Was the Gold King Mine spill a story of triumph or tragedy? Certainly, it was a turning point for the community and sparked more active management of historic mines responsible for polluting the watershed.
What about runoff from the 416 Fire burn scar that turned Hermosa Creek and the Animas River black with ash. Was that a tragedy?
Sixth grade students at Escalante Middle School explored complex questions about river management over the course of a semester in science, social studies and language arts classes.
For Madison Scales, 11, fire and subsequent runoff is a tragedy for the river.
“The flooding erodes the soil, and it can cause a lot of flash flooding and mudslides,” she said.
Ash from fire changes the pH of water, causing fish to go into shock and killing them, she said. But fire is also a necessary component of forest health to clear old trees.
Historical mining at the headwaters of the Animas proved unpopular among some students.
“Mining, I think, is one of the biggest polluters to our watershed,” said Hadley Thompson, 12.
The Gold King Mine spill in 2015 brought pollution from historical mines to the local forefront for the communities along the Animas and San Juan rivers.
“When the river turned Technicolor-orange, it really illustrated the connections up and down the watershed from Silverton all the way to Lake Powell,” said Marcie Bidwell, executive director of Mountain Studies Institute. The spill didn’t do any lasting environmental damage. But it did help residents take ownership of the watershed and lead to a Superfund designation including 48 mining-related sites.
The 416 Fire is expected to have far more lasting impacts on the watershed, where mud and debris are expected to flow into the river for years to come, she said.
Teaching students about the watershed is a key part of preparing them to help manage and protect the watershed, she said.
“We need to learn how to live with fire and these other disturbances and prepare our watershed to be resilient,” Bidwell said.
In-depth study of the river at Escalante was inspired by fish die-offs last year in the Animas River caused by ash runoff from the 416 Fire. Hundreds of fish washed up along the river near the school, said Emily Polster, a sixth grade language arts teacher.
“We were super-compelled to have the kids learn more about the river,” she said.
Learning about the Animas and Colorado river watershed also fits into the school’s expeditionary learning model, which focuses on locally relevant subjects.
By learning about a big topic such as the health of a watershed in multiple classes, it ensures lessons will stick in students’ long-term memory, Polster said.
Students tackled the topic by drawing huge, extensive maps of the Animas and Colorado watershed in science class. They also read excepts from the “River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster,” a book by local author Jonathan P. Thompson, to help understand the issues.
Students capped off their study by discussing how to protect the river and writing essays about mining, recreation, and fire and flooding on the river.
Some students would like to see more fire mitigation and prevention to help prevent blazes like the 416 Fire.
“If we enforce more fire safety, we can keep the river clean and fresh,” Madison said.
Students would also like to see more rules to protect the river from overuse and pollution from mining.
“If we use the water responsibly,” Madison said, “we have earned our birthright to water.”