Utah towns’ water supplies contaminated in wake of Brian Head fire

State, counties blame Forest Service for failing to ‘actively’ manage beetle-killed forests that burned in 77,000-acre fire

Two years ago, leaders of Utah’s Garfield County put the U.S. Forest Service on notice that overgrown timberlands on the Markagunt Plateau posed a dire threat to the town of Panguitch.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Brian Head fire has left steep slopes vulnerable to severe erosion, including along the Spruce Trail near Bowery Creek, seen here on Sept. 8, 2017. Thousands of acres are being covered with straw dropped from helicopters in an emergency effort to stabilize the soils. The fire also appears to have tainted water supplies for the town of Panguitch.

“Tinder box conditions” on the lands surrounding Panguitch‘s springs “translate to an imminent threat to the quantity and quality of the public drinking water supply,” officials wrote to managers of the Dixie National Forest.

Now, the rural county’s predictions are proving prescient. Hardly six weeks after the 77,000-acre Brian Head fire stopped burning last month, testing has shown unacceptable levels of E. coli bacteria in most of the springs that Panguitch taps, according to town manager Lori Talbot.

“The exact cause we have not pinpointed,” she said. ”It has to be the fire because we didn’t have E. coli before the fired burned over the watershed.”

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(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Brian Head fire has left steep slopes vulnerable to severe erosion, including along the Spruce Trail near Bowery Creek, seen here on Sept. 8, 2017. Thousands of acres are being covered with straw dropped from helicopters in an emergency effort to stabilize the soils. The fire also appears to have tainted water supplies for the town of Panguitch.

 

According to an emergency assessment of the burned area, collection boxes that the town uses to gather water from its springs are also at serious risk of being clogged with debris. Rains have already washed carcasses into the spring area.

“It has wreaked havoc on our watershed,” Talbot said.

State political leaders are leveraging the burn in hopes of wresting greater local control over Utah’s national forests, which they say are mismanaged and not logged fast enough to keep up with the new growth choking them. Bark beetles have taken a huge toll on the Markagunt’s spruce stands, leading to worries that miles of standing dead timber poses a huge fire risk.

While the flames were still ranging around Yankee Meadows, one Utah lawmaker lambasted the Forest Service for turning over land management to “rock lickers and bird and bunny lovers,” his derisive names for activists he claims would rather see forests burned than logged.

The Legislature’s Commission on Federalism is demanding answers from U.S. Service Chief Tom Tidwell and other top land-management officials.

“Several municipal water sheds in Garfield and Iron Counties, were consumed, along with 21 structures (including 13 residences), and wildlife in the hundreds of thousands, including deer, elk, cougar, bear, moose were killed or displaced,” states an Aug. 4 letter signed by the commission‘s co-chairs Sen. Allen Christensen and Rep. Ken Ivory. “The contaminants in the runoff pose an imminent threat to dozens of lakes, rivers and streams.”

The letter notes Garfield, Iron and Kane counties had all declared that a “catastrophic public nuisance” existed on the Dixie — long before Brian Head erupted in flames on June 17.

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Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Brian Head fire has left steep slopes vulnerable to severe erosion, including along the Spruce Trail near Bowery Creek, seen here on Sept. 8, 2017. Thousands of acres are being covered with straw dropped from helicopters in an emergency effort to stabilize the soils. The fire also appears to have tainted water supplies for the town of Panguitch. Brian Maffly

 

Despite receiving these notices, “there has been no noticeable action taken by the federal government to abate these existing nuisances from the threat of future fire,” the letter continues. The Commission contends federal forest-management policies interfere with the state and counties’ duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their citizens.

The letter requests a written response by Sept. 15, explaining “the legal and constitutional basis for your agency’s source and scope of jurisdiction over these lands in our State.”

Requests to Dixie forest managers by The Salt Lake Tribune seeking comment have gone unanswered.

The Brian Head fire started and burned for a few days on private land after a property owner allegedly tried to do their own prescribed burn on land at the head of Parowan Canyon.

The Forest Service and the state spent $36 million fighting the fire and will spend another $6 million reseeding and mulching areas that were most severely burned. Last month, the Forest Service began distributing sterile triticale seed and straw mulch around Yankee Meadows and other areas at risk of destructive erosion. In late October, nearly a quarter-million pounds of seed will be dropped to spur the return of grasses and other plants.

In the meantime, the Dixie has closed many miles of road and trails until Oct. 31 because of persistent health and safety concerns associated with the burn. Closures include the Bunker Creek bike trail, Dark Hollow, Bear Valley and everything near Yankee Meadows.

