Lance McDonald

Town of Telluride Program Director Lance McDonald explains the tailings mitigation and river rechanneling project that will take place on the Valley Floor this summer. (Photo by Suzanne Cheavens/Telluride Daily Planet)

Telluride’s mining past has residual effects that still echo through time. That leaves today’s stewards of the land and the entities responsible for environmental contamination with tasks aimed at containing toxic tailings and protecting river health.

At Tuesday’s Telluride Town Council meeting, the town’s program director, Lance McDonald, explained during a morning work session a plan to cap tailings on the northwest end of the Valley Floor and to reroute the river where it runs near those tailings. Council unanimously gave the go-ahead on the project later in the meeting.

The project is two-fold, McDonald explained. The tailings pile (the Society Turn Tailings Pile No. 1) spans 23 acres and sits south of the abandoned railroad grade on either side of the river. It is subject to a cleanup agreement between Idarado Mining Company and the State of Colorado that calls for capping and revegetating the contaminated area in place. The Remedial Action Plan allows the landowner — the town — to offer an alternative plan, which the town has done.

Rather than import materials to cover the tailings and create walls to shore it up along the river, the town proposes to relocate soil from the large berms east of the project along the Valley Floor, thereby minimizing traffic impacts, and to preserve spruce stands in the project area.

The second component of the town’s plan is to move the river’s course south of the tailings altogether, creating a natural wetlands buffer between the remediated tailings and the river. McDonald told council the state is not only keen to move forward with the remediated work, but is amenable to the town’s plan and to using the town’s design and contractor teams.

“It’s been a long time coming and it seems like the timing is right,” McDonald said.

Council’s approval stems from the release of town funding for the proposal. The town’s portion of the overall project cost of $3,333,900 is $702,560.71, and only applies to the river restoration aspect. Idarado, the state and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) will share the costs of remediating the tailings pile. Idarado and the state will pay $1,731,339.29 and CWCB will contribute $200,000 for a total of $1,931,339.20.

Numerous partners and funding sources come into play for the river restoration portion. In addition to the town, the Valley Floor Preservations Partners ($400,000), Trout Unlimited (10,000), and the CWCB ($290,000 in grants) are listed as funders.

Additionally, Ross Davies, representing the state, told council, “The state is pretty excited,” he said. “It’s an excellent conceptual plan.”

The Southwestern Water Conservation District has also written the CWCB in support of Valley Floor Preservations Partners’ grant request. McDonald included letters of support from Sheep Mountain Alliance, the San Miguel Board of County Commissioners, the San Miguel Conservation Foundation, San Miguel Watershed Coalition and Southwest Basin Roundtable in information provided to council.

The high level of support for the project was attractive to town council members.

“This is a glorious solution,” said council member Geneva Shaunette, as she and fellow council members Lars Carlson, Jessie Rae Arguelles, DeLanie Young, Todd Brown, Tom Watkinson and Mayor Sean Murphy cast votes to approve releasing town funding. The money will be pulled from the town’s Open Space Set Aside Fund.

Recreationists will have continued access to the west end of the Valley Floor via the River Trail, though the trail atop the abandoned railroad grade will be closed for the duration of the project. The river, McDonald said, “will be closed to boaters after the high flow season.” The project should be completed by November, McDonald said.

In other council news, council unanimously passed new regulations surrounding Special Event Permits (SEP) pulled by nonprofits for the sale of alcohol. SEP-holders must disperse 100 percent of its proceeds to qualified nonprofits within the region within 120 days of the last day of the festival or event. Promoters can go before council to ask for exemptions, but may not give more than 50 percent to an approved nonprofit outside the region.