Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part series examining the past, present and future of Clear Creek.
Through the mountains and down to the plains, Clear Creek has rushed along its jagged banks long before civilization ever found it and the gold hidden within. Its discovery led to industry, economy and community. The tie binding the stream to the people living along its banks will not be broken easily.
Several thousand mines are estimated to crisscross the county. Lasting repercussions of the mining industry led to more than 100 efforts to clean up the stream and mitigate the mining pollution in the last decade.
According to David Holm, the Clear Creek Watershed Foundation’s executive director, stream mitigation is a “forever commitment.”
“Once you’re going down that road, you’ve really made a forever commitment for maintenance,” Holm said. “So mine drainage is like that. It is a forever problem.”
Mine waste removal and restoration of stream banks are projects that, once completed, are ultimately removed from the Clear Creek remediation radar screen, Holm said.
Clear Creek always had a “metal footprint” because of the natural mineralization in the mineral belt, which the stream cuts across, Holm said.
“So there’s no question that there would have been iron, manganese, aluminum in elevated levels, and probably a little bit of a diminished pH,” Holm said. “The tremendous increase in exposure to the weather and elements of the mineral zone, brought about by mining, definitely has increased that footprint, and we will never eliminate that additional increased footprint.”
However, the stream is cleaner today than in recent memory, thanks to efforts by the Watershed Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.
A new industry
The mining industry, once so reliant on the stream, has dwindled to nearly nothing. In its place, a recreational industry has grown by leaps and bounds.
Since 1991, rafting companies using Clear Creek have experienced more than a 7,000 percent increase in customers. This increase comes at an ideal time, when the county is looking to transition to a recreation-based economy, with Clear Creek considered the area’s crown jewel.
The increase in visitors to the county had nearly a $19 million economic impact in 2013, according to the Colorado River Outfitters Association.
Association executive director David Costlow said the meteoric rise in recreation over the years is in large part due to the stream’s close proximity to Denver and to the relatively relaxed regulations for outfitters launching in Clear Creek.
Costlow said a lot of companies based on other rivers, such as the Arkansas, now bring customers to Clear Creek.
Last year, 61,000 “user days” were reported on the stream. A user day is how the rafting industry tracks customers and equates to one customer spending time on the river during one day. In 1991, the Colorado River Outfitters Association noted, Clear Creek had just 800 user days. Today the area has 15 rafting outfitters, with several owning locations in the area and putting in additional features such as zip-lines.
“You can see the growth on Clear Creek pretty rapidly. It was just 30,000 (user days) not too long ago, and now it is around 60,000,” Costlow said. “It’s a fun river, a lot of rapids per mile.”
‘Mining recreation opportunities’
County officials see the stream as a large piece in the area’s economic puzzle. In 2010, Clear Creek Open Space, with the help of funding from a Federal Highway Administration grant, created the Lawson Whitewater Park. The park includes boulders that create specialty chutes and waves for kayakers and other boaters along the 450-foot stretch of Clear Creek just upstream from Mile Hi Rafting. The park also has parking and a changing station with environmentally friendly toilets.
County Commissioner Tim Mauck said Clear Creek saw little to no rafting 15 years ago, and now it is the second busiest river in Colorado. The county is working on a Greenway Project, which it hopes one day will create an uninterrupted recreational space following the stream from one end of the county to the other.
Earlier this year, officials met for a groundbreaking ceremony for a $13.9 million project that will link Clear Creek and Jefferson counties with a 10-foot-wide concrete trail for 6 miles, improve stream access, and link the Oxbow parcel with Mayhem Gulch.
“Looking for recreational opportunities is really something we need to position ourselves to take advantage of,” Mauck said. “The stream is the lifeblood in so many ways, not just physically to the necessities of life, but we’re drawn to it in ways that just make obvious sense.”
Mauck said Clear Creek offers a diversity of recreational opportunities such as rafting, kayaking, angling and gold panning, and the county needs to continue to transform itself and take advantage of the creek, but now in a different way.
“It’s (now about) mining the recreation opportunities,” Mauck said.