Wildfires that burn with high intensity not only remove vegetation that holds slopes together, they cook the soils in a way that makes them repel water. Instead of sinking into the ground, precipitation cascades off the surface, taking sediments and debris with it.

The debris, which could include feces from humans, wildlife or cattle, can easily wind up in areas that recharge springs used as drinking water sources, according to Marie Owens, executive director of the Utah Division of Drinking Water.

Owens said she was not aware of other municipalities whose water supplies are compromised as a result of the Brian Head fire, but the real test won’t come until spring when runoff will push contaminants downhill.

“I am not confident that other communities won’t be affected,” Owens said.

Two monsoonal rainfalls in August led to severe erosion in Parowan Canyon, where the Utah Department of Transportation has struggled to keep State Route 143 open after debris clogged culverts and rushing water cut channels on either side of the road. Crews this week are replacing five 24-inch-diameter culverts with larger ones. The agency is seeking funding for $2 million in additional upgrades next year.

Lying just beyond the eastern fringes of the Markagunt, Panquitch and its 1,500 residents rely on five springs in the Delong Creek drainage and another two in Indian Hollow.

“We have been doing water samples three times a week on the springs. None in Delong can used,” Talbot said, due to the presence of E. coli. Exposure to some strains of the bacteria, which normally resides in the intestines of humans and animals, can cause bloody diarrhea and kidney failure.

Panguitch can get by with the Indian Hollow springs, but it nonetheless has banned the use of culinary water for outdoor applications.

The town plans to seek an emergency state grant to drill a new well at a cost of between $200,000 and $300,000, according to Talbot. Already, she said, town officials have spent $20,000 to replace cattle-excluding fences lost in the fire or washed out in subsequent flooding.

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Gunnison Island’s pelicans

Gunnison Island, Box Elder County >> Unless you count migratory birds as company, the loneliest places in Utah are the tiny salt-encrusted islands poking above the red surface of the Great Salt Lake’s North Arm.

The public isn’t even allowed to boat within a mile of the 155-acre Gunnison Island, home to one of North America’s largest breeding colonies of American white pelican, the largest of the 250 species of water fowl that depend on the Great Salt Lake.

But officials with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, in partnership with academic researchers, ventured onto the irregularly shaped mile-long island this month to install cameras in various locations — to not only observe the breeding pelicans without disturbing them, but to surveil for coyotes and foxes.

Biologists say the island’s remoteness, far from food sources and fresh water, make it a tough place for pelicans to raise their young, but its isolation is perfect for deterring the intrusions pelicans cannot tolerate.

After the Great Salt Lake dipped to a new historic low last year, Gunnison’s isolation is no longer assured and four-footed predators have been observed roaming the island’s south shore.

A big concern is that just a few predators could make pelicans abandon the island.

With private grants that paid for the photographic equipment, Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute is coordinating the research, which will yield hundreds of thousands of images that researchers hope the public will help analyze.

“We have more questions than we have answers, and so if we can actively watch them and see what they are doing every five minutes we will answer some really cool questions,” said institute coordinator Jaimi Butler.

Photo by Al Hartmann

Researchers envision crowd sourcing the stream of new data to Utah teachers, students and the general public.

“Tell us if you see coyotes. Tell us when you see the birds come in,” said Butler. “The goal is to connect the people who live on the Wasatch Front to these charismatic birds.”

Fecal riches • In 1896, artist Alfred Lambourne made his famous hermitage on Gunnison Island, growing grapes in hopes of establishing a “homestead.” Lambourne resided on a bay on the island’s east shore that now bears his name, but his solitude came to an end that spring with the arrival of thousands of gulls and pelicans, as well as swarthy human characters who mined the fecal riches deposited by the birds.

Lambourne made the best of the disruption by drawing the men he called “guano sifters.”

They would eventually file for a mining claim on the excrement, which can be sold as fertilizer, effectively claiming title to the northern half of the island, even though their activity scared off the pelicans, according to Dale Morgan’s “The Great Salt Lake.”

Without pelicans, there was no more mineral wealth to harvest so the sifters gave up on the island, which nonetheless passed into private hands, where it remained until the 1980s when the state acquired it as a bird preserve.

Lambourne’s vineyard didn’t make it and after 14 months, friends sailed to the island to ferry the artist back to civilization. The birds soon returned to Gunnison to reclaim the nesting grounds in solitude.

This month, pelicans are again flying back to Utah from wintering range on the Pacific Coast for their annual mating and nesting sojourn on Gunnison, where up to 20,000 adults converge every March for the 12-week breeding cycle.

