Todd Oppenheimer has had a 33-year career in Vail, where he serves as the landscape architect and capital projects manager. Even 20 years ago, he was designing parks with turf. Now, he’s tearing it out.
“Maybe I’m making up for past sins here,” he said in a telephone interview after the town council approved his plans for partially de-turfing—it’s not a word yet, but maybe it will be someday—the second park in the municipality. The master list calls for removing what Oppenheimer calls “non-functional bluegrass” in eight parks.
The council OK’d ripping out 53% of the turf in the more south-facing and difficult-to-irrigate part of a small park called Ellefson.
Oppenheimer claims to have coined the saying that if the only person who walks on the grass is the person pushing a lawnmower, the grass shouldn’t be there. With that adage in mind, the town three years ago replaced 25% of the grass at the Buffehr Creek Park with less water-intensive plants. Included was the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the streets.
None of this is necessarily new. Denver Water decades ago created the word “xeriscape” to push the idea of vegetation appropriate to a semi-arid environment.
Xeriscaping has yet to become a mainstream thought in landscape architecture, but it’s gaining ground, says Oppenheimer.
“People are almost forced to,” he says, “because of climate change.”
If nestled in a valley at the headwaters of a Colorado River tributary, Vail has begun to see the effects of a warming climate. Dry years have been occurring more often, the temperatures have been rising. Oppenheimer says he sees no need to choose plants for warmer climates—yet. He does see an obligation to reduce water use appropriate to a drying climate.
About 95% of water used in homes and other buildings returns to streams after wastewater treatment. But of irrigation water, he says, only 25% does.
Oppenheimer insists he can only do his part as the landscape architect for one town, but in citing new policies in Las Vegas in a recent presentation to the Vail Town Council, he’s obviously aware of a much larger story in the Colorado River Basin.
Las Vegas has been ripping out turf for well more than a decade and has recently ratcheted up incentives even more. It has used both carrots and sticks. The Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates that unused grass in Las Vegas and its suburbs soaks up about 10% of Nevada’s entire allocation of water from the Colorado River—the main source of Southern Nevada’s drinking water.
A Nevada law prohibits Colorado River water from watering nonfunctional turf by 2027.
Tightening in Vegas continues in other ways. At the Colorado River Water Users Association conference in mid-December, Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager for resources at Southern Nevada, described new proposals to trim water use at existing golf courses and ban water for new courses. Swimming pools will be cropped in size. Attention is being focused on the water use of evaporative cooling.
Local lore holds that March is our snowiest, wettest month. That isn’t so.
Recent data from the National Centers for Environmental Information that covers the period between 1991 and 2020 show that, at least in the town of Vail, February is actually the snowiest month, with average snowfall of more than 35 inches. April is actually the wettest month, with an average of just more than 2.4 inches of precipitation.
That actually isn’t much of a change from the previous measured period, from 1981 through 2010.
State Climatologist Russ Schumacher wrote in an email that the change in the numbers is mostly seen in the western part of Eagle County. The wettest months had been in the fall in those lower-elevation areas. That shift is consistent with data across much of northwestern Colorado.
While April is the wettest month in terms of precipitation, that doesn’t necessarily equate to snowfall.
Schumacher noted that spring snow tends to be heavier, because there’s more water in that snow. The snow in mid-winter tends to be lighter, which is better for skiing but not great for accumulating water in the snowpack.
At the moment, the snowfall measurement station on Vail mountain is right at halfway toward its average peak “snow water equivalent.” That number usually peaks in late April at right around 20 inches. The Jan. 17 measurement was 10.1 inches at that site, 111% of the 30-year average. The other main measurement sites, Copper Mountain, near the headwaters of Gore Creek, and Fremont Pass, near the headwaters of the Eagle River, are in that range.
Aside from the moisture content of snow, does it really matter when it comes?
Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said there’s a lot to consider when pondering when snowfall comes.
Johnson wrote in an email that snowfall’s impact on streamflow — the source of most of the valley’s domestic water — depends on what form precipitation comes. Snow and rain have different impacts. If the snow stays high and temperatures stay low, the spring snowmelt slows, providing more consistent supplies.
“We’ve been seeing earlier melts,” Johnson wrote. That affects streamflows not only in the spring and early summer but through the rest of the season.
The good news is the local snowpack is starting to build. But what constitutes “normal” snowfall has changed.
The Dec. 29 snow measurement on Vail Mountain stands at 92% of the 30-year median. It’s a big jump in six days. The Dec. 23 number was 65% of normal.
Copper Mountain, the closest site to the headwaters of Gore Creek, stands at 97% of normal, while Fremont Pass, the closest site to the headwaters of the Eagle River, stands at 110% of normal.
But here are a couple of things to think about:
First, it’s still very early in the snow season — generally measured between the end of October and May of the following year. The snowpack on Vail Mountain — as measured in “snow water equivalent” — currently stands at roughly 32% of the median peak. That peak comes in late April.
As the past week shows, it’s fairly easy to make up snowpack deficits this early in the season.
The other thing to ponder is that the 30-year median has changed, and that number is lower than it once was.
Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said the National Resources Conservation Service changes the 30-year median every 10 years, creating a literal “new normal.”
A lower median
The 30-year median now reflects the snow years between 1990 and the end of the 2020 snow year. That’s a big change from the 30-year median that included some monstrous snow years in the 1980s. The new 30-year median now includes some of the most snow-starved winters on record, including the all-time low year of 2011-12.
That change has already made a difference in this season’s numbers.
For instance, the Dec. 29 reading at Vail Mountain would have been 89% of the former 30-year median.
Again, the current snowy period is good. Again, though, the bar is set relatively low at this point in the season…
The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook through the end of March, 2022, from the U.S. Climate Prediction Center puts virtually all of the Mountain West into the “drought persists” category. On the other hand, the map valid through the end of December also showed the Mountain West in the “drought persists” category…
Down, down, down
The trend line of the 30-year snowpack median is headed inexorably down.
And, Johnson added, just “normal” snow years won’t be enough to break the grip of what’s now a yearslong drought cycle…
Given current shortages, it would take multiple big-snow seasons to restore streams and reservoirs in the region. That’s unlikely, Johnson said. Big years aren’t a reality any more, Johnson said.
“We’re just not going to get back to where all these (reservoirs) were full,” she said.
That means people need to change their behavior regarding water use, particularly outdoor water use, Johnson said.
“We need our customers to manage with us,” she said. “It’s about people living a little differently in their landscape.”
An algaecide that was toxic to fish entered Mill Creek this week, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has learned based on discussions with Vail Resorts.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife recorded 120 dead fish Tuesday in Mill Creek and Gore Creek in Vail, where a spill was reported to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment by Vail Resorts…
The department said it is inspecting Mill and Gore creeks to determine if there were possible violations of the Colorado Water Quality Control Act, Nason said.
The department coordinated with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to provide the initial investigation Tuesday. Friday’s inspection was a follow-up to that effort, Nason said…
On Monday, Vail Resorts was contacted by the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, which had noticed an abnormally high water demand in the core Vail area over the weekend.
The water and sanitation district had narrowed down the high use to a storage tank at Golden Peak. The major customer user from that tank is Vail Resorts for its snowmaking system, which, according to a memo from the town of Vail’s Environmental Sustainability Department, is not usually online until Oct. 1.
Vail Resorts, according to the memo, discovered that a few isolation valves on their snowmaking setup had been left open since March. Maintenance had been performed on the snowmaking system on Sept. 17, which required the drain line to be opened for repair work.
On Monday, the valves for the snowmaking setup were shut, which stopped the discharge of water to Mill Creek…
The discharged water was blue-gray, and bugs, fish and algae had been killed in 1,500 feet of affected creek. Common algaecides contain copper sulfate, which is blue and can be toxic to fish.
“Based on discussions with Vail Resorts, we learned that the spilled water to the river is a combination of potable water and pond water with algaecide, which in this case was toxic to fish given the dead fish,” Nason said. “While events that lead to fish kills are an immediate concern, dead fish doesn’t always mean there is an urgent public health threat.”
The fish were surrounded by high levels of the spilled and contaminated water, Nason said.
But for people or dogs playing near or in this area, Nason said the risk of health impacts are expected to be low “because much of that spilled water has been washed away and diluted as it moves downstream — otherwise we would be seeing many more dead fish downstream.”
Here’s the release from the Vail Recreation District via The Vail Daily:
The 2021 Eagle River Water & Sanitation District Vail Whitewater Race Series is almost here.
The Vail Recreation District offers five events on Gore Creek on Tuesdays from May 11 to June 8. This is a chance to test your paddling skills and compete against others. Register for individual races or the whole series.
For 2021, the Vail Recreation District is excited to introduce a new title sponsor for the series, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.
“The Vail Whitewater Race Series is a great example of how our community thrives on water. Whether it’s snow, our rivers, or the safe water we deliver to homes and businesses every day, clean water is vital to our quality of life,” said Eagle River Water & Sanitation District’s Diane Johnson. “As stewards of our rivers, we encourage everyone to reduce their impact on local streams by reducing their outdoor water use.”
The Vail Recreation District also partners with the Town of Vail and Alpine Quest Sports to put on these exciting races, held at the Vail Whitewater Park on Tuesday evenings beginning at 5:30 p.m. The first four races start at the Covered Bridge in Vail Village and end at International Bridge.
The last race on June 8 will start at the Ampitheater Bridge in Ford Park. Overall series prizes will be awarded following the final race.
The races will be divided between three categories including kayak (under 9-feet-6), two-person raft (R2) and stand-up paddleboard (SUP) with different course challenges every week. Open to paddlers ages 16 and up with intermediate to expert abilities, the skills to run Class III whitewater in your chosen craft are required. The two-round format will consist of an individual time trial with results determining the seeding for the second round, a head-to-head race.
