Blue River Watershed Group helps secure federal funding to reduce metals pollution in high country stream
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — With $283,000 in grant funding from the EPA, the Blue River Watershed Group will be able to tackle three different cleanup projects in the Snake River Basin this summer, taking steps toward reducing some of the toxic heavy metal pollution in the stream.
The grant funding was a direct result of watershed plan for the Snake River Basin, said Steve Swanson, the new executive director of the nonprofit group. Swanson said all three projects will be carried out in partnership with Trout Unlimited and the Summit Water Quality Committee. All the work will be passive treatment in some of the highest Snake River tributaries above Montezuma, where acid mine drainage loads the stream with zinc, cadmium and lead.
The three targets for this summer are the abandoned Silver Spoon and Brittle Silver mine sites in Cinnamon Gulch, and the abandoned Delaware Mine in Warden Gulch. In all three cases, the work will focus on moving piles of waste rock away from flowing water, or routing surface water around tailings piles to prevent contamination.
These types of cleanup can help reduce the metals loading in the stream bit by bit, Swanson said. Other projects that include direct treatment of water are much more costly and are subject to a complex and lengthy review and approval process under the Clean Water Act.
Together with natural sources, the abandoned mines in the basin contribute to concentrations of metals that exceed federal limits. As a result, parts of the Snake River are on a mandated clean-up list, with the long-term goal of restoring water quality to the point that the stream can sustain fish.
One key long-term goal in the basin is to clean up the abandoned Pennsylvania Mine, which has been identified as one of the biggest sources of acid mine drainage. But as scientists study the pollution at the Pennsylvania Mine, they are finding that the cleanup could be more complex than originally envisioned.
This past summer, researchers did a dye tracer study to try and figure out how clean surface water flows through the mine tunnels. The year before, the EPA and U.S. Geological scientists took soil samples in wetlands near the mine to try and pinpoint where the metals are accumulating. They also dripped a saline solution into the water near the Pennsylvania Mine and monitored Peru Creek a few miles downstream to study how materials are transported by the stream.
Read more about the cleanup efforts here.
The Blue River Watershed Group also has a new watershed coordinator, John Hagan, who came to the local program after graduating from the University of Oregon’s environmental studies program. Get more information about Swanson and Hagan here.
The pair is hoping to bring a higher level of awareness about the challenges facing the Blue River watershed to the public with more outreach efforts and events. Hagan is planning a program in cooperation with the Keystone Science School for the summer, and Swanson said one of his early goals is to spread the word about the potential impacts of expanded Denver Water diversions from both Grand and Summit counties with a project currently under review by federal agencies.
A draft study shows that Denver Water’s plan to expand the Grand County Moffat Collection system would also take between 4,000 and 5,000 acre feet of additional water from Dillon Reservoir each year. Flows in the Blue River, where it meets the Colorado near Kremmling, could be cut by as much as 4,800 acre feet annually — about 2 percent of the river’s flow, according to figures released in the draft study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers .
Denver Water officials have said that the impacts to fisheries and boating in Summit County would be negligible, but Swanson said that, especially in dry years, the increased diversions would be very noticeable and have an effect on Summit County’s recreation economy.
A comment period on the Denver Water plan runs through March 1. Read more about the potential impacts to Summit County, link to the draft study and find out how to comment by clicking here.