Up to 5,800 nests appear on Gunnison’s shorelines every spring when mature adults arrive and form “subcolonies,” or groups of nests close enough to offer a protection but far enough so that nesting birds can’t hit each other.

On March 8, just ahead of the birds’ arrival, DWR led a research excursion to the island to rig a dozen cameras and sweep the shores for the carcasses of juveniles that had been tagged over the past five years, gathering the green tags from their dessicated wings and coded bands from their legs.

Photo by Brian Maffly

Another world • Three Department of Natural Resources boats took the team from the Great Salt Lake Marina to the island, a two-hour journey that passed though the new breach in the Union Pacific causeway separating the northern Gunnison Bay from the rest of the lake.

The boats beached on the island’s north shore where the lake bed drops more precipitously, enabling the crafts to touch the shoreline.

The North Arm’s hypersaline waters produce salt crystals when the shallow waters cool in the winter, forming rock-hard mounds along the shore. Low water has exposed thousands of bioherms, rocky structures formed by microbial life that thrive in the lake.

Gear was off-loaded and the research team broke into groups to hump cameras and materials around the island and sweep the shore for dead birds bearing green tags.

University of Utah atmospheric scientists Luke Leclair and Alex Jacques installed what is called PELIcam, a camera taking in all of Lambourne Bay and recording an image every five minutes that will be posted on the web in real time.

Operators can zoom if they see something interesting, but it cannot pan. The camera enables researchers and the interested public to see what’s going on at Lambourne Bay as the lake level comes up and weather blows in and out through the breeding season, when the bay becomes a hive of avian activity.

Biologist John Luft, who directs DWR’s Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program, said cameras will offer invaluable glimpses of how pelicans breed, nest, lay eggs and how sub-colonies of the birds form and grow across the island’s otherworldly landscape.

Perhaps more crucially, Luft said as seagulls swirled above him, “we will also see time frame when [fledglings] are left on their on own, when they are okay to be left by both adults without falling prey to all these gulls.”

Thousands of gulls were already milling around on the bay’s shore as researchers landed and fanned out. Seemingly out of nowhere, a group of six pelicans flew overhead, crossing the island without landing. A coyote appeared on the south shore and moved away from one research group, only to be spotted by another.

Jacques insisted the camera be installed on Lambourne Bay’s north end so it can be trained south, away from spring storms that could obstruct its lens with snow. So researchers settled on a site up a rocky hill rising from island’s north end. The other cameras are small motion-triggered units secured to stakes four feet off the ground, close to the nesting areas and at pinch points where a coyote would pass.

Near the end of breeding season in July, DWR returns to the island to round up hundreds juvenile birds to place large green tags on each wing and a coded metal band around a leg. Over the past five years, hundreds of birds have been tagged, but until the March 8 trip the tags had never been systematically gathered up.

When researchers return in July, they will replace the cameras’ batteries and retrieve their memory cards, recovering what is hoped to be a rich trove of visual data.

Strange birds • Pelicans are hardly the most plentiful among bird species drawn to the Great Salt Lake but they are the most distinctive. At 10 to 20 pounds with a 10-foot wingspan, they are equipped with a pouch on a long bill used for scooping up fish and a dagger-like tooth at the end of their beak.

The late Fritz Knopf studied the birds back in the 1970s as a graduate student at Utah State University, providing some of the seminal scientific insights into the white pelican. He noticed nearly all nests produced two eggs, yet only one-fourth of the nests successfully fledged a single bird.

That is not surprising, said Luft, DWR’s Great Salt Lake biologist, since the island is a hot, exposed place with no cover or food.

“When the birds are ready to fledge, they have to make it 30 miles to get to the closest place to fish,” he said. “If they go to Bear River and it’s dry and they have to go another 20 miles up to Strawberry. That’s a long way to travel.” In the meantime, one parent has to babysit the nest, so they take turns foraging. “One has to be right on nest to fend off gulls,” Luft said. “They will peck the eggs or kill the chicks if they leave.”

Knopf observed that three days is the longest a pelican will remain on the nest without being relieved.

“They are not going to sit down and die, and they leave,” said Luft. “As soon as they are gone, it’s over for that nest.”

Where’s Waldo? • Satellite trackers are the most effective way to monitor these migratory bird movements. Strapped to the backs of adult pelicans, the solar-powered GPS units transmit periodic way points so researchers can know where they have been.

DWR hopes to eventually rig 71 pelicans with transmitters, which have so far been placed on 32. Only 11 are currently transmitting and you can follow their movements on DWR’s PeliTrack web site.

But such projects are costly. The units cost $4,000 and each incurs $200 a month in data costs. A low-cost alternative is tags and bands.

