The life of brine

 

Here in Paonia, Colo., late on January 23rd, I was lying in bed when my house started to tremble. It felt like the whole structure was perched on a pad of Jell-O. There was one short round of shaking, and then another. But before I could become anything more than startled, it stopped.

Local news websites reported that a magnitude 3.9 earthquake had struck the Paradox Valley, about 100 miles to the west near the Utah border. It turned out that the Bureau of Reclamation accidentally caused it by injecting salt brine deep into the earth at its Paradox Valley Salinity Control Facility, which it uses to manage salinity in the Dolores River. This facility is part of a decades-old effort to control salt levels in the Colorado River basin.

The "paradox" of the valley is that the Dolores River, unlike normal rivers that flow down valley floors, abruptly enters the valley from the mountains on one side and makes a fast run into the mountains on the other side. At one time, when the river's course was roughly the same, the valley was instead a bulge of salt-rich minerals. Over tens of millions of years, as water dissolved some of the underground salt formations, the surface subsided, forming the Paradox Valley.

Rain and snowmelt seep through the strata of the old bulge, becoming salty enough to be called brine.  The brine accumulates in the shallow groundwater that recharges the river, flowing from there into the river itself.

The salt causes all sorts of problems downstream: It poisons agriculture, gums up industrial machinery, and fouls municipal water. In the lower stretches of the Colorado River -- which the Dolores flows into -- salt is a major water quality issue. Irrigation exacerbates the troubles. Diverted water picks up more salt as it flows through unlined canals and over tilled fields, which concentrates as the water evaporates. The water that returns to the river is thus extra salty.

For decades, the Bureau of Reclamation -- pressured by Mexico, farmers in California, and others who divert water from the lower Colorado -- has sought to remove the salt. A regulatory framework for managing salinity in the Colorado River basin was set up in the mid '70s. New standards inspired mega-projects like the Yuma Desalting Plant (see "Draining the budget to desalt the Colorado," HCN 2/21/94), which was completed in 1992 as way of reclaiming water from a large irrigation district in southern Arizona. But the $250 million Yuma plant is so expensive to run that it's sat mostly idle.

BuRec’s approach on the Dolores is a little different. In the late '70s, the agency started studying ways of removing naturally occurring salts from the river. The Paradox Valley Unit that caused the earthquake came on-line in 1996. It removes salt at a cost of $69 per ton, according to Justyn Hock, a BuRec spokeswoman at the agency's Grand Junction office. That's a fraction of the cost of the Yuma plant.

That’s because the Paradox facility removes salt before it ever enters to the river, rather than filtering the water. A series of shallow wells are used to pump the salty groundwater, lowering the groundwater level and keeping brine from rising into the river. The brine is then injected into a 16,000-foot deep well, where it's contained under the bottom of the salt dome. The process removes 110,000 tons of salt from the river annually, about half the amount that the Paradox Valley would send downstream otherwise. That's about 17 percent of the total amount of salt that BuRec removes from the Colorado River system.

The process does have side effects, though, including earthquakes. When the brine is injected at high pressures into the deep well, it works its way into fissures and fractures. If there's existing stress along these small faults, the brine can cause them to slip, says Andy Nicholas, the facility operations specialist at the Paradox facility. Most of the quakes are so small they're never felt; only a couple have been as large as the one in January.

The deep well is actually filling up and nearing the end of its life. BuRec has started scoping studies of other methods, including evaporation ponds. There was a public scoping hearing last fall, and BuRec expects to release its proposal within the coming weeks.

Marshall Swearingen is a High Country News intern.

Images courtesy Flickr user Joel Pomerantz and Bureau of Reclamation.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.