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Swimming Upstream

Last summer, a miracle appeared in the dead waters of the Alamosa River. A micro-invertebrate. A caddis fly larvae. "It's a start," says Victor Ketellepper, EPA project manager at the Superfund site upstream.

A great deal of anger, mistrust and sadness still flows along the banks of the Alamosa, creating a gulf between those who live near the river and the mostly Denver-based bureaucrats charged with cleaning it up. But today there's a bit of hope, too.

In 1994 the EPA awarded local citizens a $50,000 grant to form the Summitville Technical Advisory Group, or TAG. Buoyed by the independent experts they hire to explain the technical nuances of the cleanup, the handful of volunteers and activists have created a strong voice in the valley.

Last year, for example, the state backed off its plan to lower water-quality expectations on the Alamosa. TAG members were already skeptical when the Colorado Department of Minerals and Geology--the same agency that issued the disastrous permit for the Summitville mine--concluded in a "Use Attainability Assessment" (UAA) that it was appropriate to rachet down water-quality standards on the Alamosa.

The action could have made it easier for new mining companies to move in along the river. And the community had reason to be afraid: In 1996, a citizen had reported illegal "prospecting"--the first step in exploring a site--at the old Miser Mine near Summitville. The guilty mining company was fined; its application for a legitimate prospecting permit was later turned down.

But the state told the community that its UAA decision was a foregone conclusion, that "the train had left the station," says TAG administrator Wendy Mellott. "It was probably the most frustrating and devastating thing the community had to go through. We had to fight and fight and fight to make them keep their promise to protect our river."

Finally, last July, the state decided to lower standards on only one small section of the river. But the surrounding debate caught the ear of then-governor Roy Romer, who created an Alamosa River Task Force to give the 100 landowners south of Terrace Reservoir more say in the river's fate.

Abuse of the Alamosa began long before the Summitville mine disaster. In 1971, the Army Corps of Engineers approved the straightening of a three-mile stretch of the river as part of a flood-control plan. But the erosion and sedimentation that resulted from that channeling had devastating effects for farmers as far as twelve miles downstream.

The Corps' work is now slowly being turned around. In fact, nearly all of the river's recent history is about government actions gone awry. "It's a constant battle," says Cindy Medina, a former TAG member. In the case of the UAA, the community received $15,000 in legal help from the Department of Local Affairs, a state agency, to fight...a state agency.

Today farmers are shelling out thousands of their own dollars to replace equipment corroded by the acidic river water. In the arid valley, huge sprinklers spread their arms a quarter-mile across a field, irrigating 130 acres at a time. The essential sprinklers, which cost about $60,000 new and $20,000 used, are built to last 25 years but are now rusting out in less than a third of that time. "It's just one more thing pushing people toward the edge of not making it," explains Jeff Stern of the citizen-founded Alamosa River Watershed Project.

The metals in the water have not harmed crops. The valley's premium alfalfa crop, mostly shipped for dairy feed, may have actually benefited from the increase in copper. Local barley--much of which ends up in the beer vats at Coors--"is not going to pick up metals that are toxic," but future yields could be reduced, says Maya ter Kuile, a local soil scientist and wife of a fifth-generation farmer in the valley. "I don't think the yield issue has been addressed," she says. "My personal feeling is that this is an overt coverup by the state. We're just afraid that in ten, twenty years' time, they'll say, 'Shoot, we blew it.'"

The vocal Alamosa River guardians are about to get some major visibility after their recent selection from among 130 applicants to join the Waterkeepers Alliance. The group was founded in the 1960s by ex-Marines and fishermen in a small fishing town along the Hudson River. Fed up with the flagrant industrial pollution that had virtually destroyed their livelihood, the group appealed to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard for help. When they got no answer, "they came to the conclusion that the government was in cahoots with the polluters," explains Robert F. Kennedy Jr., today the group's chief prosecuting attorney. A journalist told the group about an obscure law that makes it illegal to pollute any waterway in the U.S. By 1984, the fishermen had shut down major polluters in the area and hired a full-time "riverkeeper." The cleaned-up Hudson is now an "ecological model" for rivers across the country, Kennedy says.

Today 26 water advocacy groups belong to the New York State-based alliance and benefit from its organizational skills, legal advice and voices like Kennedy's. The Alamosa River was singled out because of the community's excellent application for membership--and because of its history, Kennedy says. "It's so reminiscent of the situation that prompted the creation of the original Hudson [River] association," he says. With the Summitville mine, "here you have a small, poor county and a huge, rich company that came in and basically liquidated the assets of that community for cash. What happened with the Alamosa is really a failure of government."

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