Colorado River may face fight of its life

Increased toxins likely as energy companies seek oil, gas, uranium

By Abrahm Lustgarten (PROPUBLICA) and David Hasemyer (The San Diego Union-Tribune STAFF WRITER), December 21, 2008

A flat, terraced area beside the Colorado River near Moab, Utah, is where a pile of radioactive waste from a uranium mill is buried. The mill closed in 1984, but it's estimated that 110,000 gallons of radioactive groundwater seep into the Colorado River each day.

The Colorado River has endured drought, large-scale climate changes, pollution, ecological damage from dams and battles by seven states to draw more water.

Now the life vein of the Southwest faces another threat: Energy companies are sucking up the Colorado's water to support increased development of oil, natural gas and uranium deposits along the river's basin. The mining and drilling will likely send more toxins into the waterway, which provides drinking water for one out of 12 Americans and nourishes 15 percent of the nation's crops along its journey from Wyoming and Colorado to Mexico.

Tapping the watershed is enticing because its resources could help reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil. The region could contain more oil than Alaska's National Arctic Wildlife Refuge. It has the richest natural gas fields in the country and plenty of uranium deposits.

But scientists and water managers warn that in the rush to develop more domestic energy, the government is failing to understand that the river's economic and ecological value is as vital to U.S. interests as anything extracted around it.

The river is so beleaguered by drought and past pollution that one environmental study called it the nation's most endangered waterway. Researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla said the river's reservoirs could dry up in 13 years, depriving regions such as San Diego County of their main source of water.

In the eight years President Bush has been in office, the Colorado River watershed has seen more oil and gas drilling than at any time since 1984, when the government began keeping such statistics. Uranium claims have reached a 10-year high.

Last week, the administration auctioned off 359,000 acres of federal land for natural gas projects within range of two national parks near Moab, Utah. And a last-minute change in federal rules has paved the way for water-intensive oil shale mining in the watershed.

As Bush tries to complete his agenda for development, water managers and politicians focusing on the Colorado River are asking which is more valuable: energy or water?

The question will continue to be debated during the presidency of Barack Obama, who has said he will work to balance energy exploration with environmental protection.

“The decisions we are making today will be dictating how we will be living the rest of our lives,” said Jim Pokrandt, a spokesman for the Colorado River Conservation District, a state-run policy agency. “We may have reached mutually exclusive demands on our water supply.”

Management divide Determining the best uses for the Colorado is complicated because there's no unified management.

The Interior Department which includes the Bureau of Land Management, oversees where the water goes but not what's needed to keep it clean. The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for maintaining water quality, but it can't control who uses the river and doesn't conduct its own research. EPA officials also delegate much of their authority to the seven states that the river runs through.

“I don't know that there is, quite honestly, anyone that looks at an entire overview impact statement of the Colorado River,” said Robert Walsh, a spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, which governs the allocation and flow of the southern part of the waterway.

Oil and natural-gas drilling in Colorado requires so much water that if its annual demand were satisfied all at once, it would be the equivalent of shutting off most of Southern California's water for five days.

Concerns also are being raised about contaminants the energy industry leaves behind.

Company representatives say they adhere to environmental laws, but natural gas drilling has caused contamination across the West. Mining has a similar history of pollution.

Industry officials and the Bush administration said America's reliance on foreign oil makes using all available energy resources at home a priority.

“I believe this country needs to offer domestic resources to be energy-independent,” said Tim Spisak, a senior official who heads the BLM's oil and gas development group. “The way to do that is to responsibly develop public resources on our lands.”

The U.S. House and U.S. Senate are considering bills that would require better management of the nation's water assets. But some water managers said that's not enough. They want the president to create a national water authority – or a Cabinet-level water czar.

“If you are really going to deal with water, the nation needs to deal with it in a far more comprehensive manner,” said Brad Udall, a federal water researcher based at the University of Colorado and son of the late Mo Udall, a congressman from Arizona who championed environmental causes.

During Bush's presidency, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the state of Arizona and the Metropolitan Water District – the wholesale provider for Southern California – have asked the Interior Department to proceed with caution as it approves record numbers of claims and leases for mining and drilling near the river.

“We have other sources of (energy),” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District. “We don't have other sources of water.”

Threat of pollution New uranium-mining claims within five miles of the river have more than tripled – to 1,195 from 395 – in the past six years, according to a review of BLM records by the Environmental Working Group, a national organization that conducts research on a wide variety of health and ecological issues.

The region already suffers from a decades-long record of contamination. The Metropolitan Water District points to a 16 million-ton pile of radioactive waste near a mill in Moab as a warning of what can happen when mining isn't carefully controlled.

The mill closed in 1984, but the Grand Canyon Trust estimates that 110,000 gallons of radioactive groundwater still seep into the river each day. The first loads of waste aren't scheduled to be hauled off until next year.

