SALT LAKE CITY — A river in Colorado that was turned sickly yellow by a mine waste spill reopened to recreational uses Friday after the now-diluted toxic plume reached Lake Powell — a huge reservoir 300 miles downstream that feeds the Colorado River and supplies water to the Southwest.

Water officials said the plume that includes lead, arsenic and other heavy metals now presents little danger to users beyond Lake Powell — such as the city of Las Vegas — because the contaminants will further settle out and be diluted in the reservoir along the Utah-Arizona border. But other officials and some wildlife experts are concerned about the spill’s long-term effects on the environment and the economy.

Federal contractors reportedly released more than 3 million gallons of wastewater laden with heavy metals last week at the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. The pollution flowed downstream to New Mexico and Utah. New Mexico officials had issued a precautionary ban on water from private wells throughout the Animas River valley but lifted the ban Friday, keeping in place warnings not to drink water from the river or give it to livestock.

Gov. Susana Martinez also formed a special team of officials from several state agencies to monitor the spill’s long-term effects.

Martinez toured the spill by helicopter Friday for the second time in less than a week. She said New Mexicans deserve to know the long-term effects the disaster will have on downstream communities.

“As the river begins to clear up, there are still many questions left unanswered by the EPA,” she said. “New Mexicans deserve to know the long-term effects this environmental catastrophe will have on our communities, our agriculture and our wildlife.”

On the Navajo Nation, tribal officials continued to warn residents and farmers not to use water from the San Juan River, which was also polluted as a result of the spill.

The tribe has set up freshwater stations for residents and water was being delivered for farmers and livestock.

Corey Enus, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada Waste Authority, said the 3 million-gallon spill was dwarfed by the 10 trillion gallons of water in the Colorado River system, which includes Lake Powell. His agency estimates the wastewater will make it out of Lake Powell in about two weeks.

The picturesque reservoir is a hot spot popular among tourists for fishing and other recreation.

Utah’s state fish biologist Richard Hepworth said he’s not expecting fish to die off, but he said there could be long-term effects on species such as striped bass.

“My concern is, can people still eat these fish?” he said.

The man-made reservoir doesn’t have the same diversity of species seen in naturally occurring bodies of water, said Mark Anderson, aquatic ecologist at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. But some native fish, like the razorback sucker, are repopulating, and there are fears the recovery could be in danger because of the contaminants.

Aquatic ecologist Chuck Hawkins at Utah State University compared the long-term effects of the spill to smoking.

“If I smoke every day of my life, I may only live to 50 or 60 vs. 70 years,” he said. “Even low concentrations when experienced over many days and weeks and years could have an effect.”

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the spill poses a serious threat to the environment and the economy. Bishop, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, plans to visit Lake Powell on Monday.

Meanwhile, some businesses in the river-based economy near the spill site in Colorado might not recover this year, even with the reopening of the Animas River to rafting and kayaking on Friday, said Tom O’Keeffe, owner of Durango Rafting Co.

“Your average soccer mom is going to be scared off,” he said, adding that nervous rafters will probably just pick another river.

“My phone stopped ringing four or five days ago,” he said.

AP writers Ivan Moreno in Denver and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque contributed to this report.

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(1) comment

Diane Denish

Interesting that Governor Martinez is so interested in protecting water quality while at the same time destroying it for so many small communities in Southern NM by rolling back mining regulations.

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