#AnimasRiver: Sediment runoff from the #416Fire = fish kill

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

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife via The Pagosa Daily Post:

Drought, hot weather… and ash and debris flows from the 416 Fire… are meeting in an unfortunate sequence of events to hit the Animas River this summer, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials.

Because of the river’s low flow, the water temperature has been higher than normal and on some afternoons has risen above 70 degrees. Water temperature that high can cause fish to die. Consequently, CPW is requesting that anglers cooperate with a voluntary closure on fishing from noon to 7pm when the water temperature reaches 70 degrees.

Historical records for the river show that in mid-summer the Animas River averages 58 degrees.

“The temperature of the water does drop at night, so when the water clears we suggest fishing in the morning hours until noon,” said John Alves, senior aquatic biologist for CPW’s Southwest Region. “The fish are already stressed because of the warm water and their stress level only goes up when they start fighting a hook and line. Anglers can also go to high-elevation creeks where the water stays cool.”

Besides the water temperature, ash and debris flow increased this week; the river is running brown and fish are dying.

On July 10, after a local family reported dead fish in the river north of Durango, CPW determined that forest-fire ash flushed by heavy rain off the charred slopes killed the fish. Since then people are reporting seeing dead fish in the river from north of Durango all the way through town. The ash and debris flow came from the Hermosa Creek drainage which meets the Animas River about 10 miles north of Durango.

“We inspected the fish and found their gills were coated in ash, which caused them to suffocate,” Alves said. “In burned areas, the absence of vegetation and the presence of hydrophobic soils can lead to flash flooding and debris or ash flows even after small thunderstorms.”

The family that made the initial report collected 21 dead fish, 15 of them were brown trout. Those fish ranged in size from 16 inches to an inch or less.

Alves said that ash flows and sediment run-off are likely to continue throughout the summer as monsoon rains settle in; but some ash and sediment could continue to run off steep slopes for more than a year. The river, as of July 17, was running at about 300 cubic feet per second, compared to an average for this time of year of about 1,000 cfs.

“The water in the Animas River is so low that it can’t dilute the ash and sediment flow,” Alves said.

Trout are also stressed by all the float-craft on the river. When trout see something above they will seek cover in deep pools, behind rocks and under banks. When they’re forced to move they must use extra energy to stay safe; and because there is so little water in the river there are fewer places for fish to hide.

For anglers, CPW offers these suggestions to reduce stress on fish:

  • Buy a small thermometer and take the temperature of the water. If the temperature is 70 degrees or above, stop fishing.
  • Fish in the morning when the water temperature is cool.
  • Fish high-elevation streams which usually stay cool.
  • Use heavier tippet and land the fish quickly. Don’t “play” or tire fish.
  • Use barbless hooks which allow a quick release. Those using spinning gear – who don’t intend to keep fish – should press down the barbs of metal lures.
  • Release fish as fast as possible; minimize handling of fish and the amount of time they’re out of the water. Skip the photos for now.
  • Be sure to know the regulations for the river you’re fishing.
  • “Monsoon rains and, hopefully, snow next winter will help the river and fish recover,” Alves said. “But we can all do a little now to reduce stress on fish and on the river.”

    CPW is an enterprise agency, relying primarily on license sales, state parks fees and registration fees to support its operations, including: 41 state parks and more than 350 wildlife areas covering approximately 900,000 acres, management of fishing and hunting, wildlife watching, camping, motorized and non-motorized trails, boating and outdoor education. CPW’s work contributes approximately $6 billion in total economic impact annually throughout Colorado.

    From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Liz Forster):

    Ash and debris carried by heavy rains from the 416 fire burn scar into the Animas River north of Durango suffocated thousands of fish, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials said.

    “We’re seeing thousands of fish struggle for their last gasp of air on the river 10 to 15 miles north of Durango, likely down into New Mexico,” said the spokesman for the Southwest Region of Colorado Parks and Wildlife Southwest, Joe Lewandowski. “We can’t even get an exact number because the river is so dark and brown, and we can’t do much about it until the runoff flushes out.”

