From the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District (Click through for the agenda):
Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, in partnership with the Colorado River District and the Eagle River Watershed Council, is hosting the Eagle River Valley State of the River community meeting, Monday, May 16, at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards.
All members of the public are invited to hear about issues that affect Gore Creek, the Eagle River, the Colorado River, Western Colorado’s changing climate, local water supply, and streamflow and runoff projections. A reception with food and soft drinks will be held at 5:15 p.m., with presentations scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.
For more information, contact Diane Johnson, Communications and Public Affairs Manager, at 970-477-5457.
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.
Eagle residents overwhelmingly approved a sales tax increase to fund a river park project in a record-turnout election for the town.
The 20-year, half-percent sales tax increase to 4.5 percent will spark development of a $12 million riverpark project designed to transform a dirt parking lot used by truckers into a gateway for the growing town.
In a record turnout election for Eagle — spurred in part by an abundance of yard signs urging support for Ballot Question 1 — voters approved the measure 962 to 589. The project includes a whitewater park for kayakers and stand-up paddlers and terraced fields designed to lure passersby off Interstate 70 and into town. The hope is the project spurs mixed-use development on private land between the park and Eagle’s historic downtown.
“This is total validation for what’s going on right now in Eagle,” said Mayor Yuri Kostick, noting the proliferation of mountain bike trails that has elevated his town as a biking destination.
Kostick was heading over to the Bonfire Brewery, which served as an informal headquarters for river park supporters.
A contract for a pilot program that would leave some of Pueblo’s water on the Western Slope was approved Tuesday by the Pueblo Board of Water Works.
Pueblo Water will leave 200 acre-feet (65 million gallons) of water from the Ewing Ditch for a fee of about $134,000 as part of an $11 million pilot project to test tools to manage drought in the Colorado River basin.
The program is paid for by the Upper Colorado River Commission, Bureau of Reclamation, Southern Nevada Water Authority, Denver Water, Central Arizona Water Conservation District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
It will test methods to maintain levels in Lake Powell and Mead through conservation techniques in all seven states in the Colorado River basin.
“How is it tracked?” water board member Kevin McCarthy asked.
“It’s going to be hard to watch 200 acre-feet from the top of Tennessee Pass to Lake Powell,” said Alan Ward, water resources manager. “But in theory, it gets there.”
Pueblo Water only has to bypass the flows, Ward explained.
The board approved the concept last summer, and the bypass is only about one-third of what originally was proposed.
The Ewing Ditch was purchased by Pueblo Water from Otero Canal in 1954 after it was dug in 1880 to bring Colorado River basin water over Tennessee Pass into the Arkansas River basin. It typically yields about 900-1,000 acrefeet per year, although the amount can vary. In some years, such as 2015, there might not be places to store the water.
The water board also passed a resolution supporting HB1005, which would legalize rain barrels in Colorado. Board President Nick Gradisar requested the resolution after already offering his personal support to the bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo.
A contract of $275,000 to Black & Veatch to study water distribution was also approved.
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.”
How dry was February? The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s snow measurement stations at Beaver Creek and Vail Mountain recorded just more than 50 percent of the average snowfall for the past 30 years — 58 and 54 percent, respectively.
That’s still better than other areas around the Western Slope. The measurement site at Schofield Pass, between Aspen and Crested Butte, reported 33 percent of the historical average during February.
Despite a lack of new snow and warmer-than-normal temperatures, the area’s snowpack remains in good shape.
The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District reported that snowfall at the Vail, Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass recording sites was tracking either at or slightly above historical averages on Feb. 1.
“Being at 90 percent (of average) — that’s all right,” Eagle River Water & Sanitation District communications and public affairs manager Diane Johnson said. “We were in worse shape in 2013 until we got bailed out by that storm that hit after (Vail) Mountain closed.”
HIGH PRESSURE RIDGE BREAKS
That dry February was largely the result of a ridge of high barometric pressure that set up to the west of Colorado and stayed for a few weeks.
Matthew Aleksa, a meteorologist at the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service, said that high pressure ridge let only a few small snowstorms into this part of the Rockies after the last significant snow-making system hit the area between Jan. 30 and Feb. 2. Johnson said that storm boosted snowpack in this area to levels that helped the area ride out a dry month.
Aleksa said the high pressure ridge has finally broken down and moved off to the east. That opened the door for the storm system that hit the Vail Valley March 6 and 7.
