Water 2012: Summitville anniversary is nothing to celebrate


VALLEY — The year 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the Summitville mining disaster which permanently altered the Alamosa River watershed that covers 148 square miles.

In 1992, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emergency response unit found a mountain decimated with a massive open scar, pools of murky green water, and snake-like black pipes lying throughout the site. In contrast, the untouched snow-capped San Juan Mountains surrounded the catastrophe. Later, downstream fishermen and farmers reported fish, victims of the cyanide spill at the mine site, floating in the Alamosa River and in their private reservoirs. How would the governmental agencies and the local residents respond to such an environmental catastrophe with a remediation cost that eventually would exceed $220 million?

The degree of environmental irresponsibility displayed by a Canadian mining company was counterbalanced by the degree of commitment and dedication by local residents, federal and state agencies to this environmental tragedy. In 2002, a settlement was reached with Robert Friedland for $28.5 million, with $5 million exclusively designated for the use “to restore, replace, or acquire the equivalent of” the injured natural resources. This natural resource damage settlement looks small compared to Friedland’s current status of a billionaire who works out of Vancouver, Singapore, and Magnolia as reported by author Walter Isaacson.

But the settlement proved significant to agencies and organizations for its leverage potency for additional monies for projects designed to restore the watershed.

First on the check list was the funding for the Alamosa River Watershed Restoration Master Plan and Environmental Assessment which summarized current environmental conditions and develops solutions for identified problems that will lead to a healthier watershed. The scope of the Master Plan covers the entire watershed and offers a broad array of natural resources and watershed functions and values. The result is a multi-disciplinary approach to watershed assessment that has produced a prioritized plan for watershed restoration and enhancement. The Alamosa River Foundation is a non-profit organization formed to provide local Master Plan oversight.

Thus far, the US Forest Service has completed a project from above the confluence with Wightman Fork down to the Alamosa River Campground. The project includes stabilization of eroding stream banks; reestablishment of wetlands adjacent to the Alamosa River; aquatic habitat has been restored with the use of rock constructed cross-vanes and j-hooks; and the reconstruction of a location into a single thread channel. The Alamosa River Watershed Restoration Foundation (ARWRF) is renewing its efforts to complete restoration of 7,600 feet of the river. Selection of a design firm will take place in June with river work scheduled for July.

In 1973, the state legislature recognized the “need to correlate the activities of mankind with some reasonable preservation of the natural environment” and created the Instream Flow Program within the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to protect stream flows and lakes. The Alamosa River Instream Flow Project‘s goals are to develop a fishery in the Alamosa River, restore the riparian habitat, and regenerate the aquifer. However, storage for the instream flow water remained a challenge.

A unique collaboration between Terrace Irrigation Company, Inc. and Alamosa Riverkeeper was developed. Terrace Irrigation Company had 2,000 acre feet of storage that the State Engineer had restricted, because of an antiquated spillway. With combined funding from the NRDS and the CWCB, and a loan to Terrace Irrigation Company from the CWCB the $4.4 million cost for the replacement of the spillway was complete.

Restoration of the watershed continues with the state-of-the-art water treatment plant at Summitville with a price tag of $19,200,000 that was largely funded by the “stimulus” funds, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Dedication of the plant was held in August, 2011. The new plant treats up to 1,600 gallons per minute, or 2,300,000 million gallons per day. The clean discharge benefits the fish and aquatic life in the Alamosa River and Terrace Reservoir.

After years of testing fish in Terrace Reservoir on June 12, 2012, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment lifted the restrictions for the consumption of trout in Terrace Reservoir. Fisherman can now eat the fish they catch at Terrace Reservoir.

The commemoration of Water 2012 is a reminder of the acute dependency people have on water quality and water quantity. Summitville’s South Mountain, forever scarred with acid bearing rock, symbolizes a tragedy that has greatly impacted the Alamosa River and the residents who live in the watershed. Hopefully, the men and women who have been involved with the struggles and the successes of the restoration of the Alamosa River watershed, as well as those who have witnessed the Superfund process, rally an environmental consciousness that may someday avert another Summitville.

Valley Courier
Cindy Medina