States, tribes release preparedness plan

Hannah Grover
Discolored water from the Animas River mixes with the San Juan River on Aug. 8, 2015, in the aftermath of the Gold King Mine spill.

FARMINGTON – New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, the Navajo Nation and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe released a plan Thursday to prepare for increased water flow in the Animas and San Juan rivers.

The plan addresses the monitoring of sediments left behind after the Gold King Mine spill in August. The spill released more than 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas River. As the plume of mine waste floated down the river, it left behind heavy metals in the sediment.

Officials are concerned that the increased water flow in the rivers caused by the snow melt will stir up the sediment.

“The San Juan and Animas rivers are still contaminated from last year’s toxic waste spill, and we expect it to get worse as the snow melts and the water level rises,” New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary Ryan Flynn said in a press release. “Already, some of our cities are experiencing the effects. In Farmington, for example, there has been a substantial increase in lead found in the Animas River at times of high flows and turbidity. At those times, the city draws its drinking water from reserves instead.”

The preparedness plan calls for New Mexico and the city of Farmington to continue monitoring the river's turbidity and examining how it relates to the levels of heavy metal. That will help the water users make decisions on use and treatment of the river water, according to the plan.

San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said the county is working with the environment department and Farmington officials on monitoring the river. He said the county has taken samples of river water from upstream.

"One of our biggest concerns, obviously, is how much of a runoff we're going to get," Carpenter said.

He said the county is also monitoring the water level in the river to see if it will breach the river banks, leading to flooding. In the past, the county has had detention center inmates place sandbags along the banks in places to protect structures, Carpenter said.

He said the flooding is largely dependent on the temperature. If there is a heat wave that causes a lot of snow to melt all at once, the river may breach its banks.

In those instances, well users could see river water flowing into their wells. In addition to possible heavy metal contamination, that could lead to bacteria from the river contaminating well water. In 2014, results from a long-term study showed high levels of bacteria associated with human waste in the river.

The preparedness plan includes ways that the different agencies can notify the people who depend on the river for water. One way the public can be notified is through a reverse 911 message. In San Juan County, the New Mexico State University has also created an AG alert system to provide warnings to farmers and ranchers in the area.

While tests have not exceeded EPA National Primary Drinking Water Regulations for heavy metals, officials are still concerned that the spring runoff could lead to high levels of metals. In addition to being the first spring runoff since the mine spill, the wet winter led to a larger snow pack than in past years.

"It is a little bit concerning knowing we're going to have a bigger runoff than normal," Carpenter said.

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