that it can force rural Coloradans to pay whatever Tri-State wants when co-ops like (Delta-Montrose) exercise their right to leave the association,” Bill Patterson, the association board president, said in a statement.

Patterson said Delta-Montrose has wide support as it tries to negotiate a reasonable exit from the contract. The cooperative says the agreement with Tri-State locks it into high rates at a time when other utilities are taking advantage of falling solar and wind energy prices.

More than 50 legislators signed a letter in January in support of the association. The Colorado Energy Office and several organizations filed motions opposing Tri-State’s request that the state utilities commission stay out of the matter.

Tri-State has rallied its supporters, too. Some of the Westminster-based power supplier’s members have signed petitions saying the conflict should be decided by the courts.

Tri-State has filed a complaint asking Adams County District Court to clarify Tri-State’s rights and Delta-Montrose’s obligations under the bylaws that govern Tri-State and its 43 member electric associations.

The state utilities commission’s assertion of authority is “unnecessary and unwarranted,” Rick Gordon, Tri-State chairman and president said in a statement.

“A private contract dispute, even between utilities, does not belong at the commission. This matter appropriately belongs in the courts,” Gordon said.

Tri-State has criticized Delta-Montrose, saying it should have worked to resolve the dispute rather than take it to the utilities commission.

But the Montrose-based cooperative has said it has talked to Tri-State for more than a decade about stabilizing the association’s rates, which it said have jumped 56 percent since 2005. The cooperative also wants out of its contract, which would run another 21 years, so it can increase its use of renewable energy.

Delta-Montrose and other Tri-State members have complained about a 5-percent limit on the amount of energy that members can generate on their own. Delta-Montrose is at the cap and wants to generate more renewable energy from local sources, but the contract prevents it, association officials have said.

Tri-State supplies electricity to its member associations in Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska and Wyoming. It has come under fire from some of its members and renewable-energy advocates for relying too much on coal at a time when the costs of wind and solar energy are falling and concerns about climate-changing emissions from fossil fuels are increasing.

But Tri-State said nearly a third of its power comes from renewable sources. The energy supplier announced Tuesday that it is adding a 104-megawatt wind farm in eastern Colorado. The wind project, expected to start operating in 2020, will generate enough power to supply on average more than 47,000 rural Colorado homes.

In January, Tri-State announced it was doubling the power it will get from solar energy with the 100-megawatt Spanish Peaks Solar Project north of Trinidad.

Michael Bennet will oppose Colorado native David Bernhardt’s nomination as Interior secretary

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet will oppose President Donald Trump’s nomination of Colorado native David Bernhardt as Interior secretary.

The decision, announced Thursday, marks a change from the Colorado Democrat’s earlier vote in July 2017 to approve Bernhardt’s selection as the No. 2 job at the Interior Department.

David Bernhardt. (Provided by the U.S. Department of the Interior)

“During his tenure as deputy secretary of the Interior, Mr. Bernhardt has worked to revoke national methane standards, drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and limit input from state and local officials with respect to the oil and gas leasing process in Colorado,” Bennet said in a written statement. “Although I respect David Bernhardt as a Coloradan, I cannot support his nomination to serve as Secretary of the Interior.”

MORE: Colorado native David Bernhardt tapped by Trump to be Interior secretary

Many Democrats and environmental groups have been opposed to Bernhardt’s selection because of his past work as a lawyer and lobbyist on behalf of the oil and gas industry.

Bernhardt is a native of Rifle and worked as an attorney and lobbyist for the high-powered, Denver-based firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

Bernhardt was selected by Trump earlier this month to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned from his post in December amid ethics investigations. Bernhardt has been leading the agency, which oversees the nation’s national parks and vast amounts of public lands, ever since.

Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, also of Colorado, is supportive of Bernhardt’s nomination.

“I’ve known David Bernhardt for many years and have worked closely with him over the last two years to advance Colorado priorities,” Gardner said in a written statement. “As a native Coloradan from the Western Slope, David knows how important public lands are to our state and has a keen understanding of the issues Coloradans face every day.”

Bennet’s decision not to support Bernhardt is notable because he is considering a 2020 presidential bid.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that the two-term senator plans to travel to Iowa this month to meet with Democratic activists in the 2020 presidential caucus.

This is a developing story that will be updated.

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EPA unveils “action plan” to deal with toxic nonstick chemicals contaminating water in Colorado, elsewhere

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday unveiled a delayed national “action plan” for dealing with two of the hundreds of toxic perfluorinated chemicals that have contaminated water in Colorado and around the country.

EPA acting administrator Andrew Wheeler said agency officials will “make a regulatory determination” by the end of the year proposing a national limit for PFOA and PFOS, two of the perfluorinated chemicals — also known as PFAS — that have spread from military bases and other sources into drinking water.

In Colorado, perfluorinated chemicals have been detected in north metro Denver, near a firehouse west of Boulder and south of Colorado Springs.

EPA officials said Thursday that, in the meantime, they will continue to use a non-binding health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) to guide cleanups of contaminated water. The agency also will begin to treat PFOA and PFOs as hazardous substances.

“We’ve been on top of all these issues,” Wheeler said while announcing the plan at a livestreamed gathering in Philadelphia.

Last year, the EPA convened state officials to discuss ways to deal with perfluorinated chemicals, a toxic family of synthetic substances characterized by a carbon-flourine bond that does not break down. Then agency officials hosted sessions with residents in contaminated areas in Colorado, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Kansas.

The new action plan “is the most comprehensive cross-agency plan to address an emerging chemical of concern ever undertaken by EPA,” Wheeler said.

“We are moving forward with several important actions, including the maximum contaminant level process, that will help affected communities better monitor, detect and address PFAS,” he said.

The EPA has faced increasing public concerns about these chemicals, which have brought benefits such as improving firefighting foam that puts out fuel fires, nonstick cookware and dental floss, stain-resistant carpet and superior fast-food packaging.

Public health researchers now say the chemicals have a significant downside. Multiple studies have linked the chemicals, even at very low levels, to health problems including high cholesterol, low birth weight, kidney and immune-system ailments and testicular cancer.

Perfluorinated chemicals rank among the worst in a widening array of chemicals — including hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and antidepressants — showing up in public drinking water supplies. The EPA’s process of setting limits, under the Safe Drinking Water Act, takes years.

Public health and environment groups called the EPA’s action plan deficient.

“This is a non-action plan, designed to delay effective regulation of these dangerous chemicals in our drinking water,” Food and Water Watch director Wenonah Hauter said. “The big winners today are polluting corporations, not the people affected by this industrial waste in their drinking water supplies.”

Colorado regulators say backlog of oil, gas permits could take three years to clear

A flurry of drilling permit applications late last year and a rising number of challenges to the requests have helped create a backlog that state regulators say could take up to three years to clear.

