Colorado: New life for the Arkansas River

Major restoration project set for the summer

Historic smelting activity around Leadville helped build Colorado’s wealth but destroyed precious natural resources. PHOTO COURTESY COLORADO HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
Acid mine drainage in the Upper Arkansas River Basin. PHOTO COURTESY EPA.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Decades of industrial-scale mining left parts of the Upper Arkansas around Leadville mostly lifeless, but restoration efforts at the California Gulch Superfund Site, along with treatment of contaminated water, should help boost some aquatic life to one of Colorado’s big rivers.

This summer’s project is a key part of the federal and state effort to restore an 18-square mile area where mining led to the discharge of heavy metals and acid at the headwaters of the Arkansas, making the river in that area unable to sustain healthy fish populations. The river currently supports a good trout population because of earlier mine cleanup efforts and will be further enhanced by the upcoming habitat improvements.

“The planning for this project has been going on for many years and people in the area are excited to see it moving forward,” said Greg Policky, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in the area. “By this summer we hope to be in the river and physically manipulating the habitat to restore the environment for aquatic life in that section. Over the next few years, we hope anglers will start to see the benefits.”

Improvements will be centered on an 11-mile stretch of the river from California Gulch downstream to Twobit Gulch. Public river access in the area includes the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, which is managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and numerous fishing access easements held by the agency.

While this project is on public lands, there are separate projects on the privately held sections of the river, including the Hallenbeck Ranch and part of the Hayden Ranch, both owned by Aurora Water. Public access to the Hallenbeck Ranch parcel ended this year but Aurora officials are opening the river sections of the Hayden Ranch for public access on May 1.

“These habitat improvements will provide immense benefits to the fishery and the anglers who frequent this part of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area,” said Rob White, Park Manager for the Arkansas Headwaters. “We are very fortunate to have received funding for this work.”

Crews will use bulldozers to re-arrange the river, building riffles, bends and trying to recreate other natural features that will give fish places to feed, hide and breed.  As a result, downstream anglers may see periods of muddy water and other evidence of disturbance during the project.

“Anglers might deal with a short-term disturbance, but in the long run this work should have a big positive upside,” said Tracy Kittell, Colorado Parks and Wildlife engineer. “For public safety, we’ll mark the areas where work is occurring and require that anglers bypass those areas.”

The in-stream and riparian habitat restoration projects are only one part of the overall river restoration effort on the upper Arkansas. Other elements include water-quality monitoring, upland habitat improvements, habitat protection efforts and noxious weed control.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is a partner in the river restoration project with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The full restoration plan and environmental assessment for the project can be viewed online at


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