Study examines alternatives in case of another mine spill

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FARMINGTON — Building a pipeline from Lake Nighthorse to Farmington could cost between $83 million and $173 million without calculating the cost of acquiring right of way access, a consultant to the San Juan Water Commission told the group today.

Rick Cox, a senior engineer for the engineering firm AECOM who also serves as a consultant for the San Juan Water Commission, targeted that figure while delivering a presentation for the water commission during its monthly meeting here.

The commission spent about $20,000 on a study to look at three alternatives that could help local water users if another mine spill occurred in Colorado and dumped toxic material in the Animas River. Those alternatives included building a small-diameter pipeline from Lake Nighthorse, building a large-diameter pipeline from Lake Nighthorse and building additional storage reservoirs.

The lake is a storage facility located in a recently annexed portion of the city of Durango, Colorado. It stores water from the Animas River for several member entities including the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Southern Ute Tribe, the city of Durango and the San Juan Water Commission.

Building shallow ponds to increase the storage capacity by 50 million gallons at the lake  was the least expensive of the three options cited during today's meeting. Cox said it would cost about $18 million. The additional 50 million gallons of storage would last about 14 days.

The San Juan Water Commission represents Aztec, Bloomfield, Farmington and rural water users in San Juan County. Cox said not all of those water utilities would require additional storage capacity if another mine spill takes place.

He explained that some water utilities, such as the Lower Valley Water Users, already have enough storage capacity. Other water users, such as the city of Bloomfield, could benefit from additional storage capacity, Cox said.

Pipeline could provide water during drought

While the additional water storage capacity would help local water users if another mishap like the Gold King Mine spill of August 2015 occurs, it would not provide much help during drought conditions, Cox said.

A large-diameter pipeline could provide the water users with water for up to 114 days during drought, Cox said.

The commission is considering having a more extensive feasibility study conducted on the three alternatives presented by Cox. San Juan Water Commission executive director Aaron Chavez said that would cost about $250,000.

Farmington Public Works director David Sypher said the study was limited in scope because of the $20,000 price tag. For example, Cox did not look at how the cost of the projects could change if different materials were used to build the pipeline. It calls for the small-diameter pipeline being built with HDPE pipe while the large-diameter pipeline would be made of steel.

“In 1923, they began the process to get Lake Nighthorse so that we could have water today,” Sypher said, referring to the long list of political challenges leading up to the reservoir being built.

Ultimately, a water settlement with the Ute tribes in 1988 was the key factor that led to the reservoir being built. Construction on Lake Nighthorse ended in 2013, and officials held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the facility earlier this year.

Sypher said he supports working to build a large-diameter pipeline from Lake Nighthorse to Farmington with laterals extending to Bloomfield and Lower Valley.

The San Juan Water Commission has rights to 20,800 acre-feet of water stored in Lake Nighthorse. During a drought, the water commission can call upon the Animas-La Plata Operations, Maintenance and Replacement Association, which oversees Lake Nighthorse operations, to release water for San Juan County water users. Currently, the only way to get that water from Lake Nighthorse to the water users in New Mexico is to release it back into the Animas River. A pipeline would ensure all the water released from Lake Nighthorse reaches water users in San Juan County.

Animas-La Plata Operations, Maintenance and Replacement Association general manager Russ Howard warned commissioners not to rely on Lake Nighthorse. Howard said it could take years to refill the reservoir after water is withdrawn. He warned if there was a multiple-year drought, Lake Nighthorse could only be an option for one year.

“It’s river first, reservoir second because there’s a lot of unknowns with the reservoir,” he said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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