At the end of January, hearings officers at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission had 406 pending applications on their docket. Of those, 30 percent of the applications have been protested, the COGCC staff told commissioners in a recent meeting.

The COGCC is down one hearing officer. But even if there were more hearing officers and more cases ready for the commission’s agenda, it would likely take about three years to clear the backlog of hearings, assuming none of the protests are settled, said Mimi Larsen, the COGCC hearings and regulatory affairs manager.

“Once a protest is filed, we have seen over the last year, 18 months, an increased litigation style tactic, I guess one could say, of how these cases are approached,” Larsen said.

Lawyers are filing different kinds of motions and challenging expert testimony, Larsen added.

Many of the applications are for drilling and spacing units, which map out the subsurface area a company wants to access and must be approved before drilling permits are approved.

In addition, there was a jump in the number of drilling permit applications submitted last year in the lead-up to the Nov. 6 election, when voters considered stricter buffers around new oil and gas wells. Voters soundly defeated Proposition 112, but by Dec. 18, there were 6,307 applications on the books.

By contrast, the backlog totaled 2,151 permits on Dec. 17, 2017.

The majority of the protests of the drilling and spacing unit applications are filed by oil and gas companies challenging other companies’ plans, said Jeff Robbins, acting COGCC director.

However, James Rouse, the COGCC hearings supervisor, said during a Jan. 28 meeting that challenges to permit applications by towns, cities and counties “are becoming a big issue and difficult to resolve.”

Commission member Howard Boigon suggested exploring ways to streamline the protest process to reduce what he called “lawyer games” and encouraging operators to settle their disputes with each other.

“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on and a lot of it I think is unnecessary, frankly,” said Boigon, a lawyer who has represented oil and gas companies.

The COGCC is exploring various ways to tackle the backlogs, including asking companies to prioritize their projects so staffers can address those first, Robbins said.

The state saw a similar surge in applications for drilling permits in 2008 and 2009. That’s when the COGCC wrote rules requiring that the environment, wildlife and public health and safety be given more consideration when approving oil and gas development.

Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, expressed frustration with the backlog. He said in an email that the increase in permit applications was a natural reaction to “the uncertain run-up to the election on a ballot measure aimed at shutting down the industry in Colorado.”

Some delays are a normal part of the regulatory process and the result of natural competition among companies, Haley added.

“However, the biggest challenge we see is the result of fear mongering by activists that has been directed at the volunteer leadership of the commission itself for the past several months,” Haley said. “The process is grinding at a much slower pace, fueled by political transition, uncertainty, and the aggressive tactics of those who want nothing more than to shutter one of Colorado’s cornerstone industries.”

Gov. Jared Polis, who took office in January, supports giving communities more input into oil and gas development. Legislative leaders are expected to consider bills on stronger protections for public health and safety.

The answer to reducing the backlog of permits is not to reduce the public’s ability to comment on plans for more drilling, said Matt Sura, an attorney who represents local governments, landowners and mineral owners in oil and gas cases.

“The COGCC is behind in its hearing schedule due to the fact that the industry is extraordinarily litigious,” Sura said in an email. “Right now the industry is fighting for every remaining square mile in the Wattenberg Field, the area the rest of us refer to as the Front Range.”

Most of the recent new drilling has taken place in areas north of Denver, sometimes in and around fast-growing cities and towns.

“The COGCC needs to hear more from impacted residents, not less,” Sura added.

Colorado weather forecast calls for red flag, winter storm warnings on same day

Nothing speaks to Colorado’s diverse landscapes, climates and weather more than Wednesday’s statewide weather forecast featuring simultaneous red flag, winter and high-wind warnings.

If you are in the foothills of the Eastern Slope just west of Denver, beware of powerful winds. If you live between Steamboat Springs and Gunnison, be prepared for winter driving conditions including falling snow and icy roads. And if you live in the southeast corner of Colorado, be on the lookout for smoke plumes because the fire danger is high.

In the middle of all this weather mayhem, Denver sits in a comfort zone, where sunny skies and southwest breezes will push temperatures up to around 60 degrees.

Temperatures in Denver will gradually decrease through President’s Day weekend, with highs of 57 degrees on Thursday, 54 on Friday, 44 on Saturday, 32 on Sunday and 29 on Monday.

During that period it could rain, snow or both beginning late Thursday night. At around 11 p.m. it could start to rain. Early Friday the rain could turn to snow in Denver. There is a slight chance for snow Sunday night, weather forecasters say. On Monday it could snow as well, the NWS says.

Colorado co-op’s fight for renewable energy could upend how rural communities are powered

A battle between a Western Slope rural electric cooperative and one of the country’s largest co-op power providers has intensified, setting the stage for what may be a significant change in how and where some rural communities get their electricity.

On one side is the Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA), the Montrose-based co-op serving about 33,000 members, and on the other is the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which provides power to 43 cooperatives in four states, including 18 in Colorado.

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission is set to weigh in on the issue Thursday, and its decision on whether it has jurisdiction could lead to an unprecedented level of oversight on Tri-State and open the way for more renewable energy in the state’s rural co-ops.

DMEA wants to quit Tri-State, seeking to develop more renewable and local energy generation, spurred by lower market prices for wind and solar. Tri-State says that to protect the association’s other members, DMEA must fulfill the 21 years left on its contract for debt and revenue.

DMEA officials call Tri-State’s undisclosed exit fee “discriminatory” and are asking the PUC to set the fee.

“The world is changing,” said John Parker, CEO of Brighton-based United Power, a Tri-State member supporting DMEA at the PUC. “Tri-State is not going to be able to hold back the change. Tri-State is not going to be the little boy with his finger in the dike holding back change.”

For its part, Tri-State has added 475 megawatts (MW) of wind, solar and small hydro in the past 10 years and in the past 30 days has announced plans for another 100 MW of solar in 2023 and 104 MW of wind to come online in 2020. It is closing three coal-fired plants, and at the association’s April meeting, the board will consider a new, more flexible membership plan.

“Tri-State is considering by-law changes allowing for members to take more local generation,” said Jeff Wadsworth, CEO of the Fort Collins-based Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association, which is supporting Tri-State. “Tri-State is looking to add renewables. I think it is a question of the pace of change.”

State clean-energy goals at odds with Tri-State contracts

Supporters are lining up on both sides of the PUC case. More than 35 Tri-State member co-ops, most of them out-of-state, have filed in support of Tri-State. United Power and the Durango-based La Plata Electric Association are supporting DMEA, as are the ski industry’s trade association, the libertarian Independence Institute, environmental groups and the Colorado Energy Office (CEO).

“The CEO works with communities in Delta, Montrose and Gunnison counties and DMEA to promote ‘clean and renewable energy,’ ‘energy efficiency technologies and practices,’ and ‘energy storage systems,’” the office said in its PUC filing. “These changes may only be possible if the commission sets a just and reasonable charge for DMEA to withdraw from Tri-State.”

