The crew leaves the scene after Wednesday morning’s blasting in . CDOT continued work in Boulder Canyon with blasting on the morning of June 5, 2019.
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Five minutes before the powerful mix of TNT and ANFO mix rattled the rocky ribs of Boulder Canyon on Wednesday, an air horn sounded, and construction crew members positioned themselves behind a truck roughly 300 yards away.

At 10:52 a.m., Zak Dirt project superintendent Jesse Sewczak proclaimed “Fire in the hole,” and all eyes turned to the majestic outcroppings on the south side of Colo. 119 in time to see a blast of dirt, dust and shattered rock rain down on the roadway.

Wednesday’s blast near mile marker 39, one more step in the ongoing $31 million Colorado Department of Transportation project of repairs and improvements to Boulder Canyon Drive between Boulder and Nederland, was deemed a success by CDOT. But the larger project has fired up some local environmentalists who are closely watching its potential impact on another constituency — brown trout.

Boulder Waterkeeper, a local chapter of the global Waterkeeper Alliance, which recently voiced concerns about the presence of E.coli in Boulder Creek, has been pressing CDOT, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on whether blasting and related activities associated with the project, which may threaten the spawning season of those fish later this year.

‘Chemical and biological integrity’

CDOT staff and representatives of project contractor Zak Dirt gave members of the media an opportunity Wednesday to see some of the ongoing blasting work, and also responded to questions concerning the issues raised by Boulder Waterkeeper.

“We are certainly very cognizant of our impact of the river, and we are very cognizant of what we are doing with our permitting process, and if there is any issue they have beyond that, they would have to address that with the permitting agency,” said CDOT spokesman Jared Fiel.

He pointed to completed post-flood work by CDOT along U.S. 34 and U.S. 36 and the health of adjacent waterways as examples of the attention it pays to environmental concerns.

At the heart of Boulder Waterkeeper’s worries is that too little is being done to mitigate potential damage to the brown trout during their spawning season, as well as broader impacts to “the physical, chemical and biological integrity of Boulder Creek.”

There’s a canyon-wide divide between the environmentalists and some of those to whom they’re raising their concerns. For example, while they credit Colorado Parks and Wildlife for being responsive to their concerns, the two sides can’t even agree on when the fish spawn, whether it is August-September, or later in October-November, as CPW contends.

Representatives of Boulder Waterkeeper have met with representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — which permitted the Boulder Canyon work along with Parks and Wildlife — and with CDOT representatives, to air their points of interest.

According to a statement released by the environmentalists, “One of the major concerns is the placement and usage of heavy equipment, such as backhoes and other large equipment in Boulder Creek during brown trout spawning (August and September).

It goes on to state, “Equipment working within the Boulder Creek channel can cause excessive sediment transport and deposition that can cover brown trout spawning beds and excavate spawning beds. Populations of stream macroinvertebrates (mayflies, midges, etc.) may be dramatically impacted due to sediment disruption and deposition from the movement of equipment in the stream.”

Boulder Waterkeeper stated that no “instream equipment time limitations” were identified in information provided by CDOT, and that “more specifically, no limitations were explicitly mentioned within permits” issued by the Army Corps of Engineers and CPW.

Fiel said no work is planned in the creek itself, until next year.

‘Room for interpretation’

Environmentalists have released some of their communications with agencies involved in the project, including a May email from CPW district wildlife manager for north Boulder County Tyler Asnicar.

Blasting in Boulder Canyon on Wednesday (Cliff Grassmick, Staff Photographer).

In that email, Asnicar stated that under its permit for the CDOT project, “In those instances where instream work is required, such work shall be performed during low- or no-flow periods, and the use of heavy equipment in streambeds, especially in live or flowing water, shall be minimized.

“The equipment used shall be of such a type that will produce minimal environmental damage, including damage to the stream bottom.”

Also part of the communications between agencies and Boulder Waterkeeper was a statement from Nicholas Franke of the Army Corps of Engineers, which said in part, “Activities in spawning areas during spawning seasons must be avoided to the maximum extent practicable.” And, he concedes that phrasing “leads a lot of room for interpretation. Given that the Corps’ jurisdiction is fairly limited I would recommend contacting the CPW area biologist and getting their input.”

In an interview Wednesday, Asnicar said, “There’s always going to be a concern, and that starts with being right next to the highway,” referencing the ever-present dangers —- even without a construction project —  of “a truck going into the water, and spilling gasoline or chemicals, some type of contaminant, into the river.”

Asnicar said the terms of the “SB40” permit issued for the project by CPW — which references the state Senate bill that authorized the agency to certify construction projects in any stream, banks, or their tributaries — cannot be altered, once it is issued.

The permit, he said, mandates “best management practices” in areas such as erosion control, adding, “It’s not specified any more than that. We want them to use best management practices, but we kind of leave it up to them to use industry standard best management practices, whichever those may be.”

It also states that CPW should be notified immediately of any “significant pollutant, mud or silt flow into the river, or of dead fish observed in the river.”

Trout doing ‘pretty well’

Ben Swigle, an aquatic biologist for CPW, downplayed dangers to the Boulder Creek trout population. Agency counts of the fish population at two points following the 2013 flood showed about 2,800 trout in a 1-mile stretch where North Boulder Creek enters Middle Boulder Creek, and almost 4,400 in a 1-mile stretch further west, at Rogers Park.

“The trout are actually doing pretty well, to be honest with you,” Swigle said. “The habitat is really diverse and undamaged from the flood. The other drainages, what they did was put a bulldozer in and temporarily channelize it. That didn’t happen in Middle Boulder Creek, which set it up for success. The (trout population) numbers didn’t change, before the flood and after the flood.”

Asked if he had concerns about damage to the trout population from the Boulder Canyon improvement project, he said “No,” and added that any impact would likely be to individual fish, and not at the “population level.” He added that there are 21 state hatcheries to draw upon, should there be any need to replenish the population by stocking, a consequence he does not expect.

Boulder Waterkeeper member and Boulder Heights resident Wallace Westfeldt, a veteran fly fisherman and fishing guide, has met with all three agencies that have jurisdiction over the project. His confidence about the preservation of the river’s health, he said, is “progressively less, with almost every other passing day.”

He added, “They have best management practices but it seems kind of thin to me. It’s interesting to me that the restrictive permits from CPW and the Corps (of Engineers) are focused on the raptors, and CDOT has been very careful to follow restrictions on raptors, but there has been zero mention of the trout population, and specifically the brown trout spawning areas.”

Westfeldt said he, his group, as well as other area anglers, will be watching the health of the creek and its inhabitants closely, as the project continues through 2020. The blasting portion of the work is supposed to end this September.

“I’m going to be calling … a lot when I see things that don’t look right to me … because I can’t go out there an enforce it, but they can,” Westfeldt said.

To stay up to date on Colo. 119/Boulder Canyon blasting

Blasting is conducted from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, although that schedule is subject to delay.

Project hotline: 720-465-6898

Email: CO119@publicinfoteam.com

Web: cdot.gov/projects/co-119-boulder-roadway-improvements

Text: “canyon” to 313131

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