Progress restoring Tenmile Creek, Peru Creek and other streams in Summit County

From the Summit Daily News (Ali Langley):

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 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.

The 1970 Clean Water Act 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…


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.”


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…

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.

CPW is restoring Greenbacks to Herman Gulch in Clear Creek County

Herman Gulch via
Herman Gulch via

From CBS Denver (Matt Kroschel):

Colorado Parks and Wildlife set up a camp with more than 20 people working around the clock along the banks of the Herman Gultch in Clear Creek County. They are working to kill all the fish that live in the waterway currently, and then restock that waterway with the greenback cutthroat trout, Colorado’s state fish.

Presumed to be extinct by 1937, several wild populations of what were thought to be greenback cutthroat trout were discovered in the South Platte and Arkansas river basins starting in the late 1950s. According to the CPW, those discoveries launched an aggressive conservation campaign that replicated those populations across the landscape so that they could be down-listed from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Momentum for preserving the native jewels continued to build, and in 1996 the greenback was designated as Colorado’s state fish. Efforts to establish new populations were proceeding along a track that suggested the recovery plan benchmarks might soon be met, and the subspecies could be delisted entirely.

Currently, biologists estimate there are less than 5,000 wild greenback cutthroat in the state, but once this project is complete, they hope to double or triple that number.

“We choose this creek in particular because once we clear out the invasive fish species that live in these waters it will be impossible they will be able to get back into the creek to compete with the greenback cutthroat once we stock them here,” Ken Kehmeier, senior aquatic biologist, South Platte River basin, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said.

Biologists are using a substance called rotenone to kill the fish that currently call the creek home. They add the liquid upstream of a temporary water treatment and testing center at the bottom of the stream. Once the substance does its job they then dilute and consternate the deadly substance. The process turns the water a purple color for a few hundred yards downstream of the treatment center, but water samples taken downstream from that location show the water quality is back to safe levels as it enters Clear Creek.

Right now, biologists are raising thousands of greenback cutthroats in fish hatcheries in Lake and Chaffee counties.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout
Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

@OmahaUSACE to begin ecosystem restoration project along Lower Boulder Creek

Lower Boulder Creek Restoration site map via Boulder County Open Space
Lower Boulder Creek Restoration site map via Boulder County Open Space

Here’s the release from the US Army Corps of Engineers (Omaha District):

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District, in partnership with the Boulder County Parks and Open Space Department, will hold a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate the start of construction of an ecosystem restoration project along an approximately one-mile stretch of Lower Boulder Creek. The ceremony will take place on Thursday, October 8, starting at 12:30 p.m. MDT at the project site, which is located between N 109th Street and Kenosha Road in Boulder County approximately 3.5 miles west of the Boulder County-Weld County line and 8 miles east of the city of Boulder. Limited parking will be available along the Boulder County property access road located just east of the 109th Street Bridge. See attached map. In case of inclement weather, the ceremony will take place at the Goodhue Farmhouse located at the Carolyn Holmberg Preserve, 2009 S. 112th Street, Broomfield, Colorado.

BACKGROUND: Lower Boulder Creek once meandered across a broad floodplain that supported numerous wetlands, streamside vegetation, and associated native fish and wildlife populations. Since European settlement, the project reach and its associated habitats have been dramatically degraded by activities including upstream development, water diversions, pollution, non-native species, and gravel mining. During past on-site mining activities, the project reach of Lower Boulder Creek was channelized, and earthen levees were constructed along portions of its banks, thus disconnecting the channel from its historic floodplain and creating an impoverished stream and riparian environment. The project area is currently in a highly degraded state, which without active ecological restoration would take decades or longer to improve.

In 2011, the Omaha District completed a feasibility study which identified a feasible project to restore habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, restore wetland and stream values, reduce invasive species and provide other ecosystem improvements. A construction contract was awarded to American West Construction LLC of Denver, Colo. for $2.6 million, which includes realigning the one-mile section of Lower Boulder Creek to restore natural meanders, in-stream habitat, and the creek’s floodplain and planting native riparian, wetland, and upland grasses, forbs, trees and shrubs along the stream and within the floodplain to greatly improve wildlife habitat. The project is expected to be complete by Fall 2016.

