Rivers and streams in the West are facing a lot of challenges these days, especially in the face of an undeniably warming world.
As climate change progresses, our waterways are increasingly stressed by worsening droughts, wildfire, and diminished flows.
The evidence is visible in our own backyards. In the Animas basin, we’ve had years with less snowfall and rain, shorter snowfall seasons, and earlier runoff to streams. We’ve seen wildfires choke the river with ash and debris, killing fish and threatening water supplies. And when precipitation does fall, it’s increasingly finding thirsty, dry soils that soak up much of the water before it can make it to our favorite trout stream or swimming hole. The proof is in the Animas, which saw record low flows earlier this summer.
This compounds on water quality issues the Animas already faces. From legacy mining pollution at the headwaters of the river, to issues with nutrients, sediment, and bacteria across the watershed, our scientists and watershed groups are straining to keep up.
So, what do we do?
First and foremost, we support policies that address the climate crisis and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The reality, however, is that the impacts of climate change are already here, making it critical that we also work to restore and maintain resilience in our river systems and the communities that depend on them.
At the headwaters of the Animas, this looks like engaging the Environmental Protection Agency in cleaning up over 150 years of mining pollution that sully the river with toxic metals. We helped form the Community Advisory Group to help with the federal Superfund clean-up that’s been in progress for the last five years. This group gives local citizens a voice in the process as we push for projects to improve water quality as quickly as possible.
Further downstream, we work with the San Juan Watershed Group to study and mitigate sources of nutrients, sediment, and bacteria that are impacting the river. We’re applying a hands-on approach by also working with landowners and state agencies to implement solutions, such as kick-starting regenerative agricultural practices and helping homeowners to better manage raw sewage that otherwise would make its way into the river.
Through a process called Outstanding Waters designation, we are also working with partners to create water policy that will protect Animas tributaries that have never been degraded by human-caused pollution. This designation will place special protections on forest streams with exceptionally high water quality. This in turn supports fish and wildlife, provides recreational opportunities, and helps build the downstream resilience we need in a warming world. Working to secure these special protections is already underway and will culminate in a hearing before the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission in the summer of 2022.
This community shows up for its rivers, and for this we are lucky. Together we can work to secure a hopeful and healthy future for our beloved Animas. So, while we strive to restore and protect what we still have, we must also take time to enjoy the Animas and the amazing opportunities it provides. Fish the streams, paddle around, and walk the river trails.
On that note, if you’re feeling an urge to help keep our river healthy, get in touch with your local Animas Riverkeeper. See you on the water!