Swan River restoration update

Photo credit: Summit Magazine

From The Summit Daily News (Jack Queen):

The Swan hasn’t flowed freely since the dredges chewed up its banks, kept the gold and spat the rocks back out. All of the sand and silt that kept the water out of the ground washed downstream, so the river has quietly gurgled under the rocks for the century since.

“One way to think of it is like a bathtub full of marbles, and the water is just sort of flowing through those,” Lederer said. “Sometimes you see it on the surface and sometimes you don’t.”

The Open Space and Trail Department has teamed up with Breckenridge and at least a half-dozen other partners to breathe life back into the Swan. Clearing out all of the marbles is the first step.

For the past two years, workers have been collecting and milling hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of the gravel and rocks that have been suffocating the river.

On Wednesday, Nov. 22, crews are set to wrap up another season of work, pulling out more than 43,000 tons of material since July. Over that time, roughly $122,000 in royalties from the sale of that processed material have gone to help offset the cost of the project.

A big load of the rock from last season was used for the Iron Springs bypass project, an ambitious re-routing of Highway 9 between Breckenridge and Frisco that was finished just weeks ago…

Last summer, the project liberated one of four sections of the Swan, digging out a channel that now meanders across a wide floodplain.

“We look at the geometry of the valley as a whole: how wide it is, how steep it is, how big the floodplain is,” Lederer explained. “And looking at these different parameters, we can make an inference into what the channel should look like.”

This summer, workers planted thousands of willows along the new banks of the Swan to help anchor the river while it stretches it legs for the first time in years. But it’s not stuck in place just yet.

“We’ve given the stream a lot of flexibility to move across the floodplain,” Lederer said. “It’s able to move a little bit over time, and that’s OK — that’s kind of what we want up there.”

After a dry start to the season, the area greened up nicely before the first snowfall, a stark contrast to the moonlike surface from just two years ago.

The stretch that’s flowing, dubbed Reach A, is one of four sections identified for de-dredging. That phase cost around $2.3 million total, provided by a combination of state and local government grants.

Gravel milling work this summer has taken place upriver on Reach B, and that’s set to continue next summer. Workers need to clear at least 195,000 cubic yards of material before restoration can begin.

The final two sections, however, are being actively quarried on private land and could take some time to free up for restoration.

“Everyone in the valley is sort of supportive of this work, but I don’t have a good idea of the timing on anything on private property,” Lederer said. “But ideally, we’ll continue to move upstream as the opportunity allows.”

From Colorado Summit Magazine (Devon O’Neil):

Today’s excavator work represents the latest step in a landmark project undertaken by local, state, and federal government agencies, as well as a group of private organizations that share a commitment to undoing the environmental damage inflicted by Summit County’s pioneers.

“It’s just basically a big mess. There is no real stream, to be honest. There’s no life,” Jason Lederer, an open space and trails resource specialist for Summit County, says while observing the scene last summer. “Our goal is to reintroduce the natural channel to the valley and restore the ecological and environmental value.”

Lederer watches as the earth mover pulls another few hundred pounds of melted chocolate from its expanding hole. When the restoration effort began, no one had a clue where the river was supposed to go—or where it ran before the dredges turned it upside down in the early 1900s. “We don’t have any pictures, but we can imagine,” Lederer says. Which seems a tad crazy, no? How could you not know where the river flowed as recently as a century ago?

Such is the legacy of dredge mining—not just in the Swan, but also French Gulch, one drainage south, and anywhere else a dredge ever operated.

Soon, though, this valley will be transformed, once again through a human touch. As part of a decades-long plan to restore three miles of the Swan, last summer’s work was a major step toward realizing the river’s potential once more. The envisioned final product evokes a page torn from a Colorado scenic calendar: a meandering stream with aspen and juniper on its banks, 10-inch brook trout snapping at your fly, native cutthroat trout flourishing just upstream (for the time being), and more than 130,000 cubic yards of dredge rock crushed and removed from the valley forever.

As Lederer says, “If we do our job right, nobody will ever know we—or the miners—were here.”

[…]

The first two dredges began churning up the river bottom in 1898, and two more followed in 1899. The four boats dug as deep as 70 feet, depositing their debris in giant piles next to the disappearing river channel. Before long, the Swan’s three forks—North, Middle, and South—no longer shared a visible confluence, having been driven underground by the mining. All that mattered was the gold. And if no one was making the mining companies clean up their mess, they weren’t about to do it of their own accord.

Just up the hill and south from where the boats were “flipping the river upside down,” as dredge mining’s impacts are described, the Cashier Mine pumped out ore in Browns Gulch (it remains one of the largest abandoned mines in the county). Workers loaded its waste into carts and scattered it about the valley, alongside the tens of thousands of smooth, round river rocks discarded by the dredge boats. This, of course, only made a bad problem worse.

What had once been a verdant river became a wasteland. People who have worked on the Swan restoration refer to the river they inherited as a “bathtub of marbles”—essentially a waterway that had been so churned up it no longer had a bottom … or any structure at all. Think of trying to contain water with a screen. That’s what the Swan had become: an underground trickle, dispersed to the brink of dissolution.

Even as work began last summer, questions remained: Was the river still there? If so, could it be channeled once more? What would it take to bring the ecosystem back to life?

There weren’t many precedents akin to the Swan, but one local project provided inspiration, and hope. From 2004 to 2006, Summit County government led an effort to restore the Blue River just north of Tiger Road along Highway 9. The 23-acre Four Mile Bridge Open Space, as it became known, turned out beautifully and served as a vital blueprint for the Swan, in that the remediated site was zoned strictly as open space with no concessions for development.

It took 10 years from when the county and town of Breckenridge began preliminary work on the Swan until the heavy equipment arrived last summer, but by the time operations ceased in mid-November, the progress was striking. They’d rebuilt nearly a mile of stream, including relocating a half mile of channel that had become a muddy ditch along Tiger Road. The reconstructed section of river—“Reach A” as it’s known in the broader plan—includes 22 riffles (minor rapids), glides (calm water stretches), and pools 3 to 6 feet deep, which combine to form optimal fish habitat. The river channel is 25 feet wide to accommodate high flows during spring runoff, anchoring a 65-foot-wide riparian corridor that will be populated this summer with native flora.

Best of all, the county did not have to line the riverbed to prevent water from seeping into the ground and disappearing. That’s because the Swan River, they discovered, is a “gaining stream” instead of a “losing stream”—that is, groundwater actually rises from the bed and into the river, increasing its flow. You could see this happening just upstream from the excavator last July; clear water spurted out of the gravel like a spring, then gradually coalesced as it moved downhill.

An uncommon range of backers has funded the restoration, with the largest financial contribution—$975,000—coming from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Summit County added $500,000, the town of Breck gave $300,000, Colorado Parks and Wildlife anted in $184,000, and the US Forest Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service combined to donate $250,000. Also part of the mix: the Blue River Watershed Group and Trout Unlimited’s Gore Range Anglers Chapter, which works to protect, preserve, and restore coldwater fisheries. “This project hits every aspect of our mission,” says chapter president Greg Hardy.

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