Please note that for 2021 the Vail Recreation District has limited rafts for use, so the R2 category will be limited to 15 teams. Preregistration is highly encouraged.
An after-party will also be hosted in Vail Village each week with prizes awarded to the winners of all three categories. For the first race on Tuesday, the after-party will take place at the Altitude Bar & Grill. All race participants over 21 will receive free beer courtesy of New Belgium Brewing Company!
Registration is available at http://www.vailrec.com/register. Series registration for kayak and SUP participants is $60 and series registration for R2 participants is $80 per team.
Individual race registration for kayak and SUP participants is $15 preregistered or $20 day-of, and $20 preregistered or $30 day-of for R2 teams. Preregistration is highly encouraged and ends at 5 p.m. the day before each race. If space is still available, on-site, day-of registration will begin at 4:30 p.m. at the Vail Whitewater Park and all participants should be present at the safety talk at 5:15 p.m.
Every registered participant at each race will be entered to win a $1,000 gift certificate from Hala Gear that can be used towards a board and paddle package of their choice. The winner will be drawn after the final race so make sure you attend that last after-party!
The Vail Recreation District will be following all state and county COVID-19 guidelines for this upcoming race season.
For more information, visit vailrec.com, call the VRD Sports Department at 970-479-2280 or email email@example.com.
Vail Mountain has seen quite a melt over the last two weeks, and snow telemetry data shows the area snow water equivalent to have peaked on March 31.
While there’s more moisture on the way, it’s unlikely to push the readings on the Vail Mountain snow telemetry site back over the March 31 recordings at Vail, said Eagle River Water and Sanitation District spokesperson Diane Johnson.
The Vail Mountain site is located at an elevation of 10,300 feet, and peaked March 31 at 14.6 inches of water within the snowpack, known as snow water equivalent.
The March 31 peak at 14.6 inches is 65% of normal peak SWE and 3.5 weeks ahead of the normal April 25 peak, Johnson said.
Johnson said while the rain and snow in the forecast is very welcome given the conditions, “it’s unlikely to affect the peak since Vail has already dropped so much.”
The April 12 reading on Vail Mountain is 11.5 inches, down 3.1 inches in two weeks…
Copper Mountain’s SWE peaked April 2, nearly four weeks ahead of its normal April 28 peak. The site recorded 12.4 inches of water within the snowpack, which is 80% of its normal peak. The Copper Mountain snow telemetry site is at 10,550 feet and is the closest official measurement site to the headwaters of Gore Creek, which runs through Vail Village.
At Fremont Pass, which is the site closest to the headwaters of the Eagle River, an April 5 reading shows 13.4 inches of water within the snowpack, which could be the peak, although it’s still too early to tell, Johnson said. The April 12 reading at Fremont Pass shows 13.2 inches…
The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District says the extreme drought which started in August 2020 is likely to continue into this summer.
Here’s a guest column from the Eagle River Watershed Council (James Dilzell) that’s running in The Vail Daily:
In the final week of February, Eagle River Watershed Council had a snowshoe hike planned on a new trail at Brush Creek Valley Ranch & Open Space to teach residents about snow science basics. It’s a trail I came to love this fall and winter – a quick jaunt from town, plenty of parking and not busy with other visitors. It winds along a small creek, through fields of junipers and swaths of scrub oak. In the four times I had visited there since November, the creek had always been at least partially frozen, and the entire trail covered in a gorgeous layer of snow.
The day of our event, I arrived first and quickly noticed that the layer of snow had disappeared and exposed a bare-soil parking area. I took a few steps up the trail for a better view, hoping the drainage would have been protected from our intense sun and still covered in at least a small bit of snow for our snow science hike. Alas, the snowshoes filling up my Subaru wagon were entirely unnecessary, and our group simply walked up the exposed trail.
I may be repeating some things we already know as residents of the arid West, but our lack of consistent snowpack this year is truly concerning. Yes, February brought some good storms, and our water year precipitation to date is hovering around 84% — but what we aren’t getting are those daily refills that are critical to sustain healthy snowpack through the entire winter. When graphed, our snowpack data looks like a sin-wave, melting out before another refill, rather than a semi-consistent uptick.
The effect of this drought goes beyond a sub-par ski season. Stephen Jaouen and Maggie Guinta – both Natural Resources Conservation Service staff who joined our event – shared with the group that 80% of Colorado’s water comes from snowpack. This once-reliable reservoir of frozen matter melts out and sends water down the Eagle, into the Colorado River and on to 40 million users in seven states and Mexico. Reduced snowpack means reduced flows for recreation, drinking water and agriculture all the way down the line.
Using data points like snow density and depth, along with snow-water equivalent calculations, which are gathered from automated Snow Telemetry sites and boots-on-the-ground snow surveys, the NRCS is able to share monthly forecasts for basins throughout the West. For us in Eagle County, the February forecast was bleak. Even if we were to see the best snowfall in 30 years over the next two months, the Eagle River still won’t hit average flows from April through July.
There are other issues plaguing this water year, too. You might remember this fall, when the Eagle River flows were nearing 60% of average and almost our entire county was in D4 drought – the most severe. Our monsoon season was non-existent, and so we started off the snowy season with a deficit of soil moisture content.
Reduced snowpack means reduced flows, and Mother Nature will snag some of that water to recharge groundwater and soil moisture before releasing water into our rivers and streams. To use a financial metaphor: some of our paycheck will be gone before it even hits the bank.
While this seems like all doom and gloom, I’m not writing this article to be an alarmist. In fact, we’ve all heard these messages and warnings for years. Positive changes are being made, like new legislation allowing for the temporary donation of water rights and new water efficiency programs popping up around the state and in our community.
I am instead writing this article to inspire our community to take action and take water efficiency seriously.
We are not able to control the amount of water available in the mountains surrounding our towns, but we can choose to use our water wisely. In years like this, it’s up to all of us to prioritize those in-stream flows that fuel our recreation economy, keep fish and wildlife happy and allow us to thrive in this incredible place we call home.
As we begin the transition to spring and summer, consider creating an at-home water efficiency plan with your family or roommates. Take your car to a commercial car wash instead of washing it at home. Or perhaps change up your landscaping by removing water-thirsty turf grass, replacing it with native and drought-tolerant tall grasses, flowers and shrubs.
It’s going to take a village to collectively reduce our water use, and it’s about time we take better care of our river so that it can take better care of us. For more resources and actions to take, visit erwc.org/drought.
James Dilzell is the education and outreach coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit http://erwc.org.
Town officials say private property owners are needed to see more improvements in Gore Creek water quality
The Vail Town Council on Tuesday told staff to draft a stream protection ordinance that would apply to private property in town. The creek in 2013 landed on a state list of “impaired waterways,” along with many other mountain towns. The town, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and other organizations have been working since then to improve water quality in the creek.
Much of that work starts with cleaning up what runs into the creek, including runoff from paved areas, pesticides and other pollutants.
In an April 7 presentation, town watershed education coordinator Pete Wadden reminded council members that after a few years of improvement, the creek’s scores regarding macroinvertebrate populations — the bottom of the creek’s food chain — dipped in 2018. Most of that was due to a change in the way those populations are counted, but those are the figures used by state officials.
Wadden noted that the town has made “huge progress” on its own property along the stream, but not as much on private property.
Wadden said the ordinance the staff is recommending includes a two-tiered setback, with more stringent rules closer to the stream.
Wadden added that the ordinance could restrict pesticide use in town, but the Colorado Legislature will have to pass a law that allows towns to pass those regulations.
Eagle River Watershed Council’s Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Program provides the foundation for this [Water Quality Report Card]. This collaborative effort collects data at nine fixed sites along the Eagle River and its tributaries. WQMAP allows our community to see threats as they emerge, monitor changes to river health and make guided decisions on priority areas to protect and preserve.
Collected data is compared to state standards set by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Water Quality Control Commission. This allows for an understanding of current river health and highlights areas of success as well as areas of needed improvement.
Bill Hoblitzell with Lotic Hydrologic, which coordinates WQMAP for the Watershed Council, shared the findings and explained the importance of this program for the community. It is critical that decisions regarding our watershed are backed by science…
The 2019 Water Quality Report Card has outlined three major challenges to the watershed: Urban runoff and degradation of aquatic life, highway impacts to Black Gore Creek from traction sand, and water chemistry impacts from the Eagle Mine Superfund Site.
Land development poses a threat due to increased impervious surfaces, such as roads and roofs, that water cannot pass through. We might think of our community as a small and rural place, but Hoblitzell points out that “development densities and impervious surfaces in near-stream areas of Vail, Avon, and Edwards currently resemble much larger cities.” These developed surfaces allow contaminated water to rush into the river during rainstorms or spring snowmelt. Polluted water flowing into streams impacts sensitive insects that fish depend on for food.
Traction sand is a necessary part of winter, as it helps keep us safe and in control when traveling over Vail Pass. However, there are negative effects felt in Black Gore Creek due to the buildup of this sediment. It reaches the channel by way of runoff or snow thrown from plows.
A constant challenge to the Eagle River is the Eagle Mine Superfund Site. While the river has experienced improvement since cleanup efforts began, metal concentrations regularly increase during spring runoff and impact fish. Local stakeholders continue to work with the Environmental Protection Agency and the state on this cleanup effort.
None of these issues are new or unknown, but their identification as key challenges in the 2019 Report Card supports continued efforts to address them…
James Dilzell is the Education & Outreach Coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit http://erwc.org.
