Eagle River will be cleaner, not pristine | AspenTimes.com

Eagle River will be cleaner, not pristine

Matt Terrell
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY, Colo. ” Newly approved water quality standards won’t lead to a pristine Eagle River, but should mean less toxic metal in the water and possibly healthier trout.

The Water Quality Control Commission has adopted new limits on how much toxic metal is allowed to flow through the Eagle River, which for decades has been tainted by zinc, copper and cadmium spilling out of the now defunct Eagle Mine south of Minturn.

The pollution killed fish, tainted drinking water, and at one point, stained the river orange. It was declared a “Superfund” cleanup site by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1986, and cleanup by media conglomerate Viacom began in 1988.

Viacom split into Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp., the latter being responsible for any remaining cleanup.

The new standards, overall, could lead to healthier schools of brown trout in the river, said John Woodling, a biologist and consultant for water advocacy group Eagle Mine Limited.

In a section of the river farther away from the mine ” between south Minturn and Gore Creek ” the new standards could help rainbow trout, which are more sensitive to metal and have long been absent from the river.

In another section of the river ” between the Tigiwon Road area and south Minturn” a standard that could help rainbow trout will be relaxed January through April, when there’s less water running through the river to dilute the metal.

It’s impossible to know now how much the new standards will help rainbow trout, and even brown trout, if at all, Woodling said. Or, these standards will allow for healthier brown trout.

The approved standards will likely lead to CBS cleaning up about 44 more pounds of metal per day in March and April from the water.

The commission came to this decision after hearing testimony from groups that wanted more stringent standards, such local advocacy groups Eagle Mine Limited and the Eagle River Watershed Council, and those who wanted less stringent standards, such as CBS.

Since the Viacom cleanup, there’s been a debate as to how tough water quality standards should be and how much more cleanup is actually possible in those polluted stretches of the Eagle River.

The cleanup did significantly improve water quality, and over time, brown trout ” which are pretty tolerant of zinc ” started appearing in the river again, even in the most polluted areas.

“At this time there is 118 pounds of zinc in the water per day in March and April, and that’s down from over 1,100 pounds a day a long time ago,” Woodling said.

Metals still flow through the river though, and other species of trout ” like rainbow ” and the most sensitive fish, sculpin, can’t survive and have disappeared from the most polluted areas of the river.

The Watershed Council is after the cleanest river possible, considering how much of the valley’s economy is based on water recreation. Its members want to see the river just as pristine as it was before the mine pollution, which would give hope to the sculpin ” that small, ugly, less resilient fish that’s the most sensitive to zinc.

Arlene Quenon, president of the council, said she had hoped for more stringent standards, especially considering how much progress had already been made, but at least this will lead to more metal being cleaned up.

“I feel that it’s a step in the right direction ” we’ll continue to monitor, and continue to remove zinc,” Quenon said.

Woodling also wasn’t satisfied with the decision. He wanted to see the commission adopt the Colorado “Table Standards,” which are the basic levels that are applied to all streams with fish across the state, especially in that section of the river between south Minturn and Gore Creek.

“Except for March and April, that section is already meeting the Colorado Table Standards,” Woodling said.

Woodling was happy to see that for an upstream section of the Eagle River unaffected by the Eagle Mine but still contaminated by zinc, the commission adopted new standards that would actually protect sculpin, he said.

“This is a good thing ” everyone will have to work together and cooperate to figure out how to remove that zinc to meet standards,” Woodling said.