The Animas River flows into Durango like the vena cava into the heart, carrying our lifeblood, sustaining our way of life. But the river is sick, and it is getting sicker every day.
A giving waterway, the Animas has silently borne demands placed on it ever since the first settlers populated its banks. Native inhabitants of the region, by contrast, used it little.
First came hard-rock miners exploiting the immense riches of the San Juan Mountains in the 1860s. Later, mining produced radioactive tailings from uranium milling. The wounds left by mining still bleed contaminants into the Animas. In fact, toxic discharges have worsened in recent years, raising the specter of a major federal cleanup effort.
Less alarming, but still of growing concern, are wastes – herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, pet excrement – that ooze from the region's growing population like sweat from pores.
Then there is our thirst and the water siphoned to slake it.
At the same time, thousands of people depend on the Animas for their livelihoods: row-crop farmers, cattlemen, rafting guides, Denver water-law attorneys, water agency employees, real estate developers, resort owners and employees.
In the end, the river we look on as stolid, stalwart and eternal has been changed profoundly by us. And in the process, so has the broader ecosystem on which all life depends.
So taking as an assumption that heart and blood, this population and its river, will continue to exist together, how do we keep the body – and all its interdependent parts – healthy? Is such a balance even possible, or like a human life, must it inevitably wear out?
These issues will be explored in this four-day series, as will the thoughts of people who have been probing the many challenges facing the Animas River.
Superfund site or not?
In 1994, the Animas River Stakeholders Group, a cross-section of people interested in reversing the deteriorating quality of the river, was formed.
The immediate goal was to keep the federal Environmental Protection Agency from declaring most of San Juan County to the north a Superfund site.
Superfund is short for Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. The legislation, enacted by Congress in 1980, authorizes government to intervene when public health or the environment is threatened by harmful substances.
Stakeholders reasoned they could fend off Superfund designation if they took the initiative to improve the water quality in the Animas. They successfully carried out numerous projects in conjunction with local, state and federal agencies.
But the Environmental Protection Agency again is studying whether the old Gladstone mining area is eligible for Superfund designation. This is where 800 gallons a minute of contaminated water are escaping from adits, the mouths of horizontal tunnels going into mines. Earlier agreements providing for treatment to reduce the seepage fell apart in 2004, and now the mines are leaking unabated.
Proponents of the Superfund designation feel it is needed for progress to occur, but opponents worry it would attach a stigma to the area that would be economically damaging.
The distress the upper Animas River finds itself in today perhaps can be epitomized best by the history of the Sunnyside Mine, which operated on and off for a century starting in the late 1800s.
In 1978, Lake Emma, under which miners had bored the Sunnyside tunnel, collapsed. The ensuing torrent of water spewed timbers, equipment and tons of debris from the mine. Miraculously, no lives were lost because it occurred on a weekend.
When Sunnyside Mining Co. closed its operations in Silverton in 1991, it was facing an annual expense of $800,000 to treat 1,200 to 1,600 gallons a minute of contaminated waste.
Instead, the company negotiated a court decree with the state to install bulkheads to plug draining adits.
Todd Hennis, who has an ownership stake in a couple of the leaking mines, said that agreement in the mid-'90s was a grievous error because it allowed a $5 million bond to be returned to Sunnyside despite the potential for future contamination.
Later contracts with other companies to treat waste didn't work out, and since 2004, contaminants have been flowing freely from the mines.
The water quality of the Animas at Bakers Bridge (at the north end of the lower Animas Valley) is at a 20-year low, said Peter Butler, a member of the stakeholders group and chairman of the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission. So low, in fact, it fails to meet state standards for aquatic life.
Jim White, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife fish biologist, said surveys show dramatic decreases in fish populations between Bakers Bridge and Silverton between 2005 and 2010.
Even brook trout, which are more tolerant of poor water conditions than rainbows or brown trout, were scarcer or disappeared at the four test sites, White said.
Pollution from the mines is the most likely cause of the decrease, White said.
“What else points to the problem?” White asked.
In contrast, in the Animas at Howardsville above the confluence of Cement and Mineral creeks where the contaminates are leaking, fish numbers improved, White said.
Intervention can make a difference.
Fish numbers increased dramatically between the late 1980s and 2009 in small streams where remediation projects were conducted, White said.
Zinc is by far the most serious contaminant because of its concentration, Butler said. Lead and cadmium, which are more toxic, aren't found in such concentrations.
The concentration of heavy metals around the headwaters of the river at Animas Forks means that part of the river probably is inhospitable, Butler said.
“I doubt that Cement and Mineral creeks ever supported aquatic life,” Butler said. “There is too much natural presence of metals such as iron, aluminum, zinc and cadmium.
“The question is 'How much more metal did mining add?' It would depend on the specific metal and how much of it,” he said.
Officials said that Animas water from Trimble Lane through Durango does meet state standards and provided assurances that the level of metals present there is not a threat to humans.
“The concentrations are much too low to affect people, Butler said.
But mining waste is not the only threat to water quality in the Animas.
Nutrients are essential for plant and animal growth but too much degrades waterways.
Nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers, leaking sewers, wastewater treatment plants and storm drains can create algae blooms that rob oxygen from aquatic life.
“Nutrients are a top concern for the EPA,” Butler said. “They could be for us, too.”
Nonetheless, no firm standards exist for nutrients and it was only this year that the EPA released a framework to help states and Native American tribes establish them. Presently, only 17 states have specific regulations, and Colorado is not among them.
A hearing to address the matter will be held by Butler's commission in March.
Nutrient studies on the Animas show who is contributing and where, said Chris Peltz, research coordinator for the Mountain Studies Institute. This information will be important as officials move forward with establishing thresholds.
Like everything related to the river, the process will try to balance myriad interests that are diverse and at times competing.