Many of the pesticides used to protect trees in Vail can unintentionally kill beneficial insects, both on land and in Gore Creek. As a way to reduce the negative impacts of pesticide use, town officials are asking homeowners, property managers and commercial applicators to carefully consider what they are spraying and how it is being applied, and to implement the use of Integrated Pest Management practices for all pest control.
The town’s Public Works and Environmental Sustainability departments have produced resource guides available for download here and at LoveVail.org that provide important recommendations regarding the use of pesticides in Vail. “Careful Where You Point that Thing,” a pocket guide to safe landscaping practices, fertilizer and pesticide use, is available at LoveVail.org or in print at the town offices. Homeowners can reduce the use and impacts of pesticides by considering some of the following recommendations:
Now that the mountain pine beetle epidemic is behind us, lodgepole pines no longer need annual spraying.
At the same time, a new insect, spruce beetle, is attacking natural spruce trees along Gore Creek. Attaching MCH pheromone packets to susceptible trees and removing affected trees before spring can slow their spread without the use of harmful sprays.
Work with a licensed applicator and request trunk and root applications over foliar applications. Improper pesticide use can be particularly harmful to aquatic insects, and can quickly wipe out sensitive species like mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies for an entire season.
The Town of Vail encourages Integrated Pest Management techniques that include mechanical, cultural and biological pest control options over the use of chemicals whenever possible. These integrated resources can be found online from the Colorado State Extension office at CSU IPM.
Gregg Barrie, senior landscape architect, is encouraging property owners to take a few minutes to review the pesticide practices resource guides, then share your concerns about stream health to your commercial applicator and help get Gore Creek off of the list of impaired waterways.
For more information, contact Barrie at 970-479-2337 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Glenn Porzak, the water rights attorney who has worked tirelessly through the decades to advance and protect water rights for Vail and the Western Slope, has been selected as the recipient of the 2019 Vail Trailblazer Award.
Presented by the Vail Town Council, the award has been established as an annual civic recognition to honor those who contribute their time and talent to make Vail a great resort community.
Porzak will be formally recognized at the March 5 evening Vail Town Council meeting. A mayor’s proclamation honoring his vast contributions will be read into the public record. Recognition will also take place during the Vail Annual Community Meeting, to be held March 12 at Donovan Pavilion.
Porzak has been a fixture in the Vail community since the 1970s when he served as the water law counsel for Vail Associates (now Vail Resorts) and later for the current and predecessor entities of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and Vail Water sub-district, which provides water and wastewater treatment services to the greater Vail community. His nomination for the Trailblazer Award carries the endorsement of five former mayors as well as past and present members of the board of directors of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.
Nominators cited numerous examples of Porzak’s pioneering contributions in creating the water infrastructure essential for Vail’s successful growth as a resort community. For example, in the 1990s he led the effort to negotiate and secure approvals for construction of the Eagle Park Reservoir, located at the headwaters of the Eagle River. This in-basin water storage has been instrumental in supporting snowmaking capabilities on Vail Mountain as well as accommodating Vail’s growth through the decades while ensuring adequate 12-month streamflows in Gore Creek and the Eagle River. The complicated water and storage rights for Vail Mountain’s snowmaking water help to ensure quality skiing and snowboarding, even in the driest of years — such as last year.
Porzak helped continue the development of Black Lakes, which are located at the headwaters of Black Gore Creek near the Interstate 70 Vail Pass exit and are part of the district’s water supply system. The two cold-water reservoirs serve as in-basin water storage and reservoir releases enhance streamflows in Gore Creek. They also support fishing, wildlife habitat and recreation through a partnership with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Porzak was largely responsible for expanding Vail’s recreational amenities by making it possible to build Vail’s whitewater park, which serves as a major venue for the annual Mountain Games. Located at the Gore Creek promenade in Vail Village, the park opened in 2000 after Porzak authored a new recreational in-channel diversion category as a test case under Colorado water law.
The park withstood a series of legal challenges and the game-changing decree was eventually upheld in a ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court. The 2003 judgment has since been used to create other whitewater parks throughout the state.
As the founding partner of Porzak Browning & Bushong LLP, a Boulder-based firm representing water and land use interests, Porzak is well-known for his expertise in the protection of existing water supplies. In an unprecedented move to protect the water interests of Vail and the upper Eagle Valley, Porzak led negotiations in 1998 that limited the amount of water the Front Range cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs could divert from the Eagle River basin, forever protecting local stream flows and fisheries from out-of-basin development interests.
He spearheaded the litigation and subsequent negotiations that resulted in the 2007 abandonment of the Eagle-Piney Water Project for which Denver Water owned extensive water rights. The agreement and abandonment forever protect local stream flows and fisheries from trans-basin development. That water project would have taken hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water each year from Gore Creek and the Upper Eagle River and transported that water through a planned tunnel below Vail Pass to Dillon Reservoir.
In announcing Porzak as the 2018 Trailblazer Award recipient, Vail Mayor Dave Chapin said Porzak’s underlying contributions are both vast and visible in almost everything we do.
“From the water that comes out of our tap, to the amazing recreational amenities we have in this valley, to the protection of our streams from massive transmountain diversions, we owe our gratitude to Glenn for having the courage and the wherewithal to challenge the status quo,” Chapin said.
Porzak said he was “speechless” when notified of the award. “It has truly been an honor to represent the greatest recreational-based community, Vail, for over four decades,” said Porzak.
Throughout his career, Porzak has participated in over 120 water court trials and over 30 Colorado Supreme Court appeals. He has been named a Colorado Super Lawyer by 5280 magazine every year from 2006 to 2019.
In his spare time, Porzak has been a world-class climber, having summited Mount Everest and three of the world’s other 8,000-meter peaks. He was one of the first people to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each of the world’s seven continents. He is a past president of the American Alpine Club and the Colorado Mountain Club.
Porzak has also been the president of the Manor Vail Homeowners Association and led the effort to remodel the hotel and condominium complex at the base of Golden Peak.
The Vail Trailblazer Award was established during the town’s 50th birthday celebration in 2016. Porzak is the fourth recipient to be honored and was selected by a town council committee from among other deserving nominations.
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.
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.
Volunteers spread a native seed mix and applied biodegradable erosion control fabric along a section of a closed forest service road that runs adjacent to Lime Creek. In total, over three miles of a closed forest service road were decommissioned and rehabilitated through revegetation and subsequent erosion control. This effort will help protect cutthroat trout spawning habitat in Lime Creek.
Volunteers spread a native seed mix and applied biodegradable erosion control fabric along a section of a closed forest service road that runs adjacent to Lime Creek. In total, over three miles of a closed forest service road were decommissioned and rehabilitated through revegetation and subsequent erosion control. This effort will help protect cutthroat trout spawning habitat in Lime Creek.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com, or visit lovevail.org to read more about the town of Vail’s environmental and sustainability efforts.
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.
[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.”
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.
A host of problems threaten Gore Creek in Vail, but one of the biggest is what runs through the town’s storm drains.
Some of the problem will take years and a lot of money to solve. For instance, much of the runoff in town is no longer filtered through the soil, which has been replaced by pavement, concrete and rooftops throughout the years. But a number of problems may be due to people simply not knowing what happens when something runs into a storm grate.
Vail Watershed Education Coordinator Pete Wadden recently updated the Vail Town Council about state of stormwater and its treatment in town.
There are a number of ways to treat stormwater, including catch basins that can capture sand, oil and other material before it flows into the creek. There are 27 of those basins in town at the moment, and they’re cleaned out a couple of times every year, Wadden said. Upgrading those basins would be effective, but expensive, Wadden said.
Filtration has been improved at the town’s snow storage site, and improvements are planned for this year at the East Vail Interstate 70 interchange.
But the basins don’t catch everything.
There are also more than 2,000 storm drains, many of which flow directly into the creek. Slowing the runoff is a good start at cleaning up those areas. Creating zones where runoff could filter through rocks and soil before going into the creek could be effective.
Then there’s the problem of people dumping stuff into the storm grates.
During his presentation, Wadden went through a small list of stuff that people dropped into storm grates in 2016. That list includes cooking grease, paint and window cleaner.
A member of a construction crew in Vail Village dumped a bag of cement into a storm drain.
Town crews had to vacuum out the storm grate to catch as much of the powdered cement as possible. Wadden said the construction company wouldn’t name the employee who dumped the cement, so no ticket was issued.
In a separate incidence, no ticket was issued to a vendor at the 2016 GoPro Mountain Games who dumped 120 hot dogs down a storm drain, which resulted in another good-sized cleanup.
“People just don’t know where the water goes,” Wadden said.
Council members said that needs to change.
An education campaign is already under way that includes advertising on town buses, and a proposal to create awareness-raising art on town storm drains. There’s also a town hotline, 970-476-4673 (GORE), to report dumping into storm drains. But that phone is only answered during normal business hours.
Council member Dick Cleveland asked if the phone could be routed into the town’s emergency dispatch center.
‘EASY TO UNDERSTAND’
Cleveland also asked Wadden if the education campaign could be expanded to include some sort of notice at virtually every storm grate in town. Cleveland said that’s the case in a California town near the beach.
Gore Creek originates in splishes and splashes among tussocks of grass in the eponymously named range of 13,000-foot peaks in north-central Colorado. There, the water is as pure as the driven snow. Emerging from the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, the creek passes a national forest campground, located along Interstate 70. Still, everything remains good, as attested by a profusion of bugs. Bugs provide food for fish, and what is a healthy stream, creek or river without fish?
Downstream as Gore Creek flows through Vail for 10 miles, it has a more checkered life. As the creek flows through lawns and parks and under city streets, the bug counts decline, not uniformly, but enough so that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in late 2011 put Gore Creek on a state list of impaired waters. It’s still supporting fish. Four miles of Gore Creek remain classified by the state as a gold medal trout fishery. But it’s not what it could be.
