A load of salt: Options for treating salinity in the Dolores River raise some concerns

The Bureau of Reclamation has extended the comment period for a draft environmental impact statement regarding continuing treatment of salinity in the Lower Dolores River.

The San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental nonprofit based in Durango, is raising concern about the alternatives the BOR is offering, including one alternative that would place a new injection well in a wild and remote site near Bedrock, Colo.

“Needless to say, the impacts to the wild character of the Dolores River would be devastating,” the SJCA states on its website.

Comments are now being taken through Feb. 19. The deadline had been Feb. 4.


Under the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Act and a 1944 treaty with Mexico, the United States has an obligation to control salt in the Colorado River. The Dolores River is a tributary of the Colorado.

As the Dolores flows downstream from southwest to northeast across the Paradox Valley in Montrose County, it crosses a “salt anticline,” a fold in the rock layers that includes a core of salt left from an ancient sea. The river picks up the salt; according to the BOR, groundwater in the valley is some eight times more saline than ocean water.

To prevent this from traveling downstream, the BOR has been removing the brine via nine shallow wells in the valley and then injecting the removed salt some 16,000 feet deep into the ground at a well about a mile southwest of the Paradox Valley, near the town of Bedrock and just across from a boat ramp. It sits around nine miles from the Utah border.

Now, the current injection well, which has been operating since 1996, has reached the end of its life, according to Reclamation, and an alternative is needed.

The current unit has reached the point where increasing pressure from the continued injection of brine could threaten underground sources of drinking water.

In addition, one of the signs that the well needs to be replaced is increasingly intense earthquakes occurring around the well.

During planning for the original treatment operation, the BOR said in its EIS, “it was recognized that earthquakes could be induced by the high-pressure, deep-well injection of brine.”

An earthquake monitoring system known as the Paradox Valley Seismic Network was created.

The network recorded “more than 7,000 relatively shallow earthquakes” in the vicinity of Paradox Valley since injection began in 1991.

“No shallow earthquakes were detected in six years of seismic monitoring prior to the start of injection operations,” the EIS states.

In the last several years, more and more earthquakes have been occurring over an increasing range, according to Reclamation.

Nearly a year ago, on March 4, the biggest quake yet was felt as far away as Towaoc and Moab. It registered at a 4.5 magnitude.

That led Reclamation to stop injections while it sought alternatives.

The EIS lists four options for future salinity treatment:

  • Alternative A, a no-action alternative, would end salinity-control operations in the Paradox Valley.
  • Alternative B would create a new deep injection well in one of two possible locations, one on Skein Mesa, the other on Monogram Mesa, both near the confluence with Wild Steer Canyon.
  • Alternative C would involve constructing a series of evaporation ponds in the Paradox Valley where salt would precipitate out of the water.
  • Alternative D, a zero-liquid-discharge facility, would involve pumping brine and piping it to a treatment plant where thermally driven crystallizers would be used to evaporate and condense the water. The removed salt would also go to a 60-acre landfill.

All the alternatives would require the use of some BLM lands and that agency would have to give its approval.

The BOR has not identified a preferred alternative at this point in the process but is waiting on public comment. The agency hopes to produce a final EIS this summer and would then select its preferred alternative and have an additional comment period.

Many comments

“We have been receiving quite a few comments,” said Lesley McWhirter, chief of the environmental and planning group of the western area of Reclamation in a phone interview.

The BOR also held two public meetings in January, one in Paradox and one in Montrose. Reclamation officials have also met with the Montrose County commissioners, said public-affairs specialist Justyn Liff.

She said there weren’t many comments related to concerns about the earthquake potential at the two public meetings. “A lot of comments we have received so far have been all over the place,” she said.

In addition, there have been a number that seem to be form letters, presumably generated at the San Juan Citizens Alliance’s website, she said.

McWhirter said all four alternatives in the EIS are considered feasible.

“All the alternatives are viable at this point, including the no-action one,” said McWhirter. Under that one, Reclamation would halt salinity control in the Paradox Valley but would continue to monitor salinity levels.

Some people, she said, have raised the possibility of using the salt commercially, but nothing has really emerged yet.

“There’s been interest here and there to look at the marketability of that salt. Given the isolated area where it’s located it wouldn’t be an economical option, but certainly it’s an option that could be considered in the future.”

Part of the problem, she said, is that the salt is essentially “road salt” rather than “table salt” in its chemical makeup so it would require further treatment.

Better alternative?

The agency needs to come up with some better alternative, according to Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

Pearson told the Four Corners Free Press there are significant concerns about the current options.

Alternative B would create a new well on the Dolores River upstream of the existing well. Pearson said it would involve constructing about a mile and a half of new road, two new bridges over the Dolores River, new pipeline and a new power line.

Reclamation selected this site because it is remote and wouldn’t encroach on the towns of Nucla and Naturita. But the rugged, unspoiled nature of the area is highly valued by environmentalists and recreationists.

All the new construction would greatly detract from the experience of boaters, for instance, Pearson said.

“The Dolores River is one of the last, best unspoiled places on the Colorado Plateau,” Pearson wrote in a column in the Durango Herald. “The Bureau of Reclamation’s plan would convert that last few miles of the magical float through the slickrock canyon into an industrial zone of noise, lights and traffic.”

