Friday, September 9, 2005

Restoration planned for Warm Springs Creek

Express Staff Writer

Due to artificial channeling done at the former Bassett Gulch mill site, Warm Springs Creek now runs dangerously close to the road.

As the final step in the cleanup of a former ore mill site at Bassett Gulch, the U.S. Forest Service plans to reconfigure an approximately half-mile section of Warm Springs Creek to protect Warm Springs Road from erosion and to improve the native trout fishery.

Located on the Sawtooth National Forest about five miles west of Ketchum, the site had until recently contained a privately owned ore processing mill, tailings piles and settling ponds. The mill ceased operations in 1987, and the site was designated a Superfund cleanup project in 1996.

Last spring, the Forest Service completed cleanup of the site, which involved removal of the mill and a caretaker's house. The three settling ponds were filled in and the tailings piles capped with a clay liner to prevent water from entering them and leaching heavy metals into the creek. A layer of topsoil that was applied over the cap and the area, covering about 15 acres, was seeded with grass and ground plants.

However, to facilitate construction of the mill in the 1950s, the creek's several channels had been diverted into one channel that now runs along Warm Springs Road. Just downstream from a bridge leading to the mill site, the creek has carved a nearly vertical bank almost to the edge of the road. If allowed to remain in its current location, the creek will soon begin to take out the road.

The restoration project will involve removing a rock dike and rip-rap upstream from the bridge, allowing the creek to flow into its original channels farther from the road. The bridge will also be removed. Willows and cottonwoods are expected to re-colonize the banks of the current channel.

The new channel will be constructed with pools and woody debris to create good fish habitat. Mike O'Farrell, Ketchum Ranger District resource specialist, said the project is expected to help restore a population of native redband trout. Warm Springs Creek is now stocked with non-native rainbow and brook trout. It also provides habitat for Wood River sculpin, a locally endemic species considered "sensitive" by the Forest Service, meaning that it may need special management to prevent its being listed on the federal list of threatened species.

Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson said the Forest Service will undertake the stream rehabilitation project within the next two years. He said that could occur sooner, however, if partial funding for the project, expected to run between $50,000 and $75,000, is secured from private sources.

One of those sources may be Trout Unlimited, which is partnering with the Forest Service on other mine-related stream restorations in the Rocky Mountains. Two representatives from the nonprofit organization toured the Bassett Gulch site with Forest Service employees on Wednesday.

Trout Unlimited initiated its Abandoned Mines Restoration Campaign in the spring of 2003 in response to a lack of funding to clean up the effects of an estimated 500,000 abandoned mines in the West. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about 40 percent of the headwaters of Western watersheds have been harmed by hard-rock mining. Cleanup costs are estimated to run between $32 and $72 billion.

Rob Roberts, Western field coordinator with Trout Unlimited, said about six collaborative stream restoration projects are in various stages of development in several Western states.

Roberts said the group will "very likely" get involved with the Bassett Gulch project, as well as a project near Idaho City. However, he said Trout Unlimited would probably not fund the entire project.

"It would be a collaborative effort," he said. "We (and the Forest Service) would each bring some money to the table and then look at what grants might be available."

Roberts said his organization would probably provide volunteers to help with the work and seek help from other community organizations.

"We're looking for opportunities to partner with local civic groups as well as government entities on various new restoration projects," he said.

From the start, the Bassett Gulch cleanup project was aided by non-government funding. Jeff Gabardi, Forest Service regional mining engineer, said the agency saved about $300,000 when it obtained free topsoil from a contractor excavating a condominium project in Ketchum. He said a salvage company removed scrap metal from the site at no charge.

"We would like to do projects by being creative in using other people's money and saving dollars for the taxpayer," Nelson said.

According to the Forest Service, the mill site before its cleanup was a source of heavy metals contamination. Tests have indicated that heavy metals, including lead and zinc, had migrated to adjacent wetlands and into Warm Springs Creek, but not into nearby domestic wells.

Nelson said the district is aware that the Bassett Gulch bridge is used by skiers descending from Bald Mountain. He said that once the stream restoration project is completed, the district will analyze use of the area by skiers and hikers to determine whether construction of a footbridge would be justified.

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