Click here to go to the Boulder County Open Space website for all the inside skinny.

Change the Course: Lessons from a water stewardship movement — GreenBiz

Hayfield message to President Obama 2011 via Protect the Flows
Hayfield message to President Obama 2011 via Protect the Flows

From (Sandra Postel/Val Fishman):

We’re not going to pull any punches. We’re building a water stewardship movement, and we hope you’ll join us. More than 130,000 people and 22 companies already have. Our goal is nothing less than to change the way society uses, manages and values freshwater.

By now most of us have heard the pronouncement “water is the new oil.” But in fact, it’s so much more. Water is the basis not only of our economies, but of life itself.

As demands bump up against the limits of a finite supply, rivers are running dry, lakes are shrinking and groundwater is being depleted. From California to China to Brazil, severe droughts have forced curtailments of water deliveries. This year, for the first time, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, ranked water crises as the No. 1 global threat.

Known risks
Companies know that water risks pose bottom-line risks, and many have begun to boost their water productivity, getting more output and revenue per gallon used. Manufacturing facilities are recycling and reusing water. More food and beverage companies are working actively with their raw-ingredient suppliers to shrink the water footprints of their products.

Curbing water use is essential. But what do we do about the dammed and dried-up rivers and depleted wetlands?

In the Colorado River Basin alone, a $26 billion-a-year recreation economy depends not on water being diverted out of rivers, but on flows staying in rivers. During the drought of 2012, the western Colorado tourist town of Steamboat Springs saw cash registers go silent when the Yampa River dropped too low for rafting and fly-fishing.

Water security depends on meeting the needs of people and ecosystems. Achieving it requires two things: Figure out how to live happy and productive lives while consuming less water; and restore flows to depleted rivers and freshwater ecosystems.

Kansas’ invisible water crisis — The Wichita Eagle


From The Wichita Eagle (Lindsay Wise):

…But irrigation soon could end on [Brant] Peterson’s southwest Kansas farm. The wells under his land in Stanton County are fast running dry as farmers and ranchers across the Great Plains pump the Ogallala faster than it can be replenished naturally.

Three of his wells are already dry.

Within five years, Peterson estimates, he likely won’t be able to irrigate at all.

Wet and dry: A country divided

While the east half of the country generally receives at least 25 inches of rain a year, much of the west is dryer.

This means much of our country’s corn and hogs are farmed west of the 100th meridian. Meanwhile, in the Great Plains, milo, or grain sorghum, has become a popular crop due to its reduced need for water, and cattle farming has long been popular out west…

Western Kansas’ only significant water source is the Ogallala…

The vast freshwater reservoir beneath the prairie formed 5 million to 10 million years ago as streams draining from the Rocky Mountains deposited water in the clay, sand and gravel beneath the Great Plains.

The water lay there undisturbed for epochs until enterprising homesteaders who settled the West discovered the liquid bonanza that would make their arid land bloom.

Now, in a geological blink of an eye, the Ogallala, which made the Great Plains the nation’s breadbasket, is in peril…

The disappearing water supply poses a twofold danger. It could end a way of life in a region where the land and its bounty have been purchased by the toil and sweat of generations of farmers.

It also threatens a harvest worth $21 billion a year to Kansas alone and portends a fast-approaching, and largely unstoppable, water crisis across the parched American West.

With water levels already too low to pump in some places, western Kansas farmers have been forced to acknowledge that the end is near. That harsh reality is testing the patience and imagination of those who rely on the land for their livelihoods.

As they look for survival, farmers are using cutting-edge technologies to make the most efficient use of the water they have left. They’re contemplating something almost unimaginable just a generation ago: voluntary pacts with their neighbors to reduce irrigation.

