Summit County river restoration projects on a roll
A group of organizations partnering to repair environmental damage on a popular Summit County creek are celebrating the work done this year and the project’s near completion.
Mining, logging and railroad and highway construction in generations past dumped sediment in the Tenmile Creek near Copper Mountain.
“It was just sort of 100 years of abuse,” said Jim Shaw, board treasurer for the local nonprofit Blue River Watershed Group, which led the restoration effort.
Climax Molybdenum was the biggest offender. The mine’s dams, built to contain toxic drainage from waste rock, failed, and blowouts caused tons of sediment to rush down the steeper parts of the creek and settle in the flatter parts, destroying habitat and wiping out native flora and fauna.
Changes to the federal Clean Water Act in the 1970s forced Climax to improve its water treatment process, and the mine was no longer an issue, but the damage remained, Shaw said.
In 2013, a multi-year $800,000 effort began to restore the roughly 2,800 feet of stream impacted. Contributing partners included Climax, Copper Mountain Resort, the Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, CDOT, Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, the National Forest Foundation and the town of Frisco.
Now Shaw said the project is essentially done except for three days of re-vegetation work next week and some planting of shrubs and willows in June. The wetlands have been created, and the oxbows — or U-shaped river bends — have been completed.
“We’re just 100-percent ecstatic of the success,” he said. “Everything went exactly as planned this summer. Usually you get a few surprises.”
The Tenmile work had a shorter window of opportunity than other local watershed projects because its hydrology improvements required lower water levels. Construction happened mostly in August and September.
In June 2014, the project was challenged by near record-level spring runoff that persisted for about 10 days and washed away previous work, including a series of riffle pools, or areas where water moves quickly in a shallow, rocky creek.
Though that year’s peak runoff, which looked more like a tall plateau, was unusual, he said, “we took the message seriously.”
The contractors — Ecological Resource Consultants and Tezak Heavy Equipment — repaired most of the damage but left one washed-out riverbank alone, choosing instead to slow the flow of water by installing boulders upstream. Those changes all held through this year’s runoff flows.
The project should mean improved habitat for fish, birds and other creatures and better wildlife watching, fishing and kayaking for humans.
“Hopefully, people will go up and look at the change and see a new channel that looks like what you would’ve thought a stream should look like,” Shaw said.
PREVENTING ORANGE RIVERS
As the Tenmile closes on completion, so does another watershed improvement project across the county.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Colorado Department of Reclamation and Mining Safety (DRMS, pronounced dreams) have been leading a collaborative cleanup effort of the Pennsylvania Mine for the last few years.
In early September, the partners installed a second bulkhead deep inside the mine above Peru Creek east of Keystone. The two bulkheads, or giant concrete plugs, will greatly reduce or eliminate negative impacts from the mine’s acid drainage to water quality and fish habitat.
About eight years ago, the Penn Mine experienced a blowout and sent orange water down into the Snake River and Dillon Reservoir. It’s not the latest mine in Summit County to do so.
The Illinois Gulch Mine above the Stephen C. West Ice Arena blew out a couple years later, and the Blue River ran orange and red through Breckenridge and again into Dillon Reservoir.
Now the EPA and DRMS are doing preliminary investigative work in Illinois Gulch, in partnership with the private property owner who owns the land where the mine pollution is coming from, in hopes of starting a cleanup.
“That issue everybody understands, but there hasn’t been a group to take it on yet,” Shaw said. “The state has made it clear that they’ll find money to help.”
ONTO THE SWAN
For now, the water quality restoration focus in Summit is shifting to the Swan River.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado Basin Roundtable together awarded a $975,000 grant to the county to support a large-scale restoration project on the Swan in March.
The restoration area includes about 3,500 feet of river along Tiger Road, 11 miles northeast of Breckenridge, on public land jointly managed by the county and the town of Breckenridge where dredge mining turned the riverbed upside down.
Over the last month or two, the same contractors who did the Tenmile project studied the first quarter of the Swan River project. Work on that section will start in 2016 and finish in 2017, said Brian Lorch, director of the county Open Space and Trails Department.
The county is leading the project with many of the same partners as the Tenmile stakeholders as well as the town of Breckenridge, Trout Unlimited and two private landowners. The $2 million project is also supported in part by a tax increase voters passed in 2014.
The plan for the rest of the Swan River restoration is less certain as the upper three-quarters is covered by rocks about 40 feet high.
Shaw said the project partners could tackle restoration over perhaps 15 years as an excavation company removes and sells the rock. The other option is to pursue larger grant funds and private donations that would expedite the effort but mean maybe 10 times higher costs and more complicated logistics.
“It’s just a tradeoff of time versus dollars,” Shaw said.
Another restoration project in the works lies on the Blue River north of Breckenridge.
The town plans to start a restoration project in the coming years through a 128-acre town parcel known as the McCain property, which borders Highway 9 to the west, north of Coyne Valley Road.
Lorch said the collectives that have made local restoration projects possible deserve credit as do the various stakeholders, which include nearly every government agency and nonprofit concerned about water quality or fisheries in Summit County.
“Sometimes they feel like they’re moving at glacial speeds, but it’s really neat to see the projects do come to fruition,” he said.
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