FromThe Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo) via The Cortez Journal:
A fish count in the Animas River on Tuesday found populations have been drastically affected by deadly runoff from the 416 Fire burn scar.
Fish kills because of ash and dirt washing into the river started in mid-July, but a massive rain event around July 17 likely killed most of the fish in the waterway, wildlife officials said at the time.
The dirty runoff lowers the oxygen content in water, suffocating fish, which have been further stressed by abnormally low flows and high water temperatures.
For the first time since the 416 Fire runoff events, wildlife managers with Colorado Parks and Wildlife conducted a fish survey to better understand the extent of the fish kill.
Usually, CPW will use an electrofishing device from a raft to stun fish to survey two 1,000-foot sections of the Animas River: from Durango High School to the Ninth Street Bridge and from Cundiff Park to the High Bridge.
This year, low flows forced wildlife managers to use an electrofishing device from the banks and from in the river.
Jim White, an aquatic biologist for CPW, said in a normal year, a survey will find somewhere around 40 brown trout and 40 rainbow trout in the stretch from Cundiff Park to the High Bridge.
This year, CPW found one brown trout and one rainbow trout in that stretch and no molted sculpin, a small native species of fish that’s a key food source for trout.
In the stretch of river between Durango High School and the Ninth Street Bridge, CPW found four brown trout and two rainbow trout, as well as some molted sculpin, bluehead suckers and speckled dace.
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.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
First Lake Nighthorse Water Use Celebrated with Pipeline Completion
La Plata West Water Authority held the Ribbon Cutting Ceremony to commemorate completion of the Phase 0 Raw Water Project. The ceremony was held at the Booster Pump Station located on County Road 210, at the entrance to the access road for the raw water intake structure at Lake Nighthorse. The event was attended by 32 guests all celebrating their efforts in making the project possible and come to fruition.
The new rural domestic water pipeline is a four-way partnership between La Plata West, Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Tribes, and Lake Durango. The process of this massive and costly construction design had to be laid out in multiple phases.
Phase 0 of the pipelines’ goal is to provide a supply of raw water from the La Plata reservoir up to Lake Durango.
The study looked at 200 river-water samples and almost 200 sediment samples, as well as more than 100 private wells from Durango to Silverton, testing for 13 different heavy metals and other possible contaminants, the health department said.
Some findings, according to San Juan Basin Public Health:
Water quality, except in Cement Creek, is better than the minimum standards set to protect aquatic life and human uses.
Additional sampling performed as part of this study revealed that natural variability in river flows produces occasional “spikes” in certain metals that may have been missed in less-frequent sampling.
Sediment in the Animas River, including beach sediment at six popular Durango recreation sites, poses no risk to human health if common-sense precautions are followed.
About one-quarter of Animas Valley drinking water wells had naturally-occurring bacteria present, and all wells should receive filtration or treatment.
About 5 percent of Animas Valley wells had more serious contamination from heavy metals, nitrates or other forms of bacteria. Heavy metal contamination in these wells arises from the natural geology of the Animas Valley aquifer.
Project to clean nearly 30 mines in 5 years has drawn criticism
The Environmental Protection Agency will not release public comments before it makes a final decision on a proposed plan to clean up 26 mine sites over the next five years in the Superfund area near Silverton.
In June, the EPA released the proposed plan, which identified quick action projects the agency wants to take while it comes up with a long-term plan for improving water quality in the upper Animas River. The proposed plan is expected to cost about $10 million.
“We’ve got years’ worth of investigations to do,” Rebecca Thomas, the EPA’s project manager, said in a previous interview. “These early actions are not intended to be a final remedy. They’re no-brainer activities to help get the water clean and reduce the amount of loading.”
The release of the plan kicked off a 30-day public comment period, which was extended another month in response to requests by the public. The comment period ended Wednesday.
When The Durango Herald asked EPA officials to review public comments, spokeswoman Cynthia Peterson said the public comments and the EPA’s response won’t be made available for review until the EPA makes a final decision.
“All significant comments, and EPA’s responses to those comments, will be compiled in a responsiveness summary. The responsiveness summary will be included in the final decision document – the Interim Record of Decision. The Interim Record of Decision will be published once the agency has had a chance to review and consider all comments received.”
