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Eagle River cleanup going public

Cliff Thompson
Eagle River in Minturn.
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The Campbells, after all, own a home at 512 Main St., and their property backs up to the Eagle River.One of the proposed projects seeks title to 1.6 acres of disparate, untitled parcels along the river bank. And the Campbells, like several other Minturn landowners, are concerned because a 30-foot by 50-foot section of their back yard, on which a barn sits, is partially untitled and could become public property if the proposal is accepted.These comments and others were expressed and recorded Monday at the first of two public meetings on three disparate proposals that aim to help restore a stretch of the Eagle River damaged by the acidic leaching from the Eagle Mine in the 1980s and “90s. A second meeting is scheduled for Dec. 10.The proposals, which prompted mixed responses Monday night in Minturn before 50 people, are a final chapter in the $70 million cleanup and restoration of the river mandated by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1988. Their scope reflects the diversity of opinions about what is needed to restore the river.The individual projects raised issues ranging from concerns with back yards to creating issues that could affect metals contamination of the river.Money for the final restoration projects, known as the Natural Resource Damages Fund, comes from a $1.7 million fine assessed to Viacom, formerly Gulf & Western, which owned the mine. With interest, the fine has grown to nearly $3.1 million, with $2 million of that available for this round of restoration.A work group of stakeholders will rate the proposals next month and pass along its recommendations to the fund’s board of governors, which could approve any combination of projects. The first two proposals, as proposed, would cost a total of about $2.7 million; and the third, which would acquire land, could be funded, at least in part, by the Eagle Valley Land Trust.The fund itself, meanwhile, can be used to restore, replace or acquire natural resources damaged by the mine pollution. That acidic and metals-laden pollution, mostly zinc, killed all aquatic life in a 7-mile stretch of the river from the mine beneath Gilman to the confluence of the Eagle River and Gore Creek at Dowd Junction.Stream studies conducted by the state Division of Wildlife show a 14-year cleanup has significantly improved the habitat and aquatic species are now nearly recovered.Indeed, mankind’s activities along the river over the past century have impacted water quality and quantity. Those impacts include channelization of the stream, sedimentation, mine pollution, impacts from development and railroad activities from the tracks that parallel the river. Just leaving the river in the shape it was in prior to the mine’s pollution won’t ensure a healthy river, experts say.One of the main problems facing the river is the amount of water diverted for irrigation. Drought leaves precious little water in the river channel.The cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora typically divert 21,500 acre-feet during spring runoff from the southern headwaters of the Eagle River into the Arkansas River through the Homestake Reservoir collection and transmountain diversion system.During the height of the drought last summer, the river at Avon was flowing at 30 cubic feet per second, cfs, 25 percent of average, and water users fear the low flows this winter may cause the rive to freeze, cutting of their water. Heavy autumn precipitation has helped bring river flows up, but once the frigid temperatures of winter cause the river’s flow to drop.Streamflow insurance – $1.015 millionBased on the questions during the meeting, the most controversial of the three proposals calls for purchasing a sort of water insurance policy for $1.015 million against depleting the flow of the river with out-of-basin diversion by restricting use of a 500 acre-foot pool stored in Eagle Park Reservoir east of Camp Hale.That water would not be used unless the flow of the river drops beneath state minimum streamflow levels. Use of that water is encumbered so it cannot be diverted from the Eagle River basin. That’s significant because the Eagle Park Reservoir sits right at the Continental Divide, at the headwaters of three river basins. Water from the 2,013-acre-foot reservoir could be pumped into the Arkansas River, or even into the upper reaches of the Blue River.It’s called the Eagle River Flow Enhancement Proposal. It was submitted by a consortium of water users headed by the town of Minturn and the four members of the Eagle Park Reservoir Company – Vail Resorts, the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and the Colorado River Water Conservation District.”It’s an insurance policy that the water will actually be released into the Eagle River and will not be used by trade or exchange in a manner that would bypass the Eagle River,” says water attorney Glenn Porzak. “It does provide a guarantee (for the future) that that water wouldn’t be traded.”Porzak’s clients – which include Vail Resorts, the water authority and others with water rights – can divert the water that