Ouray Ice Park, silver mine working to create premier climbing destination
Thanks to generosity of Brian Briggs and Ouray Silver Mine, ice climbers likely will be scaling iconic blue veils of ice in Uncompahgre River Gorge fed by more water than Ouray Ice Park has ever had access to before
Ouray County Plaindealer
OURAY – Brian Briggs remembers the Ouray Silver Mines’ relationship with local ice climbing guides being as cold as the sheets of frozen water that beckoned to climbers up County Road 361.
Mine employees and recreational users butted heads over parking spaces near Senator Gulch, where a locked gate shut off wintertime access to everyone but mine traffic. Frustrated climbers wondered why mine employees could drive up the road while they had to hoof it if they hoped to jam a crampon into a wall of snow and ice.
“There was a lot of conflict there,” said Briggs, the mine’s chief executive officer.
That was five or six years ago.
By the start of next year’s ice climbing season, thanks to the generosity of Briggs and the mine, ice climbers likely will be scaling iconic blue veils of ice in the Uncompahgre River Gorge fed by more water than the Ouray Ice Park has ever had access to before.
A new partnership among the ice park, the mine and the city of Ouray is aimed at guaranteeing the park a new, dedicated source of water that will not only sustain the park for years to come, but allow it to expand.
“What I love is it’s a case study in a small community saying … let’s figure a way to work together as a community. If more communities followed the example of what we’re doing, I think they might be better off for it,” said Peter O’Neil, the ice park’s executive director.
The key to the arrangement is the mine leasing to the city a portion of its water rights that are currently decreed to the Revenue-Virginius Mine. Under the terms of the agreement, the city will pay $1 a year for the lease for a 10-year term that can be renewed. The ice park, the beneficiary of the water, will manage the lease.
The lease agreement is awaiting approval from a state water court. No statements of opposition have been filed.
To those on the outside, it may seem an unusual alliance — an extractive industry joining with a conservation-minded, human-powered segment of the outdoor recreation industry. But for anybody wondering why, Briggs has a simple reply: Why not?
“You know, you have to reach out across what people see as barriers and say, ‘Well, you know, wait a second, we’re part of this community as well,’” he said. “And if we can benefit the community, it’s part of what we call social license.”
Briggs raised the idea during an ice park board meeting several months ago. Board members quickly signed off on it.
Seeking to utilize a portion of the mine’s water rights marks a detour on the road the ice park was originally navigating in its effort to secure more water for a vital cog in Ouray’s winter economy.
The ice park had initially planned to build a 3-mile water line along County Road 361 and use the city’s water rights to obtain water from Weehawken Creek. The park currently uses overflow from the city’s water tanks to farm ice in the park, but once water levels in the tanks drop below a certain threshold, the park’s water access is cut off.
That project, though, carried a steep $3 million price tag and a lengthy timeline for completion, given that the pipeline would have crossed U.S. Forest Service and private land.
Knowing that, Briggs, who joined the ice park board of directors a year ago, pitched a different idea. The mine has access to roughly 6 cubic feet per second under its water rights, with half a permanent water right and half a conditional water right for recreational uses. Briggs proposed donating the conditional right to the park, noting the mine wasn’t using that water. The revised project is expected to cost around $1 million.
“Getting on the board allowed me to really understand the challenges for them as far as water and usage. The path they were going seemed extreme,” he said.
Todd Jesse, the mine’s environmental specialist, views the arrangement as a natural fit. He noted carabiners — a staple of the climbing industry — are made out of aluminum and zinc. Zinc is one of the minerals produced by the mine.
“We see ourselves as part of the new economy here, and the renewable economy,” Jesse said, adding that silver is a critical component of solar panels and electric vehicles.
The ice park currently uses about 350 gallons a minute to coat the walls of the Uncompahgre Gorge. The water right from the mine will provide three or four times that amount, according to O’Neil, “more water than we could almost ever use.”
More water will mean more terrain for ice farmers to work with. There’s currently roughly 150 ice climbing routes in the park. The additional water should allow for the creation of another 25 to 40 routes, O’Neil said.
The ice park’s need for the water has never been greater, as drier winters, growing water demand from the city and aging infrastructure have made it difficult for ice farmers to keep up with the increasing usage of the park.
While he waits for the official go-ahead from a water court, O’Neil is busy raising money for the “Our Water Our Future” $1 million capital campaign, and he’s off to a promising start. The mine has donated roughly $100,000 in in-kind contributions through legal and engineering work. Great Outdoors Colorado announced Dec. 9 it will award a $100,000 grant to the city for the project. The Telluray Foundation, founded by Dish Network founder Charles Ergen, has pledged $100,000 upon the transfer of the water rights from the mine to the city. O’Neil said the Gates Family Foundation and a group of private donors have given close to another $100,000. He hopes to launch a public fundraising campaign before the end of this ice climbing season.
Once the transfer of the water rights is approved, the ice park can turn its attention to construction. A contractor hired by the mine will drill a well in Canyon Creek just upstream from the confluence with the Uncompahgre River and install a vertical turbine pump in the bottom of the creek. That will then pump water into the gorge and the pipeline in the park. O’Neil wants to have the project finished before park employees start farming ice in the fall of 2022.
“I think if you were to poll just about anybody in Ouray County, they want to live in a vibrant, thriving community,” O’Neil said. “There are enough examples in Appalachia, and this country, of communities that never worked together and that are falling apart — mining communities, especially.
“Brian has mining in his blood and he understands that the town needs to be more than just a mine. He gets the value of the ice park. So, you know, for me, it’s an opportunity for all of us to collaborate.”
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