Can three million gallons of toxic waste spill into the Pine/Los Pinos River? Or could another spill in the Animas River reach here?
First, the Pine River drainage is separate from the Animas River drainage, with Missionary Ridge serving as the natural dividing line between the two. The Aug. 5 spill of toxic waste from the Gold King Mine into Cement Creek and the Animas River can not cross into any of the Pine River tributaries.
Second, with the exception of a few small mines that were closed long ago in in Tuckerville, north of Vallecito, there hasn't been much mining along the Pine River.
Still, the Animas River is not far from Bayfield and Ignacio, and it runs through the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, so environmental and economic repercussions will be felt in Bayfield and Ignacio.
Tribal staff from the Southern Ute Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Programs Division are testing samples of Animas River water in the reservation boundaries, according to the tribal newspaper, The Southern Ute Drum.
Acting Tribal Chairman Ramona Eagle declared the spill a local disaster on Aug. 8.
"The environmental and economic consequences of this disaster will not be known for some time, but the tribe is doing everything in its power to respond to this terrible situation and safeguard the health of our tribal members, the aquatic life, and other affected natural resources," Tribal Chairman Clement J. Frost said in a press release from the tribe.
There will be ripple effects from the spill and subsequent shutdown of the river for months to come.
At a minimum, the mining spill in the Animas River will cause a multimillion dollar loss to the area economy, a local economic expert estimated last week.
"This is a man-made disaster," said Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of the La Plata County Economic Alliance. "It's striking at the heart of what our community is all about."
Zalneraitis was taking a walk on the river trail on Aug. 7, joining dozens of tourists and locals who were stopping to stare at the oddly colored orange water flowing by.
The alliance works to recruit and retain businesses in the county. While the rafting and kayak businesses are obviously impacted, the ripples in the economy from the spill will spread beyond the Durango area, Zalneraitis said.
The Environmental Protection Agency needs to be held to the same standards that a business would if it had caused the spill, said Jack Llewellyn, the executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce.
On Wednesday, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said the City of Durango can begin to use the Animas River to collect and treat water for customers.
"We are working with affected systems to increase sampling and monitoring," said Dr. Larry Wolk, the department's director and chief medical officer, said in a press release. "Water quality could change due to storms or other conditions, and we will respond quickly to any potential issues."
The department recommends testing of private wells used for drinking water located within one mile of the Animas River as a precaution.
The EPA, assisted by county staff, this week tested about 75 water wells near the Animas.
The county is working with area ditch companies to flush ditches out before opening up headgates that were closed before the plume came down the river. Even with headgates closed, some river water seeped into the ditches.
"We are pleased that the community and our local, state and federal partners are taking these steps to bring our irrigation back online for our farmers and ranchers," said Liane Jollon, director of the San Juan Basin Health Department. "Based on the test results to date, the flowing water has returned to pre-incident levels."
The information number for the spill is 385-8700.
The Southern Ute Tribe has set up an information number for tribal members at 563-5025.