From KUNC (Luke Runyon):
The mine spill temporarily closed down recreation in the river and forced farmers to shut off irrigation to their crops. But life in the river? It didn’t change much. The bugs and fish survived and showed no signs of short-term harm. The fish had been living with heavy mineralization of the water for decades.
Crisis averted — until this year…
The Animas began the summer with record low water because of drought and a warm winter. That primed the nearby mountains for a big wildfire. The 416 Fire ended up burning about 55,000 acres around the drainage basin for Hermosa Creek, a tributary of the Animas. Now when it rains over the burn area, a thick sludge washes into the river.
Horn says official surveys haven’t been conducted, but it’s likely the first few ash-laden runoff events killed 100 percent of the fish in a 30 mile stretch of the river.
“You could literally see the fish coming to the banks gasping for air. It physically smothered their gills and their ability to breathe,” Horn says. “So there it was, it didn’t look as bad. It came from a, you could argue, natural source and did way more damage.”
Many western rivers are stressed. They’re pressured by drought, pollution, overuse by cities and farmers and runoff from wildfires. The Animas acts as the perfect poster child.
“It certainly is unlucky,” says Scott Roberts, a researcher with the Mountain Studies Institute, a non profit research group based in nearby Silverton. “It’s unlucky now. And it’s been unlucky for throughout time really.”
The river’s facing problems that show themselves, Roberts says, like a vibrant orange smear or a chocolate brown sludge. Or like earlier this summer when the river’s water all but disappeared within Durango’s city limits, recording its record lowest flow in 107 years of data.
But there are many others that don’t draw intense public attention. Before the Gold King Mine spill, and even now, the river receives acidic water laden with heavy metals from the region’s numerous abandoned mines. Adding insult to injury, in July 2018 a truck carrying waste material from the mine site crashed into Cement Creek, another Animas tributary.
“It’s being stressed by drought, being stressed by warmer temperatures. It’s being stressed by runoff from wildfires, being stressed by elevated metal concentrations, being stressed by bacteria, by nutrients,” he says.
Roberts points to studies that showed samples of the river’s water with high levels of bacteria commonly found in humans, likely leached from underground septic tanks.
“I don’t think that the problems that are plaguing the Animas today are unique to the Animas,” says Trout Unlimited’s Ty Churchwell, based in Durango…
In fact, Churchwell says, all these issues are increasingly common throughout the West. Drought, ash-laden runoff and mine pollution are often the norm in western watersheds. The Animas has just experienced the extremes of all three in a short period of time…
But it could be another five to ten years before the Animas is back to its former self, according to water quality specialist Barb Horn.