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Land & Rivers Scholarship Presentation 2020

Sue Nikolai, Land & Rivers Fund Program Director

The Land & Rivers Fund is a collaboration between the Eagle River Watershed Council and the Eagle Valley Land Trust. Both of these nonprofits work every day to conserve, restore and protect land and rivers in Eagle County. For more information, go to landandrivers.org.

This scholarship is for a graduating 2020 senior who will be attending college in the fall and plans to get a degree in the field of natural resources or environmental science.

We invite you to listen in as Sue presents the award to this year’s Land & Rivers Fund recipient.

Q&A with Pete Wadden

Pete Wadden is Town of Vail’s Watershed Education Coordinator. We at Eagle River Watershed Council work with him on a regular basis: we collaborate on everything from educational programming (check out the Sustainable Landscaping Series taking place every Wednesday through May 27; the series is filling in for Lunch with the Locals) to riparian rehabilitation efforts. Kate Isaacson and our loyal volunteers often work alongside Pete with the Town’s Restore the Gore campaign and associated water-quality improvement efforts. And as of March, the Watershed Council also welcomes Pete to our Board of Directors, in which he is active in several committees and a source of experience in water leadership in our region.

We know how active Pete is in our river recreation community and consulted him on a few topics regarding our Peak Flow Prediction Contest. We also took a few minutes to pose a few questions to Pete to find out his take on everything from why runoff is so important to how to get involved in the river community here in the Eagle Valley. Thanks for all your help, Pete!


  • What is the best part of your job working in river education for the Town of Vail? 

I love that my job allows me to help protect and restore an ecosystem I care about. I feel very fortunate to have work that matters and means something to me and that I believe has a positive impact on the environment and our community. It doesn’t hurt that it gets me outside observing the creek, planting trees and enjoying all that our mountain town has to offer.


  •  What role does runoff have in our watershed?

Runoff is everything in the mountains of Colorado! Most of our precipitation in Eagle County falls as snow. That means all the water that human communities and ecological communities rely on is stored in a snowy reservoir that trickles and then rushes down from the mountain peaks each spring. The cycle of runoff drives the life cycles of fish, insects, birds and amphibians. That runoff also carries a lot along with it on its journey downhill. If the roads it flows over have oil and salt on their surfaces, runoff will transport those pollutants into our waterways. Runoff sustains mountain ecosystems and communities all along the Colorado River, through seven American states and a portion of the Republic of Mexico. As a community at the top of an enormous and dynamic watershed, we owe it to our neighbors downstream to be good stewards of this life-giving resource.

Celebrating runoff is the basis of Eagle River Watershed Council’s Peak Flow Prediction Contest. To learn more and participate, check the contest out here! It closes Sunday May 10th.


  • Do you enjoy river recreation and are you part of the river recreation communities outside of work here in the Eagle Valley? 

Water has been at the center of my life since I was a kid. I was an avid sailor and sea kayaker on the Great Lakes as a kid growing up in Ohio. When I moved to Maine for college, I was on the sailing team and began to get into whitewater paddling and fly fishing. In Colorado, the rivers are where the water is. I spend my free time fishing the streams, running the rivers or simply taking them in. The life of our local waterways and the steady advance of spring have brought me a lot of solace in this time of uncertainty and isolation. Our society seems to have hit the pause button, but nature marches on.


  • If people are looking for a way to get into river recreation activities, where or how would you recommend they start? 

There are so many ways and so many opportunities to enjoy and interact with the waterways in our valley! My two favorites, running whitewater and fly fishing, are at opposite ends of the spectrum in some ways, but Eagle County is an international destination for both. Alpine Quest Sports and the Alpine Kayak/ SUP School are great organizations to help you figure out what gear you need to own and skills to develop to run rivers safely. The Alpine Quest used gear swap will begin on May 8 this year and is a great way to find affordable, used gear. Whitewater rafting companies can be a great informational resource and offer a great opportunity to dip your toe in the water for a day.

