SUMMIT COUNTY " After completing a successful restoration of the Blue River at Fourmile Bridge, the county and Breckenridge are planning an even more ambitious project in the Swan River drainage.
Where the valley is now covered with piles of dredge rock up to 50 feet deep, local experts hope to rebuild a naturally functioning stream channel and recreate streamside habitat by planting grass and trees.
The conceptual plan for restoration of 1.5 miles of the Swan River has already garnered positive reviews from open space boards and the county commissioners, as well as the Town of Breckenridge. Federal and state agencies with jurisdiction over water quality and wildlife have also expressed support for the project.
Open space and trails director Brian Lorch said he plans to issue a request for proposals within the next few months, and work could begin as early as next summer.
Why the need?
Just like long sections of the Blue, the Swan River was intensively dredged for gold in Summit County's mining heyday. Steam-powered barges chewed their way up the valley, scouring te river bottom all the way down to bedrock to glean particles of the precious metal from the deep alluvium.
Some work in the Swan River drainage, including restoration of the Royal Tiger mine site, has already been completed, pursuant to a big open space deal that brought thousands of acres of former mining land into county and town ownership.
"What can we do to make the rest of it not look like a wasteland," Lorch said, referring to the sprawling piles of bare rock that dominate the landscape. In places, the river is channelized and abuts the road closely. For about half of the length in the planned restoration area, the water disappears completely, flowing beneath the rock piles.
"We want to return the Swan to the surface year-round and restore the natural aesthetics to the valley," Lorch said, touting the environmental and recreational benefits of the restoration.
The first part of the three-phase project is nearly done. Developers of a subdivision in Muggins Gulch removed gravel from the area, trading it for valuable topsoil, truckload by truckload, and using the rock as structural fill for their development.
"They went above and beyond," Lorch said.
For Lorch, the way the work will be funded is just as exciting as the project itself.
"The land pays to restore itself," he said, explaining that revenues from the sale of gravel will cover the cost, just like with the Fourmile Bridge project.
Using that source of funding makes the timing of the work somewhat uncertain, Lorch explained.
"If you're in a hurry to get rid of gravel, it can be a liability," he said. "The demand for the gravel depends on what big projects come along."
But sometime in the next few years, Lorch hopes trout will once again ply the waters of the Swan, diving in deep, cool holes or hiding in the shade of streamside willows.
The exact timing depends on a number of factors, including demand for the gravel in the valley. Just like with the Fourmile Bridge restoration, open space and trails director Brian Lorch expects the project will pay for itself though revenues from selling the rock for structural fill. Grant money will also be part of the funding picture, but Lorch emphasized that no locally generated open space funds will be used for the work.