SILVERTON – Despite fears that the sight of a mustard-yellow river would turn away visitors from Southwest Colorado, ridership on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad increased about 10.5 percent from last year.
Owner Al Harper, riding the train Friday, said this year’s total ridership was 132,000.
In the immediate aftermath of the Aug. 5 blowout at the Gold King Mine, train riders expressed “horror” at the condition of the Animas River.
“Nobody knew what was going on,” Harper said. “We didn’t have the facts. People thought it would destroy the economy, kill off all the fish. But a week later, we were back to normal. The rafters were the ones who got hurt.”
Harper took part in a “Press Car” hosted by the D&SNG, Grand Imperial Hotel and members of the Silverton Chamber of Commerce. David Breed, a Silverton resident who helped organize the event, said the event’s intent was to let the Animas tell its own story.
“Twenty-one and a half miles of the river from Silverton going south to the Rockwood station are only accessible by railroad,” he said. “They offered to bring the EPA, but they never wanted to come and test that section.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, officials tested more than 100 miles of the Animas River, but no data has been collected below Silverton and above Rockwood.
The EPA did not immediately respond Friday for comment. That stretch of the river is difficult to access, which could be one of the reason’s for the lack of water sampling.
“This section of the river needs a chance to speak up,” Breed said.
Along that stretch, visible only to train riders and those who hike in, the riverbanks are stained with orange sediment. For most Press Car participants, the leftover mine sludge was a reminder of the fragility of the Animas River ecosystem as a whole.
“The devil is in the details,” said Buck Skillen, Trout Unlimited chapter president. “You’ve got to look at our river. (Mine waste water) is not the smoking gun in the Animas River in Durango.
“There was too much hysteria,” continued Skillen, pointing out that in Durango, water is more affected by harmful nutrients and urban runoff.
Bill Simon, a co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group who recently resigned, said that while he hoped to have come up with a better long-term solution for water quality improvement, he knew it would extend beyond his time in the group.
Harper, enjoying the view from his train, agreed. Figuring out a way to ensure the health of the Animas River is going to take years, but he said it’s essential not only for the ecosystem to thrive but also for businesses dependent on the river to survive.
“We’ve got to protect the corridor,” Harper said. “That’s what we’re selling.”