Spilling salt into rivers



The Southern Ute tribe has turned a spotlight on a plan to dump water from coalbed-methane wells into a southern Colorado river. Tribal leaders recently scolded state officials for failing to consult with them before issuing a permit that will allow two coalbed-methane wells to spill water into the Florida River. Usually, the poor quality well water in the region is pumped back into the ground. Under the permit, up to 576,000 gallons of water a day could pour into the river a mile and a half upstream from the tribe's reservation.

Tribal officials say high levels of salt and minerals from the well water, a byproduct of drilling for methane gas, could harm fish and crops. Fran King Brown, director of the tribe's Environmental Programs Division, says the state didn't do an adequate job of considering water standards, especially salinity, before issuing the permit. "They didn't have any historic water data from the river," says Brown.

"If we had it to do over, we'd have issued the permit under aquatic standards," admits Dave Akers, from the Colorado Water Quality Control Division. Akers says his agency plans to look at data from tribal water studies and re-issue the permit with stiffer standards.

But Mike Japhet, an aquatic biologist for the state's Division of Wildlife, worries that the permit could open the door to widespread dumping of coalbed methane well water into the region's rivers. Says Japhet, "This could set an important precedent for coalbed-methane discharge in the area."

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