Water conference 2019: How did the 416 Fire impact the Animas River?

Annual watershed conference returns to San Juan College

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
  • Topics during the first day of the Animas and San Juan Watershed Conference included the 416 Fire, sediment and the Gold King Mine spill.
  • There will be a teach-in on Friday in Shiprock.
  • Water conference started as a response to the Gold King Mine spill of August 2015.

FARMINGTON — Prior to the 416 Fire, the Animas River in Durango, Colorado, was one of the best trout fisheries in the United States, according to Ty Churchwell, San Juan Mountains Coordinator for Trout Unlimited.

Final footprint of the 416 fire in 2018.

Churchwell was one of several speakers who presented information about water quality during the annual Animas and San Juan Watersheds Conference on June 19 at San Juan College.

He said the quality of the fishery in the Durango area earned that section of river the gold-medal fishery designation, meaning it was one of the best places in Colorado to fish.

Churchwell said the river no longer meets the criteria needed for the gold-medal designation due to last year's 416 Fire north of Durango. He said an estimated 85 percent of the trout in Durango died because of ash flows into the Animas River.

Scott Roberts, an aquatic ecologist with the Mountain Studies Institute, provided some details about why the fish may have died.

Roberts said the runoff after the fire brought sediment that could injure aquatic life, as well as high levels of certain metals.

He said measurements of aluminum, iron and mercury in the Animas River near Durango were higher after the 416 Fire than they were after the Gold King Mine spill.

Roberts said some metals such as aluminum and iron often spike after wildfires in the west, however he is still not certain what lead to the spike in mercury.

The good news, Roberts said, is rivers recover after fires. He said most rivers recover within three to five years after a fire.

Meanwhile, hatcheries are now working to restock trout into the river and recover the fishery.

Audience members listen to a presentation by aquatic ecologist Scott Roberts, Wednesday, June 19, 2019, at San Juan College.

Watershed conference continues through Friday

Data was presented during the fourth annual Animas and San Juan Watersheds Conference on June 19 at San Juan College in Farmington.

The annual conference was spurred by the Gold King Mine spill of August 2015, however this year’s conference included water quality topics beyond just the impacts of mining on the Animas and San Juan rivers.

The conference continues through June 21 and will conclude with a community teach-in from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Shiprock Chapter House. During this teach-in, scientists will present their research in flash talks.

The Animas and San Juan Watershed Conference was prompted by the Gold King Mine spill of August 2015.

Sediment sampled in reservoirs after Gold King Mine spill

Various natural and man-caused events have influenced water quality in the Animas and San Juan rivers. The U.S. Geological Survey is conducting sediment core studies on reservoirs such as the Aztec drinking water reservoir one and Lake Powell. In the future, the sediments in Lake Farmington will also be evaluated.

The core samples from the Aztec reservoir provided 70 years of data about Animas River water quality. Scientist Christina Ferguson presented the data on June 19. She said further research must be done to determine what caused spikes in metals like copper; however, she noted the historic mining for metals as well as uranium left traces in the sediment of the Aztec reservoir.

Ty Churchwell with Trout Unlimited discusses the impacts of the 416 Fire on the fishery in Durango, Colorado, Wednesday, June 19, 2019, during the Animas and San Juan Watershed Conference at San Juan College in Farmington.

Scientists look at impact of metals in rivers on food sources

While various events have impacted water quality — the collapse of Lake Emma in 1978 led to fish dying in the Animas River — scientists say crops irrigated using Animas River water and livestock raised in the basin are safe for consumption.

Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency plans on conducting a study of metals in tissues of fish caught in the San Juan River in the upcoming years, according to Steve Austin with the Navajo Nation EPA. The study will be funded with federal money authorized by the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act of 2016. This act authorized $4 million of federal money per year for five years for communities impacted by the Gold King Mine spill.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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Fire burns in the west side of the 416 Fire in this screen capture from a video posted July 1, 2018 afternoon on the 416 Fire Facebook page.