New water quality monitoring systems have been installed at three gauges in the Animas River basin in response to the Gold King Mine spill.
The new technology was placed at three existing U.S. Geological Survey stations on: Cement Creek above Silverton; the Animas River just below Silverton; and the Animas River in Durango near the Powerhouse Science Center.
Brian Devine of the San Juan Basin Health Department said the strategic placement of the new monitoring systems will help researchers better understand the watershed.
The gauge at Cement Creek will show loading out of the worst part of the mining district; the gauge below Silverton will collect discharges out of the entire mining district; and the gauge in Durango will show how water quality has changed down the valley.
The systems, which previously measured only stream flow, now can collect data for the water’s pH level, temperature, conductance (the degree to which it can conduct electricity) and turbidity.
The new data can be used as indicators for any changes in the watershed, Devine said. For instance, if the water reaches a pH of 5.3 or less, that information is a good predictor of when total metals will convert to dissolved and become a more toxic form as it heads toward Durango.
Real time monitoring of levels can be viewed online at the USGS website and are updated every 5 to 10 minutes.
The data not only will help public officials monitor the safety of the river, Devine said, the data will also help paint a better portrait of water quality in the Animas as long-term data are gathered.
Recently, the Colorado Department of Public Heath and Environment released two threshold levels in the basin. If the Cement Creek gauge hits a conductance of 1,465 µs/cm or the gauge just below Silverton records a pH of 5.3 or less, a health official will inspect and decide if any further alerts are warranted.
“This is a part of the long-term monitoring plan they (community in the watershed) had envisioned for the future,” said Chris Theel with the state’s water quality control division.
As more data is collected from the three gauges, and researchers are able to discern patterns between high levels and water quality, more thresholds may be established.
“Developing thresholds take a fair amount of data to create a correlation between instantaneous data and in-stream metal concentrations,” Theel explained. “We plan to use data now and from the end of this year to take a look at further correlation analysis.”
The project was funded as part of a $2 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor the entire Animas and San Juan basins. A total of $465,000 was allocated to the state of Colorado.
Also included in the funding is regular water quality sampling on a weekly basis, conducted by the San Juan Basin Health Department.
The project brought together three states, two Native American tribes, the EPA and several health departments.
“This incident sparked this gripping interest of long-term monitors,” said Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Health Department, who added that the department does not expect spring runoff to add additional health and environmental risks.
“And frankly, we hadn’t had this come to the front of people’s attention until the Gold King Mine spill. This whole event flipped a light switch that there’s a need to do additional work here.”