Knopf’s early banding efforts did not yield much information because pelicans have not been targeted by sport hunters, who can be relied on to mail in the bands recovered from the birds they shoot.

Pelicans can live up to 20 years and tend to die in places where the carcasses are not easy to find.

But on Gunnison, dead juvenile pelicans litter the shores. Luft’s research team scoured Lambourne Bay, poking every carcass they came across to see if it bore a tag or band. Dozens were recovered. For each, the coordinates and tag number were records, along with the condition of the carcass.

While Knopf’s banding was a bust, he did get bands returned from Mexican commercial fishermen, who tired of competing with the birds for fish and shot them.

“That was all the returns he would get,” Luft said. “Things have changed since then. That’s frowned upon.”

For years Utah fishermen also assumed pelicans dined on game fish in Bear River Bay and pressured the state to do something about it. In 1918 the Utah Department of Fish and Game obliged and clubbed several thousand pelicans to death, according to Morgan’s book.

It was a needless slaughter, yet to this day sport fishermen complain about pelicans, even though stomach analyses reveal that they feed on carp, chub, suckers and other “trash” species.

These days, state wildlife officials have a broader mission, carefully protecting and studying pelicans to ensure these strange travelers keep returning to Utah.

Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Brian Maffly can be reached at bmaffly@sltrib.com or 801–257–8713. Follow Brian Maffy on Medium.

Twitter: @brianmaffly

Low oil prices, not environmental protests thwart PR Spring tar sands project

Utah’s PR Spring is supposed to be the world’s first tar sands mine that uses and re-uses solvents to extract bitumen, a gummy hydrocarbon that is found in great abundance under the Uinta Basin. US Oil SandsPR Spring-aerial had nearly completed the mine and processing plant when two key contractors shut their Utah operations because of falling oil prices, accomplishing what years of environmental protests could not. The project is on indefinite hold.

Utah public lands deal meets firestorm

In what they characterized as a sweeping gesture of compromise, Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz unveiled their plan to resolve decades of deadlock over how eastern Utah’s public lands are managed even as environmental and tribal groups declared the proposal “dead on arrival” and a shameless giveaway to oil and gas interests.

On Jan. 20 at the state’s Capitol, the Republican congressmen released a “discussion draft” of a bill that would set aside special landscapes like Cedar Mesa, San Rafael Swell and Labyrinth Canyon, while expediting mineral development in areas deemed less worthy of protection.

“There is something here for everyone to like and something for everyone to hate,” Bishop said, “but if you look at the totality of what we are doing, it is moving us so far forward, there is value in it.”

Lake Canyon

 

 

 

 

An oil well in Lake Canyon in Utah’s Duchesne County. Photo by Brian Maffly

The Utah Public Lands Initiative Act, or PLI, crafted after 1,200 meetings hosted by Bishop and Chaffetz over the past three years, “is rooted in the belief that conservation and economic development can coexist and make Utah a better place to live, work, and visit,” their offices wrote in a summary of the bill that would affect 18 million acres of public land in seven counties.

The draft envisions 4.3 million acres of conservation designations, including 1.1 million for a Bears Ears National Conservation Area. But the tribes pushing for protections of sacred lands around San Juan County’s Cedar Mesa called the gestures “a slap in the face.”

 

Drilling headed to Utah’s Uintas

Nearly 65,000 acres on the Uinta Mountains’ North Slope have been leased for oil and gas. Now a Texas company wants to drill an exploratory well on an old lease that has been “unitized” with a large block of leases around Gilbert Creek and Smith Fork. The story of the so-called Platte Petroleum projectBlacks Fork shows how federal leasing can encumber natural landscapes for decades with the threat of energy development. The U.S. Forest Service is completing an environmental assessment of the exploratory project, but conservationists want a much more thorough analysis. — Brian Maffly

Brian Maffly reports in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Utah’s coal ash legacy

Coal ash is the nation’s largest waste stream of hazardous substances, totaling 121 million tons last year, most of it generated an electrical generating power stations. Although ash, laded with toxic heavy metals, poses a threat to the environment, this wast is not well regulated and exempt from many rules that apply to most dangerous waste.

Ash long stored near Utah power plants is contaminating nearby water resources, environmental groups allege. According to a letter HEAL Utah sent to PacifiCorp, Utah’s largest utility, its Huntington Power Plant is illegally impounding water that flows from two canyons and picks up dangerous pollutants found in coal ash and other combustion residues.Huntington

 

Photo by Brian Maffly.
PacifiCorp’s Huntingon Power Plant in central Utah landfills millions of tons of coal ash on site. Runoff from these landfills is used to irrigate the “research” fields pictured here on the banks of Huntington Creek, according to report by HEAL Utah.

