The Snake River watershed is located in Colorado's White River National Forest west of Denver. This watershed drains dramatic alpine terrain en route to the Blue River and ultimately to the Colorado River. This watershed is one of the most heavily-visited outdoor recreational destinations in the West thanks to its marquee winter resorts, spectacular mountain vistas and trails and backcountry.
The heart of Colorado's winter recreation economy is the product of an evolution that began with early hardrock mining. As early as the 1880s, mining's boom fueled by silver and gold discoveries helped to develop Colorado's interior. Even today, driving west on the interstate into the mountains reveals the rich and lasting legacy of hardrock mining. Old mill structures, flumes, and countless heaps of waste rock cling to the landscape amid growing resort communities. The story runs deeper than what the surface reveals, however. Obscured from view are the pervasive environmental impacts mining has left on Colorado's aquatic resources.
Colorado's mountains provided a significant amount of wealth to early miners. The exploration and development of mineralized rock formations by tens of thousands of miners beginning in the 19th century continues today. In the past, however, miners and mining companies were unaware of the lasting effects their activity would have over a century later. Today, many of the Upper Blue River watershed's tributary streams suffer from degraded water quality from abandoned mine sites. These headwater streams are coldwater resources, historically habitat for native trout species and important to the health of the entire watershed.
In addition to their importance to aquatic resources, the Snake River Watershed has also attracted the attention of a bevy of community and regional users depending on clean water. As a result, local interests have been drawn together around the common concern for protecting the watershed and restoring degraded areas to better serve present and future community needs. Unfortunately, reclamation of the abandoned mine sites within the watershed has been slow to begin due to concerns over ownership and liability.
Contaminants from historic mining have left Peru Creek, a tributary to the Snake River, completely devoid of aquatic life. This is largely due to the Pennsylvania Mine, which contributes a large amount of pollution to Peru Creek and the Snake River downstream. Perched at 11,000 feet near the Continental Divide, the mine opened in 1879 and operated well into the 1940’s, unearthing gold, silver, lead, copper and zinc. Historically one of Summit County’s most profitable mines, it now sits abandoned and leaking acid mine drainage and contaminating Peru Creek.
In recent years, the mine has been called the West’s poster-child for the need for Good Samaritan protection. Recognizing the impacts that the mine caused downstream, the Colorado Division of Minerals and Geology embarked on a cleanup project in the late 1980s. This project included installing a treatment system that would treat the acid mine drainage flowing from a mine tunnel on the site. When completed, the system proved ineffective because the water was too acidic and laden with heavy metals. A redesign project was initiated, but soon abandoned when a court case made it clear that the state agency could be held liable for all future discharge from the site.
Though no specific design plans exist yet, the location of the past treatment system offers an ideal site to construct a passive treatment system to help mitigate the acid mine drainage. Numerous other reclamation activities will have to take place in order improve water quality downstream. A large undertaking by any means, remediating the Pennsylvania mine will likely take years.
Addressing this site has been a major priority for the Snake River Task Force, a local stakeholder group concerned about the mine’s impacts on water quality. With funding for a watershed restoration staff person provided by the Tiffany&Co. Foundation, Trout Unlimited recently joined the task force and hopes to use our experience with abandoned mine cleanups to move the process along in the Snake River Watershed. Partners on this project include Keystone Ski Resort, the Keystone Center, Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, Summit County, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, EPA, and the Blue River Watershed Group.
For more information about the Snake River Colorado project contact Elizabeth Russell by phone at (303)440-2937 x104 or by email.