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Local businesses starting to feel the pinch from a soiled Animas River

Zalneraitis

When the Animas River is mustard yellow at the busy end of the tourist summer season, what happens?

Local rafting companies say losses are in the thousands of dollars daily.

While Mild to Wild is offering other excursions in place of rafting trips, many customers had their hearts set on rafting the Animas, said Alex Mickel, one of the founders of the company.

“It’s difficult,” he said of the situation. “It’s really disappointing.” Normally this time of year, the company is taking 150 to 200 people out on the river daily, and 230 took a trip Wednesday.

Durango Rafting Co. offers only raft and kayak tours, so the company doesn’t have other tours or activities to offer, an employee said via a shaky cell connection.

At a minimum, the mining spill in the Animas River will cause a multimillion dollar loss to the area economy, a local economic expert estimated Friday.

“This is a man-made disaster,” said Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of the La Plata County Economic Alliance. “It’s striking at the heart of what our community is all about.”

Zalneraitis was taking a walk on the river trail Friday, joining dozens of tourists and locals who were stopping to stare at the oddly colored orange water flowing by.

The alliance, which works to recruit and retain businesses in the county, will have an emergency meeting Monday to decide what the group should do in regard to the spill.

While the rafting and kayak businesses are obviously impacted, the ripples in the economy from the spill will spread beyond the Durango area, Zalneraitis said. He said he already has heard from a person who is canceling plans to buy a second home in Durango.

“We’ll try to figure out what we can and ought to do to help the situation,” Zalneraitis said.

Options include supporting “Good Samaritan” legislation that would have allowed groups to clean up sources of pollution that are fouling the area’s waterways.

If such legislation had been enacted 10 years ago, for example, “we would have a less of a chance of seeing something like this,” he said, nodding at the river.

A handful of visitors are canceling their trips entirely, but many have been willing to switch from a rafting trip to a Jeep tour, said Bruce Moss, owner of Gateway Durango Reservations.

So far, none of his clients has canceled their train reservations on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, even though it travels to and from Silverton along the Animas River.

“It’s just a different color of river, that’s all,” he said, only half-joking.

This isn’t the first time Moss has had to deal with an unexpected crisis.

“We’ve had fires, lack of snow, rain, but this is a new one,” he said.

“There is some light at the end of the tunnel,” Moss added. In mid-August, rafting isn’t necessarily as popular as other events. “If this were the first of July, we would really be seeing the impact.”

This is also the weekend for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Colorado to host 32 anglers from across the country for the Dos Mosca fly-fishing tournament, which raises money for the group.

This year, the anglers were going to be divided up between the lower Animas and the Pine rivers, so the Animas group moved to other creeks in the area.

“Hats off to John Flick, the owner of Duranglers,” which arranged the fishing for the tournament, said Tracy Cornutt, Big Brothers executive director.

While her group was able to move quickly to change their plans, “it’s an absolute shame,” Cornutt said of the spill. “Not for us but the river in general.”

At the DoubleTree Hotel in Durango, the spill hadn’t resulted in increased cancellations so far, said Peter Marshall, the hotel’s general manager.

“I think it’s too early to tell” the impact, he said. But the river “is one of many things (visitors) take advantage of while they’re here.”

Help for local businesses

The La Plata County Economic Development Alliance said it has contacted state and federal elected officials in Colorado and New Mexico to identify resources to assist local businesses and sole proprietors who have been or will be affected. If your business has been affected or you know businesses, farmers or proprietors who have, call 259-1700 or email roger@yeslpc.com. The Alliance will hold a board meeting Monday to discuss ways to help businesses.

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