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Abandoned mines and their toxic legacies are among the most widespread, but least addressed, threats to native and wild trout. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that they impact over 40% of headwater streams in the West. By most accounts, there are more than 500,000 abandoned mines sites, with total clean-up costs ranging from $25 to $90 billion dollars. Many of those mines are in the state of Colorado, which also is home to one of TU’s longest running and most successful Abandoned Mine Restoration Programs.
We are working in the Arkansas River drainage—perhaps one of the most iconic and popular angling destinations in the state—to restore Kerber Creek, a tributary in Saguache County that historically supported Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Mine tailings and waste material from upstream now line the streambanks and prevent vegetation from growing. The resulting poor water quality and lack of suitable cover and habitat have long ago wiped out the last cutthroat, and resilient brook trout populations manage to hold on only in very low numbers. TU’s goal is restore this stream and its habitat first, and then to reintroduce the native cutthroat trout back into their home water.
In order to improve water quality and restore stream habitat and native vegetation, TU is implementing an innovative restoration technique called ‘phytostabilization’. Instead of removing contaminated soils and sediment from along the stream, which is cost-prohibitive and would run the risk of mobilizing those materials into the stream, we add limestone and organic compost to the soils to allow native vegetation to take hold and grow. The root structure from that vegetation holds the soils in place and prevents erosion and the plants provide shade and overhead cover for fish and other animals. We also install habitat features like root wads and rocks that create holding water for trout.
The project has received six prestigious awards since its inception: the Bureau of Land Management’s Hardrock Mineral Environmental Award, the Colorado Riparian Association’s Excellence in Riparian Area Management Award, the Rocky Mountain Region of the US Forest Service’s Forest and Grassland Health Partner of the Year and Water Emphasis of the Year Honor, the Public Lands Foundation’s Landscape Stewardship Award and the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society’s Riparian Challenge Award.
Elizabeth Russell – Mine Restoration Project Manager
Jason Willis – Mine Restoration Field Coordinator
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