Gore Creek is not alone among waterways in mountain valleys that look pristine—but aren’t. Also listed on the impaired lists are segments of creeks and rivers at Breckenridge, Silverthorne, Aspen, Winter Park, and Telluride Colorado has 65 stream segments with impaired aquatic life because of high water temperatures, mining-related impacts or, as in the case of Vail and other mountain towns, the impacts of urbanization.
It’s a story of a thousand minor, seemingly innocuous cuts:
Lawns grown to the creek edge, kept in mint weed-free condition by the application of herbicides and pesticides.
Twin frontage roads and a four-lane interstate highway, altogether eight lanes of pavement in a narrow mountain valley, along with paved areas for bus stops, traffic roundabouts, and all the other impervious surfaces of a transportation system that, together, provide an expedited pathway for pollutants to the creek.
An ill-advised community stormwater system.
Even the most minor of infractions, the slop from solvents used to clean windows that can, from blocks away, eventually get into the creek.
But this is also a story about a community decision to confront the problem sooner, not later. The town council in March approved the first $2 million of what could ultimately be $9 million in actions to address urban stormwater runoff. Vail is an affluent resort community, yes, but also one that says that having a creek that doesn’t measure up, no matter how good it still looks, just is not OK.
This nexus between land use and water quality is something that state water officials see as an emerging area of understanding.
“It’s just so important to have that local dialogue about land use and water,” says Tammy Allen, restoration and protection utility manager with the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission.
The Gore Creek Action Plan identifies 27 immediate actions to be taken from a total of 217. Some actions have already begun. In cooperation with the Colorado Department of Transportation, plans are being readied to address the mass of impervious surfaces at the East Vail interchange. The town also plans to modify its snow dump, ironically created 20-plus years ago to avoid putting contaminants from plowed roads directly into the creek. For some reason, it’s not working as well as intended.
Then there are the manicured buffers along the creek, both along the parks and golf course. Can they be restored to more closely resemble what existed before in the riparian zones? On a cost-sharing basis, can those riparian areas of private property owners also be restored?
Education is a big part of the project. The town budget includes funding for a full-time employee during the next two years. The employee will be assigned to work with the community, advising residents how to adopt what are considered best-practices to avoid pollution of Gore Creek.
Yet other actions being launched are more tentative. What grounds does the town have for limiting how far property owners can mow the grass to water’s edge? What authority does the town government have to limit pesticide use on lawns and gardens?
A more familiar story of water pollution once existed in the nearby Eagle River, to which Gore Creek becomes tributary at Dowd Junction. Extensive mining had occurred between the towns of Minturn and Red Cliff beginning in the late 1870s. Extraction of zinc, lead, gold, and other minerals at the Eagle Mine continued until the late 1970s, but with a lingering legacy familiar to nearly all places of hard-rock mining: the orange water that results from contact with fractured sulphur-based rock faces. At one point, the Eagle River ran so orange that water drawn from the creek to make snow at Beaver Creek, located several miles downstream, had an orange hue.
The story of the Eagle River had turned around by the mid-1990s, thanks to the deep pockets of Viacom, the corporation that had swallowed the mining company – and took on its obligations— and the stick of the federal Superfund law. The Eagle River had fish again at Minturn. But just as they proclaimed success immediately below the abandoned mine, state wildlife biologists announced they had detected another problem. Shocking fish on the Eagle River at Edwards, about 10 miles downstream from both Vail and Minturn, they found disturbing evidence of declining sculpin and other fish. The problem, they said, was probably the result of urbanization in what had become known as the Vail Valley.
In Vail, both the Forest Service and the Town of Vail had conducted periodic sampling of insects in Gore Creek. There was an awareness of a problem. Then sampling of bugs along the creek was stepped up in 2008 as the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District prepared for new state regulations governing nutrients from wastewater treatment plants. The district maintains a plant in Vail, just below Lionshead.
Bracketing samples were taken up and down the creek: above and below the treatment plant, for example, and above and below the commercial area. This took time, but it also provided a clearer definition of problem areas. It also yielded a surprise: the area downstream from the treatment plan actually showed elevated counts of insect populations. Sewage effluent wasn’t the problem.
“What immediately struck us was that the creek was probably going to get listed as impaired, and it had nothing to do with the point source, the treatment plan,” says Linn Brooks, general manager of Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. Reduced bug counts were being found upstream, “and so they must have to do with urbanization of the town. We didn’t know exactly what it was when we started, but we knew it wasn’t the wastewater treatment plant.”
Driving all this was the Clean Water Act. Adopted by Congress in 1972 in response to outrages, such as the burning of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, the federal law was used to address the worst problems of point-source pollution. Examples include untreated sewage and pollutants released from factories into rivers and creeks. Administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, in the case of Colorado through the state government, the law has also been used to address the more prickly problems of urban and agriculture pollution.
In the late 1990s, the EPA began implementing the law and refining the implementation.
“Colorado mountain streams are generally in good shape,” says Karl Hermann, senior water quality analyst for the EPA Region 8 in Denver. “It’s typically mining impacts that cause water quality problems. But you do have this other situation of stormwater runoff that causes water quality problems. There’s a strong correlation with water quality problems and development, and typically stormwater is the cause of that.”
But confusing in Vail, and some other locations, was the lack of a clear trigger to explain problems. “If you just measured metals in Gore Creek, you would never suspect something is going on,” says Hermann.
One metric of stream health in Colorado’s high country is the state’s wildlife department’s specified listing for gold medal trout streams. Colorado has 322 miles, give or take. Included are the last four miles of Gore Creek, below the wastewater plant and before the creek flows into the Eagle.
The state in March added a 24-mile segment of the Colorado River while delisting a 19-mile stretch of the Blue River, from the northern edge of Silverthorne to Green Mountain Reservoir. The river segment has not met the criteria of gold medal water for production of trout for some time. Jon Ewert, an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, pointed to the cumulative effects of unnatural stream flows, sparse aquatic invertebrate populations, low nutrient content, and degraded habitat.
Vail’s listing on the state’s 303-D list of impaired waters provoked community meetings. Dozens were eventually held. Key stakeholders—the town, the river district, the Forest Service, Vail Resorts, and C-DOT, among others—were engaged early on. Many were looking for a single cause, a smoking gun, that could be addressed. Some suggested the pine beetle epidemic was the problem. Others pointed the finger at I-70 and the use of mag chloride on roads.
“Everybody was hoping that we would have a silver bullet, just one, two or three things, that we could get done by 2013. But early on, it became apparent that this was death by a thousand cuts,” says Diane Johnson, communications officer for Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.
Vail’s problem can be seen as flip sides of the same equation. Pollutants have been created in the long, narrow valley that end up in the creek. It’s no one thing. That’s partly why the town’s action plan calls for just $2 million in spending at the outset, to give time to figure out what makes a difference.
In addition to the pollutants that end up in the creek, it’s also the pathways to the creek. Large impervious areas provide easy pathways for pollutants to go to the creek. But the creek itself has been extensively modified, mostly brazenly where it was channelized during the construction of I-70, now sandwiched by a frontage road and a golf course.
In many places in Vail, the creek’s messy riparian areas have been sheared, manicured lawns installed right to the water’s edge. This might have an aesthetic appeal, but those native riparian areas served a function.
Brooks, of Eagle River Water, calls the riparian area the creek’s immune system. Without that riparian area to filter and treat the water, pollutants directly enter the creek and impair the waters. This was part of the simplified message that she said had to be taken to the public.
Vail’s story, says Brooks, is not unlike stories occurring all over the country, including other resort areas of Colorado. They differ in some particulars. Aspen, for examples, doesn’t have an interstate highway paralleling it, nor does Telluride. They do, however, have urban impacts, too.
Where Vail stands out, she believes, is that the town was quick to react. “The political will was already there, and the science was already there.”
As this is fundamentally a land use issue, the onus is on Vail, the municipality, as it owns 40 percent of the streambanks. But a majority is in private ownership.
There was some pushback in Vail. Some thought C-DOT should have accepted greater responsibility. And at le ast one homeowner along Gore Creek protested that “bugs and beavers don’t pay taxes.” But that was not the dominant mood. There was, says Kristen Bertuglia, the town sustainability director, much less controversy than when Vail banned throw-away plastic grocery bags or mandated curbside recycling. Instead, the dominant response was “This is our creek; this is our home.”
As for the measures in the action plan, they’re not particularly novel. For the most part, says Bertuglia, they were picked out from the EPA’s watershed manual.
In the case of Vail, a community process was absolutely crucial, and it will be in other places, too, she says. “We don’t have a smoking gun, and they won’t either.”
That’s another way of saying that with urban runoff pollution, there’s no one guilty party, but everyone is part of the problem —and everyone has to be part of the solution. That’s a long, involved conversation to have.
Since the creek landed on the list, people who work for the town and the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District have worked on plans to repair the damage. The district, in fact, has done the lion’s share of research and studying. But it’s ultimately the town government that has responsibility for rehabilitation efforts.
IMMENSE TO-DO LIST
Those efforts will be complicated. After studying the problem, then working on possible solutions, the plan has roughly 220 action items on its to-do list.
That to-do list is so long because the problem is so complicated. It became apparent early on that the stream’s health couldn’t be improved by one, or even 10, efforts.
Town of Vail Environmental Sustainability Manager Kristen Bertuglia said that what’s affecting the creek is called non-point source pollution, meaning it comes from places up and down the watershed. That spread-out pollution will have to be addressed through actions including education and getting residents involved in helping clean the creek through their own actions.