MORE: Read more environmental coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Sixty-two state lawmakers also signed a letter to the PUC in support of DMEA and the commission’s intervention.

“As members of the Colorado General Assembly who care about rural economic development and allowing all Coloradans access to less expensive power from local and diverse generation sources, we urge the commission to strongly consider exercising its jurisdiction under Colorado law and setting an exit charge fair to both DMEA and Tri-State’s remaining members,” the letter said.

“I don’t think Tri-State has been a good neighbor,” said state Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, who signed the letter. “We’ve tried to talk to Tri-State about renewable energy. We’ve got great resources in our region. DMEA could do 30 to 40 percent renewables. It is a question of jobs for my community, so it is time for an equitable divorce.”

Tri-State says it has the support of 35 of its members, including 11 in Colorado.

The core reason for the clash is the 40-year contracts Tri-State signs with its members. The contracts require the cooperatives to buy 95 percent of their electricity from Tri-State.

Tri-State maintains this is a contract dispute with DMEA and the PUC doesn’t have jurisdiction, a position backed by its supporters. “DMEA is complaining about a contractual term, contained in the Tri-State Bylaws, which would only take effect if DMEA is no longer receiving electric service from Tri-State,” Limon-based Mountain View Electric Association said in a PUC filings.

Trying to short-circuit the PUC

In January, Tri-State filed a complaint in Adams County District Court seeking a ruling on whether it is in fact a contract dispute ruled by Tri-State’s bylaws. Tri-State’s headquarters is in Adams County.

“Tri-State is trying to short-circuit the PUC,” said Virginia Harman, DMEA’s chief operating officer. DMEA has cast the dispute as a rate case in that the exit fee will have to be paid through consumer rate increases.

“We are not wanting to get out for free,” Harman said. “We are not asking for something that’s not fair. We want to pay our fair share. The number that Tri-State has proposed is not fair.”

Tri-State, as an interstate cooperative entity, has only been lightly reviewed by the PUC. The association serves cooperatives in Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, but increasingly Colorado co-ops, environmental groups and legislators have raised questions about its governance.

Two-thirds of the people Tri-State serves live in Colorado and the five largest co-ops are based here, led by United Power with nearly 80,000 members.

“PUC is charged with protecting the public interest, including rural Coloradans, like our members,” Harman said.

The calculation for Tri-State is complex. Based on those long-term contracts Tri-State developed 5,562 miles of high-voltage lines, has interests in six coal-fired and five natural-gas electric plants and $3.2 billion in debt. Tri-State reported revenues of nearly $1.4 billion in 2017.

Tri-State depends upon coal (through its plants and power purchases) for nearly half its electricity. It gets 30 percent of its power from renewables when all the local co-op projects and hydro power purchased from the federal Western Area Power Administration are included.

For some co-ops and environmental critics, the continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels presents financial risk, as the price of wind and solar generation continue to decline.

Delta-Montrose Electric Association, which serves 33,000 Western Slope customers, is trying to get out of its 40-year contract with Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, citing consumer demand for power produced from renewable sources such as solar and wind. About half of Tri-State’s power is generated using coal. State Sen. Don Coram says conditions on the Western Slope are ripe to generate 30 to 40 percent of required electricity from low-cost renewable sources, but DMEA is obliged to purchase 95 percent of its power from Tri-State. “It is time for an equitable divorce,” Coram says. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

An analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Boulder-based energy consultant, calculated that Tri-State could save $600 million between now and 2030 if it shuttered its coal plants and moved to cheaper renewable generation. Tri-State disputed the calculation.

“While other utilities are moving away from coal, Tri-State’s continued reliance on coal poses a risk,” said Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program for the environmental group Wild Earth Guardians, which filed in the PUC case in support of DMEA.

Tri-State’s debt-to-asset ratio is about 60 percent, and the company terms the debt load “substantial,” in federal filings. A high debt-to-asset ratio is not uncommon in the utility industry, where predictable income streams make lenders more comfortable with a larger debt load.

“Our debt-to-capitalization ratio is in line with other G&Ts (generation and transmission associations),” Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey said.

But anything that roils that predictable revenue stream is a risk.

“If we underestimate the monetary value of a member’s obligation or a significant number of our members withdraw, our ability to satisfy our financial obligations could be adversely affected,” the company said in its annual report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Tri-State’s position is that only its board, made up of representatives of the 43 co-ops, can approve a member quitting the co-op. “If such permission is granted, the board must ensure that the withdrawing member satisfies its contractual obligations so as not to harm the remaining members,” Boughey said.

That could include all the debt service and revenue obligations left on the contract.

“DMEA appears to propose a buyout of its contract at an amount that will not come close to making the remaining members financially whole,” Boughey said.

Looking for contract flexibility and more renewable power sources

In 2016, the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, in Taos, New Mexico, paid a $37 million exit fee to leave Tri-State. The fee was financed through Guzman Energy, an energy management and contracting firm, that is also working with DMEA.

“The G&T model has two problems,” said Chris Riley, Guzman’s president. “There is the assets mix. They built these large, centralized coal plants. Now distributed renewable generation is an option. …  They have both of those problems and they have them simultaneously.”

DMEA, La Plata and United have all tried to add more renewable generation or energy storage and butted heads with Tri-State. Proposals by La Plata proposals to increase the 5 percent cap on local generation to 10 percent was rejected by the board, as was a proposal to pool the 5 percent limit so co-ops could trade it amongst themselves.

Still, not all cooperatives are seeking to leave Tri-State. Many are very small, including the 3,100-customer Northern Rio Arriba Electric Co-op, in Chama, New Mexico, and the Southeast Colorado Power Association, which has 5,000 members scattered over 13,000 square miles.

“This issue with DMEA should be settled by the board,” said Jack Johnston, CEO La Junta-based Southeast Colorado Power Association.

Even the larger co-ops say they are just looking for a little more flexibility in their contracts with Tri-State.

“I don’t how we got so far apart,” said Parker, the United CEO. “We are not looking to leave Tri-State. … We are looking to work together to address change.”

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Colorado oilfield fight over forced drilling — even when property owners object — spills into federal court

Colorado’s teetering 67-year-old law that lets fossil-fuel companies drill inside neighborhoods even when residents who own mineral rights object could not be buttressed one way or the other Tuesday as a state oilfield fight spilled into federal court in Denver.

U.S. District Judge Brooke Jackson told state attorneys and disgruntled mineral property owners from Broomfield — one of the municipalities around Denver where oil and gas firms are expanding industrial operations — that he lacked jurisdiction to weigh in.

The case at issue challenges as unconstitutional Colorado’s “forced pooling” statute, which allows oil and gas firms to extract — for a price — minerals belonging even to those unwilling to sell.

Extraction Oil and Gas, currently constructing a drilling pad and installing infrastructure for 19 new wells that would span 1,600 acres near homes, was not a party in Broomfield residents’ lawsuit, Jackson pointed out. And the residents had yet to protest at the state level because the regulatory Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission had delayed a required “forced pooling” hearing.

