BLACK HAWK — They call it North Clear Creek, yet the water is so toxic, there are no fish. After years of delay, state and federal agencies this month confirmed they will clean the water by building a $15 million treatment plant — a project that had the goal of restoring fish habitat. The plant is a key step in a federal Superfund cleanup that has dragged on for 32 years.
But fish are still out of luck.
Local town leaders want to divert the cleaned water for people, frustrating the agencies and those who want fish to return to the creek. It’s a case of how Colorado’s population growth and development boom are intensifying competition for water.
“It isn’t ideal,” said David Holm, director of the Clear Creek Watershed Foundation. “Would it be better if we had a deal to ensure ample in-stream flow in North Clear Creek? Yes. But who can make in-stream flow be part of the deal?”
The mining towns-turned-gambling meccas Black Hawk and Central City have asserted that, under Colorado’s water appropriation system, they can use senior water rights that they own to tap the cleaned creek. Black Hawk plans to build thousands more hotel rooms, hiking and biking trails, a reservoir and, possibly, a golf course — all requiring more water.
“The city of Black Hawk wants to get more things for people to do up here. We want to be a destination resort,” city water engineer Jim Ford said. “It’s so close to Denver, such an ideal location. We don’t want to be dominated by just the single industry.”
All sides agreed it made little sense to let acid metal contamination continue any longer than necessary. Every day, hundreds of pounds of zinc, cadmium, lead, manganese, arsenic and other heavy metals from abandoned mines still ooze into North Clear Creek, then flow down through canyons to metro Denver.
The Colorado Department of Public Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and towns signed an agreement in 2010 to build a cleanup plant with a primary objective of restoring fish habitat.
But Black Hawk and Gilpin County in 2011 filed for water rights. They legally secured the power to drain North Clear Creek to a level too low to sustain fish, according to state and federal documents on the status of the Superfund cleanup.
So CDPHE and EPA officials put the creek cleanup on hold.
For more than three years, they opposed the town and county water rights and, behind closed doors, challenged the local desire to tap cleaned creek water for development. During contentious negotiations, state and EPA officials prioritized creek health, referring to the 2010 agreement to build the water plant, and pressed for guarantees that enough treated water would be left for fish to survive.
“They wanted some of the North Clear Creek water that Central City owns,” said Shawn Griffith, the city’s former public services director.
But Central City council members refused and eventually withdrew from the negotiations.
This spring, the EPA and CDPHE gave up and committed to install a plant that would chemically remove acid contaminants to a level where brown trout can survive in the creek — even if the water may be diverted.
“Regardless of how the treated water will be used, the treatment plant will mitigate the impact of the contaminants on the environment,” CDPHE project manager Mary Boardman said. “While we would prefer to see enough water remain in the north fork of Clear Creek to support a brown trout fishery, owners of senior water rights may use those rights however they wish.”
Black Hawk and Central City have grown increasingly interested in diversifying beyond gambling.
And Black Hawk is moving ahead. Town planners have mapped a route for siphoning cleaned water from a point directly below the planned facility, just south of Black Hawk along Colorado 119, and pumping it upward 700 feet to irrigate a 150-acre golf course, city manager Jack Lewis said.
Black Hawk also plans to divert North Clear Creek water to create a $20 million reservoir needed to supply three times as many people, Lewis said.
“With all the water rights we have now, we figure we can handle growth up to about 3,000 hotel rooms,” he said. “Cleaning up the environment is a good thing. But to think you are going to have a thriving fishery there? I don’t know. There’s just not enough water in North Clear Creek.”
There’s no federal agency with the power to override Colorado’s long-established water rights appropriation system to achieve environmental goals.
Even if state officials were to intervene, directing the Colorado Water Conservation Board to file for water rights to ensure a reasonable flow in North Clear Creek, the senior water rights owned by Central City, Gilpin County and Black Hawk would trump state rights.
A state natural resources agency spokesman said the water conservation board prefers a collaborative process to establish in-stream flow and that officials will leave people along Clear Creek to work through issues — hopefully in a way that benefits both the environment and people.
At the CDPHE, officials this month began seeking bids to build the water-cleaning plant.
Such is the quagmire around this Superfund cleanup. In 1983, the EPA declared a 400-square-mile former mining area around Black Hawk and Central City, about 25 miles west of Denver, to be one of the nation’s worst environmental disasters.