But there are other, more easily-defined problems. Road sand is a problem, of course. So is storm runoff. The first year’s plan alone has budgeted $750,000 for design and improvement work to the town’s storm drain system…
COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT KEY
That’s why there’s a big educational element in the plan, and money budgeted to carry it out. In fact, the town will for two years hire a full-time employee to handle education and public outreach.
Beyond that, there will be money set aside for programs including a landscaping course at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, newspaper ads and information on the town’s website.
All of it is important, Bruno, said.
“We really need to get the community involved,” she said. “We need to get (residents) to understand we’re serious about bringing the Gore back.”
Bertuglia said she has modest, but realistic, expectations of what she’d like to see as 2020 approaches.
“I’d like to see a stable, or upward trend in the number of macroinvertabrates,” she said. “That would be progress.”
State officials in 2012 placed Gore Creek — as well as a number of other mountain-town streams — on a list of ecologically impaired waterways in Colorado, but that doesn’t mean the creek is the equivalent of a Rust Belt river that can catch fire. Still, humans have affected Gore Creek’s aquatic life — particularly bugs that are the food supply for fish.
To help repair that damage, town officials have been working for some time on a plan called Restore the Gore. The plan’s design so far has included working with consultants, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and residents. The plan has also been the subject of six hearings at the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission. The Vail Town Council is the final step to putting the plan — and its 217 recommended actions — into place. Council members Tuesday took a close look at the plan, with an eye toward final approval at the board’s March 15 evening meeting.
The plan in its current form has a good bit of regulation in it — including what people can spray on weeds they’re legally obligated to control.
But a majority of the recommendations fall into two categories: specific projects and management practices.
The identified projects cover nearly the length of Gore Creek, from the Interstate 70 runaway truck ramp nearest to town to the parking lots at the town’s two supermarkets. The projects run the gamut from restoring creekside vegetation to creating an artificial wetland area — a natural pollutant filter — to catch cinders falling off of I-70 to working to treat runoff from supermarket parking lots.
Gary Brooks, an engineer who is part of the town’s consultant team, said the idea behind all of the projects is to either dilute or interrupt pollutants that would otherwise make their way into the stream.
EDUCATION IS KEY
Education and management practices are similarly broad. Vail Environmental Sustainability Director Kristen Bertuglia said education is a significant part of virtually every element of the plan, from helping homeowners to teaching the landscaping companies those property owners hire.
Those educational efforts seem to be well-received so far. Bertuglia said an informational meeting for landscaping companies in 2015 drew between 80 and 100 people, most of whom were company owners.
Landscape companies that take a sustainable landscaping class — organized in cooperation with the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens and scheduled for the spring of this year — can earn a creek-friendly certification from the town. Those companies can use that certification in their own efforts to line up clients for the coming season.
And residents in general seem interested in learning more, Bertuglia said.
“I’ve been inspired by how the community has gotten behind this effort,” Bertuglia said.
VAIL RESORTS INVOLVEMENT
Responding to a question about Vail Resorts’ involvement in the plan, Bertuglia said the environmental team from the company has been involved in drafting the plan, and this winter has moved one of its major snow piles on the valley floor so it will have less impact on the creek when the pile melts.
PRICE TAG FOR PROJECTS
All of these efforts will cost money, of course. Just one project — the stormwater treatment project at the I-70 truck ramp — has an estimated price tag of more than $150,000. Better treatment of runoff from the supermarket parking lots will certain cost more. Another project, a 2017 redo of Slifer Plaza, carries an estimated price of more than $1.3 million, much of which will be spent on replacing an aging storm sewer that runs from north of the Vail Village parking structure into the creek.
The best use of taxpayer money will be a key element of the plan.
Kayaking Gore Creek via Vail Recreation
Gore Creek through Vail golf course summer 2002
Big snows coated the Gore Range in March 2014. bberwyn photo.
Based on new standards of stream health, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment put Gore Creek on a list of impaired streams in the state in 2012. The local creek isn’t alone. A number of streams through and near mountain towns are on the list.
Still, “impaired stream” and “mountain playground” don’t sound good together. That’s why local officials have been working on plans to improve aquatic life in the creek for the past several years
That work took a lot of time because a host of causes affect the stream’s health, ranging from road sand and de-icer to runoff from parking lots to what landowners use to control weeds on their creekside properties. All of those things affect aquatic life in the creek — specifically, the small bugs that allow other aquatic life to flourish.
This week, the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission approved a town action plan to help with the creek cleanup. The Vail Town Council is expected to get its first look at the approved plan in February and will likely approve the plan soon after…
The plan has identified 42 streamside enhancement projects between the farthest reaches of East Vail and the confluence of Gore Creek with the Eagle River. Brooke Ranney, the projects and events coordinator with the Eagle River Watershed Council, said each of those areas is an acre or less in size. Those sites have also been prioritized. Most of the improvements focus on storm drainage. But some will have a direct effect on how people can reach the stream.
Ranney said one project is just west of the skier bridge in Lionshead Village. That area sees a lot of foot traffic, which has caused erosion along the banks. That project will stabilize the stream bank. But, Ranney said, the trick with that and other projects is stabilizing areas while still allowing access to the stream.
Arriving at the point of having a restoration plan in place has taken years of research and planning.
While Gore Creek landed on the state’s list in 2012, the new water-quality standards were understood several years before. Diane Johnson, of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said the district started gathering data about the stream in 2008 as part of an effort to understand how the standards would affect the wastewater treatment plant just west of Lionshead in Vail.
RESEARCH GUIDES RESULTS
While the treatment plant can clean up water downstream, Johnson said there’s nothing the district can do about pollution upstream. But the research the district has done over the past several years will guide the town’s plan.
“We’re finally moving from field work, research and analysis to action,” Johnson said.
That field work has involved a lot time beating the bushes — literally. In 2015, the town hired SGM, a Glenwood Springs-based engineering company, to do a comprehensive inventory of the town’s storm sewer system.
“They did an excellent job,” Bertuglia said. “They literally got into the weeds and tracked where the (storm sewer) basins go.”
While the watershed council is a nonprofit group with a limited budget, Ranney said that group can help coordinate educational projects and, in some cases, round up volunteers for restoration projects. The council used a lot of volunteer help for a stream restoration project in Edwards a few years ago.
Community involvement is important in cleanup and restoration efforts, and Bertuglia said town residents seem ready.
“It’s encouraging how engaged the community has been,” she said.
Johnson said that’s going to be important in the future — and not just for people who live along the creek.
“We can all make personal choices,” Johnson said. “Anything that runs off your driveway or your lawn eventually makes it down to the creek.”
Here’s the release from the Vail Recreation District:
The Vail Recreation District will kick off the Vail Whitewater Series Tuesday, May 12 at the Vail Whitewater Park in Vail Village. This is the first race in the five race series, which is presented by the Town of Vail and Howard Head Sports Medicine, with course design by Alpine Quest Sports.
Races will begin at 5:30 p.m. and offer competition featuring kayaking (under 9’6″), two-person raft and stand up paddleboard (SUP). Races will start at the Covered Bridge and finish at the International Bridge. The course for each week will be determined the day prior based on river flows. Each week, the two round format will consist of an individual time trial with results determining the seeding for the second round, head-to-head race. Check vailrec.com or Vail Whitewater Race Series Facebook page at facebook.com/vailrace for updates. Lakota Guides will be onsite with rafts available for R2 Teams to use. Spectators will enjoy viewing from the banks of Gore Creek.
Participants can register for all five races for $40, preregister for $10 for individual races or register on race-day for $15. Preregistration ends at 5 p.m. Monday, May 11. Onsite day-of registration will begin at 4:30 p.m. at the Vail Whitewater Park.
The Covered Bridge will be under construction during Tuesday’s race and competitors will need to access the start on the south side of Gore Creek by crossing the river on Vail Valley Drive or the International Bridge. Participants and spectators are asked to park in the Vail Village parking structure during the event. Short-term gear drop off/pick up will be available at Checkpoint Charlie before and after the race.
An after party will be hosted at Vendetta’s in Vail Village where cash and product prizes will be awarded to the top three winners of all three categories. All participants and spectators over age 21 will receive a free beer courtesy of New Belgium Brewing Company, the race series’ new beverage partner.
Four additional races are scheduled throughout the spring and will take place at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 19, May 26, June 2 and June 9 at the Vail Whitewater Park.
Also new for 2015, the Vail Recreation District and Alpine Quest Sports will raffle off a Hala Atacha SUP board (retail value $1,350). The board will be raffled off on June 9 at the Pazzo’s Vail after party for the final race of series. Everyone who competes in a Vail Whitewater Series event will be automatically entered, once for each race they participate in (up to five entries). Spectators can enter to win by taking a photo with the board at any of the five races, then posting it on Facebook and tagging Vail Whitewater Series and Alpine Quest Sports. Additionally, between May 12 – June 8, anyone can go into Alpine Quest in Edwards to take a photo with the board and posting and tagging will get them an entry. Must be present at Pazzo’s Vail on June 9 to win.
The Whitewater Series is brought to you by the Town of Vail, Alpine Quest, Howard Head Sports Medicine, New Belgium, Vail Recreation District, Altitude Billards & Club, Stolquist, Hala SUP, Red Lion, Vendetta’s, Pazzo’s, Optic Nerve, Astral and Kokatat.
When tackling a big job, success often depends on good information. Cleaning up Gore Creek is one of those big jobs, and people in charge of that task are still working to find out exactly what they’re facing.
To that end, the town of Vail this year has hired SGM, a Glenwood Springs-based engineering, surveying and consulting company, to do some of the most basic research — locating all of the town’s storm sewers and finding out exactly where they go.
That’s a more complicated job than it sounds. At the moment, town officials know the location of no more than 70 percent of the existing storm drainage system.
