A second round of baseline water quality testing within the Thompson Divide region south of Glenwood Springs where natural gas development is proposed finds that two of the major drainages where samples were taken are presently “uncontaminated by any human activities.”
The study, released Thursday by the Thompson Divide Coalition, analyzed both surface and ground water within the Four Mile and Thompson Creek watersheds.
It is in follow-up to the first phase of the study in 2009-10, which produced similar results. Both studies were commissioned by the coalition, which is working to protect the Thompson Divide region from drilling, and were conducted by researchers from the Roaring Fork Conservancy.
Robert Moran, a water quality, hydrogeologic and geochemical specialist with Michael-Moran Associates, worked with the conservancy to analyze the data and is the main author of both reports.
Together, the baseline data contained in the studies should provide a yardstick against any changes in water quality within the two drainages, whether it’s from oil and gas development or other activities, Moran said during a telephone press conference Thursday arranged by Thompson Divide Coalition Executive Director Zane Kessler.
Moran also reiterated one conclusion in his analysis, which is that “some degradation of water quality is inevitable if oil and gas exploration and development becomes a reality within the Four Mile Creek and Thompson Creek watersheds.”
“This should serve as an important reminder that our fisheries and watersheds in the Thompson Divide are at risk,” Kessler said. “These watersheds are the lifeblood of our communities and they deserve to be protected for posterity.”
He said the information is important as the Bureau of Land Management embarks on a new environmental review of undeveloped gas leases in the region; part of a broader review of 65 leases within the White River National Forest that were issued under a 1993 Forest Service Environmental Impact Statement.
“Our outfitters and cattlemen rely on these waters for their livelihoods, and TDC will work to ensure that BLM considers this analysis in their review of undeveloped leases in the Divide,” Kessler said.
Water samples for the study were taken during different times of the year, in all kinds of weather conditions and during different flow conditions, according to Chad Rudow, water quality coordinator for the conservancy.
“We try to provide and implement sound, unbiased science through our work, and apply that in making sure we maintain healthy rivers and watersheds in our valley,” he said.
According to the second-round report, samples were collected between February and October of 2013.
Surface water samples for the study were taken from four different sites, on Four Mile Creek upstream from Sunlight Mountain Resort, on North Thompson Creek upstream from the reclaimed Thompson Creek coal mine, on Middle Thompson Creek upstream from Willow Park, and on South Thompson upstream from the Middle Thompson confluence.
Ground water samples were taken at four different springs, two within the Four Mile drainage and two near the headwaters of Middle Thompson Creek.
Rudow said accuracy checks were conducted by Fort Collins-based ALS Laboratory, an environmental lab that serves the Department of Energy and private industry.
The analysis indicated that the watersheds in the Thompson Divide area are “healthy, uncontaminated and support significant populations of benthic aquatic organisms,” according to the report.
Moran added during the Thursday phone conference that the trend in public water quality testing is to have industry collect its own samples in areas where drilling or other activity is proposed. Any citizen-led efforts are often cost prohibitive, he said.
“That can create a lot of dissent among the various groups that are involved,” Moran said, adding that it’s important to support independent efforts to gather baseline data in places like the Thompson Divide.
“One of the concerns is that we don’t have baseline data before development begins,” he said.
David Ludlam, executive director for the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said the association is supportive of any baseline efforts, adding, “we couldn’t be more pleased with the findings which are similar to other areas where we develop.”
He noted, however, that Colorado has some of the strictest water protection regulations in the country, “and our companies have the world’s most state-of-the-art technologies.”
“We look forward to working with the Forest Service in implementing responsible drilling in the southern Piceance basin,” Ludlam also said of the leases that are currently under review in an area stretching from the Thompson Divide to just south of De Beque.
Ludlam also said similar baseline water quality studies have been done as part of the required analysis for drilling proposals on and around the Grand Mesa.
Kessler said the coalition would like to expand its water quality studies to include other watersheds within the Thompson Divide, including upper Divide Creek and Coal Creek near Redstone.
“Absolutely, the coalition is looking at opportunities to do some sampling in those areas as well,” he said.
The report recommends that the coalition or other groups continue to take field samples at least quarterly, and to consider doing monitoring south of the Thompson Creek drainage towards Coal Creek. Any other regional water quality or flow data that has been collected by state or federal agencies, or other groups, should also be integrated into the coalition study, the report also recommends.