Climate change is eroding work to clean up the Snake River near Keystone |

Climate change is eroding work to clean up the Snake River near Keystone

A warmer, drier Alpine is impeding water quality for streams and rivers

Elizabeth Miller
The Colorado Sun
Machine-made snow crystals, created by snow guns above, trickle onto a ski run during a cold afternoon Nov. 25 at Keystone Resort.
Hugh Carey/For The Colorado Sun

KEYSTONE — The Snake River wends through this resort village, rushing streamside condos, beckoning anglers to cast after rainbow trout and, at some point in the year, funneling into equipment Keystone ski area uses to make snow.

But a few miles upstream, the river is a braid of smaller streams that scour a mineral-rich basin pocked with dozens of abandoned mines. Water flows through mine shafts and heaps of blasted rock, becoming acidic and laden with heavy metals as it rolls across Summit County and into Dillon Reservoir.

High Country hikers and trail runners traversing Chihuahua Gulch, Argentine Pass and Peru Creek below Ruby Peak and Grays Peak sometimes pass streams running so thick with these metals that the water appears white, pale green, or rusty orange.

For the last 20 years, the Snake River Watershed Task Force has coordinated state, federal and county agencies along with nonprofits on expensive projects to stanch pollution flowing from mines, hoping to improve downstream water quality for aquatic wildlife and recreational users. The coalition has made progress in cleaning up the Snake River, but a warming climate is reversing those gains.

The mines have long been seen as the major contributors in an admittedly dispersed problem — the cannonballs in a spray of buckshot. But a growing body of research suggests climate change is accelerating the pace at which acidic water and heavy metals run out of the basin, including from the mineral belts scattered throughout in the mountains themselves. Forty years of research shows marked increases in metals that are toxic to aquatic life, capable of killing trout and insects that fish live on.

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