Update on #AnimasRiver water quality, Gold Medal Waters status

Screen shot of Animas River debris flow July 2018 aftermath of 416 Fire (CBS Denver).

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo) via The Cortez Journal:

Colorado has more than 300 miles of streams with Gold Medal status, which is intended to highlight the state’s rivers and creeks that provide outstanding fishing opportunities.

To qualify, a waterway must meet two criteria: have a minimum of 60 pounds of trout per acre and at least 12 trout measuring 14 inches or longer.

In 1996, a 4-mile stretch of the Animas River from the confluence of Lightner Creek down to the Purple Cliffs by Home Depot gained the Gold Medal tag and, ever since, has been marketed as a premier destination for fishing…

The water quality issues in the Animas are complex, said Jim White, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife based in Durango.

A combination of factors – heavy metals leeching from abandoned mines in the Animas headwaters around Silverton, above-average water temperatures, sediment loading and urban runoff – have had a detrimental impact on aquatic life.

As a result, fish in the Animas River are unable to naturally reproduce, and the waterway must rely on annual stocking of rainbow and brown trout by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

In 2014, the Animas River started showing signs it was not meeting Gold Medal criteria, when a fish survey found a disappearance of large, quality-size trout in the stretch.

It was thought aquatic life would take a devastating hit from the Gold King Mine spill in 2015, which sent an estimated 3 million gallons of mine wastewater down the Animas River. Ultimately, however, subsequent studies showed the tainted waters had no effect on fish.

But in 2018, “everything went to hell,” White said.

Fish and other aquatic life were already stressed from low flows and high water temperatures when torrential rains in July 2018 hit the burn scar of the 416 Fire, sending a torrent of black mud and ash down the Animas River, which killed most of the fish in the waterway downstream of Hermosa Creek.

White said it may take up to four years to again meet Gold Medal standards in the Animas as the river recovers. Still, there’s been no discussion about delisting the impaired waterway, he said…

…Scott Roberts, an aquatic biologist with Mountain Studies Institute, has said it generally takes one to 10 years for a watershed to recover after a wildfire, but because only a small percentage of the 416 Fire burned at high intensity, he expects the timeline for recovery to be on the short end.

And, many wildlife officials, like Japhet and White, are hopeful the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup of mines around Silverton will help with metal contamination issues. EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Peterson said the work in the Bonita Peak Mining District will reduce the frequency of elevated metals in the Animas River, as well as the pulses of metals the agency suspects are being released from the mines.

White said this year’s high runoff will do wonders for aquatic life in the long run. He said wildlife officials plan to stock the Animas this summer and early fall.

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