Clean Eagle River may mean more trout | VailDaily.com

Clean Eagle River may mean more trout

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado

Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyTrout are likely to make a comeback in polluted stretches of the Eagle River though the prospects for a smaller, less resilient fish " the sculpin " aren't as bright.

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” You could start seeing more trout in the polluted Eagle River if the state adopts new, more stringent caps on how much toxic metal can flow through the water.

For more than 100 years, metals from the now defunct Eagle Mine, located just south of Minturn, spilled into the Eagle River, killing fish, tainting drinking water and eventually staining the river orange until cleanup by media conglomerate Viacom began in 1988.

While the cleanup significantly improved water quality, metals like zinc, copper and cadmium still pollute the river. Certain species of trout, like rainbow and cutthroat, and a sensitive fish called sculpin, can’t survive in the metals-laden stream and have disappeared from the most polluted areas of the river.

A set of new standards, being proposed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, would require a stretch of the Eagle River to be clean enough for sculpin, that now rare fish that’s very sensitive to zinc.

In more heavily polluted sections of the river closer to the mine, researchers predict it wouldn’t be reasonable to clean up the water enough to protect the sculpin. They will instead push for standards that will protect rainbow trout and cutthroat trout, which are tougher than sculpin but still missing from the zinc-filled river.

While you won’t find many sculpin or rainbow trout in the Eagle River, the waterway is doing better than it was several years ago.

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Every spring, people from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service and the Eagle River Watershed Council comb the river with electric probes, “shock” the fish and count them at several locations along the river. They work in four areas affected by the mine pollution and three other supposedly “healthier” stretches of river.

The point is to find out how the fish are growing and adapting over the years. Finding a large number of fish is good, but it’s also important to find a wide variety of species and ages.

Brown trout, for instance, are pretty tolerant of zinc in the water, while sculpin can barely stand it.

So, the fish counters have actually been finding more of the resilient brown trout than they used to, even in previously highly polluted areas ” which is a good sign. While the numbers of trout have steadily increased since the mid 1990s, the numbers have leveled off and even dropped in some years.

Still, delicate species like sculpin haven’t been spotted in the polluted water, and only a couple cutthroat trout are found every year in the polluted areas, said Brian Healy, a biologist with the Forest Service.

Since the cleanup, there’s been a continual debate as to how tough water quality standards should be and how much more cleanup is actually possible in those polluted stretches of the Eagle River.

Healy said he’d hope to see tougher water quality standards that don’t give up on sculpin. The goal of the standards should be to protect everything that’s supposed to be living and growing in the river, he said.

“The bottom line is we’re looking for water quality that will support native species,” Healy said.

But to the proposed standards, it wouldn’t be feasible to clean up the river to protect sculpin in most stretches of the river. If that’s truly the case, and he sees the science to back that up, Healy said he’d be willing to support whatever will work.

David Fulton, director of the Eagle River Watershed Council, said the group wasn’t ready yet to comment on the proposed standards.

This proposal will go before the Water Quality Control Commission in June, and it’s possible that other proposals from different groups will also be presented.

History

For around 100 years, the Eagle Mine, located below Gilman and north of Red Cliff produced gold, silver and zinc. In the mid-1980s, toxic metals from the Eagle Mine spilled into the Eagle River, killing fish, tainting drinking water and staining the river orange until cleanup efforts began.

Media conglomerate Viacom bought the land and assumed responsibility for cleaning up the river when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the mine and surrounding area a Superfund site in 1986. The Superfund program is designed to locate, investigate and cleanup the worst hazardous waste sites

Viacom began an $80-million clean-up effort in 1988, which included sealing tunnel openings with concrete and flooding the insides of the mine. Waste was transported to a central location, called the “consolidated tailings pile” in the now-dry Bolts Lake area of Minturn, where developer Bobby Ginn hopes to build a golf course as part of a private ski resort.

Contaminated water seeping from the mine and tailings pile is pumped to a water treatment plant in Minturn, where the water is cleaned and released into the Eagle River.

Not long ago, Viacom split into Viacom Inc. and CBS Corporation, the latter being responsible for any remaining cleanup.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.

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