Jason Willis, a mine restoration field coordinator with Trout Unlimited, received the 2022 Doc Smith Leaders in Conservation Award on Thursday, Sept. 8. 

The Lake County Open Space Initiative (LCOSI) gives the award annually to honor individuals who have helped promote best management practices in conservation of land and water resources in the Upper Arkansas River Basin. 

LCOSI facilitator Mike Conlin felt Willis should be honored because his focus on restoring watersheds affected by historic hard rock mining aligns closely with those of Bernard “Doc” Smith, the late conservationist and award’s namesake. 

Willis’ past work in mine reclamation and environmental cleanup has been recognized on a regional and national level. 

At Trout Unlimited, Willis designs, manages and oversees mine reclamation and stream restoration projects across Colorado. These include mine reclamation projects in the headwaters of the Arkansas River located within the Leadville Superfund Site. 

“There’s still a lot of work to do in my career,” said Willis. “But I definitely feel very grateful for the award.” 

Currently he’s using his experience to remediate contaminated fluvial tailing deposits and irrigated meadows along the main stem of the Arkansas River that weren’t taken care of by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This project is funded by a National Resource Damage Assessment comprehensive remediation grant, said Conlin. 

“The EPA did a remarkable job remediating the worst players,” said Conlin. “The next step is to reclaim the six sites we previously identified as the next level down.” 

At these six sites downstream of Hayden Meadows, heavy metals are present in such high concentrations that nothing grows in the soil and the metals precipitate to the surface, giving the appearance of snow, said Conlin. “During storm events or during runoff, the contaminants can be washed back into the river – the gift that keeps on giving.”

Trout Unlimited is already collecting river samples to determine the concentration of heavy metals. “Based on that data, you can calculate what needs to be done to the soil to remediate it,” said Willis. 

These methods are modeled after what the EPA has historically done in the area. The actual remediation work could begin next fall or the fall after, said Willis. 

Once remediation work is done, vegetation can begin to grow back. “Remediation is a work in progress and never really done,” said Conlin. “Once the most obvious sources of contamination are resolved, the next echelon of sites will need to be addressed. It’s more of a journey than a destination.”

Willis agreed with the sentiment of remediation work being an ongoing process and is looking forward to making a difference on the ground.

“Doc Smith was a primary local champion in identifying and triggering remediation,” said Conlin. “Jason represents the next generation of engineers and scientists carrying the work forward.” 

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