Five environmental issues to watch in 2021 – The Durango Herald

Drought, overuse of public lands, mine cleanup priority list in southwest Colorado

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

How will prolonged drought affect water supply if winter does not produce heavy snowfall this year?

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

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

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

Winter to the rescue?

Southwestern Colorado has experienced a prolonged drought for the past few years, but whenever conditions looked set to turn critical (i.e. not enough water), a harsh winter showed up for save him.

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

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

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald File

What if this winter had been a flop?

That’s the question water managers in southwestern Colorado are asking themselves, hoping for storm after storm. But that could be tricky given that most weather experts are predicting a below-average year for snow.

“Frankly, my concern is next spring,” Jarrod Biggs, assistant manager of utilities for the city of Durango, said in October. “I’m crossing my fingers that all meteorologists are wrong…but when I look at all the data put in front of me…next year isn’t looking very good.”

loved to death

With normal activities curtailed this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as traveling abroad or attending sporting events, people across the country instead looked at their road maps and circled the southwestern Colorado.

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

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

Courtesy of Tony Litschewski

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

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

Case in point: on the popular Ice Lakes Trail west of Silverton, a typical day might see between 400 and 600 hikers.

The large number of visitors has public land agencies looking for ways to better manage crowds in 2021.

In the most drastic measure, the US Forest Service has said it will be implementing a permit system for the Ice Lakes Trail, though it’s unclear if that will be in place for next summer.

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

“Because we’ve seen fewer visitors (visitors) in the past, it’s a big catch-up problem right now to try to deal with it,” said Jed Botsford, the recreation staff officer at the Forest Service’s Columbine Ranger District. “That joy of visiting public land is definitely there now.”

Superfonds Bonita Peak website

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

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

The EPA in 2021 is expected to start in earnest on some of the most significant projects that are expected to have a positive impact in removing heavy metals leaking from mine sites into the waters of the Animas.

It’s unclear, however, what those specific projects might be. An EPA spokesperson said staffers were out of the office this week and unable to provide a list of upcoming projects this summer.

Village of Wolf Creek

2020 has been a quiet year, at least publicly, in the decades-long battle over the village of Wolf Creek, but that could change in the new year.

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

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

Courtesy of Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture

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

The problem for McCombs all these years, however, is that his property is surrounded by national forest and he has no access to the nearest road, US Highway 160.

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

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

Newcomer in the field of natural gas

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

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

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

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald File

The downturn has prompted major operators of the natural gas field to pick up and leave, raising concerns among county officials that the new, smaller companies taking over may not have the financial resources to run the field. .

But it came as a bit of a shock when the biggest operator, BP America Production Co., announced in 2019 that it was selling its stake — to a European renewable energy company, no less.

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

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

IKAV, however, is expected to fully take over in 2021.

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