When the town of Idaho City undertook building a new high school 11 years ago, Principal John McFarlane hoped his campus would be a recreational beacon for the former gold-rush boomtown.
"We hauled in truckload after truckload of topsoil," he recalls. "We built a great playground and a soccer field. Finally, we even had some grass on campus."
However, McFarlane's emerald paradise soon encountered a few bumps. "The first year was great," he recalls. "The second year, it started to get a little hard. The third year, rocks started showing up in the middle of the grass."
McFarlane was a former science teacher, but he didn't need to call on his training to figure out what was happening. The school, like the rest of Idaho City, is built on top of several feet of mining waste left by defunct operations from throughout the town's 144-year history.
"What was happening was that every time it rained, the soil would just percolate right down through the cobble," McFarlane explains.
That Idaho City is affected by abandoned mining operations doesn't make it unique. A report released by the University of Colorado this January cited a U.S. Bureau of Mines estimate that the West contains 500,000 abandoned mines, and that 40 percent of western watersheds are contaminated by drainage from mines, as are 180,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs. What makes Idaho City a case study--and a tourist destination--is that the town has survived in the middle of the leftovers.
To a large degree, the mining in and around the Boise Basin--which, ironically, doesn't include Boise, but instead the area between the Payette River and the Boise River that is home to historic camps like Idaho City, Centerville and Placerville--was placer mining. Instead of using toxic leaching agents like cyanide, most of the area's miners used little more than water and gravity in their quest for gold dust.
In the 19th century, this approach often took the form of steam-powered nozzles nicknamed "giants," which would shoot a stream of water sometimes hundreds of feet long and flush entire hillsides into huge sluices. The heavy gold would sink to the bottom of the sluices, while the dirt that had formerly comprised the mountainside flowed into nearby Mores Creek and its tributaries, Elk and Grimes creeks--the waterways from which the miners had pumped the water in the first place.
Toward the turn of the century and on into the 1940s, the preferred mining method around Idaho City changed to the dredge. Made of a two-story, landlocked boat attached to a rotating line of buckets, this voracious contraption would troll through stream banks and riverbeds, literally turning them inside out. The buckets drew sand, dirt, vegetation and whatever else was in range into the dredge's body, where heavier metals like gold and silver were sorted out. Leftover sand, cobble, and disinterred bedrock were then spit out the back end of the dredge as "tailings."
Large white-gray piles of these dredge tailings dominate the landscape along the highway from Boise into Idaho City. While estimates vary, at least 400 acres of dredge tailings, ranging in depth from one to 15 feet deep, surround the town. But in a testament to Western resiliency, both life and recreation have persisted amidst them. On the late spring day when I drove up to Idaho City, dozens of families were camped in the tailings next to Mores Creek to take part in a dirt-bike race--which was also happening in the tailings. Just north of town, Idaho City High School's grass football field is built right into tailings, although MacFarlane says a membrane was placed underneath the field to prevent a reoccurrence of the scenario at the school. Ditto for the rodeo grounds and the baseball field--even if, as Idaho City mayor and lifetime resident Philip Canody notes, not everybody in town was happy about it.
"We've had a lot of newcomers come up here, and some wanted to take the grant we got to build a new park and haul dirt up here and cover the tailings," Canody laughs. "Most of us thought there were ways we could better spend that money."
Canody, who has lived in Idaho City for his entire life, takes a resigned approach toward the sea of gravel hugging his dominion. "At the time, it was just something they did, and we deal with it," he says. "It's part of our history, and good, bad or indifferent, at least we can serve as an example of why not to dredge." In perhaps the ultimate expression of this attitude, one homeowner just outside of town has built a house out of an old dredge.
But while tailings in towns like Idaho City may not be as infamous, terrifying or urgent as those at toxic superfund sites, they still take a measurable environmental toll on the wildlife and people of the area. A new coalition of local, federal and nonprofit forces say they have a plan to jumpstart the healing process where it's needed most--in the water. All they need are five years, some matching funds and a whole lot of volunteer labor.
