The Swan River Restoration Project made significant progress in 2018, but hits significant speed bump

A restored section of the Swan River outside Breckenridge, as seen on June 14, 2017. Three miles of the river stretch was destroyed by dredge mining in the early 20th century, but the county is looking to restore it to a natural state.
Hugh Carey /

Building a river and the entire ecosystem around it would seem to be a task reserved for Mother Nature or deities of some high pantheon. But the people of Summit County government and the town of Breckenridge have been doing just that, attempting to repair damage from the area’s dredge mining past with the Swan River restoration project.

Over a hundred years ago, miners dredged the Swan River Valley in their frenzied search for gold and other precious metals at the twilight of the Gold Rush. Using giant, floating mechanized shovels, the river bottom was dug out to sift out dense metals like gold, leaving gravel, cobble and silt behind in huge, gray piles.

The result was a dead river with water flowing through the dug-up detritus but providing no sustenance or habitat for flora and fauna at the surface. For decades, the valley remained abandoned with no hope of self-recovery within a human lifetime.

Back in 2008, Summit County put its eye on the 3-mile gray, dusty eyesore with the grand vision of restoring it to its natural state. The vision was a restored above-ground river with vegetation, fish habitat and recreational opportunities. In 2018, the project saw the most progress yet, with a half-mile of valley floor restored. The riverbed has already become a nesting ground for local birds and 100 trees are growing along the stretch.

Jason Lederer, a senior resource specialist for the county’s Open Space and Trails department, said that the county and its partners are putting finishing touches on a downstream portion known as “Reach A.”

“We’re optimistic that next year we can build a trail access portal and get the public back out there,” Lederer said. “With the dry season we had last year, vegetation growth didn’t do as well as we hoped. Hopefully this moisture we’re getting will continue next year, but until then we need to keep the public away from the area while the site becomes established.”

The next major portion of the project involves gravel and debris removal on the upstream portion, known as Reach B, before attempting restoration there. That involves removing tons of material off-site with trucks, which has drawn the ire of neighboring residents who have complained about safety and noise issues related to traffic.

Last summer, local opposition was so strong that county commissioners upheld a ruling that denied construction materials company Peak Materials a permit to crush rock on-site at Mascot Placer for delivery elsewhere. A legal battle between the county and Peak Materials is ongoing, but in the meantime there is some question about how or when the material at that site can be cleared for restoration.

“Obviously, it delays one of the goals for the county, which is restoration of the valley,” Lederer said. “But we are still optimistic that down the road, something will happen down there that lets us move forward.”

Open Space and Trails director Brian Lorch said the county is excited about the future of the Swan River restoration.

“We are creating a great amenity for the public of Summit County with a restored stream as compared to a degraded riverbed with mine dredge piles,” Lorch said. “We are creating a beautiful new habitat and new recreational area in the process.”

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