The latest “The Current” newsletter is hot off the presses from the Eagle River Watershed Council

Gore Creek is healthy as it emerges from the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, but has problems soon after, via The Mountain Town News. All photos by Jack Affleck.

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Where does all the traction sand go on Vail Pass?

The arrival of snow means traffic on I-70 over Vail Pass bustles with skiers and visitors to and from the Front Range, with cars braving storms and bumper-to-bumper traffic in search of a powder day. Without the help of traction sand or de-icers, our ability to constantly travel across the state would not be possible.

Roughly 5,000 tons of traction sand are laid down on Vail Pass each year, but where does all that sand end up? Originating from aggregate mines from the Western Slope and stored in the igloo tent atop Vail Pass, the sand is sprinkled along the highway corridor to ensure safer travel along the pass. Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) enlists contractors each year to come through in the late summer with vacuum trucks to suck up the remaining sand on the road ways and median. The used sand is then brought down to the berms that line the north side of the highway in East Vail. Sand is also flushed by rain and snow over the embankments and carried into sediment-catch basins or into Black Gore Creek, which closely parallels about 10 miles of the interstate from its headwaters at Vail Pass to the confluence of Gore Creek.

Extensive sediment loading to Black Gore Creek from nearly three decades of I-70 operations have severely impaired the stream, resulting in losses of aquatic habitat, impacts to wetlands and an overall reduction in water quality. In addition, the accumulation of sediment in Black Lakes near Vail Pass encroaches upon the storage capacity of water supply reservoirs that serve Vail and are used to maintain instream flows.

Black Gore Creek Steering Committee’s Efforts

Since 1997, the Black Gore Creek Steering Committee (BGCSC), headed by Eagle River Watershed Council, has worked to mitigate the impacts to Black Gore Creek and the health of its aquatic life. The committee is made up of a number of important partners in the community, including Eagle River Watershed Council, Colorado Department of Transportation, Eagle County, U.S. Forest Service, Town of Vail, Eagle County, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Lotic Hydrological, River Restoration, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, and concerned citizens.

In 2002, Black Gore Creek was listed on the State’s 303(d) list of impaired waters for sediment—which is different than Gore Creek’s more recent listing in 2012 for aquatic life impairment. Although the State has yet to come out with a limit of how much traction sand can enter the creek, CDOT, in collaboration with the other BGCSC partners, has taken great initiative to address these issues over the past 10 years.

Recent Accomplishments

To date, CDOT is picking up nearly the same amount of traction sand as they are putting down annually, which has improved since the years when no cleanup occurred, and the basins slowly filled.

Besides capital improvement projects such as repaving the medians and bike path enhancements, one of the most significant improvement projects has been the identification of a long-term maintenance solution for the Basin of Last Resort. A 3-acre section of Black Gore Creek around mile marker 183 on I-70, the Basin is a control structure that traps sediment missed by upstream catch basins. There has been concern with its effectiveness as the basin fills with sediment. In the fall of 2017, construction of a road allowing for easier access to excavate the basin more regularly and efficiently was finalized.

More work is to be done, however, as the goal is to have less sediment reach the Basin of Last Resort in the first place. Through field assessments, mapping activities, and sediment transport modeling, consultants to Eagle River Watershed Council, namely River Restoration and Lotic Hydrological, are working to identify opportunities for capturing traction sand before it leaves the highway corridor and enters the creek.

Traction Sand vs. Mag Chloride

CDOT has also installed sophisticated software in their plowing vehicles that senses how much traction sand or de-icer they should be applying on any given segment of the highway. The increased prevalence of de-icers, commonly referred to as “mag(nesium) chloride,” has been an inevitable outcome from the pressure on CDOT to reduce the amount of traction sand applied. Although very effective at melting snow and preventing ice formation, de-icers aren’t without their downsides. Studies have shown that elevated levels of chloride in rivers can be detrimental to aquatic life. The Watershed Council and CDOT both conduct chloride-loading studies to understand how chloride concentrations differ in Black Gore Creek and Gore Creek and whether they are approaching harmful levels.

“We don’t see the kinds of widespread impairments of the biological communities on Black Gore Creek that you would expect if they were really being negatively impacted by chloride. The health of those communities may be somewhat limited, but they do not meet the Colorado State definition for impairment right now,” reports Seth Mason of Lotic Hydrological. That is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about chloride levels in Black Gore Creek. While macroinvertebrate communities in Black Gore Creek may look better than those on Gore Creek through Vail, they may be stressed by elevated chloride concentrations and more vulnerable to other impacts on the creek. While more studies chloride’s effects are needed, the BGCSC is committed to not replacing one pollutant with another.

