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After Plume Passes, Attention Turns To Sediments

Rita Daniels/KUNM
A failed headgate near Farmington where water flows from the river into irrigation ditches.

Water managers in Northwestern New Mexico are trying to figure out how much contamination from the Gold King Mine spill has seeped into ditch irrigation systems. 

There are about 70 miles of river from where the Animas crosses into New Mexico to where it flows onto the Navajo Nation, according to Shawn Williams who oversees this section of the river

“This is a little branch of the Animas and you see a little discoloration on the rocks,” Williams explained.

Williams is the Water Master for the San Juan Region of the Office of the State Engineer. He keeps an eye on what’s flowing through the ditches. He saw the plume from the mine spill when it came through Farmington. 

“Saturday morning I was down here and this was bright orange,” Williams said.

Credit Rita Daniels/KUNM
Shawn Williams inspects a failed headgate on the Animas River near Farmington, New Mexico. It didn't prevent water from the Gold King Mine spill plume for getting into ditches.

There are 20 head gates along this stretch and when they’re open, Williams said, they supply water to the farmers tending the 15,000 acres of irrigated land here. 

They closed the head gates before the pumpkin colored sludge came through, but some of the infrastructure here is from the 19th century and so contaminated water did get through into some of the ditches.

“You can see here’s the problem with what happened when they tried to shut off,” Williams said, pointing to river debris that blocked a gate from shutting fully.

Awaiting test results from the EPA, Williams and other water managers are walking up and down the side ditches of the Animas river, trying to get a visual idea of how much orange sediment is clinging to the rocks and riverbanks since the sludge came through.

Credit Rita Daniels/KUNM
Examining sediment in the Animas River after the plume of mine waste flowed through from the spill at the Gold King Mine.

“I see a little discoloration on the banks right there attached to some of the aquatic flora,” Williams pointed out.

Williams said they were not prepared for this disaster and he hopes the spill will make people more aware.

“I mean,” Williams said, “I’m hoping the silver lining will emphasize how vulnerable our water sources are and hopefully we can learn from this whole situation.”

John Longworth works in water conservation for the state of New Mexico and said he prefers not to think about worst case scenarios at this point. 

“What we understand at this point is that we just don’t know what came through,” Longworth said. “Once we know what came through the next step is assessing how bad was this.”

The mine waste is thought to be loaded with lead, arsenic, cadmium, copper and zinc among other things and Longworth said even though things are looking better, the water is clearer, that doesn’t mean things are good to go.

“We want to make sure that we are not going to contaminate our farmland,” Longworth said, “and that we don’t put lead and cadmium and the other kind of constituents that are potentially in the ditch out onto the fields.”

EPA Chief Gina McCarthy visited the spill area in Colorado Wednesday and said initial test results from further upstream show that the river water is returning to pre-event conditions. But she cautioned that more scientific results will determine the appropriate steps to take moving forward.

Upstream closer to the original spill-site in Colorado, Aaron Kimple with the Mountain Studies Institute started taking samples of the river before the plume hit.

“So we were out there with headlamps and with whatever bottles we had,” Kimple explained, “and we just started grabbing samples.”

They sampled every half hour as the plume passed and have been sampling ever since. Kimple said the good news is that the macro-invertebrates, all the bugs which the fish feed off of, seem to be doing okay.

pH levels have returned to normal he says but they are still waiting for results from heavy metal tests, which could mean residual effects for decades to come.

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