RIDGWAY – To plan for the future, you must first learn from the past. Which is precisely why a geologist and a historian were a part of last week’s educational forum on the Uncompahgre River where nearly 70 people were in attendance. While the effects of mining are often to blame, the Uncompahgre River’s substandard water quality can also be attributed to the natural geological formations in its headwaters. In fact, some of the earliest explorers to see the Uncompahgre River noticed its high content of heavy metals.
“We hear quite often, ‘Look at what these miners did to these mountains,’ but this is the way the good lord gave it to us,” local geologist Bob Larson said at Thursday evening’s forum at the Ridgway Community Center. Larson was talking about the high metal content that lies on the surface of the ground at the headwaters of the Uncompahgre River. “In round numbers, 50 percent of this is natural. This is the way it was formed. The minerals are here because of hydrothermal activity and volcanism.”
Larson said the Red Mountain area is a center of minerals in the San Juan Mountains, and those naturally occurring minerals degrade the water. To prove this point, he said water tested above mines located on Red Mountain usually tests acidic at a pH of two or three. Larson also quoted a passage from the Escalante/Dominguez exploration expedition, dated 1776, where the Uncompahgre was described as being red in color, hot and ill tasting.
While the natural geology of the Red Mountain area plays a role in the water quality, mining is also to blame.
From the 1870s through the early 1890s, Ouray experienced its first silver mining boom, and mines like the Silver Bell and the Paymaster extracted large amounts of valuable ore. The Silver Bell, according to Don Paulson of the Ouray County Historical Society, extracted $1 million worth of ore in 11 years of mining. But it wouldn’t have been a boom of there hadn’t been a bust, and the Silver Crash of 1893 when the U.S. went off the Silver Standard caused most mines in the area to be closed.
Gold mining saved the Ouray area in the 1890s with mines like the Camp Bird and the Revenue Tunnel providing jobs. The milling processes used to extract the gold at these mines further degraded the water quality of the Uncompahgre.
After the gold mining boom/bust cycle, metal mining in the area became successful, with one mine employing 180 miners during the Great Depression, offering one of the few success stories of the time.
But all of the mining activity had a lasting effect on the environment, whether it was through waste dumps (yellow scars on the side of mines), tailings piles or acid mine drainage.
“These mills used large quantities of water,” Paulson said. “A 40-stamp mill would use up to 200,000 gallons of water a day. Mine flooding was a big problem. One of the big problems now has been leaching heavy metals into the watershed.”
Camille Price, who works for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, said that everyone understands the value of mining and what it provides, but when mining waste is not contained it is highly problematic.
“One of the impacts on the environment is the cementation of creek cobbles,” she said. “They become so cemented that there is no place for micro invertebrates or bugs to live. There is no food supply or space for fish to spawn. The pH of Red Mountain Creek is about three. We can see the impacts of uncontained mine waste has on the environment.”
While the meeting focused on educating the community about the river’s past, and what they’re up against when it comes to water quality, it was also used to gather input for a planning process to make the river healthier. From its headwaters in Ouray to the farmlands of Delta, all stakeholders in the river’s sustainability were encouraged to become involved in its future health.
“We have gone through a lot of different times in this country where the community has not been all that engaged and that is changing,” said Jeff Crane, executive director of the Colorado Watershed Assembly.
Thursday’s meeting was the first of six educational forums scheduled at various venues along the Uncompahgre River corridor. The meetings are hosted by the Uncompahgre River Stakeholders Initiative, a nonprofit group of individuals and organizations that has received an EPA 319 planning grant to create a comprehensive watershed plan for the river.
“We, as a coalition, have developed some funding sources to develop a watershed plan for the entire Uncompahgre River,” Crane said. “We want to be able to put it down onto paper and develop a collaborative approach toward watershed and water enhancement in this particular valley. Integrated water management has to start from the bottom up. We have had to deal with a lot of top down government regulations and in many instances it didn’t work very well. I think this is where community groups come in. Working to improve the environment benefits the community.”