River’s transformation and history can tell a tale or two, depends on who is listening

The river was here to greet settlers as they first came to this land and they found this river to be pleasing; life blood for the dry crop lands to the east of the mountains, a self sustaining passage to the west for those adventurous souls who would follow her there. But even before the settlers came to these parts, there were others.

American Indians, and before them, men whose history is not found within a book but within the rock of the canyon and tools that were left behind.

All who treasured the land also valued the river for it has always been that no life could be sustained without its precious flows.

To stand on her banks and gaze to the west, it is hard to imagine this river being any less than what she is today.


But I know it wasn’t always so.

My memories of the Arkansas River from 40 years ago were not good ones – it was the place where we went and never caught fish – I hated the river then.

Tailings were the problem then.

You see, the same men who were attracted to this river by its outstretched arms that led them westward were the same men who nearly killed her.

Gold and silver miners who used mercury and released arsenic into the air and water through excavations probably had no idea the impact that their activities would have on this river.

The technology of cancer diagnosis and treatment was a hundred years into the future then, and the impact of even minor spills of chemicals were certainly not given a second thought. It was all about revenue and progress and growth.

As a very young boy, I sat along the river with a gold pan in my hand.

We were heading further west but, stopping near Leadville and anxious to begin working on my first billion, I worked the gravel of the riverbed across my pan.

With feet submerged and back bent over the pan, I remember a single flake that sparkled there for just a moment before blowing away and being lost forever.


I doubt it.

But for a moment I was connected to the men who were here before me, those who found the real shine of gold in their pans, and to those who were disappointed, as well.

Hope springs eternal, and I can feel the anticipation of each man who knew that the next shovel full would be the one that would contain untold riches.

And so they dug a little deeper, stripped more of the mountain, processed their finds, and slowly killed the river.

A hundred years later, with the river still in the throes of death, it was men once again who came to its rescue.

Fish here were not healthy.

With an average life span of only two years, the average Arkansas River trout was tiny and probably dangerous to eat.

Containing several heavy metals and chemicals leftover from the mining days, the fish in this river didn’t stand a chance.

The 80s, though, saw the river placed on the National Priority List for a Supefund cleanup.

Specifically targeting the Yak Tunnel and California Gulch, CPR that began in the 90s was almost immediately effective in reversing the affects of the damaging tailings that had poisoned the river for years.

Environmental cleanup, including the replanting of native grasses along the river bank, effectively moved the river from its deathbed to ICU, to the recovery room.

Today, the river is as healthy as it has been in the past 100 years.

And to commemorate the miraculous recovery, the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife recently designated the Arkansas River, from its headwaters to the Parkdale Bridge, a Gold Medal fishery.

Obtaining the Gold Medal designation is not easy, and when you think about the journey that this river took to get the title, to have nearly 102 miles of water designated as such is nothing short of incredible.

In order to obtain Gold Medal status, a river must support a standing stock of 60 pounds of fish per acre and must also support a minimum of 12 quality fish, over 14 inches, per acre.

The Arkansas, in spite of all it has been through, supports a standing stock of 170.3 pounds of fish per acre and 75 fish larger than 14 inches per acre.

And it will only get better.

With the Gold Medal designation come special regulations that will manage the river for its trophy potential.

This means that the growth that the river experienced without any protections will be expanded exponentially now that methods of take and size limits are instituted.

It’s rare that people ever have the opportunity for a do-over when it comes to our natural resources.

As consumers of literally everything that gets in our way, we have a poor track record for taking care of the things that we are entrusted with.

The river is one example, though, of how we have done the right thing and reversed a wrong.

If this river could talk, oh, the stories it would tell: the days of glory, when its waters coursed unimpeded from west to east, to the days when it lay near death, to its return to greatness in the 21st century.

It’s a story without beginning or ending, but one that our children’s children will someday reap the benefits from.

Long live the river.

Pueblo West resident Bill Claspell is an avid outdoorsman, hunter and fisherman who also enjoys writing about his adventures. He can be reached by e-mail at

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