Animas River runs low after Gold King Mine spill

Hannah Grover The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — It isn't unusual to see the Animas River run low in August when hot weather and a lack of moisture cause greater needs for irrigation, according to Mary Beth Friis, whose family owns the Bandy Ranch in Aztec.

However, in the six years she has been tending the Sargent Ditch, she has never seen the ditch empty.

But, since the Gold King Mine spill in early August, her family has been depending largely on rain water and the generosity of neighbors to help irrigate their fields and garden.

"We were so excited to get our water back on, and that lasted one day," she said.

The Sargent Ditch reopened Aug. 15 after being closed to avoid contamination from the mine spill. It was dry again one day later because the water level in the Animas River had dropped so low that none was flowing through the head gate into the ditch.

Friis said she thinks the drop in water was because everyone started drawing out of the Animas River at the same time to irrigate their fields.

But Lela Hunt, a spokeswoman from the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, said that was a coincidence.

"The river level is low, but it is actually at about what would be expected at this point in the summer and in relationship to local water use activities, upstream actions affecting what comes into the state, and current precipitation," Hunt said in an emailed statement.

She said the Animas River watershed has received very little monsoon rain in August.

"The appearance that river water levels dropped only due to the resumption of normal irrigation diversions is coincidental," Hunt said.

"The river would have been at the same level it is now even if the ditches had all remained open while the mine spill plume passed through the area, although the drop would probably have been more gradual," she said.

Data posted on the U.S. Geological Survey's website show a small increase in the river's discharge — the volume of water flowing in the river — starting Aug. 7 in Farmington. That was the day the plume of toxic mine waste reached Farmington, turning the water a mustard color.

The discharge began to decrease rapidly on Aug. 15, according to the USGS data. That coincides with the day San Juan County irrigators outside the Navajo Nation reopened their ditches. Irrigators were told they could open their ditches on Aug. 14. Many ditch owners began flushing their ditches that evening. After flushing the ditches for 12 hours, the farmers were allowed to use the water to irrigate their crops.

The measurements of the Animas River on Wednesday in Farmington showed that the discharge was 97 cubic feet per second, far below the average rate of 463 cubic feet per second.

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.