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Willow Creek Reclamation Committee shares history

Posted: Thursday, Feb 14th, 2013

CREEDE—After nearly 100 years of mining in Creede, the last mine shut down in the mid 1980s and the community turned to a seasonal tourism based economy.

Ten years after this economic shift happened, the Creede Mining District was considered for listing on the National Priorities List (better known as Superfund). What would happen to this newly forming economy? A few locals did not want to discover the answer to the question, so they formed the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee to address the issues created by the mining legacy practices.

Their mission was to improve water quality and habitat, reduce flood risks, reclaim areas impacted by mining and preserve historic structures in the Willow Creek watershed in ways that are practical, cost effective and beneficial to the economic sustainability of the Creede community. Fifteen years later, the WCRC is still hard at work.

The Creede Mining District had many waste rock piles, seeps, mine adits and mill tailings when the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE) performed their preliminary assessment of Willow Creek in 1994. The findings prompted further inspection of Willow Creek’s water and were summarized into a report in 1997.

This report provided the basis for listing the Creede Mining District on the National Priorities List under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Com-pensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as the Superfund Act.

The Superfund Listing encompassed the entire Creede Mining District, including both branches of Willow Creek. The consequences of Superfund designation on Creede’s tourist based economy were unknown, but a few concerned citizens were not interested in finding out.

Steve Russell from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Mark Haugen of the Rio Grande Soil Conservation Service and with the support of the City of Creede, held a meeting and informed attendees about the proposed listing.

A year later, the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee was taking action to address the issues causing poor water quality in Willow Creek without EPA intervention. The Creede Mining District was not listed as a Superfund Site and the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee went to work.

To complete their work, the WCRC defined six core goals to guide their efforts: 1) Protect the Rio Grande from future fish kills associated with nonpoint source releases during unusual hydrologic events. 2) Improve the visual and aesthetic aspects of the Willow Creek watershed and its historical mining district. 3) Implement appropriate and cost-effective flood control and stabilization measures for nonpoint sources. 4) Protect and preserve historic structures. 5) Reclaim the Willow Creek floodplain below Creede to improve the physical, chemical, biological and aesthetic qualities of the creek as an integral part of the local community. 6) Continue to improve water quality and physical habitat quality in the Willow Creek watershed as part of a long-term watershed management program.

From its inception, the Willow Creek Project has had a firm commitment to find innovative, non-regulatory approaches to improve the water quality in Willow Creek and to protect the gold medal fishery in the Rio Grande River downstream – a premier fly-fishing stream. Local residents were ready and eager to apply best management practices (BMP’s) to reduce the metals in the stream so that water quality standards could be achieved, only to find out that the information and data on the sources and loadings of the metals were incomplete. The WCRC received CDPHE funding and spent from 1999-2003 sampling surface water, groundwater, waste rock piles, mine pools, macroinvertebrates and fish to fill in the information gaps.

Guinevere Nelson is the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee coordinator. This is the second in a yearlong series of articles celebrating the 15-year anniversary of the creation of the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee.

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