Related to Gore Creek’s Woes?

With all the recent attention on the Restore the Gore effort surrounding Gore Creek, some long-time locals believe the impacts from Black Gore Creek are at fault. Up until 2012, the State associated high sediment levels automatically with impaired aquatic life. In conducting macroinvertebrate sampling in our watershed, we are finding that aquatic bug scores on Black Gore Creek are healthier than those in the highly developed sections of Gore Creek through Vail. This along with other evidence leads to the belief that stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces in town and the loss of riparian areas along Gore Creek from development are a greater contributor to Gore Creek’s impairments.

The important efforts on Vail Pass have not slowed–in fact CDOT has spent about $7 million since 2013 to clear out the catch basins and sweep our roadways. The Watershed Council will continue the collaborative dialogue and mitigation efforts of the stakeholders to ensure the important progress continues in keeping our waterways healthy and clean.

The latest “The Current” newsletter is hot off the presses from the Eagle River Watershed Council

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Cutthroat Trout Habitat Restoration Project

Thanks to the very hard work of our volunteers, the U.S. Forest Service, and National Forest Foundation, the Watershed Council was able to complete our cutthroat trout habitat restoration project on Shrine Pass before the snow began to stick. Over 3 miles of a closed Forest Service road, which was contributing sediment to Turkey and Lime Creeks and degrading spawning habitat, was scarified (making it impassible to 4-wheel drive traffic) and reseeded with a native seed mix and erosion control fabric to return it to its natural state.

In total, three miles of stream bank, 10 acres of watershed, and 20 acres of wildlife habitat were enhanced. These efforts will establish a healthy riparian buffer which will improve instream water quality by filtering sediment and pollutants that would otherwise enter Turkey and Lime Creeks.

Stream management plans emerging for Eagle, Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers

The view on Homestake Reservoir in 2014. The reservoir is a key component of the upper Eagle River watershed and is part of a system that diverts water from the basin. The reservoir, and potential new water storage facilities, will likely play a role in a new integrated water management plan being developed by the Eagle River Watershed Council.

By Heather Sackett, Aspen Journalism
EAGLE — The Eagle River Watershed Council is moving ahead with an environmental and recreational needs assessment for the Eagle River basin as part of its effort to create an integrated water-management plan for the river and potentially its tributaries.

To do so, the organization is pulling together disparate groups for some difficult conversations about how the river is used — a requirement of the 2015 Colorado Water Plan.

“We decided the time is right to call all the people into the room,” said Holly Loff, executive director of the Watershed Council.

The Eagle-based nonprofit organization wrapped up meetings last week with representatives from stakeholder groups such as river guides, private land owners, conservation groups, local governments, federal and state agencies, ranchers, water commissioners and trans-mountain diverters in the Eagle River basin, which include the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs. Representatives from each of the groups are scheduled to participate in a joint meeting this week.

The goal of the talks is to understand the concerns of stakeholders, which will help develop the objectives for the integrated water-management plan. Such plans are also often called “stream management plans.”

In addition to input from stakeholders, a study of the Eagle River basin is also compiling previously collected water-quality data. This information will guide future river-management efforts, as well as permitting and approval processes for future water projects. Loff described the project to members of the Colorado Basin Roundtable on Monday, Sept. 25, at a meeting near Kremmling.

The Eagle River flows past Wolcott in the spring of 2015. The Eagle River Watershed Council has begun talking with regional stakeholders about an emerging integrated water-management plan for the Eagle River.

Studying the river

Loff said the study area would include the length of the Eagle River, from its headwaters at Tennessee Pass to its confluence with the Colorado River at Dotsero. And the two-year planning effort will include a look at the prospect of additional storage in the river basin, as envisioned by a project described in the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding, which includes a potential new reservoir on lower Homestake Creek below the existing Homestake Reservoir.

The Eagle River watershed plan, which was drafted in 2013 by the Watershed Council, lacks an understanding of environmental and recreational water needs, Loff said, a void the new effort seeks to fill. Carbondale-based Lotic Hydrological will be the hydrological consultant on the project and will perform field data collection and analysis.

The 2013 plans noted that “significant concerns were voiced” about conditions of streams in the Eagle River basin, including “continued impacts from mining, damage to riparian habitats, increasing demands for water, the lack of adequate in-basin storage, impacts from untreated urban and road runoff, the possibility of climate change and the prospect for future population growth and development.”

In addition to its work with various local stakeholder groups, the Watershed Council will soon be seeking input from residents of the Eagle River basin about its river-management plan.

“We do want this to be something the community feels they have a voice in,” Loff said. “The community will most certainly be asked to be involved.”