“They botched the disposal operation from the start. They throw the waste into unlined landfills that have leaked all over the place,” says attorney Richard Webster of the nonprofit law firm Public Justice. “They have a number of [state] permits in place that should have addressed this issue. Instead of enforcing these conditions, the state allowed them to move the contamination around.”

The utility contends the HEAL allegations are the based on incorrect assumptions.

Brian Maffly reports in the Salt Lake Tribune

Saving Monroe Mountain’s aspen

For one of Utah’s largest aspen communities to rebound and thrive, the U.S. Forest Service says, parts of Monroe Mountain must burn.

Forest Service officials hope to restore aspen in this 175,000-acre patch of Fishlake National Forest through prescribed burning, logging conifers and improved management of the livestock and big game that eat aspen shoots before they can become trees. Flames could be the cheapest and most effective means for clearing out fir-choked stands and triggering the rebirth of aspen, according to Richfield District Ranger Jason Kling.

His plan was finalized Monday after years of analysis and collaborative planning. But it’s not sitting well with ranchers who fear it could lead to grazing restrictions, and some environmentalists, who say it promotes logging on thousands of roadless acres, including areas proposed for protection as wilderness.

 

DSC_0250Photo by Brian Maffly

Still, the Monroe Mountain Aspen Ecosystems Restoration Project has broad support from state and federal agencies, surrounding municipalities and some conservation groups. Officials hope the 10-year program will reverse aspen forests’ decline without displacing livestock or the elk and mule deer herds that are prized by sportsmen.

Aspen forests are among the West’s signature ecosystems, yet they have been in steep decline thanks to decades of fire suppression and browsing by hungry hooved munchers, both wild and domestic, and more recently from drought and climate change. –Brian Maffly, Salt Lake Tribune

Will gelding help BLM’s wild horse woes?

Federal land managers, struggling to keep wild horse populations in check on Western rangelands, hope contraception will serve as an alternative to the costly and ultimately ineffective practice of warehousing horses for life on private pastures.

Stallion

Horse advocates generally support fertility control, but they say a new research proposal targeting a Utah herd for castration goes too far.

The Bureau of Land Management wants to explore what happens when most of a herd’s adult males are gelded and is now reviewing a proposed five-year study that would be conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and Colorado State University. Researchers would neuter wild stallions in the Conger Herd Management Area 70 miles west of Delta.

Critics say returning neutered males to the range is inhumane and a violation of federal law protecting free-roaming wild horses; a castrated horse no longer behaves like a wild horse and could get sick and lazy, or even die from the procedure. Nor will this research generate useful findings, according to Deniz Bolbol of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.

–Brian Maffly

Utah’s first ‘utility-scale’ solar

Utah’s first large utility-scale solar has gone on-line on private land west of Parowan. The 80-megawatt Utah Red Hills Renewable Park, part of a solar-energy construction boom expected to increase the state’s generating capacity by 915 megawatts.Red Hills

Photo by Brian Maffly

The Norwegian firm Scatec Solar built and operates the project’s 340,700 photovoltaic panels on 632 private acres. The $188 million project is capable of generating 210 million kilowatt hours a year, enough to power 18,500 homes, but it will soon be eclipsed by larger solar farms slated for Utah’s sunbathed southwest corner.

Under a 20-year agreement, Rocky Mountain Power will purchase this power. Utah’s largest utility will also purchase power from about 20 other projects under development in Iron, Beaver and Millard counties.

Brian Maffly reports in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Los lobos in Utah? No way, Jose, states say.

Four Western states are attacking the credibility of key scientists helping the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s revise a long out-dated recovery plan for seriously imperiled Mexican gray wolf.

Mexican-Wolf-AGFDUtah Wildlife Board Chairman John Bair says that no evidence will ever convince him that Mexican wolves should be allowed in Utah, even though top wolf biologists believe the Canis lupus subspecies can’t be saved unless its recovery zone extend north of Interstate 40.

“People want to use the wolf as the silver bullet to kill the culture of the West,” Bair, a gifted auctioneer and self-proclaimed “Mormon redneck,” told the board Wednesday. “There is no need to have them here other than those political reasons.”

Utah might be harbor unoccupied wolf habitat, rich with prey animals, but the states claim 90 percent of the the Mexican wolf’s historic range is in Mexico. Officials here say the FWS’s science panel is driven by personal agendas to expand the scope of Mexican wolf recovery.

Critics say the state is driving its own agenda that puts politics and emotion above science and the law, Brian Maffly reports in the Salt Lake Tribune.