Conservancy eyes Coal Creek cleanup
December 20, 2011
ASPEN – The Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy hopes to launch a multi-agency effort to clean up Coal Creek, a tributary of the Crystal River, with a grant from the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Fund to get things started.
The board that oversees the fund has recommended spending $48,269 from county tax revenues devoted to water quantity and quality in the Roaring Fork River watershed; the expenditure is on the county commissioners’ agenda Tuesday.
In part, the funds will go toward analysis of existing water-quality data for Coal Creek, which tumbles out of Coal Basin west of Redstone, and a technical workshop in the spring that draws together experts to review the data and discuss options to clean up a creek that regularly dumps large quantities of sediment into the Crystal River. The Crystal in turn flows north to Carbondale, where it joins the Roaring Fork.
“Basically, nine times out of 10, if the Crystal is that ashy color, it’s Coal Creek that’s putting it in there,” said Rick Lofaro, executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy. Coal Creek flows through a basin still healing from years of mining for high-grade coal.
The conservancy, which produced its “State of the Watershed” report in 2008, will release a Roaring Fork River Watershed Plan next month, according to Lofaro. It will contain more than 200 recommended actions and nine top priorities. Improvements to Coal Creek are among the top nine, he said.
“I don’t know if it’s No. 1 on the list, but it’s the first one we’ve got funding for,” he said.
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The county Healthy Rivers and Streams funding is for a first phase of what could be an extensive project involving the U.S. Forest Service and other players, Lofaro added.
Except for a couple of private inholdings, an 18,000-acre drainage that encompasses Coal and Dutch creeks and Coal Basin is part of the national forest. The Forest Service is potentially interested in employing biochar, a charcoal-like soil additive, to help revegetate steep, eroding slopes left over from mining operations, according to Scott Snelson, Aspen-Sopris District ranger. Biochar was used with apparent success to revegetate a steep mine-tailings pile at the Hope Mine south of Aspen.
“The indicators are that it worked well,” Snelson said.
Biochar application is now being considered for areas of Coal Basin where the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety previously attempted revegetation efforts as part of a mine-cleanup effort. The results of that work varied; it was more successful in some places than in others. The division’s Steve Renner, who led the Coal Basin reclamation, has been involved in the latest discussions about what can be done for Coal Creek.
In addition to improvements to the slopes that erode into the creek, the conservancy is contemplating what can be done at the creek’s confluence with the Crystal, where years of sediment buildup have raised the riverbed of the Crystal and increased flood danger in Redstone, located on the opposite bank, according to Sharon Clarke, a Redstone resident and land and water conservation specialist for the conservancy.
Coal Creek’s original path took it through wetlands before it was channeled straight into the Crystal as part of Highway 133 work by the state, according to Lofaro.
“The stream used to meander beautifully … and came into the Crystal quite a bit farther down than it does now,” he said. “It’s just kind of become a conduit for sediment.”
Restoring the creek’s original course probably isn’t feasible, but efforts to improve the confluence will be considered.
“You’re never going to put it back the way it was,” Clarke said. “If it was an easy problem, people would have fixed it by now.”
Beyond the study and planning, an actual restoration project is the goal next year, though it hasn’t yet been defined, Clarke said. Tackling slope erosion is just one mission.
“The kind of frosting on the cake would be to do some riparian planting,” Clarke said.