Withholding of public feedback and the agency’s replies until after a final decision is made is in contrast with other comment periods the EPA has held. In 2015, for example, comments were posted in real time for the listing of the Superfund site.
“In some instances, such as federal rule-makings, comments can be made available in real time,” Peterson wrote. “However, significant comments on a site-specific Record of Decision are released in a responsiveness summary with the decision document.”
Despite ash flows and mine waste, the river is resilient
It’s been a rough couple of years for the Animas River.
This weekend marks three years since the river, which runs through the heart of Durango, endured a massive mine waste spill from a blowout at the Gold King Mine. The waterway turned an electric orange and gained international attention.
The Aug. 5, 2015, spill brought to the forefront the longstanding issue of toxic metals leeching into the Animas River from legacy mining in its headwaters around Silverton.
This year has been an especially vicious dagger into the Animas.
A winter that never showed up in the San Juan Mountains resulted in one of the lowest snowpack years in recorded history. Then, through spring and early summer, extreme drought tightened its stranglehold on Southwest Colorado.
The Animas River saw its third lowest peak flow in more than 100 years of recorded history, and one of its earliest, hitting a high of about 1,000 cubic feet per second in May. Typically, the river peaks at about 4,700 cfs in early June.
Fish and other aquatic life were already stressed from low flows and high water temperatures when ash runoff from the 416 Fire burn scar came tumbling down north of Durango.
The dark-chocolate colored waters suffocated fish, which desperately washed ashore seeking oxygen. Though an official population survey won’t be conducted until this fall, it’s estimated thousands of fish died.
A raw sewage spill last week at Santa Rita Park was an extra twist of the dagger.
A river without fish
For some perspective, it’s likely aquatic life is either all but gone or dramatically depleted through the entire 126-mile stretch of the river from the headwaters in Silverton, down through Durango to the Animas’ confluence with the San Juan River in Farmington.
In recent years, the river from Silverton to Bakers Bridge (about 15 miles north of Durango) has been basically considered a dead zone because of toxic metal-loading from leeching mines.
The ash flows during the month of July killed most of the fish in the river through Durango. Even the most tolerant species – carp – was found dead along the river’s banks.
Fish in this stretch of the Animas River have been unable to reproduce because of a combination of factors, such as high water temperature and mining pollution. The fish that do live in the river are stocked by Colorado Fish and Wildlife.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe declined to comment about how fish are doing in the Animas through tribal lands. Attempts to reach a biologist with New Mexico Fish and Game were unsuccessful. The Animas, however, has all but dried up before it reaches the San Juan River.
“It’d be unusual if everything was dead, but it’s probably to the point where it’s virtually that way,” said Jim White, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
But despite the onslaught of doom and gloom, there is reason to be optimistic: Rivers are resilient, and steps are finally being taken to make significant strides in the cleanup of the Animas River.
Improving water, habitat
After the Gold King Mine spill, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (which triggered the blowout while working at the inactive mine) declared a long-awaited Superfund listing, which will clean up nearly 50 mining sites around the Animas River headwaters.
Already, a temporary water-treatment plant built in 2015 has shown improvement in water quality downstream, said EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Peterson, though it’s too soon to know its effect on aquatic life…
While ash flows have decimated fish populations, research has shown aquatic species rebound quickly after wildfires, said Scott Roberts, an aquatic biologist for Mountain Studies Institute.
The civil complaint states that plaintiffs in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Colorado were forced to stop using water from the San Juan River for crop irrigation, livestock watering and household purposes due to contamination from mine waste released on Aug. 5, 2015.
Group members claim crop harvests were lost due to the lack of irrigation and that livestock were unable to graze or drink water from the river. In addition, several ranchers sold livestock at a reduced price due to a decline in the animals’ quality.
The 114-page complaint was filed Aug. 3 in U.S. District Court of New Mexico. It seeks approximately $75 million in damages.
Along with the federal agency, the complaint lists as defendants Environmental Restoration LLC, Kinross Gold Corp., Kinross Gold USA Inc., Sunnyside Gold Corp., Gold King Mines Corp., Weston Solutions Inc., Salem Minerals Inc. and San Juan Corp., which the document describes as either EPA contractors or mine owners…
Kate Ferlic, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a press release today that farmers and ranchers used various resources to try to save their crops and livestock, but to no avail.
