A streambank stabilization project on the Crystal River just west of Marble is on hold after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that the work undertaken this past summer fell outside what is allowed by the project’s permit. 

The corps sent a letter of noncompliance, dated Sept. 27,  to Susan Blue, longtime manager of the Marble airstrip, regarding work on the Crystal River as it runs through the property. Corps staff determined that the activities did not fall within the parameters of the project’s Nationwide Permit 3, which covers maintenance, according to Tucker Feyder, a regulatory project manager for the corps who signed the letter.

“If they were just doing maintenance on that section that was previously authorized, it could have fit a Nationwide Permit 3,” Feyder said. “The current project went a little above and beyond that.”

A Nationwide Permit 3 authorizes streambank restoration work covering up to 450 linear feet, but the current project “appears to extend significantly beyond what was previously authorized,” the letter reads.

Feyder said the noncompliance did not rise to the level of a violation of the Clean Water Act. A Clean Water Act violation would typically occur when a project has no permit at all from the corps, he said.

“They made a good-faith effort to work under a nationwide permit, and unfortunately, it got away from the intent of Permit 3,” Feyder said. “So we are viewing it as a noncompliance at the moment.”

ERO, a natural resources consultant with an office in Hotchkiss, is leading the project for the property owner, Marble Airfield LLC. 

Marble Airfield LLC was, until Sept. 8, registered to the same post office box in Bentonville, Ark., as Walton Enterprises LLC. According to its LinkedIn page, “Walton Enterprises is a family-led, private family office supporting the personal, philanthropic and business activity for multiple generations of Sam & Helen Walton’s family.” Sam Walton was the founder of Walmart. (Aspen Journalism’s water desk is supported by a grant from Catena Foundation, a Carbondale-based philanthropic organization tied to Sam R. Walton, a grandson of Sam and Helen Walton’s.) On Sept. 8, the address to which Marble Airfield LLC was registered was changed to a location in Medford, Ore., according to the Colorado secretary of state website. 

The letter says Marble Airfield has 30 days to provide a plan on how to bring the project into compliance. There are three options: They can argue that the work does fall under the Nationwide Permit 3 classification; they can apply for a different permit; or they could voluntarily restore the site. In addition, the property owners must provide information on the work that has been completed; information on the work that still needs to be completed; an updated map of the work site; and a description of any proposed mitigation. 

This past summer, ERO contractors began work to restore the streambank along the Crystal River near the airstrip, which is about 1 mile long and was installed in the 1950s and ’60s. Annual maintenance of the riverbank has been required to prevent damage to the airstrip, according to ERO.

“Extreme weather events during the 2021 monsoon season and ongoing spring runoff have resulted in extensive erosion of the adjacent (eastern) riverbank and opposite (western) riverbank, causing many large conifer trees to topple into the river, ponding water and pushing river flows toward the airstrip,” ERO president Aleta Powers wrote in a memo to Gunnison County officials on Aug. 26.

This past summer, contractors began the work, which the corps had said in December was covered under the Nationwide Permit 3. But heavy machinery along the river attracted the attention of neighbors who contacted local environmental group Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association. CVEPA alerted Gunnison County, which issued a stop-work order on Aug. 12.

“We really believed at first report and as the information came in that this far exceeded the Nationwide Permit 3 for bank stabilization,” said CVEPA president John Armstrong. “We are happy the corps is taking action, but we are not necessarily pleased with the consequences.”

A photo from August shows the streambank stabilization project area near the Marble airstrip. The Army Corps of Engineers sent a letter of non-compliance to the property manager because they determined the work falls outside of what’s allowed under the project’s permit. Credit: Courtesy photo

County violation

ERO is also working to resolve violations of the Gunnison County Land Use Resolution that led the county to issue the stop-work order. The county said the project violated its restrictive buffer for protection of water quality and standards for development in sensitive wildlife-habitat areas. The county also said the project needed a floodplain development permit. 

In response to the stop-work order, ERO on Aug. 26 submitted a memo and reclamation plan to the county. In the memo, ERO said the project was exempt from county regulations because it had a federal permit from the corps and because there are exemptions from county regulations for projects designed primarily for enhancement, protections, and/or restoration of water body banks or channels. 

ERO said the project includes removal of fallen timber caused by bank erosion, reestablishment of the deepest part of the river, revegetation of the bank, and reshaping native river cobble into jetties, all of which they say is exempt from the county’s standards for protecting water quality. ERO also asserted the project is in compliance with the county’s standards for development in sensitive wildlife-habitat areas. 

This map shows the streambank stabilization work along the Crystal River near the Marble airstrip. The project managers are working to resolve violations of the Gunnison County land use code. Credit: Map by ERO

“ERO is committed to assist Marble Airfield LLC in demonstrating full compliance with the Gunnison County LUR, and to assist Marble Airfield LLC with ensuring the protection and preservation of the natural environment and wildlife,” the memo reads

Gunnison County has requested additional information from the property owners, including a wetlands delineation and the floodplain-development application. 

“We need additional information from the property owners in order to figure out next steps and determine a path towards compliance,” Gunnison County Building and Environmental Health official Crystal Lambert said in an email. “I imagine that this will take a lot more time, at least weeks, if not months.” 

To comply with Gunnison County, Powers from ERO said they will submit a floodplain-development permit application and have already submitted a reclamation permit application. She said they will also submit a preconstruction notification for a new permit from the corps per their requirement.

This story ran in The Aspen Times and Glenwood Springs Post-Independent.

Heather Sackett is the managing editor at Aspen Journalism and the editor and reporter on the Water Desk. She has also reported for The Denver Post and the Telluride Daily Planet. Heather has a master’s...