That system left a coating of wet snow on local roadways that snarled Monday traffic from about 7 a.m. into the late morning. At one point, it took just more than an hour to drive from a point about a mile west of Avon on Interstate 70 into the Vail Daily building in Eagle-Vail.
While snow fell past the early-morning reporting period, Vail Mountain’s website was reporting 3 inches of new snow Monday morning. Beaver Creek’s website reported 4 inches of new snow during the same period.
Aleksa said areas to the west of the Vail Valley were harder hit, with snow reporting stations on the Grand Mesa, southwest of the valley, reporting between 5 and 10 inches of new snow.
LOOKING INTO THE FUTURE
While snowpack held largely steady during February, that is one of the area’s more snowy months, so there’s catching up to do.
That won’t come for a while. Aleksa said current prediction models forecast another warm, sunny week through the region, with no new snow in the forecast until March 15 or so.
That’s about as far into the future as meteorologists can look with any certainty. Longer-range forecasts aren’t nearly as accurate. Still, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center has some potentially good news.
The 90-day outlook for precipitation shows a 50 percent chance of above-average precipitation for all of Colorado through the end of May. That could bode well for the final month or so of the current ski season at Vail and Beaver Creek. It could also be good news for water supplies, since most of the valley’s drinking water comes from snowpack.
This snow season — which stretches from October through May — also seems to be hewing to historical norms for El Nino weather patterns, which develop to the west of South America in the Pacific Ocean. Those patterns, which are typified by warmer-than-normal ocean temperatures in that area, usually bring more precipitation early and late in the snow year, with relatively dry conditions through the mid-winter months.
There’s more potentially good news in the future for the Vail Valley. While this year’s El Nino pattern has about run its course, Aleksa said that temperature monitors show that the next pattern to develop will be a La Nina, which has cooler-than-normal temperatures in the same area of the Pacific. The storms spawned by La Nina conditions are generally more favorable to this part of the Rockies. The epic snow season of 2010 — 2011 came during a La Nina pattern.
But that’s next season — maybe. For now, it looks as if the region is on track for a good finish to the snow season, if not the ski season.
“The big thing for us, we want the snow to stick around,” said Diane Johnson, public affairs manager with the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District. “The snow is our largest reservoir in the state.”
As of Wednesday, the SNOTEL site on Vail Mountain (not the Vail Resorts measuring site, but located near Eagle’s Nest) recorded the snow-water equivalent as 104 percent of normal (11.9 inches compared to the 30-year recorded median of 11.4 inches on Feb. 10).
“It means we’re in good standing right now,” said Brian Domonkos, Colorado Snow Survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “We still have a third of the season to go, and hopefully snowpack will be pretty close to normal.”
Snow-water equivalent at Vail Mountain was at 11.9 inches on Wednesday, and the median peak which comes in late April is 22.6 inches, so it’s about 52.6 percent of the way to normal with a third of the season to go.
With the recent high pressure systems in the valley bringing warmer temperatures and no snow, Domonkos said being slightly above normal snowpack acts as a buffer as the season goes along. With temperatures still dropping below freezing overnight, the snowpack is solid enough to stave off a dry spell, he said.
“There’s a bit of a forecast that states we’ll be relatively dry over the next few weeks,” Domonkos said. “And then usually we return to a wetter spell, especially these El Nino years, for the late winter, early spring months — March and April.”
In a small system such as Eagle County, one or two storms can really make a difference, Johnson said. January was at 70 percent of normal snowpack until the big storm that dropped over a foot of a snow at the end of the month and into February, bringing totals to above 100 percent of normal.
In 2013 when Vail Mountain reopened due to late-season snow, local water officials were on edge until the welcome dump of snow, which “totally changed the water picture,” Johnson said.
“One storm can make a difference,” Domonkos said, “but it’s pretty normal to see dry spells, decent storms and dry spells again and kind of get a more stair-step progression.”
Regional SNOTEL data from Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass also help local water officials get an indication of what will be melting off the mountains and flowing into local waterways.
As of Wednesday, the SNOTEL site at Copper Mountain read 10.1 inches, 117 percent of the normal, and the data from Fremont Pass measured 10.9 inches, 110 percent of normal.
Copper Mountain stats are indicative of snow-water equivalent in the Vail Pass area, which flows into Black Gore Creek before joining Gore Creek in East Vail. Fremont Pass presents an idea of what will eventually come down to Camp Hale and the Eagle River headwaters, Johnson said.
“We want the snow up high, and we want it to hang around,” Johnson said.