It’s been a rough couple of years for the Animas River.
This weekend marks three years since the river, which runs through the heart of Durango, endured a massive mine waste spill from a blowout at the Gold King Mine. The waterway turned an electric orange and gained international attention.
The Aug. 5, 2015, spill brought to the forefront the longstanding issue of toxic metals leeching into the Animas River from legacy mining in its headwaters around Silverton.
This year has been an especially vicious dagger into the Animas.
A winter that never showed up in the San Juan Mountains resulted in one of the lowest snowpack years in recorded history. Then, through spring and early summer, extreme drought tightened its stranglehold on Southwest Colorado.
The Animas River saw its third lowest peak flow in more than 100 years of recorded history, and one of its earliest, hitting a high of about 1,000 cubic feet per second in May. Typically, the river peaks at about 4,700 cfs in early June.
Fish and other aquatic life were already stressed from low flows and high water temperatures when ash runoff from the 416 Fire burn scar came tumbling down north of Durango.
The dark-chocolate colored waters suffocated fish, which desperately washed ashore seeking oxygen. Though an official population survey won’t be conducted until this fall, it’s estimated thousands of fish died.
A raw sewage spill last week at Santa Rita Park was an extra twist of the dagger.
For some perspective, it’s likely aquatic life is either all but gone or dramatically depleted through the entire 126-mile stretch of the river from the headwaters in Silverton, down through Durango to the Animas’ confluence with the San Juan River in Farmington.
In recent years, the river from Silverton to Bakers Bridge (about 15 miles north of Durango) has been basically considered a dead zone because of toxic metal-loading from leeching mines.
The ash flows during the month of July killed most of the fish in the river through Durango. Even the most tolerant species – carp – was found dead along the river’s banks.
Fish in this stretch of the Animas River have been unable to reproduce because of a combination of factors, such as high water temperature and mining pollution. The fish that do live in the river are stocked by Colorado Fish and Wildlife.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe declined to comment about how fish are doing in the Animas through tribal lands. Attempts to reach a biologist with New Mexico Fish and Game were unsuccessful. The Animas, however, has all but dried up before it reaches the San Juan River.
“It’d be unusual if everything was dead, but it’s probably to the point where it’s virtually that way,” said Jim White, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
But despite the onslaught of doom and gloom, there is reason to be optimistic: Rivers are resilient, and steps are finally being taken to make significant strides in the cleanup of the Animas River.
After the Gold King Mine spill, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (which triggered the blowout while working at the inactive mine) declared a long-awaited Superfund listing, which will clean up nearly 50 mining sites around the Animas River headwaters.
Already, a temporary water-treatment plant built in 2015 has shown improvement in water quality downstream, said EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Peterson, though it’s too soon to know its effect on aquatic life.
“In the future, long-term monitoring at multiple sites downstream of Silverton will be used to assess the benefits of site-related actions, including the interim water-treatment plant, over time,” Peterson said.
While ash flows have decimated fish populations, research has shown aquatic species rebound quickly after wildfires, said Scott Roberts, an aquatic biologist for Mountain Studies Institute.
“Between one and five years, it seems like aquatic life tends to recover depending on severity of burn and topography,” Roberts said. “It seems highly likely these events will occur for several years. But hopefully, they’ll have less of an impact over time.”
As an unforeseen benefit, the purging of fish in the Animas will actually allow wildlife officials to reassess the way they manage populations and stocking.
“We may have an opportunity to re-establish a better balance of rainbow and brown trout,” White said.
The Animas River is no stranger to defilement and pollution. For years after Western settlement in the late 1800s, the river was essentially used as a sewer.
Miners in Silverton disregarded any care for the river, routinely dumping mine waste and tailings into the waterway as standard matter of practice. Ranchers, too, would flush dead livestock downstream.
Water quality was so bad, and miners refused to change their ways, that the city of Durango was forced to change its water source to an entirely different river.
“Only a few short years ago, and it was a puzzle to understand why the Spaniards named the Animas River ‘The River of Lost Souls,’ but looking into its polluted waters now, it is easy to understand that it was an inspiration that moved them,” The Durango Wage Earner wrote in 1902. “If lost souls could have any worse water to use than those of the Animas, we can hardly conceive how it could be.”
But even from its lowest low, the Animas River has rebounded.
Mike Japhet, who went on to work for Colorado Parks and Wildlife as an aquatic biologist for more than 30 years, first arrived in Durango at one of these major turning points.
In 1975, a tailings pond at the Sunnyside Mill breached, triggering a massive fish kill and turning the river gray. Three years later, miners drove a tunnel too close to the bottom of Lake Emma, causing the lake to break through and sending a torrent of black water downstream.
“Everyone looked at the river as a lost cause back then,” Japhet said.
But Japhet took locals’ fatalistic pessimism as a challenge. Driven in part by the growing environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the Animas River started to go through a “renaissance,” Japhet said.
Wildlife officials started exploring different tactics to try to find out how fish could survive and discovered trout could survive if stocked as fingerlings in certain sections of the waterway in Durango.
The fish weren’t able to reproduce, but it was a step in the right direction. Over time, the stretch of river from Lightner Creek to behind Home Depot was designated a “Gold Medal fishery” by the state of Colorado.
Cleanup took even greater strides in the 1990s, when the Animas River Stakeholders Group started working on the basin. A water-treatment plant operated by Sunnyside Gold Corp. had the river probably at its cleanest since before Westerners arrived.
“But that all changed around 2005 or so,” Japhet said.
In 2004, Sunnyside Gold’s water-treatment plant shut down, and the impacts to aquatic life were immediate. Then, more mine waste started to spill out of mines located on Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River known for being the worst metal-loader in the basin.
“Fish populations have dropped quite a bit since the early 2000s with more metals coming down,” said Peter Butler with the Animas River Stakeholders Group. “And that’s because the metals interfere with their breathing in their gills.”
It’s likely some fish survived last month’s ash flow by taking refuge in side streams or springs.
After Colorado Parks and Wildlife surveys fish populations this fall, wildlife officials will decide how to restock trout. White doesn’t want to restock fish only to have them killed by another ash runoff.
Native fish, too, such as bluehead and flannelmouth suckers, will likely work their way back into the river.
“Even if it was a complete kill in the Animas … it will slowly begin to rebuild,” White said. “But it will be lean for a few years.”
Rivers across the country are at the same time vulnerable, yet incredibly resilient. The EPA estimates that more than half the nation’s waterways are in poor condition for aquatic life.
The Animas River, which picked up the moniker “The River of Lost Souls” throughout its history, is no different.
“If it’s one thing I learned over the years, it’s that nature is resilient and it’ll surprise you that things can come back from things that look like a fatal blow,” Japhet said. “While I’m bummed out, I’m not super pessimistic. My hope for the future is we’ll get water quality improved.”