The Eagle River Watershed Council owes its existence to the mining area around and below the present day ghost town of Gilman and because the Eagle River flows down the canyon just feet away from the mine site. Not surprisingly, the Eagle became contaminated with soluble heavy metals and the area was declared a Superfund site in 1985 which led to a massive clean-up effort.
Mining first began in the Gilman-Belden area, which is located about 3 miles northwest of Red Cliff and 6 miles southwest of Minturn on US24, in the late 1870's with the discovery of gold and silver deposits. The town of Gilman and nearby mining operations was developed in the 1880s by John Clinton, prospector, judge, and speculator from Red Cliff. Mines in the area included the Ground Hog, Iron Mask, Ben Butler, Tiptop, Mabel, Percy Chester, Pine Martin, and the Star of the West.
The production of these precious metals had declined by the mid-1890 because the gold and silver from these mines contained too much zinc and lead. However, operations were revitalized in 1905 with the focus shifting to the mining and concentration of the lead and zinc ores. At one time, this area was one of the prime producers of zinc in the United States.
Four roasting and magnetic separation plants, used to process the ore, were constructed, and the roaster process continued until 1919. Roaster wastes were deposited in multiple locations along the Eagle River and on the steep canyon slopes. Beginning in 1912, the New Jersey Zinc Company began buying property in the area and ultimately owned most of the important mines and the township. The individual mines, which included the Little Chief, Iron Mask, Belden, and Black Iron mines, ultimately became the Eagle Mine.
An underground mill was constructed in 1919 to extract the lead and zinc metals because of space limitations in the narrow canyon; this mill operated from 1919 to 1979. Copper and silver production continued until 1977, but limited activities were continued until 1984. At that time, the mine workings were abandoned and allowed to flood. In short order, the acidic mine water, which contained dissolved zinc, copper, cadmium, and other heavy metal salts, ran into the Eagle River resulting in catastrophic fish kills. The State of Colorado filed notice and claims against the former mine owners for natural resource damages under the Superfund law in 1985. The site was placed on the list of Superfund sites in June 1986. The 235-acre site includes the Eagle Mine workings, the town of Gilman, eight former mine tailings piles, Rock Creek Canyon, which is the drainage just west of Gilman, and at least 14 waste rock piles.
Two years after the Eagle Mine was added to the National Priorities List as a Superfund Cleanup site, a citizens’ group called Eagle River Environmental Business Alliance (EREBA) was formed to monitor the EPA cleanup. The clean-up project encountered problems, causing the Eagle River to turn orange and killing aquatic life for miles downstream. This dramatic turn of events brought the news program “20/20” to town, placing the fate of the river before the American public – and engaging the citizens of the valley to push the state, the EPA and the mine owner, Viacom, to take remedial action. Dedicated volunteers staffed EREBA, consolidating the interests of various stakeholders to accomplish the cleanup.
As problems with the original remedy were identified, modifications to the original clean-up plan were implemented. After 1995 EPA studies, further remedial action was required. The following year an Eagle River Watershed Plan (see Eagle River Watershed Plan) was adopted by Eagle County after a three-year facilitated public process made possible by over 100 local citizens working together with municipal and county staff. The Eagle River Watershed Plan recommended that a citizen's group be formed to implement and monitor the Plan.
By the mid 1990’s there were a number of people working in separate local groups with overlapping participants. These groups included EREBA, the Black Gore Creek Steering Committee, the Eagle River Clean Up, the Community Pride Clean Up (I-70 Clean Up), the 2008 Water Quality Plan, and the individuals who had been so active in the White River National Forest Association and the development of the Eagle River Watershed Plan. All these different groups formed the basic starting committee system from which the Eagle River Watershed Council was subsequently formed.
In 2000, the group raised funds to hire a paid consultant. One year later, the mine cleanup remedy was declared complete –but the broad coalition of citizens, local conservation organizations, municipal and county government continued working to ensure that the values of the entire watershed were protected and enhanced through a systematic holistic approach to implementation of the 1996 Watershed Plan.
In July, 2004 the Council was incorporated as the Eagle River Watershed Council, Inc. ("ERWC"), and subsequently received IRS determination as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit corporation. While remedial work continues to this day to reduce the zinc load leaking into the Eagle from the mine and waste rock sites, the Eagle River Watershed Council works to preserve and protect the Eagle and Colorado River Watershed through a variety of projects. The ERWC commissioned a science-based study of the Eagle River watershed from Colorado State University to set priorities for future projects within the watershed. The study was completed in 2005 and its evaluations and recommendations have formed the basis for the projects the ERWC subsequently instituted.
ERWC projects to date have included involvement in the construction of a sediment catch basin in the lower reaches of Black Gore Creek, continued work regarding the zinc and other dissolved heavy metals in the Eagle caused by the mine wastes, the restoration of a stretch of the Eagle river downstream of Edwards, and involvement in the remediation of the failing cribbings south of Belden, and involvement in tamarisk removal in Eagle county.