From Gold Mines to Gold Medal Fishery

Two things you typically would not put together are “Colorado Parks and Wildlife” and “Superfund sites.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife River Construction Project
Colorado Parks and Wildlife River Construction Project
125th Anniversary Logo

Two things you typically wouldn’t put together are “Colorado Parks and Wildlife” and “Superfund sites.”

Colorado’s state parks are recreation meccas. Our 350 state wildlife areas boast some of the finest wildlife habitat in the state. And our terrestrial and aquatic biology efforts usually target fish restoration in pristine waters or rescuing threatened or endangered animals.

Superfund sites?

Staff and volunteers conduct an electrofishing scientific survey.

Actually, Colorado Parks and Wildlife does important work on lands and waters in Colorado that have been polluted to the point federal authorities have intervened and declared them some of the most contaminated places in the U.S.

Superfund sites include paper mills, chemical plants, landfills, and mines, among others. There have been more than 200 Superfund sites in Colorado since Congress established the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) in 1980. This Act, commonly known as the Superfund Act, was designed to clean up contaminated sites across the U.S. and hold responsible parties accountable for the costs of cleanup.

Of the original 200 Superfund sites in Colorado, 24 remain on the list today.

Our Focus

We are mostly involved with those that have a direct impact on fisheries. Fish and other aquatic life are sensitive to water quality for survival and reproduction. Fish and aquatic insects are the “canaries in the coal mine” alerting observers to the unseen danger facing aquatic resources. 

Our involvement with Superfund sites began in 1987 when the Clean Water Act was amended to provide funding for the assessment of non-point sources of pollution. Our monitoring of fish populations and water quality has been instrumental in documenting the impacts of hazardous wastes in our rivers, as well as the benefits of remediation and restoration.

Eagle Mine

A good example is the Eagle Mine near the abandoned town of Gilman and about a mile southeast of Minturn in Eagle County. It’s a Superfund site that CPW has impacted significantly. Mining activities at the Eagle Mine ended in the early 1980s. The owners “locked it up” and assumed their work was done. Unfortunately, due to weather and hydrology, the mine shafts filled with contaminated water that released into the Eagle River, turning the water orange and effectively killing the river. 

We began monitoring the Eagle River in 1989 and collecting 35 years of continuous water quality and fishery data. This data led the EPA to provide millions of dollars for reclamation, water treatment and cleanup. Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s efforts helped turn the Eagle River into a destination for anglers from around the world. Without our involvement, this cleanup likely would not have occurred as quickly or effectively.

California Gulch

  • Mine Shaft at California Gulch.
  • Hydraulic Mining, California Gulch

Another good example is the California Gulch Superfund site, located in the Arkansas River headwaters near Leadville, in adjacent Lake County.

As we did on the Eagle River, we conducted decades of fish surveys and collected water quality data to quantify the extent and impact of historical mining. Mines in the area operated for more than a century, releasing heavy metals into the Arkansas. 

Our science supported a Natural Resource Damage Assessment that led to a $20.5 million settlement for cleanup and restoration. Of that, we received $3.8 million to design, implement, and evaluate a 5-mile stream restoration project on lands with public fishing access. 

Our research scientists in the agency’s ecotoxicology laboratory also studied the impacts of metals pollution on aquatic life, contributing to the development of water quality standards for Colorado. Because of improved water quality and flow management, more than 100 miles of the Arkansas River were designated as Gold Medal Trout Waters in 2014. 

The improved fishery has become a popular fishing destination, contributing millions of dollars in local economic impact each year. This enormous success would not have been possible without decades of support from Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Playing an Important Role

Construction Project
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Construction Project

Our role in these cleanup efforts is unique for several reasons. In addition to our capacity to collect long-term fishery and water quality data, our frequent engagement with the resource gives us a unique understanding of these waterways. 

Unlike other stakeholders, Our scientists and biologists see firsthand the effects of pollution on our watersheds and aquatic resources through our boots-on-the-ground conservation work. 

And our ongoing commitment to the resource also gives us a unique capacity to react to change. 

For example, generations of biologists and wildlife managers have descended on the Eagle River each April 1 to conduct fish surveys. Sometimes, they face demanding weather conditions but our staff is relentless in its pursuit of the data. Long days, cold fingers, and poor visibility are common, and yet with grit and passion, our employees continually return to bear witness to the cleanup.

Our staff provides crucial expertise on these projects, ranging from fish to mice to wetlands. Our data has been used to quantify the extent of the damages, as well as the impacts of restoration. The agency has observed great loss and great success. 

We continue to monitor these projects knowing that there is still room for improvement and that our work will help manage Colorado’s valuable resources for generations to come.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is Celebrating its 125th Anniversary
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is celebrating its 125th Anniversary to honor the legacy of our agency and the talented staff who make fulfilling CPW’s important mission possible. For more stories like this, please visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 125th Anniversary web page!

Story contributions by Kendall Bakich, Aquatic Biologist, Area 8; Eric Richer, Aquatic Research Scientist, Hydrologist; Megan McConville Water Quality Specialist, River Watch Program Manager.

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