A small but notable crowd of mostly Hermosa Valley residents were briefed on the water quality of the Animas River on Wednesday night at the Animas Valley Grange Hall.
Ann Oliver of the Animas Watershed Partnership and Peter Butler of the Animas River Stakeholders Group were slated to speak at the Grange’s series of lectures even before the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine blowout sent about 3 million gallons of acid mine water drainage down the Animas River.
“Little did we know how really timely it was, unfortunately,” said Oliver.
Oliver presented loads of data and studies on the Animas watershed conducted by a series of groups in response to the steady degradation of the river’s water quality.
She said the headwaters of the Animas were found to be impaired for metals that affect aquatic life, and the section has not supported fish populations in recent history. The impairment continues downstream between Silverton and Bakers Bridge and shows high levels of zinc.
Further downstream, Bakers Bridge to the northern border of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe was determined to have impairment of water-supply use, but Oliver said that’s mostly an aesthetic standard caused by magnesium clouding the water.
South of the border, from Aztec until the Animas headwaters reach the San Juan River, E. coli and other potentially harmful nutrients are so high – paired with elevated water temperatures – that recreational and aquatic uses are all impaired.
She said the presence of E. coli doesn’t necessarily mean the river is dangerous. Instead, it is used as an indicator for the potential of infectious diseases.
“The most surprising find was the highest contributor were humans,” she said.
Butler provided a quick snapshot on the contribution mine waste has had on pollution into the Animas River. He said 60 remediation projects have been carried out in recent years. More than half of the projects were done by mining companies, about a quarter by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, and the rest by the Animas River Stakeholders Group.
But despite all that work, the Animas continues to suffer from heavy metal contaminants.
“Cement Creek has gotten a lot worse,” Butler said. “Because of that, it has offset all other gains in other areas, and as a result, we’ve seen a degradation in the water quality down to Bakers Bridge.”
For many Hermosa Valley residents who irrigate with Animas water, much of the conversation before the meeting focused on what the long-term impact will be on watering cattle or irrigating land.
Butler said because regulators set very strict standards on metal level counts for aquatic life – which are the most sensitive to pollution – other uses such as recreation and agriculture have not been addressed in quite some time.
“The aquatic life standards drive all water quality standards in all rivers and streams,” he said. “I think that is an issue. What metal concentrations would be bad for agriculture if you’re irrigating day after day has not been examined in a regulatory process. The state standards for protecting agricultural uses have changed very little over a number of decades. I think the research is woefully out of date.”