    Lewandowski added that the Animas River has not seen such a massive die-off from wildfire debris runoff in recent memory, though the Missionary Ridge fire wiped out the fish population in the Florida River northeast of Durango in 2002.

    The hardest rains hit areas of the 54,129-acre burn scar about 5 p.m. Tuesday, the Durango Herald reported. The flooding and debris flows forced the closure of U.S. 550 and halted the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train. About 400 passengers were shuttled off the train, and about 200 campers at the KOA near East Animas Road were bused to the La Plata County Fairgrounds.

    Wildlife officials and members of the public are primarily finding dead rainbow and brown trout as well as flannel mouth and bluehead suckers. The flannelmouth and bluehead suckers are of particular concern, since the two species are native and endemic to the Colorado River basin.

    “They’re very hearty fish that have endured huge runoffs, low water levels, high temperatures and a variety of other pressures,” Lewandowski said. “But we’re not sure how they’re going to do with this type of ash and debris runoff because we’ve never seen anything like this.”

    Parks and Wildlife’s first gauge on the severity of the fish kill will likely come in September.

    Biologists plan to conduct a fish survey in 6 miles of the Animas River that run through downtown Durango in which they electroshock the fish and record their numbers, weight, size, species and other observations.

    #AnimasRiver: Truck hauling sludge from the Cement Creek water treatment plant crashes and spills into Cement Creek

    From The Associated Press via The Colorado Springs Gazette:

    The driver wasn’t severely injured, but about 9 cubic yards of waste sludge spilled into the creek.

    The sludge is a byproduct of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency treatment plant that is cleaning up water draining from the inactive Gold King mine. The EPA has said the sludge is not hazardous.

    Authorities say it doesn’t appear the truck spilled any fuel.

    It turns out that streamflow in the #AnimasRiver near Farmington was a monster 5 CFS rather than the 0 CFS reported

    West Drought Monitor July 3, 2018.

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

    A U.S. Geological Survey river gauge in Farmington that recorded the Animas River flowing at nearly non-existent levels was the result of human error, the scientific agency said Friday.

    Fletcher Brinkerhoff, a supervisory hydrologic technician for the USGS in Albuquerque, said the reading of 0 cubic feet per second at the gauge was the result of incorrect information entered into the USGS’s database.

    The Durango Herald reported about record-low reading in a Page 1A story Friday.

    Still, water levels the past few weeks have been incredibly low, Brinkerhoff said, hovering around 5 cfs.

    The #416Fire reminds us there’s no escape from #climatechange — @HighCountryNews

    The 416 Fire started at about 10 a.m. on June 1, 2018, approximately 10 miles north of Durango, CO. Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Management Team is managing the fire. The fire is burning on the west side of State Highway 550 on some private land and on the San Juan National Forest. The fire is burning in grass, brush, and timber. The Weather conditions remain critical and fuels are ideal for significant fire growth. The fire has been very active and continues to burn in rough and inaccessible terrain. Many homes have been evacuated and structure protection is in place. Map via Inciweb

    From The High Country News (Jonathan Thompson):

    For longtime Southwesterners, this year’s low snowfall and high temperatures bring back memories of 2002, a year that seemed to stand as the region’s come-to-Jesus climate moment. The snow cover was thin to nonexistent, even in the high country. Fields dried up and Lake Powell began its big shrink. Record-breaking fires burned across the region.

    But as the warm spring of 2002 moved into a scorching summer, I wasn’t worried. I lived in Silverton, Colorado, at 9,318 feet in elevation, where extreme drought for everyone else just meant a more pleasant summer for us. We could actually barbecue on Memorial Day instead of suffering through a blizzard, ride our bikes up the high passes before July 4, and swim in the Animas River without instantly contracting hypothermia. I believed that Silverton, which at the time was looking for new economic engines after the loss of mining, offered a refuge people would flee to, not from, when climate change manifested elsewhere in the form of drought, fire and desertification.

