Swan River restoration in Breckenridge works toward natural course (video)

Kevin Fixler

Under the watchful eye of Breckenridge’s Tenmile Range, the recently rerouted Swan River continues to flow this spring, smoothing out rough patches and getting used to its new path.

More than a year ago, Summit County’s Open Space & Trails Department with the town of Breckenridge — in addition to a multitude of other partners — initiated the renovation project south of Muggins Gulch Road ahead of Rock Island Road to rid the area of some of its centuries-old mining past. In search of gold, dredge boats destroyed the stretch of water that funnels into the Blue River. Further upstream mounds of rock for as far as the eye can see are what remain.

At a cost of $2.4 million, the first 1-mile phase of the concept wrapped up last fall in the hopes of restoring forestland and riparian areas, as well as recreating wildlife habitat and a self-sustaining trout fishery. Three other mile-long stream segments are left to be addressed over perhaps the next decade, but this summer the focus is on revegetation of the finished section and allowing the river to discover a bit of its own course.

“Right now we want to let nature find its way,” said Jason Lederer, resource specialist with Summit’s Open Space & Trails Department. “We will eventually identify a trail alignment probably next year and reintroduce public access, but we want to make sure the site gets established first so it’s not so fragile.”

Based on best practices and the natural channels of other regional waterways, the stream was reimagined with meandering curves that transitioned a half-mile portion of the Swan into a full mile. Now running according to its assisted corridor, edges are being eroded as surface water meets side-sloping groundwater and the river makes some of its own decisions about how to flow.

To even get to that point, however, it first took removing tens of thousands of cubic yards of rock from the site — a process that had its critics among nearby residents due to added noise and construction congestion on Tiger Road — and then carving the new passage into the earth. A contractor will do the same this fall on the next-most southern stretch when it trucks away 25,000 more cubic yards of gravel while also roughing in another stream depression for future construction.

The completed tract acts as a prototype for what’s to come on that piece of public open space in the next handful of years. Further south past Rock Island Road, two more segments of river located on private land are the target through U.S. Forest Service-assisted easements. Before that can happen, though, upwards of 200,000 total cubic yards of historic crags, must be transported out over the next four years and swapped for more functional soil to ultimately let grasses, willows and a mix of trees grow.

Due to logistical necessity, the project is working its way backwards, starting with the last segment first rather than having begun on those privately held properties and heading toward where the river terminates.

“Ideally we’d be building them in alignment up the stream,” said Lederer. “And ideally we would have started at the top and worked downstream, but we didn’t have the ability to do that because it’s private and there’s a lot of rock up there.”

All said and done, the venture comes with an estimated price tag of approximately $10 million and may not be fully achieved until 2028. County officials say the chance to act as a model to the rest of the state for how mining’s legacy and physical scars can be reclaimed and refashioned into a prized public site is worth the wait, and can’t come soon enough.

“If we could do it today, we’d do it,” said Lederer. “But we kind of have to phase it based on where there’s funding and where there’s access. So this isn’t the end. We’re sort of at the end of the beginning, and there’s a lot of work to be done. We’re just getting started out here.”

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