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Tunnel causes problems for Leadville water

Brief by Central Staff

Water – August 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

There are lots of things that are unique about Leadville, America’s highest city, and we recently learned of another: It must be the only city in the United States that gets some of its drinking water from a mine-drainage tunnel.

Such tunnels were bored at the base of major mining districts so that the mines on the hillside above did not have to pump water from their shafts and tunnels.

Leadville has three such tunnels, and two produce water so mineralized (orange and acidic) that it must be treated before it can be allowed to flow into the river.

But the third drainage tunnel, the 4,000-foot Canterbury on the east side of town, does not cross any major veins, and it’s in a relatively isolated watershed. Thus its water is reasonably pure, and it emerges at a warm 51° — which helps keep city pipes from freezing during the long winters.

And so it was not a good thing on June 30 when Parkville Water District employees discovered that the tunnel was blocked, probably by a cave-in. This has happened before, but the water had always started flowing again within four hours.

This time around, the tunnel was still plugged two days later, and the water district began implementing its emergency plan — activation of some wells which had been drilled in 1984 just for such an occasion.

But the pumps for the wells were long overdue for maintenance, and the state engineer’s office was dubious as to whether the district had a right to the water.

By the time the state agreed that the district owned the well water, the tunnel water was flowing again, so the wells weren’t needed. Even so, manager Joe Dwyer said that the pumps will be run for 30 days every year, to maintain both the machinery and the water right.

As for the tunnel, which is again producing water, “We have absolutely no idea what the condition is of anything in there,” Dyer told the Herald-Democrat. The district has applied for grants to examine the tunnel, but has never received any money, so its days may be numbered.

Without the tunnel’s warm water, though, Leadville would need to find a way to heat its water mains in the winter. “If the Canterbury caves in and plugs off, it will be a significant issue for Leadville,” Dwyer observed. “No one else in any other district can understand that.”

Indeed, it is rather unusual. But it’s not that hard to understand, and we hope that Colorado’s archetypal mining town can find some money to put some miners to work fixing a tunnel.