But Jackson assumed the role of a crisis diplomat, brokering peace between parties in this property rights dispute.

Jackson told attorneys for the Broomfield residents that, while he couldn’t grant their request to temporarily block Extraction and stop the COGCC from allowing forced pooling, he would hear from them in the future following a state hearing if necessary.

And when Kyle Davenport, Colorado’s assistant attorney general, couldn’t immediately guarantee that no drilling would begin until after that hearing, now set for March 11, Jackson ordered Davenport out of the courtroom to a hallway — “right now, please” — to extract a commitment from an Extraction executive that no drilling would happen before June 1.

Davenport did so and returned with that assurance. Jackson smiled. “I do not anticipate that the commission or Extraction will renege on what they agreed to in this courtroom.”

At issue is a 1951 Colorado forced-pooling law that favors extraction of fossil fuels — a law made long before horizontal drilling technology widened the industry’s reach across multiple properties, and before the oil and gas boom led to companies pushing to establish industrial operations inside communities north of Denver.

Oil and gas industry officials contend forced pooling of mineral property rights is essential to enable efficient fossil-fuel production. And the COGCC, a regulatory agency simultaneously charged with promoting efficient exploitation of resources, has granted permits for large-scale drilling with bore holes as long as two miles to tap hundreds of different underground mineral properties.

“We remain on track to begin drilling… in early June and will appear before the COGCC pooling hearing in March as previously planned as part of that established process,” Extraction Oil and Gas spokesman Brian Cain said in a prepared statement.

Extraction has leased rights to, or obtained consent for, removing 80 percent of the minerals in the area, Cain said. “By the time this unit is drilled, we’re hopeful that percentage will be even higher.”

COGCC officials declined to comment.

The Broomfield residents of the Wildgrass community own rights to minerals under their homes. Many are opposed to the drilling, and some cite global warming concerns as a factor.

“What bothers us is that we are being forced, by Colorado’s ‘forced pooling’ statute, to lease our mineral property rights to a private company. That seems unconstitutional,” Wildgrass Oil and Gas Committee co-chairperson Jean Lim said. “And we do have health, safety and environmental concerns. Those concerns haven’t been addressed by the COGCC permit conditions for those wells.”

Technological development and companies’ inclination to expand industrial operations inside cities render the existing law inappropriate, Lim said. “The forced-pooling law has to be changed.”

Next month, COGCC must hold a forced-pooling hearing, without further delay, under the deal that Jackson hashed out orally in court. Broomfield residents must be allowed to raise concerns involving health, safety, the environment and fairness in a forced-pooling protest before the COGCC.

Former Colorado lawmaker Joe Salazar, helping to represent Broomfield mineral property owners, said legislators ultimately must deal with intensifying strains on an outdated law.

“This is the business of the legislature. It needs to be addressed,” Salazar said.

The problem is that oil and gas companies likely will try to block any action, he said. “It is the lobbying problem. There is a power imbalance.”

U.S. Senate approves major public lands, conservation package reauthorizing Land and Water Conservation Fund

By Matthew Daly, The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Tuesday approved a major public lands bill that revives a popular conservation program, adds 1.3 million acres of new wilderness, expands several national parks and creates five new national monuments.

The measure, the largest public lands bill considered by Congress in a decade, combines more than 100 separate bills that designate more than 350 miles of river as wild and scenic, add 2,600 miles of new federal trails and create nearly 700,000 acres of new recreation and conservation areas. The bill also withdraws 370,000 acres in Montana and Washington state from mineral development.

The Senate approved the bill, 92-8, sending it to the House.

Lawmakers from both parties said the bill’s most important provision was to permanently reauthorize the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports conservation and outdoor recreation projects across the country. The program expired last fall after Congress could not agree on language to extend it.

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been a pre-eminent program for access to public lands” for more than 50 years, said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. The program has supported more than 42,000 state and local projects throughout the U.S. since its creation in 1964.

MORE: Congress works on fix after the Land Water Conservation Fund lapses

The hodgepodge bill offered something for nearly everyone, with projects stretching across the country.

Even so, the bill was derailed last year after Republican Sen. Mike Lee objected, saying he wanted to exempt his home state of Utah from a law that allows the president to designate federal lands as a national monument protected from development.

Lee’s objection during a heated Senate debate in December forced lawmakers to start over in the new Congress, culminating in Tuesday’s Senate vote.

Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican who clashed with Lee on the Senate floor, said the vote caps four years of work to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund and protect public lands.

“The program has a direct impact on public lands in Colorado and will be used to protect our state’s natural beauty for future generations,” Gardner said in a written statement. “I’m thrilled we were able to finally permanently reauthorize this commonsense program supported by Coloradans across the political spectrum. This is a great day for the future of Colorado’s public lands.”

Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, also lauded the package of bills passed Tuesday. “It’s rare that a bipartisan lands package moves in Congress, so this bill is a significant accomplishment for communities across Colorado,” he said in a written statement.

From left: Colorado’s U.S. Sens. Cory Gardner, a Republican, and Michael Bennet, a Democrat. (The Colorado Sun)

Bennet is also working on the most ambitious public lands protections for Colorado in more than 25 years, called the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy Act. It would protect 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado, with 73,000 acres of new wilderness areas and about 80,000 acres of new recreation and conservation management areas that preserve existing recreational use. 

The measure, however, faces an uphill battle with Republicans in control of the Senate.

MORE: Largest public lands bill since 1993 would protect 400,000 acres across Colorado

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the bill passed Tuesday enhances use of public lands and water, while promoting conservation and sporting activities such as hunting and fishing.

The bill includes provisions sponsored by more than half of the senators, Murkowski said, applauding a “very, very collaborative” process.

She and other senators called the Land and Water Conservation Fund one of the most popular and effective programs Congress has ever created.

The program uses federal royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to fund conservation and public recreation projects around the country. The fund is authorized to collect $900 million a year but generally receives less than half that amount from Congress.

“This victory was a long time in the making, and it is the result of the steadfast efforts of many who care deeply about America’s natural treasures,” said Sen Richard Burr, R-N.C. “Protecting this program is the right thing to do for our children, grandchildren and countless generations so that they may come to enjoy the great American outdoors as we have.”

The bill creates three new national monuments to be administered by the National Park Service and two others overseen by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, respectively. The three park service monuments are the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument in Mississippi and the Mill Springs and Camp Nelson national monuments in Kentucky.

The Evers site was the home of the slain civil rights leader, while Mill Springs commemorates a Civil War battlefield. Camp Nelson was used as Union Army hospital and recruiting center during the Civil War. President Donald Trump proclaimed Camp Nelson a national monument last year, but the bill gives it permanent, congressionally approved protection.

