Metal loads in the Animas River have returned to “pre-event” levels, and at some La Plata County farms, water started to flow again Thursday. But some property owners are still waiting for test results on sediment that found its way into irrigation ditches before opening up headgates.
Crews flushed mining sediment from irrigation ditches Wednesday and Thursday afternoon as a step toward reopening the ditches, said a statement from La Plata County.
All headgates on major irrigation ditches in La Plata County were closed before a crew working for the Environmental Protection Agency accidently released 3 million gallons of tainted runoff from the Gold King Mine. But some headgates couldn’t keep all of the heavy-metal sediment out of ditches.
The county is analyzing sediment contents, and it will make an announcement about allowing irrigation Friday, said Butch Knowlton, La Plata County’s director of emergency management.
The county has provided water to residents through Crossfire during the emergency. Crossfire trucks have hauled 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of water to farmers and ranchers four or five times a day since the plume arrived in Durango, said Crossfire’s owner Ezra Lee.
For Jim Benton, on the East Mesa Ditch near Sunnyside, going without irrigation for week has already hurt his hay crop.
“This will affect my second cutting, the fact I have not had water for a week now,” he said.
The East Mesa shareholders plan to discuss opening the ditch on Sunday, he said.
The Animas Consolidated Ditch Co., in the Hermosa Valley, flushed its ditch Thursday, and it decided to give its 300 shareholders the option to irrigate with Animas River water, said Ed Zink, a board member.
The fact that metal levels in the river have dropped to normal gives Zink some confidence in his decision.
“It’s at the same level of safeness that we’ve used for the last 100 years,” he said.
He was also encouraged by the presence of small fish in the river near his ranch Monday evening.
Allowing hay farmers to irrigate could allow them to make thousands of dollars on the final cutting of their hay crop, he said.
But those who have doubt about the water can refrain from using the water.
“If there’s anybody that’s worried about it, they shouldn’t open their headgate,” he said.
The Animas Consolidated Ditch water will soon be flowing into the orchards at Honey House, said Josh Dearien, general contractor for the orchard.
Contaminated water seeped into the ditch at Honey House after the plume flowed through, and he has been pumping water from Hermosa Creek and trucking in water to keep samplings planted in the spring alive.
“I think everything will survive at this point,” Dearien said.
At Durango Nursery & Supply, owner Tom Bridge said he was still waiting to use river water. Since the pollution flowed through Durango, he has been relying on Crossfire to deliver 1,200 to 1,500 gallons of water.
Bridge didn’t want to speculate as to what metals might harm his plants most, but he plans to ask Colorado State University to do some testing before using Animas water.
City gardeners and irrigators are also still waiting for water. They have been asked to refrain from irrigating until the city decides to start treating water from Animas.
The city will not be pumping water out of the Animas until after the sediment from the irrigation ditches has passed and more testing is completed, according to a statement release Thursday.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Herald Staff Writer Chase Olivarius-McAllister contributed to this story.