The Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded a $10 million grant to the state of Colorado last week to help fund modifications to the Goose Pasture Tarn Dam.
The funds come as part of FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, which is meant to help minimize the risks of possible dam failures…
The dam — south of Breckenridge proper and north of Blue River — is classified as “high hazard” by the state, a categorization that has little to do with its condition but rather the potential loss of human life and property in the event of any type of failure. According to FEMA, a failure likely would impact more than 2,000 residences and businesses in the Breckenridge area below the dam, along with major damage to roadways and the community’s existing water supply.
The dam does need some work to help put the minds of Breckenridge residents at ease. The need for upgrades began to emerge in 2015, during a high moisture year when town-run monitoring stations started to see significant rising water levels, according to Steve Boand, a state hazard mitigation officer with the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. As a result, stakeholders decided to implement reservoir storage restrictions in 2016.
Breckenridge also moved forward in seeking federal funding to address concerns. The $10 million from FEMA will cover more than half the costs of the project. The rest already has been budgeted as capital improvements by Breckenridge, Boand said. The work on the dam is scheduled to begin later this year and will lower the spillway by 4 feet to help protect the dam and everyone in its path…
Construction on the project will begin later this year and is scheduled to be completed sometime in 2022, though Boand said it could take until 2023. Breckenridge will lower water levels in the reservoir during construction seasons to facilitate the work.
Since 2007, Parks and Wildlife has conducted a biennial fishery survey of the reach with assistance from Summit County, the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado Water Quality Control Division. After evaluating the latest survey, Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Jon Ewert found “an obvious and significant decline occurring in this fishery.”
That conclusion is based on the steady drop in total biomass of surveyed fish collected during each survey since 2011. The 2011 estimated trout biomass was 228 pounds per surface acre. Since then, the figure has dropped by more than 50%.
“The 2019 survey yielded the lowest estimate to date, which is less than half of the peak values observed in 2009 and 2011,” the report said. “The consistency and repeated observations of this downward trend over a period of several years makes it a virtual certainty that this is not an artifact of sampling error.”
The survey was conducted on a 581-foot stretch of the Blue River, named the Fourmile Bridge reach, that is 2.7 miles upstream of the Dillon Reservoir…
While the report does not make any conclusion as to what might be causing the decline, it does urge action and study to discover the root causes for the fishery depletion and address them to improve the health of aquatic wildlife in the Blue River…
Ewert said the report is meant to jumpstart that investigation.
“The purpose of the report is to highlight the fact that there’s this situation developing where we can observe a steady decline in fish,” Ewert said Wednesday. “It means to say, ‘Let’s come together and figure out how to improve the situation.’”
Though no cause has been established, the report does speculate as to the possibility that the stretch’s habitat has changed so that it no longer supports a high density of fish. That could include contamination from abandoned mine runoff, obstructions in the water placed by humans or other disruption caused by human activity.
Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator for freshwater habitat conservation nonprofit Trout Unlimited, said that areas worth exploring include the health of the aquatic food chain, which starts with algae.
“Aquatic invertebrates need algae to graze on, they are really dependent on that food source,” Van Gytenbeek said. “You need more phosphorus and nitrogen in the water to get the algae. Without that, you don’t have the bugs fish feed on, which puts that population under stress, as well.”
The other area Van Gytenbeek believes is worth exploring is the characteristics of the current fish population.
“If you have a bad spawn year, and not many fish go upstream to spawn, you’re going to have very low numbers in that year’s class,” Van Gytenbeek said. “Two, three, four years down the road, when that year’s class of fish get sexually active, there’s not as many spawning.”
Van Gytenbeek also suggested that high elevation environments might have a part to play, with lower water temperatures than at sea level.
Ewert pointed out in the report that despite the decline, the surveyed stretch of river is still a healthy fishery.
Until quite recently, I partly believed in the modern western myth that a snake can survive by eating its own tail. Sure, I watchdogged wetlands, development and ski resort expansions, and tried to hold governments and agencies accountable to environmental laws as an environmental reporter in Summit County, starting in 1996.
Even in the early days, I already understood that global societies were on an unsustainable path. But I was partly in denial, so I failed to convey crucial information to readers, letting them, and myself, believe that it would all be OK.
Water, of course, was discussed at nearly all of the hundreds of meetings I covered, and I unquestioningly adopted the frame of reference and the parlance of the officials who seemed to have everything under control.