If you are interested in fishing, the fly guiding shops offer some great opportunities like free fly-tying clinics and free women’s flyfishing clinics. I also find them to be much more forthcoming with information about where to fish and what lures and techniques to use than the stereotype of tight-lipped fly guides would suggest. Spending a day with a professional guide can teach you a lot about fishing. Those guys and gals can help you improve your cast, learn to read water, and learn to identify hatches and select flies accordingly.


Thanks, Pete, for sharing your thoughts with us and for doing all that you do to advocate for our rivers! We’re proud to work alongside you! As a side note, we are proud to partner with Alpine Quest, through the Land & Rivers Fund. If you are interested in trying flyfishing, we recommend checking out Vail Valley Anglers and Minturn Anglers; both are partners in the Watershed Council’s Business Partner Program. Thank you!

To learn more about the Eagle River Watershed Council, our mission and what it means to be an advocate for the rivers, email info@erwc.org. We welcome a conversation with you!

Does Above-Average Snowpack Mean Above-Average Runoff?

Runoff on the Eagle River is a marker of the summer river season here in the Eagle Valley. Snowpack in the mountains, moisture content of watershed soils and spring weather patterns all contribute to the flows we will see during runoff in upcoming weeks or months.

As the majority of us Vail-area locals have hung up our skis for the season and are trading in our boots for our Chacos, we might find ourselves reminiscing on what played out to be a pretty typical snow year – albeit one with a pretty atypical closure of the resorts – and well, everything else. As you may remember, winter started off pretty strong, with heavy storms dropping flakes into February. After a lull, it started back up again – and it kept coming, even as the COVID-19 response shuttered ski areas around the nation.

Efforts to track snowpack do not stop when the resorts close, however. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and its Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) program continues well beyond the typical end-of-the-season parties at the top of Chair 4 and even after the main backcountry ski season turns to slush.

Snowpack in the Rocky Mountains acts as a reservoir for replenishing rivers and streams all summer long and into fall, and understanding the link between a healthy snowpack and stream flows is a critical part of forecasting the water outlook months down the road.

Typically, remote sensing data from SNOTEL sites is combined with field data from manual measurements taken on-site, but the COVID-19 response has limited data collection to remote sensing only.

Current provisional SNOTEL data suggests that the current snowpack is hovering at or slightly above average. This is welcomed news for area rafters, kayakers, anglers and for concerns about wildfire risk. However, current snowpack does not tell the full story. It’s important to step back and see the big picture, which includes the soil conditions entering into the winter, before we even tuned our skis in anticipation of the season ahead.

Last fall was a dry one, and our watershed’s soils were thirsty to take in moisture from the melting snowpack. This will likely affect the quantity of water that reaches streams and rivers and may affect streamflows throughout and after runoff.  Our current snowpack is healthy, and that’s a welcomed presence for the months ahead, but it does not necessarily indicate that high flows will be seen. Experts look at snowpack, temperature and soil saturation data to predict when and at what level rivers will peak. The models they are able to create help to inform decisions about the filling and release of reservoirs, management of wildfire risk and more.

The grand prize for the 2020 Peak Flow Prediction Contest is a Jackson Kayak Rockstar 4.0, valued at $1,399.

Eagle River Watershed Council’s second annual Peak Flow Prediction Contest is a great chance to apply your skills – or simply participate and rely on luck. This year, national-level partners generously sponsored the prizes to be awarded, which total more than $4,000 – including a Jackson Kayak Rockstar for the grand prize winner.

To participate, simply purchase your tickets on the Watershed Council website and select your guesses for the date and time of the Eagle River’s peak flow at the Gypsum gauge. The cubic feet per second (CFS) will be the tie-breaker. Ticket sales are currently open, and close at 11:59 pm on May 10. After the chance of a false peak in the flow has passed, the contest winners will be determined.

All proceeds from the contest support the work of Eagle River Watershed Council, ensuring that relevant and accessible river education is available, that rehabilitation projects continue to restore damaged or unhealthy riparian ecosystems and that data can be collected, managed and shared to ensure that responsible decision-making is taking place.

If you have questions about the Peak Flow Prediction contest or any other efforts of the Eagle River Watershed Council, please reach out to Melanie Smith at smith@erwc.org.

