Farmers and livestock owners are free to draw water from the San Juan and Animas rivers again after 3 million gallons of mine waste spilled into the watershed. No one knows what the long-term effects of the contamination will be on wildlife in the rivers, but biologists are tracking the spill’s impact.
Scott Roberts with the Mountain Studies Institute wades out, net in hand, into the clear Animas River in Durango, Colorado after the sludge from the Gold King Mine flowed through.
"We’re dislodging bugs from algae and aquatic vegetation," Roberts explained, "and you can see right here that iron oxide precipitates still on these rocks."
This sediment is a visual reminder of contaminants from the spill that the EPA accidently triggered in early August.
"When we were out here and first saw the river turn cloudy and then turn an orange-ish Tang color, my first thought was 'oh my gosh, what if it just kills everything, the fish the bugs, all aquatic life,'" Roberts explained, "and thinking that was a real possibility, that just broke my heart."
Right after the plume hit Roberts collected a sample from the river.
"It was a really emotional feeling," Roberts said, "dipping the first net in the river and pulling bugs out and seeing that bugs are alive."
Roberts said it was a great relief to see that there wasn’t an instant mass die-off.
"Just anecdotally, looking into the bucket, you can this insect swimming around like a minnow, real quick spurts, it’s a baetis mayfly," Roberts pointed out. "I’m seeing midges in here squirming around like worms and black flies with their bulbous ends attached to the bucket."
Roberts has been collecting samples ever since the spill and he said the fact that bugs are still alive is good, but they need more information and that will only come with time.
"While they may be alive, we don’t know that they’re performing to their full potential and whether their breathing capacity has been altered," Roberts said. "Those are the questions that we’re going to be asking."
They’ll test the bugs to see how much heavy metals they absorbed from the spill and Roberts said they’ll be watching to see if they are able to reproduce. In the meantime, he’s hopeful that the river will heal itself.
According to samples gathered by the EPA, a lot of contaminants came down the river during the blowout.
Peter Butler is with the Animas River Stakeholders Group.
"Very high concentrations of metals came down that river," Butler said, "and those concentrations flushed through really quickly." The group works with the EPA and local agencies to deal with heavy metals in mine waste.
Butler said even though the Gold King Mine had been leaching things like zinc, cadmium and aluminum into the river for years, they were surprised that the blowout released lots of lead and arsenic.
"Before all this happened, I don’t think we saw any arsenic and not very high levels of lead coming out," Butler explained, "but what happens is when a mine blows out, all the materials that are kind of sunk to the bottom of the mine blows out as well. So often times you get a lot of metals that you don’t normally see in the drainage coming out."
Butler said the plume moved quickly and was diluted when it hit the confluence of the San Juan River at Farmington. The contaminants are only harmful to fish and bugs in concentration, he said.
"I think people were a little surprised that, at least so far, aquatic life seems to be doing quite well," Butler said. "At least the immediate impacts are much less then I think a lot of people anticipated, but nobody knows what the long-term impacts will be."
The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish said late last week they’ve only found a few dead fish.
Beth Soleret says she found one when she was collecting a water sample on her riverfront farm downstream from Farmington.
"I went out to take a water sample," she said, "and that's when I found the dead fish down there and called Fish and Game.”
Soleret said the agency told her to put the carcass in her freezer and that someone would be by to collect it in a few days. Then her dog gave birth to a litter of stillborn puppies.
"She got in their and drank that water," Soleret explained, "just like the goats have, just like my horses. So, you know, I’d like to be a little more assured because it’s frightening."
The rivers are open again in New Mexico and Colorado, though not on the Navajo Nation. And state and federal officials are warning people not to eat fish out of the rivers.
We won’t know what the long-term impacts of the spill will be in these rivers for some time, but biologists say they expect the first round of results from tissue sampling of aquatic life within the next few weeks.