Kerber Creek: Mining and trout

View of San Luis Valley: a vast landscape

by Jason Willis I moved out to Colorado from the Pittsburgh area about a year and a half ago to work for Trout Unlimited as a contractor on the Kerber Creek Restoration Project.  Fresh out of graduate school, I was eager to work and experience what Colorado had to offer. Kerber Creek is located in Saguache County, Colorado, and flows through the towns of Bonanza and Villa Grove before its confluence with San Luis Creek.  The watershed is part of the northern San Luis Valley, which is one of the highest alpine valleys in the United States.  For those of you who have visited “The Valley," I do not need to explain the vast emptiness that exists there.  It is a beautiful thing, but also a shocking experience coming from city life in Pittsburgh the previous 5 years. The Kerber Creek Watershed is within the Bonanza Mining District, where hard rock mining occurred from the late 1880s to 1970s. Hundreds of thousands of tons of mine waste containing copper, cadmium, and zinc produced. By the end of the mining boom, nearly 200 acres of mine tailings lay along 19 miles of stream.

Local Arkansas River trout

Needless to say, there was an extraordinary amount of work to be done upon my arrival.  After my initial watershed tour during my first day, I felt a little bit overwhelmed at the amount of work to be done.  However, I quickly found out that the project has an incredible interagency partnership called the Bonanza Stakeholder’s Group (BSG), which has an infinite amount of knowledge.  Trout Unlimited is part of this group consisting of 20 local landowners, Colorado’s Nonpoint Source Program, Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service, US National Resource Conservation Service, AmeriCorps/VISTA, Collegiate Peaks Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, and Saguache County Sustainable Environment and Economic Developments.  By working with this group, I quickly picked up on terminology and pertinent restoration practices used in the area.  Within nine months of being on the job, I had assessed the soil chemistry of mine wastes at several sites, assisted in the layout of in-stream structures, oversaw construction activities at three private landowner sites, helped complete request for proposals (RFP) and grant reports, and completed a three-phase design approach for the largest landowner in the watershed.  But of all the functions of my job, the most fulfilling part is seeing a project through from start to finish.  It only took five short months to assist in submitting an RFP, selecting and mobilizing a contractor, and completing the project work.  Being out in the field and providing construction oversight during the process really makes you appreciate the hard work put into the project by all parties involved.  This project would not be possible if not for the cooperation of the BSG.

Eroded streambank: Before

Since Trout Unlimited’s involvement in 2008, 6.5 miles of stream have been improved, 53-plus acres of mine waste have been treated, 289 in-stream structures have been installed, and 4,000 feet of stream bank have been restored.  After being awarded a second 319 Nonpoint Source grant, project work will continue for at least another three years in the watershed, with a minimum of 2,500 feet of stream and 20 acres of mine waste restoration scheduled for the 2013 field season.

The Kerber Creek Restoration Project provides an excellent opportunity for on-the-ground restoration that meets Trout Unlimited’s mission to conserve, protect, and restore North America’s trout fisheries and their watersheds. I look forward to continuing my efforts in assisting the Kerber Creek Restoration Project, as well as expanding TU’s mission to other watersheds in Colorado adversely affected by legacy hardrock mining.  Here’s to improving the water quality of our local fisheries--tight lines to all! Jason Willis is TU's Mine Restoration Field Coordinator based in Salida, Colorado. 


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