What the River Knows: Eagle River, Colorado

In this series, “What the River Knows,” by Basia Irland, the artist and water activist writes from the perspective of each river, using the first person. Installments are published in Water Currents at regular intervals. The first post was about the Ping River in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Other posts include the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok; Kamo-gawa River, Kyoto; Siem Reap River, Cambodia; Yaqui River, Mexico, where the eight Yaqui tribal villages do not have water due to agricultural corporations; the superfund site on the Eagle River in Colorado, polluted with heavy metal runoff from a mine; and the Virgin River as it flows through Zion National Park.

Please feel free to add your comments at the end of each post.

Eagle Mine Superfund Site


Eagle River in ice. Photograph by Basia Irland.
Eagle River with ice. Photograph by Basia Irland.


I am doing better now, but I was mighty sick for over thirty years. I was so ill, in fact, that big powerful medical personnel were called in to help make me well again. They named me a Superfund Site to try and clean my body of toxins.

Here is my story. In the 1870s a mine was built right on my bank south of Minturn, Colorado in a small mining town, Gilman, now abandoned. Originally, miners were searching for gold and silver, but from 1917 on they were in pursuit of zinc. When the mine closed and the pumps were turned off in 1984, the interior shafts began to fill with water, leaching metals out of the rock and spilling directly into my body. This toxic mixture of heavy metals immediately killed the fish and other beings living within me for miles downstream.

But the good and strange phenomenon was that these metals turned my flow a bright orange, so the problem became visible to all. In winter some of my water was used to make snow for the nearby ski resorts of Beaver Creek and Vail, so when the snow-making machines began to line the steep slopes with fresh powder, the ski runs turned an alarming orange: A warning orange. As a result the Eagle Mine was designated a Superfund Site by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Even after all these years the quality of my water in this region is still contaminated with high levels of copper, zinc and cadmium, although these amounts have been greatly reduced since the 1980s. Currently, the zinc load belching into my body is about 120 pounds a day. These metals negatively affect aquatic life trying to survive, so that no sculpin and very few rainbow trout are found. Brown trout are better able to cope with the heavy metals.

Although the mine will always remain an ongoing issue, much has been done to improve the situation. As part of the cleanup process, the myriad tailings piles that dotted the landscape have been consolidated into one pile that now lies beneath an impervious cap so that, hopefully, no more water can leach metals out of it.

There is a water treatment plant that treats all the water coming from the mine before it is put back into my body. The cleanup operators are considering building a new treatment facility closer to the mine so that the water does not need to be piped as far before it is treated. This would be beneficial since the pipes have been problematic in the past.

There also has been significant re-vegetation throughout the site. And ongoing monitoring helps various organizations stay up to date with the status of my water quality.

Just to show you how complex these collaborative remediation efforts can be, here is a partial list of some of the entities that are currently working to address the problems occurring at the Superfund Site: NewFields, Environ International Corporation, Eagle County, Town of Minturn, Eagle River Watershed Council (ERWC), Eagle Mine Limited, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District (ERWSD), CBS (yes, the TV giants own the mine and did at the time it was designated a Superfund Site), Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority (UERWA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) including the Hazardous Materials Department. So you can begin to understand how complex this cleanup business is today.

The rest of my reach beyond this contaminated stretch is doing better each year, thanks to support from all of my friends listed above.

Basia Irland is a sculptor, poet, and installation artist who has focused her creativity on rivers for 30 years. Her aim is to connect people to their local waters and watersheds in ways that will motivate concern, caring, appreciation, and stewardship. You may read more about her and her work on her website.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Fulbright Scholar, Basia Irland is an author, poet, sculptor, installation artist, and activist who creates global water projects. She is Professor Emerita, Department of Art and Art History, University of New Mexico, where she established the Arts and Ecology Program. Irland works with scholars from diverse disciplines building rainwater harvesting systems; connecting communities and fostering dialogue along the entire length of rivers; filming and producing water documentaries; and creating waterborne disease projects around the world. She lectures and exhibits internationally and is regularly commissioned to do artistic river restoration projects. Check out her work at basiairland.com