Eagle Park Reservoir, in the headwaters of the Eagle River basin. Water officials are looking at expanding the capacity of the reservoir.

State funding

The Boulder-based River Network has selected the Watershed Council as one of four organizations in Colorado to receive direct support and assistance in applying for state funding of the project.

Loff said funding for the study would come from the Colorado Watershed Restoration Program, which is overseen by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, with matching funds coming from a variety of sources, including stakeholders. But it is too soon to put a price tag on the project. Loff said the current process with stakeholder groups is helping to determine the scope of work. Only then can the Eagle River Watershed Council create a budget.

“It is unfortunate that we don’t have the scope, objectives or budget complete yet, but when you consider the fact that those are being established with the help of all of the stakeholders from the various groups, I think most would agree that it is the best approach and a good investment of time if we want this to be a strong plan with buy-in from all parties,” Loff said.

The upper Roaring Fork River, east of Aspen, near the river's confluence with Difficult Creek.

Plans for other rivers

The Watershed Council’s integrated water management plan for the Eagle River is one of many such stream management plans in development across the state. In 2015, the Colorado Water Plan called for 80 percent of priority streams in the state to be covered by stream management plans that address the needs of diverse stakeholders.

The Middle Colorado Watershed Council, for example, is working on a river management plan for 75 miles of the Colorado River from above Glenwood Canyon to DeBeque, according to the council’s executive director, Laurie Rink, who also briefed the members of the Colorado Basin Roundtable on Sept. 25. The plan will also include tributaries to the river along that stretch, but not the Roaring Fork River, which flows into the Colorado in Glenwood Springs, as the Roaring Fork Conservancy has previously studied it.

Link said Middle Colorado Council’s effort was also “very much a stakeholder driven process” and that there would be a “very heavy push on stakeholder agreements” as part of the planning process. Rink also said that her group’s aim is to eventually thread together the various river-management plans being developed in the Upper Colorado River basin, including the Eagle River plan.

The upper Roaring Fork River chundering through the Grottos around 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 16, 2016 after the Twin Lakes Tunnel had been closed and the natural flows of Lost Man and Lincoln creeks had been turned back into the river.

Roaring Fork advisors

In the Roaring Fork River basin, City of Aspen officials and a technical advisory group are working on a management plan for the upper reaches of that river above its confluence with Brush Creek, which flows out of Snowmass Village.

Aspen’s technical advisory group is made up of roughly 25 stakeholders and includes Pitkin County officials, the Roaring Fork Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Salvation Ditch Company, among others.

April Long, an engineer for the City of Aspen whose title is “clean river program manager,” is overseeing the Roaring Fork River management plan. Long said the group met twice during the summer. The meetings with the technical advisors were not open to the public, but Long said the city will seek public feedback as the plan progresses.

Lotic Hydrological is also the consultant on the Roaring Fork plan. Long said officials are using a hydrological simulation computer model, as well as historical data from river gauges, to predict and evaluate different flow scenarios with and without certain diversions.

“You can turn those diversions on or off and see how the river responds when you manage flows differently,” Long said about the model, and can ask, “If you wanted a certain type of ecosystem, what sort of flow do you need?”

Long expects a draft plan of the Roaring Fork River plan to be released in late November.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Vail Daily, the Summit Daily News, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water. The Vail Daily published this story on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. The Glenwood Post published the story in its print version on Monday, Oct. 9.

The importance of riparian habitat

Here’s a guest column from Pete Wadden that’s running in The Vail Daily:

One of the few things that almost all people can agree on is the calming effect of flowing water. Waterfront property is highly sought after and, as a result, is typically sold at a premium. People often landscape their waterfront property to create an unobstructed view of the river or creek in their backyard.

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

In many places in Colorado, our desire for easy access to the water is having unintended consequences. It may not be surprising to most readers that there is a web of interaction between waterways and the ecosystems that surround them. Riparian corridors, the swaths of water-loving plants that grow along creeks or rivers, protect those waterways from pollution and erosion and provide shade, nutrients and habitat for aquatic animals. When riparian buffers disappear, rivers and creeks suffer.

In the town of Vail, the loss of riparian habitat has had a measurable impact on Gore Creek and several of its tributaries. In 2012, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment listed Gore Creek for failing to meet Environmental Protection Agency standards for aquatic life. Other rivers and creeks in Eagle County and across Colorado are beginning to show a similar pattern of decline.

NATURAL FILTRATION SYSTEM

As wetlands and forests are replaced with pavement and turf lawns, services provided by those natural ecosystems are lost. Pavement directs rain and snowmelt into storm drains that flow directly into the creek. The shallow roots of turf lawns do not filter pollution from groundwater the way the roots of willows and other native shrubs do.

