Breathing life back into the Animas
Stakeholders group celebrates a decade of river stewardship

The Animas River flows through Durango’s whitewater park earlier this week. For the last 10 years, the Animas River Stakeholders Group has been working to clean up the watershed, once considered among the most toxic in the country due to natural mineral leach and mining./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Will Sands

The Animas River has been carrying a heavy load for the last 120 years. Toxins from hundreds of former mines near Silverton as well as natural mineral leach have tainted the river, often wiping out life along certain stretches and tributaries. However, an unorthodox coalition, the Animas River Stakeholders Group (ARSG), has successfully worked for the last 10 years to reverse the damage. This weekend, members of the group, past and present, will gather in Silverton to reflect on the past decade and look to the future.

“It’s really a nonentity,” said ARSG watershed coordinator Bill Simon. “We don’t have any authority. We don’t have any voting privileges. We don’t have a board of directors. We do everything by consensus.”

Yet, somehow this “nonentity,” which groups a wide array of voluntary public and private interests, has had a profound impact on local water quality. In fact, in the last 10 years, the ARSG has helped undo much of the damage that was inflicted on the Animas River over the prior 120.

Stephanie Odell, San Juan Public Lands abandoned mines coordinator and a member of the group, gives the ARSG high marks for the state of the Animas River Basin.

“The stakeholders group has been key to any progress,” she said. “It would have taken a lot longer for the federal agencies to move on this issue if the group had not formed. They’ve also been the pilot program for similar groups throughout the country. And the stakeholders group has been the best thing we’ve got in terms of getting funds out of Washington.”

Simon said the ARSG was formed in 1994 as one of the first stakeholders groups in the nation. The formation was prompted by the Environmental Protection Agency’s discovery of the dismal state of water quality in the Animas River Basin.

“We were threatened with having the entire upper Animas watershed being turned into a Superfund site,” he said. “At the time, Superfund had a really lousy record, and it was the choice of either letting top-down management prevail or bringing the issue to the community and seeing if we could do the clean-up in a more effective manner.”

From its source tributaries in and around Silverton to its confluence with the San Juan River, the Animas River is tainted with heavy metals and acid load. The river contains traces of aluminum, cadmium, iron, copper, magnesium, lead and zinc, among others. Some of the load can be attributed to natural leach. However, approximately 1,500 abandoned mine sites near Silverton are the most significant threat to the river’s quality. The combination of the two factors made the Animas River one of the most toxic rivers in the country at the time the ARSG was formed.

“The Animas is one of the rivers in this country that was most severely impacted by mining,” Simon said.

The ARSG was and is a volunteer organization that has worked to combine public, private and citizen efforts to improve the river’s water quality and aquatic habitats. Simon said that because of the efforts of the stakeholders and natural changes, the Animas River now meets requirements as it flows through Durango.

“We’ve made significant water quality improvements and seen turnarounds in the river’s biology,” he said. “Trout are now able to reproduce in the lower basin for the first time since the impacts first appeared.”

In collaboration with Sunnyside Gold Corp., the stakeholders group has facilitated partial clean-ups on Silverton-area mines with names like Galena, Hercules, San Antonio and Carbon Lake. The total price-tag has come to approximately $25 million, and the work marks the biggest step toward returning to health on the Animas. The group also helped facilitate another $5 million – $2 million of which were in-kind contributions – in remediation and helped launch several Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service clean-up efforts.

In spite of these successes, there’s still much ground to cover in the Animas River Basin. ARSG has highlighted 34 draining mine adits (horizontal shafts) and 33 mine waste sites that are seriously in need of clean-up. Simon said that eliminating these sources of pollution, along with existing work, will actually eliminate 90 percent of the pollution load on the Animas.

“Of the 67 total sites, we are probably about a quarter of the way through it,” he said. “Since we’re picking the ones that are the most significant contributors, we’re making the most progress now. Still, at least another 10 years of remediation is in our future.”

Looking back and forward, Simon concluded that the stakeholders group’s biggest accomplishment actually goes beyond just restoring water quality. He noted that group has always ranged from former miners and corporate interests to conservationists and federal workers and always had the potential for divisiveness.

“During the first six months, there were a lot of four-letter words being shouted across the table,” he said in closing. “There’s been none of that in the 91/2 years since. Early on, we all decided to work toward a common goal and make this happen.”





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