Old mining relics in Animas Forks, the headwaters of the Animas River. The River Protection Workgroup for the Animas River, which typically meets in Silverton, comes to Durango for a meeting Monday night./Photo by Steve Eginoire

The upside of the Animas

River talks move downstream from Silverton to Durango
by Tracy Chamberlin

All the talk about the Animas is headed south this week.

The River Protection Workgroup for the Animas River, which typically meets in Silverton, comes to Durango for a Monday meeting from 6-8:30 p.m. at the La Plata County Fairgrounds.

“This is a really good chance for folks to learn about the work to date and … how they can get involved,” said Wendy McDermott, River Program Director for the San Juan Citizens Alliance and a member of the workgroup.

The Animas Workgroup, one of five that make up the River Protection Workgroup, is ultimately tasked with putting together a list of recommendations for the future protection of the Upper Animas Basin.

Since the area they’re concerned with is centered in Silverton, the group usually meets at the Kendall Mountain Recreation Center. However, the group is bringing its ideas south to Durango this week because it’s both a major population center and not everyone who has a stake in the future of the Upper Animas and its tributaries can make the trip north.

“It’s very well known there are many stakeholders downstream,” said Marsha Porter-Norton, facilitator for the River Protection Workgroup.

One of those stakeholders is the boating community. The Upper Animas in particular is a Mecca for whitewater enthusiasts. McDermott said the boating community has been present at some of the Animas Workgroup meetings but hopes to get more of its members involved in the process.

From boaters to ranchers to conservationists, many community members have an interest in the Animas River and that’s what drives the process.
The workgroup is not a government or U.S. Forest Service-sponsored project. “We are a community-driven process,” Porter-Norton said.

The Animas group is diverse, and many interests are represented, but that doesn’t mean additional input isn’t welcome. Porter-Norton said anyone is welcome to join in, and residents planning to attend Monday night’s meeting will get a chance to be brought up to speed and find out how they can get involved in the process.

They’ll hear about how the River Protection Workgroup operates and the progress made by the group, which has been working together since June of last year. The first thing the group did since forming was take a good look at the focus area, finding out who used it, what protections it enjoyed. Members even went on tours of the area.

Then they identified the river’s values: what makes each segment of the Animas River Basin special and is worth protecting in the future. For example, some of the values for the segment north of Baker’s Bridge up to Silverton include boating, geology, recreation, scenery and the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. “The train is a very significant value,” Porter-Norton said.

Whether economic, ecological, recreational, social or cultural, these values were put together in a Values Statement for each of the six segments in the focus area. The group plans to share those values Monday night.

The next step, and the one the group is currently working on, is to decide if the current protection each segment enjoys today is good enough. Does it protect the values identified by the group? If it doesn’t, then what kind of protections should it have?

They’ll consider options like designating some areas as National Recreation Areas or Wild and Scenic. They’ll consider water rights, future water development, mining operations and water quality.

“This is a really complicated river system,” Porter-Norton said.

After a consensus is reached on these ideas for protections, the group will make recommendations. The ideas brought forth by the Animas Workgroup, along with those made by the members of the River Protection Workgroup’s other four groups, will come together in a regional proposal.

The RPW has been working together since 2008 to get to this point. The process takes time because of the diversity of stakeholders and the complexity of the areas being studied.

The Animas Workgroup is looking at six segments of the Upper Animas Basin, three sections of the river and three creeks flowing into it. The three river segments include the Animas from below Silverton to Baker’s Bridge; the short segment of the Animas running through Silverton; and the Upper Animas above Cement Creek. The three in-flows are Cement Creek, Mineral Creek and South Mineral Creek.

The group likely has four to six months of work left to do. But when it’s time to take action, whether crafting an educational program or even legislation, all the stakeholders already will have had the conversation, come to a consensus and developed a list of recommendations.

Three of the five local workgroups have completed their reports. The Animas and Piedra River workgroups are all that remain at the local level. Then the River Protection Workgroup’s Steering Committee will lead the regional discussion.

The model for the regional group is still being worked out, but Porter-Norton said they cannot undo something that was done at the local level.

Porter-Norton said the Regional Group will likely work together for a year or two, crafting a regional proposal involving the workgroups. The recommendationsthat come out of this process will be presented to local, regional and state government officials with hopes for future implementation.