Something in the water: Trying to get a handle on E. coli issues in the #SanJuanRiver, #AnimasRiver — The #Durango Telegraph

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

From The Durango Telegraph (Jonathan Romeo):

“We know who pooped in the river, now we’re trying to figure out where it’s coming from,” Alyssa Richmond said as she took a sample of water recently from the muddy San Juan River, in the blazing high desert outside Farmington.

Richmond is coordinator for the San Juan Watershed Group, a collection of local agencies and volunteers working to improve water quality on the San Juan River as it runs through northern New Mexico. The group’s ultimate goal, Richmond said, is to have the stretch of river meet national water quality standards. But as it stands, it’s not going well.

Among a plethora of water-quality issues that include mine pollution, urban runoff and rising water temperatures amid an increasing drought, is the issue of E. coli contamination. A naturally occurring bacteria that lives in all humans and animal stools, E. coli can contaminate ground and surface water, and lead to health implications.

For at least the past 10 years, researchers have launched a full-scale investigation to better understand E. coli issues up and down the San Juan River watershed, from high up in the San Juan Mountains to its major tributary, the Animas River, to stretches that run into the Navajo Nation.

Early results are not encouraging: the EPA’s standard for acceptable E. coli levels is 126 colony-forming units (CFU) per 100 milliliters. In stretches of the San Juan River through Farmington, water samples taken this summer exceeded nearly 1,500 CFUs. “We didn’t expect it to be as high as it was,” Richmond said on a sampling day in late August. “It was shocking.”

But it’s not all doom and poop. The San Juan Watershed Group’s efforts will ultimately help inform where cleanup projects should be focused to achieve the highest improvement in water health. And, all up and down the watershed, even to the highest reaches of the Animas River around Silverton, there is a concerted push to face E. coli issues head on.

“The good news is everyone agrees there should be no human poop in the water,” said San Juan Citizens Alliance’s Animas Riverkeeper Marcel Gaztambide, who probably never thought he’d have to make so obvious a statement to the local paper. “And it’s an issue of concern, so it’s good we’re talking about it now.”

Defecation detectives

E. coli is a difficult contaminant to fully contextualize because not only is it naturally occurring, it is also one of the most common bacteria. It can come from livestock as well as wildlife like elk, deer, birds, beaver – pretty much any animal that poops. And to complicate matters further, only some strains of the bacteria are harmful to human health.

In the early 2010s, however, researchers knew high E. coli levels were an issue in the San Juan River in northern New Mexico, but the question was, who was the main culprit? After conducting two years of microbial source testing, which not only shows the level of E. coli but also pinpoints the exact source, the results were not what researches were expecting. It came back that the largest contributors were … drumroll, please … humans.

In fact, test results showed human feces in 70 to 100 percent of samples taken from the Animas River at the Colorado-New Mexico state line down to the border of the Navajo Nation.

With the guilty party exposed, funding was again secured to take the investigation a step further this summer by understanding where exactly the human waste was coming from, Richmond said. It’s a process that’s rather simple, by testing upstream and downstream of suspected source points, and then seeing where the spikes in E. coli levels occur. And already, there are some potential smoking guns: failing septic tanks from homes and development, outdated wastewater treatment plants and illegal RV dumping.

What the sampling has also shown, Richmond said, is the high E. coli levels aren’t necessarily coming from upstream communities in Durango and elsewhere. Instead, early results indicate the highest spikes happen in and around Farmington…

It’s a watershed moment

But that doesn’t necessarily mean upstream communities are swimming in sparkling clean waters.

The Animas River, for instance, has issues all its own. Remember that EPA standard of 126 cfu/100 mL? Well, one study conducted by Fort Lewis College in October 2018 found E. coli levels in the Animas at Santa Rita Park, near the Whitewater Park (close your eyes kayakers and surfers) at 226 CFUs. Bare in mind, this was before the completion of the City’s new water reclamation facility in December 2019…

Over in the Florida River, which runs into the Animas about 18 miles south of Durango, progress is also being made, said Warren Rider, coordinator for the Animas Watershed Partnership, which focuses on water quality issues on the Colorado side of the border.

The Florida River for years has exceeded safety standards for E. coli and accounts for nearly a quarter of the bacteria and nutrients dumped into the Animas River before the state line. In a bit of a shock, the Florida was delisted last year, but that was mostly due to a lack of data, researchers say.

While natural sources do account for a portion of contamination in the Florida, agriculture and livestock operations also contribute a good amount of harmful bacteria. As a result, Rider said the Animas Watershed Partnership has tried to work with landowners to fence off waterways to livestock and reestablish vegetation along stream banks…

Up in the high country

And no one has forgotten about the highest reaches of the watershed atop the San Juan Mountains, where an unprecedented increase in recreation, and therefore human waste, has been well noted and nosed in the past year or so.

This summer, the U.S. Forest Service and Mountain Studies Institute partnered to test heavily trafficked recreation areas for E. coli. Colleen Magee-Uhlik, a forest ambassador with MSI, said areas with high use of recreation showed much higher concentrations than locations with little human impact.

In the obvious case study, South Mineral Creek – that of Ice Lakes fame – water samples taken above the highest areas of recreation tested at about 22 CFUs. Farther downstream, in a location that would catch all the cumulative impacts of recreation and camping, samples were more than four times as high, at nearly 90 CFUs. (And, it should be noted, South Mineral was closed this year because of fire damage, which likely means levels would be even higher if people were in the area)…

Christie Chatterley, Fort Lewis College assistant professor of physics and engineering, said in the popular backpacking spot Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness, a student-led research program also found high levels of E. coli in streams. FLC has plans to conduct microbial source testing to see exactly where the bacteria is coming from, but Chatterley said it’s probably safe to assume hikers and campers…

So what can be done?