PHASE ONE: LESS IS MORES
"It's like a nuclear bomb hit here back in the 1880s," says Pam Smolczynski as we stand on the banks of Mores Creek on a hot spring morning--that is, if they can be called "banks," and if it can be called "Mores Creek." When dredge operators worked in the area, they diverted the creek as necessary to utilize it for mining, and today's version of the waterway has little if any overlap with the historic stream bed. Instead of being bordered by a floodplain containing trees and riparian area, tailings extend right down to the water in many locations. This makes for a creek that behaves almost like a canal--fast, straight and deep. As Boise County residents witnessed firsthand earlier this spring, Mores Creek can also be vulnerable to sometimes dramatic flooding.
Smolczynski, an Idaho City resident who spent 12 years as a water quality analyst at the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, was hired away from the state earlier this year by the nonprofit conservation group Trout Unlimited. As their Boise River Watershed Restoration Coordinator, she will spend this summer overseeing a host of volunteers and contracted laborers who will attempt to renovate a half-mile of the creek back to a condition that, while not exactly "natural," would look closer to its pre-mining state than it has been in a century. The ecological benefits of this project, she says, will be myriad. Asked why this effort is happening now, decades after mining activities ceased, Smolczynski says simply, "Because someone like Hana thought of it."
Hana West, who is standing on the banks with us, is a hydrologist for the Forest Service at the Idaho City Ranger District. Her "real job," she says, is appraising timber sales in the Idaho City area to make sure they qualify under the standards of the National Environmental Policy Act. But she adds that throughout her 14 years of federal employment, both with the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, "I've always wanted to do stream restoration, and I've found ways to do that."
When she moved to Idaho City four years ago, West recalls, she noticed that both Mores Creek and its largest tributary, Grimes Creek, had been classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as "Impaired Waters." However, the impairment was not from any contaminant. According to the EPA's Web site, the creeks exceed water quality standards due to "thermal modifications." They're too hot.
Ideally, West explains, the average temperature of Mores Creek, even in summer months, would stay around 22 degrees Celsius or less--that is, 71 degrees Fahrenheit. In 1999, the peak temperature recorded in the creek was 35 degrees Celsius--95 Fahrenheit. While that number was particularly extreme, West notes that temperature regularly peaks around 28 degrees Celsius, or 82 Fahrenheit.
She attributes the discrepancy to a variety of factors, all related to dredge tailings. In the days before Mores Creek was dredged, West explains, its floodplain was lined with cottonwoods and willows, which shaded the creek and provided submerged root structures to trap sediment and slow the current. Also, the hydrologist says, because the post-mining creek is straighter and faster-flowing, or more "channelized," than it was historically, it has less contact with springs and other groundwater sources. This process, called "hyporheic exchange," also helps to control a waterway's temperature. A meandering, bumpy creek, she says, is a cool creek.
The increased temperatures have a direct negative effect on rainbow trout and endangered bull trout populations, says Herb Roerick, Forest Service fish biologist for the Idaho City Ranger District. The reason: As the temperature of a body of water rises, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water decreases.
"The temperature gets too high, and there's not enough oxygen getting to the fish," Roerick explains. Trout in particular require a higher level of oxygen than some other fish, he says. When that level isn't present, fish encounter a thermal barrier between downstream locations, such as Lucky Peak, and their spawning grounds in the headwaters of Grimes and Mores creeks. Roerick says he has seen a decrease in the number of rainbow trout in the creek, and an increase in non-native species--and the solution isn't as simple as a trout pulling a u-turn once it hits the barrier and finding some other spawning ground.
"If the fish are there, and if they can't get out, they are going to die," he says.
A year and a half ago, West began knocking on doors along Grimes Creek in order to gauge the local population's amenability to the idea of stream restoration.
"People were excited," she recalls. "They might question whether it will be successful, but nobody opposed it." West also quickly found an ally in Trout Unlimited, who in the last three years has undertaken what the group's western field coordinator, Rob Roberts, says is an unprecedented task for a western nonprofit: voluntarily starting projects to clean up mine waste on private land.
"In the East, you've got a large-scale coal mine restoration project that gets millions of dollars pumped into it each year to reclaim watersheds, but there's no analogous program in the West," Roberts says. "So you've got no funding and you've got no liability release for good Samaritans who want to go in and clean up mining-related impacts that they didn't cause in the first place. We're just trying to show that mine restoration in the West is a viable, needed program."
