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Southern Ute Indian Tribe

Water Quality Program

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Program Manager

Alexandra Ratcliff
970-563-2256


Mission

The Water Quality Program strives to improve the quality of surface waters on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation through monitoring and with projects that employ best management practices. Public Education and Community Outreach is an important component in improving the water quality on the Reservation since long-term improvements cannot be achieved without public involvement.

Programs

106 – Surface Water Monitoring

The §106 Program monitors 23 aquatic sites across the Southern Ute Reservation. These sites include rivers, streams, wells, seeps, springs, lakes, and ponds. At each of the monitoring locations, chemical, physical and biological data are collected for three-year periods on a rotating schedule. General water quality monitoring occurs year-round using sonde technology and water sampling in all weather conditions. The sonde continuously monitors dissolved oxygen, conductivity, temperature, turbidity and pH at 30 min intervals for up to 9 months during the year. All data collected are uploaded into the EPA database, Water Quality Exchange Portal which is available here: https://www.waterqualitydata.us/.

Surface water sampling is done with following EPA approved quality assurance protocols and standard operating procedures to ensure no contamination of the samples. These samples are then sent to the proper labs for analysis. The samples are tested for nutrients, metals, total coliforms and E. coli.

Elevated level of nutrients in water can cause an increase in algal growth, as well as increase diurnal fluctuations in dissolved oxygen and pH, which can pose a threat to aquatic life. The largest contributors to nutrient enrichment are considered to be agricultural practices and wastewater treatment plant discharge.

Trace metals have the potential to bioaccumulate depending on the chemistry of the water. These metals enter the environment in a variety of ways, both naturally from water running over rock formations, and through human related activities like mining runoff.

The Water Cycle (usgs.gov)

A variety of bacteria, parasites, and viruses, known as pathogens, can potentially cause health problems if human ingest them. The EPA considers total coliforms a useful indicator of other pathogens in the water and have determined limits or standards for drinking and recreational waters.

Data collected by the WQP from tribal waters throughout the Reservation have been used for the development of water quality standards which form the basis for protecting the tribal surface waters. The Tribe received Treatment as a State for Water Quality Standards and Section 401 Certification from the EPA in March 2018.

For more information or to request a groundwater well test please contact Rachel Vaughn at 970-563-2222.

319 – Stream Restoration

Nonpoint Source Pollution

Nonpoint source pollution occurs when runoff from rain or snow melt flows moves across the land. The runoff picks up anything and everything found on the land, which can include pollutants of many forms (excess nutrients from fertilizers, oil from cars, storm water runoff from construction sites, unmaintained septic systems, etc.). These pollutants are then carried into water bodies, and their concentrations rise as each stream flows into the next. Nonpoint source pollution cannot be regulated through The Clean Water Act and is administered by the EPA’s nonpoint source program.

The SUIT nonpoint source program works to improve water quality on the Reservation through stream and riparian habitat restoration projects, education and outreach on nonpoint source pollution issues, as well as land management improvements through collaborative efforts. Since 1996, the §319 program has implemented Agricultural best management practices on over 900 acres of land and has completed fifteen restoration projects in watersheds throughout the Reservation.

Stream Restoration

Degraded streams and riparian areas are a large contributor of nonpoint source pollution. Many streams and riparian areas on the Reservation are degraded due to hydromodification (the alteration of hydrologic characteristics of a water body), agricultural impacts, road disturbance, and other activities. Streams that experience excessive erosion due to instability contribute large amounts of sediment to the watershed.  This can adversely affect aquatic life and have negative effects on the dynamics of the stream. Excessive bank erosion is not only an issue for water quality, but can also impact agricultural land, structures, and roads. Healthy riparian areas are not only good for water quality but also provide essential habitat for many important species of plants and animals as well.

Photos showing before and after restoration efforts by the nonpoint program on Beaver Creek

Agricultural Best Management Practices

Since 2004, the SUIT §319 program has utilized EPA grant funds to implement agricultural best management practices (BMPs) on Tribal and private land on the Reservation. The program provides improved irrigation equipment (typically gated pipe), riparian exclusion fencing, field filter strips, and off-stream watering sources. Currently, there are 45 active participants that use the BMP’s on approximately 975 acres.  Most of the projects fall within  Pine River watershed. Annually, the implemented BMPs reduce approximately 1,237 pounds of nitrogen, 133 pounds of phosphorous, and 31 tons of sediment from entering the creeks and rivers on the Reservation. If you or someone you know may be interested in implementing agricultural BMPs, please contact the nonpoint source program.

Gated pipe used to improve water use efficiency and reduce runoff to streams

Education and Outreach

Because water pollution cannot be reduced without community involvement and participation, the nonpoint source program offers education and outreach activities whenever possible. Education and outreach are essential to changing attitudes, modifying activities, and bringing awareness to the local community that will improve water quality in the long term. If you would like to learn more about nonpoint source pollution or would like to discuss education opportunities, please contact the Water Quality office.

Water Quality staff teaching about nonpoint pollution at Children’s Waterfest

 

WIIN – Animas River Monitoring

Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act

In 2016, under the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, the U.S. Congress authorized appropriations of $4 million per year in 2017–2021 for a long-term water quality monitoring program for the San Juan watershed. The Southern Ute Environmental Programs Division Water Quality Program along with the EPA, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, and the states of Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico have been working together to develop and implement the long-term water quality monitoring program.

More information about this program and project funded under the WIIN Act can be found here: https://www.epa.gov/san-juan-watershed.

In coordination with the Culture Preservation Department NAGPRA Office, one of the projects the Water Quality Program completed under WIIN funding was a water quality cultural study, or ethnographic and ethnobotanical study of the traditional Ute lands in and around the Bonita Peaks Mining District. This study began in 2018 and was completed in April 2021.

In September 2019, the Southern Ute Drum covered the first field visit of this study: https://www.sudrum.com/culture/2019/09/12/ethnographic-field-study-brings-ute-tribes-together-in-san-juans/

The completed ethnographic and ethnobotanical study can be found here: Ute Ethnographic and Ethnobotanical Research in the Bonita Peak Mining District

Funding for WIIN Act projects from the EPA will extend until 2027.

Gold King Mine Spill Response

The WQP initiated a Gold King Mine monitoring and response program along the Animas River following the August 5, 2015 accidental release of acid mine waste from the Gold King Mine near Silverton, CO. The release crossed the northern border of the Reservation on August 7, 2015. The Tribe responded to this event by activating its Incident Command Team, establishing water quality monitoring stations, and collaborating with partner agencies. Monitoring included water chemistry sampling of surface water for metals and nutrients; deployment of four (4) water quality sondes that measure pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature, and conductivity; macroinvertebrate and sediment sampling; and groundwater drinking well sampling.

Funding for the Gold King Mine focused monitoring was completed in December 2020 using EPA grants.

Services Provided to Tribal Membership

The Water Quality Program provides the following services to tribal members:

  • Provide assistance with agricultural land use practices that can benefit water quality including improved irrigation equipment, field filter strips, off-stream watering sources, and riparian exclusion fencing, as available.
  • Provide assistance with stream bank erosion and riparian enhancement projects by assisting tribal members who are experiencing stream bank erosion, degraded riparian habitat, and other issues regarding streams.
  • Provide education and outreach to the tribal membership regarding ways to improve water quality and current conditions.
  • Conduct groundwater well testing, please contact the 106 program coordinator, Rachel Vaughn, at 970-563-2222 to schedule if interested.