San Juan County reopens public access to Animas, San Juan rivers

Joshua Kellogg
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — San Juan County officials have lifted the ban on use of the Animas and San Juan rivers while residents of the Navajo Nation are advised to refrain from using river water for irrigation and livestock.

Access to the Animas and San Juan rivers in San Juan County were reopened Saturday night for irrigation, recreation and pumping into both rural and municipal water treatment facilities, according to San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter.

"We're happy to get the farmers water for their crops and livestock," Carpenter said. "It's been a long, long 10 days."

Carpenter signed the declaration Saturday, stating Governor Susana Martinez's long-term impact review team and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency along with state and local officials approved the plan.

"We've obviously had people that wanted us to see this thing open earlier but we had to be really cautious with what we were doing," Carpenter said. "We wanted to make absolutely sure that all the agencies were onboard with this and it was the right thing to do."

Officials said there will be some discoloration in the sediment along the river banks of both rivers due to the spill of 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater from the Gold King Mine in Colorado on Aug. 5.

Carpenter said residents are advised to avoid drinking untreated river water, avoid contact with visible sediment and river water discoloration, and thoroughly wash hands and clothes after contact with the sediment and river water.

Officials for Aztec and Farmington said they will wait a few days before pumping water from the river into their water treatment plants.

The cities shut off water-intake systems after the toxic wastewater flooded into the Animas River from the abandoned mine north of Silverton, Colo. The plume of contamination was believed to have reached Lake Powell last week.

Aztec City Manager Josh Ray said the city has removed its water restrictions enacted on Aug. 10, so residents can resume normal water usage.

The mandatory emergency plan included restriction on lawn and garden water use, water fountains, washing vehicles and swimming pools.

Ray said the city might start pumping from the river to supply its water treatment plant as early as Tuesday.

"We're looking at normal operations, our water supply is in great shape," Ray said.

Water from the municipal systems operated by Aztec and Farmington remains safe for drinking. Their reserve water supplies were not contaminated by the mine spill.

Results of Farmington's independent river water testing confirm results released by the EPA and the New Mexico Environment Department, according to City Manager Rob Mayes.

"We would have no reservation about pumping from the river but the fact is, we're in a situation where we have enough water in reserve," Mayes said.

Mayes said he'll meet with the water engineering team Monday to develop a timeline on pumping from the river. Farmington officials have said they have about a five-month supply of water in the reservoir.

The city of Durango, Colo., began pumping water from the Animas to its water treatment facility on Friday.

Navajo Nation residents are advised to not use San Juan River water for crop irrigation or livestock watering, according to a statement posted to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye's Facebook page.

"I will lift the advisory only upon completion of the analysis by (Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency) and am ensured that the water is safe," said Begaye in a statement.

The Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency is waiting for results to see if the heavy metals have completely dropped out of the river water in the Silverton and Durango area.

"We don't want to contaminate the entire Navajo irrigation system," Vice President Jonathan Nez said in a statement. "We will wait for the City of Farmington to flush out their system before we open our irrigation systems so that we don't get any of those contaminants."

Water distribution points for livestock and irrigation have been set up at the Upper Fruitland rodeo grounds and the Gadii'ahi Chapter House along with a livestock water distribution point at the Shiprock rodeo grounds.

In an EPA update Sunday, the agency said it is working with the Navajo Nation to distribute water for agriculture and livestock use, providing more than 16,000 gallons of non-potable water each day to 13 locations. Hay and alfalfa bales are being provided by the EPA to Navajo Nation chapter houses for livestock needs.

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 and Follow him @jkelloggdt on Twitter.