Roberts says that work at Trout Unlimited's first project, a cleanup at a long-abandoned silver, gold and lead mine site near American Fork, Utah, should be finished later this year. The success of that project has allowed the group to turn their eyes to Idaho and Montana--as well as to address the misconception that only highly visible, highly toxic sites need to be "cleaned up."
"You see the pictures of orange-stained water, and really ugly adits [mine openings] and whatnot, and of course those are obviously high priority, but in a lot of cases those are a very small quantities of water that end up getting diluted down the line," Roberts says. "From a fisheries and wildlife perspective, if you're talking about three miles and how many tens of acres of disturbed, unvegetated landscape like in Idaho City, I think that is just as important as the more sexy kind of operations around the West."
Apparently Trout Unlimited's benefactors agree. Smolczynski's salary for the next three years is being paid by a grant from the Tiffany and Co. Foundation, a branch of the famous jewelry company. However, as the Boise River Watershed Restoration Coordinator, she'll also be in charge of at least one "sexy" project. This summer, Trout Unlimited will work with the Environmental Protection Agency at the Monarch Stamp Mill, a superfund site near the town of Atlanta. At this site, arsenic and mercury-laced tailings push right up to the bank of the Middle Fork of the Boise River.
"The EPA has a lot of money, and so does the Forest Service, but they can't use that money to restore stream banks," Smolczynski says. "After they clean it up, TU comes in with volunteers and plants and gets things healthy again. It's not part of the cleanup efforts, it's part of the functionality side of things."
But back in dredgeville, the Mores Creek restoration project has also garnered financial support specific to its cause, including grants from the Idaho Resource Advisory Committee, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Forest Service and the Embrace-A-Stream grant program of Trout Unlimited. West has also applied for two other grants, one from the Bonneville Power Administration and the other from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, either of which she says would help the project to "go gangbusters" over the next three to five years.
For this year, that money will fund only the first half-mile of restoration, on a section of Mores Creek located entirely on federal land. West and Smolczynski say is only a "demonstration" of their methodology. First, heavy equipment operators will push the tailings back up to 30 feet, creating a floodplain around the creek. Then, volunteers will plant young cottonwoods and willows, currently sprouting in the Lucky Peak Tree Nursery, along the new banks. They will also install in the creek what West labels "structural diversity:" a series of five rocks and stumps that the pair are currently scouring the countryside to find.
"We're going to key-in large root-wads with a 20-foot trunk, so it doesn't wash away," West says.
"It's important for a stream to have that kind of place for fish," Smolczynski adds. "Places for them to rest and spawn. They can hang out there, and bugs can grow there."
West admits that even a significant amount of stream restoration would take years to translate to higher fish counts, and Roerick agrees. But both agree that for the time being, they are as encouraged by the steps being taken as by any potential results.
"Typically, my motto is, 'If the watershed ain't happy, ain't nobody happy," West says. "But because these creeks have been altered so significantly, you can't fix them by taking care of the watershed. Even when we do restore the floodplain, they won't be natural rivers. But at least we'll be allowing some functionality for the fish."
In the short-term, Smolczynski adds, perhaps the group's greatest contribution would be to perfect a formula that could be repeated in other towns. "We have something good here that can be used on a large scale," she says. "And the real beauty is the location. It's so accessible. You can take people here, the can participate and they can watch it work."
Funding notwithstanding, West and Smolczynski have mapped out 29 miles of restoration to take place next three to five years, including nine miles of Mores Creek, 17 miles of Grimes Creek and, perhaps as soon as next year, three miles of nearby Elk Creek. These last three miles were of particular significance when West approached Idaho City residents with the idea of stream restoration, but not because of any potential benefits to migrating fish. Elk Creek is the source of the town's municipal water supply. And as anyone who depends on that water supply can attest, their relationship with it can sometimes get a little hazy.
Phase Two: streams are for People, Too
As we hike up toward Gold Hill, the former home of one of Boise Basin's most productive hydraulic mines, Smolczynski regales me with a lesson in Idaho City history. In the 1860s, the town actually passed Portland to be the largest town in the Pacific Northwest, with a population of over 6,000 people. By 1870, that population had tumbled to fewer than 900, but those who remained shared a singular passion.
