A half-million-dollar excavator is scooping mud and rock from the earth to create a pool of murky river water a few miles northeast of Breckenridge. The pool looks like chocolate milk on this hot July day, but every night, the sediment sinks to the bottom and settles, turning the water clear until the process starts anew in the morning.

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After being dredged at the site, dredge rock is sold as road base.

Image: Zach Mahone

If you had happened upon this scene 118 years ago, it may not have looked much different. But instead of an excavator, the machine chewing up the river would have been a dredge boat; and instead of trying to reestablish a waterway that once flowed pure and healthy through the Swan River Valley, the dredge would have been searching for gold—at the expense of the pristine ecosystem where it lay.

Today’s excavator work represents the latest step in a landmark project undertaken by local, state, and federal government agencies, as well as a group of private organizations that share a commitment to undoing the environmental damage inflicted by Summit County’s pioneers.

“It’s just basically a big mess. There is no real stream, to be honest. There’s no life,” Jason Lederer, an open space and trails resource specialist for Summit County, says while observing the scene last summer. “Our goal is to reintroduce the natural channel to the valley and restore the ecological and environmental value.”

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Summit County's Jason Lederer.

Image: Zach Mahone

Lederer watches as the earth mover pulls another few hundred pounds of melted chocolate from its expanding hole. When the restoration effort began, no one had a clue where the river was supposed to go—or where it ran before the dredges turned it upside down in the early 1900s. “We don’t have any pictures, but we can imagine,” Lederer says. Which seems a tad crazy, no? How could you not know where the river flowed as recently as a century ago?

Such is the legacy of dredge mining—not just in the Swan, but also French Gulch, one drainage south, and anywhere else a dredge ever operated. 

Soon, though, this valley will be transformed, once again through a human touch. As part of a decades-long plan to restore three miles of the Swan, last summer’s work was a major step toward realizing the river’s potential once more. The envisioned final product evokes a page torn from a Colorado scenic calendar: a meandering stream with aspen and juniper on its banks, 10-inch brook trout snapping at your fly, native cutthroat trout flourishing just upstream (for the time being), and more than 130,000 cubic yards of dredge rock crushed and removed from the valley forever.

As Lederer says, “If we do our job right, nobody will ever know we—or the miners—were here.”

In mountain valleys from Colorado to Colombia, a river represents life’s vitality. It delivers habitat, sustenance, and sanctuary to flora and fauna alike, entire ecosystems relying on it to survive. 

It was like that, too, in the Swan, until extraction came along. The first two dredges began churning up the river bottom in 1898, and two more followed in 1899. The four boats dug as deep as 70 feet, depositing their debris in giant piles next to the disappearing river channel. Before long, the Swan’s three forks—North, Middle, and South—no longer shared a visible confluence, having been driven underground by the mining. All that mattered was the gold. And if no one was making the mining companies clean up their mess, they weren’t about to do it of their own accord.

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Trucks at the cleanup site.

Image: Zach Mahone

Just up the hill and south from where the boats were “flipping the river upside down,” as dredge mining’s impacts are described, the Cashier Mine pumped out ore in Browns Gulch (it remains one of the largest abandoned mines in the county). Workers loaded its waste into carts and scattered it about the valley, alongside the tens of thousands of smooth, round river rocks discarded by the dredge boats. This, of course, only made a bad problem worse.

What had once been a verdant river became a wasteland. People who have worked on the Swan restoration refer to the river they inherited as a “bathtub of marbles”—essentially a waterway that had been so churned up it no longer had a bottom … or any structure at all. Think of trying to contain water with a screen. That’s what the Swan had become: an underground trickle, dispersed to the brink of dissolution.

Even as work began last summer, questions remained: Was the river still there? If so, could it be channeled once more? What would it take to bring the ecosystem back to life? 

There weren’t many precedents akin to the Swan, but one local project provided inspiration, and hope. From 2004 to 2006, Summit County government led an effort to restore the Blue River just north of Tiger Road along Highway 9. The 23-acre Four Mile Bridge Open Space, as it became known, turned out beautifully and served as a vital blueprint for the Swan, in that the remediated site was zoned strictly as open space with no concessions for development.

It took 10 years from when the county and town of Breckenridge began preliminary work on the Swan until the heavy equipment arrived last summer, but by the time operations ceased in mid-November, the progress was striking. They’d rebuilt nearly a mile of stream, including relocating a half mile of channel that had become a muddy ditch along Tiger Road. The reconstructed section of river—“Reach A” as it’s known in the broader plan—includes 22 riffles (minor rapids), glides (calm water stretches), and pools 3 to 6 feet deep, which combine to form optimal fish habitat. The river channel is 25 feet wide to accommodate high flows during spring runoff, anchoring a 65-foot-wide riparian corridor that will be populated this summer with native flora.

Best of all, the county did not have to line the riverbed to prevent water from seeping into the ground and disappearing. That’s because the Swan River, they discovered, is a “gaining stream” instead of a “losing stream”—that is, groundwater actually rises from the bed and into the river, increasing its flow. You could see this happening just upstream from the excavator last July; clear water spurted out of the gravel like a spring, then gradually coalesced as it moved downhill.

