SJCA Guide to the

Animas River

The 2015 Gold King Mine spill jolted communities along the river into action. We’re taking the lead to ensure permanent protections.


Photo: Alex Pullen

The Animas River flows from the old mining town of Silverton, Colorado down to Farmington, New Mexico nourishing farms and wildlife, floating boats and providing drinking water along the way. The shocking 2015 Gold King Mine spill awoke communities all along the river to the critical need for Superfund clean up. We’re taking the lead to ensure permanent protections.

The Animas River is born from snowmelt high in the rugged San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado, descending nearly 6,000 feet as it passes through Silverton and Durango, Colorado, Aztec, New Mexico and ultimately joins the San Juan River in Farmington, New Mexico.


The Animas River winds its way through spectacular gorges and sprawling valleys, offering thrilling white water adventures, mellow stretches of boating, Gold Medal fishing and spectacular scenery. It is used heavily for agriculture and increasingly for recreation, boating and fishing, which draws a substantial amount of tourism to the region. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Train, which travels along the Animas River from Durango to Silverton, alone draws nearly 200,000 riders a year.


Like many rivers in the American West, the Animas River faces some difficult challenges. Historic mining near the river’s mineral-rich headwaters has degraded water quality for more than 150 years, and was underscored, recently, by the Gold King Mine Spill of 2015.

Development within the river corridor, resource extraction, regional drought and a growing demand for water resources also present unique management challenges for the Animas River, highlighting the need for community involvement and smart river management.

Gold King Mine Spill

On August 5th, 2015, as the EPA was investigating the Gold King Mine, workers accidentally released a whopping 3 million gallons of acidic metal-laden water into Cement Creek and the Animas River. Communities were stunned to watch their river run mustard yellow, carrying nearly 540 tons of metals all the way into the San Juan River and eventually Lake Powell.

Why did it happen?

Mining has played a major role in the San Juan Mountains for more than 150 years. While naturally high metal content and erosion have long contributed to pollution in the Animas River watershed, mining has greatly exacerbated the problem, significantly deteriorating water quality through acid mine drainage and heavy metal loading. Extensive mining in the region has left a complex maze of tunnels under the San Juan Mountains, the interaction of which are little understood. As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) worked to better understand the inner workings of the mine in the summer of 2015, they accidentally released millions of gallons of water that had built up behind the mine adit. The thick mustard yellow water poured down into Cement Creek below which carried it to the Animas River.

What’s being done?

Immediately after the Gold King Mine Spill communities all along the river united around the desire to pursue permanent clean-up of the headwaters through Superfund. The Bonita Peak Mining District was designated a Superfund site in September of 2016 and includes 48 historic mining-related sources of metal and sediment. Research and clean up is expected to take decades, but some early actions could begin in 2017.

What’s the State of the River?

This 2016 study of Animas River water quality by Mountain Studies Institute was encouraging. The data collected at Rotary Park in Durango, CO showed “no indication of any threat to human health from Animas River water and it does not appear that metal concentrations in 2016 were any higher than in previous years (2002-2014).”

It’s important to note, however, that the Animas River was heavily polluted from inactive mines prior to the Gold King Mine spill. Water quality is so poor downstream from Silverton that the river has been unable to support aquatic life upstream from Baker’s Bridge in Durango for many years. Below Baker’s bridge the river is artificially stocked with fish which survive but are unable to reproduce and maintain viable populations on their own.

We’re the conservation voice at the table throughout the Superfund process, representing the river and the people and wildlife who depend on it. Outside of the Superfund process, we’re watchdogs defending the river from additional threats, such as water diversions, advocating for the river to be designated as Wild and Scenic, and looking for ways to enhance connections between watershed communities.


We’re the conservation voice at the table throughout this entire process. We are a watchdog as well as an advocate for what is best for the river, the fisheries, and the communities depending on this water. We’ll make sure the public know what is happening, why and how to get engaged in the process.


We’re pursuing a Wild and Scenic River designation, one of the strongest protections that can be placed on a waterway, for the Animas River. The designation is aimed at preserving rivers of “outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.” The forest service found the Animas qualifies for such protection in 2013.


Diversions reduce flows within the river, degrade aquatic habitat, and alter river channel stability. The Alliance monitors existing diversions, such as the Animas – La Plata (ALP) Project, and defends the river from projects that would further impact the quantity and quality of Animas River water.

This summer there will be a 30-day public comment period following the release of a Proposed Plan for early actions at the Superfund site. We’ll be tracking the process and letting folks know how to engage.

Take Action!

number41 (2)Become a member

Sign up to be a member, you’ll become an active and essential contributor to the cause.

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Public meetings are being held in August to determine citizens’ goals for the Superfund site. Sign up for our email list to get alerts and information when we need you to show up!

Learn More

We are involved in similar work for other rivers in the region. Check out our Rivers page for more information.

Stay Informed About the Animas River.

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