The bill also designates the former Saint Francis Dam site in California as a national memorial and monument. The dam outside Los Angeles collapsed in 1928, killing 431 people in one of the largest tragedies in California history.

“While this monument will serve as a reminder of the consequences of a failure of infrastructure, it offers a lesson going forward,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.

The bill also sets aside 850 acres in central Utah as the Jurassic National Monument, designed to enhance the area’s “paleontological, scientific, educational and recreational resources.”

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Tri-State announces new CEO and new Colorado wind farm to power 47K homes

In dual announcements Tuesday, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association said it has named a new CEO and is adding its fifth utility-scale wind farm in Colorado.

Westminster-based Tri-State, which serves member electric cooperatives in Colorado and other states, has named Duane Highley as its new CEO. Highley, the current president and CEO of Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., will start April 5.

He will succeed Mike McInnes, who is retiring.

In a separate announcement, Tri-State said it plans to install a 100-megawatt wind farm in eastern Colorado, which it said will boost its total power from wind in Colorado to 471 megawatts.

Duane Highley, Tri-State’s new CEO

Tri-State has come under fire from some of its member associations and renewable-energy advocates for relying too much on coal at a time when the costs of wind and solar energy are falling and concerns about climate-changing emissions from fossil fuels are increasing.

But Tri-State says nearly a third of its power comes from renewable sources.

McInnes said in a statement that Tri-State has “worked to address the challenges of an ever-changing industry” while staying true to its mission.

Rick Gordon, Tri-State board chairman and president, commended McInnes for his work and said the energy supplier is “well-positioned for the future.

“As CEO, (Highley) will work with our board of directors to advance a strong vision for the association’s future,” Gordon, said. “He has spent the past 35 years working with two financially strong cooperatives and demonstrates leadership collaborating with members, key stakeholders and public officials.”

Highley said in a statement that the Tri-State board, members and staff will work to “bolster what remains our key focus — serving the needs of our members so they can deliver on their promise to rural communities across the West.”

McInnes joined Tri-State in 2000 and became executive vice president and general manager in March 2014. The board changed his title to CEO in 2015.

Before working for Tri-State, McInnes was executive vice president and general manager of Plains Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative in Albuquerque, N.M.

Tri-State supplies wholesale power to 43 member electric associations in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nebraska.

Tri-State’s new wind project is a joint effort with EDP Renewables to install a 104-megawatt turbine farm about 20 miles south of Seibert in eastern Colorado.

The Crossing Trails Wind Farm, expected to start operating in 2020, will produce enough electricity annually to supply on average more than 47,000 rural Colorado homes, Tri-State said in a news release. It will be in the service territory of the K.C. Electric Association.

Critics of Tri-State have noted plans by Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest electric utility, to shut down some of its coal plants early and produce more electricity from renewable sources. Late last year, Xcel started operating the Rush Creek Wind Project, a 600-megawatt wind facility in Cheyenne, Elbert, Kit Carson and Lincoln counties that can produce enough electricity for about 325,000 homes.

In January, Tri-State announced it was doubling the power it will get from solar energy with the 100-megawatt Spanish Peaks Solar Project north of Trinidad.

Tri-State is also reducing its coal-generating capacity, spokesman Lee Boughey said in an email.

“We have retired our capacity in the San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico, and will retire Nucla Station by the end of 2022 and Craig Station Unit 1 by the end of 2025,” Boughey said.

“They’re absolutely taking steps in the right direction. Kudos to them,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “But we’re just not seeing the bold moves” on reducing the use of coal.

Nichols added that Tri-State isn’t addressing its members’ concerns about the economics of coal compared to the declining costs of wind and solar.

Tri-State’s mix of energy sources has been a point of contention with some of its member cooperatives. In 2015, the Taos, N.M.-based Kit Carson Electric Cooperative paid $37 million to break its contract with Tri-State, citing rising electric rates and a desire to use more renewable energy sources.

The Delta-Montrose Electric Association wants to buy out its contract with Tri-State in part because its rates have increased 56 percent since 2005. The Montrose-based association asked the Colorado Public Utilities Commission in December to intervene, saying the exit fee Tri-State wants is “unjust, unreasonable, and discriminatory.”

Tri-State responded  in January with a lawsuit asking the Adams County District Court to clarify the Delta-Montrose association’s obligations under its contract and the state public utilities commission’s jurisdiction in the dispute.

Senate passes public lands package, including permanent authorization for Land and Water Conservation Fund

A package of more than 100 bills that would increase conservation and access to the outdoors nationwide passed the U.S. Senate Tuesday 92 to 8.

Senate Bill 47, which now heads to the U.S. House of Representatives, is the culmination of years of negotiations in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which includes Colorado’s Republican Sen. Cory Gardner.

The package includes nine Colorado-specific bills and the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The LWCF collects money from offshore oil and gas drilling and spends it on projects that improve outdoor recreation. Its authorization expired in September.

“After four years of working on this issue, the Senate was finally able to permanently reauthorize the crown jewel of conservation programs …,” Gardner said in a statement. “The program has a direct impact on public lands in Colorado and will be used to protect our state’s natural beauty for future generations.”

The LWCF has spent $270 million in Colorado to buy private lands that abut or block access to public lands and make projects such as the Continental Divide Trail and Golden Gate Canyon State Park realities.

Gardner said during a floor speech before Tuesday’s vote that Colorado has about 250,000 acres of public lands that people still can’t access.

“That’s basically the same amount of land as Rocky Mountain National Park that can’t be used to hike, to hunt, to fish even though it belongs to the American people,” he said.

The Colorado-specific bills included ones studying the feasibility of making the Amache internment site for Word War II Japanese Americans part of the National Park System and including early 1800s explorer Zebulon Pike’s route across the West and Midwest in the National Trails System.

Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet had hoped to include four more bills, including one that would protect nearly 61,000 acres of the San Juan mountain range. He tried to add them via amendment called the CORE Act but wasn’t successful.

“We support the CORE Act, but not as an amendment to the public lands bill,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, a vice president at the National Wildlife Federation. “The public lands bill – with the vital permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund – is long overdue and needs to be passed as quickly as possible.  We don’t want to jeopardize its passage with amendments.”

However, a state conservation group was critical of Gardner for not getting CORE added to the package of bills passed Tuesday.

“In a state where three-quarters of voters consider themselves outdoor recreation enthusiasts, Senator Gardner missed another major chance that his colleagues in Utah and New Mexico took advantage of: to conserve thousands of new acres of public lands,” Conservation Colorado Executive Director Kelly Nordini said in a statement.

The next hurdle for the public lands package will be the House Natural Resources Committee.

Larimer County says no to Thornton’s 72-mile water pipe from the Poudre River

Thornton’s controversial effort to move millions of gallons of water via a 72-mile pipeline from the Cache la Poudre River west of Fort Collins to its mushrooming population in Denver’s northern suburbs was dashed Monday night by all three of Larimer County’s commissioners, ending more than a year of debate and contentious back and forth on the issue.