An uncommon range of backers has funded the restoration, with the largest financial contribution—$975,000—coming from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Summit County added $500,000, the town of Breck gave $300,000, Colorado Parks and Wildlife anted in $184,000, and the US Forest Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service combined to donate $250,000. Also part of the mix: the Blue River Watershed Group and Trout Unlimited’s Gore Range Anglers Chapter, which works to protect, preserve, and restore coldwater fisheries. “This project hits every aspect of our mission,” says chapter president Greg Hardy.

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Jason Lederer at the Swan River cleanup site.

Image: Zach Mahone

The restoration hasn’t been without controversy, however. One of the ways the county saved money and attracted low bids for the work—the current phase will cost around $2.4 million—was by allowing its heavy-equipment contractor, Ecological Resource Consultants (ERC), to crush dredge rock on site and sell it as road base to the contractor working on the Iron Springs Highway 9 realignment across the valley. ERC passed along a discount of $634,000 on its Swan River work, but residents protested the rampant truck traffic it took to haul the rock down Tiger Road.

Still, in an ode to the final product, “Even the people who were opposed to trucking on the road showed strong support for the project,” says county open space and trails director Brian Lorch. 

It may not happen right away, but the lasting legacy of the Swan’s restoration could be more biological than aesthetic. As it stands, a thriving population of native cutthroat trout—which are rare in Summit County and usually confined to high-alpine lakes—exists just upstream of Reach A on the river’s North Fork. The fish once flourished lower down, too, and it is a goal of the project partners to reestablish them on the valley floor.

Detractors might argue such plans invite a degree of human interference comparable to what it took to upend the river in the first place. But as Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Jon Ewert explains, the opposite is true. Nearly 150 years ago, there were no mining regulations in place to protect animals. Pollution expunged fish from rivers all over the West, so state and federal workers did what they thought was best for the rivers: they restocked them, except with a different kind of fish.

Brook trout, the only trout species native to the East Coast, seemed a worthy replacement. “So they’d carry them on train cars, and every stream the rail crossed, they’d dump them into the water as a way of repopulating trout,” Ewert says. “At the time, it was a very progressive method to restoring fish to these streams where there were no fish anymore.”

There was only one problem. Brookies spawn in the fall, which means the eggs incubate over the winter and fry emerge before the spring runoff. Cutthroat, meanwhile, spawn in the spring and don’t hatch until July or August. By then the baby brookies have a huge head start on the cutthroat for habitat and food. Adult brook trout between 6 and 10 inches long are also known to eat small cutties that are already struggling to survive. A survey last summer found the Swan holds roughly 2,700 brookies per mile.

All of which explains why cutthroat trout remain confined to the upper reaches of the Swan. A manmade metal barrier at the North Fork junction with Tiger Road was intended to solve the problem, but it wasn’t built tall enough to keep the brookies—which can leap four feet in the air—from migrating into cutthroat habitat. “We have marked brook trout upstream, moved them downstream, then come back later to find them upstream again,” Ewert says. The only effective mechanism separating the species is a cascading section of whitewater a mile east of the barrier that has proved too rough for brookies to navigate.

Ewert hopes to expand the metal barrier this summer to maximize the cutties’ habitat and give them a better shot at survival if they ever do get reintroduced downstream. After a century of battling a predator that humans introduced, you can’t help but think they deserve a break.  

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Signage at the Swan River cleanup site.

Image: Zach Mahone

There is no cell phone service at the restoration site, which feels right. Peak 1 and Tenmile Peak dominate the view in the distance. By the time you read this, the barren, contrived streambed-of-old should be in the process of accepting 1,000 containers of willows and 400 upland trees and shrubs, like spruce, aspen, and juniper, many of them planted by volunteers. (On that note, if you’d like to help, Trout Unlimited and Friends of the Dillon Ranger District are hosting two volunteer planting days at the project site: September 15 and 30; see tu.org/events/swan-river-restoration-project-planting).

Soon enough the partners will shift their focus to a second section of the Swan, a mile upstream from their current work. Fundraising and planning will begin anew. “I think we’re looking at a 20-year project to get this whole valley reconstructed,” Lederer says.

Most evaluators deem the first phase an unquestioned win. “There’s more water in the channel than we were even optimistically hoping to see,” says Ewert, who plans to stock the stream with rainbow fingerlings in the near future to see if it can support a rainbow trout population.

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Clean up underway at Swan River.

Image: Zach Mahone

Lederer says he hopes the Swan becomes a “special place for the community,” maybe even for kayakers during high-flow, 70-degree afternoons in May and June. County commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier reiterates this is just one part of the overall goal. “We’ve been inching our way along with restoration in the Upper Blue Valley since the late ’60s and ’70s, and slowly we’re turning these rivers back right-side up,” she says. “It’s amazing how they come to life again.”

Ewert is as happy as anyone about the native species’ prospects in the Swan, but he cautions against calling the restoration a runaway success—yet. “You give a stream a channel, and once you leave, the stream takes over and continues what it needs to do to become a healthy, functioning stream,” he says. “So ask me that question in five years.”

By then, the answer may be as clear as the Swan River water.  

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