DURANGO, Colo. – In early August 2015, Barb Horn stood on a bank of the Animas River, waiting for mine waste spilled upstream to reach the city. She and hundreds of others waited hours for the waste plume to appear, but darkness fell.
The next morning, she saw the change.
“It was absolutely surreal,” Horn said. “And I think that’s why it went viral. It’s like somebody Photoshopped the river orange.”
Upstream, Environmental Protection Agency workers and an environmental contractor cleaning up the Gold King mine near Silverton had accidentally triggered the spill of 3 million gallons of rust-colored waste, known as “acid mine drainage.”
“If you’re a Harry Potter fan, it looked like butterbeer, like butterscotch,” said Horn, a water quality specialist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The water was laden with metals, including iron, which colored the water reddish-orange.
The Animas begins in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains before joining the San Juan River, an important tributary of the Colorado River.
For Horn, the spill was a stark visual reminder of the river’s long history of pollution from abandoned mines.
“And it immediately tugged on your heartstrings thinking nothing could live in that,” she said.
The spill temporarily stopped recreation in the river and forced farmers to delay irrigation to their crops. But life in the river? It didn’t change much. The bugs and fish survived and showed no signs of short-term harm. The fish had been living with heavy mineralization of the water for decades.
Crisis averted — until this year.
“So I joke that now the river looks like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s chocolate fudge river,” Horn said.
We spoke along the river’s stretch through the city. The water was a cloudy brown color with suspended bits of charred debris.
The first few ash-laden runoff events probably killed 100 percent of the fish in a 30-mile stretch of the Animas.
The Animas began the summer with record low water because of long term drought and a warm winter. That primed the nearby mountains for wildfire. The 416 Fire ended up burning about 55,000 acres around the drainage basin for Hermosa Creek, a tributary of the Animas. When rains fall on the burn area, a thick sludge washes into the river.
Horn says official surveys haven’t been conducted, but it’s likely the first few ash-laden runoff events killed 100 percent of the fish in a 30-mile stretch of the river.
“You could literally see the fish coming to the banks gasping for air. It physically smothered their gills and their ability to breathe,” Horn said. “So there it was, it didn’t look as bad. It came from a, you could argue, natural source and did way more damage.”
Many Western rivers are stressed by drought, pollution, overuse by cities and farmers and runoff from wildfires. The Animas is the perfect poster child.
“It certainly is unlucky,” said Scott Roberts, a researcher with the Mountain Studies Institute, a nonprofit research group based in nearby Silverton. “It’s unlucky now. And it’s been unlucky for throughout time really.”
The river is facing problems that show themselves, including a vibrant orange smear or a chocolate brown sludge, he said. Or like earlier this summer, when the river all but disappeared within Durango’s city limits, recording its record lowest flow in 107 years of data.
But there are many other issues that don’t draw public attention. Before the Gold King Mine spill, and even now, the river receives acidic water laden with heavy metals from the region’s numerous abandoned mines. Adding insult to injury, in July 2018 a truck carrying waste material from the mine site crashed into Cement Creek, another Animas tributary.
“It’s being stressed by drought, being stressed by warmer temperatures,” Roberts said of the Animas. “It’s being stressed by runoff from wildfires, being stressed by elevated metal concentrations, being stressed by bacteria, by nutrients.”
Roberts points to studies that showed samples of the river’s water with high levels of bacteria commonly found in humans, likely leached from underground septic tanks.
“I don’t think the problems that are plaguing the Animas today are unique to the Animas,” said Ty Churchwell of Trout Unlimited, based in Durango. Trout Unlimited receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.
In fact, Churchwell said, drought, ash-laden runoff and mine pollution are often the norm in Western watersheds. The Animas has just experienced the extremes of all three in a short period of time.
“We certainly have experienced more than our fair share of traumatic incidents here in the last three years,” he said.
All these stressors don’t make it easy on local business owners, heavily dependent on tourists coming to town to raft and fish on the Animas. Low flows have curtailed river rafting operations throughout the Southwest.
Fishing isn’t restricted on the river through Durango, but local anglers are avoiding large portions of the stressed river this summer, said Tom Knopick, co-owner of Duranglers, a fly shop in downtown Durango.
He takes solace in knowing that all this trauma is bringing attention to the Animas’ myriad problems. Some of the mine waste is being treated now before draining into the river. When it comes to the fire-related sludge, the healing process has already begun.
“We’ve seen this before and we know that we know that it’s a short term problem,” Knopick said, comparing this summer to that of 2002 when the Missionary Ridge fire scorched more than 70,000 acres outside Durango. “You know we don’t like it. Rather not be dealing with it. But the reality is the Animas will be in a short period of time better than it was before the fire.”
But it could be another five to 10 years before the Animas is back to its former self, according to Horn of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“Rivers really are a great metaphor for our body and our own health and our own lives,” she said. “You can think about maybe the Animas is having a heart attack, a stroke and clogging up and saying we need to pay attention to what we eat or what we’re doing with her and to her.”
Horn said rivers have been rebounding from cyclical drought and fires for millenia. But human activity has made the frequency, duration and magnitude of those events worse.
This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.