Cecelia Wallace stood in her garden in the Navajo community of Mexican Water, Utah, surveying her wilting, sun-scorched plants.
The one-acre garden, a green oasis on the southern banks of the San Juan River, has been without water for almost two weeks. Wallace, 60, is one of thousands of Navajo residents downstream from Colorado’s Gold King Mine, which on August 5 began spewing toxic wastewater into the a river that feeds the San Juan, prompting farmers and ranchers to stop pumping water for their animals and crops.
“I don’t know what else to do,” Wallace said. “All I can do is just watch the garden die.”
Wallace, like many farmers and ranchers who rely on the river, got a frantic phone call when news of the spill broke. Hundreds of miles upstream, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) crew had accidentally released three million gallons of wastewater into Cement Creek. The plume was making its way from there to the Animas River, which joins the San Juan River in Farmington, New Mexico, then continues on a 215-mile journey through the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona before emptying into Lake Powell.
“When I heard about it, I went to my garden and picked as much as I could,” Wallace said. “Then we just waited.”
Wallace was one of many who learned about the spill, but not its details. She knew the mustard-colored sludge was moving downstream, but she didn’t know when it would arrive or how long it would poison her section of the river.
It turned out Wallace had four days to prepare. The waste traveled through portions of three states and three Indian reservations, prompting local, state and tribal officials to declare emergencies and restrict access to the river. The plume reached Wallace’s land in the southeastern corner of Utah on Sunday, August 9.
Wallace watched as the water turned gradually from brown to pink to a bright red-orange.
“It was thick as gravy, running slow,” she said. “Upriver, we could see the red color still coming.”
Details trickled in slowly. First, the EPA reported that samples taken from the river contained extremely high levels of heavy metals, including lead at 12,000 times higher than normal. In preliminary statements about contamination and cleanup, the EPA estimated it could take decades to rid the river and its sediments of toxins.
An estimated 2,000 Navajo farmers and ranchers were directly affected by the spill, which is still pouring out of the mine at the rate of 600 gallons per minute, though EPA officials say it is being treated in settling ponds before being released. Two weeks after the initial breach, the EPA reports that the river has returned to its pre-incident condition. The color has faded, and all three states have lifted restrictions on river usage.
But the Navajo Nation has not given the okay to resume using the water. Citing long-term effects of toxins in the riverbed and banks, Navajo President Russell Begaye continues to warn residents to stay clear while the Nation conducts an independent analysis.
Begaye has launched a website called Operation Yellow Water, where he plans to keep residents updated on river conditions, and said he plans to hold the EPA accountable for cleaning up the mess.
“We are asking that people keep using alternate sources of water,” said Mihio Manus, a spokesman for the Nation’s central incident command center. “We are continuing to advise people not to use it to irrigate, to water livestock or to use it for recreation.”
Tanks filled with thousands of gallons of non-potable water are serving ranchers and farmers along the river’s corridor. Trucks hauling bottled drinking water were dispatched to the more remote areas where residents rely on wells.
But in places like Mexican Water, the assistance isn’t going far enough, Wallace said. Here, the nearest paved road is five miles away; the nearest grocery store is 35 miles, and to get to the nearest Wal-Mart, Wallace has to cross two state lines. Here, the spill has left residents shaken, spiritually wrecked and facing financial ruin. And they’re still waiting for answers.
“We knew catastrophe was coming our way, but there was no way to control it,” Wallace said. “We know this river. We know the sediment moves slowly and that the worst of the pollution is yet to come.”
Wallace grew up along a secluded bend in the river where the water is the color of chocolate milk and where the muddy banks are pockmarked with tracks from deer, raccoon and the occasional bear. Tucked into the rust-tinted sandstone cliffs on the far side of the river are remnants of cliff dwellings—evidence that earlier inhabitants also used this fertile valley.
As a child, Wallace and her five siblings bathed and swam in the river. They herded sheep to its banks and labored in the nearby fields, which produced enough food to support the family and many others in the community.
“This was our playground,” Wallace said. “This was where we lived. As a family, we never relied on anyone else. This river was our life support, our income. It sustained us.”
The river is still home for Wallace and four of her siblings, who till the land and grow a variety of produce, including melons, squash, corn and sunflowers—much of which they donate to food banks or deliver to elders.
Wallace’s brother, Gerald Maryboy, keeps a herd of 100 cattle on a neighboring plot. When he learned about the Gold King Mine spill, he chased his herd up the hill and began round-the-clock policing to keep them away from the river.
Maryboy, 57, also turned off his irrigation pump and abandoned his fields of alfalfa. The family’s garden, once a lush green strip along the river, now is brown and wilted. Just weeks ahead of harvest, squash and melons lie rotting in the bone-dry soil.
“We were told that everything within 500 feet of the river was contaminated,” Maryboy said. “You might look at this and say it’s just plants, that they can be replaced. But we treat our plants like living beings. This hurts.”
At the beginning of the third week since the spill, Wallace and her family are bracing for more emotional and spiritual fallout. No EPA crews have visited Mexican Water, Wallace said, and she doesn’t know when, or if, the river will be safe to use.
“Years back, when we were kids, the adults used to bless the river with corn pollen and put the four sacred stones into the water,” she said. “Water is life, so they blessed the water. The earth is sacred. The seeds, the growing things, all of them are sacred. Now what will we do?”