For starters, using best practices in the high country, such as burying waste 6 to 8 inches deep and 200 feet away from water, and packing out toilet paper can go a long way. This message is even more important as record numbers of people visit the backcountry, many without a working knowledge of how to protect the very landscape they come to enjoy.

Farther downstream, upgrading septic tanks is seen as another obvious target. Brian Devine, with San Juan Basin Public Health, said new septic regulations require people selling their homes to have septic systems inspected. In 2020 alone, more than 500 systems were inspected, which led to many leeching septic tanks being fixed. “It’s resulting in systems getting repaired,” he said. Richmond, with the San Juan Watershed Group, said agencies are working with New Mexico health officials to tackle failing and outdated septic systems as well.

And, the city of Durango’s Biggs said the Clean Water Act continues to push water quality standards. “The Clean Water Act has really improved water quality, and the Animas would be a testament to that,” he said. “And everyone benefits, including our downstream users.”

So yes, there’s no quick and easy fix to E. coli issues in the Animas and San Juan rivers, but all these efforts are folded into the long history of communities along the watershed, and the responsibilities they have to one another, Biggs said. It’s an issue that dates back to the 1800s when Silverton would send down water contaminated by mining operations to Durango, and a few decades later, when Durango’s uranium pile sat along the banks of the Animas River, only to be swept downstream.

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

Prolonged #drought results in record-low flows on #AnimasRiver — The Durango Herald #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

All week, the Animas River has recorded record lows at a gauge station in Durango, which has been tracking flows on the river for 107 years.

On Thursday, for instance, the Animas River was reportedly running at 117 cubic feet per second – under the previous record low of 138 cfs in 1957 and far below the average of 447 cfs for this time of year.

The low flows on the Animas River come as no surprise as the region has been gripped by a prolonged drought.

Since January, a weather station at Durango-La Plata County Airport has recorded just 5 inches or so of precipitation, a 7-inch departure from historic averages at the site.

On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor released a report that showed all of La Plata County engulfed in the “extreme” and “exceptional” drought categories, the center’s highest listings for dryness in a region.

West Drought Monitor October 6, 2020.

And, several weather stations in the headwaters of the Animas River recorded the lowest precipitation levels in August and September based on about 40 years of record keeping.

“The combination of an extremely dry spring, lack of a monsoon and above-average summer and fall temperatures has resulted in very low flows on the Animas River,” said Ashley Nielson, a senior hydrologist with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center…

Becky Bollinger, a research associate with the Colorado Climate Center, said 2020’s water year was the third-driest on record, behind only the infamous drought years of 2002 and 2018…

The high country of the San Juan Mountains received about normal snowpack this winter, but it melted fast and early. On top of that, soils were so dry they absorbed more water than usual.

San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan Basin High/Low graph May 14, 2020 via the NRCS.

One issue that concerns Bollinger is that the atmosphere is so dry, it is causing rapid evaporation of what little moisture there is – called evaporative demand…

Bollinger wonders whether a lack of monsoons in Colorado is the new normal.

“This is the fourth year in a row we have not gotten the benefits of monsoon moisture,” she said. “It’s concerning to think that might be a trend. Or is it just really bad luck? I don’t know the answer to that right now.”

[…]

As of this week, Vallecito and Lemon reservoirs were at about 24% and 27% capacity. Ken Beck, superintendent of the Pine River Irrigation District, said in an email to constituents that outflows were reduced to 5 cfs on Thursday…

The main concern for water managers is whether the upcoming winter will bring enough snowpack to replenish reservoirs. In previous drought years, such as 2018, the next winter brought heavy snowfall.

But meteorologists say the region may be stuck in a La Niña cycle, which typically means less snow for Southwest Colorado. That could result in less water for livestock and municipalities, and spell disaster for next year’s wildfire season.

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

#Runoff news: @USBR is expecting below a normal season on the #AnimasRiver #snowpack

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

“I think, unfortunately, it’s one of those years that’s kind of a bummer,” said Ashley Nielson, a senior hydrologist with the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center. “Everything is going to be below average.”

Animas River Basin SNOTEL snowpack graph May 3, 2020 via the NRCS.

Snowpack in the San Juan Mountains this winter hovered near historic averages, according to Snotel sites, which track snow depth.

But Snotel sites tell only part of the story.

For one, there are a limited number of sites in the basin. And this year, elevations above most Snotel sites around 11,000 feet didn’t receive as much snow as usual.

To make matters worse, drought conditions last summer and fall caused the ground to dry up significantly, so soil likely will absorb more snowmelt than normal, at the expense of rivers and streams.

As a result, the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center predicts the Animas River will receive about 70% of the water it usually does in spring, Nielson said.

The forecast center also predicts the Animas River likely will hit a peak flow of 2,300 to 2,500 cubic feet per second, though as much as 3,000 cfs is possible…

As of Friday, Snotel records show Southwest Colorado’s snowpack is melting at an accelerated rate: Snowpack in the San Juans is 70% of normal historic averages for this time of year.

Jarrod Biggs, assistant utilities director for the city of Durango, said a heavy snowpack year in the winter of 2018-19 provided good storage for the town’s reservoir, which should help water reserves during a below-normal runoff.

The city of Durango gets most of its water from the Florida River and supplements supply from the Animas River when demand increases…

Water is not being pulled from the Animas River to Lake Nighthorse this year, said Russ Means, general manager of the reservoir, as crews work on the intake structure across from Santa Rita Park.

On Friday, the Animas River was running at 1,700 cfs, which is 25% higher than average for this time of year, said Frank Kugel, director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.