Along North Clear Creek, the worst harm was killing plants and aquatic life on a 5½-mile stretch south of Black Hawk. State health officials said they’re also worried about human health, noting that cadmium, linked to cancer, and other heavy metals eventually reach the main stem of Clear Creek.
Growing numbers of hikers and kayakers frolic along Clear Creek. It is the main source of drinking water for 350,000 metro residents in Arvada, Golden, Northglenn, Thornton and Westminster, and removing heavy metals raises costs at municipal plants charged with delivering safe water to people. Golden city manager Mike Bestor said a new plant near the source of the contamination would save money on chemicals needed to remove heavy metals.
The EPA’s Superfund cleanup has long faced complications in this area. In 1991, Colorado voters decided to allow limited-stakes gambling in Central City and Black Hawk. The values of property, even contaminated with mine tailings, rocketed. The legalization of gaming led to construction of casinos and towering hotels, requiring water supplies, which had to be pumped and piped from a different valley.
The current efforts to resuscitate North Clear Creek depend increasingly on the extent to which Black Hawk, Central City and county officials want to develop beyond gambling.
Part of becoming a destination area includes an 18-hole golf course planned atop Miner’s Mesa, which would require more than 32 million gallons a year for irrigation.
For development of a trail system, Black Hawk recently bought 600 acres around Marilyn Mountain, northwest of town. A master plan shows mountain biking and hiking trails near historic cemeteries and mining industry ruins.
The planned reservoir, pending environmental review and permitting, would store 800 acre-feet, he said. (An acre-foot is generally believed to be enough water to serve the needs of two families of four for a year.) That water would be diverted from North Clear Creek above the cities.
Black Hawk sought state help for financing the reservoir and offered to share water-storage space — but was rebuffed, Lewis said. So Black Hawk will arrange private financing based on bond sales and fees.
“We’ve been fighting over things because we were looking for the state to assist us on financing for our dam,” Lewis said. “They said they can’t do it.”
Federal Superfund cleanup rules give the EPA and state agencies authority to remove toxic pollution. They do not grant authority to regulate creek flows.
“Obviously, we want to see a flow in that creek so that the environment has a chance to reap the benefits of the water cleanup,” Colorado Trout Unlimited director David Nickum said. “Having a dead creek cleaned up makes sense.
“Our hope is that, with a little thoughtfulness, the towns may see the benefit of keeping enough water in the creek for a viable fishery. A recovering fishery is going to be another amenity that helps draw people to Gilpin County.”
EPA officials are looking forward to construction of the plant, agency spokesman Rich Mylott said, “as a way to secure water-quality improvements, not just in North Clear Creek but in downstream portions of the watershed as well.”
CDPHE officials said construction should start this year with the EPA paying 90 percent of the costs and the state picking up the remainder.
Colorado Department of Transportation crews have cleared a pad and installed pipelines along Colorado 119 to carry acid water to the plant, engineer Russel Cox said.
Yet, building the water-cleaning plant without a commitment to save the creek leaves hard feelings, Gilpin County’s water attorney Rick Fendel said.
“There are certainly those within the state government who are not happy about it, who were trying to do this for the benefit primarily of fish and aquatic life in the stream,” he said.
Clear Creek: Coveted water for 150 years
Key measurements: Acre-foot = 325,825 gallons
Cubic feet per second – Flow rate. One cubic foot = 7.5 gallons. A flow rate of 1 cfs gives 449 gallons per minute.
Water rights: Colorado’s doctrine of “first in time, first in right” set up during the mining boom treats water as property that can be bought or inherited. In recent years, the market rate for a senior water right to an acre-foot of Clear Creek water was worth $8,000 to $9,000.
In-stream flow rights: These generally are junior rights to the amount of water needed to preserve the natural environment and aquatic life. The Colorado Water Conservation Board can file for and hold in-stream flow rights.
History: Clear Creek has been heavily tapped for 150 years and is a main source of drinking water for 350,000 metro Denver residents. It is one of the state’s most over-appropriated waterways, hit hard by the mining that started with the 1859 Gold Rush.
Flow: Clear Creek’s average peak flow is 1,255 cfs; the average low flow is 28 cfs. About 75 percent comes from snowmelt.