The commissioners denied a 1041 permit for the project, citing concerns about the project’s potential impacts to property owners in Larimer County and to the environment at large. The decision was met with applause in the hearing room Monday night.

Commissioner Steve Johnson said the $423 million pipeline proposal, which aimed to move water from the Poudre River via a 48-inch diameter pipe across the northern edge of Fort Collins to Interstate 25 before turning south toward Thornton, ranked as one of the most contentious issues he had ever seen raised in the county’s history.

He acknowledged that Thornton “purchased that property (the Poudre water) legally and they have a right to that property,” but he said the city didn’t give enough consideration to alternatives to a pipeline.

“The 600-plus supporters of the grassroots No Pipe Dream organization commend the Larimer County commissioners for their unanimous denial of the 1041 application for the Thornton Water Project,” Karen Wagner, the group’s co-chair and a former commissioner in the county, said after the vote. “The board recognized the considerable impacts on their constituents.”

Wagner and other pipeline opponents had called on Thornton to send its Poudre River shares down the river through Fort Collins instead of excavating miles of land for a pipe, arguing that the additional flow would dramatically improve the health of a river that has dwindled to a trickle at times.

In a statement issued shortly after the vote was cast, Thornton Water Project Director Mark Koleber said the city was disappointed that the commissioners “chose to ignore the recommendations of their own county staff that Thornton met all of the 1041 criteria for a water pipeline to be built in the county, potentially causing a delay in Thornton residents’ access to the clean water resources they own.”

“In the coming days and weeks, we will review the decision and determine our next steps,” he said.

The simmering battle over Thornton’s proposed pipeline, in many ways, echoes Colorado’s long and colorful history of water wars that have pitted farmers against urban dwellers, the western part of the state against the booming Front Range, and city against city.

Gary Wockner, executive director of Save the Poudre — a group that aims to “protect and restore” the waterway that flows from Rocky Mountain National Park to the South Platte east of Greeley — said Thornton had “a huge opportunity to do the right thing.”

“The Poudre is already severely depleted and degraded through Fort Collins and this is an opportunity to help restore the ecological health of the river,” he said.

Wagner said there needed to be more give from Thornton when it comes to moving its water. A pipe will negatively impact residents while it is being installed and won’t bring any benefits to Larimer County in the short or long term, she said.

“The benefits accrue all to the city of Thornton,” she said.

Larimer County’s primary responsibility, Wagner argued, is to enforce its land use code to protect its residents. Sending Thornton’s drinking water down the Poudre would not only help improve the river’s condition for the people of Fort Collins and the animals that depend on the waterway to live, but would still allow the city north of Denver to collect every last drop it has rights to.

But moving its water via the Poudre through Fort Collins to Windsor before taking it out of the river would badly degrade the water’s quality, given urban and agricultural runoff and the presence of two water treatment plants in that urban stretch, said city spokesman Todd Barnes.

“We want the same water quality we would get where we already divert it,” Barnes said.

Thornton purchased senior water rights in the Poudre back in the 1980s in anticipation of steady population growth in the years to come. Much of that growth has already happened: The city has blossomed from a population of approximately 50,000 people in 1985 to around 140,000 today. By 2065, Thornton expects to have a population topping 240,000.

By then, its Poudre shares will deliver 14,000 acre-feet of high-quality water — an acre-foot, generally speaking, can serve the needs of two families of four for a year — to its residents.

“We’ve always known since we purchased the water we would need it,” Barnes said. “The idea of taking water from far away is not unique at all in Colorado.”

Over the past year, Barnes said Thornton has made multiple concessions to lessen the impacts of a pipeline in Larimer County and to see to it that the county’s residents get some benefits from the project. Those included offers of $1 million to help improve flows in the Poudre River, another million dollars to mitigate impacts to traffic from pipeline construction and an offer to protect some farmland the city owns in the county under a conservation easement.

Already, Thornton had agreed to move the alignment of its water pipe from the Douglas Road corridor north of Fort Collins to a far less busy county road farther away from the city.

BLM asking for public comment on proposed Colorado mine expansion

DURANGO — The public now can comment on an environmental analysis that looks to evaluate the potential impacts of expanding operations of a Colorado coal mine.

The Durango Herald reports GCC Energy, which has operated the King II coal mine near Hesperus since 2007, asked the Bureau of Land Management in 2018 for a lease to expand the mine by 3.85 square miles.

The company has said if expansions were not approved, the mine would run out of coal and be forced to shut down, laying off 100 employees and cutting local tax revenue.

Before approving the proposed expansion for at least another 20 years, the Bureau of Land Management must first conduct an analysis to look at the potential impacts it would have on the environment.

Comments regarding the expansion will be accepted until March 11.

Colorado energy director Will Toor to drive push toward renewables, electric vehicles

For Will Toor, it’s an exciting time to be on the front lines of energy and transportation issues.

Dropping prices are encouraging utilities of all sizes to switch to wind and solar. Options are increasing for drivers who want to go electric.

Colorado Energy Office executive director Will ...
AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post
Colorado Energy Office executive director Will Toor in his office on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019.

For six years, Toor worked on those issues as transportation program director at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, as a member of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, as a Boulder County commissioner and as Boulder mayor. He has taken the helm at the Colorado Energy Office at a time when changes in energy and transportation are among the top agenda items of a new governor.

“Gov. (Jared) Polis has articulated some bold goals around clean energy and climate change, with the goal of 100 percent clean energy in the electric sector by 2040,” Toor said in a recent interview.

On Toor’s fourth day on the job, Polis signed an executive order reaffirming the previous administration’s goal of having nearly 1 million electric vehicles on Colorado roads by 2030.

However, the order makes a significant change in the 2018 Colorado Electric Vehicle Plan by directing that tens of millions of dollars to replace older gas- and diesel-fueled trucks and fleet vehicles be used only for electric vehicles — not newer diesel and propane-fueled vehicles, as originally allowed. The money comes from the state’s nearly $70 million share of the national settlement with Volkswagen over allegations that it modified software to cheat on emissions tests.

[RELATED: Colorado’s electric car dream: More charging stations, less smog]

“I do believe it’s a very strategic investment,” Toor said. “I think we’re on the threshold of major market innovations where the medium- and heavy-duty vehicle fleet may be able to move toward electrification quite rapidly.”

Toor also thinks there will be plenty of options for Colorado drivers if the state Air Quality Control Commission adopts a rule based on California’s requirement that a certain percentage of vehicles sold in the state be electric.

The Colorado Automobile Dealers Association isn’t reassured. The trade group says 75 percent of the vehicles sold in the state are trucks and sports utility vehicles, and there aren’t a lot of those yet.

The association is suing to repeal tougher vehicle fuel-efficiency standards approved in late 2018 and has pledged to speak out if an electric-vehicle standard is considered.

