A Local Need Identified
The Willow Creek Reclamation Project grew out of the determination of a small group of local citizens in Creede, Colorado not to have their town placed on the national priority list for Superfund designation. The listing was proposed due to the water quality problems that are the result of historic mining that began in the 1800s and continued well into the 1900s. The narrow valley above the town is lined with abandoned mines, and still boasts some of the best examples of mining structures you will find in the western United States. No one could have predicted that the profits that the mining companies realized more than a century ago would create water quality problems that we are still trying to resolve today.
Creede, a community of 434 people, is nestled in the San Juan Mountains, part of the Rocky Mountain chain, in south central Colorado. The silver thread highway that leads you there is one of the most picturesque in the state, paralleling and crisscrossing the Rio Grande River for 21 miles. Creede sits at 8,000+ feet, against a backdrop of towering rock formations that rise to 12,000 feet. It is a truly breath-taking region that draws hunters, anglers, bicyclists, hikers, theater goers (Creede is home to a nationally recognized Repertory Theater) and garden variety tourists. These and an assortment of residents – retired miners, artists, local business people, ranchers and vacation homesteaders joined forces to clean up the Creek and preserve the mining heritage and quaint character of the Town. Many feared that Superfund designation would hurt the tourist economy of the town and compromise the ability of the community to determine its own fate.
This group, formally recognized as the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee (WCRC), has grown to include a wide variety of public and private interests. Every month, the WCRC convenes at the Creede town hall. These open meetings typically draw representatives from the Forest Service, the U.S. EPA, CO Dept. of Public Health and the Environment, CO Div. Minerals & Geology, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Colorado Geological Survey, Natural Resource Conservation Service, in addition to the local volunteers - retired professionals, miners, the former mayor, a county commissioner, a city councilman, historic preservationists, etc. It is an impressive suite of scientific experts and dedicated citizens, wholeheartedly committed to the cause to preserve and protect the Creek and River.
The Start of Innovation
From its inception, the Willow Creek Project has had a firm commitment to find innovative, non-regulatory approaches to improve the water quality in Willow Creek and to protect the gold medal fishery in the Rio Grande River downstream – a premier fly-fishing stream. Local residents were ready and eager to apply best management practices (BMP’s) to reduce the metals in the stream so that water quality standards could be achieved, only to find out that the information and data on the sources and loadings of the metals were incomplete. Undaunted, they sought a grant to fill this data gap, and in 1999 successfully competed for a Section 319 non-point source grant, the first time many of them had ever entered the grant writing arena. This first grant funded the characterization of the problem and covered sampling events to identify the pollutant loadings to the stream. Biological assessments were undertaken to determine the health of the aquatic life in the Creek, and re-vegetation were initiated in the floodplain. A cultural resource evaluation was conducted to ensure that the historic mining structures would not be damaged or destroyed in the course of the assessment work. All of these are non-regulatory actions; many are innovative and serve as the basis for non-regulatory approaches to resolving the problems.
A Continued Effort
The WCRC applied for and received subsequent grants to complete the characterization; expanded the scope of the project to include the development of GIS maps; and undertook dye tracer injections to define ground and surface water interactions. The characterization work was completed in 2002 and enabled the WCRC to generate several reports:
- Characterization of Waste Rock and Tailings Piles above Creede, Colorado (2004)
- Characterization of Groundwater in the Alluvial Deposits beneath the Floodplain of Willow Creek below Creede, Colorado (2004)
- Characterization of Fish and Aquatic Macroinvertebrates in Willow Creek (2004)
- Sampling and Analysis Plan for Site Reclamation and Surface Water, Groundwater, Biological and Waste Rock Sampling (2003)
Investigations continue to define the nature of pollution contributed by mine workings. These are determined by an ongoing program which includes the monitoring and sampling of the following:
- Surface water (sampled twice a year to coincide with high creek flow and low creek flow)
- Groundwater monitored by wells placed throughout the floodplain
- Waste rock and tailings piles throughout the Creede Mining District
- Fish and aquatic macroinvertebrates
- Re-vegetation plots and willow plantings
Recovering a stream impacted by mine waste by its very nature calls for an interdisciplinary approach. The success of the effort demands involvement of a host of disciplines, key among them mining, aquatic biology, agriculture and riparian restoration, hydrology and hydrogeology, chemistry, soil science, and public education and outreach. All of these disciplines are actively involved in addressing the problems identified in Willow Creek, some of them in a voluntary capacity. All of these experts, many of them accredited scientists, have an interest in the project and desire to support the local citizens. They have helped to ensure that the characterization of the problem is complete and that the next phase, on-the-ground remedies, is accurate and defensible. The Town of Creede also boasts a dedicated, well-educated group of retirees who contribute significantly to meeting the needs of the project.