River restoration

This image depicts the scope of work being undertaken on the west end of the Valley Floor, a project delayed by a year because of last year’s summer-long high flow of the San Miguel River. (Image courtesy of the Town of Telluride)

A river rechanneling and tailings recap project on the west end of the Valley Floor has been put in motion this week after a year’s delay. 

Originally green-lighted by Telluride Town Council last year, the project was put on hold when abundant winter snowpack made for what town project manager Lance McDonald called “abnormally high flows in June and July.” But this year, conditions are ideal and the project’s first phase — the creation of an access road off the Spur west of Eider Creek — kicked off Tuesday. The ambitious plan includes capping the tailings on the northwest end of the Valley Floor and rerouting the river where it runs near those tailings.

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.

Additionally, the plan calls for rerouting the river’s course south of the tailings altogether, creating a natural wetlands buffer between the remediated tailings and the river. If it sounds like a massive project, it is.

“It’s very large, on a landscape scale,” McDonald said. “It’s not like building a building. It’s working across an entire landscape.”

Remediating the tailings area has long been in the town’s sights, McDonald said.

“It’s been in the works for 25 years,” he said. “It’s great to see it happening now.”

While the project is underway, recreationists will still be able to use the trails along the south side of the Valley Floor from Society Turn to town limits. The north side trail along the railroad grade will be closed for the duration of construction. And, by somewhere around July 13-15, McDonald said — after the high flow on the San Miguel — boaters will no longer be able to use the river.

Funding for the project has remained intact, unaffected by the town’s measures to limit spending while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to squelch large events and hamper revenues usually budgeted for a busy summer season. Mayor DeLanie Young is happy to see the project moving forward after the yearlong delay.

“We are all quite pleased that this project is underway after having to delay it last year,” she said. “In these economically stressed times, and knowing that we were still eligible for generous grant funding, it was extremely important that we proceeded with this project.”

When McDonald appeared before Town Council last year in February, he sought, and gained, approval for the release of the town funds committed for the project. The town’s portion of the overall project cost of $3,370,089.75 

 is $702,560.71, and will be used solely for 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 $1,648,730.04 and CWCB will contribute $200,000 for a total of $1,848,730.04.

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

Since last year, additional funding has also been obtained from the Natural Resources Damage Recovery Fund, which is overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency. That new funding, McDonald said, is $118,779.00 and is earmarked for the river restoration part of the project. 

The Southwestern Water Conservation District has also written the CWCB in support of Valley Floor Preservations Partners’ grant request. In his report to council last year, 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.

Project completion is targeted for November.