Swan River Restoration
The Swan River Restoration Project aims to naturalize more than two miles of the Swan River Valley, which was decimated by historic dredge mining during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A collaborative effort among local, federal, and state agencies, as well as nonprofit partners, Summit County Open Space and Trails is currently leading efforts to reclaim approximately half of this distance on land jointly owned by the County and the Town of Breckenridge. After more than a decade of planning, in 2016 and 2017 over, a half mile of valley floor was restored with a mile-long stream channel and 25 acres of floodplain. Removal of large gravel piles, the residual waste rock from the dredge mining actives, on the remaining areas is ongoing with restoration work expected to occur following these removal activities.
"I visited the Swan River Restoration site this weekend for the first time since before the project was started. My initial perspective on the project was one of skepticism. However, after seeing the amazing transformation, I am now a true believer."
Carol Northcut - Keystone, Colorado
Swan River Restoration Project Location
The Swan River Restoration Project site, located approximately 11 miles northeast of Breckenridge and sitting at around 9,600 feet in elevation, comprises highly disturbed aquatic and terrestrial environments impacted by historic mining activities that dredged the valley bottom, obliterated the Swan River main stem, and covered the valley floor in barren cobble. In addition to impacts to much of the main stem, the surrounding watershed is impacted by abandoned mining roads and other relict features that further fragment the headwater tributaries (North, South, and Middle forks of the Swan River) and impact water quality. While restoration work is ongoing throughout the watershed, the largest restoration component involves reclaiming approximately three miles of main stem stream that currently lacks surface continuity. In 2016, Reach A was reclaimed to a natural condition, including nearly one mile of channel and 30 acres of riparian and upland habitat.
Reach A Restoration
Reach A restoration efforts reclaimed over 60 acres of valley floor on County & Town-owned Open Space. In doing so, the work accomplished the following:
- Replaced approximately one half mile of stream channel confined to a roadside ditch, with approximately one mile of new meandering stream.
- Established year-round flows in the channel and created a 65 foot wide native riparian corridor.
- Restored over 16 acres of riparian and upland habitat.
- Provided a series of 22 pools, riffles, and glides to create a diversity of aquatic habitat for fish, insects, and a healthy self sustaining ecosystem.
- Created new trails and trailheads for non-motorized recreation, fishing access, and aesthetic enjoyment.
- To facilitate completion of the first 1-mile section of this restoration project, approximately 63,300 cubic yards of excess gravel was exported from the restoration site for beneficial reuses elsewhere in Summit County.
Swan River Fishery
One of the long term project goals is to restore a Colorado River cutthroat trout population to the Swan River main stem. Currently, cutthroat trout are isolated to the North Fork of the Swan River by a natural fish barrier, which prevents the upstream migration of brook trout. Though restoring a cutthroat trout population is a long term goal, annual fishery surveys reveal a healthy brook trout fishery and burgeoning mottled sculpin fishery are becoming established. Below are recent fish survey reports completed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Swan River Reach B Restoration
Building on the success of the Reach A restoration, Reach B restoration aims to reclaim the immediately upstream segment to a similar naturalized condition. Reach B restoration will naturalize 4,800 lineal feet of channel, 13 acres of riparian floodplain, and 8 acres of upland habitat. The new stream channel will support a thriving population of native mottled sculpin, as well as brook and brown trout and provide terrestrial wildlife habitat as well.
Aerial Image of Reach B prior to the start of channel construction (07/19/2021)
Channel construction is slated for July 26th-October 31st, 2021. We are proud to be partnering with Ecological Resource Consultants and Tezak Heavy Equipment to complete the restoration of the stream channel and the adjacent habitat. The design for Reach B was completed in March 2021 and review by our team of technical advisers from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Trout Unlimited, and the USDA Forest Service. Important elements of the Reach B design include a wider and more linear floodplain than what is found in Reach A, as well as more variability in stream width and depth. These improved restoration methods will build on the success of Reach A and incorporate lessons learned through that process.
The floodplain design will be more prone to frequent flooding, which will encourage natural morphology, sedimentation, and nutrient deposits in the riparian habitat. Variability in channel width and depth will provide a wider variety of in-stream habitat, stream velocity, and sedimentation patterns within the channel. Additionally, new bank stabilization methods will utilize course woody debris, providing shaded cover for fish while the vegetation becomes established on the banks. The final step of the channel construction phase of the project will include initial revegetation including seeding of the upland and riparian habitats as well as bank stabilizing plantings of willow shrubs.
A new 50' bridge will be installed on Rock Island Road to provide a seamless connection from the Reach B channel to the downstream channel that restored on Reach A in 2016. The new bridge will allow the stream to pass unimpeded, even at high water, and fish and other aquatic species to move along the stream channel without barriers. Rock Island Road will be open to recreational traffic for the entirety of the construction phase during 2021.
During the construction phase in the summer of 2021, heavy equipment and a construction trailer will be placed at the intersection of Tiger Road and Rock Island Road to allow access to the site by equipment operators and avoid interference with ongoing gravel removal operations on the upstream end of the site.
In the fall of 2022, the final revegetation effort will be completed, including 68 riparian and 40 upland planting thickets. These thickets will provide microhabitat features for wildlife, while also encouraging natural moisture retention and nutrient cycling. Following final vegetation efforts, the area will be closed to travel as the plantings establish themselves and the newly formed habitat stabilizes. We look forward to opening Reach B to the public, which will likely occur in the Spring of 2024. Until that time, please note that the restoration site will remain closed to the public.
Reach B restoration efforts are being completed with support from Summit County and the Town of Breckenridge, along with our partners at Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Fish and Wildlife Federation. We would like to extend out thanks to these partners as well as the Blue River Watershed Group, Colorado Trout Unlimited, and the USDA Forest Service who have provided ongoing support and technical expertise for the development of this project.
A naturalized valley condition provides greatly enhanced fish and wildlife habitat, as well as educational and recreational opportunities. As the project is ongoing, and many locations are fragile or potentially dangerous, we ask the public to respect posted closures. Additional information about the Swan River Restoration Project is available at Restore the Swan River, the Swan River Restoration Project Blog, and in the documents below:
Swan River Restoration Project Partners and Visionaries
Collaborating and funding partners include: Summit County Government; Town of Breckenridge; USDA Forest Service - White River National Forest; US Fish and Wildlife Service; Colorado Parks and Wildlife; Colorado Water Conservation Board; Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety; Friends of the Dillon Ranger District; Blue River Watershed Group; Trout Unlimited; and others.