Melanie Smith

Melanie Smith is the Development and Communications 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 erwc.org.

There are local businesses supporting our work that need our help! Here’s how:

The Land & Rivers Fund, a collaboration between EVLT, the Eagle River Watershed Council, and local businesses, relies on contributions made during sales. The effects of COVID-19 public health concerns are especially tough for local businesses.

Here’s a list of local businesses that provide critical support for local conservation via the Land & Rivers Fund – will you help us return the favor? Gift cards are a great way to provide cash flow to local businesses who are temporarily shutting down. Many businesses are also offering unique services and creative ways to support their employees.

For more information about the Land & Rivers Fund, contact Sue Nikolai at sue@landandrivers.org.

Watershed Wildlife: American River Otter

By James Dilzell
Submitted to the Vail Daily 2/11/2020


Here in Eagle County, there are more than 270 wildlife species that rely on the river. The clean water flowing through our valley supplies them with drinking water, sustains their food sources and supports the riparian zones they often claim as their habitat.

One of those species is Mammalia, Carnivora, Mustelidae, Lontra canadensis. For the rest of us, that Latin denotes the American River Otter – a relatively small and wildly playful animal that calls this valley home.

A successful reintroduction effort, paired with a statewide focus on healthy streams, has resulted in the presence of otters in more than half of Colorado’s counties, including Eagle. Photo: Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Blue River Ranch.

Otters are semi-aquatic, meaning they spend time in the water as well as on the land surrounding the river. They can often be found settling near old beaver dams where the water is well-pooled, and vegetation cover is strong. Riparian zones, which are the areas of land surrounding the river, are instrumental to otters’ survival and well-being, as they provide places to tunnel to the river and also contribute to the health of the river as a whole.

As members of the weasel family, these carnivores search for their favorite fish, settle for a crawdad or even munch on a bird at dawn and dusk. Though it is often believed that otters prefer game fish and thus compete with fly fishermen, they hunt and consume fish of all types.

The otter has a notable and somewhat tragic history here in North America. They used to roam the streams, wetlands and lakes of almost all of the states, but with continued habitat loss and sport hunting their habitat was significantly reduced. Within the state of Colorado, they were deemed as extirpated, or locally extinct, and listed as ‘endangered’ in 1975.  

Colorado Parks and Wildlife began creating a plan for their reintroduction in the 80s to the rivers throughout the state. A little more than 25 years ago, 120 male and female otter were placed into the wild. This project has been considered to be a success, and the American River Otter can be seen in more than 50% of Colorado counties.

Locally, there have been confirmed sightings of otter in many locations along the Colorado River, as well as several spots along the Eagle River. Jon Stavney, the executive director of Northwest Colorado Council of Governments and long-time Eagle resident, has seen them many times here in the county. When asked about his sightings, he said, “I’ve been fortunate enough to see otters on both the Colorado and Eagle Rivers in summer and winter. Whatever I am doing, it immediately becomes a peak experience.”

However, even after reintroduction, seeing otters is considered pretty rare. They are still listed as ‘threatened’ in Colorado, which means without continued effort they could become endangered again in the future. Otters are sentinel species, meaning that they are extremely sensitive to environmental pollution.

Efforts to keep our rivers healthy and flowing not only make the habitat better for us, but also better for our wildlife. If you do see an otter in the wild, you can take an active role in ensuring the success of its species. Colorado Park & Wildlife has an online river otter sighting form that you can quickly fill out to help track this re-introduced species. Keep an eye out for footprints in the snow leading to holes in the ice – those might just be the tracks of an otter, according to Stavney!

Proposed Changes to NEPA will Limit Environmental Protections

Submitted: January 30, 2020
Contact: Holly Loff, Eagle River Watershed Council

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) recently celebrated its 50th birthday. NEPA is a federal law that promotes the enhancement of the environment and establishes the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Unfortunately, there isn’t much celebration of the 50 years of resource protection as President Trump just proposed changes to NEPA that would significantly narrow its scope and overall ability to do what it was created to do. The changes are aimed at making it easier and faster to get new roads, mines, pipelines and other projects up and running without the thorough review of potential impacts to the environment that such projects have been subject to in the previous 50 years.

