How clean should the Eagle River be? |

How clean should the Eagle River be?

Matt Terrell
Vail CO, Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY ” Rainbow trout have long been absent from polluted stretches of the Eagle River, which for years has been tainted by toxic metals spilling from the old Eagle Mine just south of Minturn.

Trout and other fish, such as the sensitive sculpin, could make a comeback though, if the state adopts more stringent caps on how much metal can flow through the water.

The Eagle River is definitely cleaner than it was 20 years ago, and the Water Quality Control Commission will decide in June if the water is healthy enough now, after millions of dollars in cleanup efforts, or if there’s still room for improvement.

Local river advocacy groups the Eagle River Watershed Council and the Eagle Mine Limited will be pushing for a lot more cleanup of the water.

“We want the very best river we can have,” said Arlene Quenon, president of the Watershed Council.

For more than 100 years, metals such as zinc, copper and cadmium have spilled into the Eagle River, killing fish, tainting drinking water and at one point, stained the river orange.

It was declared a “Superfund” cleanup site by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1986, and cleanup by media conglomerate Viacom began in 1988.

The cleanup significantly improved water quality, and over time, brown trout ” which are pretty tolerant of zinc ” started appearing in the river again, even in the most polluted areas.

Metals still flow through the river though, and other species of trout ” like rainbow and cutthroat ” and the most sensitive fish, sculpin, can’t survive and have disappeared from the most polluted areas of the river.

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. It boils down to which fish can reasonably be saved, and which can’t.

Since so much of this valley’s economy is based on water recreation, and because so many people live here because of the environment, the Watershed Council is after the cleanest river possible. Its members want to see the river just as pristine as it was before the mine pollution, which would give hope to the sculpin, that small, ugly, less resilient fish that’s the most sensitive to zinc.

It’s a lofty goal ” but one that should be strived for, the council says. There are always advances in technology that can help, and there’s also the possibility that the Ginn Development, which is planning a private ski resort on Battle Mountain, will contribute to further cleanup.

“The question now is whether we can continue to improve the water, and we believe more improvements are out there and possible,” Quenon said.

Other groups won’t be pushing that far and don’t see saving the sculpin as an attainable goal.

Eagle Mine Limited wants to see Colorado “Table Standards” applied for the Eagle River, which are the basic levels that are applied to all streams with fish across the state.

These standards would protect rainbow trout, but not sculpin. Applying this standard would mean more metal cleanup, and it would be an attainable goal, said John Woodling, a biologist and consultant for the Eagle Mine Limited.

Woodling said he’s impressed with the cleanup that’s occurred so far ” more than 90 percent of the metal ” but more could be done.

The Colorado Department of Public Health is proposing standards that are slightly less stringent than what Eagle Mine Limited is proposing. It would require certain stretches of the river to be clean enough for sculpin, while in other areas, it wouldn’t be feasible to save the sculpin, the group says. In these areas, the public health department will instead push for standards that protect brown trout.

CBS, which is now in charge of cleanup efforts, is proposing standards that are more relaxed than the water is now, and in the future, could allow a higher amount of metal in the river.

The Watershed Council says its too early to settle for something less than perfection at this point, especially considering all the work that has already been done. Instead, there should be more study, more monitoring and more innovative ideas to clean the water before a new standard is set, Quenon said.

“They’ve done a major cleanup, but there’s an opportunity to do even more,” Quenon said. “Let’s not set the standard. Let’s not close the door on this. More can be done.”

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 970-748-2955 or

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