And many are investing their long-term hopes in an astronomically expensive water transportation project that isn’t likely ever to be built.

The Arkansas River, which once flowed out of Colorado into western Kansas, is nothing but a dry ditch now, its riverbed reduced to a rugged obstacle course for all-terrain vehicles.

And average rainfall here is just 14 to 16 inches a year, nowhere near enough to replace the water that farmers draw from the Ogallala.

Kansas enjoyed a rainier-than-normal spring this year, easing several years of drought conditions throughout the state. But the relief is temporary.

The storms that soaked the state in recent months won’t alter the Ogallala’s fate, experts say…

Once emptied, it would take 6,000 years to refill the Ogallala naturally…

The Ogallala Aquifer supplies water for 20 percent of the corn, wheat, sorghum and cattle produced in the U.S.

It sprawls 174,000 square miles across eight states, from South Dakota to Texas, and can hold more than enough water to fill Lake Huron and part of Lake Ontario.

But for every square mile of aquifer, there’s a well. About 170,000 of them. Ninety percent of the water pumped out is used to irrigate crops…

Over the years, there have been multiple attempts to address the rapid decline of the aquifer. Water rights holders in much of western Kansas had to install flow meters in all their wells starting in the mid-1990s. Soon all wells in Kansas will have to be metered. And the state government has stopped issuing new permits to pump water from the Ogallala in areas of western Kansas where water levels have dropped the most.

Now, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has pledged to make water policy a central pillar of his administration. The final draft of his 50-year “water vision” for the state, released in January, outlines an incentive and education-based approach focused on encouraging voluntary, coordinated conservation efforts by the farmers who have the most to lose by the aquifer’s decline.

So far, however, farmers have agreed to limit water use in just part of two northwestern counties. A group of farmers in Sheridan and Thomas counties established a Local Enhanced Management Area, or LEMA, in 2012 to cut water use by 20 percent over five years.

It seems to be working: In the first year, participants in the LEMA used about 2.5 inches less water for irrigation than their neighbors and produced just two bushels less per acre, on average.

A proposal to create another LEMA in west-central Kansas was voted down last year by water rights holders.

“The problem is everybody wants to be democratic, and you have people for and you have some people against,” said Bill Golden, an agricultural economist at Kansas State.

It isn’t easy to convince individuals to put their profits at risk to preserve a common resource, especially when some farmers have more water left than others, Golden said.

“But I think that we will probably see more LEMAs in the coming years,” he said. “That is the most acceptable answer. I mean, we’re going to run out of water. Nobody’s talking about saving the aquifer and not using the water. The question is, can we extend the life of the aquifer and make it a soft landing?”

For now, that leaves individual farmers making their own decisions about how best to manage water on their land.

Ten miles east of Peterson’s farm, in Grant County, Kan., Clay Scott parked his Dodge pickup on a country road and reached for his iPad.

A few hundred feet away, a solar panel planted in a field of wheat powered a probe that measures soil moisture at different depths.

Right now the probe told Scott’s iPad that he could hold off on watering the field. His sprinklers lay idle.

“People think that we waste our water out here,” Scott said, “and we just kind of grin because we work so hard to use that water.”

In addition to the soil moisture probes linked to his iPad, Scott consults satellites and radar data to track every shift in the weather and drop of rain that falls in his fields so he can minimize irrigation. He uses low-till techniques to preserve the soil and experiments with genetically engineered drought-resistant corn. He installed more efficient nozzles on his center-pivot sprinklers.

And he’s trying out a new device called a “dragon line,” which drags perforated hoses behind a center pivot to deposit water directly on the ground, reducing pooling and evaporation.

Scott’s version of high-tech farming would be unrecognizable to his great-grandfather, who homesteaded in nearby Stanton County around the turn of the century.

Still, despite all his efforts, Scott knows there will come a day – sooner rather than later if nothing is done – when irrigation is no longer viable in this part of Kansas.

The effects of the depleted aquifer already can be felt on Scott’s farm, where he’s had to reduce irrigation by 25 percent.

