When fish die

Faculty/student investigations into river health and its link to human well-being

Human health depends on the health of rivers and forests, which have been impacted by human use of the landscapes surrounding our communities. In the Four Corners Region, the mountains were mined for metals leading to long-term impacts on river health. River water is used for drinking, recreation, and irrigation, and continues to be impacted by resource extraction for natural gas and oil. As these fossil fuels are burned in the US and around the world, climate is changing affecting forests. In 2018, 55,000 acres of our forest burned up valley of Durango in the 416 fire.

What are the signs that human well-being will be impacted by changes in river health due to mining, fire and debris flow? This is the grand question students and I aim to address over the next five years, beginning this past fall with student investigations into the physical and chemical characteristics of water quality after each major rainfall event since the 416 fire. We are also sampling to place temporal measurements at these road accessible sites in the context of the meandering Animas River from Baker’s Bridge to town.

River meanders create areas for deeper pools of water, and greater retention of carbon, metals and debris. Meanders create fish habitat and microbial hotspots for chemical reactions. Fish in the Animas River did not die during the Gold King Mine spill, but many died after the 416 Fire as debris entered the river. The death of fish may or may not be evidence of risk of water quality to human health. We need to know more about pool depths, water temperature, chemistry and debris accumulation across the valley to inform our understanding of why the fish may have died and assess its relation to human health.

The aim is a joint venture into river health driven by faculty and student research interests that dovetails with research in which I’m involved on a different river in Colorado, the East River by Crested Butte, that has been less impacted by mining and with no recent fires. Student research can be in either watershed, although more flexible schedules are needed and fall time investment in sampling for students to work on the East River.

Senior Sem Form