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river lover

2015 August 14
by Rachel Turiel


Last Thursday—bodies crammed into semi-dry, sand-pocked bathing suits, inner tube cinched to bike trailer, kid-friendly provisions jostling in the backpack—we were out the door to meet friends at the Animas River. Just before hopping on bikes, my friend Sue called with the cryptic news that she heard from a neighbor who heard from a friend who saw on Facebook: a mining spill at the Animas River’s headwaters in Silverton was coursing down the river, the one into which we were fifteen minutes from jumping.

Photo by Jonathan Thompson of High Country News, accompanying this excellent article.

That night we joined a throng of people on a river beach to bear witness as the toxic plume—an opaque orange bisque—merged into the previously clear water. Like a vigil for an ill friend, maybe the one friend every local has in common, we showed up without much more to offer than our care. The orange water flowed past us. Orange. There were gasps amongst the crowd. Parents hissed anxiously at their kids to get back from the edge (ok, that was us). People stared in shock at the infested waters, some discussing theories and predictions, others in what seemed to be quiet prayer. It seemed unthinkable that any living creature could survive these waters painted in thick metals.


Photo courtesy of Mountain Studies Institute

As NYT writer Julie Turkewitz says, the Animas River is the cultural soul of this patch of Colorado. It’s the heartbeat, the lifeblood, a wild aqua ribbon bustling with heron, deer, muskrats, kingfishers and children. It’s the place where this summer my kids found a garter snake with a live fish in its mouth; the place where canada geese lead fuzzy, yellow goslings through the paces of childhood; the place where teenagers soused on hormones tether their inner tubes and pledge forever love; it’s a place that offers something wild, something adventurous, something soothing, as well as shelter and food to many different species.


Having a wild river run through town is like having access to an ever-changing public art installation. It’s the very definition of dynamic, its seasonal and climactic changes are the true current events of this town. In the winter it’s iced over on brutally cold mornings. In the spring the river swells in rushes of sediment-brown run-off. In the summer, the water is clear, cold, and inviting. And in fall, the river shrinks, its rocky bones exposed. This river is the backdrop of our lives, a living metaphor reminding us of the nature of change.

I am also aware that in many ways we are all guilty. We all benefit from mining—hello, ieverything—but it happens on other continents and fouls other people’s backyards. Really, this is a small sampling of the way our desire for the next cool thing always has repercussions.

There is some good news. Macroinvertebrates and fish seem to be holding on. The surface water is, one week later, at pre-event levels for heavy metals. The issue of toxic mining debris has entered public discussion. There is some bad news. The toxic spill continues to pollute downstream waters. The orange muck has settled into the banks and river bottom, and is draped over rocks. There are 400 more mines around the headwaters of Silverton, potential disaster sites in the making. Many farmers and ranchers depend on this river for irrigation. A portion of our drinking water comes from the Animas.

There is still much unknown.

One week later, our sandy bathing suits still hang in the bathroom waiting for better news.

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    August 14, 2015

    Rachel, Such a touching view of our painful river problem, from a family perspective. Thanks also for including link to Jonathan Thompson’s article

  2. Brenda permalink
    August 14, 2015

    We are one family down river from you (in Aztec) that depends on the river for irrigating our large garden, our pastures of livestock and drinking water….what a sad story this is….we wait anxiously for the water to run in our ditches again….

  3. August 14, 2015

    You have been in my thoughts–sort of a symbol for all that life the Animas river carries–and my thoughts have been so much with those waters.

  4. August 14, 2015

    a highly pressured piece to write
    done so out of dharmic obligation
    (the toughest kind, i know)
    yet, you – like the Perdidas herself –
    Rose like your daughter to the occasion…

    well done,
    head bowed,
    spirit vowed,

    { }

    ps: was sitting next to Dan today as Rose CRANKED WITH ELEGANCE through her Horse Performance!

  5. Barb permalink
    August 14, 2015

    thank you for writing about the river. It, and you all, continue to be much in my thoughts. Love, Barb

  6. Ellie permalink
    August 14, 2015

    I thought of all of you as soon as I heard the news and was waiting to hear your thoughts. Our thoughts are with your whole community of living creatures.

  7. August 15, 2015

    I don’t comment often, if at all, on your blog, but I really love it. When the news of the spill happened I knew that y’all had recently been on the Animas as per your blog and have been wondering how it had impacted your lives. Thanks for sharing your point of view. So heartbreaking to read about from afar and I can imagine the heartbreak is real for those who actually enjoy it.

  8. August 15, 2015

    You and your family and community have been in my thoughts since I first heard the news. Words cannot adequately convey my sorrow. xox

  9. August 17, 2015

    I’m so sorry. I thought of you, Rachel, when I first read the news, saw the ghastly photos, and of a glimpse of the Animas out our car window during our recent, brief drive through Durango, and our crossing of it on our long-ago Colorado Trail adventure. But it is a river I do not truly know, as you do, and what a fitting tribute you’ve written here. It’s truly tragic how we squander our natural heritage and our most vital and precious resources–clean air and water. I hope that that glowing orange water can serve as a wake-up call and a call-to-arms for cleaning up our mining messes.

  10. August 25, 2015

    This makes me sick. I thought of you when I heard about this on the news last week– I wondered if it was in your neck of the woods. How awful. As a Gulf Coast resident, I know the pain of having your beloved water fouled by an awful accident. And you’re right– we’re all guilty here. Thinking of you and hoping for better news soon!

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