Some of his two dozen wells are pumping just 150 gallons per minute now, down from thousands of gallons per minute when they were first drilled. And as the water table drops, the energy costs of pumping from deeper underground have become higher than the cash rents Scott pays on the fields he leases.

“We’ve gone through periods where we re-drilled and tapped all but the very lowest water,” Scott said. “There are places we don’t pump the wells anymore.”

As an elected board member for the local Groundwater Management District, Scott hopes that he’ll be able to shape conservation policies that will enable his children to continue farming after him. He sees the situation in California, where the state has forced farmers to cut water use, as a cautionary tale. If farmers in Kansas don’t find ways to conserve enough water on their own, the state could enforce water rationing.

“I’ve got three boys, and a couple of them have already talked very seriously about coming back to the farm, and I’d like them to have the opportunity and ability that I’ve had to grow crops and livestock, even in a drought,” he said.

Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue
Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

Scott’s long-term hopes rest in the construction of an $18 billion aqueduct that would import high flows off the Missouri River to water crops grown in western Kansas.

As conceived by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the concrete ditch would stretch 360 miles from east to west across Kansas with 16 lift stations and massive reservoirs on either end. The proposal was met with opposition – and not a little ridicule – by the legislature in Topeka, as state lawmakers struggled to close a $400 million budget hole.

“We’re not working on it at this point,” Earl Lewis, assistant director of the Kansas Water Office, said in an interview.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon dismissed the aqueduct as a “harebrained” scheme that would divert river water needed for barge traffic and municipal use.

But in western Kansas, it doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea.

“When they’re flooding in the Missouri River and cities are sandbagging, it sure seems to us like we have an answer to their problems,” Scott said. “Nobody wants to build a house and see it flooded; nobody wants to plant a field and watch it wither.”

Fervent support for the project speaks to the urgency felt by Scott, Peterson and other farmers and ranchers whose livelihoods and communities depend on irrigation. They’re hoping to convince the federal government to kick in funds for the aqueduct. And they’re looking into the possibility of building it through a public-private partnership, like a toll road. Farming cooperatives in California and Colorado have expressed interest in the project, they say, and want to explore extending it farther west.

A federal engineering bailout for western Kansas isn’t very likely, however.

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in an interview that such a costly project would be a nonstarter under Congress’ current budget caps.

“In all honestly, it’s a front-burner issue for folks in southwest Kansas, but to build that kind of aqueduct would be billions of dollars, and I just don’t think that’s feasible at this point,” Roberts said.

Barring the construction of an aqueduct, rural communities that depend on the Ogallala face a bleak future.

The state would have to cut its irrigated acres in half today to get anywhere close to sustainability, said Golden, the agricultural economist from Kansas State.

But it isn’t as simple as turning off the sprinklers.

“People survived out here on dryland farming. I can do it,” Peterson said, using the term “dryland” to refer to growing crops without irrigation. “Here’s the cost: My community is going to wither away.”

An irrigated field in southwest Kansas produces more than eight times more corn per acre on average than a field that isn’t irrigated, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Land values would drop. The loss of equity and tax base would mean fewer farmers and bigger farms, consolidated school districts, and impoverished towns with declining populations.

Like any economy dependent on mining a finite resource, this one is headed for a bust, and the farmers know it.

“We can’t wait another 30 years to get our policy right,” Scott said. “The drought in California is showing what living in denial can do.”

From Science Daily:

Keith Gido, professor in the Division of Biology; Josh Perkin, 2012 Kansas State University doctoral graduate; and several co-authors have published “Fragmentation and dewatering transform Great Plains stream fish communities” in the journal Ecological Monographs.

The article documents a reduction in water flow in Great Plains streams and rivers because of drought, damming and groundwater withdrawals. This is causing a decrease in aquatic diversity in Kansas from stream fragmentation — or stretches of disconnected streams.

“Fish are an indication of the health of the environment,” Gido said. “A while back there was a sewage leak in the Arkansas River and it was the dead fish that helped identify the problem. Children play and swim in that water, so it’s important that we have a good understanding of water quality.”

