eNews June 2019

NM WRRI Hosts 4th Annual Animas and San Juan Watersheds Conference

by Mark Sheely, NM WRRI Program Coordinator

A bright warm afternoon greeted the roughly thirty participants gathered in the grass of Berg Park in Farmington, NM to kick off a pre-conference field trip associated with the fourth annual Animas and San Juan Watersheds Conference. This year, among researchers and agency staff, another group of attendees stood out. About 17 high school student members of the local NM Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) joined the pre-conference field trip, and would be present throughout the first three days of the conference. YCC students shared with other attendees why they are passionate about New Mexico’s water and natural resources, and offered a potential glimpse at the next generation of water researchers and professionals in the state.

Standing before the YCC students at Berg Park, Robert Cook, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 6, outlined how the long-term monitoring efforts throughout the watersheds as part ofwould be demonstrated for field trip attendees at four different stations: river sondes, sediment sampling, benthic macroinvertebrate study, and watershed physical habitat assessment. Spaced along the shaded riverwalk of the park, the demonstrations attracted even a few local residents out for a stroll.

On the morning of June 19, 95 participants heard welcoming remarks from City of Aztec Mayor Victor Snover, as well as video statements from New Mexico’s U.S. congressional delegation. Dennis McQuillan from the New Mexico Environment Department set the tone for the general session in his opening remarks by posing the question, “What has changed over the past four years?” McQuillan and other presenters at this year’s conference took up this question and provided a clear set of answers: crops, livestock, and public drinking water are safe to consume; WIIN Act monitoring efforts have increased collaboration among many stakeholders; and efforts to identify, control, and treat acid mine drainage should continue.

Themes new to this year’s program included a presentation by attorneys Paul Nazaryk and Anthony Edwards on the fractured and ephemeral legal landscape of legacy mining cleanup efforts, as well as presentations by researchers at Fort Lewis College, including Dr. Gigi Richard on a statewide monitoring effort to enhance understanding of water yield from snowpack at varying elevations across the state of Colorado; and Drs. Gary Gianniny and Cythnia Dott on the apparent feedback system that exists between the thickening sediments of Lake Powell and thickening river sediments upstream.

Four years after the Gold King Mine spill, despite monitoring efforts showing the safety of the water for agricultural and public use, fear and uncertainty about using water from the Animas and San Juan watersheds continue to linger, as indicated by Dr. Karletta Chief’s presentation on the risk perceptions of water within the San Juan Watershed among Navajo farmers. Going forward, it will be vital for agencies to communicate effectively information about the condition of the watershed to the public. As such, the afternoon session on June 20 was devoted largely to a risk communication workshop hosted by Christine Osborne of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. Osborne first highlighted good and bad real-world examples of risk communication before laying out some of the “cardinal rules” of risk communication, addressing the obstacles of effective communication, and sharing possible solutions, including combining explanations of risk with understanding and empathy for the audience, and developing communication plans before the risk becomes an issue.

In the second half of the workshop, attendees split into small groups and were given one of two scenarios involving a chemical spill into the river near the fictional cities of Plentiful and Big Agnes. YCC students, agency employees, and researchers huddled together to come up with their ideal communication response team, and to coordinate a target audience, objectives, and messaging strategy.

The following day, 12 conference presenters gathered at the Shiprock Chapter House for a community teach-in, giving three-minute “flash talks” summarizing their conference presentations, after which a translation into Navajo was provided by interpreter Al Yazzie. The event also saw presentations from Dr. Chief and two of her students from the Diné Exposure Project. Following the flash talks, community members engaged speakers with questions surrounding topics such as water quality standards, legal action regarding the GKM spill, and monitoring efforts of other legacy mines. State Rep. Anthony Allison and Navajo Nation Council Delegate for the Shiprock Chapter, Eugenia Charles-Newton, also gave remarks before the teach-in audience.

On the final day of the conference, seven attendees donned wetsuits, grabbed paddles, and took part in a post-conference rafting field trip down the Lower Animas River. This year’s abundant snowpack meant attendees were treated to exciting albeit cold trip down the river, starting at Santa Rita Park in Durango, CO. Field trip participant Dennis McQuillan (NMED) described the geology of the Durango region, while USGS hydrologist Johanna Blake contrasted USGS river monitoring projects along the rafting route. After three-and-a-half hours on the Animas that included occasional showers and even hail, attendees changed back into dry clothes and concluded this year’s conference.