History & Background

Why are we here?

two miners inside Drift and Stope structures at an  idaho springs-area gold mine, c. 1885-1910

two miners inside Drift and Stope structures at an  idaho springs-area gold mine, c. 1885-1910

On a cold winter day in January 1859, George Jackson discovered gold in a sandbar in the western reaches of Clear Creek (then called Vasquez Creek) just south of present-day Idaho Springs, thus starting the Colorado Gold Rush. Within a year, almost every foot of upper Clear Creek was staked out as a placer claim by miners eager to find their fortune by gold panning. It wasn’t long, however, before the creek’s easily accessible placer deposits were “panned out”. 

The Newhouse Tunnel (later called the Argo Tunnel). The Newhouse Tunnel is the longest drainage tunnel in the Central City-Idaho Springs Mining District. c. 1890-1910

The Newhouse Tunnel (later called the Argo Tunnel). The Newhouse Tunnel is the longest drainage tunnel in the Central City-Idaho Springs Mining District. c. 1890-1910

The heartier miners shifted their focus to hard-rock mining, using the hydro-energy from the creek to help with milling operations. Miners continued to venture west, and in 1864 silver was discovered in Georgetown. With thousands of mines in operation, the population of Clear Creek Watershed swelled, at one point reaching 50,000 residents. The first train ran up Clear Creek Canyon in 1872 to Black Hawk. Mining and milling boomed in the area until the late 1890s. Silver mining continued for only two decades until the United States government removed silver as a standard for our monetary system. Gold mining continued sporadically in the communities along the creek until the early 1940s, when it could no longer be sustained. 

As miners settled into the mountain communities, the agricultural industry was growing along the front range. Farmers diverted water from Clear Creek to irrigate fields of wheat, alfalfa and corn. Many of these ditches and canals still exist. 

While mining and agricultural activity provided economic benefits and led to Colorado’s statehood, they also had negative impacts on water quality throughout the watershed—particularly as measured by today’s environmental standards. 

The Clean-Up Begins 

A tipping point was reached in this watershed in the late 1980s when mine clean up was realized to be a worthy endeavor with benefits exceeding the cost. In 1983, because of mining-related water quality problems, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the Clear Creek/Central City Superfund Study Area and placed it on the National Priority clean-up list (see also the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's listing). In 1987 EPA completed an intense study of mine tunnel drainage, and many more studies followed. Thus began a large remediation effort on the active and inactive mine sites in the area, including an extensive network of water quality monitoring. Other government agencies, including Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety/Abandoned Mine Section and USDA Forest Service Abandoned Mines Lands Program joined this effort.

Suffice it to say, the early relationship between the regulatory agencies and the local citizens was tense. The agencies had remediation technology and resources, while the locals had the historical knowledge of place. In order for clean-up efforts to be successful and for highly complex water quality issues to be addressed, a common ground had to be found. 

Clear Creek Watershed Forum—The Broad Stakeholder Constituency 

Water Tower at the confluence of Clear Creek and a tributary near Idaho Springs, c. 1890-1920

Water Tower at the confluence of Clear Creek and a tributary near Idaho Springs, c. 1890-1920

Established in 1990, the Forum was an informal organization which transcended the boundaries of any one agency, community, industry, or organization within the watershed. The role of the Forum has been to bring people together from throughout the watershed to share knowledge, attitudes and values and thus develop cooperative water quality improvements strategies and projects. Not an easy task given the diversity of stakeholders and interests—ranging from mountain rural to urban, from agricultural and industrial to recreational and regulatory. Through numerous gatherings, stakeholder input on projects has been obtained and incorporated to define watershed priorities and establish project partners, thus creating a watershed-wide “culture of cooperation.” Once stakeholders began fixing things on the ground, sustainable improvements began to be seen—project by project. 

Numerous Clear Creek Watershed Forums have since been organized and facilitated by the Forum. Several comprehensive documents highlighting and updating watershed-wide projects, including the 1997 State of the Clear Creek Watershed Report and the Healthy Watershed 2000 Report Card, have been prepared and published. 

Clear Creek Watershed Improvement Initiative—Providing Leadership and Promoting Cooperation 

The Clear Creek Watershed Initiative (WIIN) started in 1991 as a joint project of Coors and the Center for Resource Management to provide leadership and coordination of ecological and recreational improvements in the Clear Creek Basin. With recognition of and respect for the fact that many individuals, communities, organizations and agencies had been focusing for years on the well-being of the complex Clear Creek Watershed, the WIIN program encouraged collaboration and cooperation among those groups. Their goal was to enhance, not duplicate, the resources and efforts that had already been dedicated to the basin. Long-term improvement programs focused on four critical areas: water quality, fish and wildlife, public utilization and stream flow augmentation. 

During WIIN’s lifespan (1991 through 1995), numerous cooperative projects were accomplished, including: Clear Creek stream habitat restoration in Golden, Idaho Springs, Black Hawk and Adams County (near Clear Creek’s confluence with the South Platte River); hydrological analyses; Clear Creek greenway/bike path development; trash pick-up efforts; the publication of Clear Creek Canyon: Plan for the Future; several wetland construction projects; and preliminary studies of the “credit for clean-up.” Updates on Superfund work were provided, including the flurry of clean-up activity related to the passing of limited stakes gaming in the towns of Black Hawk and Central City. Outreach efforts included the Clear Creek Splash Festival and a quarterly newsletter highlighting project progress, ecological resources, recreational opportunities and historical features in the Clear Creek Watershed. 

