`All of the fish are dead’
They were just lying there, dead on the bottom of the Roaring Fork River.
But no one yet knows what killed all of the fish on a short stretch of the river, a quarter-mile long beginning at the Mill Street Bridge.
According to people who witnessed the carnage on Saturday, the fish died and sank to the bottom of the river. Just upstream, however, people reported that trout were as plentiful as ever.
Kelly Wood, a wildlife manager with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said the angler who originally reported the dead fish estimated that between 100 and 150 fish were killed. Wood, based in Basalt, is investigating the incident because Aspen District Manager Kevin Wright was off duty over the weekend.
Wood also received reports that after a heavy rain Saturday, water pouring into the river from a storm drain on Mill Street had an unusual look.
“I’m also getting some reports of some cloudy, soapy-looking liquid coming out of the storm sewer,” Wood said.
Wood said she received a call late Saturday evening and began to investigate Sunday morning. She collected 15 fish under the bridge and sent them to the DOW’s fish pathologists, who operate out of Brush.
Wood said the dead fish were all brown trout. That’s not surprising, however, because browns are about the only species normally found on that stretch of river. Fishermen break the news Micah Freitas, an angler who works near the Mill Street Bridge, said he observed an odd substance pouring out of the storm drain on the north side of the river, downstream from the bridge.
Freitas said he often looks at the river from the bridge when he passes, because he fishes there.
Just after the rainstorm, at around noon, the water pouring from the outlet was colored by “bubbly, white, foamy stuff,” he said. “It looked like laundry detergent.”
He said he’s seen strange-looking liquids come out of that pipe before, but this was worse than ever.
Freitas went fishing with a friend at around 5:30 or 6 p.m. Saturday, near the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, which is just downstream from the drain. Bad news awaited them.
“We saw this other fisherman, and he said, `All the fish are dead,'” Freitas said.
It appeared that all the fish were had recently died, belly up on the bottom, with their colors intact. Rigor mortis hadn’t even set in, he observed.
“Something happened quickly,” he said. “It looked like they all died at once.” The fish didn’t look as if they were diseased, he said.
“It just looked like they were all zapped, or something,” he said.
Dale Abrams, director of education at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, said he was at ACES Saturday when an angler passed him on his way to the river at about 2 p.m., after the downpour. The fisher returned before 4 p.m. and told Abrams the fish in the river were all dead.
Abrams walked along the river with photographer Todd Patrick Sunday, he said. Patrick had been informed of the situation Saturday evening by friends.
“What Todd and I saw, that stood out, was that we couldn’t find a single live fish in the water,” Abrams said. But upstream of Mill Street, the opposite was true. “We followed the river clear up to Herron Park and we didn’t see a single dead fish up there.”
Patrick said he and Abrams saw perhaps 30 dead fish.
“They were all just laying on the bottom,” he said. “It was bizarre.”
Alan Czenkusch, fisheries biologist for the DOW, said it’s likely that a contaminant of some kind washed into the river at Mill Street. The substance remained lethal until the water was diluted downstream by water rushing in from Hunter Creek.
Czenkusch said it’s normal for dead fish to sink to the bottom in cold water. They will only float after they start to decompose, he said, and that won’t happen for a few days in the Roaring Fork.
There are a lot of substances which could kill fish, Czenkusch said, and it’s going to be difficult to determine what happened.
“I could sit here and make up 15 or 20 plausible theories,” he said. Water department at fault? The city of Aspen’s water department personnel are wondering if something they did Friday could have anything to do with the dead fish.
Water department supervisor Phil Overeynder said a power outage left the department with 3,000 gallons of overchlorinated water from the Little Nell well.
The water couldn’t be released through the city’s treatment plant, because it would kill the bacteria used to process the sewage. Instead, it was treated with sodium thiosulfate-pentahydrate, Overeynder said, the same material used to dechlorinate water for home fish tanks. It was released into a storm drain at about 1 p.m. Friday.
That storm sewer drains the Durant Mine Tunnel, and has a fairly sizable flow at all times, Overeynder said. And it dumps into the pond near the Theater in the Park tent before flowing into the Roaring Fork River some 500 feet upstream from the Mill Street bridge, he said.
Overeynder said he was confident no chlorine went into the river, because his department monitored the discarded water both before and after it went into the storm drain. But he said there was some concern the sodium thiosulfate-pentahydrate might have reduced the dissolved oxygen content of the river.
“I don’t think it’s very plausible,” Overeynder said, “but it’s possible something happened that we don’t know about.”
Wood expects it will be a long time before anyone figures out what killed the trout.
“It’s just getting started,” she said. “We have a lot of questions.”
Both Wood and city of Aspen environmental health director Lee Cassin said they would appreciate additional information from anyone who witnessed anything that could have caused the fish kill. Wood’s number is 947-2931, and Cassin’s is 920-5075.
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