has been released from the reservoir once it reaches Dowd Junction. The river benefits from the increased flow. But releases of the water would be controlled by the members of the Eagle Park Reservoir Company, not the town of Minturn.Vail’s Tom Steinberg, a member of the work group evaluating the proposals, says the stored water already is flowing to Dowd Junction without charge.”That’s correct, but there’s no guarantee that will continue,” said Porzak.Vail Resorts typically diverts up to 900 acre-feet per year from the Eagle River during snowmaking season on Vail and Beaver Creek Mountains from November to January, and the water authority supplies domestic water to residents and businesses from Dowd Junction to Wolcott.Proponents of this “dual-use” plan in which water is both used to enhance flows and also consumed by others includes once-bitter rivals in past valley water wars – the town of MInturn, Vail Resorts, the water authority and sanitation district. They fought a protracted water battle in 1998 over water rights owned, but not used by, the town of Minturn.”This could also prevent water from being traded down lower in the basin,” Porzak says, adding that the price of the proposal makes the 500 acre-feet a bargain because it represents 25 percent of the yield of the Eagle Park Reservoir at approximately 5 percent of the cost of water today.Water in that reservoir, in fact, is selling for $12,000 an acre-foot, or enough water to cover a football field a foot deep.”This is plowing new ground and it was born out of necessity” he said. “If you want to get some meaningful amount of water for the price of what was in the Natural Resource Damage Fund, you have to come up with some creativity. An outright purchase, using the entire $2 million in this round of restoration funding, would buy 166 acre-feet in Eagle Park Reservoir.”The Colorado Water Conservation Board gave its conditional support to the proposal in a letter to the state Health Department. But it recommended the water-use restriction on release of stored water be extended all the way to Edwards, where the flows are most impacted by diversion.”The proposal indicated that minimum flows are not met in the lower reach of the Eagle River between Beaver Creek and Lake Creek as often as one out of every two years,” wrote the conservation board’s director, Rod Kuharich. “Since some of the Eagle Park Reservoir releases may already be scheduled for delivery to downstream contractors, if the town of Minturn, the lead agency in the proposal, is able to identify and commit some portion of the releases to the river downstream of Dowd Junction, we believe it may address significant environmental impacts without causing any significant adverse impacts to the end users of the water.”Porzak says if additional restrictions were imposed, it would cause the cost per acre-foot to grow because it further encumbers the ability of water-rights holders to use the water.Reshaping the stream – $1.123 millionA second proposal, the Eagle River Stream Restoration Project, seeks $1.123 million from the fund to restore 0.8 miles of river corridor through MInturn to make it a more natural, self-sustaining ecosystem. The proposal would increase the aquatic and wildlife habitat and help stabilize soil and sediment sources that impact the river. The town of Minturn would contribute an additional $259,000.”That section of stream is extremely wide and its channel is out of its natural balance,” says Troy Thompson, a water engineer with Ecological Resource Consultants. “Sections of the stream we are trying to improve are up to 130 feet wide and they have water in them that is just a few inches deep.”Reshaping the channel so the river is deeper and has better aquatic habitat is just one of four objectives of this project, and helping stabilize the channel will prevent stream-choking sediment delivered by stormwater from entering the river. To do that, boulders would be moved to direct the river’s flow, vegetation would be planted to stabilize the banks and stormwaters would be directed through sediment-trapping vaults that could be cleaned. Vegetative riparian terraces also would be created.By creating a better balance between channel shape and slope, a more natural stream environment will be created, the study stated. The proposal calls for purchasing 1.6 acres of land to be used for wildlife habitat. Another 3.8 acres of the river channel would be reshaped to create more pools and riffles. The sinuosity or curviness of the stream will also be increased slightly.The proposal also calls for a slight, 0.2-acre increase in the amount of wetlands along the river corridor. Wetlands preserve and enhance water quality. The proposal also calls for planting natural riparian vegetation along 5,600 feet of the stream to create a wetland fringe.That’s significant, the proposal noted.”Throughout a majority of the reach, natural riparian vegetation that normally buffers streams from activities in the watershed is missing,” the study stated.If this proposal is accepted, Thompson said work could begin in July, when snowmelt-driven flows of the river begin to drop. The in-stream portion of the project would be completed by Oct.1, to prevent stream work from interfering with