Animas River monitored during spring runoff

Hannah Grover
Lab analyst Jewell Kelsey measures water for testing Friday at a CH2M lab in Farmington. Local officials are increasing their monitoring of Animas River water for heavy metals as the spring runoff takes place.

FARMINGTON – As the spring runoff increases the level of the Animas River, local governments have stepped up their monitoring activities for heavy metals.

This monitoring was prompted by the Gold King Mine spill in August that left toxic sediment in the river. The New Mexico Environment Department released a spring runoff preparedness plan in February.

In the plan, the department stated that the San Juan Mountains recorded an above-average snow pack this year. But the Santa Fe New Mexican reported this week that the warm spring has led to an early snow melt, which could impact spring and summer river flows. The combination of an early snow melt and above-average snow pack has drawn the attention of local governments and state agencies.

New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary Ryan Flynn said his agency is anticipating that the level of metals in the river will increase during the spring runoff. He said the department is working closely with Aztec, Farmington, San Juan County, Navajo Nation and Utah officials to monitor the river water.

Lab analyst Donald James works Friday at a CH2M lab facility in Farmington.

David Sypher, the public works director for the city of Farmington, said the city's tests have already shown a correlation in the turbidity of the river water and the levels of heavy metals.

The water does not test in violation of safe standards, but the city is being cautious about when it pumps water from the river. Sensors at the river's intakes measure the turbidity, and intake gates are closed when the turbidity is high. During times of high turbidity, the city also takes samples of the water.

Sypher explained that the tests will validate the correlation the city already has established between turbidity and heavy metals. Those tests also will help the city prepare for future incidents, he said.

Sypher said it currently takes up to 72 hours to get water test results. The city wants to be able to make quick decisions about turning off the intakes from the river to Farmington Lake, which holds Farmington's drinking water.

"We want to make instantaneous judgments," he said.

Discolored water from the Gold King Mine spill is seen draining from the Animas River into the San Juan River on Aug. 8 at the rivers' confluence at Among the Waters Park in Farmington.

San Juan County CEO Kim Carpenter said county officials also are watching what is going on upstream in Colorado and are concerned that some of the mustard color seen in August after the spill could return to the river during the spring runoff.

"This is something that will be monitored for years to come," he said.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.