New model for the county
Last month, a group of about 50 people gathered near Nicholson Lake on Slate River Road. Just like they would at many summer parties, they shared cocktails and socialized, but the impetus for the evening wasn’t purely social. They were there to hear from local environmental groups and agencies looking to bring the Slate River Watershed to the forefront of community discussion.
“You’ve got your core people coming to public meetings because that’s what they do,” said Anthony Poponi, director of the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition (CCWC). “And then there are all these other people who are passionate but may not be willing to come to a meeting to talk about water quality data.”
The event was a new way to let people know that the CCWC is expanding its focus to a new part of the valley. Together with groups like High Country Citizen’s Alliance (HCCA) and agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the CCWC is developing a watershed plan for the Slate River valley. The goal is to identify the major issues that influence its health and develop a plan to address them.
“The two big things that impact water quality and the way that the river flows in the Slate River Watershed are the abandoned mines and erosion from roads and trails,” said Jennifer Bock, HCCA water director.
Bock has been partnering with the CCWC to host subject-based stakeholder meetings. Past meetings have covered impairments from past mining exploration, the health of fish resources, and a watershed overview to help people understand the bigger picture of the Slate River valley. The reception has been good, Bock says, particularly from landowners from the Slate River valley. But the goal is to do more than educate.
“People are just starting to absorb information but we’re really looking for input, too,” Bock said.
Future topics will include winter and summer recreation, the impact of fire and beetle kill, agricultural use and the findings of a Geomorphic study currently being undertaken by Alpine Ecological Resources. Bock says the study will help HCCA and the CCWC form a better understanding of the factors at play within the watershed.
“It’s a question of how the geology works up there. It’s a big alluvial sort of valley and the river is really unstable in certain places. We want to find out how much of that is a natural occurrence, and what has been influenced by road building like old mining roads and railroad grades,” she said.
The plan is to combine that information with surveys conducted by the BLM, a data compilation report completed last year by Alpine Environmental Consulting that shows the state of the river itself, and community input. With that as the foundation, the group will identify key issues in the watershed and develop plans to address them.
“It really is an action plan, combining science and public input and local knowledge to come up with an action plan that we really want to have suggestions for projects that we can then go back and seek funding from the state or federal government as we have on Coal Creek to do specific remediation projects,” said Bock.
So far the process has been energizing for everyone involved. Poponi said, “I think that moving into that watershed has reinvigorated our board and our staff. It’s offered us an opportunity to expand the reach that we have.”
The BLM, which manages the Oh Be Joyful Campground, approached the CCWC about initiating the process. According to Brian St. George, Gunnison field manager, the agency has seen dramatic impacts on the campground from river and erosion. Significant portions of it have been lost, and a lot of money has been spent to repair it.
“We have on the order of about $200,000 invested in preserving Oh Be Joyful, and we don’t want to do that as a Band-Aid. We want to understand the watershed as a whole,” said St. George. “We are interested first and foremost in the campground and maintenance issues, but we are trying to take a broader view of how we can impact the watershed as a whole.”
Combined efforts between the BLM and the CCWC began in earnest in 2010 when they applied for a grant through the Colorado Nonpoint Source Program and Environmental Protection Agency. That grant was awarded in March 2011 and funds became available in March 2012. In the interim, funding from the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety made it possible to move forward on some aspects of the planning, like the data report. The BLM also secured funds for focus surveys.
Meetings will resume this fall, after the busy summer season has subsided. In the meantime, the partnership between the CCWC, HCCA, the BLM and other partners like the town of Crested Butte are earning kudos around the county. Gunnison County environmental health specialist Richard Stenson has been part of the process. “I really do appreciate being a part of it. I see it as a possible model for what we might see in other areas of the county,” he said.