Kristen Bertuglia, the town’s environmental sustainability manager, said knowing where all of the town’s storm drains are, and where they go, is an important part of the bigger cleanup effort.
Most of the town’s storm drains flow into vaults, essentially big tanks where sand, oil and other pollutants are separated out before water ends up in the creek.
Bertuglia said knowing where those vaults are, and which parts of the drainage system flow into them — along with good mapping of the system — will help town officials develop a schedule for cleaning the vaults, thus keeping them working as they should.
“As soon as the inventory’s done, we can do a better schedule,” Bertuglia said.
Expansion of Eagle Park Reservoir and other storage options studied
The summer of 2002 was so hot and dry in Vail that when a rainstorm finally arrived in August, people violated the idiom about common sense and stood and then danced outside in the pouring rain.
In the offices of the local water provider, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Linn Brooks remembers worries that Gore Creek—the primary source of Vail’s water, via wells that draw from the creek’s alluvial aquifer—might disappear altogether. Droughts from the 20th century had never been as severe.
September rains in 2002 eased immediate concerns. But 13 years later, water district still seeks to steel itself from a return of drought that severe—or worse.
Twice, upstream reservoirs have been expanded modestly and wells were drilled downstream at Edwards at a cost of several million dollars.
Now comes discussion of a much more ambitious expansion of Eagle Park Reservoir, one of several ideas for increased storage of the final waters of the upper Eagle Valley.
Eagle Park Reservoir is along the East Fork of the Eagle River, near Frémont Pass, about 20 miles south of Vail. It was built in the 1960s to hold tailings from the nearby Climax molybdenum mine. Then, in the mid-1990s, it was cleaned up and converted to water storage beginning in 1998.
Expanded minimally in 2009 at a cost of $250,000, it can now store a maximum of 3,300 acre-feet of water. The idea now being reviewed would expand storage to between 6,000 and 9,000 acre-feet.
Brooks, now the general manager for the water and sanitation district, says the project would address future population growth in Vail and the Eagle Valley, provide water to meet minimum streamflow water rights and, somewhat more nebulously, deliver water to mitigate water quality problems and benefit the river ecosystem.
But the essential driver, says Brooks, is the potential for intensified drought. Before the drought of 2002, the worst year on record was 1977 and local water planners tried to plan for three years of consecutive drought of that magnitude.
Now, they’re trying to plan for three consecutive years as bad as 2002.
“I would say we are still reacting to 2002,” says Brooks.
But stacked up behind the fresh and concrete evidence of 2002 is the worrisome potential for even more intensified drought such as occurred around 800 to 1300 AD.
Tree rings in the Colorado River Basin—including some from trees near Eagle—provide evidence of those droughts. A recent study calculated that such droughts have a 66 percent chance of occurring in the 21st century.
On top of this comes the effect of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions. Climate models have drawn no clear conclusions about effects of precipitation in places like Vail, they are clear in warning of hotter, longer summers and, when it occurs, more intense drought.
Of course, river flows have always been variable on the Eagle and other river basins of the Southwest. Since the record-shattering drought of 2002, points out Brooks, Vail has also had a once-in-100 years runoff. Precipitation in the high Rockies, she points out, has “extreme variability.”
Memorandum of understanding
The Eagle River has three significant reservoirs at its headwaters:
• Black Lakes, located at Vail Pass, at the headwaters of Black Gore Creek, which can hold 750 acre-feet.
• Homestake Reservoir holds 14,000 acre-feet, but only 1,000 acre-feet can be used for Western Slope purposes. The rest is diverted for use by Aurora and Colorado Springs.
• Eagle Park Reservoir is the newest. In the early 1990s, water attorney Glenn Porzak, of Porzak, Browning Bushong, initiated discussions with Climax about converting assets of the mine to accommodate the growing needs of his clients in Vail for water storage. He represents Vail Resorts, and Eagle River Water and Sanitation District as well as the parallel Upper Eagle River Water Authority.
The consortium was expanded to include Eagle County, the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, and owner of the mine, which is now FreeportMorgan. Climax paid to clean up the reservoir at a cost of $12 million.
But Aurora and Colorado Springs also own substantial water rights in the basin. In the 1960s, they joined to build Homestake Reservoir. In the 1980s, they proposed to further expand the water collection system within the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. The project was called Homestake II.
Eagle County thwarted that ambition. Its 1987 denial survived court challenges and statehouse attempts to yank the legal rug from under the local government.
The River District convened discussions that recognized that the water rights of the Front Range cities must be recognized—but, in developing the water, the Western Slope must benefit, too. The Eagle River memorandum of understanding inked in 1998 identifies 30,000 acre-feet of water in the Eagle River Basin to be developed in thirds: for Aurora, Colorado Springs, and the Western Slope.
Even if Eagle Park gets expanded, it’s unlikely to be the only project, says John Currier, chief engineer for the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
“It’s very likely that you can’t develop the water in the Eagle River MOU in one single project. I think it’s more accurate to say it’s one project with multiple components.”
Another long-discussed idea is a small reservoir in the Homestake Valley near the Blodgett Campground. Still another is a holding facility, called a forebay, in the same valley, along Whitney Creek, that would hold water pumped back from Camp Hale. From this impound water could be further pumped up the valley to Homestake Reservoir. Yet a third idea is a small reservoir on Red Sandstone Creek, north of Vail.
Benefits of Eagle Park, says Currier, are that it already exists, it’s on private property, eliminating need for the high level of environmental review that other projects on public land would require, and the property has already been disturbed.
The latter is a persuasive argument to Ken Neubecker, a representative of American Rivers, a conservation group.
“Without looking at the details, I would think favorably of it. Eagle Park Reservoir was an old tailings pile to begin with. It wasn’t like ripping up an undammed valley like Blodgett Reservoir would. Adding onto it would be the best use of facilities we already have.”
Expanding Eagle Park, however, will likely be expensive. No cost estimates have been delivered, but Brooks says it’s something “we cannot do on our own. We would have to have partners in a project like that.”
Porzak says Aurora could benefit by storing water from the Columbine Ditch, a water diversion across Tennessee Pass, in the reservoir.
Energy use also is problematic. The reservoir has almost no upstream. Water would have to be pumped 150 vertical feet from the East Fork of the Eagle River, says Porzak.
A small reservoir at Whitney Creek would also require pumping water, says Currier. But for diversions to the Front Range, going farther down the Eagle River is even more challenging.
Exactly what would best benefit the Vail Valley is still unclear. Brooks has turned to a tool called scenario planning that is used by Denver, Seattle and many other water planners. It tries to calculate a whole range of variables, including population growth and climate change. Expanded storage is only one of the responses. “Basically, conservation and optimization should be applied first,” says Brooks.
Expanded storage, however, will ultimately be necessary for a variety of purposes. “I don’t think we will ever be able to conserve our way out of needing an expanded Eagle Park Reservoir,” she says.
While needs of population growth can be met relatively easily, Brooks sees need to provide broader but somewhat more nebulous environmental and aesthetic benefits.
“It’s always been a little harder for our boards to wrap their heads around paying for the aesthetics in the streams,” she says. “They’ve certainly gone there in the past, paying literally millions to ensure the stream flows for health.”
Making that case is becoming easier. Water quality impacts from urbanization and other development impacts have become documented, and state water quality standards have tightened. As nutrients get washed into the waterways from stormwater, the capacity of the river gets whittled away, Brooks explains.
There seems to be no rush by anybody to build anything quickly. But there is a sense that the decisions made need to be very good. Unless the climate changes to produce more snow and rain, the upper basin will be without additional water to develop. Downstream, there could be more, but not at the headwaters.
“If it’s not the last drop, it’s darned close to the last drop in the Eagle, because you’re just physically constrained by what you can develop,” says the River District’s Currier.
Going farther downstream, as has been discussed with such “big straw” projects as the Yampa River pumpback or Flaming Gore pumpback, remains possible, adds Currier, but “at that point your energy costs are hugely significant.”
For the first time in more than 110 weeks, according to the Colorado Climate Center, none of the state is in “exceptional drought,” the direst level of drought, which has only been seen once or twice every 100 years.
“They are not out of the woods in southeast Colorado yet,” said Wendy Ryan, assistant state climatologist. “They have a long road to recovery after four years of drought. These are the first real rains they have seen in some time.”[…]
It’s been a good summer for the area’s waterways, as far as river levels go. So good, in fact, that the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District hasn’t had to make changes to its water operations in order to keep stream levels up.
The water district’s Diane Johnson said that in previous years, a combination of dry skies and hot temperatures have forced the district to pull the area’s drinking water from different parts of the river in order to maintain the minimum stream-flow levers.
“A benchmark for us is that both the Eagle River and Gore Creek have been above the median for the whole season, which is great,” Johnson said. “Once it peaked, it’s stayed above the norm, which is good for fishing and boating.”[…]
Experts are calling the current wet cycle “monsoon” conditions, which they say is helping to alleviate the dry conditions that racked the state last year. In fact, statewide, precipitation was at 112 percent of average, and so far in August totals are 90 percent of the average.
An awareness campaign to help improve the health of Gore Creek is being introduced this spring with a focus on best practices for landscapers and gardeners. The “Restore the Gore” kick off takes place April 25 with a free Moe’s BBQ lunch and learn session from 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. at Donovan Pavilion. Landscape contractors, gardeners, commercial applicators and lodging managers, in particular, are encouraged to attend. Lunch service will begin at 11:45 a.m. with presentations taking place from noon to 12:45 p.m.
Sponsored by the Town of Vail and the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, the program will include short presentations on the causes of Gore Creek’s decline and the everyday actions that can be implemented to help make a difference when it comes to water use, special irrigation permits, invasive plants and pesticides.
