Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Gold King Mine Spill Hits Farmington Hard / Public News Service

FARMINGTON, NM – No drinking, cooking or bathing with water from the Animas River. Those are the rules now in place at Farmington, New Mexico, following the Gold King Mine spill in Colorado.

Three million gallons of toxic sludge escaped into the Animas, part of the larger Colorado River system.

Shana Reeves with the City of Farmington says, as of Monday, the waters of the Animas River were still orange. Despite the water use ban, Reeves says the city is fortunate to have water reserves.

“We do have 90 days sitting in Lake Farmington,” she says. “If we need to go further than that, we have means of drawing from other sources rather than just the Animas.”

According to Reeves, the city’s water sources are the Animas and San Juan rivers, which merge near Farmington. The water use ban also applies to farmers who use the river for irrigation and livestock-watering.

The EPA says its own crews accidentally caused the release of three million gallons of water containing dissolved metals from the abandoned Gold King Mine last Wednesday. The agency says it’s still testing the sludge for toxicity levels, and is treating contaminated water in containment ponds.

Reeves says the American Red Cross and other organizations are distributing drinking water in the community. She adds there’s a concern the spill may devastate the rest of the summer tourism season in the area, which is directly tied to the river.

“We just started our branding campaign and one of our taglines is, ‘Farmington is a place where outdoor lovers and active families thrive,'” she says. “It’s the heart of our recreation, and it’s the heart of our community.”

Reeves says the EPA has not indicated, even in general terms, how long the ban on using Animas River water will last – and there are questions about the effects the contamination may have as it enters Lake Powell in Utah. Lake Powell and Lake Mead in Nevada are the two primary reservoirs for the Colorado River.

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Two decades of extreme drought have put a squeeze on Arizona’s water supply, but a once-obscure state agency could soon be at the forefront of keeping the taps flowing.

The Arizona Water Bank, created in 1999, keeps track of any surplus water from the state’s annual allotment from the Colorado River. But the river water has reached critical levels this year, triggering mandatory restrictions.

Virginia O’Connell, director of the Arizona Water Banking Authority, said the agency, for the first time, could be deciding how to get the “banked” water to where it’s needed, while making sure the supplies last.

“So, this is a first for us,” she said. “We’ll be distributing credits for that purpose, or that entitlements have even been shorted. We’re all working together to make sure that we’re prepared, and we’re ready to go when there is a shortage.”

Arizona normally receives 2.8 million acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River, but the restrictions will cut the state’s allotment by 18%. O’Connell said the Water Bank currently manages about 3.75 million acre-feet of water credits.

She said most of the banked water is kept in storage by a group of utilities and other entities that have credits in the bank’s watery “vault.”

“Basically, it’s an accounting system to keep track of how much water is stored, because that actually gives you ownership of that water,” she said, “and then you can recover those credits in the future when you need that water.”

In the 1990s, O’Connell said, state officials became concerned that unused portions of Arizona’s water allotment could be claimed by other states. So, they set up the Water Bank to preserve any surplus for use during droughts and other shortages.

“Their task was to store all of the unused portion of Colorado River water in Arizona, and that water would be made available in the future when there are times of shortage,” she said. “And that’s kind of where we are now.”

Under the current agreement, the US Bureau of Reclamation will annually assess the available water supply. O’Connell said the Water Bank will use that data to determine how much water can be released and who will get it.

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This Memorial Day Weekend, Maryland Department of Natural Resources responded to three fatal incidents; two drownings and a jet-ski collision. It is a reminder to anglers, boaters and swimmers to follow some basic safety tips to avoid tragedy.

Last year, Maryland had 145 reported boating accidents, six of which were fatal.

Lauren Moses, public information officer for the Maryland Natural Resources Police, said although the numbers of incidents are decreasing, some common mistakes keep cropping up. They include not keeping a proper lookout; someone on the boat to be aware of their surroundings.

Moses emphasized alcohol use is another issue.

“While it’s not illegal to consume an alcoholic beverage while operating a vessel, it is illegal to be intoxicated, and that’s because it impairs your judgment,” Moses explained. “Intoxicated passengers can also easily fall overboard, and it can cause tons of issues.”

Moses advised on waterways, as in other types of emergencies, people should call 911 as soon as possible. She added it is critical for everyone aboard a boat to wear a life jacket at all times.

The busy summer season will also bring plenty of swimmers to Maryland waterways. Moses stressed it is key for swimmers to stay alert about the weather and potential for sudden thunderstorms. She recommended the following posted signage, particularly in state parks, and only swim in areas where a lifeguard is on duty.

“Because the waters’ currents are very strong, and we tell people this all the time, regardless of how strong a swimmer you are, you may not be a match for those water currents,” Moses pointed out. “It’s very important to make sure that you do have your life jacket on, you’re obeying what lifeguards are saying, and you are paying attention to the weather.”

The next two Saturdays, June 4 and 11, are license-free fishing days in Maryland waters. You can download the US Coast Guard app and the Maryland AccessDNR app for information on waterway conditions and warnings.

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Water recreation season is officially under way in Minnesota, and the Department of Natural Resources hopes to see less tragedy on lakes this year.

Boating always has been popular in Minnesota, but state officials say it has reached fever pitch in recent years – accompanied by a rise in deadly incidents on the water. The state recorded 18 boating fatalities last year, the most since 2005.

The DNR’s Recreation Safety Outreach Coordinator Lisa Dugan pointed to a common theme: Most fatalities involve a male not wearing a life jacket.

“You know, as something as simple as putting on a life jacket,” said Dugan. “Could be he’ll be bringing people home at the end of the day, and hopefully prevent somebody from a bad situation getting worse.”

The DNR says the state is also seeing more new boaters, but Dugan stressed that no matter your skill level, it’s always important to keep up with safety information.

The agency offers an online education course.

In addition to checking safety equipment, boaters are urged to be mindful of higher water levels going into this season.

This year’s outreach coincides with a legislative push to require boat operators born on or after July 1st of 1987 to take an education course and receive a permit.

Jeff Forester, executive director of the Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates, said potential passage comes at a crucial time for water recreation in the state.

“We’ve got, per capita, the most boats in the country,” said Forester. “And the boats now are faster and more powerful. They require training.”

Currently, there are only requirements for those between ages 12 and 17. The language was included in an omnibus bill, but lawmakers failed to reach broader spending agreements before adjourning this month.

Supporters hope the provision will still be included if the Legislature reconvenes for a special session.

Disclosure: Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Public Lands/Wilderness, Sustainable Agriculture, Water. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.

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