Historic dredging to blame for dry river in Breckenridge
Ryan Summerlin December 11, 2012
Towns historians and officials are connecting the recent low flows of the Blue River through Breckenridge to historic dredge mining at the turn of the century, which was the huge economic driver of the economy until the 1940s.
Even before the ski resort was founded in Breckenridge, the Blue River often saw low flows, according to historians. As a result of the dredging, the river appears to dry out. However, the water table lowers under the riverbed before re-emerging and draining into Dillon Reservoir, said Gary Roberts, the water division manager for the town of Breckenridge.
Robin Theobald, a longtime Breckenridge resident and historian, said that during the dredging in the early 20th century, environmental standards were not like they are today and low flows appear yearly as a result.
“They didn’t care – the dredging has had lasting effects on the Blue River but it created so many jobs for the people back then,” Theobald said. “Year after year, fish would survive the dredging – it was easy for them to justify that type of work when it contributed to the well-being of so many residents of Breckenridge during that time.”
Thinking the dredge mining would provide jobs during The Depression, the town of Breckenridge allowed miners to operate from northern town limits through to the south end of Main Street.
Dredge boats were capable of digging up ground within the Blue River up to 70 feet in the riverbed. The dredge removed vegetation, cobblestone, sediment “literally turning the riverbed upside down, devastating its normal flow,” according to information from the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.
After dredging was outlawed in Breckenridge, the population of the town declined to approximately 254 individuals. What was once the livelihood of Breckenridge’s economy, dredge mining left behind piles of excess rock, sediment and cobblestone extracted from the devastated riverbed.
Then, in 1982, the town of Breckenridge began restoration of the Blue River. Certain areas through town were lined to keep flows above the surface while other areas were rehabilitated.
However, drought conditions and low snowpack levels contribute to the the river’s low flow in many areas through town, according to Troy Wineland, Summit County water commissioner.
The minimum bypass flows at the diversion point for Breckenridge Ski Resort’s snowmaking is 2 cubic feet per second. Downstream on the river near Tiger Road, the minimum streamflow requirement is 10 cfs.
“The minimum bypass flows are being met, but the streamflows are so deficient the river is not flowing above the surface of the streambed – I need to stress that the water is there, you just can’t see it because it’s sub-surface in some sections,” Wineland said.
Though the town of Breckenridge rehabilitated through-town sections of the river that were devastated from historical dredge work, the section with lowest flows Tuesday was a restored area that was left without an impermeable liner to keep streamflows above the surface, Wineland said.
Roberts said the same minimum flow requirement of 2 cfs at Maggie Pond will be required for the town, which holds the senior water right of the Goose Pasture Tarn.
“We don’t want to approach the low level requirements,” Roberts said. “When Breckenridge Resort is done with snowmaking in January, the town will lower the flow and store extra water in the Tarn reservoir.”
The drying of the river in certain areas is normal and has been common during the early winter months, according to Wineland and longtime residents of the area.
“When I was a little boy, water disappeared in August,” said C.J. Mueller, a resident of Breckenridge. “The river flows now, as a result of the rehabilitation by the town, is a major improvement over what it used to be. Low flows are just a fact of life.”
During the drought conditions, Wineland said all entities utilizing water from the river are meeting the minimum flow requirements.
“It’s important to realize the combination of factors: Historic low flows, snowmaking and the streambed is simply more visible during this time absent the snow cover,” Wineland said. “I’m responsible for monitoring and keeping track of the river flow so once the town or the ski areas start approaching those then that’s when I start having those conversations about what we can do to curtail water use and make sure those minimum flows are being met.”