Irrigators begin flushing ditches Friday evening

Hannah Grover
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Some San Juan County irrigators said they would begin flushing ditches along the Animas River Friday evening after the ditches were contaminated by toxic wastewater flowing downstream from a spill at the Gold King Mine in Colorado last week.

During a meeting at the Civic Center Friday evening, New Mexico State Engineer Tom Blaine told irrigators that the ditches can be reopened. Blaine said the ditches should be flushed for 12 hours between the diversion and the first sluice or wastewater return before the water is used for irrigation.

The public water systems will not draw from the ditches while they are being flushed so that the sediments in the ditches do not contaminate drinking water, New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary Ryan Flynn said during the meeting. Municipal water systems have been using reserves and other sources to provide safe drinking water.

"I'm hoping that no later than the first of next week the river will be open to recreation and municipal takes of water," Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts said earlier Friday.

Blaine said his office is coordinating the flushing with ditch superintendents.

The decision came late Friday after evaluating data received from Environmental Protection Agency sediment samples in San Juan County ditches.

David Charters, a member of the EPA's Environmental Response Team, said the tests showed that the metal levels in the sediment are within safe limits.

In Colorado, La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith opened the Animas River to recreation and irrigation on Friday.

His decision follows a report from the Colorado Department of Public Health that announced contamination levels in the river will not endanger people boating or tubing in the it.

Results for sediment tests on a stretch of the Animas River between Bakers Bridge to north of Durango were released by the EPA on Friday.

"Some results exceeded the (pre-event) levels," said David Ostrander, director of EPA's Emergency Response and Preparedness Program, during a media conference call on Friday. "It was determined the sediment posed no risk to users of the river."

But the Animas River in San Jan County is still closed to recreation, and Carpenter said Friday it probably remain closed for a few more days.

Also on Friday, following data analysis, the New Mexico Environment Department and state Department of Health officials lifted a ban on using domestic well water from wells in the Animas River floodplain.

Officials made the announcement in a press release issued by the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management, in conjunction with the EPA.

Geochemical and water level data collected by New Mexico Environment Department shows there is no risk of contamination to private water wells, the release states. Officials have said the groundwater level was higher than the river, which means groundwater is flowing toward the river so it can't carry contamination from the river into the wells.

Ryan Flynn said in the release that the state mobilized a team to prohibit river and well water use after "alarming levels of lead, cobalt, cadmium, arsenic, iron, manganese and other heavy metals were evident in the initial pulse of contamination at Cement Creek and the Upper Animas River."

Other precautions relating to the spill remained in place.

"We know that the right decision is to lift the ban against using domestic well water," Flynn said during the Friday press conference.

Flynn added that 25 department personnel spent the week testing domestic well water samples at the San Juan County Fair.

On Friday, Farmington city officials were working to extend a water line to Morningstar Domestic Water and Waste Water Users Association, which provides water to residents in Crouch Mesa.

City officials expect the line will be operational on Monday.

Public Works Director David Sypher said city officials created the contingency plan following the Gold King Mine spill, and then Morningstar requested the connection this week. He estimated a temporary connection will cost less than $50,000, but said the EPA is funding the project and its total costs are not yet clear.

Daily Times reporter Noel Lyn Smith contributed to this story.

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

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and Follow him @dtdschwartz on Twitter.