Swan River Restoration Project

The Swan River Restoration project is seeing success two seasons after completion on a one-mile stretch of the stream. Breckenridge's Tenmile Range can be spotted beyond.
Hugh Carey / [email protected]

Summit County’s Open Space & Trails Department gave the board of county commissioners its annual update on the Swan River Restoration project on Tuesday, as required by the county’s permit for gravel excavation. The restoration is a radical reclaiming of a broken, dry stretch of the Swan River that had been ravaged by dredge mining in the twilight days of the gold rush.

Open space & trails director Brian Lorch and senior resource specialist Jason Lederer were on hand to present developments on the project over the past year. The two spoke to the positive ecological and riparian development at the upper portion of the project, and addressed residents’ concerns about truck traffic volume created by the crushing and shipping of gravel from the site.

Things are looking up on the environmental front. Reach A, the first portion of the project already completed, is now in a monitoring phase to see how the local ecology is developing. Soil, channel development, flora and fauna are all thriving two seasons after the mile-long stretch of river was reclaimed.

“Even though we’ve been pretty dry, we’ve seen the site develop in a very natural way,” Lederer said.

However, certain bare patches on the stretch, particularly on south-facing areas of the stream banks, are not growing as well as hoped. The county has been reseeding and putting more focus on growth in those areas to maintain vegetation growth consistency.

The department also conducted a fishery survey on the reclaimed waterway, and the results are promising. Brook trout of all sizes and maturity have been found in the stream, as well as mottled sculpin. In fact, this new stretch of waterway is now home to the largest concentration of mottled sculpin anywhere upstream of the Dillon Reservoir, which is a sign of a healthy stream.

As far as recreational access, the county is also starting to look at creating a trail that connects the restoration site to the wider trail network, which would include a rock road for access.

The project’s success has been noted state and nationwide. In October 2018, the project received an Outstanding Ecological Management Program award from the Colorado Open Space Alliance. The award recognizes outstanding, innovative and successful research, restoration or monitoring programs targeted at ecological resource management.

In just the past week, open space & trails received the 2019 International Erosion Control Association Presenters of the Year award for a presentation about the project called “Turning the River Right-Side-Up – Restoring the Swan River After a Century of Mining Impacts.”

While the ecological success is good news for the project, neighborhood concerns remain. Just shy of a dozen Breckenridge residents attended the work session, with some raising concerns about how much longer the gravel exporting will go on, as well as a lack of compliance by companies running trucks up and down Tiger Road when it comes to things like noise levels and quiet hours.

The county, with its conditional use permit for excavation and gravel crushing for rocks on-site, has assigned a timeline to Schofield Excavation where gravel milling operations will be complete by May 2021 and gravel removal operations will end by May 2022.

In the three years until then, the excavators are required to export nearly 100,000 tons of gravel off-site. For comparison, 100,000 tons of gravel were exported last year alone. However, due to the fluctuations in the construction materials market, it is still unclear how much gravel will be exported this year and how much will be left to go.

Lorch and Lederer said that they had been working with Breckenridge Police Department and the Summit County Sheriff’s Office to step up enforcement for non-compliant truck traffic. The department is also working with the public works department to improve signage and street markings in the area to improve safety for residents and drivers alike.

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