Ranchers, farmers look for alternative water sources after Gold King Mine spill

Noel Lyn Smith
The Daily Times

SHIPROCK — With the Animas and San Juan rivers still off limits, local ranchers and farmers are looking for alternative ways to get water for their livestock and crops.

Restrictions on the rivers were put into effect after toxic metals flowed from a mine north of Silverton, Colo., into the Animas River and then into the San Juan River.

In response to the situation, officials with the Shiprock Chapter started hauling water to residents who need it for their livestock.

Melvin Jones, an equipment operator at the chapter house, delivered water Monday and Tuesday to residents in Shiprock.

"There are quite a few people on the list right now, so we'll probably be hauling water all week and into next week," he said.

On Tuesday, he delivered water in a 1,000-gallon tank to Sarah Frank's residence in southeast Shiprock. As Jones filled her large storage tank with water, Frank removed lids from three steel drums and an assortment of plastic containers to hold the remainder of the water. Frank's residence is less than 10 miles south of the river, which was the main source of water for her 30 sheep and 13 lambs.

"They really drink water when the grass is dry," she said.

Frank said she asked chapter house officials for help because she was worried about her sheep.

"They said they would help to haul water. I was so glad to hear that," Frank said, adding that the delivered water could last up to four weeks.

Meanwhile, in Upper Fruitland, the corn at Jimmy and Lucy Lujan's 24-acre farm had already started to wither on Tuesday from lack of water, and the couple fears they have lost a crop of newly planted alfalfa. Lucy Lujan said she had hoped to sell the corn to pay for her grandson's tuition at San Juan College.

"You don't realize how much you rely on irrigation water," she said.

Since the plume of contaminated water flooded the San Juan River, the Lujans have been using tap water for their small herd of sheep and to irrigate their crops. The couple said they have always had plenty of water, but now they are afraid they will lose all of their crops this season.

Tommy Bolack relies on both the Animas and San Juan rivers to irrigate his 12,000-acre B-Square Ranch in Farmington. He learned about the Gold King Mine spill a day and a half before the plume reached Farmington and turned off the ditches on the southern portion of his property, which is irrigated by the Animas River.

"It's best to let that water go by," he said.

Early warnings helped farmers prevent crop contamination, said D'rese Sutherland, one of the owners of Sutherland Farms.

"We'll be fine for a few days," she said, adding that rains and cloud cover have helped the crops on the 80-acre farm north of Aztec.

But, she added, “If we don't get water on some crops within the next week, we will start losing some.”

Sutherland said she has been in contact with the New Mexico State University San Juan County Extension Office to secure emergency water supplies.

The extension office started delivering irrigation water Tuesday afternoon, said agriculture agent Bonnie Hopkins. On Tuesday, about 20,000 gallons of water were delivered to farmers and about 10,000 gallons were delivered to livestock owners, she said.

The office can deliver water to farmers and ranchers who are not on the Navajo Nation. Residents can call 505-334-9496 to get on the water delivery list. Farmers with market vegetables and fruits will be prioritized because their livelihoods depend on the produce.

Four Corners Economic Development will also host a public meeting at 2 p.m. today at the Farmington Civic Center, 200 W. Arrington St., to discuss the county's irrigation options with officials from the extension office, the state Office of the State Engineer and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 and hgrover@daily-times.com. Follow her @hmgrover on Twitter.