April 4, 2023

The ten projects that could receive money from the Gold King Mine spill settlement

Gold King Mine after toxic waste was removed. Photo courtesy the Environmental Protection Agency.

The New Mexico Office of the Natural Resources Trustee opened a public comment time period on Friday for the Gold King Mine spill’s draft restoration plan. The plan includes funding for ten different projects in San Juan County.

The Gold King Mine spill in 2015 turned the Animas River bright orange. The water laden with toxic mine waste flowed down from Colorado through San Juan County and later into Lake Powell. 

Contractors with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency triggered the mine spill and New Mexico later reached a $12 million settlement with the agency.

The ten projects that are included in the draft plan are intended to improve water quality or recreation.

Here’s a look at the ten projects:

  • Construction of wastewater management infrastructure on Aztec’s North Main Avenue. For years, much of North Main Avenue in Aztec was little more than a dirt lot with a path leading to a walking bridge connecting downtown with Aztec Ruins National Monument. The city recently completed an extension project that opens up new places for businesses to locate. The draft plan calls for spending $480,000 on wastewater management infrastructure along North Main Avenue.
  • Rehabilitation of one of Aztec’s water reservoirs. The City of Aztec has three reservoirs that store drinking water. One of them has been out of commission for years. That limits how much water the city can store, which could become a challenge in drought years when river levels become little more than a trickle. While the city does have the ability to receive water from the nearby City of Bloomfield, which draws from the San Juan River rather than the Animas River, those pipes are deteriorating. The $950,000 for rehabilitating the water reservoir would increase drinking water resiliency and reliability for the small city of less than 10,000 people in northwest New Mexico.  
  • Construction of a whitewater wave and irrigation diversion dam at Farmington’s Gateway Park. Gateway Park has been a target area for the City of Farmington in recent years as it seeks to expand outdoor recreation opportunities. Gateway Park is located alongside the Farmington Convention and Visitors Bureau offices and the Farmington Museum. The city is working to develop a trail system in Gateway Park that would run along the Animas River and would connect to other river trails. A whitewater wave could attract river enthusiasts. The plan calls for spending $2 million on the whitewater wave and irrigation diversion dam.
  • A boat ramp on the San Juan River in the Nenahnezad Chapter of Navajo Nation. The Nenanhezad Chapter is located west of Farmington and downstream from the confluence of the Animas and San Juan rivers. Many of the Nenahnezad residents farm and were unable to water their crops following the mine spill. A boat ramp could provide increased tourism to the area. The draft plan calls for spending $65,575 on the boat ramp.
  • Water leases agreement. The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission has entered into a water lease agreement for San Juan River water. The San Juan River is New Mexico’s source of Colorado River water. As water levels dropped to historic lows in major Colorado River reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the federal government pressured Colorado River Basin states to find ways to reduce water consumption. The lease of water rights could help the state meet Colorado River Compact requirements. The draft plan calls for about $1.8 million to be spent on the San Juan River Water Lease Agreement Partnership.
  • Preventing the spread of invasive mussels. About a dozen years ago, water samples from Navajo Lake indicated that the invasive quagga mussel may have reached New Mexico. While the mussel hasn’t been found in the state, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish ramped up efforts to find the tiny creature before it can enter the state’s waters. Quagga mussels can wreak havoc on infrastructure, including clogging pipelines. The mussels are present in Lake Powell and boats coming from out-of-state may bring the invasive species into New Mexico waters. The draft plan calls for spending $205,226 to construct an aquatic invasive species station at the San Juan River’s Quality Waters. This could help officials catch the mussel before it enters the waterways.
  • Boat ramps and park improvements. San Juan County has been working to increase outdoor recreation opportunities as fossil fuels decline. The closure of the San Juan Generating Station last year emphasized the need to diversify economic activities in northwest New Mexico. San Juan County boasts a large share of the state’s surface water, which makes river sports a potential outdoor recreation opportunity. The draft plan calls for spending $681,440 on public boat ramps and park improvements in San Juan County.
  • Constructing a new San Juan County Extension Service Office building. Following the mine spill, New Mexico State University’s San Juan County extension service provided valuable information to residents including farmers and ranchers. Currently, the extension service operates out of a small building near the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office in Aztec. The draft plan calls for spending $2.3 million constructing a new building.
  • Water and wastewater improvements for a small subdivision. The Totah Subdivision is an island of unincorporated San Juan County within south Farmington bordering the San Juan River. The water table is high and residents rely on septic systems and wells. Due to the high water table, wastewater from the septic systems has seeped into the groundwater that residents rely upon for drinking water. San Juan County officials have known about the problem since 2015. The solution is to connect the 138 lots in the subdivision to Farmington’s wastewater and drinking water infrastructure, but that comes with a high price tag. In 2016, engineers estimated that it would cost $3.8 million to connect the residents to the sewer system and another $2.5 million to connect to water infrastructure. The draft plan calls for spending $1 million on water and wastewater improvements in the Totah Subdivision.
  • Irrigation ditch diversion project. The draft plan calls for spending more than $1.6 million to construct an irrigation ditch diversion. This would be overseen by the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District.

The public comment period ends on May 1.

People can submit comments through the online portal at https://nmed.commentinput.com/?id=uBZFS or by sending an email to nm.onrt@onrt.nm.gov. Hard copies of public comments can be delivered to 121 Tijeras Ave. NE Suite 1000 in Albuquerque. The zip code is 87102.

All public comments should reference the Draft Natural Resource Restoration Plan #2.