Downstream of a Disaster

Opinion: How the Animas River mine spill asks us to think beyond our local paddling run

I'm sitting beside the San Juan River in southern Utah waiting for the arrival of a slow-motion catastrophe. For the last six days, 3 million gallons of gold mine waste have been creeping toward my home in Bluff, Utah, a thick sludge that turned the water of the Animas River upstream a sickening cantaloupe color and prompted much of southwestern Colorado, and now Utah, to declare an official state of emergency.

River Warning: Makeshift river closure sign recommending rafters stay out of the San Juan River after the recent mine spill. Photo Zak Podmore
River Warning: Makeshift river closure sign recommending rafters stay out of the San Juan River.

The Animas has been completely shut down to recreation; irrigation canals and municipal water intakes are closed. The residents of Durango, Colo., and Farmington, N.M., are still awaiting full toxicity reports to determine if the spill is as dangerous as its glowing orange color makes it look. The president of the Navajo Nation, which begins across the river from where I'm sitting, has vowed to sue the EPA for triggering the spill. It's a steadily expanding disaster, and it's headed my way.

I'd barely been on the planet for a year when my parents tucked me under an umbrella and launched me on first multi-day river trip down the San Juan River. As a teenager I learned to roll a kayak in its canyons, and for the last seven months I've been living along its banks, taking regular refuge from the desert heat in its waters. I'd like to say I know this river well, but when I was near the site of the mine spill a couple months ago, paddling the icy Upper Animas River near Silverton, I didn't pause to reflect on the fact that I was just upstream from my home. The snowmelt fueling the clear Animas seemed so far removed from the slow muddy swirls of the San Juan where it would end up in just a few days.

Banks of the Animas River in Durango, Colo., Tuesday. Photo: Erik Jorgensen - Flexible Flyers Rafting
Banks of the Animas River in Durango, Colo., this weekend, as sediment begins to settle in the river banks. Photo: Erik Jorgensen – Flexible Flyers Rafting

Rivers connect us, but even the river runner's world is segmented by boat ramps, highways and dams. It's all too easy to start thinking of your local float in terms of put in, takeout and USGS gauge instead of as an interconnected watershed — until a pulse of toxic runoff is moving towards you.

Three million gallons isn't all that much water from the perspective of a large watershed. A river flowing at a moderate 1,000 cfs will carry 3 million gallons of water by a given point every seven minutes or so. Dump that amount of water in the headwaters of the Animas over a few hours and the San Juan River probably wouldn't even register a blip on the hydrograph. But take that same amount of water let it soak in the acidic bath of a century-old gold mine shaft until it's rich with lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury, and you'll send shockwaves across a quarter of the country.

Employees of the Utah Division of Water Quality were sampling for contamination at the San Juan River Tuesday. Photo Zak Podmore
Employees of the Utah Division of Water Quality were sampling for contamination at the San Juan River Tuesday.

The community’s elemental connection to the river, normally hidden just under the surface of day-to-day life, has erupted as a triage plan enacted along the river corridor reminds people of its lifeblood. Drinking water in Durango has stopped being something that comes out of the tap as the city analyzes whether water supplies were contaminated, while continuing to sound a call for conservation. Locally grown foods have ceased to be something in farmers' market bins or on supermarket shelves as concerns circulate about cadmium being taken up by irrigated crops. Houseboaters on Lake Powell are being advised to stay away from the San Juan arm of the reservoir. Signs pasted to traffic cones at the boat ramp where I'm sitting are recommending rafters cancel their trips down the 80-mile scenic river stretch. Nobody knows just how long the closures and emergency measures will be necessary.

Critics of the EPA have been quick to jump on the agency for its role in sparking the disaster, and the extent to which the EPA downplayed the dangers of the spill in the hours after the event was very disconcerting. But the critics' accompanying call to cut funds for federal agencies seems deeply misguided. The Gold King Mine, where the spill originated, was opened in the late 19th century when regulations were so loose that mining companies could dump tailings directly into rivers and streams. Though the mine was closed in the 1920s, it has continued to leach acid mine drainage into the streams around Silverton (along with 400 other mines). Contractors working for the EPA were, ironically, trying to stop some of this seepage when they accidentally breached a debris dam.

Toxic Spill Upriver: Ranger's info board at the Sand Island put in of the San Juan.
Toxic Spill Upriver: Ranger’s info board at the Sand Island put in of the San Juan.

Could this particular tragedy have been avoided? Yes, and the full investigation into the incident will no doubt reveal a number of mistakes that led up to the spill. But at the same time it was a disaster waiting to happen. In 1975, a similar spill carrying a more concentrated load of heavy metals swept down the Animas. In the intervening years, the mines have continued to steadily pollute the streams. Whatever mistakes the EPA made, they certainly did not create this 100-year-old problem, and framing the debate around the slashing of their funding will only make the next spill more likely.

Instead, we should be wary of new projects on the banks of our rivers that could result in their accidental contamination. When disaster strikes, nobody wants to be downstream. As paddlers, we won't have learned anything from this tragedy unless we continually force ourselves to think beyond the takeout — to carefully weigh benefits and risks, not only when we see a threat to a beloved run, but when new projects threaten to sully our watershed as whole, whether it's a mine, pipeline, or new oil and gas operations beside a waterway. After all, that water isn't just floating our boats; it's growing our food, running from our faucets, and, once in a while, filling the eyes of some bobbly headed tot with their first glimpse of a wild river.

More from C&K

Paddlers React to Animas River Spill

Pipelines and Rivers: The Yellowstone After the Spill

A view of the San Juan near Bluff, Utah. Photo Amanda Nichols
A view of the San Juan near Bluff, Utah. Photo Amanda Nichols