“I understand their concerns,” Toor said, “but it’s important to recognize that when we talk about 75 percent of new vehicles being trucks, that actually includes everything from small crossovers up through pickup trucks.”

Manufacturers plan to add more electric SUVs to their lineups, Toor said, so there should be more choices by the time the Colorado standard would take effect. Having an electric-vehicle requirement on the books will encourage automakers to offer a wider array of vehicles in Colorado, he said.

An Associated Press story saying cold weather can temporarily sap an electric vehicle’s power, reducing its range by more than 40 percent, shouldn’t be a big concern, said Heatheryn Higgins, Colorado Energy Office spokeswoman. Cold weather is more of an issue with the first generation of electric vehicles, and the state’s commitment to building more public charging stations will help alleviate drivers’ ‘range anxiety,’ ”  she said.

Toor acknowledges that batteries for electric vehicles and storage come with their own environmental problems. The mining of metals and minerals used to make batteries can create significant, negative environmental damage. Disposal of batteries creates problems with the toxic waste.

“There’s no free lunch. Every form of energy has impacts,” Toor said. “But when you compare the environmental impacts of lithium batteries to the impacts of burning fossil fuels, I think it’s a much smaller impact.”

Working to extend the life of batteries and effective recycling efforts will be important, Toor said.

While interest in electric cars is rising, there’s even more momentum to boost the amount of electricity generated by renewable energy sources, Toor said. Dramatically declining prices for wind and solar power and batteries to store that power are big reasons.

Xcel Energy Colorado, the state’s largest electric utility, is retiring two coal-fired plants early and intends to increase renewable energy sources to 55 percent of its supply mix by 2026. It’s working to cut its carbon-dioxide emissions to zero by 2050.

[RELATED: Tri-State Generation and Transmission faces loss of member over rates, renewables]

City-owned utilities and rural electric cooperatives in Colorado have set goals of cutting carbon-dioxide emissions and expanding the use of renewable energy sources.

Amy Oliver Cooke of the Independence Institute, a Colorado libertarian think tank and advocacy organization, would like state policy to focus more on decentralized “micro” electric grids, which she believes would “empower people rather than enrich Xcel Energy.”

“Oftentimes Gov. Polis and Will Toor are well-intentioned, but my concern is that I think they’re asking the wrong questions,” said Cooke, director of the Energy and Environmental Policy Center at the Independence Institute. “In 2050, will the grid be powered 100 percent by industrial wind and utility-scale solar and batteries? The question we should be asking is: Will we still have a massive, centralized grid with behemoth power plants?”

Cooke also wonders if discussions of energy use will include looking at nuclear power.

“If you want carbon-free power on demand, nuclear has to be on the table,” she said.

Moving forward, Toor said the energy office will meet with community members and engage a variety of stakeholders. Utilities and industries of all types, auto manufacturers and dealers and local governments will be important partners, he added.

A major focus of the office is energy efficiency, and Toor said he wants to work with the oil and gas, building and other industries in that area. A blog by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, Toor’s former employer, cites federal data saying recent reductions in carbon dioxide emissions nationwide has resulted from energy efficiency, which drives down demand for electricity.

The energy office has launched a program aimed at helping large industrial facilities improve their energy management to reduce use and costs.

With oil and gas, the bulk of the state’s interaction with the industry is through the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the Department of Natural Resources, Toor said. However, he sees opportunities to work with the industry on increasing the efficiency of its operations.

The appointment of Toor as director of the state energy office “gives me great faith in what can be accomplished,” said Suzanne Jones, Boulder mayor and the executive director of Eco-Cycle. She has known Toor since he was director of the University of Colorado Environmental Center. Toor, who has a doctorate in physics, served with Jones on the board of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, now Conservation Colorado.

“I don’t always agree with him, but I’m always impressed by the intellectual rigor he brings to issues and his thoughtfulness,” Jones said. “He’s able to explain issues and bring people together around common values.”

Cory Gardner shepherds massive public lands bill toward vote, but Michael Bennet wants more for Colorado

The U.S. Senate is set to do something that it hardly ever does, political observers say: Pass a bipartisan package of more than 100 public lands and water bills that would increase conservation and access to the outdoors across the country.

Senate Bill 47, which is expected to get a vote early next week, has nine Colorado-related bills inside it, but the biggest win for conservation groups would be the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired at the end of September.

Colorado’s senators and national conservation groups say they expect it to win approval.

Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Yuma, who serves on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has been instrumental in building this delicate house of cards out of bills from states and communities across the country, according to hunting, biking and conservation groups. 

“This is a very significant package of bills for public lands and the West,” Gardner told The Denver Post. “All these bills have been carefully negotiated and vetted.”

Environmental groups consider the Land and Water Conservation Fund the crown jewel of public lands legislation. Created in 1964, the LWCF takes revenues from offshore oil and gas development and deposits it into a fund to improve outdoor recreation.

The money has built everything from playgrounds to fishing sites and bought public easements from private landowners. In Colorado, the fund has invested nearly $270 million in projects like the Continental Divide Trail and Golden Gate Canyon State Park.

The problem with the LWCF is that Congress authorized it for 50 years. The fund got a three-year extension when it was first set to end in 2015, but then lawmakers couldn’t agree on another one when the fund expired in September. The fund isn’t in danger of running out of money anytime soon, but every day it can’t collect those deposits, it loses out on about $2.4 million for public lands projects, according to the conservation fund.

Gardner said that’s partly why he yelled at his Republican colleague, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, when Lee objected and effectively blocked a nearly identical package of public lands bills from passing by unanimous consent in December.

“Let me talk about this because I am pretty doggone upset,” Gardner said during a floor speech as he pounded the podium. “The people of Colorado tonight, who are worried about whether they can protect themselves from fire, lost the Wildfire Technology Act in this bill.”

This time, the bill is moving through normal channels and a single senator can’t block its passage with an objection.

That wildfire bill Gardner railed about in December is in the new package, along with ones that would add private land to the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, allow the town of Minturn access through a wilderness area to finally fix its water system and study whether Amache, a Japanese internment camp site in Granada, should become part of the national park system.

“We just don’t have the manpower to keep it up the way we should,” said John Hopper, who runs the Amache site with donations and an ever-changing group of local high school students. “You know if it’s a national park, it’s going to be taken care of for years to come.”

Hopper said he’s grateful for the support from Gardner and Colorado’s Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in moving Amache forward for national park designation.

“It’s rare that a bipartisan lands package moves in Congress, so this bill is a significant accomplishment with a number of provisions important to communities in our state,” Bennet said.

But Bennet isn’t completely happy with how the bill came together.

The Senate’s public lands package creates about 1.3 million new acres of wilderness area, but not a single one of those acres would be in Colorado.

Bennet’s office tried to get some Colorado wilderness bills, like the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, into the package, but committee members — including Gardner — ultimately decided against it.

