Not an inch of Eagle River spared
EAGLE COUNTY – Frank Doll remembers when wetlands dotted Pando Valley, now known as Camp Hale, before the military straightened the Eagle River during World War II.”It was a big lake,” Doll said. “All of that flat area you see there now was water.”People living there harvested ice to chill lettuce destined for the Midwest. Sheep grazed the lands above the valley. Native species of plants like willows reached up from the marshy depths. The Eagle River meandered through.Then the army drained the wetlands and dredged a straight channel to tame the river. Yet this is not the only damage the Eagle River sustained from the Torrents of zinc from the Eagle Mine spilled into the river killing fish and other aquatic life. Climax Mine’s waste ponds – said to be safe – rest near the river’s headwaters.”Every inch of river from Climax to Dowd Junction has been impacted by some sort of activity,” said Cal Wettstein, local ranger for the U.S. Forest Service.Marjorie Westerman, who lives at the headwaters of the Eagle River, sold the development rights on 62 acres of her land to the Eagle Valley Land Trust in 2003, thus forever protecting the headwaters from development.”I don’t care for development at the pace that it’s happened so when I die it won’t be developed,” Westermann said.The undeveloped headwaters save downstream people from pollution and water shortages. “Water is life,” Westerman said. “We’ve got to protect and use it wisely. It doesn’t just come out of the spigot.”
In 1941, the military built Camp Hale just north of Westermann’s home to house and train 10th Mountain Division soldiers in mountain warfare. The construction drew workers from miles around, including then 20-year-old Earl Eaton, who helped found Vail Mountain.
The meandering Eagle River and wetlands obstructed building, so while Eaton installed sewer lines, other workers drained the wetlands and straightened the river and its east and south forks.”I don’t think they hurt the river any unless they’d want to call it messing up a wetland,” Eaton said.Those wetlands – which animals, insects and plants depended upon – disappeared, said Brian Healy, fisheries biologist for the U.S. Forest Service.The river’s depth lowered and the pools needed to sustain fish became almost nonexistent. The sun heated the shallow, wide river, pushing out aquatic insects that depend on lower temperatures while attracting bugs that thrive in the heat. The surrounding groundwater lowered, killing plants with short roots and inviting non-native plant species that flourish in drier climates.The Army Corps of Engineers later handed over Camp Hale to the Forest Service. In the intervening years, groups considered restoring the river’s main channel, but they scrapped the idea when Camp Hale became a protected National Historic Place in 1992.Former 10th Mountain Division soldiers don’t mind if the east and south forks are restored, but they want to keep the heart of Camp Hale in its current state, said Earl Clark, chairman of the 10th Mountain Division Foundation.So in recent years the Forest service, along with other agencies, sought to restore the east and south forks of the Eagle River to a semblance of their former states.”People have been looking at this as a great opportunity for the past couple decades,” said Caroline Bradford, director of the Eagle River Watershed Council. “It looked like a very good ecological bang-for-your-buck opportunity.”The restoration halted when leftover munitions – thought to have been cleaned by the Corps of Engineers – were found at the rifle range, which is alongside the east fork of the river. The cost to restore the forks was originally estimated at $4 million, but the grant money Bradford and the Forest Service hoped to get dried up because it can’t be spent on removing munitions.”The military has to clean up before we can even consider it,” Bradford said.
Perhaps the greatest damage to the Eagle River stems from the now-defunct Eagle Mine. Over nearly 100 years, the mine below Gilman and north of Red Cliff produced several metal ores, mostly zinc, and released heavy-metal-laden water into the river.
“When I was a boy the Gilman mine was killing fish,” Eaton said.In the mid-1980s, zinc-laden water flowed from the mine into the Eagle River, killing fish and bugs in a seven-mile stretch from Gilman to Dowd Junction and turning the river orange.The media conglomerate Viacom purchased the land and assumed responsibility for cleanup 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 sitesAs of Jan. 1, the company split into Viacom Inc. and CBS Corporation, the latter of which is now responsible for cleanup.Viacom began an $80-million effort to clean the river in 1988. Viacom’s cleanup included sealing tunnel openings with concrete and flooding the innards of the mine. Mine waste was transported to a central location, called the “consolidated tailings pile” in the now-dry Bolts Lake area, 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.
Fines levied against Viacom paid for a $1.1 million restoration of the river through Minturn. Native shrubs and trees were planted along the banks, the river was reshaped and other improvements were made.The overall cleanup is considered a success – brown trout and bugs returned to the Eagle River, which shows few visible signs of the orange muck that colored the channel.”It’s probably better now than it used to be,” Eaton said.But despite the success, the cleanup continues.A second phase of the Minturn restoration is being considered. Plans also exist to move waste rock held up by rotting wood retainers from a hillside near the Eagle Mine to a location a couple hundred yards away. This waste rock is believed to sit on Union Pacific Railroad Co. property and is separate from the mine cleanup.Bradford has said she is concerned the retainers might collapse, causing the waste rock to tumble into the river, and pollute and dam the water. The dam might eventually be breached, triggering a rush of water to flow toward Minturn.”(The retainers) are disintegrating and falling onto the railroad tracks,” Bradford said. “One good push and that waste rock will be in the river and that will totally mess up the Eagle River.”Staff Writer J.K. Perry can be reached at 748-2928 or email@example.com.Vail, Colorado