    And so, on an early June afternoon in 2002, while the lowlands broiled, my friends and I sat in the lawn sipping cold beverages and enjoying perfect temperatures in our T-shirts and shorts. It was an uncommon pleasure during any month in Silverton. If this is global warming, I declared, then bring it on.

    Just moments later, we noticed what looked like a puffy cumulonimbus cloud rising up in the gap formed by the Animas River gorge. It wasn’t a cloud at all, but a billowing tower of smoke from what would become known as the Missionary Ridge Fire. Over the coming weeks the blaze would eat through 73,000 acres of parched scrub oak, aspen, ponderosa pine and spruce forest, burn 83 structures, and batter the regional economy.

    Flash forward to June 2018. Much like the Missionary Ridge Fire, the 416 Fire has been ripping through forests north of Durango since June 1, sending up roiling clouds of smoke and diminishing the air quality for miles around. The current fire was sparked almost exactly 16 years after the former in similar vegetation. This time, though, the flames were no surprise. We knew that the dry winter of 2018 would usher in an explosive fire season, which is not to say that the region took enough precautions.

    During the Missionary Ridge Fire, and in its immediate aftermath, Silverton did not become a destination for refugees fleeing fire, heat and drought. To the contrary, despite the fact that the flames never got anywhere near Silverton, the mining-turned-tourist town’s economy took the biggest blow of all the region’s communities.

    This year looks to be no different. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad — the primary artery for delivering tourist dollars to Silverton — has suspended service for the month of June because the coal-fired locomotives are a fire hazard. (In fact, the train is suspected of igniting the 416 Fire, though the official cause remains “unknown.”) One of just two highways connecting Silverton to the outside world has been closed on-and-off due to the fire, further hampering the ability of tourists to get to the town. Now, the Forest Service indefinitely closed the 1.8 million-acre San Juan National Forest, cutting off mountain bike and hiking trails, campgrounds and jeep roads —along with a major revenue stream for the entire region’s outdoor recreation-oriented businesses.

    Eventually, the rains will come and the fire danger will diminish and television screens will no longer be alight with images of southwestern Colorado’s forests engulfed by hellish flames. But the pain undoubtedly will resonate through the rest of the summer, just as it did in 2002 after the Missionary Ridge Fire subsided.

    Repercussions may still be felt for years to come, too, particularly when it comes to the steam-powered train. In the wake of the 416 Fire, social media has stoked a movement pushing the railroad to switch to diesel locomotives — or not run at all — during times of extreme fire danger, before a blaze can erupt.

    Such suggestions spark fervent pushback from train-reliant sectors of the economy and their supporters. Since diesel locomotives lack the authenticity and aesthetic appeal of their steam-powered cousins, they argue, such a switch could result in fewer passengers and less tourism revenue overall. “You must be a complete IDIOT,” says a representative commenter on Facebook. “This town is alive because of that steam train! You must be a transplant trust funder to think we don’t need the train.”

    Replace “train” with your local industry of choice — mining, say, or oil and gas drilling — and the exchange repeats one that has resounded around the West for decades. Concerned citizens ask the mining companies to stop polluting the rivers, or the oil companies to plug their methane leaks, or the train to stop spewing sparks, and the industry and its foot soldiers always lash back: Even minor protective measures, they say, could kill the industry and bring down the whole economy with it.

    This sort of short-term thinking, of prioritizing today’s bottom line over future environmental or public health, rarely pays off in the long term. Yesterday’s failure to address mining pollution is the Gold King Mine disaster of 2015, and today’s unfettered methane leaks are tomorrow’s climate change-caused water shortage. Today’s yearning for the authenticity of coal-fired locomotives is tomorrow’s economy-obliterating megafire.