“They trucked in water, they hand-carried gallons of water down long dirt roads, some even tried to use their tap water. The spill was a very real crisis for the Navajo people,” Ferlic said.
She added that while each of the 295 plaintiffs filed administrative claims with the EPA, the agency still has not acted on those requests…
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and tribal council Speaker LoRenzo Bates weighed in on the litigation in the press release.
Begaye said the spill was a disaster for the tribe and tribal members.
“The San Juan River has enormous cultural and spiritual significance for our nation in addition to its practical and economic importance. It is our lifeblood. Most of the farmers and ranchers have lived and farmed on these lands for generations,” the president said.
Bates said the spill resulted in farmers being unable to irrigate crops, causing a loss of the harvest, which is the sole source of income for many people.
While some farmers could save their crops by using other sources of water, a stigma developed about water contamination and crops grown in the area, resulting in people not purchasing produce from farmers, he added.
“Our people endured clear and significant losses, and I look forward to the court doing them justice by ordering the EPA and the other responsible parties to pay up for those losses,” Bates said.
Residents who live in Fountain Valley southeast of Colorado Springs are asking the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the perflourinated compounds which have contaminated their drinking water supplies.
The requests came during a two day “community engagement” event sponsored by the EPA.
“I think this is a big deal,” said Fran Silva-Blayney of the Sierra Club’s Fountain Creek Water Sentinels. “It’s a big deal in terms of bringing public awareness to the issue and in terms of the EPA recognizing that we need to take regulatory action.”
Silva-Blayney said the community wants the EPA to set “maximum contaminant levels.”
The contamination in the public water supplies of Fountain, Security and Widefield came from firefighting foam, which was used for decades at Peterson Air Force Base.
Several residents and former residents raised questions about the health impact of long-term exposure.
“My father died of kidney cancer last year,” said Mark Favors, a member of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition.
Favors told Denver7 that he was born and raised in the valley, and then moved to New York eight years ago.
“My cousin was here yesterday,” he said. “His grandson, at 14 years of age, had to have a kidney replaced, a transplant last year.”
“We would really like to know, do we have hereditary cancers, or do we have environmental cancers?” said Liz Rosenbaum, who founded the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition.
“Summit was amazing”
Rosenbaum said she is encouraged by what’s going on.
“The community wants to be more actively involved,” she said, adding that it’s a way to stay informed.
“When you’re scared, you get angry,” she said, “and if you know what’s going on, you can develop solutions and ideas.”
State health officials say they don’t know yet how widespread the contamination problem is in Colorado.
So far, contamination has been found during tests of public wells in the Fountain Valley, Commerce City and at a fire station on Sugar Loaf Mountain in Boulder County.
“We’re in the initial stages of identifying potential sources in the state,” said Kristy Richardson, an environmental toxicologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “We’re looking at all those sources that have been used in industry and manufacturing.”
The EPA’s advisory limit for Perfluorooctanesulfonic acids (PFOs) and PFAS is 70 parts per trillion.
Residents who attended the EPA’s meetings would like to make it a regulatory standard and much tougher than 70 ppt.
“We have a health advisory for two substances, in a family of 3,000… so we don’t know if we’re removing all of them,” Richardson said. “Residents are very concerned about getting them out (of the water) and making sure they’re not exposed to them anymore.”
The Colorado Springs meeting was the third of four community forums scheduled across the country this summer, each hosted by the EPA, to collect feedback from people on the ground dealing with PFAS contamination.
“Understanding and addressing emerging contaminants such as PFAS is difficult, but critically important,” explained Doug Benevento, administrator of EPA Region 8, which includes Colorado and other western states. “The experiences and perspectives shared by state and local officials as well as community groups today, in addition to the numerous members of the public, will be invaluable as EPA develops a plan to manage PFAS.”
PFAS contamination is a growing concern among public health and water management professionals nationwide, with at least 40 states experiencing some form of contamination, according to the Environmental Working Group. The EPA says it has identified the issue as a high priority, and is in the process of developing new rules to regulate contamination levels in drinking water…
“We need regulatory infrastructure in order to, number one, compel investigation and clean up, but also to promote a more consistent approach to addressing PFAS nationwide,” Tracie White of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment told EPA officials Wednesday.