In 2012 Gore Creek was added to the State of Colorado’s 303(d) List of Impaired Waters due to the decline in aquatic life. Scientists have determined the impact is due to degradation and loss of riparian buffer areas, impacts of urban runoff and pollutants associated with land use activities. A Water Quality Improvement Plan has since been adopted that includes an emphasis on community awareness as well as strategies for regulatory measures, site specific projects, best management practices and an ongoing monitoring program.
In addition to the lunch and learn kick off, the town is distributing a handout on recommended pesticide practices for commercial landscapers and property owners. Additional information is available on the town’s website at http://www.vailgov.com/gorecreek.
If you plan to attend the April 25 lunch and learn program, please RSVP to Kristen Bertuglia, town of Vail environmental sustainability coordinator, at 970-477-3455 or email firstname.lastname@example.org no later than 5 p.m. April 23.
Join us Monday, January 13th to see firsthand what snowmaking is all about!
9 – 11:30 a.m. meet @ the base of Lionshead Gondola
With the expert guidance of Dave Tucholke, Vail’s Snowmaking Manager, we will be strapping on our skis and touring Vail Mountain to learn more about snowmaking: the history, equipment and process behind the snow we have come to rely on each November. Tom Allender, Director of Mountain Planning for Vail & Beaver Creek, will share his knowledge of ski area water rights and explain the mountain’s “plumbing system” from source to snow.
This will be a unique look at Vail’s snowmaking from atop your very own skis!
Space is limited, so please RSVP to email@example.com to reserve your spot now!
**We will be spending most of the morning on skis so we ask that only intermediate and expert skiers/boarders sign up**
If and when streamflows drop below certain levels, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District could be forced to enact strict water-use limits on top of ongoing conservation efforts, according to district general manager Linn Brooks…
The community water system also includes the two Black Lakes reservoirs, near Vail Pass, as well as Homestake Reservoir and also has access to water in Wolford Mountain Reservoir and Green Mountain Reservoir. The water in the reservoirs is used primarily for augmentation, which means when the district removes water from Gore Creek and the Eagle River, it can replace that water from the reservoirs to compensate downstream users.
This year, the Homestake Reservoir water is not available because the reservoir has been drained for repairs. That complicates the overall picture a bit, but in any case, that augmentation water, even though it’s destined for downstream users, can help sustain stream flows in Eagle County.
For now, flows are tracking close to where they were during the 2002 drought, which at the time was characterized as a 500-year event by some water experts. Gore Creek flows are a little lower than in 2002, at about 20 to 30 percent of average for this time of year. High in the drainage, at a gage in the wilderness was reading only at 11 percent of normal…
A somewhat normal monsoon season, with intermittent rains from mid-July to mid- or late August would likely sustain flows enough to stave off the most drastic conservation measures this year. But summer rains don’t compensate for a lack of winter snow. Snowpack is the key for sustaining base flows throughout the summer. “Thunderstorms can come in and drop a lot of moisture, but the ground can’t absorb all that water. It surges through the system and gives a short-lived benefit. A good rainstorm can give a week of propped up rainflows, she said…
The district uses water from both Gore Creek and the Eagle River, as well as a handful of wells, and has the ability to shunt water in different directions through a web of pipes to meet the needs — and address potential shortages in different parts of the system…
The district also monitors stream temperatures. If the climb to a point deemed dangerous to fish, that could also trigger operational changes. “We’re going to operate our system in a way that’s protective of fish,” she emphasized.
More Eagle River watershed coverage here and here.
In Eagle County, many municipalities provide their own water supplies to their citizens, and the county’s largest suppliers — the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority — are reporting high marks in their recently released 2010 consumer confidence reports. “Managing the public water system is about protecting public health,” Eagle River Water and Sanitation District Water Division Manager Todd Fessenden said. “It’s important to inform people about their water supply.”[…]
The consumer confidence reports are required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and they show lists of the various contaminants found in local water supplies. Each public water supplier is required by law to produce the annual reports — something the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates bottled water, does not require of the bottled water industry. The contaminants shown in the reports are the contaminants that were detected in that water supply during thousands of water quality tests that are performed over the course of any year. Even the cleanest of water supplies will show some levels of some contaminants. “The presence of contaminants does not necessarily indicate that the water poses a health risk,” the 2010 Water District report says…
Click on the thumbnail graphic to the right for a photo of the stocking operation from Diane Johnson at the district. Here’s the release. Here’s an excerpt:
On July 6, the District coordinated the second stocking of 2,500 pounds of 10-16 inch long rainbow trout into the two Black Lakes, located adjacent to Interstate 70 near the Vail Pass exit. The first 2,500 pounds of trout were stocked on June 21. The fishery supplying the trout says the 5,000 pounds equates to about 2,000 fish.
The trout are raised by a Boulder based fishery that is licensed and health inspected by the Colorado Department of Agriculture and the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW). The DOW annually tests the fishery’s trout to assure each lot is healthy and free of disease.
The District stocks the lakes annually with “catchable rainbow trout” under the terms of a 1986 agreement with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. The two cold water reservoirs are operated as part of the water supply system developed by the District, which serves the Town of Vail and by contract, the communities of EagleVail through Cordillera.
At various times of the year, the District releases water from the two lakes which flows down Black Gore Creek and into Gore Creek, which runs throughout the Town of Vail. The released water augments Gore Creek streamflows and can be used per District water rights. The Colorado DOW partners with the District to operate Black Lake 2 in support of fishing, wildlife habitat, and recreation.
The regulations prohibit outdoor water use on Mondays and require customers to adhere to an odd/even watering schedule on Tuesday through Sunday. Also, watering must occur before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. to minimize losing water to evaporation. Property owners may water up to three days per week; those with a street address ending in an odd number can water on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Those, with a street address ending in an even number may water on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
[Vail Mountain Chief Operating Officer Chris Jarnot] said snowfall measured at the top of the mountain puts this year just outside of the top five best years as of Wednesday, but it’s not an apples to apples comparison to previous seasons because the timing of when the resorts starts measuring snow for the season has been different throughout the years. This season is the best snow year since the resort started measuring at Mid-Vail 10 years ago, he said.
Things are not looking good for irrigators in the San Luis Valley. Here’s a report from Matt Hildner writing for The Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:
While not nearly as dry as 2002 or 2003 when drought blanketed the state, Cotten said this year’s season is shaping up to be like 2004 or 2006, which both were below average. Given that the valley’s streams and rivers are over appropriated, meaning there’s not enough water to fill all of the area’s water rights, some water users will go without this year. Cotten predicted there will be irrigation ditches on both the Conejos River and the Rio Grande that don’t get any water this year. Those two rivers, which are the valley’s largest, have their headwaters in the San Juan Mountains, where snowpack is currently 83 percent of average.
Irrigators on the eastern side of the valley likely will face an even tougher summer. Snowpack from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which feeds smaller creeks such as the Culebra, San Luis and Trinchera, is down to 31 percent of average…
There have been six dust storms that have blanketed the San Juan’s snowpack this year, Cotten said, but officials are still waiting to see how the rest of runoff proceeds.
From email from the Colorado River Water Conservation District (Martha Moore):
The Colorado River District is accepting grant applications for projects that protect, enhance or develop water resources within the 15-county area covered by the District. This includes all watersheds in north- and central- western Colorado, except the San Juan River basin.
Eligible projects must achieve one or more of the following:
– develop a new water supply
– improve an existing system
– improve instream water quality
– increase water use efficiency
– reduce sediment loading
– implement watershed management actions
– control tamarisk
– protect pre-1922 Colorado River Compact water rights
Past projects have included the construction of new water storage, the enlargement of existing water storage or diversion facilities, rehabilitation of non-functioning or restricted water resource structures and implementation of water efficiency measures and other watershed improvements. Such projects that utilize pre-1922 water rights will be given additional ranking priority over similar projects that do not. Each project will be ranked based upon its own merits in accordance with published ranking criteria.
Eligible applicants can receive up to a maximum of $150,000 ((or approximately 25% of the total project cost whichever is less, in the case of smaller projects this percentage may be slightly higher) for their project. The total grant pool for 2011 is $250,000. Application deadline is Jan. 31, 2011.
A recent study revealed certain bugs are disappearing in the East Vail stretch of the stream. The bugs present in low numbers — certain mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies — are especially sensitive to the effects of urbanization, said David Rees, a bug expert processing the study data. And their absence is a sign that something is damaging this popular trout-fishing stream, which runs through a tourist town that prides itself on its natural beauty. “A large portion of our economy depends on this perception that this is a pristine area,” said Lin Brooks, assistant general manager for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.
Something has been causing a change in the stream’s macroinvertebrates, the tiny bugs that live in the rocks, Rees said. There are fewer types of bugs overall than one expects to see in a mountain stream, Rees said. While some bugs are dwindling, others are more plentiful then normal, he said. Midges and worms, which are less sensitive to environmental stress, are abundant. “Whenever we see this change in the composition, it’s an indication there’s stress,” he said…
John Woodling, a retired fish biologist familiar with the stream, agrees [highway] sand is a likely culprit. The sand settles over the rocks and fills up the space where the bugs live, he said. Although CDOT has been working to contain the sand, there is still plenty left on the hillside, he said…
Brooks said the water district plans to investigate other theories, too. One holds that fertilizers and lawn chemicals are hurting the creek…
Another theory claims road gunk that washes into the stream has been changing its makeup…
The state is coming up with new regulations for the nutrients wastewater treatment plants discharge, Brooks said. The water district volunteered to do the study to help explore the complex relationship between nutrients and river health, she said. Researchers collected samples at 18 locations along Gore Creek and the Eagle River in fall 2008 and spring 2009, Brooks said. They are still processing the results of samples they took in fall 2010, she said. Brooks expects The Colorado Water Quality Control Division to come out with new rules for nutrient discharge by June 2011. It could cost the water district $10 million to $20 million to remodel the local treatment plants to comply with the regulations, she said.