Eagle River Watershed Council often participates in the public comment period for NEPA-regulated projects. This is where the local community, which knows the area in which the project is proposed best, has a voice. The proposed changes to NEPA will largely negate our local voice on issues such as proposed reservoirs, highway expansions and more.

The Watershed Council has concerns regarding several key issues in the proposed rule:

1. Simplification of the definition of effects:  This change consolidates the definition of effects and removes “references to direct, indirect and cumulative effects” and strikes at the heart of NEPA. NEPA was established to understand the variety, scale and context of effects from a proposed action, and the consolidation of these categories makes it more difficult to understand the full effects. When NEPA was declared law by a bipartisan effort and signed by President Nixon, it was in response to many years of direct, indirect and cumulative effects of harmful impacts on the nation’s water, air and land resources. Analysis of indirect and cumulative effects is critical to understanding the overall impact of every project.  

The consolidation of these terms in the “simplification” of the definition will weaken the public’s and decision-makers’ understanding of the full array of impacts from proposed federal actions. It will undoubtedly be a challenge to fully grasp how actions may affect or be affected by climate change without these effects made clear and available.

2. Major Federal actions:  ERWC has strong concerns about the intent and outcome of the proposed addition of two sentences to the definition of “major Federal action.” The non-federal agencies always can influence the outcome of an action on federal land because the land belongs to the public, not the project proponent. There is strong legal precedent that NEPA is required when there is a federal tie, regardless of whether funding is large or small for a project, or through private or local funds. The authors of NEPA were abundantly clear that the impacts on the environment of public lands were of utmost importance, and therefore, the removal of a NEPA analysis requirement for “non-major Federal actions” is again, a thinly veiled attempt to reduce the public and agency’s understanding of the scope of impacts from infrastructure projects. 

3. Page limits and time limits for NEPA reviews: The proposed rule sets page limits (currently nonexistent) for environmental assessments (EA’s) to 75 pages and environmental impact statements (EIS’s) to 150 pages and recommends shorter review periods. We agree conceptually with the overall federal efforts in the past five years to streamline NEPA. However, the quality of content and the thoroughness of important analyses will be crippled by these page limits in most cases. Transparency with the public and time for public engagement is one of the key tenants of NEPA, and these changes will undercut any relevant and genuine efforts at the agency level to implement appropriate NEPA streamlining (which federal agencies are already effectively working on, and which we applaud).

In sum, the Watershed Council believes the proposed rule weakens NEPA, reducing the public’s and decision-makers’ understanding of the scope and impact of federal actions. We strongly believe, if passed, that the rule will have devastating impacts on our nation’s waters, lands and air, and we encourage you to speak up and request that the Council on Environmental Quality halt these thinly-veiled attempts to allow major infrastructure projects to proceed without adequate regulation and mitigation.

The comment period is currently open on this proposed rulemaking. You can submit comments until March 10.  If you agree with our comments, we welcome you to use any information we shared here in your comments to the Council on Environmental Quality. You can read the full rule for yourself at federalregister.gov.   

Stone Creek Restoration Project – Partner Highlight

EagleVail Metro District completed a restoration project on Stone Creek this fall – the first in a four-phase, ten-year plan.

Eagle River Watershed Council is proud to share stories of successful stream projects and water planning initiatives in our valley. We would like to take a moment to highlight one such restoration project that took place this past fall in EagleVail. The EagleVail Metro District along with its contributing partners successfully completed phase one of the Stone Creek Restoration Project.

Nestled in between the 18-hole golf course and residential community, Stone Creek had been manipulated over the community’s 45-year history and some of those manipulations had impacts on the stream’s health. Brent Barnum, superintendent of golf courses & parks, and Steven Barber, EagleVail Metro District’s manager, took on the task of restoring this beautiful mountain stream. After securing funding from partners and grants for the project, they worked with Scott Schreiber from Wright Water Engineers to assess priorities and create a project plan. The 10-year multi-phase approach will be the guideline for future stream related projects. Phase one priorities included: creating a cohesive flowing waterway with natural features (such as riffles to improve streamflow); improving fish passage; and removing man-made structure. Additionally, the brown trout that reside in this stream will flourish with the creation of new pools for spawning as well as removal of the obstructions preventing them from reaching these areas before. Phase two (slated for 2021) will focus on alluvial ponds (near holes 6 & 11) which have widened, causing temperature-related ecosystem issues. 

