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Tales from the Tread: Local springs focus of study

Tread of Pioneers Museum
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
New interpretive sign at the Sulphur Spring.
City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy photo

The Tread of Pioneers Museum and the city of Steamboat Springs are partnering with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Colorado Water Science Center on a study of the local mineral springs in Steamboat to guide future policies and protections for the springs. The goal is to use science-driven data to help ensure the longevity and vitality of the local mineral springs.

The proposed three-year project includes collecting continual data and periodic water-quality samples to create models that will help the group better understand the mineral springs and guide future policies and protections. The project is a cooperative effort between the USGS, the city and the museum. In 2022, the city and museum are matching the USGS funds to initiate the study, and the project will require additional matching funds for 2023 and 2024.

“Ultimately, we hope to understand which aquifers feed the springs, how spring sources vary through time, the age of groundwater emanating from the springs and any potential land-use effects on the spring water quality. Each of these aspects relates to the sustainability of the springs for the future,” said USGS scientist Connor Newman.



Background

After researching potential issues that may impact the springs, Tread of Pioneers Museum Executive Director Candice Bannister, along with Dagny McKinley, local historian and author of “The Springs of Steamboat” book, formed a mineral springs advocacy committee and reached out to the city regarding a general concern for the long-term protection of Steamboat’s mineral springs. Bannister and McKinley hope to assist the city to create policies and procedures to protect the springs and help the city navigate pressing infrastructure projects currently on hold that could impact the local springs.

McKinley’s and Bannister’s concerns stem from the unintentional loss of several significant mineral springs over the years due to human impact and development. The Steamboat Spring, the town’s namesake, was once an impressive chugging geyser and was reduced to its current flow when the railroad required blasting into the hillside next to the famous spring in 1908. The Soda Spring, long revered as a favorite spring for making lemonade, ceased to flow after the rerouting of U.S. Highway 40 in the 1980s.



As the town and tourism continue to grow, Bannister and McKinley are concerned that new development, park maintenance or infrastructure improvements could inadvertently disrupt or diminish more springs. Given the springs’ historical and scientific significance to the community and the world, as evidenced by the National Natural Landmark status recently bestowed on the Sulphur Cave and Spring, the women are eager to encourage the city declare and implement protections for the springs.

“We want to build on the recent celebration and awareness of the Sulphur Cave as a National Natural Landmark and continue to revere our local springs as the incredible natural geologic features that they are,” Bannister said.

The historical and cultural elements are important to consider, as well.

“Before the first white settlers arrived, the springs were frequented by the Ute people as sacred waters,” McKinley said. “The springs were one of the primary reasons why early tourists visited Steamboat Springs in the early 1900s.”

To increase awareness and understanding of these natural and cultural treasures, the city, McKinley and museum staff recently worked with other local partners to create new interpretive signs at each of the local downtown springs on city parkland.

Bannister and McKinley approached Steamboat Springs Parks and Recreation staff with a draft document to help instill protections and caution, and to ensure the springs are still thriving in another 100 years.

The document includes a declaration of intent to protect the springs, recommendations for protections of the springs and their underground networks and correspondence with other entities and resources, including hydrology and geology experts around the country, regarding best practices for care of springs. This research and outreach led to the USGS study.

With respect to future park or city infrastructure, the goal is to maximize the long-term integrity, utility and safety of park investments. With respect to the hydrothermal system, the goal is to maximize the protection of the natural processes and features while also maintaining visitor access.

After Bannister and McKinley met with city staff, the group agreed to mutual goals that include the USGS study and:

• seeking local historic designation for the springs (on city parks) with City Council and manager approval;

• requesting a formal mineral springs committee of the city under the parks and recreation commission; and

• looking to other communities with mineral springs or similar fragile natural areas for protection policies or templates.

“We hope our research and the results of the USGS study will help the city and its stakeholders better understand human impacts on the springs,” Bannister said. “As a community, I believe we need to be proactive and create plans and policies for protection of the entire watershed system that includes the springs and the Yampa River.”

Parks and Recreation Commission met with city parks staff and Bannister and McKinley on Jan. 12. After review and discussion, the commission unanimously supported the formation of a mineral springs committee and was grateful for the group’s efforts. A conversation with City Council is scheduled for Feb. 15.

The Tread of Pioneers Museum is located at 800 Oak St. in downtown Steamboat Springs.


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