“While other Western states like Utah and Montana will celebrate thousands of acres of new land protections in the bill, we’re disappointed new protections for Colorado are not included,” Bennet said.

He has filed an amendment, called the CORE Act (Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy Act), to the package of public lands bills.

It’s a move that makes Gardner and even conservation groups like the National Wildlife Foundation nervous.

Bills like SB 47 that get assembled over time with dozens of smaller bills that would likely never get votes on their own are fragile things.

“Everybody wants their piece of the action,” Gardner said. “It becomes this escalating tit for tat.”

And if lawmakers aren’t careful, the whole house of cards will collapse.

The NWF and other conservation groups are urging members of Congress to pass “a clean bill,” which means ignoring amendments as they come up next week even if they have merit.

“We’re excited about this,” Gardner said. “The whole package is good for public lands. We’re not giving up until we get this done.”

Colorado bills included in public lands package

  • Crags, Colorado Land Exchange Act: Would clear the way for a land exchange between the Broadmoor Hotel and the United States Forest Service. It will allow public access to the Barr Trail and other areas while easing the property management burden on USFS, proponents say.
  • Bolts Ditch Access and Use Act: Would allow the town of Minturn broader access Bolts Lake, which is part of its water system. In 1980, Congress designated the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, but the designating legislation failed to include Bolts Ditch as an existing water facility.
  • Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument Act: Would allow the park, which currently can’t grow beyond 6,000 acres, to add 280 acres that’s controlled by a local conservation group.
  • Endangered Fish Recovery Programs Extension Act: Would extend an act that provides protections for four endangered fish through 2023.
  • Amache Study Act: Would direct the National Park Service to study the Amache site for inclusion as a unit of the National Park System. Located in Granada, a town on the Eastern Plains, it was an internment site for Japanese Americans during World War II. Amache was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2005.
  • Arapaho National Forest Boundary Adjustment Act of 2017: Would adjust the boundary of the Arapaho National Forest to include a 10-lot subdivision known as the Wedge, which will protect the view of Rocky Mountain National Park and the headwaters of the Colorado River.
  • Fowler and Boskoff Peaks Designation Act: Would name two unnamed peaks in the Uncompahgre National Forest after legendary Colorado mountain climbers Charlie Fowler and Christine Boskoff, who lost their lives in an avalanche in China in 2006.
  • Pike National Historic Trail Study Act: Would authorize the National Park Service to study the feasibility of including in the National Trails System explorer Zebulon Pike’s route across the Midwest and West beginning in 1806.
  • Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act of 2017: Would bring firefighter safety into the 21st century, proponents say, by requiring the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to begin providing GPS locations for crews on wildfires and using Unmanned Aircraft Systems to scout out and map wildfires in real-time.

Ski chief urged to quit over “so-called climate change” comment

DENVER — A group of winter-sports athletes and the world’s biggest snowboard maker want the president of the International Ski Federation to resign after he spoke of “so-called climate change” and said he would rather deal with dictators than argue with environmentalists.

The climate advocacy group Protect Our Winters sent an open letter Friday urging 75-year-old Gian-Franco Kasper to step aside.

In an interview with the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger , Kasper said “dictators can organize (big) events … without asking the people’s permission” and that “from the business side, I say: I just want to go to dictatorships, I do not want to argue with environmentalists.”

He also referenced “so-called” climate change, and when challenged on that, responded “We have snow, sometimes very much.” He pointed to frigid temperatures at last year’s Pyeongchang Olympics. “To anyone shuddering toward me, I said: Welcome to the global warming,” Kasper told the newspaper.

Kasper subsequently apologized for his comments, saying they were not meant to be taken literally. When reached by The Associated Press via email, FIS officials said they had no further comment.

Protect Our Winters is a nonprofit formed in 2007 to combat climate change. Several dozen athletes are part of the alliance, which also includes scientists and business leaders.

In their open letter, which also included a link for people to add their name to the call for Kasper’s resignation, POW said the Tages-Anzeiger story “confirms what insiders in FIS meetings have told us for years: that the leadership of the organization is unwilling to acknowledge scientific evidence that threatens the entire snow industry.”

POW refers to studies that document the rapid decline of European glaciers , and to economic analysis that shows seasons with below-average snowfall lead to “decreased value added” of more than $1 billion and 17,400 fewer jobs.

“When we saw that, from our perspective, it was unacceptable to have anyone in a position of leadership in the snow-sport industry denying climate change,” POW executive director Mario Molina told AP.

POW also decided to not accept a $10,500 donation it was set to receive Sunday from U.S. Ski and Snowboard through its volunteers, coaches, and athletes.

“As a sign of respect for them and the action they want to support, we are declining that donation and asking instead that Gian Franco Kasper be removed from his position,” the open letter said.

Snowboard maker Burton announced it would write a check to replace the USSA donation.

“You can’t be giving money to Protect Our Winters when the president of your federation is denying climate change and talking about how great it is to work with dictators because you don’t have to worry about protecting the environment,” Donna Carpenter, the wife of Burton founder Jake Burton, told the AP, referencing the relationship between USSA and FIS. “It’s so blatant. He has to resign. It’s not OK.”

Kasper has been president of FIS since 1998. He also made headlines in 2005 for saying he didn’t think ski jumping was “appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”

Kasper’s comments rekindled longstanding issues between the action sports community and FIS. When snowboarding was brought into the Olympics in 1998, many of the sport’s leaders held out because they didn’t think the federation — with its base in Europe and with little background in snowboarding — had their best interest in mind.

“Somehow, these organizations lose sight of who they’re supposed to be advocating for, which is athletes,” Carpenter said.

Plastic straws upon request and less Styrofoam: Colorado lawmakers to debate new, environmentally friendly food containers

Colorado lawmakers want to change the way you eat and drink when you dine out and order in.

Two bills that are expected to have their first legislative hearings by the end of the month would prohibit restaurants across the state from providing plastic straws without a customer’s explicit request and provide local governments with more authority to set standards on food containers.

Taken together, the bills represent another avenue for Colorado’s legislature, controlled by Democrats, to address concerns about the environment.

The first bill, sponsored by Denver Democrat state Rep. Susan Lontine, would ban a restaurant server from compulsively dropping a “disposable tube made predominantly of plastic” on the table along with your favorite cold beverage. It would go into effect Jan. 1, 2020.

Don’t worry, servers, the law does not provide an appropriation to establish a new plastic straw policy. And there are some exceptions in the law for self-serve straw dispensers and drive-throughs.

The second bill, sponsored by Fort Collins Democrat state Rep. Jeni James Arndt, would allow local governments to set standards on to-go food containers.

The idea, Arndt said, is that if a local government wants to ban Styrofoam-type cups and plastic doggie bags they can.

“Fort Collins has always been pushing the envelope with climate change and recycling,” Arndt said.

Arndt disputed the idea that the bill would be bad for business. She said businesses are flocking to the northern Colorado city because of their environmental policies, not in spite of them.