Piles of salt

Alternative C, which would create 1500 acres of evaporation ponds, is also undesirable, Pearson told the Free Press.

“The ponds will be toxic to birds and wildlife and will have significant mortality to migratory birds,” he said.

Netting could be strung over one of the ponds, but would not completely cover it and thus would not completely protect animals.

Cattle ranchers using the area reportedly are also concerned about how such ponds would affect livestock.

Alternative C would also require a 60-acre “landfill” for disposing of salt, which could eventually be piled 100 feet high.

The unsightliness of such an option drew concerns from the Montrose County commissioners during a meeting with Reclamation officials in January, according to the Montrose Press

“Having these big evaporative ponds and salt piles that we’re going to have out there, the wastes — this is a beautiful valley and I’m really concerned with how that’s going to change that,” Commissioner Roger Rash was quoted as saying.

“It would not be very scenic,” Pearson told the Free Press. “People in Paradox Valley wanting tourism would instead have a giant industrial landscape. “So that option is kind of unlikely, it seems to me.”


The fourth alternative, D, would involve 80 acres of permanent surface disturbance. It would require the most energy, including 26,700 megawatts per hour of electricity to run the plant, plus 4.2 million CCF (hundreds of cubic feet) of natural gas annually.

“In the other alternative, the zero-liquid-discharge facility, they somehow precipitate the salt out of the brine in some kind of industrial plant,” Pearson said. “It’s probably a lot smaller plant but it has higher energy use and you end up with a salt mountain there. It would be kind of a big impact too.”

Pearson questioned the necessity of simply treating more and more salt in the river.

According to the BOR, 47 percent of the salt comes from natural sources, while 37 percent is produced by irrigation for agriculture. Another 12 percent comes from McPhee Reservoir and 4 percent from municipal and industrial uses.

The current operation intercepts about 95,000 tons of salt annually, representing 7 percent of the salinity in the Colorado River basin overall, according to the BOR’s EIS.

“The objective is less salt at Imperial Dam in southern Arizona,” Pearson said. “Are there more efficient ways to make that happen? Irrigation on the Mancos shale in the Uncompahgre and Grand valleys is the biggest contributor to salt.”

That’s the result of flood irrigation, he said. “Where they have converted to sprinklers, they have reduced the salt load from ag a whole lot.”

Damage downstream?

In a 2012 scoping letter, a coalition of environmental groups including Living Rivers, Sheep Mountain Alliance, Grand Canyon Trust, the Center for Biological Diversity and others said that the Colorado River salinity control program was the result of “flawed river and water management policies” led by Reclamation.

“Nature has been discharging brine into the Colorado River for millennia,” they wrote. “The Dolores and Colorado River ecosystems evolved quite well under these conditions, helping to spawn a thriving desert ecosystem below Paradox Valley.”

They noted that more than half of the salt now flowing into the Colorado River comes from human activity such as agriculture. They called for Reclamation to develop a “more holistic” management plan for the Colorado River.

“It’s far more appropriate that Reclamation look at opportunities to reduce this human-driven salinity, to begin addressing the problem at its source (farming and irrigation practices), as opposed to the continuous intervention into natural processes that cannot be entirely controlled.”

But a letter in November 2012 from the Colorado River Salinity Control Forum, which includes all seven states in the basin, expressed “strong support for Reclamation’s efforts to proceed as expeditiously as possible” to develop options for continued treatment of salinity.”

“Loss of the ability to dispose of collected brines at the project would lead to $20- $25 million of annual quantified damages to downstream users,” wrote forum chairman Larry R. Dozer.

‘The last place’

Pearson said an injection well in a different location might be a better solution, “but they can’t accurately predict what’s going on underground – where the faults are and if they’re hydrologically isolated.”

One way to handle the salt is to leave more water in the river, which dilutes the brine, he said. “This would be a nonstructural solution.”

However, the salt barrier created in the river at Paradox before the water is treated has been functioning as a barrier to the upstream migration of some non-native fish species, at least when the river isn’t high.

Pearson said Reclamation needs to come up with more palatable options.

“Better alternatives are needed,” he said. “The Reclamation staff even acknowledged none of these are very good choices. There’s no easy solution.”

Whatever happens, the landscape needs to be protected, he said.

“The Dolores River Canyon is one of the more extraordinary canyons on the Colorado Plateau and it is a 35-mile section that is completely wild and undeveloped. To just keep chipping away at it with more industrial stuff, it’s unacceptable to do that to the last place that we have. The rest of the Dolores Canyon is more intensively developed down there. This is the one place not yet developed and it should be left alone.”

The draft Environmental Impact Statement is available at http://www.usbr.gov/ uc/progact/paradox/index.html or a copy can be requested by contacting Reclamation. Reclamation will consider all comments received by Feb. 19. Comments may be submitted by email to paradoxeis@usbr. gov or to Ed Warner, Area Manager, Bureau of Reclamation, 445 West Gunnison Ave., Suite 221, Grand Junction, CO 81501.

From February 2020.