Agencies examining water quality on Lincoln Creek


State, local and federal agencies are working to determine what is causing changes to the waters and bed of Lincoln Creek.

In recent days, the water in Lincoln Creek below Grizzly Reservoir has turned a milky green color and sediment – yellow in some places, white in others – has settled on the creek bed. Water flowing into the reservoir from the top of Lincoln Creek turned yellow on Saturday.

According to Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board member Andrew Wille, who conducted a field survey in the area, the discolored creek isn’t entirely unusual.

“I would say (Lincoln Creek above the reservoir) is still like that, but it could be a little worse this year,” he said.

What’s unusual, Wille said, is that the problem extends below the reservoir to the water that descends from Lincoln Creek to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River.

“I was just a little worried and upset that he made his way into Roaring Fork,” he said.

One culprit could be the area’s old mines, where prospectors mined for gold, silver, lead and copper in the early 1900s. It includes the famous Ruby Mine near the ghost town of the same name. .

Bryan Daugherty, a Pitkin County environmental health specialist, took water samples from the creek last week.

“We may have had significant weather up there and that opened up some of the channels or something that exposed more mining waste,” Daugherty said. “We just don’t have a good answer as to why it looks any different than it has in recent years.”

Officials may have more answers after Tuesday, when a team of water quality experts from different agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Roaring Fork Conservancy and others, are expected to test the waters of Lincoln Creek. It is part of an ongoing water quality monitoring program.

Water from the Ruby Mine manhole – which is the opening of the mine – mixes with water from Lincoln Creek in late August. Old mines in the area could affect water quality downstream. Credit: Andre Wille

Mines could be a cause

Jeff Graves, director of Colorado’s inactive mine reclamation program, said the Ruby mine came to his attention last year when there was a massive fish kill in Grizzly Reservoir. His agency, the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, joined other agencies in water quality sampling in early summer. These results have not yet come back.

But Graves said the problem may not be caused solely by the Ruby mine.

“There is obviously some legacy mining there; this includes the Ruby mine,” he said. “But there is also a significant non-mining geological component. So there are a few different things going on that we need this sample data to clarify the real cause of any potential downstream issues.

Graves estimated that there are about 400 mines across Colorado that spill into waterways and potentially create a water quality problem downstream. He said no reclamation had been carried out on the Ruby mine and that it would not have come under any regulatory authority when it was mined at the turn of the 20th century.

Much of the water collected in Grizzly Reservoir from the high mountain Lincoln Creek drainage is sent through the Twin Lakes Tunnel below the Continental Divide for use in Front Range towns. Colorado Springs Utilities owns the majority of the water in the Twin Lakes system, which is the largest water source for the city’s West Slope and approximately 21% of its total supply.

Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company manager Bruce Hughes said Monday that the Twin Lakes system is operating normally, which at this time of year means not diverting to the Front Range and instead leaving the water from Grizzly Reservoir flow into Lincoln Creek.

Graves said that in general, environmental concerns associated with mines involve aquatic life like fish and the insects they eat. The orange color of the water and the stained creek bed comes from iron; the blank is aluminum, he says.

“Generally speaking, there are very few human health issues associated with the sites,” he said. “Most of the time it’s aquatic life issues and the specific issue is zinc. Fish are very intolerant to high levels of dissolved zinc in water.

On Saturday there were still plenty of fish swimming around in the Grizzly Reservoir.

Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in conjunction with The Aspen Times.


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