So you probably have been hearing a lot about the Animas River on the news lately. This past week, we have seen images of an orange colored Animas plastered across every newspaper and nightly news network. The thing about those images is that they were images from almost a week ago. Currently, the Animas is flowing with its typical turquoise, late summer color. The river of orange lasted about a day and a half and has since passed on.
One thing people don’t understand is that this was not a disaster waiting to happen. This was a disaster that was already happening. These toxins and heavy metals have been seeping from mines in Silverton for over 100 years into the Animas River. Sometimes in a giant plume like we saw last week, but more often as a steady stream of toxic filth. As a Trout Unlimited business sponsor, we have been supporting and will continue to support the cleanup efforts going on in Silverton (and anywhere that hardrock mining pollution is present). The nation sees this incident and now demands it be fixed. We have been pushing for cleanup of the polluting mines of Silverton for decades.
In the past 32 years of business on the banks of the Animas River, we have seen these plumes of toxins come through town 4 or 5 times. These plumes have not been to the degree of last week, but they still happen. When rain, snow runoff, or landslides hit, these old mines flush their heavy metal guts into our watershed. In the past, we have fished around these plumes and still caught fish
Now don’t get me wrong, this event is terrible and I am not trying to downplay it. It should have never happened. It affects us here in Durango and it affects those downstream who rely on the Animas River as a water source. However, it is not a catastrophic end to a once pristine and clean waterway. The mine pollution on the Animas has always been a problem and the Animas and its trout have always recovered. Studies of invertebrates of the Animas are currently showing that bug life is strong after the toxic plume. Samples are showing that caddis, mayfly, midge, and stonefly nymphs are still thriving. We have witnessed trout eating emergers and dries in the past week. We have even watched a few people catch fish on the Animas in the past few days. (We don’t recommend fishing the Animas right now, unless you want to have a talk with the La Plata County Sheriff’s department who has closed the river.)
Almost hourly, we are fielding calls from concerned customers, reporters, and curious people wondering about how this is affecting our business. Truth be told, the negative press has been hard on our shop. Tourism in Durango has diminished dramatically this past week in Durango. We are sitting here, 2nd week of August, with no one walking in the shop. This is not at all typical, usually we are very busy. Lots of our local businesses are affected. Rafting companies that rely in the Animas are completely shut down.
However, Durango is still a great place to visit despite this incident. The fishing opportunities of Durango and Southwest Colorado number more than any one person could fish in a lifetime. The Animas has only ever comprised about 5% of our guide trips. Fishable water abounds around Durango, and most of it is less than an hour drive. Waters that are unaffected by this spill include: the famed San Juan River Quality Waters, Piedra River, Dolores River, Los Pinos River, high country creeks, Upper San Juan, Rio Grande River, and Animas tributaries such as Lime, Cascade, and Hermosa creeks. We are still guiding all of these waters.
All this press exposure is bringing attention to an issue that we have been aware of for a while. The Gold King mine is not the only problem mine in Silverton, or the Western States. Currently there are around 22,000 hardrock mines in Colorado alone, many of these continue to leech toxic chemicals into our waterways. Some are just like the Gold King Mine: another toxic plume waiting to flush down river. It is very unfortunate that the Animas had to suffer an incident like this to get people’s attention. Hopefully this event will spur action to clean existing sites and also bring heightened awareness to proposed mining explorations near our fisheries. As anglers, we need to do our part to ensure generations to come are able to use our waterways and enjoy the outdoors as intended.
As with all of these incidents on the Animas, there will be fishing in the Animas in the future. We could see the Animas open for public use as early as next week. In the meantime there is lots of water in our slice of the Rockies that sits unaffected by this spill, waiting for someone to cast a fly