Industry officials say the Moab case is an outdated blight from the past.

“What gets my ire up is when we get compared to stuff that happened in the '60s. There is no argument from us now about being careful – with an eye to preserving the environment,” said Peter Farmer, CEO of Denison Mines, a Canadian company that operates seven U.S. uranium mines and a uranium mill in Blanding, Utah.

Denison recently spent more than $5 million to triple-line a waste pit and outfit it with leak-detection sensors.

Roger Haskins, a specialist in mining law at the BLM, said landmark environmental regulations in the 1970s prepared the industry for the 21st century. While it's still easy to stake a mining claim, projects now must undergo extensive environmental review before they can operate as mines.

“Whatever happens out there is thoroughly manageable in today's regulatory environment,” Haskins said.

Scientists say some degree of pollution is inevitable.

Drilling for uranium creates pathways where raw, radioactive material can migrate into underground aquifers that drain into the river. Surface water can seep into the drill holes and mine shafts, picking up traces of uranium and then percolating into underground water sources.

“There has to be some impact to downstream water,” said David Naftz, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Salt Lake City who studies uranium mining.

A recent study found contaminated surface water at 15 of 25 mines that the EPA approved starting in 1969. Those sites used techniques the EPA had said would prevent pollution, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Danger from drilling In the past decade, a pattern of contamination also has emerged where natural-gas drilling has intensified. If drilling increases substantially across Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, it could imperil the river.

Most wells rely on a process called hydraulic fracturing, which requires as much as 2 million gallons of water plus small amounts of often-toxic chemicals for a single well.

In February, a waste pit on a mesa overlooking the town of Parachute, Colo., leaked and allowed about 1.6 million gallons of fluid to soak into the ground. The spill eventually reached the Colorado River.

Colorado state records show that of about 1,500 spills in drilling areas since 2003, more than 300 have seeped into water.

Doug Hock, a spokesman for Canadian gas company Encana, which drills in Colorado and Wyoming, said the fears of pollution are exaggerated. He said Encana installs steel and concrete casing around its drill pipes, lines its waste pits and increasingly reuses its treated wastewater.

“We have put in place safeguards to protect the water,” Hock said. “There is always a balance – this country has a great demand for energy.”

Because the energy industry has been exempted from certain environmental rules during the Bush administration, it's difficult to gauge what the industry has done to the river.

The mix of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing is now proprietary. Without knowing the ingredients, EPA officials and scientists can't determine which compounds to test for after a spill.

A September report from the University of Colorado Denver predicted that in 15 years, Garfield County, a drilling area bisected by the river, will have 23,000 wells, six times what it has now.

Getting oil from rock No project poses a greater threat to the Colorado River – or better represents the choice between water and energy – than mining for oil shale.

In mid-November, the BLM approved a rule change that paved the way for extracting oil from rock deposits in Colorado and Utah. If the vast deposits are mined to their potential – and it could be a decade before any of the projects move forward – the reserves could help the United States make a significant leap toward energy independence.

Getting oil from the shale would be astronomically expensive. It also might require more water than the Colorado River can provide.

A recent study for the state of Colorado found that energy projects in the waterway's upper basin would stop the river's flow for nearly six weeks if all the water they required were tapped at the same time.

“It just comes down to how needy the nation is for energy,” said Scott Ruppe, general manager of the Uintah Water Conservancy District in northeastern Utah. “If energy is short, then some of the other concerns might get pushed aside.”

In a few weeks, it will be up to Obama to set the priorities for managing the Colorado River.

He could limit mining claims in ecologically sensitive areas and rigorously enforce existing environmental regulations. Once a lease is signed, though, it's nearly impossible to reverse.

Obama also could try to undo some of the Bush administration's rules, but any changes wouldn't take effect for several years.

His greatest opportunity to address the conflict between water and energy may lie not in undoing policies from the past, but in looking to the future.

“The (new) administration has an opportunity to start thinking about water as a national resource,” said Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas. “We have no rearview mirrors anymore.”


The waterway starts in the snowfields of Wyoming and Colorado, then runs about 1,450 miles to Mexico.

Dozens of creeks and streams feed into it.

The river provides drinking water for more than 27 million people in seven states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Recreation areas along the river include Grand Canyon National Park.


Abrahm Lustgarten at ProPublica has reported for six months on how oil and natural gas drilling affects water supplies in the Rocky Mountain West.

When the Colorado River emerged as an important piece of his coverage, Lustgarten started working with The San Diego Union-Tribune's David Hasemyer, who has written about uranium mining's impact on the waterway for more than a decade.

Together, they looked at the potential environmental and water-use consequences of increased mining and drilling in the river's watershed.

ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom whose mission is to pursue watchdog journalism in the public interest. The organization, based in New York City, began publishing in June.

To learn more about ProPublica and read the unabridged version of this story, go to

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