As a runner whose preferred environment is the alpine landscapes of Colorado, I have been an unfortunate witness to innumerable examples of this type of water due to Colorado’s rich mining history. Most of my favorite launching pads for trail runs in this state—Leadville, Aspen, Silverton, Ouray—began as mining boom towns where environmental concerns (The mountains are so big! We could never permanently mess them up!) couldn’t be bothered with when there was so much money to make.
As a result, waste rock from mines was piled where ever was most convenient and watershed hydrology was never even considered. In the case of the Commodore Mine in Creede—as with all kinds of mines all over the Mountain West—thousands upon thousands of cubic yards of waste material was dumped directly into West Willow Creek where exposure to air and water oxidizes the iron pyrite (FeS2) and other sulfides in the ore resulting in extremely acidic creek water (typically a pH of 3 or 4) that in turn sends the heavy metals in the waste rock (all sorts of frightening stuff: zinc, lead, copper, cadmium, manganese, even arsenic) into solution where it then flows downstream and typically disallows the existence of any kind of significant organic life. Vegetation and fish cease to exist. The water is clearly unfit for human consumption. It can’t even be used to irrigate crops as it kills the crops and/or collects in them in unhealthy levels. Fun stuff.
This sort of blowback from Colorado’s mining heritage makes mining easy to hate. However, the fact is, mining is an integral part of human history in the state, and most towns’ historical identities revolve around it. This cannot easily be ignored or trivialized. Nevertheless, it also doesn’t do anything about the ongoing ecological disasters that continue to occur across the state.
Now, as part of my becoming a graduate student at the University of Colorado in Boulder, I will be spending the next two years learning a lot and ultimately contributing to the reclamation of Creede’s Commodore Mine by parsing out the finer details of the hydrology of the West Willow Creek watershed and ultimately of the Commodore Mine itself. The goal is to come up with a sustainable, workable solution to stopping the flow of acidic water out of the mine and into the creek.
Creede, like many Colorado mining towns, is a visually stunning place. The region’s extensive historical volcanic activity has resulted in a landscape of towering volcanic tuff cliffs that are several hundred feet tall, idyllic aspen-covered mountains, and roiling mountain streams that is all located at the foot of the impossibly high reaches of the snow-capped Continental Divide a few miles out of town.
The mountain running is outstanding. The town itself sits at 8800’ on the banks of the Rio Grande River. The single track Wason trail is available one block off of Main Street and climbs immediately into the surrounding mountains. Within 1h15 I was above treeline in Wason Park—a strange, perfectly flat tundra plateau at 11,800’—and marveling at the cloud-enshrouded reaches of La Garita Peak (13,707') and the Continental Divide directly in front of me as a herd of a dozen elk galloped away from me across the massive meadow.
Additonally, Creede--for an old mining town--has a pretty vibrant tourism industry. Although only about 300 people live there, the town maintains a downtown/Main Street with varied shops and classic, old Victorian buildings and there is even a fair bit of culture. There are a number of art galleries, but the main draw is the historic Creede Repertory Theatre. I look forward to going back.
My participation in this project is not an accident. It is all motivated by my deep connection and appreciation for the mountains that I am privileged enough to run in on a daily basis, and I expect that working to improve the health of those mountain’s watersheds—all while learning, respecting, and preserving the cultural history endemic to the region—will be as fulfilling an activity as actually running through them.