By adopting the terminology wholesale, I enabled them to shape the narrative around natural resources and create a version of reality that leaves out many important things, including the complete displacement of Indigenous People from the very lands and rivers that are still being exploited to this day.
How can that possibly be fair, I started asking myself. I slowly realized that I was becoming part of the problem rather than the solution, which made me frustrated and sad. I wrote angry op-eds that made me feel slightly better, but probably didn’t change things a bit.
And I realized that, deep down, the institution I was working for was still part of the same colonial tradition, still mostly denouncing “obstacles to the advancement” of business, as described in the “Utes Must Go! chapter” of Peter Cozzens’ 2017 book, The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West.
Back in the late 1800s, the governor of Colorado vowed to expel the Utes in a decade, and Denver newspapers wanted the job done immediately, similar to the way today’s government, business and media institutions push for more water development, fracking or ski area expansions with an oversized sense of entitlement and absent humility, with any opposition being seen as an impediment to progress.
The initial ruthlessness and the artificial veneer of structural legitimacy we’ve created since then enables decision-makers and societies to disconnect from the moral and ethical implications of our choices. We’ve created strictures with no room for emotions, which makes them dehumanizing. That’s why we numbly accept that, still today, streets, and for that matter, entire counties, are still named after a man who advocated for the expulsion of Indigenous People.
That structure also makes it easy to justify small things like a half acre wetlands encroachment, or another 5 cfs diversion from a river, but all these unsustainable small things add up to the global climate and biodiversity crisis we’re facing right now. It can’t go on if we want to survive. Scientists are telling us we’re literally killing the things that keep us alive, including our rivers.
So what to do after nearly 20 years of failure? And it’s hard to describe it any other way, because things have not really improved during the time I spent reporting in Colorado. In significant ways, like the escalating climate crisis, they’re getting worse.
I can’t change the world, but I can change myself. So I decided to start learning about the Indigenous history of the Colorado River. I figured that awareness and knowledge might be the first step to making amends some day. And I decided to start with a simple thing, like learning the indigenous name for the river valley in Summit County where I lived for nearly 20 years without ever giving it much thought.
But every now and then during that span, there were flashes of awareness, like on a hot summer day in the main plaza of Keystone Resort, when my then seven-year-old son and I listened to Leon Littlebird tell Native American stories and make music beside a wood fire pit that’s long since been replaced by a gas fireplace.
“What happened to those people?” Dylan asked me after the fireside session. Explaining the expulsion of Native Americans in second-grade terms wasn’t all that hard — I told him that the playground bully came along and shoved the smaller kids off the swings.
Littlebird, well-loved in Summit County, gives guest lectures these days at Colorado Mountain College to share music and Indigenous lore, and his local concerts are always packed. I called him to see if he could help answer some of the questions I had about Indigenous names for the Colorado River and its tributaries.
Thanks to some support from The Water Desk, we were able to spend a half day with him near one of the Colorado River’s major headwater streams near an area we now call Hoosier Pass.
Some of the answers were more complicated than I expected.
As one heads north on Colorado 91 over Fremont Pass, just past Climax Mine, a flat and barren expanse is seen to the west of the highway. Once an active tailings-storage facility, signs of life are now emerging above the reclaimed field’s hardened dirt.
Climax is in the process of transforming the westernmost corner of the Robinson Tailings Storage Facility, also known as Lake Irwin, into a wetland. The site will offset wetland habitat lost in Climax’s McNulty Gulch expansion project, an enlargement of the mine’s overburden stockpile facility visible just across the highway to the east.
McNulty Gulch is home to several wetland habitats, including seeps, springs and plant families like sedges, willows and rushes that will all be disturbed in the coming years as the mine expands.
Climax will soon need additional storage space for unmineralized overburden material, and was required to apply for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Section 404 permit before enlarging the stockpile’s footprint. The permit, which was conditionally approved, requires Climax to replicate McNulty Gulch’s wetlands at a two-to-one replacement ratio.
Since 2017, Climax has worked to bring nine acres of wetland to life at Lake Irwin. This is the first phase of the 36-acre project.
Before planting could occur, the site needed grading and an engineered water-delivery system.
The acreage was excavated to remove historic tailings, which were transported north to the Mayflower Tailings Storage Facility. The area was then graded for drainage and covered with topsoil where needed. A network of culverts was also engineered to catch and direct the snowmelt that flows down Sheep Mountain each spring, runoff that has flooded the site in past years.
