Community Emergency Relief Fund


Carter Reiter, Reporter

On August 8, 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spilled approximately three million gallons of mining wastewater from a defunct mine reservoir into the Animas River.  Roughly eight days later, the EPA deemed the river once again safe for public use, but the damage was done.  National media coverage of the mustard colored river dramatically reduced Durango’s tourism traffic.

Durango’s seven rafting companies went from robust August bookings to a veritable ghost town.  Both raft company business owners and employees suffered from a loss of income.

“We were all in shock for the first day or two and the only phones that were ringing were calling to cancel,” said Molly Mickel, owner of Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep Trail Tours.

Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep Trail Tours (Mild to Wild) runs and average of 107 rafting trips daily throughout the month of August.  After the river was cleared for public use, Mild to Wild ran less than 25 trips daily.

“Losing August was hard, but we’re thankful it wasn’t early July.  It was the last two weeks of our busy season, but it could have been worse,” said Mickel.

The Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado and the Business Improvement District saw the need to provide assistance to employees directly affected by the river’s contamination.

“In less than a week, the Community Emergency Relief Fund (CERF) was reopened, a committee of community leaders was formed and an online application for employees was launched,” said Briggen Wrinkle, Executive Director of the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado.

Employees who applied for the CERF grant received money to assist them in paying living expenses such as rent, gas and groceries.

CERF was originally established to help employees affected by the fire on the 800 Block of Main Avenue in 2008.  The fund had an available reserve of $28,000 which was immediately made available to employees.

“As of September 15, 2015, more than 65 employees have requested assistance to the tune of more than $30,000,” said Wrinkle.

In order to support employees in need of funds, both local businesses and individuals have contributed to CERF including First National Bank, $5,000; LPEA, $4,000; Ballantine Family Fund, $2,500; Bank of Colorado, $2,500; Steamworks Brewery Co. and El Moro Spirits & Tavern, $1,600; and Nature’s Oasis, $500.  Individual donations range from $20 to $500 and total $4,000.

El Moro Spirits & Tavern organized a day long event to help raise money specifically for CERF.  For twelve hours El Moro Spirits & Tavern and Steamworks Brewery Co. donated 100% of their proceeds to CERF.

“Every penny we made was donated to the Community Emergency Relief Fund.  We are so lucky to be so well received by the community, it was simply the right thing to do,” said Dave Woodruff, General Manager of El Moro Spirits & Tavern.

El Moro Spirits & Tavern and Steamworks Brewery Co. gave CERF $1,600.

Despite the community’s generosity, the long term effects of the Gold King Mine spill are undetermined and the rebound of tourism is unpredictable.  Summer employment opportunities at local rafting companies for high school students are still up in the air.

“I’ll probably miss being able to work, edit the photos, and have fun with the staff while I am there.  They have a really great staff.  If anything, I miss working with them the most,” said So. Amina Youssef.

While the national media used the tainted river to poke fun at the incompetence of the EPA, Durango focused on what needed to happen to get our river healthy and safe for recreation.  CERF is just one example of how the community came together to support each other.

“The support continues to flow into the community,” said Wrinkle, “The Trinchera Blanca Foundation, a foundation committed to protecting and improving the land, habitat and quality of life in Colorado’s San Luis Valley and the surrounding region, just recently issued a $5,000 match grant for CERF.”