The health of the Animas
Local river thrives but faces new challenges

SideStory: Picking up on the Animas: Annual river clean-up this Saturday

Robert McClanahan flyfishes Tuesday morning on the Animan River, just south of the Highway 160 high bridge. The Animas River trout fishery through Durango is thriving right now, with aprt of that success attributed to mine clean-up efforts near Silverton./Photo by David Halterman

by Will Sands

Trout are a keystone species for Ty Churchwell, vice-president of the Five Rivers Chapter of Trout Unlimited. “It’s my opinion that the Animas River defines Durango, and the trout are like the canaries in that coal mine,” he said.

That canary is currently thriving in the Animas River and throughout the Durango area. Continued clean-up of mine waste around Silverton has enhanced water quality on local rivers, and the population of trout between 32nd Street and the Rivera Crossing Bridge is booming. However, Trout Unlimited, the Colorado Division of Wildlife and others are also keeping a close eye on the future and new threats to the health of local rivers and fish.

The Division of Wildlife has been monitoring stream health on locations all over the Animas River for nearly two decades. Over time, the state agency has seen dramatic improvements in water quality, thanks largely to the Animas River Stakeholders Group and its efforts to clean up the polluting mines and adits in the Silverton area.

In 2005, the DOW experienced a breakthrough at a site just south of Silverton, described as “ground zero” for heavy metals loading on the upper Animas River. There, a single, lonely brook trout was found living in an area formerly considered a complete dead zone.

The same efforts that led to that single living fish have led to a vibrant picture on the Animas River as it flows through downtown Durango. Each fall, the DOW conducts a fish count on the Animas, charging the waters with electricity and then tabulating the poundage of fish per acre of water. Of particular concern is the stretch of Gold Medal Waters between U.S. Hwy. 160 and Rivera Crossing, south of town. In order to qualify as a Gold

Medal Water, a stream must boast 60 pounds of trout per acre. Last year, that stretch posted 93 pounds/acre. Interestingly, the stretch of the Animas between 32nd St. and U.S. Hwy. 160 is not classed as a Gold Medal fishery, but a staggering 115 pounds of trout per acre was found on the stretch last year, outstripping the lower section.

“If you’re looking at trout as an indicator of river health, I would say we’re doing pretty well on the Animas River,” explained Jim White, DOW aquatic biologist. “We’ve been lucky on the Animas, and whirling disease has only had a small impact. The work of the abandoned mines group has also been a big help.”

Natural reproduction is still lagging on the Animas, however. Each year, the DOW introduces 40,000 fingerling trout into the river to compensate for difficulty with natural spawning because of residual metal load. However, the DOW expects that picture to improve as well.

A discarded plastic cup is shipwrecked along the banks of the Animas River near the train crossing Tuesday. A river clean-up will be held Saturday./ Photo by David Halterman

Churchwell and TU also pointed to recent fish counts as evidence that the Animas River is going strong. “In general, the Animas is in pretty good health,” he said. “It successfully weathered the recent drought and has really improved in the last four to five years.”

The Animas is also a unique river relative to other Colorado watersheds, according to Churchwell. Most water users throughout the state are fighting over every last drop. In contrast, the Animas has a relative abundance of available water.

“The Animas has a very unique watershed,” Churchwell said. “The entire length from the headwaters to where it meets the San Juan is 100 miles, but it’s still an under-appropriated river. Because of that, we’re in a unique position to save the river.”

Churchwell referenced the City of Durango’s recreational in-channel diversion (RICD) application, an ongoing effort to keep water in the Animas and4 “save the river.” The City has applied for up to 1,400 cubic feet per second of water to remain in the river for kayaking and rafting. However, traditional water users are not smiling on the city’s application. Nearly 50 objectors, fronted by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, have challenged the application, and a January 2008 court date is looming.

“The request for an RICD is not so we can build a whitewater park, it’s so we can get a water right and keep water in the river,” Churchwell said. “The point is that the Animas is generally a healthy river, but people are still trying to pull water out of the river for a variety of reasons.”

Buck Skillen, board member with the local TU chapter, agreed, saying, “I judge the health of the river based on the fish counts, and my sense is that it’s pretty damned healthy. But if we’re not vigilant, we will lose our natural hydrograph, and then we’ve lost the river.”

Churchwell, Skillen and White all agreed that a major threat to has already won out. The $500-million Animas-La Plata project has steadily been taking shape just southwest of downtown Durango. When complete, the water complex will siphon up to 280 cubic feet of water per second from the Animas to fill “Lake Nighthorse,” a 39-billion-gallon reservoir in Ridges Basin. The Bureau of Reclamation expects the pumping station to go active and begin sucking river water in 2009.

The DOW’s White commented, “I don’t anticipate any major challenges for the Animas, aside from when the Animas-La Plata project kicks in. Anytime you’re removing water from the stream, you’re reducing habitat and harming the quality of the existing habitat.”

A boom in real estate and development throughout La Plata County could also negatively impact aquatic life in local rivers. Fertilizer run-off from golf courses, excessive stormwater and sediment load could all damage the Animas River and the fish living in it.

“Animas-La Plata is a lost cause,” Churchwell said. “We lost that fight, and now as a community, we have to fight to keep water in the river and be wary of people wanting to remove water from the river, whether it be for development or transmountain diversion over the hill to Grand Junction.”

Skillen echoed that call, adding that the responsibility for the local river should now go beyond anglers and activists. “Everybody ought to be proud of the Animas River,” he said. “If you’re proud of the river, you also ought to be a good steward and help take care of that resource.”

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