Questions linger about Snake River
The Snake River watershed, encompassing the vicinities of Arapahoe Basin, Montezuma, Keystone and Summit Cove, is one of the few remaining areas in the Upper Colorado River Basin that does not meet water quality standards. Both the upper Snake River and Peru Creek, a major tributary to the Snake River, are on Colorado’s 2004 303 (d) list; a list required by the federal Clean Water Act of water bodies that do not meet water quality standards. Fish and aquatic life are absent in much of this watershed, and the impaired water creates complications for the expanded use of the resource.
Metals contamination comes from a combination of old abandoned mines and natural sources due to mineralization. The streams are impaired due to high concentrations of cadmium, copper, lead and zinc. Both existing and future activities on public and private lands in the Snake River watershed face constraints that could cause impacts to important social and economic development. It’s imperative that actions are taken to reduce metals pollution, improve the environment and protect water supplies in the watershed. In 1999, the Snake River Task Force was formed to deal with these water quality issues. Many entities, including local government, national organizations like the U.S. Forest Service, ski areas, state universities, local volunteer groups and numerous citizens have worked together to solve the water quality issues in this watershed. However, it has been clear since its inception that there is no single entity or agency prepared to take on the liability associated with the design, construction and operation of mine remediation projects in this basin. There are a number of issues that need to be addressed prior to beginning clean-up in the Snake River watershed. Based on an interpretation of the Clean Water Act, significant liability may fall on any entity associated with treating acid mine drainage. This poses a great risk for an organization or local government to assume responsibility for the project. While groups work to find ways to reduce the liability, there is still the question of who should take on the responsibility.
It is also a challenge to assess the amount of clean-up that should be considered reasonable. With significant natural metals contamination, is it realistic to return all of the Snake River and Peru Creek to pristine native fishery status? Should the focus be on man-made pollution, or should some natural sources of metals be addressed? Jim Shaw, who has been involved with the Snake River Task Force since 1999 and is a Blue River Watershed Group Board Member, believes, “We should work to clean up the negative legacies from our mining heritage, but we should not expect high mountain headwaters that flow through heavily mineralized areas to ever be pristine trout fisheries.” Shaw completed the feasibility study which addresses various different clean-up options at the Pennsylvania Mine, a major polluter of Peru Creek. Lastly, who or what organization should make these decisions? And what is a reasonable expenditure of public resources?
The Blue River Watershed Group will host a public forum to discuss these issues. Speakers will discuss technology that is available to address the water quality issues associated with the acid mine drainage. Public participation is welcomed and encouraged. Active involvement and community feedback is fundamental for progress in the Snake River Watershed. The forum will be held from 6:30-8 p.m. on Thursday at the Community and Senior Center near Frisco. Shanna Koenig is the co-director of Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Water Quality and Quantity Committee.
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