In 2018 and 2019, Climax focused on planting.
Cuttings were collected from willows already accustomed to extreme temperatures and strong winds at McNulty Gulch and the headwaters of the Arkansas River, and planted at Lake Irwin. After growing from seed at AlpineEco Nursery in Buena Vista, herbaceous plants like beaked sedge, tufted hairgrass and mountain rush were also transplanted on the site.
To date, over 40,000 herbaceous plants and willows have been planted at Lake Irwin. Thousands more plants will be added to the wetland in the coming years as phase two (18 acres) and phase three (nine acres) of the project unfold. The project’s phases will be monitored by the Army Corps of Engineers.
In 2014, Climax completed a similar mitigation project after disrupting a wetland during the construction of the mine’s new water treatment plant. The constructed wetland is now a healthy riparian habitat, a small fenced-in plot brimming with tall green grasses between the water plant and Tenmile Creek.
Climax currently holds a silver tier certification from the Wildlife Habitat Council for site-wide biodiversity and conservation initiatives.
“Ideally, we’d like Lake Irwin to look like this in five years,” Climax’s Chief Environmental Scientist Diana Kelts said of the wetland near the water plant. “But on a larger scale.”
From the Summit County Open Spack & Trails Department (Jason Lederer):
And all of a sudden it’s mid-summer! If you spent much time in Summit County this spring, you are well aware of the wet, cool spring we had with accumulating snow until the end of June. All of this weather resulted in a slow start to many constructions projects around the County and, hence, a delay in gravel removal activities from the Reach B site. However, with the winter of 2019 behind us, things are back in full swing. There is even some new signage at the site explaining the work that is happening.
Summit County’s gravel removal contractor, Schofield Excavation, has removed gravel nearly to the Reach B eastern property boundary. Once they reach the property limit, they will begin working their way out of the site, establishing final rough grades along the way.
With the Reach B gravel removal “light at the end of the tunnel” coming into focus, we are gearing up to complete the final restoration work as soon as possible once the removal work is complete. This summer, in coordination with the County’s ecological engineering consultant, Ecological Resource Consultants (ERC), we are working to optimize the conceptual restoration design by taking into account new groundwater information, post-gravel removal surface grades, opportunities for onsite wetlands creation, and other factors.
This year’s historic snow pack and runoff cycle really tested the integrity of the constructed channel and floodplain in Reach A. Two and half years following the completion of major construction, we are happy to report that the new stream fared quite well with riffles, pools, banks, and other features functioning as intended. In fact, we are even starting to see new habitat features, such as sandy point bars, form naturally.
The Reach A site did experience some erosion at the temporary overflow channel where seasonal runoff passes beneath Rock Island Road. However, in coordination with Schofield Excavation, we were able to quickly stabilize the location utilizing large boulders and gravels from the Reach B site. This temporary overflow channel was designed solely to convey spring runoff and will be abandoned when the future upstream Reach B channel is permanently connected with Reach A.
This year’s moisture has also helped riparian and upland vegetation flourish, with natural recruitment of several native plant species including rushes, grasses, sage, and others species native to the valley.
Stay tuned for more exciting announcements about the Swan River Restoration Project site later this year.
Additional information about Swan River Restoration Project is available at http://RestoreTheSwanRiver.com as well as on the Open Space and Trails Special Projects web page. If you have additional questions about the restoration project, you can contact Summit County Open Space and Trails Director Brian Lorch, or Open Space and Trails Resource Specialist Jason Lederer, or call 970.668.4060.
Here’s a report from The Summit Daily (Deepan Dutta). Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:
The lecture, titled “Dillon, Denver and the Dam,” took place in the old Historic Park Chapel behind the museum, where every pew was filled and the audience spilled out of the door. Mather, a former president of the Summit Historical Society who has written 20 books about Summit County’s rich history and has a doctorate in physical geography, spoke to the capacity crowd on why the reservoir was built and the numerous challenges it faced being built…
The reservoir’s need was first realized in 1907, when the city of Denver realized it would require a lot more water as it grew. In 1913, Denver Water started buying water rights around Summit County, seeing the area’s natural geography as ideal for a reservoir.
“This was a huge catchment area,” Mather said. “You had a confluence of three streams, the narrowing of the valley north of Dillon, you would have gravity flow through the tunnel across the Continental Divide, and all were very important.”