"Boy, did they ever get into these hills and placer-mine," she says.
Even a century after the "giants" stopped unloading water at 5,000 pounds of pressure into the hillside, Gold Hill remains a stark and imposing collection of pale dirt walls and gothic-looking arches. Leading up to the hill from our parking spot near the high school football field, large sections of the ground are covered with a fine sediment the same milky color as the cliffs. Where it is moist, the powder hardens into a milk-colored sludge. After a pair of fires almost eradicated Idaho City in the 1860s, early inhabitants used this sludge to make bricks and rebuild the town. Today, it's nothing but trouble.
"When it rains, the sediment comes right off of that bare face and hits the slope. It creates little rills and channels, and those concentrate and intensify into bigger channels," West says.
From there, Mayor Canody continues, "All that silt washes out of Gold Hill, down into Elk Creek and right into our sand filters." Asked how often this happens, he replies, "When we get the spring runoff, or if we have a heavy rainstorm or if a regular gully-washer comes in." One day this February, the city closed local schools due to a lack of water pressure. Canody says that is rare, but other inconveniences are as regular as the seasons.
"We can still produce water, it's just turbid," he says. "You can still use your toilets, but to be safe, the state requires that people boil their water before they drink it."
Not surprisingly, when West first began touting to locals a stream restoration project that could actually reduce the level of sediment in a creek, the mayor jumped at the chance to offer the city's support.
"I don't remember what I promised her," he says. "I think some of our city equipment and our city maintenance worker. But if we can really stop the turbidity at its source, it's a good deal for the city and everybody, I think."
Throughout the spring, West has guided restoration projects around Gold Hill with the Youth Conservation Corps, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, the Boy Scouts and the Idaho Youth Ranch. Usually, these have involved volunteers making "check-dams" out of rocks or logging slash in order to trap sediment on the hillside. But as the watershed-wide restoration project becomes a reality, she says she has already received offers of more official help from locals--including the mining industry's old whipping boy of Idaho City High School.
The school's new science teacher, Cathie Nigro, says her first impression of the mining town when she moved to Boise County two-and-a-half years ago was, "It was like what you'd see in that HBO show Deadwood." But her perspective has changed since she agreed to take on a triple subject-load of environmental science, earth science and biology classes for the school's ninth through 12th graders.
"We have a great outdoor laboratory up here," she says. "A lot of times kids may walk the street and not even know what they're walking on." Over the next three years, Nigro says she's planning on incorporating students heavily into the stream restoration project, doing everything from planting trees along the stream banks, to taking plant, animal and microorganism inventories, to monitoring oxygen and temperature levels in Mores and Elk creeks. The possibility that their work on Elk Creek could have a direct and almost immediate positive bearing on their city's wellbeing only adds more motivation to jump in.
"It's an authentic community service opportunity, through and through," Nigro says. "It's service learning, really."
Later this month, Trout Unlimited, the Forest Service and a third partner, Emmett-based West Central Highlands Resource Conservation and Development Council, will host the first abandoned mine restoration workshop in Idaho City. Due to the preponderance of grassroots conservation organizations rooted just 33 miles away in Boise, including one, the 800-member Ted Trueblood Chapter of Trout Unlimited, which already has experience in staging fish habitat restoration campaigns on the Boise River, Smolczynski is expecting an eager and potentially large audience. But with the personal stake many Idaho City residents have in the project, she adds that she's also expecting the crowd to span the political and environmental spectrums.
"This isn't really a conservation community," Smolczynski says. "It'll be interesting to mesh those groups. When you mix the conservationists from Boise with the locals, it'll be a lot of energy."
Canody, whose father and grandfather were loggers and whose great-uncle worked on a dredge, says he's not anticipating any tension at either workshop or the project.
"We're all focused on one goal," he says. "That's to improve the stream quality, and I don't know anyone who's against that. I know a lot of loggers, but I don't know any who doesn't like to fish."
The first Mores Creek watershed restoration workshop will take place on Saturday, June 24 at 11 a.m. at the Ray Robison Hall, 206 Commercial St. in Idaho City. For more information, contact Pam Smolczynski at (208) 938-1110 ext. 14, or email@example.com