The Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002 and the Gold King Mine spill in 2015 brought home just how painful disruptions in the water cycle from drought to human-made hazards can be.
Cathy Metz, director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Durango, voiced that message Friday before about 200 people at the Southwestern Water Conservation District’s annual Water Seminar at the DoubleTree Hotel.
Both the 72,000-acre fire and the spill that tinted the river orange with mine wastewater put the brakes on the whitewater rafting and river recreation economy, which, she said, was estimated in a 2006 study to bring in $19 million annually to Durango’s economy.
“People didn’t come to Durango because the air was bad,” Metz said, recounting the thick black smoke from the fire. “People in cities are used to health alerts because of bad air. We weren’t.”
Even after the blaze, which destroyed 56 homes and killed a firefighter, the watersheds got hit again after rains funneled debris from the denuded burn area into streams, creeks and rivers.
She noted the snowpack this year remains dangerously similar to conditions in 2002.
On Friday, snowpack in the Dolores, San Miguel, Animas and San Juan river basins was at 44 percent of the 30-year average, according to Colorado SNOTEL.
In August 2015, the city again suffered a blow to its water economy when an Environmental Protection Agency subcontracted crew breached the Gold King Mine, sending 3 million gallons of mine wastewater laced with heavy metals into the Animas River.
“The thing we learned from the spill,” Metz said, “is that this had been occurring for a hundred years, but we didn’t pay attention to it because it wasn’t obvious to us.”
The spill, painful as it was, led to action to begin cleaning the legacy of 19th-century hard-rock mining in the San Juan Mountains that still threatens Southwest Colorado’s watersheds.
A Superfund site, Bonita Peak Mining District, has been established to begin cleanup of mine waste.
“Sometimes when a bad thing happens, it has a good outcome for the community,” she said.
Lake Nighthorse, the latest enhancement to quality of life in Southwest Colorado, also directly depends on the health of the water cycle, Metz said.
Recreation on the reservoir, which is about 2 miles southwest of downtown Durango, is expected to generate $12 million annually for Durango’s economy, she said. On Sunday, opening day, she said, the lake attracted 800 people, overburdening the parking lot.