Farmington flatline: The lower Animas River is dry

UPDATE 7/9/2018: The US Geological Survey determined that their gauge was faulty, and that the river did not actually run dry, per se. Instead of 0 cubic feet per second, the flow fell to a low of 5 cfs. Not exactly comforting. 

This is one for the record books, folks. The flow on the Animas River as it runs through Farmington, New Mexico, has zeroed out according to the US Geological Survey gauge located upstream from the river’s confluence with the San Juan. The previous low for the last day of June was 12.7 cubic feet per second, posted in 2002. The median flow for the date is 1,660 cfs.

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The same stretch ran dry in April of this year, too, the result of extreme dryness, of course, but also upstream withdrawals. The river is running at about 200 cfs in Durango, and is close to that near the state line. But irrigators, the Town of Aztec, and other users pull substantial amounts of water from the already diminished stream, leaving nothing for fish or other aquatic life. Here’s a comparison of Durango and Farmington flows this spring.

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In Durango, the picture’s not so rosy, either. This spring’s flows have been slightly better than in 2002 — the worst year on record — but the river is quickly dropping down to 2002 levels. And it’s lower now than it was in 2013, another year of extreme dryness for the region.

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If one thing is clear from looking at the historical flows, it’s that there is no “normal,” aside from erratic, year to year swings. Dry years are followed by bountiful ones and vice versa. But a look at annual mean flows on the Animas River over the last century and more shows that there is a downward trend. Not only is 2002 the lowest flow on record — sure to be rivaled by 2018 — but both 2012 and 2013 flows were among the 10 lowest on record. Also note that during the last couple of decades, the big years between the meagre ones aren’t nearly as bountiful as they once were.

AnimasMeanFlows

Unless a hurricane style monsoon blasts southwestern Colorado for weeks on end this summer and fall, at the end of this year we can expect the historic rankings for low flows to look like this: #1. 2002; #2. 2018; #3. 1977; #4. 1934; #5. 1931; #6. 2013; #7. 1951; #8. 1959; #9. 2012; #10. 1974.

In other words, over a 120 year span, four of the ten driest years occurred during the last 17 years. I’ll just let that sink in.

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Jonathan P Thompson is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster, 2018, Torrey House Press

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