With the recent die-off of fish in the Animas River, is the waterway’s Gold Medal designation still a fair way to market it to anglers looking for a premier fishing experience?
Colorado has more than 300 miles of streams with Gold Medal status, which is intended to highlight the state’s rivers and creeks that provide outstanding fishing opportunities.
To qualify, a waterway must meet two criteria: have a minimum of 60 pounds of trout per acre and at least 12 trout measuring 14 inches or longer.
In 1996, a 4-mile stretch of the Animas River from the confluence of Lightner Creek down to the Purple Cliffs by Home Depot gained the Gold Medal tag and, ever since, has been marketed as a premier destination for fishing.
“It’s certainly big for us,” said Cole Glenn, manager at San Juan Anglers. “To be able to market the Gold Medal status ... is pretty key for us.”
But in recent years, the Animas River has struggled to live up to the standards required for Gold Medal recognition.
The water quality issues in the Animas are complex, said Jim White, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife based in Durango.
A combination of factors – heavy metals leeching from abandoned mines in the Animas headwaters around Silverton, above-average water temperatures, sediment loading and urban runoff – have had a detrimental impact on aquatic life.
As a result, fish in the Animas River are unable to naturally reproduce, and the waterway must rely on annual stocking of rainbow and brown trout by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
In 2014, the Animas River started showing signs it was not meeting Gold Medal criteria, when a fish survey found a disappearance of large, quality-size trout in the stretch.
It was thought aquatic life would take a devastating hit from the Gold King Mine spill in 2015, which sent an estimated 3 million gallons of mine wastewater down the Animas River. Ultimately, however, subsequent studies showed the tainted waters had no effect on fish.
But in 2018, “everything went to hell,” White said.
Fish and other aquatic life were already stressed from low flows and high water temperatures when torrential rains in July 2018 hit the burn scar of the 416 Fire, sending a torrent of black mud and ash down the Animas River, which killed most of the fish in the waterway downstream of Hermosa Creek.
White said it may take up to four years to again meet Gold Medal standards in the Animas as the river recovers. Still, there’s been no discussion about delisting the impaired waterway, he said.
“The Rio Grande,” White used as an example, “has not met the Gold Medal designation for years, but it’s improving.”
In fact, there’s only been one stretch of river that’s been stripped of its Gold Medal status, an act that would come from CPW’s Wildlife Commission.
In 2016, a 19-mile stretch of the Blue River, north of Silverthorne, lost the designation after wildlife officials decided the fish habitat was too impaired to justify it.
“It became time,” said Jon Ewert, a CPW aquatic biologist for the region. “It’s really a truth in advertising issue ... but the main reason is it didn’t meet the criteria, and to maintain integrity of that designation, we couldn’t in good conscience keep having it on there. For locals who know that reach of river intimately, it became a joke.”
The Blue River has a whole list of its own issues that differ from the Animas. The water in that particular stretch, which is released from Dillon Dam, lacks proper nutrients, which stunts fish growth.
“We could have maintained Gold Medal criteria by dumping a bunch of hatchery fish in there, but that’s not the intention of the designation,” Ewert said.
Chris Refakis, a guide with Cutthroat Anglers in Silverthorne, said business took a little bit of a dip after the delisting. But, because there are so many options for fishing in the area, many of which are Gold Medal, tourism is going strong.
“We do some marketing for the Gold Medal,” he said, “but mostly in town where it’s still listed.”
Ewert said the move served as a wakeup call to the community that water quality problems in the Blue River could no longer be ignored. Now, there’s a stakeholder group that is making progress to address these issues, and it’s not impossible it could regain the Gold Medal listing.
“It’s certainly within reach,” Ewert said.
The Animas River is different.
Mike Japhet worked for CPW for more than 30 years in Durango and was instrumental in securing Gold Medal status for the Animas all those years ago.
At the time, the Animas showed promising signs of providing good habitat for trout to grow large in size, with some registering more than 14 inches. But, it was more popular back in the day to keep and eat their bounty.
As an experiment, the river was divided into two sections, one in which anglers could keep their catch, and another where it was required to put fish back in the river.
“We had the best of both worlds happening,” Japhet said. “The river showed potential it could support big fish and led to the idea that, if we manage it right, we could meet Gold Medal standards.”
After getting local water districts and the community on board, the section from Lightner Creek to Purple Cliffs made it through the Wildlife Commission. But now, it’s not people taking fish out of the Animas that’s impairing populations, it’s far more complicated.
“I’m sure today if it was looked at, it would be questionable the criteria would be met,” Japhet said. “But there’s still a reluctance to rescind it, I think, because everyone is hopeful it could be restored.”
Indeed, Scott Roberts, an aquatic biologist with Mountain Studies Institute, has said it generally takes one to 10 years for a watershed to recover after a wildfire, but because only a small percentage of the 416 Fire burned at high intensity, he expects the timeline for recovery to be on the short end.
And, many wildlife officials, like Japhet and White, are hopeful the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup of mines around Silverton will help with metal contamination issues. EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Peterson said the work in the Bonita Peak Mining District will reduce the frequency of elevated metals in the Animas River, as well as the pulses of metals the agency suspects are being released from the mines.
White said this year’s high runoff will do wonders for aquatic life in the long run. He said wildlife officials plan to stock the Animas this summer and early fall.
“They should have good growing conditions,” he said. “Mother Nature is really resetting the Animas this year for the better. It’s very good for setting those habitat conditions for years down the road.”
Glenn, with San Juan Anglers, said in the meantime, there’s plenty of fishing opportunities around Southwest Colorado.
“We’re just explaining the situation to people,” he said. “But a lot of people come to Durango because they’ve heard about the Animas and how good it is, so we’re hoping it comes back to its former glory.”