Nothing fishy about Roaring Fork River water quality improvement
Water quality of the Roaring Fork River is better now than 14 years ago, largely due to mine reclamation that curbed pollutants.
That’s the conclusion of the “208 Water Quality Management Plan Revision for 2002,” published in March by Robert Ray, water quality director for the Northwest Council of Governments.
The federal Clean Water Act and related state laws require such plans for water quality management to be updated periodically.
The 2002 report is based on a compilation of water quality studies done on the Roaring Fork and its tributaries since the first water quality plan was published in 1988.
Field studies conducted for the 1988 plan turned up some areas of concern for pollution. Subsequent studies summarized in the 2002 report show that overall, the river’s water quality has improved.
While those studies confirm the river is in excellent shape, the 2002 report also explains how to keep it that way.
Discharge from wastewater treatment plants pose a potential threat to the river. The report recommended a centralized wastewater treatment in the mid-valley to serve subdivisions between Carbondale and El Jebel on Highway 82.
It also recommended that new subdivisions use centralized sewer treatment plants rather than individual septic systems, which can discharge bacteria into the groundwater.
The report recommended a countywide inspection and maintenance program for septic systems.
Loss of riparian habitat should be controlled in land use planning, the report said, since vegetation loss contributes to erosion. Golf course construction denudes large areas of vegetation that can also cause erosion, it said.
Also recommended were projects to stabilize streambanks, and water conservation practices including re-use of water in the home and for landscaping.
The report analyzed many sources of pollution, including wastewater treatment plants, stormwater runoff, erosion and sediment loading of the river.
By far, the primary source of pollution of the river and its tributaries is dissolved solids. Because of the soft sandstone that underlies the river and creeks, salts and other minerals naturally leach into the waterways, sometimes in concentrations that exceed federal standards, the report said.
But pollution from mine runoff appears to have abated since 1988, thanks to reclamation efforts. However, coal mines near Redstone and North Thompson Creek continue to contribute sediment and salts to the water courses, the 2002 report found.
Water quality measurements taken in the late 1970s also found above-average concentrations of metals such as copper, lead, zinc and cadmium leaching from abandoned mines downstream of Aspen.
But studies below Aspen and Snowmass Village between 1988 and 1992 have shown no high elevations of metals, the report said.
Of greater concern in the 1988 plan, and today, is the Crystal River. In the stretch between Redstone and Marble, the 1988 study found concentrations of cadmium, zinc, lead, copper and mercury at levels that threatened fish and other aquatic animals.
In 1998, the state water quality control division designated the Crystal downstream of Coal Creek as having impaired water quality due to metals and sediment loads.
While metals concentrations have declined since 1988, sediment still remains relatively high in the Crystal River, the report said.
The Colorado Division of Minerals and Geology has reclaimed the Mid-Continent Resources mines in Coal Basin over the past decade. Grading and seeding cut erosion and captured sediments before they reach Coal Creek, which runs into the Crystal River.
North Thompson Creek also flows into the Crystal River near Carbondale. Water samples taken in 1977, after the Snowmass Coal Co. mine shut down, showed high levels of sodium and calcium. Reclamation of the mine was completed in the early 1990s, and by1996, the state found decreased levels of minerals and sediments.
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