Project Name: Cottonwood Wash Watershed
Project Location: 5 miles west of Blanding, San Juan County, Utah
San Juan County, Utah approximately 10 miles west of Blanding, Utah
Type of Site: Uranium and Vanadium related sites, including roads, mines and mills
Watershed comprised of 143,000 acres
Congressional District: Second Congressional District
In 1931, a sheepherder discovered the mineral carnotite in the Cottonwood Wash. The area experienced cyclic booms of mining until the mid 1970s for the Uranium and Vanadium contained in carnotite. It is highly unlikely that this site will ever be a future producer in significant amounts ever again due to the low prices and the presence of larger deposits with higher mineral grades.
Project Profile: Cottonwood Wash Watershed
Table of Contents:
• Pilot Profile
• The Ecological Impacts of a Mining Past
• Impediments to Local Economic Prosperity
• Strategies for Environmental and Economic Restoration
• Protecting the Local Community from Degraded Water Quality
• Stimulating the Local Economy through a Reclamation Strategy
• Preserving Local Mining History during Reclamation
• Project Results
• Looking Forward
• Understanding the Historic and Prehistoric Importance of Cottonwood Wash
• Community Impact: Remembering the Local Mining History
• Cottonwood Wash Project Partners
Encompassing approximately 143,000 acres in southeastern Utah’s
San Juan County, the Cottonwood Wash watershed and its local community are closely intertwined with the mining history that defines them. National market demands for uranium and vanadium dictated the growth of the local economy, as well as its decline, for nearly nine decades. In an effort to improve water quality and protect the health and safety of the community, Federal and State agencies developed a collaborative reclamation strategy to address the area’s former mines while preserving the lure of local mining history.
The Ecological Impacts of a Mining Past
After decades of vanadium and uranium mining, the waters and sediments in the watershed were left with elevated levels of radiation from mine drainage and waste dumps. Project partners faced the challenge of addressing this contamination, which impacted the use of local water for drinking, recreation, aquatic life, wildlife, grazing, and agriculture.
Impediments to Local Economic Prosperity
Nationwide economic demands ranging from steel production to national defense drove the local vanadium and uranium mining industry and dictated the growth and decline of San Juan County’s economy. Although the local economy took a downturn after mining operations ceased, the community remains attached to its mining history.
Strategies for Environmental and Economic Restoration
The Cottonwood Wash watershed area posed several challenges, but through the formation of collaborative partnerships, Federal and State agency partners were able to successfully complete remediation efforts.
Protecting the Local Community from Degraded Water Quality
The Technical Committee, comprised of Federal and State partners, focused on radioactive minerals impairing the watershed in conjunction with developing an efficient reclamation plan to address the physical safety hazards left behind as reminders of the local mining history.
Results of an inventory conducted in the late 1990s revealed dangerous levels of radon emissions in mine openings and elevated radiation levels in waterways caused by sediment, heavy metals, and uranium particles from mine waste dumps. This contamination affected drinking water, recreation, wildlife, grazing, and agriculture.
The Technical Committee developed a reclamation approach that mitigated the area’s physical and environmental hazards in one step: portions of uranium mine dumps located in stream channels were removed and used as backfill material for hazardous openings and face-up areas.
Stimulating the Local Economy through a Reclamation Strategy
Most former mining communities are left with weakened economies once mining activities cease. The Technical Committee took a twofold approach to assisting the local community not only through cleanup efforts, but by bolstering the local economy as part of its reclamation strategy.
As the demand for local vanadium and uranium ore dwindled to near nonexistence, mining operations shut down in the area, negatively impacting the local economy. In efforts to stimulate the local economy, the BLM and the Forest Service recognized the importance of dividing project construction
work—which included closing off mine openings and removing waste dumps—into seven phases over 5 years. This allowed small and local contractors to bid on projects, benefiting the local economy, increasing competition, and reducing overall project costs.
Ultimately, three local companies were selected to conduct the construction work, which returned $800,000 to the local economy.
Preserving Local Mining History during Reclamation
Many former mining communities become worried about losing a part of their identity during reclamation. Partners such as the BLM and the Forest Service were sensitive to these concerns and made every attempt to include the local community in the planning process.
When reclamation discussions were initiated in the Cottonwood Wash area, the community felt protective of the mining structures they felt represented their livelihood, history, and community. By working with local residents, the Technical Committee found a balance between keeping the community safe from elevated radiation levels and hazardous mine openings and allowing them to hold on to their memories.
A cultural survey and inventory was conducted, and included the collection of oral histories from area residents. These efforts, supported by the BLM and the Forest Service, contributed to three issues of Blue Mountain Shadows magazine, dedicated to the mining history and reclamation efforts in the Cottonwood Wash watershed.
Reclamation activities included sealing 219 adits and shafts, removing 39 hazardous structures, plugging 225 drill holes, and removing more than 250 waste dumps. These activities—in addition to approximately $2 million leveraged from the BLM, Forest Service, and the State of Utah—allowed the Technical Committee to protect and benefit the local community, while acknowledging the area’s mining history. The partnerships formed during this reclamation project were critical to its success and led to continued reclamation efforts in the State of Utah.
Although reclamation activities are complete in the Cottonwood Wash area, additional efforts are ongoing to ensure that the mining history so treasured by the local community is not lost.
An onsite informational kiosk and an educational pamphlet are being developed, both of which will explain the mining history and reclamation work completed in the watershed. Prior to sign installation, an environmental assessment must be conducted to ensure that no additional negative environmental impacts result.
By directly addressing the environmental, economic, and cultural needs of the local community, the Technical Committee has achieved success in the Cottonwood Wash watershed. And as reclamation efforts move forward in other areas of Utah, this former mining community can continue to celebrate the positive influences of the mining industry without concern for environmental impacts for years to come.
Understanding the Historic and Prehistoric Importance of Cottonwood Wash
The Four Corners area in the southwestern United States attracts sightseers from far and wide every year to explore the ruins of early Native American civilizations. The Cottonwood Wash area, first inhabited by the people of the Puebloan Culture, is rich in artifacts; potsherds and other remnants from almost 7,000 years of human inhabitants are apparent with nearly every turn of a shovel. Historic relics of the area’s mining legacy are also scattered throughout Cottonwood Wash.
Notably, some of Madame Curie’s early radiation experiments were possible due to the samples she reportedly collected from the area. Additionally, vanadium and uranium from Cottonwood Wash supported the Nation’s steel and atomic endeavors.
Community Impact: Remembering the Local Mining History
Dating back to the early 1900s, vanadium and uranium mining was more than just a job to many locals, it was a way of life that defined who they were. Fathers and sons would work side-by-side down in the mine shafts. Young boys would run around searching for arrowheads that provided a glimpse into the area’s prehistoric past.
Former miner Cleal Bradford recalled, “My first experience with the Cottonwood mines was when my father was working as foreman of the Blanding mines. During the Second World War I would go with him as a youngster and be out around and about. I didn’t do any mining at that time. But I did travel with him out and spend the day exploring and doing other things while he would be involved.”
Through an oral history collection effort supported by the BLM; the Forest Service; Utah Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining; and the San Juan County Historical Commission, the community was able to memorialize personal mining experiences like these in three issues of Blue Mountain Shadows magazine. <<insert link to http://www.bluemountainshadows.org/>>
Cottonwood Wash Project Partners
Utah Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining
Utah Division of Water Quality
San Juan County Historical Commission
Point of Contact: Terry Snyder