Several species of fish — including the peppered chub and the plains minnow — were found to be severely declining in the Great Plains during the ecologists’ field research, which compared historic records to 110 sampling sites in Kansas between 2011-2013. Both fish species swim downstream during droughts and return during normal water flow, but the construction of dams, or stream fragmentation, prevents fish from returning upstream.

“The Great Plains region is a harsh environment and drought has always been a problem. Historically, fish were able to recover from drought by moving,” Gido said. “They could swim downstream and when the drought was over, they could swim back. Now, there are dams on the rivers and the fish are not able to recover.”

Streams in the Great Plains region have more than 19,000 human-made barriers. Gido estimates that on average, stretches of streams in the Great Plains are about six miles long. In surveying Kansas’ streams and rivers, the researchers discovered numerous small dams that do not allow enough habitat for the fish to complete their reproductive cycles. Moreover, the fish are unable to migrate in search of suitable habitat.

“Groundwater extraction exasperates the drought, and the damming of the rivers inhibits the fish from being able to recover from those conditions,” Gido said. “This is unfortunate, but there are some things we can do to help.”

Gido suggested a renewed focus to conserve water, reduce dams and make fish passageways like the one on the Arkansas River under Lincoln Street in Wichita. During the planning for the reconstruction of the Lincoln Street Bridge and the dam over the river, the city worked with wildlife agencies to build a passage that would allow fish as well as canoes and kayaks to navigate through the structure.

Similar structures could be constructed on the Kansas River to help fish migrate.

“The plains minnow is still found in the Missouri River and could recolonize the Kansas River — where they used to be the most abundance species — if there was a fish passage through some of the dams.”

More Ogallala aquifer coverage here.

CPW: Hermosa Creek native cutthroat restoration project moving along nicely

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:

The multi-year project to restore native Colorado River cutthroat trout to more than 20 miles of the Hermosa Creek watershed is continuing this summer. The project is a cooperative effort of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service and Trout Unlimited.

The Hermosa Creek project is one of the largest native trout restoration project ever done in the state. The work is critical for bringing this species back to western Colorado.

Located about 30 miles north of Durango, wildlife biologists identified the Hermosa Creek area as a prime spot for restoration more than 20 years ago. The first project was completed on the upper East Fork of Hermosa Creek in 1992. Cutthroat trout now thrive in that section. A second part of the project was completed in 2013 on the main stem of Hermosa Creek above Hotel Draw; and the native trout are thriving in that section of water.

All the projects include construction of rock barriers that prevent non-native trout from migrating into the restored sections of stream. Agency officials hope that the entire project will be completed by 2018.

On Aug. 4-5, crews will apply an organic piscicide to a 2-mile long section of East Hermosa Creek below Sig Creek Falls to just above the confluence with the main stem of Hermosa Creek. The piscicide, Rotenone, will eliminate non-native fish species—primarily brook trout. Rotenone has been used for years throughout the world for aquatic management projects because it breaks down quickly in the environment and poses no threat to terrestrial wildlife or humans. CPW biologists also use a neutralizing agent just below the treatment area to prevent any fish kills downstream.

Short sections of Relay Creek and Sig Creek above will also be treated.

The work area will be closed to the public during the operation. An administrative campsite will be reserved for use by CPW and USFS employees during the treatment work. Signs are posted in the closed areas and the public is asked to observe the closure.

Visitors below the treatment area might see rust-colored water–-that is the color of the neutralizing agent. Anglers will still have full access to Hermosa Creek and the upper section of East Hermosa Creek. Any cutthroat trout caught must be returned to the water.

Because of the complexity of the habitat along the East Fork, the section will most likely be treated again next summer to assure elimination of non-native fish. If all goes as planned, native cutthroats will be stocked into the stream late next summer.

While the project is scheduled for the first week of August, project managers will be keeping an eye on the weather as recent rains have swelled the creeks in the area. If the water is running too high, the project could be delayed until next summer.