Her concern was echoed by members of the public and by those responsible for managing affected drinking water systems, who urged the EPA to establish a legally-binding Maximum Contaminant Level, or MCL, for the chemicals.
“Health advisories have the same connotations and effect as maximum contaminant levels, but none of the support that an MCL provides,” said Brandon Bernard, water manager for Widefield Water and Sanitation.
For their part, EPA officials didn’t say whether an MCL would be forthcoming, but said the agency is looking at a range of options to regulate the chemicals, including listing them as “Hazardous Substances” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, otherwise known as Superfund. Jennifer McLain, deputy director of the agency’s Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water, said she couldn’t give a timeline for any future regulatory decisions, but stressed that the agency is “moving as quickly as possible.”
Over the course of the two day forum, residents of Security, Widefield, and Fountain also shared their experiences with contamination in the area. Liz Rosenbaum, who has lived in Security and Widefield for 15 years, spoke on behalf of the grassroots group, Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition…
Many community members also said that they feel they’ve been left out of important discussions about the future of their drinking water, and haven’t been treated as stakeholders in the process.
Still, Rosenbaum said the community forum was a good first step, and that she was encouraged by the dialogue that took place. Going forward, she said she hopes the conversation can continue, so that the “community feels more connected in decision making processes” as the EPA and other agencies work to address the issue of PFAS contamination here in El Paso County and nationwide.
Over and over, residents and clean water advocates implored the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday evening to set enforceable drinking water standards for the toxic chemicals contaminating their water — and at tighter levels than the agency currently deems acceptable.
Their pleas came during the EPA’s third stop in a nationwide tour meant to help its leaders create a management plan for the toxic chemicals, called perfluorinated compounds. It marked the first opportunity in more than two years for people affected by the toxic chemicals to sound off to the EPA on the contamination of their drinking water.
Many argued that the EPA’s response was past due.
His voice cracking, Mark Favors, 49, listed several family members who drank the water most of their lives and have since died, many from kidney cancer. He read the obituary of one, Shelton Lee King, a retired master sergeant who served in Vietnam and died in 2012 of kidney cancer…
The EPA’s current process for regulating chemicals does not call for instituting any new drinking water standards for perfluorinated compounds until 2021.
Jennifer McLain, the agency’s deputy director in charge of groundwater and drinking water, said the agency is trying to accelerate that process, though she gave no timeline for when that might happen.
“We are working as quickly as we can,” McLain said.
So far, the EPA has only committed to evaluate the need for an enforceable drinking water standard for the two best-known types of perfluorinated compounds: perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA.
The EPA also is seeking to propose that those two chemicals be classified as “hazardous substances,” easing the process for seeking Superfund cleanup funding. And it is seeking to develop groundwater cleanup recommendations for both chemicals.
In addition, the agency is working to set toxicity levels for two other types of perfluorinated compounds. Neither was included in a different agency’s recent list of possibly dangerous chemicals.
The EPA’s management plan is due out by the end of the year.
Water managers for the El Paso County communities of Security, Widefield, Stratmore Hills, and Fountain have been working to rid their drinking water systems of Perfluorinated Chemicals since 2016. The contamination, discovered that year, traces back to firefighting foam used at nearby Peterson Air Force Base.
“Fifty years from now, 100 years from now, the Widefield Aquifer will still be contaminated if we don’t figure out a way to clean it,” said Fran Silva-Blayney, chair of the Sierra Club Fountain Creek Water Sentinels. “Is remediation even possible?”
Silva-Blayney was one of a handful of community stakeholders invited to speak at a listening session organized by the Environmental Protection Agency. Her comments and others carried the same message: the EPA isn’t doing enough.
“We are past the point of evaluating, proposing and recommending,” Silva-Balyney said. “People’s lives have been compromised. It’s time to regulate, enforce and remediate.”
In a statement, EPA Regional Administrator Doug Benevento said the community listening session would “inform our path forward in addressing PFAS in communities here in Colorado Springs and across the country.” Regulations are under consideration that would create an enforceable drinking water standard for two of the most common PFCs — mainly PFOS and PFOA.
Right now, EPA has an advisory in place, which isn’t enforceable. Water districts in the area have chosen, voluntarily, to make sure drinking water has no more than 70 parts per trillion of the chemicals. The agency could also classify certain PFCs as hazardous, and they’re developing groundwater cleanup recommendations if contamination is found.