Upper Clear Creek Watershed Association —The Section 208 Management Agency 

In the 1980s, nutrient growth and taste/odor issues in Standley Lake shifted water quality management from individual community concerns to a watershed-wide approach. In 1993, local upper Clear Creek entities and downstream users, assisted by the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), developed a plan to coordinate water quality issues relating primarily to nutrients in Clear Creek. These efforts resulted in the adoption of the Clear Creek Watershed Management Agreement. The Agreement, signed by 23 participants, included adoption of a narrative standard for Standley Lake, establishment of the Upper Clear Creek Watershed Association (UCCWA) for upstream entities and development of a cooperative watershed monitoring program. As the designated Section 208-management agency per the Clean Water Act, UCCWA is responsible for overseeing water quality and water resources issues through the Upper Clear Creek Watershed. The Agreement emphasizes a cooperative effort to address watershed improvement and requires an annual report to document these efforts. Projects have included development of entity-specific best management practices (BMPs) for non-point source pollution, an emergency call-down system, a wetlands inventory and a time-of-travel study. 

In 1994, UCCWA received a Technical Assistance Grant from EPA and the Clear Creek Watershed Advisory Group (WAG) was formed. This group’s primary goal was to improve communications between the regulatory agencies and local citizens related to the Superfund work. The technical advisors interpreted trace metals monitoring data and provided review of EPA actions and explained this information to the public; in turn they relayed community concerns and recommendations back to the agencies. Several design and implementation improvements were made due to this dialogue. Numerous public workshops, open houses and presentations were conducted, and seven WAG Line newsletters were produced and distributed. Superfund progress during this time included the construction of the Argo Water Treatment Plant newsletters and clean-up of numerous mine waste piles including the Big Five Mine, the Little Bear Mine, and the Boodle Mill. In addition to preparing a final technical report, the WAG also maintained a Superfund repository and technical library at their Idaho Springs office. 

Although the WAG ended in 2001, UCCWA continues work on water quality issues including Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs), development projects and waste water treatment. In 2004, UCCWA received a 319 grant to produce the Clear Creek Watershed Management Plan which provides a framework to respond to anticipated TMDLs in the upper basin. In 2006 UCCWA formed a Regional Wastewater Study Group to focus long-range planning to optimize wastewater treatment. 

What's an Orphan Mine? 

An orphan mine site is one that basically has been abandoned and has no “potentially responsible party” to clean it up. Clear Creek’s 1,600+ remaining orphan mines are located primarily in the steep mountain canyons of Clear Creek and Gilpin Counties—where the Colorado Gold Rush began back in 1859. These orphan sites are the remains of hard rock mining activity—waste rock piles, mill tailings piles and acidic mine drainage. Until they are cleaned-up, or remediated, these sites will continue to be sources of water pollution for Clear Creek. 

The tributaries that feed Clear Creek cut through and erode these sites and the ore body in general. Basically, these mountains erode for a living. The naturally-occurring metals are then exposed to water, oxygen, and transport mechanisms. These orphan sites have been identified for some measure of clean-up using best management practices (BMPs).

Clear Creek Watershed Foundation—The Good Samaritan Action Entity 

Incorporated in 1997 as the “operating arm” of the Clear Creek Watershed Forum, the Clear Creek Watershed Foundation (CCWF) is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the ecological, aesthetic, recreational and economic conditions in the Clear Creek Watershed through comprehensive efforts with watershed stakeholders. This includes, but is not limited to, improving the water quality of Clear Creek and its tributaries through mine remediation projects. 

Cutting through the Colorado Mineral Belt, the upper portion of the Clear Creek Watershed is a “target-rich” environment full of inactive mines and naturally-occurring mineral sites. As a “Good Samaritan” entity authorized in a 2003 EPA Action Memo, CCWF has been conducting, facilitating and expediting cleanup of the 1,600 or so remaining inactive mine/mill sites not listed as priorities in the Clear Creek/Central City Superfund Operating Units Record of Decision (ROD). This work supports remediation efforts in the Clear Creek/Central City Superfund Study Area.   

CCWF has also conducted work under a United States Forest Service (USFS) Administrative Order on Consent. Remediation projects to date include: General Herkimer, Little Sixes, Minnesota Mine, McClellan Mill, Doctor Mine, Gem Site, Dibbens Mine, Sydney Mill and more. While CCWF is sometimes the project lead, much of this work is being accomplished through innovative partnerships, both public and private, including “orphanage” remediation strategies. By remediating mining-related water quality problems and addressing associated public health, safety and welfare issues, CCWF and its partners are providing on-the-ground revitalization construction for the Clear Creek Watershed communities. Project partners have included: the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (DRMS), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Phelps-Dodge/Henderson Operations, Coors, Clear Creek County, US Forest Service, Silver Plume, Idaho Springs, and numerous individuals. 

In addition to remediation work, CCWF now promotes and facilitates improved water quality through sustainable watershed management which integrates ecological, economic and social perspectives. In 2006, CCWF was awarded an EPA Region 8 Regional Priorities Grant to develop and implement the Sustainable Watershed Management Plan for Clear Creek Watershed. The Stakeholder and Technical Advisory Committees formed for the project are key in refining and implementing the plan. CCWF continues to cultivate the “culture of cooperation” with ongoing forums, tours, presentations, status documents, and the Watershed Exhibit. We continue to develop and implement our education component, with the goal of educating the next generation on the wise use of their ecological inheritance. Primarily we continue to work with communities to identify and address critical areas of improvement opportunities raising Clear Creek to a premiere model of sustainable watershed management and cooperation.