Unseasonably warm weather has prompted health officials to offer tips to recreationists on the Animas River as higher water levels stir lingering sediment of 880,000 pounds of metals dumped into the river in August 2015.
San Juan Basin Health Department’s Claire Ninde said the recent spring-like temperatures, which are forecast to continue into March, has the river running high.
“So we just wanted to get ahead of it,” she said.
Every spring, snowmelt surges into the Animas, bringing with it naturally occurring sediments as well as heavy metals from mine waste, and on occasion, changing the color of the river.
But this year is different. On Aug. 5 last year, an Environmental Protection Agency crew breached the Gold King Mine portal, about 10 miles north of Silverton. The spill turned the Animas orange, and though the river returned to its normal shades of blue not long after, concerns remained about heavy-metal laden sediment which contains cadmium, lead and arsenic.
“Sediment left behind from the Gold King Mine has a noticeable yellow-orange color but is otherwise similar to the naturally occurring sediment that is present every spring as water levels rise,” Ninde said. “Exposure to both water and sediment is not expected to harm human health during typical recreational exposure.”
The San Juan Basin Health Department recommends that river users wash with soap and water after exposure, avoid extended contact, supervise children to limit exposure, properly treat water before consumption and rinse fishing and boating equipment after use.
“San Juan Basin Health Department advises the public to avoid areas with orange sediment or discolored standing water,” Ninde added.
According to a news release, the health department, along with state and local partners, is establishing a regular monitoring system of river levels.
Joe Lewandowski, spokesman with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said this spring runoff wouldn’t be different than years past when it comes to fish.
“Fish in the Animas have been swimming in water that has had metal contamination for years, and they’re still safe to eat,” Lewandowski said. “Most people catch and release, but there are people who keep fish out of the Animas.”
Lewandowski said fishing isn’t common during spring runoff because of the danger of high water levels and the difficulty of catching fish when the river is moving that fast.
Peter Butler with the Animas River Stakeholders Group said earlier this month that he’s not too concerned about spring runoff and the potential spike in metals from stirred-up sediment.
“Usually, the lowest metal concentrations we see throughout the year are during spring runoff, and that’s because you have so much dilution. So I’m not really expecting an issue.”
Rafting and fishing expedition companies, too, have told The Durango Herald they don’t expect the spill to deter tourists.
EPA previously said in a prepared statement it intends to monitor the river before, during and after spring runoff.