Unfortunately, many benefits that were found in geography were lost to the local geology. There were numerous challenges in trying to find a place to put the dam, and once it was found a whole lot of earth-moving had to be done to artificially strengthen the foundation and ensure water would not start leaking under the dam.
Before constructing the dam itself, a core trench was dug 90 feet deep under the entire length of where the dam now stands, down to the bedrock. Another trench was dug into the bedrock itself, and then giant holes were dug into that trench 300 feet deep and filled with concrete. Suffice to say, the dam built on top of that foundation is well reinforced.
When the dam was finally completed in 1963, it stood 231 feet tall, 5,888 feet long and over 580 feet wide. Twelve million tons of fill was used to build the dam, with most coming from borrow pits in the reservoir area.
Aside from the dam, constructing the reservoir itself was a herculean endeavor itself. Given that the entire purpose of the reservoir is to impound water for use elsewhere, the reservoir needed to be lined and segregated from the ground [water].
That’s why a steel liner was installed to ensure the water stayed in the reservoir and didn’t get contaminated. The liner – a quarter-inch thick, highly polished steel – was pieced together at the bottom of what is now the reservoir in 30-foot long pieces.
There’s also the matter of managing overflow. That job goes to a morning glory spillway, which is basically a giant cement funnel at the dam’s maximum capacity height of 9,017 feet. All overflows fall into this spillway, which features fins at the top to prevent a whirlpool at the top, which would create air bubbles that can deteriorate the spillway’s cement.
Overflow water runs straight down the gullet of the spillway, which is 15 feet wide at its narrowest part, before turning 90 degrees and running into the Blue River through a 15-foot wide fixed-wing gate, which can be opened and closed to regulate water flow into the Lower Blue River.
When fall comes and the reservoir is lowered, the spillway is no longer in use. Mather explained that since cold water sinks, the spillway can get iced up inside, damaging the concrete. To prevent this, Denver Water uses a crane to lift a giant “plug” — a 6-ton steel disc — and lower it into the spillway, preventing ice and debris build-up.
Mather described another key component of the entire reservoir system, the Roberts Tunnel. The 23-mile long tunnel, which when built was the second largest in the world, takes water from the reservoir in the West through a 10-foot wide pipe across the Continental Divide and down 174 feet of elevation to the eastern portal in Grant.
Mather said the construction of the tunnel began one month to the day before she was born, on September 17, 1942. Construction of the tunnel officially ended two months to the day after Mather graduated from college, when the eastern portal opened 22 years later, on July 17, 1964.
Nathan Elder, water supply manager for reservoir owner Denver Water, reported Friday that the reservoir was just under a foot from being full, with 2,600 acre-feet of storage space remaining. Elder predicted the reservoir would fill in about two days.
The latest inflow data showed 2,219 cubic feet per second flowing into the reservoir, while 1,840 cfs is flowing out. Elder said that, while the dam wasn’t meant for flood control, the flows in the Lower Blue would be much stronger if the dam wasn’t there at all.
“We constantly try to balance inflows with outflows,” Elder said. “If the dam wasn’t there, flows below the reservoir would be close or at 3,000 cfs.”
Elder said the Roberts Tunnel, which channels water from the reservoir to the Front Range, was currently off and not bringing water to the Eastern Slope. Denver Water will continue adjusting flows for the reservoir to keep it at full capacity until Nov. 1, when the reservoir is lowered 3 feet to leave room for snow precipitation.
Elder said Denver Water has been conducting twice-daily briefings with county emergency officials, updating the forecast on flows into the Lower Blue. Summit County emergency director Brian Bovaird said that all tributaries in the county were at or just below “action stage,” or when county flooding preparations take effect.
Bovaird said there is a possibility Denver Water will increase flows below the dam to up to 1,900 CFS by this weekend, close to the highest flow recorded below the dam. However, he said there was good news from the National Weather Service, which predicted no heavy rain this weekend to push the rivers over the edge.
Bovaird said that emergency officials will start to get concerned if the outflows rise to 2,100 CFS. But for now, Bovaird said he didn’t expect any major flooding to occur when the peak flows finally peter out next week. Bovaird reported some “nuisance” flooding in Silverthorne’s South Forty neighborhood, but it did not cause any structural damage or threaten homes.
Bovaird added things were looking good at the Goose Pasture Tarn dam, which was built in Breckenridge in the ’60’s and has been a source of concern due to the potential for flooding or even collapse. Tenmile Creek, which approached flood stage a few weeks ago, peaked last week without any significant flooding or damage.