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River restoration getting final touches

Cliff Thompson
Parts of the Eagle River thorugh Minturn will be restored so there are fewer broad, shallow stretches like above and more deeper channels and pools. (Special to the Daily)
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But for a few final touches, Minturn’s $1 million Eagle River restoration project is waiting for the waterway to subside so work can begin.When it does, sometime around Aug. 1, crews will begin reshaping and restoring about a mile of streambed from just south of La Playauella Park, south of town, to the Bellm Bridge, near the Saloon. The first large-scale restoration project on the Eagle River, it is expected to provide some mild economic stimulus for the town of Minturn.”We’re going to try and restore the river channel (in this section) to something that functions naturally,” said Troy Thompson of Ecological Resource Consultants, who is overseeing the project.Lots of workThe river restoration project, however, will remedy far more than the effects of mine pollution in 1983. The Eagle River, project proponents say, has been heavily impacted by man’s activities since then, too. It suffers from bankside erosion and low flows from irrigation diversion. The streambed as been channelized in places between roads and railroad tracks and has become too shallow in spots to be considered a healthy stream.One of the larger problems facing the river is the amount of water diverted for irrigation. When droughts occur, it leaves precious little water in the river channel.The cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora, meanwhile, 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 last summer’s drought, the river at Avon was flowing at 30 cubic feet per second, or cfs, 25 percent of average. Heavy autumn precipitation, which helped bring river flows up, demonstrated just how water is a finite resource.More meandersRestoring the river will require the streambed itself to be reshaped to create a better pool-to-riffle ratio, which should create more aquatic habitat. The river now has too much riffle, or fast water, and not enough pools.The sides of the river also will be planted with willows and other vegetation designed to create more riparian habitat and creates wetlands, stabilizing the river channel, Thompson said.Plantings will include:- 21,000 grass plugs.- 80 native trees.- Two acres of seeding.- 2,300 native shrubs, such as willow, twinberry and chokecherries.The streambed itself will be reshaped using trackhoes, which will wade into the stream.”We’ll create some meanders in the channel, riffles, pools and also some wetlands, flood terraces and enhance the riparian vegetation,” said Thompson.Large rocks will be buried into the river bottom to establish “hard points” around which the river will flow, he said.In case of a hydraulic line failure or any other spills of petrochemicals, a series of safety booms will be deployed, Thompson said.Heavy metalsOne unknown is how much metals-laden sediment from the mine runoff remains in the river and if it will be stirred up by the heavy equipment. Should significant amounts be found, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment will be called to evaluate the situation.To improve overall water quality, Thompson said, a series of sediment vaults will be installed at places where storm runoff now runs directly into the river. Those vaults will keep pulses of eroded material from fouling the river as badly, he said, by holding some of the sediment.Thompson said when the river is channelized, it scours a deep channel. That scoured sediment is deposited downstream, where it causes the river to broaden and become too shallow.In some areas, like a stretch 100 yards downstream from Cemetery Bridge, the river is in pretty good shape and it will not be touched.Economic benefitMinturn’s economy, meanwhile, is expected to show some benefit from the restoration project, Thompson said. A healthier stream enhances property values, he said, and more people should visit town to enjoy the river.The town, meanwhile, has applied for the lottery-funded Greater Outdoors Colorado Grant to help a new pocket park near Eagle Street and to enhance La Playeulla Park, near Cemetery Bridge.”We hope this will make the river our front porch instead of our back porch,” Minturn’s town manager, Alan Lanning, said long ago.Workers will have to observe one very important deadline this year: They’ll need to compete their work before brown trout spawn in mid-October.Story of the fundingFunding for the Eagle River restoration project comes, ironically, from a fine levied against Viacom, the company responsible for polluting the waterway in 1983, when the Eagle Zinc Mine shut down and treatment of tailings and metals-laden mine water ceased.The pollution leaked into the river and killed aquatic life in a seven-mile stretch, from south of Minturn to the confluence of the Eagle River and Gore Creek.The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment forced Viacom, then Gulf & Western, to clean up the river by consolidating tailings and treating the leachings. It was declared a Superfund site in 1986.The mine cleanup cost an estimated $70 million and took nearly a decade, but active cleanup efforts ceased 20 months ago, and fish and other aquatic life have returned to the river and water quality measured by annual surveys, has improved significantly.The $1.7 million fine, known as the Natural Resource Damage Fund, has grown with interest to more than $3.25 million and has been earmarked for restoration, replacement and acquisition of land or water rights.The balance of the Viacom fine, about $2 million, will go toward a second, and as yet, undetermined, river restoration project.Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or cthompson@vaildaily.com.


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