Five Western waterways worse than the orange Animas

Colorado’s Animas River has gotten the most attention — but it’s hardly alone.


When the Environmental Protection Agency unleashed a plume of pollution into Colorado’s Animas River earlier this month, it garnered huge national attention. The spill was significant: Three million gallons of mining waste laced with heavy metals spewed from the Gold King Mine. Levels of lead and arsenic spiked to levels way beyond what’s safe for human health. They still linger to an unknown degree in the sediment.

But it’s hard to call the incident catastrophic. At its worst, near the headwaters, the river’s pH was 4.8, or roughly equivalent to a cup of black coffee. Downstream in Durango, it never dipped below 6.8, says the independent Mountain Studies Institute — just a smidge more acidic than pure, neutral water with a pH of 7. Elsewhere in the West, people regularly live alongside and play in waterways at least as polluted as the Animas. Here are five.


Montana’s Clark Fork of the Columbia River: Home to fly fishing, kayaking and whitewater rafting, Montana’s largest river also harbors the nation’s largest watershed restoration project — a Superfund site to clean up the heavy metals deposited by abandoned mines. The restoration has successfully removed arsenic, copper, zinc, lead and cadmium from the river. Yet because it’s funded by a single mining company, there’s no money to mitigate the mercury streaming from hundreds of mines owned by other mining companies, or those that are no longer owned by anyone at all. And it’s not just the Clark Fork: The EPA estimates that mining has contaminated the headwaters of 40 percent of Western rivers.

New Mexico’s San Juan: Every spring, river runners flock to a section of the San Juan in Utah. But upstream in New Mexico, Melissa May of the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District has found that levels of human and ruminant fecal matter far exceed the Clean Water Act’s standards for recreation. Monthly averages shouldn’t surpass 126 CFUs (colony-forming units), but some sites on the San Juan where people commonly recreate have counts in the thousands. There may be some relief on the horizon — after years of battles, wastewater treatment in San Juan County is about to improve — but it’s been hard to get people's attention when the water looks fine. “The E. coli is definitely not bright orange,” May quips. 

Idaho’s Lake Coeur d’Alene: The lake is the main driver of Coeur d’Alene’s tourism economy — and home to 75 million tons of sediment polluted with lead, arsenic, cadmium and zinc. As with the Animas, locals in Coeur d’Alene resisted designating the area as a Superfund site for fear of the stigma it could bring. Now, leaders are acknowledging that the $1 million spent annually on cleanup isn’t enough to protect water quality. Metals left over from a century of hard rock mining continue to flow into the lake during high runoff; in January 2011, an estimated 352,000 pounds of lead washed into the lake in just 24 hours.

Idaho’s Snake: Once home to vibrant inland salmon runs, the Snake River is now euphemistically known as a “working river” — or, as HCN contributor Richard Manning put it, a river that’s “wholly subservient to agriculture.” Today, the salmon are all listed as endangered or threatened, wells are contaminated with nitrogen, and unmonitored herbicides, pesticides and manure seep into the water table. As of last year, Idaho had 13,057 miles of streams and rivers that fail to meet Clean Water Act standards.

The Animas River — in 1975: In 1975, following a tailings pile breach on the upper Animas, every single fish placed in a cage in the river bit the dust. After the spill this month, just one of the 108 trout dunked in the Animas died. If there are any lessons to be learned from this, it’s that a) rivers are remarkably good at healing themselves; and b) just because the river heals doesn’t mean the problem has been solved. More than half a million abandoned and inactive hardrock mines dot the West, and many are just waiting to burst. As Andy Corra, co-owner of 4Corners Riversports in Durango, told me, maybe it’s a good thing this one happened on the EPA’s watch. At least that way, there may be money — for a change — for remediation. 

Krista Langlois is an HCN correspondent based in Durango, Colorado. 

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