KINGMAN - It could take 18 months to two years for water contaminated by heavy metals spilled into Colorado's Animas River on Aug. 5 to make it to Glen Canyon Dam once it reaches Lake Powell, but state experts are already taking action.
The Arizona departments of Game and Fish and Environmental Quality have and will continue to collect a broad spectrum of samples, both biological and physical, from the Arizona side of Lake Powell to use as a baseline when the contaminated plume does arrive, according to a statement from the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
The long-dormant Gold King Mine was breached when government contractors hired by the federal Environmental Protection Agency were trying to fix a long-term and chronic leak. An estimated 3 million gallons of toxic heavy metals poured into the Animas following the blowout.
The sampling effort will also involve Lees Ferry, about 15 miles downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam. All samples, including fish tissue, will be collected by the middle of October and analyzed for heavy metals, according to Game and Fish. Scientists will use the data to compare historical and future information in an effort to document potential negative impacts to Lake Powell and the trout fishery at Lees Ferry.
The Department of Environmental Quality has submitted samples for testing "with the fastest possible turnaround time," according to Game and Fish, which it will compare to Arizona surface water quality standards and historical data.
The plume of contaminated water has already been significantly diluted. Game and Fish said to put things in context, the plume is about 9 acre-feet of water - an acre-foot represents about 326,000 gallons - while Lake Powell at 50 percent of capacity holds 13 million acre-feet. It will become even more diluted as time goes by, and scientists believe it could take 18 to 24 months before it reaches the dam.
That doesn't mean the level of concern is likewise diluted.
"Although the dilution and travel times are great, the potential impact, both short term and long term, to fish and other natural resources in Arizona must be properly evaluated," said state Fisheries Chief Chris Cantrell.