The town of Vail sees the impaired health of Gore Creek as a serious issue and has undertaken several programs to try to reverse the creek’s declining water quality. In 2017, the town completed several major riparian restoration projects along Gore Creek. The goal of those projects was to restore native vegetation along creek banks in order to better filter runoff and prevent erosion while maintaining access to the creek for anglers and other users.

PROJECT RE-WILD

The causes of Gore Creek’s recent decline are diverse and widespread. As such, this is not a problem that the town can solve on its own. In order to encourage private property owners to restore riparian habitat on their land, the town of Vail has unveiled Project Re-Wild, a public-private cost-share to assist private property owners with the design of riparian restoration projects. Interested property owners along Gore Creek or its tributaries can learn more about this exciting opportunity under “Programs” at lovevail.org or by calling me at 970-479-2144.

Aquatic health is an issue that impacts the whole community, and the responsibility for maintaining our rivers and creek lies with all of us. Please consider joining the town of Vail in its efforts to Restore the Gore.

Pete Wadden is the town of Vail watershed education coordinator. Contact him at pwadden@vailgov.com, or visit lovevail.org to read more about the town of Vail’s environmental and sustainability efforts.

GoPro Mountain Games recap

Vail Colorado via Colorado Department of Tourism

From The Vail Daily (Scott N. Miller):

Dave Dresman, the Vail Valley Foundation’s event director for the games, has worked on the events since the foundation acquired the event in 2008. Dresman said in those few years, attendance has more than doubled and sponsorships have increased nearly fivefold. With that kind of growth, it’s no surprise that planning the event has become a full-time job.

“It really doesn’t stop now,” Dresman said.

While those plans will take some time to jell, there’s already a tentative window for the 2018 edition of the games: June 7-10.

As planning for 2018 continues, a lot of information from this year’s games will inform what next year will look like.

Much of that planning will be well-defined, from the number of volunteers to expanding bus service to finding better ways for people to navigate the events. But there’s always a wild card: weather.

This year’s games were held in virtually perfect conditions, with good, but not overwhelming, streamflows and warm, sunny weather…

This year’s games were the best-attended ever. The 2016 Mountain Games drew an estimated 67,000 people. Dresman said he expects the final tally for 2017 to approach 80,000.

What is known is this year’s games set records for registered competitors — about 3,300 — as well as more than 145 vendor tents.

A number of those sponsors set up shop in and near Adventure Town in Lionshead Village. This was the second year there have been Mountain Games events in Lionshead, with more events and action in this location in 2017 than there were for the 2016 games.

#Runoff news: “Go outdoors!” — @VailCOwater

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Ellie Mulder):

[The Arkansas River] was flowing at 3,770 cubic feet per second late Friday afternoon at Parkdale, just west of Royal Gorge, according to the United States Geological Survey. Colorado Parks and Wildlife issues a high water advisory and recommends not rafting when flows reach 3,200 cubic feet per second level in the gorge, known for its whitewater rapids.

The high river flow wasn’t unexpected and isn’t out of the ordinary, said Bill Banks with USGS.

“A great deal of water is moving downstream right now because we’ve had a pretty abundant snowfall,” Banks said. “This is just the normal cycle.”

Colorado has seen a relatively slow, steady snowmelt this year, he said.

“That’s what we like – a long, controlled runoff,” Banks said. “That’s the best for the environment, best for stakeholders in the region. It’s best all around.”

#Runoff news: Streamflow will peak soon


From The Vail Daily (Scott N. Miller):

A cool month of May suppressed local runoff and streamflows. But recent warm weather, with more sunshine in the forecast, may bring streams to peak runoff in the next several days.

The runoff picture is good news for the GoPro Mountain Games, set to begin today with the Steep Creek Championship on Homestake Creek…

While runoff will be good for the games’ boating events, this year’s so-so snowpack ensures there’s little danger of flooding. That also means boating events will almost certainly go on as scheduled…

Keeping safe on local streams is an all-the-time thing. Current conditions should soon turn more friendly for casual float trips.

Boyd, a valley native, said he looks every day from his home in Avon up to Game Creek Bowl on Vail Mountain. The bit of snow remaining on that slope means there should be a little more room for higher streamflows, he said.

Pete Wadden is the town of Vail’s water quality education specialist. Unsurprisingly, Wadden is also a boating enthusiast. Wadden has only lived in the valley for a few years, but looking at this year’s snowpack — bolstered by a large May snowfall — as well as the weather forecast for the next several days, he believes local streamflows should peak soon.

Boyd said he thinks streams will peak during the weekend. Wadden thinks the peak will come within the next 10 days or so.