More Eagle River watershed coverage here and here.
This fall the Eagle River Watershed Council is back working in the Eagle River at Edwards. The purpose of the work is to restore the health of the river in this 1.6-mile stretch, making it run colder, faster and deeper during low flow — and creating a better habitat for fish. The council has several volunteer-based projects that will make a big impact on the river health.
The first project is to revegetate the newly reconfigured banks of the river, which had lost their vegetation to cattle grazing. Vegetation holds the banks, preventing erosion and shading the river, which makes the water cooler. As leaves and branches fall into the water, they create hiding places for fish and food for the bugs the fish eat.
The council needs teams to create “willow wattles” which will be staked in place on the river banks. Wattles are 16- to 19-inch bundles of willow branches, about 7 feet in length, stuffed with willow trimmings and wrapped with twine. The stakes will be made from dormant willows which will take root and produce willow plants next spring. The council needs lots of volunteers to create more than 700 wattles before the end of October. It also need volunteers to harvest 225 cottonwood branches, which will also be planted in the banks for the same project. If you would like to join a group to work down by the river, we have the following volunteer dates planned: Oct. 6, 9, 12, 17, 19, 20, 23, 26 and 27…
The council also has a done-in-a-day project on Friday, Oct. 8, with the U.S. Forest Service on Red Dirt Creek, a tributary to the Colorado River. The purpose of this project is to revegetate cattle grazing impact that has threatened a fragile population of Colorado cut throat trout that inhabit the degraded creek. Volunteers will plant willows and trees, relocate roses and create willow bundles. The Forest Service will pick up our volunteers at the Dotsero parking lot at 8 a.m. for a 45-minute drive up the Colorado, then west, to the project. Volunteers will leave the site at 3:30 p.m. There are five volunteer slots available.
Ever caught hundreds of fish in one day? The Watershed Council will be electrofishing on Gore Creek and the Eagle River with the Colorado Division of Wildlife today, Wednesday and Thursday. The council monitors impacts on water quality in Eagle County’s rivers, but also wants to know how the fish are dealing with these varied impacts. The fish collected are counted, weighed and measured, then returned to the stream. Volunteers wading in the river net fish and deliver them to the fish biologist’s holding tank. These positions are almost filled, but we can put you on a waiting list.
To become an Eagle River Watershed Council volunteer, contact the council’s office in Avon at 970-827-5406 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about the projects on the council’s website http://www.erwc.org.
This countywide event is organized by the Eagle River Watershed Council. Teams will head out to their pre-assigned stretch of river from 9 a.m. to noon to pick up litter along the banks of the Eagle River. New this year, Gore Creek and possibly Beaver Creek will be added, depending on participation levels. Including the tributaries, this brings the distance cleaned to nearly 70 miles of river. Following the cleanup, volunteers and their families are invited to the Wolcott Yacht Club from noon to 2 p.m. for a barbecue hosted by Beaver Creek Mountain Dining with music, entertainment and awards for the entire family.
Once again, Sue Mott will be the volunteer coordinator. Assemble your team and call her at 970-926-3956 or send an email to the Eagle River Watershed Council at email@example.com for your river segment assignment. Volunteers meet on the river at assigned locations on the day of the event, so you must pre-register in order to know where you’re needed most.
More coverage from the Eagle Valley Enterprise. From the article:
Teams will head out to their pre-assigned stretch of river from 9 a.m. to noon to pick up litter along the banks of the river. For the first time this year, the clean up has officially added stretches of Gore Creek and possibly Beaver Creek, depending on participation levels. Including the tributaries, this brings the distance cleaned to nearly 70 miles of river.
Following the cleanup, volunteers and their families are invited to the Wolcott Yacht Club from noon to 2 p.m. for a lively BBQ hosted by Beaver Creek Mountain Dining with music, entertainment and awards for the entire family.
More Eagle River watershed coverage here and here.
The Vail Whitewater Park put the world’s top kayakers to the test as gushing snowmelt from the nearby Gore Mountain Range turned the river a muddy orange and carried trees, root balls and other debris into the competition wave. A low bridge ripped the paddle from one competitor’s hand during practice and others suffered scratches to the face and hands from wood collecting in the eddies. “The conditions were incredibly challenging,” head judge Clay Wright said of the contest. “I’ve never seen Gore Creek this high. I thought we were going to see a mobile home floating through any minute.”
Between dodging debris, Dustin Urban of Buena Vista landed a dizzying array of aerial “loops” and whirling “McNasty’s” to top the men’s competition with 590 points. Second place went to 16-year-old junior freestyle world champion Jason Craig of Reno, 90 points behind, followed by Casper Van Kalmouth of the Netherlands. “It was probably the craziest finals I’ve ever participated in,” Urban said. “Changing water levels are always a factor in kayaking, but not quite to the extreme they were today. The wave was always changing. We were all figuring it out as we went.”
Perennial women’s champion and reigning women’s freestyle world champion Emily Jackson of Tennessee went from last to first in her final ride of the three-women women’s finals, notching 260 points to top Australian Tanya Faux’s 180 points. Paddling for Buena Vista’s Colorado Kayak Supply, Haley Mills finished third with 140…
SUP sprint: Hawaiian 15-year-old Noa Ginella was the top paddle surfer among the races’ 40 starters, riding the rising river down the technical 3.5-mile course in 18 minutes, 15.53 seconds.
Kayak sprint: Mike Dawson of New Zealand blazed the Gore Creek downriver race course in 15:38.34 to win. Faux finished first among the women in 16:23.21, two days after claiming the steep creek title on Class V Homestake Creek.
More coverage from Chris Freud writing for the Vail Daily. From the article:
The traditional judging area on the kayaker’s right was underwater. There were numerous course holds for large logs entering the hole, including a entire tree stump. And softballs hit from Ford Park are probably in Grand Junction by now. “The river was amazingly high,” Teva kayaking queen Emily Jackson said. “I’ve been here — what — six, seven years now, and never have I seen water this insane.”
“My whole plan basically went out the window because it was a new wave,” Buena Vista’s Dustin Urban said. But when all was said in done, you can pump the entire Pacific Ocean into the Gore and it won’t matter. Jackson owns the Gore and got her sixth-straight women’s win with a clutch third and final ride, while Urban won his second men’s crown in three years…
With high water, the freestyle finals became a completely different ball game. With the help of the bladders, the creek was rolling at 1,400 cubic feet per square inch (CFS) at the beginning of the women’s competition. A mere 45 minutes later, it was at 1,580 CFS for the men.
Nine years later, the Teva Mountain Games taking place Friday through Sunday are very much on the map as the nation’s premier celebration of adventure sports and lifestyle. Yet, in many ways, they’re still Vail’s river games — and they’re still brand new. “We always want to be cutting edge from the perspective of trying new things, but we’re also one of the biggest events of its kind. So we sort of have a reputation to uphold as being on the forefront of the adventure sports lifestyle,” said Paul Abling of the Vail Valley Foundation, which took ownership of the former grassroots event late in 2008. “If we’re going to do something new at the Teva Mountain Games, we’re going to go big with it.” The latest addition to the crowded TMG program offers an evolutionary twist to the down-river racing of yore, as whitewater stand-up paddle surfing (SUP) makes its competitive debut on snowmelt-swollen Gore Creek on Saturday and Sunday. Two events dubbed “SUP Surf Sprint” and “SUP Surf Cross” will have paddlers racing downriver on surfboards designed to run rapids, even battling head-to-head in the “cross” format. “It’s going to steal the show, for sure,” said local competitor Ken Hoeve of Gypsum.
ade in Vail Village is ready for action. Although water levels have not yet reached the preferred 400 cubic feet per second, the town has activated the park to take advantage of rising water levels. Free demos at the park will begin Tuesday and continue Tuesday evenings from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. through June 22. The demos are run by Alpine Quest Sports and instructors will be on hand to demonstrate their skills and to show kayakers how to freestyle. The park has an adjustable whitewater wave that allows kayakers to experience maximum conditions during peak flows. The system will operate into late-June or as runoff allows…
The park’s computer controlled system is being programmed to read the water level each morning, and then automatic adjustments will be triggered to produce the best wave possible throughout the day. Kayakers are asked to leave feedback for the town about any additional adjustments that can be made to the park throughout the season. Feedback forms are available on site or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Dittloff, regional outreach coordinator from the National Wildlife Federation, will speak about climate change and water resources in Colorado from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., Wednesday in the Vail Town Council Chambers.
A Colorado Department of Transportation project that cleaned sediment and sand from the Black Gore Creek area on the west side of Vail Pass along I-70 in Vail, Colorado has received three recent honors.
The 2009 CDOT Environmental Process Award was received Feb. 24 in Denver. The next accolade, presented in Avon on March 20, was the Max Rollefson Award of Merit from the Colorado-Wyoming Chapter of the American Fisheries Society.
The third award, also presented in Avon on March 20, included a water fountain and a plaque of appreciation from the Black Gore Creek Steering Committee, comprised of local governmental representatives, nonprofit organizations, and regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The project, conducted in the fall of 2008 in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, cleaned out and reconstructed the “catchment basin” originally constructed in the 1970s when I-70 was built over Vail Pass. The reconstruction improved the condition of the “Basin of Last Resort,” as the catchment basin is known. About 2,400 truckloads of sediment were removed from the area. Project staff began noting fish in the water soon after flows were restored.