Climate change erodes Snake River cleanup near Keystone

Machine-made snow crystals, created by overhead snow cannons, stream down a ski slope on a cold afternoon Nov. 25 at Keystone Resort.
Hugh Carey / For the Colorado Sun

KEYSTONE – The Snake River runs through this resort town, rushing creekside condos, inviting anglers to cast after rainbow trout and, at some point of the year, rushing in to gear in use by the Keystone ski area to make snow.

But a few miles upstream, the river is a braid of smaller streams that run through a mineral-rich basin dotted with dozens of abandoned mines. The water flows through mine shafts and blasted rock piles, becoming acidic and laden with heavy metals as it rolls through Summit County and into Dillon Reservoir.

High Country hikers and runners traversing Chihuahua Gulch, Argentine Pass, and Peru Creek below Ruby Peak and Grays Peak sometimes pass streams so thick with these metals that the water appears white, pale green, or rusty orange.

For the past 20 years, the Snake River Watershed Task Force has coordinated state, federal, and county agencies and nonprofits on costly projects to mitigate pollution from mines, in hopes of improving downstream water quality for aquatic wildlife and recreational users. The coalition has made progress in cleaning up the Snake River, but global warming is reversing those gains.

Mines have long been seen as the main contributors to an admittedly scattered problem – cannonballs in a buckshot spray. But a growing body of research suggests that climate change is accelerating the rate at which acidic water and heavy metals flow from the basin, including from mineral belts scattered in the mountains themselves. Forty years of research show a marked increase in metals toxic to aquatic life, capable of killing trout and the insects on which fish live.


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