The Hermosa Creek project is one of the most important native cutthroat trout restoration endeavors in Colorado. After completion of the lower East Fork section, more work will be done in the coming years on the main branch of Hermosa Creek. The end-point of the effort will be just below the confluence of the East Fork and Hermosa Creek.

“This project is especially important because it connects several streams in a large, complex watershed,” said Jim White, aquatic biologist for CPW in the Four Corners area. “The connectivity provides what biologists call ‘resiliency’ to the system. There are more stream miles available to the fish which allows for more genetic exchange. It also makes the fish less susceptible to disease and to large sedimentation events such as fires, mudslides or avalanches.”

Every year Colorado Parks and Wildlife deploys significant resources for native trout restoration efforts. Colorado’s native trout include: the Colorado River cutthroat trout; the Rio Grande cutthroat trout; and the Greenback cutthroat trout.

More restoration/reclamation coverage here.

Restoration: There’s been a lot of progress on the Alamosa river, late season flows deal in the works


From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

A river once left for dead by mine-polluted runoff in the southwestern corner of the San Luis Valley is coming back to life.

The Alamosa River, which once included a 17-mile dead-zone thanks to the Summitville gold mine, has seen the return of fish and a local group is seeking to keep it that way by adding to the river’s flows.

“We still have a ways to go but we’ve done a lot,” said Cindy Medina, head of the Alamosa Riverkeepers.

The group is close to finalizing a pair of in-stream water rights in court that could add as much as 550 acre-feet per year to the river below Terrace Reservoir where it runs to the valley floor.

That amount, which translates to roughly 180 million gallons, would be stored in the reservoir and released during times of the year when flows are low to nonexistent.

Last week, the Colorado Water Trust honored Medina for her work on the Alamosa with the David Getches Flowing Waters Award.

Key to the in-stream flows, which also would boost groundwater levels in the area, was the cooperation of the Terrace Irrigation Co., which has made storage space available in the reservoir.

Medina also credited landowners along the river like Joe McCann and Rod Reinhart.

“Both of them have been instrumental in this project,” she said. Reinhart, who grows alfalfa and barley north of Capulin, said he came to understand the importance of riparian habitat and how the in-stream flows could help.

But the importance of how they might help the aquifer also was important given the looming groundwater regulations that might face the valley.

“I think that is huge,” he said. “That’s a big help.”

The need for the restoration on the river and part of the means to do so, stem from the legacy of the Summitville gold mine, which sits at an elevation of 11,500 feet on a tributary.

Summitville Mine superfund site
Summitville Mine superfund site

In 1986, the Summitville Consolidated Mining Company began operation of an open-pit mine on 1,200 acres and used a cyanide formula to extract gold from ore.

A faulty liner meant to contain the cyanide and a company-installed water treatment plant that was far too small ensured high levels of pollutants migrated downstream.

By 1990, fish were gone from the reservoir and the stretch of river above it.

After six years of operation, the company declared bankruptcy and abandoned the site, forcing the Environmental Protection Agency to take over emergency management of the property.

The mine was designated a Superfund site in 1994.

Prosecution of the mining company led to a $28.5 million settlement, $5 million of which was set aside for restoration work in the watershed.

The work of the riverkeepers to increase stream flows is one of the legacies of that funding.

Water quality on the river improved after the Superfund designation, enough so that state wildlife officials began stocking trout in the reservoir in 2007.

In 2011, a permanent treatment plant was built with $19.2 million in federal stimulus funding.

“That improved the water quality significantly,” Medina said.

One year later, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment lifted restrictions on the consumption of trout in Terrace Reservoir.

Medina is among those who have eaten trout from the reservoir.

“They’ve come out fine,” she said.

But the riverkeepers hope to add more water to the river, by buying water rights from others.

Their goal is to reach 2,000 acre-feet of in-stream flows.

“We’re always looking for more water for the river,” she said.

More restoration/reclamation coverage here.