The exclamation I hear most often from the general public, industry or federal/state partner organizations is “I didn’t know Trout Unlimited did that.”
That refers to abandoned mine land clean-up projects. TU has had an AML program for over 10 years, I’ve been part of it for the last 7.
The scope, complexity and budget of our projects have grown a lot in the past 4-5 years.
A cleanup will commonly consist of targeting an abandoned hardrock mine, 23,000 of which exist in Colorado, that has acidic, heavy metal-laden water, waste-rock or tailings (processed ore) on site.
Our staff will then characterize a site through water or soil chemistry testing to attain baseline metal concentration levels. This data can then be used in a reclamation design/plan that best suits a certain location.
The characterization part of the work is important. There is no one-size-fits-all type solution at many of these sites due variations in contamination, elevation, aspect, water and historical properties.
My program in TU has taken on a larger cradle-to-grave project management role in the recent past since we have the expertise to do most of this characterization and design ourselves.
This helps cut down on costs that ultimately can go into the ground to accomplish more work at a site.
The work most commonly focuses on revegetating barren and discolored waste rock or tailings areas, as well as managing water around those areas to keep it clean. I’m simplifying these techniques quite a bit. The pictures tell the story best.
The first two photos were taken from a project TU completed in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service near Bonanza. Previous activity in the Bonanza Mining District at the Minnie Lynch Mine left this drainage dead due to contaminated soils and water.
Our work focused on confining the flow of Minnie Lynch Gulch into a sustainable stream channel while also incorporating soil amendments into the barren floodplain to establish native vegetation.
The two photos were taken 1 year apart showing impressive results. The native vegetation has continued to thrive 3 years after implementation with local cattle even being observed enjoying the fruits of our labor.
Another local project TU completed in partnership with USFS was the Akron Mine cleanup, which is in the headwaters of Tomichi Creek near the town of Whitepine.
This nationally award-winning project moved over 120,000 cubic yards of mine wastes out of the floodplain and into two large on-site repositories.
The wastes exhibited high levels of lead and zinc, making ecological and human health a priority for clean-up actions. By moving the wastes, a 60-foot wide floodplain was established along an 1,100-foot section of Tomichi Creek. The entire 8-acre footprint was revegetated using native seed. A large culvert was also removed that was acting as a fish barrier to local brown and brook trout populations.
These are just two example projects of the “I didn’t know TU did that” category of work. Over the past 3-4 years, the TU Colorado AML program has spent $500,000 to $1.2 million annually on construction towards these types of projects that protect the state’s water quality.
That is no small task given the increased scrutiny from federal agencies, legal hurdles, lack of funding and varied site complexities.
Fortunately, federal agencies have been recently motivated to facilitate these types of clean-ups with existing Good Samaritan protections while also exploring legislative fixes that will help protect third party organizations like TU from potential legal ramifications.
With over 25 projects under the program’s belt over the last 7 years in Colorado, TU looks to continue to build capacity and chip away at our state’s water quality issues stemming from abandoned mines.
With increased climate variability, overallocation and increased population influx in Colorado, this type of work will become more significant when it comes to protecting our water resources.
Now that you know more of what TU does, I can end with the assurance that our membership and staff will continue to protect our Nation’s Coldwater Resources across Colorado and the U.S.
For more information about Collegiate Peaks Chapter our events and projects visit our website collegiatepeaksTU.org
Jason Willis is a former board director for the Collegiate Peaks Chapter and is currently abandoned Mine Program manager for NTU.