trout-spawning season. Planting and cleanup would be completed in the spring of 2004.The river restoration would have some benefits that extend beyond the stream bank. Restoring the stream, for example, could create a Minturnian renaissance of sorts by enhancing property values and providing recreational uses that would draw more visitors.Minturn, after all, has long been in the shadow of its glitzy and highly developed resort neighbors, Vail and Beaver Creek.”We hope this will make the river our front porch instead of our back porch, Minturn Town Manager Alan Lanning said earlier this year.The town of Minturn is also studying how to incorporate the proposed river project into its master plan to link public recreation paths and parks with the project.Protecting headwatersThe third proposal being considered calls for acquiring a conservation easement on 62.5 acres of private land, the Westermann-Phelps property, at the base of Tennessee Pass on the south fork of the Eagle River, to prevent it from being developed. The bid request has been prepared by the Eagle Valley Land Trust, which seeks to protect open and sensitive lands from development.The landowner, Majorie Westermann-Phelps, approached the Land Trust with the proposal in 2000.”This project has a lot of good things going for it,” said Tom Page of the Eagle Valley Land Trust. “It’s visible, it’s got historical attributes and it’s an inholding surrounded by public land.”Page cautioned that the land needs to be protected now.”Never underestimate the speed of development,” he said.Thirty of the parcel’s 62 acres are developable. The “L”-shaped property straddles U.S. Highway 24, 16 miles south of Minturn. It contains more than 30 acres of wetlands, numerous ponds and seven natural springs. It also contains remnants of Taylor City, a gold mining town that existed from 1880 to 1891.The Eagle Valley Land trust has applied for $210,000 from the Natural Resource Damage Fund to acquire the land. The trust and the Eagle River Watershed Council will each donate $7,500; the lottery-funded Greater Outdoors Colorado Open Space program will grant $75,000. The conservation easement price for the parcel totals $300,000.”The primary objectives of the Westermann-Phelps conservation easement acquisition would be to permanently remove the development rights from the property, remove the ability of present and future landowners to sever the water rights from the parcel and indefinitely retain the wildlife, water and open space benefits for the public.To help achieve these goals, the conservation easement also would restrict any future mining activities, commercial timber harvesting and road building, the proposal stated.One objective is to replace and conserve the wetlands buried beneath the consolidated tailings pile south of Minturn during cleanup of the Eagle Mine.”Mine activities have covered or destroyed acres of wetlands and riparian areas that will be replaced in pat by this conservation easement,” the proposal stated.The conservation easement proposal itself should generate some discussion because it falls between the stated objectives of replacing, restoring or acquiring resources.That’s acknowledged by proponents.”While it is true that this project is not a fee-title acquisition, we would argue that the public benefits acquired by this easement serve the same purpose as an outright purchase. It is also very likely that those public benefits (water quality and quantity, wildlife habitat, wetlands, etc.) would be diminished if the land were publicly owned and subject to unrestricted access,” the proposal states.Eagle Mine timeline:- December 1983 – Elevated levels of metals are found in the Eagle River after mine tailings and mine waste water is no longer treated.- October 1984 – EPA proposes the Eagle Mine as a candidate for Superfund cleanup; in 1986 it is designated.- June 1988 – Cleanup agreement and remedial action plan between state, EPA and Gulf & Western (now Viacom) is approved in court. Cleanup activities begin.- November 1989 – Snow made on Beaver Creek Mountain has an orange tint from tainted Eagle River water. River now runs orange with metals contamination as cleanup continues.- August 1990 – Revised cleanup plan is created to include treating mine seepage, ground water and eliminating pumping water back into mine.- February 1991- Second water treatment plant for treating groundwater and seepage goes online.- March 1993 – EPA issues Record of Decision to modify cleanup standards for river to include metals contamination, monitoring runoff and speeding consolidation of tailings and roaster piles. River begins to show improvement.- July 1994 – EPA orders Viacom to carry out the directives noted in the record of decision. That includes monitoring surface and groundwater, testing material from waste rock piles, more monitoring of tailings pile and wetlands.- September 1997 -Tailings pile is capped and mine works at Belden are cleaned; river shows marked recovery; fish-shocking survey shows return of fish to areas that were dead.- September 2001 – Completion of construction phase of cleanup is announced.Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or cthompson@vaildaily.com.


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