    Thirty years ago, coal trains could run without consequence through the “asbestos forest” of the San Juan Mountain high country. The drought of 2002, however, woke up the railroad’s owners to a changing world, one in which the ravages of climate change can — and will — affect even a quaint little tourist train and the quaint little town that relies on it. The railroad adjusted accordingly, having a firefighting team follow behind each train to extinguish blazes in their infancy. The 416 Fire — particularly if it is found to have been started by the train — will prove an even more brutal moment of reckoning, a grim reminder that yet more adaptation is needed.

    I had my own moment of reckoning following that unusually toasty day back in 2002 when Silverton’s economy went up in smoke for the remainder of that summer. I realized then that Silverton will never become the sanctuary from global warming that I dreamed it would. This year the point is being driven home. There is no sanctuary, not really. In one way or another, the climate catastrophe that we have wrought reaches into every corner of our planet and our lives — even at 9,318 feet.

    Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. This article was first published on June 15, 2018 by The High Country News.

    From The Farmington Daily Times:

    The 416 Fire near Durango, Colorado, reached 30 percent containment [June 18, 2018] as temperatures rose and humidity dropped.

    Firefighters don’t expect the fire to grow above the current 34,161 acres today, but say there’s a potential for things to pick up later this week.

    “Much of the fire is now in a state of smoldering and creeping, and active flames have been infrequent,” the 416 Fire team reported in Monday morning’s roundup. “Today, however, starts a weather trend that will quickly dry out fuels and re-elevate fire potential as the week goes on.”

    The fire team echoed a statement made Sunday at a community meeting in Durango: the blaze that has burned more than 50 square miles is down, but it isn’t over.

    #AnimasRiver: @EPA requests comments for interim plan for SW #Colorado mine clean up

    The Animas River in Durango, in Apri, 2018. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From The Associated Press (Dan Elliott):

    The interim plan concentrates on controlling or removing contaminants at 26 sites including campgrounds, mine waste piles, ponds and rivers. It will cost about $10 million and take up to five years, the agency said.

    Five of the locations are recreation sites where people could be exposed to arsenic or lead, the agency said.

    “EPA is interested in expediting cleanup so that we can show improvements in water quality wherever possible,” said Christina Progess, manager of the Superfund project…

    The Gold King is not on the list of 26 sites chosen for interim work. The EPA said that’s because a temporary treatment plant was installed two months after the spill and is cleaning up wastewater from the mine.

    The Superfund cleanup will eventually cover 48 mining sites, but the EPA said it chose 26 for interim work to reduce human and environmental risks while a long-term solution is studied.

    The EPA said the 26 sites have elevated levels of aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron, lead or zinc.

    Two of the recreation sites on the list are campgrounds and three are parking areas or locations where people meet for tours, the EPA said. The plan calls for covering mine waste piles and contaminated soil with gravel or plant growth to reduce human exposure and keep the contaminants from being kicked into the air.

    The other work includes dredging contaminated sediment from streams and from ponds near mine openings, and digging ditches and berms to keep water from flushing contaminants out of waste piles and into streams.

    The EPA is seeking public comment on the plan. The deadline for comments is July 16.

    @COParksWildlife closes some state wildlife areas near #Durango; others and state parks remain open #416Fire #BurroFire

    From email from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):

    To assist federal and local agencies during the current dangerous fire conditions and recently enacted public land closures, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced that some State Wildlife Areas in southwest Colorado are now closed to all public access. But in addition, several other water-based wildlife areas and two state parks remain open to the public.

    In and near Durango the Bodo, Perins Peak, Haviland Lake, Devil Creek and Williams Creek state wildlife areas are closed until further notice. In Bayfield the Lion’s Club shooting range, managed by CPW, is also closed.

    West of Durango in Dolores and Montezuma Counties, Lone Dome and Fish Creek State Wildlife Areas are also closed.

