Valley Floor

Pinhead Institute, in partnership Sheep Mountain Alliance, held the second annual Valley Floor Day Wednesday as 180 students in grades K-2 visited several educational stations throughout the day. (Courtesy photo)

Every year we celebrate Valley Floor Day on May 9. It is a time to remember the extended community coming together, daring to dream and making the impossible possible. It is an opportunity to reflect on why the Valley Floor is special to you, today. There are so many stories of those who worked at all different levels to keep the Valley Floor open space forever. And there is also the story of a river who patiently and deliberately continues to flow, nourish and sculpt the land through time.

The Valley Floor, protected as Town of Telluride Open Space with a Conservation Easement in 2008, is the headwaters flood plain of the San Miguel River, one of the last undammed rivers in Colorado. At the turn of the 19th century, the Telluride community was mostly miners and their families who saw the constantly shifting river as a nuisance. It was even referred to as an “unruly dragon” in a newspaper story from that time. As residual tailings from mining operations grew too large for onsite storage, the river was used to carry the heavy metal-laden tailings from the mines, downstream where they choked the river and contaminated the banks throughout the Valley Floor; out of sight, out of mind. The Valley Floor at that time was considered a swamp, annoyingly loud from the cacophony of croaking frogs and forbidden territory for children.

The San Miguel River flows the entire length of the Valley Floor, and is joined by surface and ground water flows from four headwater tributaries within the property. In 2016, the Town of Telluride partnered with Ecological Resource Consultants (ERC) to restore Reach One, a severely degraded channelized section of river, into a naturally meandering 4,275-foot section with 19 pool and riffle sequences to improve aquatic habitat. While successfully minimizing the amount of disturbance to existing natural plants and large spruce trees, it restored over 10 acres of wetland and upland habitat with replanted native vegetation. It also consolidated and capped three acres of tailings away from the stream channel. Although it was a significant construction project with large equipment in and around the beloved Valley Floor, it was ultimately a short-term impact to restore a century of human disturbance and allow a naturally functioning river to then work its magic on the surrounding habitat. There was specific direction to minimize disturbance to resident wildlife, including bears, elk, deer and beavers. The beavers did not exactly reciprocate and instead effectively interfered with construction nightly by blocking construction culverts. Curious elk tracks were often seen around the equipment in the morning. After three years of monitoring, we have watched the river actively carve, pool and flush indicating a healthy hydrologic system. We have also seen almost 77 percent native vegetation coverage on the disturbed ground and tailings remediation area. This was without irrigation during 2018’s exceptional drought conditions. With a little help from its friends, the river is now a highly effective restoration tool for the surrounding ecosystem.

This summer the town will again partner with ERC to restore the river in reaches four, five and six and remediate a 23-acre historic tailings deposit, classified as a Superfund site by the State of Colorado in 2002. The river is heavily impacted in this area as it travels directly through eroding tailings and 900 feet of channelization. The project will mitigate past channelization impacts by improving the hydrology, channel morphology and water quality. It will also remove the tailings from the flood plain and the river will again be allowed to meander naturally connected to its floodplain, which will add important flooding mitigation benefits for downstream residents. Following the successful design implementation of the Reach One project the design intent of this project is also to emulate a natural functioning, self-regulating system that is integrated with the ecological landscape in which it occurs.

This phase of the restoration and remediation work is a partnership of local organizations, the Town of Telluride, regional water organization and multiple divisions of the State of Colorado. Participants and funders include the Valley Floor Preservation Partners, the Gunnison Gorge Angler Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Town of Telluride, the Southwest Basin Roundtable, Southwest Water Conservation District, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Idarado and the State’s Attorney General’s Office (a participant due to the Consent Decree established for the Superfund site).

This is once again an opportunity to repair a history of human impacts and a way of giving thanks to a river that gives so much to everyone and everything around it. As we celebrate the Valley Floor, give thanks to the resilient river. Resilient rivers make healthy communities.

For more information about the Valley Floor, visit valleyfloor.org.

Hilary Cooper helped create the Valley Floor Preservation Partners.