Heavy metals, low pH water seeping into Slate River from hillside above Gunsight Bridge
By Aimee Eaton
Among the wildflowers, free-flowing rivers and snow-capped mountains of the Upper Gunnison Valley, it can be easy to forget that Crested Butte and the surrounding areas were at one time home to large mining operations.
In the mid-1800s coal and silver mines provided jobs and helped build the infrastructure for town. More recently, extraction of molybdenum from Mt. Emmons has been attempted.
These once-prevalent industries have left their mark on many of Crested Butte’s nearby hillsides and waterways, including the hillside above Gunsight Bridge on the Slate River, a popular picnic, swimming and fishing area that also serves as a gateway for several heavily used hiking and mountain bike trails.
That popularity, and the amount of mining impact nearby, has led the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition (CCWC), a local non-profit focused on watershed health, to lead a group of agencies in the cleanup and reclamation of the area.
According to the Gunsight Processing Area Reclamation Project Implementation Plan, the hillside is the site of an abandoned mine, and the four prominent benches and the slopes that connect them are made from mine waste. Combined, the hillside is “an impervious area devoid of vegetation, with extensive evidence of surface water runoff and erosion.”
Runoff from the area drains through several gullies toward the Slate River, which is located approximately 400 feet away—about the length of a football field. Several seeps also exist in the hillside and while some are only present during wet periods, at least three are persistent throughout the year. The water coming from the seeps and in the runoff has been tested and has shown very high metal concentrations and low pH levels.
“Addressing this water quality impairment at the Gunsight Processing Area is imperative to sustaining the environmental integrity of the Upper Slate River Watershed; while the location of the site and the poor water quality characteristics identified only present a low-moderate risk to human health, if unaddressed, they can negatively impact plant and aquatic life in the area,” said Coal Creek Watershed Coalition’s executive director Zack Vaughter. “As a headwaters community, this project will have a positive impact not only on the immediate environment and ecosystem, but for all downstream water uses and users.”
Beginning this fall, the CCWC, in collaboration with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining, and Safety (DRMS), Colorado Nonpoint Source Program (CNSP) and the Bureau of Land Management: Gunnison Field Office, will take on the Gunsight Processing area in a four- to eight-week-long project that will, according to the implementation plan, “use a series of mine reclamation best management practices to restore natural topography, permanently stabilize and isolate mine waste, and to re-vegetate the site.”
When completed, the practices will “minimize water contact with mine waste, thereby reducing metals loads and improving water quality in the Slate River and preventing human health risks.”
According to Vaughter, the project is being funded through the state’s Nonpoint Source Program, as well as by the BLM and DRMS, to the tune of about $550,000.
“The CCWC has been working with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining, and Safety, the Colorado Nonpoint Source Program and the Bureau of Land Management staff to develop a reclamation design. The CCWC contracted with Tetra Tech in May to complete that final reclamation design,” Vaughter said. “Final design should be completed by early to mid-July. Upon completion of the final design, the project will be bid for contract, with work beginning on the ground in early September.“
To keep the public abreast of the project and what can be done to mitigate the impact of abandoned mining sites, the CCWC will be developing and releasing a short film about the project that will feature before, during, and after footage during the 2017 field season. That video is expected to be released in the fall.
While the Gunsight Reclamation Project is perhaps the largest project the CCWC is currently working on, it’s not the only effort under way.
The organization, which has a staff of three including Vaughter, is also in its eleventh year for monitoring water quality within the watershed. Data collected by the organization is shared with the town of Crested Butte, the public, the state of Colorado, and the EPA.
The CCWC also installed two temporary portable toilets at the Musicians Camp dispersed camping area at mile marker 6.2 on Slate River Road from June to October 2017. This is the third year that the toilets will in place, and this summer the CCWC will also be collecting nearby water samples specifically looking at e. coli, nutrient, and fecal coliform from eight locations in the Upper Slate.
“This monitoring effort will supplement data collected by the CCWC in 2011 and 2013 to analyze changes and the impacts that the portable toilets we install, as well as the ones BLM installs, during the summer in the Upper Slate are having in the face of increased recreational use and impact in the USR watershed,” said Vaughter.
The CCWC has been working in the Upper Valley for 13 years, and has a long list of accomplishments under its belt, including developing a protection plan complete with 19 steps that could be taken to better protect the people, land and animals within the watershed.
“The CCWC has been very active, effective, and mission focused as an organization over the last 13 years, and we have kind of gotten to a place where we have already completed all of the ‘low hanging fruit’ projects in the Coal Creek and Upper Slate River Watersheds that address water quality,” said Vaughter. “What we have left in those watersheds are much larger in scale reclamation efforts. In the Coal Creek Watershed we have a large-scale re-vegetation project that we are currently exploring and seeking funding for to begin work in 2018. In the Upper Slate, we are completing the Gunsight reclamation this year, and then have our sights set on reclaiming the Daisy Mine in Redwell Basin.
“The CCWC board and staff are currently thinking to the future on not only these projects but our role in Crested Butte and the Gunnison Valley moving forward in the next three to five years,” continued Vaughter.
To learn more about the CCWC, to get in touch, or to learn more about its accomplishments and goals, visit the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition website, at www.coalcreek.org.