    “We regret having to enact these closures, but we do so in an effort to protect the public and protect natural resources. These measures will also help with compliance to the recent closures enacted by the U.S. Forest Service and La Plata County,” said Adrian Archuleta, a District Wildlife Manager with CPW.

    CPW also wants area residents and visitors to know that there are several other State Wildlife Areas and State Parks that remain open for recreation. CPW asks that people comply with any current local fire restrictions so that these areas can remain open for recreation.

    The areas that are open include: Echo Canyon SWA in Archuleta County; Pastorious SWA in La Plata County; in Montezuma and Dolores counties — Summit, Puett, Narraguinnep, Totten, Twin Spruce, Dolores River, Joe Moore and Ground Hog Reservoir state wildlife areas.

    Also open are Navajo State Park in Archuleta County; and Mancos State Park in Montezuma County. Both parks offer campsites, hiking, fishing and other water recreation.

    @EPA finds place near Silverton to store #GoldKingMine sludge #AnimasRiver

    The EPA’s wastewater treatment plant near Silverton, Colorado, on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2015 — photo via Grace Hood Colorado Public Radio

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    EPA officials announced last week that the agency has entered an agreement with a property owner who owns the Kittimac Tailings, a historic mine waste pile about six miles northeast of Silverton along County Road 2.

    The EPA built a $1.5 million temporary water treatment plant north of Silverton in October, three months after the agency triggered the Gold King Mine blowout, which sent a torrent of mine waste down the Animas and San Juan rivers.

    Since, the water-treatment plant has been treating and removing potentially toxic metals out of water that continues to discharge from the Gold King Mine. In April, the EPA said the mine was still leaking 450 gallons a minute.

    The water treatment plant adds lime to the mine wastewater to raise the pH of the water so that dissolved metals become solid and can settle in settling ponds – a highly effective process.

    The process, however, generates a lot of sludge. EPA has said an estimated 4,600 cubic yards of sludge is generated a year.

    The agency had been storing this sludge waste product – which is considered non-hazardous – at the site of the water treatment plant in an area known as Gladstone, about six miles north of Silverton along County Road 110.

    The EPA announced this spring, however, room was running out at Gladstone for the sludge…

    Scott Fetchenheir, a San Juan County commissioner and former miner, said Wednesday local residents are pleased to learn the EPA found a better solution to the sludge waste issue.

    “I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “But it’s almost like this big experiment.”

    The EPA has said it will mix the Gold King Mine sludge with mine tailings located at Kittimac.

    The EPA believes this will reduce high water content of the sludge, and will allow more efficient management, while at the same time immobilize heavy metals found in the tailings pile…

    The EPA said it is conducting a bench-scale testing of the sludge and tailings mixture to ensure the maximum reduction of metals leaching from the tailings. The agency plans to conduct a pilot test of this transfer process for one week in mid-June.

    The Kittimac tailings pile for years has been used illegally by dirt bikers and ATVers who have disregarded “no trespassing” signs to ride on the mine waste that looks like a pile of sand. Now that the EPA is using the site, access will be more guarded, Tookey said…

    While the short-term problem of where to put the sludge is temporarily solved, Fetchenheir said there remains the larger, more complicated matter at hand: what to do for long-term treatment of the mines draining into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River considered the worst polluter in the headwaters.

    While lime treatment plants are effective, they are also expensive to operate ($1 million a year) and have to be run in perpetuity. The EPA has yet to release its plan for long-term treatment options.

    “It’s hugely open-ended,” Fetchenheir said. “The true hope is some new technology arrives that removes metals without generating a huge amount of sludge. But I haven’t seen anything like it.”

    For now, the EPA said it will transfer the sludge via truck using the County Road 110 bypass. The agency said it hopes to reduce negative impacts, such as noise and dust suppression.

    After the pilot test in June, the EPA will resume transferring the sludge to the Kittimac tailings after the tourist season, around early fall, for a duration of about five weeks.