What Does the Toxic Plume Mean for Lake Powell?

Ninety-two years after a Colorado gold mine shut down, arsenic and lead from its operation are causing an environmental disaster in at least three U.S. states.

On Wednesday, August 5 at about 10:30 a.m., an apparent accident caused by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) resulted in a toxic plume of wastewater discharging into Colorado’s Animas River. Since Wednesday, the plume has been moving downstream at approximately 5 mph en route to the San Juan River, Lake Powell and the Colorado River.

The disaster is receiving extensive national coverage from the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and New York Times along with most major television news outlets. Officials at Arizona’s Glen Canyon Recreation Area expect the wastewater to arrive at Lake Powell early this week.

According to the EPA, pH levels near the site of the spill in Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas, resemble the acidity of tomato juice, and some water in Silverton, Colo. — farther downstream from the source of the disaster—has a pH level consistent with that of black coffee. A preliminary test by the EPA confirms that at least two contaminants in the wastewater are lethal for humans with long term exposure: arsenic and lead.

The EPA says three million gallons of the toxic wastewater has spilled into the ecosystem. By Saturday, EPA officials had slowed the spill from 740 gallons per minute to 548 gallons per minute and built settling ponds to stem the impact of the spill. Thus far, the EPA has said the plume contains not only lead and arsenic, but copper, cadmium, zinc and aluminum as well.

The Denver Post reports:

“It is a sad day. The fish could be gone,” said Daniel Silva, 37, who was fishing near Durango as he does every day after work. “I am safety-orientated. Working in the oil fields, we take measures every day to prevent leakage. Why didn’t they? If this kills the fish, what do we do?”

After people told him the contamination was coming, he stopped fishing, and his daughter, who was swimming, got out of the water. And they waited on a bridge.

The Silva family waited on this:

By Saturday morning, the plume of what onlookers described as “sludge” had reached New Mexico. Locals told the L.A. Times that the plume’s initial bright orange appearance had faded into a lighter, brown shade. However, the EPA says heavy metals in the plume will continue to be dispersed downstream. Humans have been warned to avoid entering or consuming the water.

But what does that mean for fish?

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, whose territory borders Lake Powell, is telling residents not to consume fish from the 254-square mile lake. “The impact isn’t immediate in many cases,” Begaye told Arizona’s 12 News, “It’s how much of the chemical is absorbed into the fish life, how much of that will our people fish out of the water and consume.”

Upstream on the Animas, near the site of contamination, the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife placed brown and rainbow trout into cages in the river to test their reaction to the water quality.

As of August 13, 2015, all but one of the fish was still alive; so far, no fish kills have been reported in the plume’s path.

Lake Powell lies over 275 river miles from the Animas River. The toxins must reach Powell via the San Juan River. However, when they do eventually reach Powell, the disaster will officially join the flow of the Colorado River, immediately upstream from The Grand Canyon, and popular fisheries like lakes Mead and Havasu.

Predicting the plume’s impact on those fisheries, like Powell, is an inexact science. Many times more water flows through the Colorado and through its reservoirs, and Powell alone is home to at least 14 species of fish.

The environmental impact, then, of this spill, appears to more immediately affect people than wildlife. Irrigation and drinking water supplies along the toxin’s path have been shut off. Begaye’s Navajo Nation has declared a state of emergency.

And what does seem certain—as government agencies across three states scramble to manage the spill—is that the EPA has a serious problem on its hands.