Vail’s Gore Creek looks pristine, but bug counters tell a different story — The Mountain Town News

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

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

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 creek long ago was put into a channel to accommodate the golf course, highways and roads. Photo Jack Affleck via The Mountain Town News.
The creek long ago was put into a channel to accommodate the golf course, highways and roads. Photo Jack Affleck via The Mountain Town News.

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.

Streets and other artificial impervious areas result in rapid runoff of pollutants into the creek. Photo via The Mountain Town News and Jack Affleck.
Streets and other artificial impervious areas result in rapid runoff of pollutants into the creek. Photo via The Mountain Town News and Jack Affleck.

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.”

Riparian areas were crowded or completely eliminated as the town was developed. In this, Vail is hardly alone. Photo by Jack Affleck via The Mountain Town News.
Riparian areas were crowded or completely eliminated as the town was developed. In this, Vail is hardly alone. Photo by Jack Affleck via The Mountain Town News.

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.

This revegetation project uses log cribbing to hold the bank of Gore Creek in place while the plants get established. The logs will slowly decay. Photo credit Jack Affleck via The Mountain Town News.
This revegetation project uses log cribbing to hold the bank of Gore Creek in place while the plants get established. The logs will slowly decay. Photo credit Jack Affleck via The Mountain Town News.

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.

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