Community Embraces History to Restore San Miguel River

Photo credits: Allie Cunningham

More than twelve years ago, on May 21st, 2007, the Town of Telluride made a final deposit of $50 million and secured the 570-acre parcel of land known as the Valley Floor. Over 90 days, Hilary Cooper, Jane Hickox (president of the Valley Floor Presentation Partners (VFPP)), and a small group of volunteers worked day and night to fundraise for this new acquisition. At the beginning of this endeavor, the outlook was not promising. In the words of long-time resident and editor of the Telluride Daily Planet, Suzanne Cheavens, “The monetary aspect seemed insurmountable.” Despite this, locals, second homeowners, and compassionate onlookers came together to pull off what would later be regarded as one of the most important and inspiring feats in the town’s history. Together, they were able to purchase this invaluable land, and thereby prevent the destruction of a precious local ecosystem. Under previous ownership, the recreational use of the land was not permitted, and the land was threatened by proposed residential development.                             

The History of the San Miguel

Many years before, Telluride was a bustling mining community exporting countless tons of gold, silver, lead, zinc, copper, and iron. It was originally settled in 1875 by a prosperous

A photo of Telluride taken in about 1900.<br /> Photo credits: Town of Telluride
A photo of Telluride taken in about 1900.
Photo credits: Town of Telluride

miner named John Fallon, and was named “Columbia”. Due to confusion with a town in California that shared the same name, it was renamed Telluride in reference to the chemical element tellurium. In 1881, Otto Mears built a toll road that enabled wagons to travel where only pack mules had been allowed previously. As a result, the population of the town soared. That said, it was still incredibly difficult to export the ore extracted at the numerous mines in the area. 

In response to this challenge, plans to build a railroad were put into place. A railroad would facilitate the transportation of ore, household necessities, and mail. As well as helping to connect the very isolated community with others around it, this new form of transportation would cut back on the time it took to obtain essentials by up to several months. It would

The Galloping Goose in 1952.<br /> Photo credits: Town of Telluride
The Galloping Goose in 1952.
Photo credits: Town of Telluride

connect with the existing Rio Grande Southern Railroad that transferred goods and people all throughout the remote towns in Southwestern Colorado. 

In order to carry out these plans, it was decided that the portion of the San Miguel River that runs through the Valley Floor would need to be rerouted to minimize the cost and materials needed. Rerouting the river had another side effect that was enticing to the town, it would help flush the heavy metals out of the town’s immediate vicinity, and therefore make the water significantly safer for consumption. After a long, harsh year, the railroad was completed and in use. As anticipated, the export process quickly became more efficient, and within a matter of days, mail and provisions could be transported from Denver to the secluded mountain town. 

The San Miguel River Today

Over 100 years later, the mining activity is all gone, replaced with a strong tourism economy fueled by a ski area built-in 1972. 

On a cool morning in early summer, 2016, men and women filtered out onto the Valley Floor, all dressed in construction jackets. It was that morning that the first phase of the San Miguel river restoration project began. The plan was to reroute the river to its natural channel, and subsequently restore the delicate ecosystem reliant on the water source. The river would be able to flood when needed, and “do what rivers do” as put by Gary Hickcox, former director of the San Miguel Conservation Fund and former chair of the Open Space Commission.

The most current version of a map showing the San Miguel river restoration project. Here you can see both the new and the old river channels, the tailing piles, the berms, and the construction sites/roads.<br />
The most current version of a map showing the San Miguel river restoration project. Here you can see both the new and the old river channels, the tailing piles, the berms, and the construction sites/roads.
Photo credits: Town of Telluride

Though the river was redirected many years ago, the original channel still exists, and naturally, that was where the river was restored. After a small amount of tree and brush removal, the channel was in perfect condition to fill with water. 

A major focus of the restoration plan was “to have minimal human engineering and to have the river do the engineering,” according to Hilary Cooper. The idea was to let the river carve its way through the valley, using the channel as a guide. On the whole, this was incredibly successful, and the river was able to re-establish itself as a natural component of the local ecosystem.  

This restoration happened in two similar phases. Working their way down the river, the town was able to complete this monumental change in just over four years. 

In addition to redirecting the river, there was a big push to rehabilitate the surrounding wetland. This is especially prevalent in the second phase, where the recapping of mining debris was necessary. A series of studies were conducted in order to determine the exact native plant representation in the area. Using this data, a seed mix was cultivated and later planted to encourage the growth of these species. Not only did this benefit the local wildlife, but it also helped to prevent erosion of the river banks, and to stabilize the wetland area. 

The flat green area in the background is the large tailing pile that is located on the east side of town.
The flat green area in the background is the large tailing pile that is located on the east side of town.

Because of Telluride’s rich mining history, there are numerous tailing piles in and around the town. One of the most prominent resides on the Valley Floor. The toxic 23-acre area is located on the northwestern edge of the Valley Floor and was in desperate need of recapping. Without recapping, the heavy metals would begin to bleed into the wetlands, and consequently poison and kill both the animals and plants in the region. In addition, it would contaminate the river, killing the trout living in its cool waters. 

An agreement between the State of Colorado and the Idarado Mining Company mandated recapping and revegetation. The Remedial Action Plan enabled the Town of Telluride, as the landowners, to propose an alternative plan. They proposed that instead of importing materials to cover the tailing piles, the construction companies bring soil and other materials from the berms on the east side of the project. In effect, this would help minimize traffic through the area, as well as helping to preserve the spruce groves in the area. 

Due to the location of the river, the wetlands in the area effectively created a barrier between the tailing piles and the river. In the event that the tailing piles did start to bleed, the wetlands would contain heavy metals. This is beyond important because if they did get to the river, they would be carried far downstream, and negatively impact a much greater area, both on land and in the river.   

Directly following the completion of the first phase, brown trout were observed spawning in the new channel. This speaks to the promise of an improved fishery in a more natural river environment.

The second phase of this project is estimated to be finished in November of this year (2020), and despite COVID-19 and its repercussions, all of the funding and the timeline for the project are intact to this day. This, once again, is a great representation of the community’s dedication to its public lands, as well as its financial prioritization in times of economic unrest.   

At the end of this phase, Trout Unlimited’s Jason Willis will be working with the Forest Service to continue removing tailings and create several new river structures. Two or three years from now, there will be two more phases completed. While we don’t know exactly what these phases will consist of, it is most likely that they will center around removing tailings and creating a more natural river structure.  

The story of one community’s bond over such a remarkable natural resource is inspiring to many, and with any luck, it will live on for generations in the form of a river to SUP and fish, trails to bike and hike along, and an ecosystem protected from humans’ ever-escalating need for land and money.

If you are interested, click here to stay updated on this project.

Article by Brooke Duncan, a Flylords Content Intern that can be found waist-deep in any and all rivers in Southwestern Colorado. Born and raised in Telluride, she has been fishing since she took her first steps, and enjoys the challenge of techy dry fly rivers and lakes. From the crystal clear rivers in Patagonia to the swift streams of Colorado, she has spent many hours making casts, sharing stories, and being on the water with family and friends. Be sure to give her a follow at @brookelillian.3313.

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