Animas River Water Quality – an Interstate Affair

As the sun shines and the snow continues to melt in the San Juan Mountains this month, the Animas River comes hurtling down out of its headwaters to mark another spring runoff season. It passes through Silverton and Durango, flows across the Southern Ute reservation, crosses the border to New Mexico, and meanders past Aztec before finally joining up with the San Juan River in Farmington. Unfortunately for downstream residents, however, the waters of the Animas pick up a good deal of pollutants along this journey.

By the time the Animas reaches the New Mexico border, its water is already out of compliance with New Mexico water quality standards for total phosphorus, E. coli bacteria, sediment, and turbidity. When it reaches Aztec, impairment for nutrients and indicators of eutrophication are added to the mix. The New Mexico Environment Department added a whopping seven water quality impairments on New Mexico stretches of the Animas to its 2012 303(d) list of impaired waters .

While this might tempt some groups to point a finger of blame upstream, the Animas Watershed Partnership (AWP) is taking a different approach.  The AWP started as an offshoot of the Farmington, New Mexico based San Juan Watershed Group, and was formed to specifically address the problems of nutrient pollution in the Animas across state and tribal boundaries. The AWP steering committee is comprised of both government and citizen members from three jurisdictions – Colorado, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and New Mexico – and it alternates its meetings between Durango, Ignacio and Farmington in order to give equal voice to the concerns of all stakeholders.

A meeting of the Animas Watershed Partnership on Monday, April 23 will take a deeper look into the issue of regulating nutrients on a river that so inconveniently decided to flow across human-drawn boundaries. Barbara Bennett of the CO Water Quality Control Division, Kirk Lashmett of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe Environmental Programs Division, and Abe Franklin of the New Mexico Environment Department will all speak on a panel, discussing how nutrient management on the Animas differs in their respective jurisdictions. The meeting will be held on 4/23 from 6-8pm at the Farmington Civic Center, and the general public is encouraged to attend. This panel discussion should be especially interesting in light of Colorado’s recent work on the development of nutrient standards for nitrogen and phosphorous.

The interstate cooperation between the AWP and San Juan Watershed Group was further solidified last week by a grant awarded to the two groups through a settlement between a local coal mine and electric utility and the Sierra Club. The grant provides the groups with $500k to conduct a bacteria source tracking study that will address E. coli pollution in both the Animas and San Juan Rivers, as well as funding numerous public outreach efforts including a website, a regional water quality GIS database, and public meetings to educate residents about the health of their rivers.

The joint efforts of the Animas Watershed Partnership and San Juan Watershed Group will hopefully serve to bring together residents of the Animas watershed, and link Colorado residents to their downstream neighbors through preservation of their shared natural resource.

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