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Animas River alert system to use sensors, river spotters

Residents can receive river notifications through CodeRED
San Juan Basin Health Department Water Program Manager Brian Devine, right, and Marcie Bidwell, with the Mountain Studies Institute, sample water from the Animas River in May. San Juan Basin Health Department staff members worked on the Animas River Alert and Notification Plan, and they are helping with ongoing river monitoring.

New sensors and more human eyes on the Animas River are keys to a new plan to alert public officials about emergencies, such as flooding, landslides and major releases of pollution from historic mines above Silverton.

The Durango City Council unanimously adopted the Animas River Alert and Notification Plan on Tuesday. La Plata County, San Juan County, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, regional health departments and others collaborated on the plan. The idea for the plan emerged in the weeks following the Gold King Mine blowout, said Tom McNamara, La Plata County emergency management coordinator.

A crew of EPA personnel and hired contractors accidently triggered the release of 3 million gallons of acidic mine wastewater on Aug. 5, 2015, but they did not have cellphone service or satellite radios to alert others.

If this plan had been in place, officials may have had a few additional hours notice, McNamara said.

The U.S. Geological Survey installed sensors in March and April that measure indicators such as water acidity, cloudiness and temperature. If any of these indicators reach concerning levels, local researchers receive alerts in the form of text messages, emails and phone calls, to go check the condition of the river in person.

In addition to automated notifications from these sensors, river spotters will be trained to alert officials when they see major changes in the river.

These people will likely include law enforcement, river guides and people who operate irrigation ditches on the north end of the Animas Valley.

“We really want folks who know the river well and who have a good idea of what’s normal and what’s not,” McNamara said.

Call lists were also pre-built into the Durango-La Plata Emergency Communications Center’s CodeRED system to send out notifications to all the right officials.

“It’s essentially one click to get the information out to those people,” he said.

The public can also sign up for the alerts through the CodeRED system. Users must opt in to receive Animas River alerts.

In other action, the Council also approved a compromise for the management of the Oxbow Preserve, without any discussion.

The perimeter trail around the 38-acre preserve will be open year-round, but bicycles and dogs will be banned. The interior of the preserve will be closed to help protect the birds.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

Animas River Alert Plan (PDF)

River notification system

To sign up for notifications about Animas River emergencies visit http://bit.ly/1TeYkRB

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