Kudos to the EagleVail team for their efforts. For more information about the project – feel free to contact Brent Barnum at bbarnum@eaglevail.org.


Big snow and high flows don’t tell the whole story

The Eagle River saw high flows this summer, peaking at 7490 cfs on July 1st – but it doesn’t tell the whole story in a time of aridification and climate variabilities.

One hundred and 28 percent.

That’s the average snowpack the Upper Colorado River Basin saw for the 2019 winter season, which comprises the Western Slope of Colorado, eastern Utah, and parts of Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico.

In Colorado, our local watersheds experienced snowpack at 134% of average through the season, and many late-season storms contributed to areas in the state being above 400% for the month of June. Though, we don’t need numbers to confirm what we already knew — 2019 brought a ton of snow and with that a fantastic ski season. The powder came early and stayed late, allowing for turns at Thanksgiving and on the Fourth of July.

The gift of powder last winter came in part from the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, a climate cycle connected to the Pacific Ocean. El Niño occurs when the ocean’s surface has a warm-year cycle, creating a low-pressure zone in the Pacific. This event pushes and extends the Pacific jet stream down, creating the path for amplified storms across the southern United States. That said, the winter we experienced last year wasn’t guaranteed, the El Nino-Southern Oscillation merely increased the probability.

2019’s El Niño event was paired with randomness, transporting warm, wet air from the Pacific Northwest inland to Utah and Colorado. When that arrived in the high country, it was met with near-normal cold temperatures. This combination allowed for storm after storm and precipitated into a lot of snow midseason. SNOTEL sites throughout the state showed record-setting precipitation in February and March. Overall, 2019 was the second wettest season since 1900.

One hundred and 20 percent.

That’s the peak flow of rivers in the upper basin compared to average. Here in the Eagle River Valley, we saw high flows and a late-season peak when the Eagle River reached 7,490 cubic feet per second on July 1. The second highest in recent years was in 2012 when the river peaked just above 6,000 cfs in early June. Again, we don’t need numbers to tell us about the incredible summer the river had. But what the numbers can tell us is that we are not in the clear when it comes to the water in our western rivers.

While 120% is a strong runoff, the complete story is that we are not seeing the same efficiencies in snowmelt reaching the rivers. At the Water Seminar in Grand Junction, hosted by the Colorado River District, it was repeated over and over that runoff efficiencies are far lower now than in the 1950s and 60s. This is due to the extended drying of the west, the lack of consistent precipitation to bring the soil moisture up, and the increasing average temperatures.

This winter did allow for a moisture recharge, pulling Colorado out of a 19-year drought, but we are not in the clear.  Our winter was the second wettest, but June through August was the eighth-driest on record, and our summer fell into the top 10 of warmest on record.

The Winter 2019 feast after the famine was welcomed and needed, but it is a part of the increasingly unpredictable, unsteady and inconsistent hydroclimate. As climate cycles alter and average temperatures increase, we don’t know what the future of water in the West is. Uncertainty is the only thing we can count on — and it is up to us to stay ahead of the changes in our climate. Consider writing a letter to the current administration to stand up for rivers or join the Watershed Council in local planning efforts to ensure the future of water for our community.

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.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on October 10, 2019

Colorado’s mining past and the future of our rivers

Participants of the 2019 Eagle Mine site tour look into the distance, catching views of the former tailings pond turned wetlands, the historic trestle diverting contaminated water for treatment and the engineered consolidated tailings pile — all efforts to restore and protect the river from the Eagle Mine.
Special to the Daily

The history of mining in Colorado is omnipresent. Whether you’re hiking in the backcountry or driving along I-70, you’re bound to come across something related to mining.

The industry, which began when prospectors first discovered gold in 1859 west of Denver, helped the state develop into what we know it as today. When the gold was tapped out, mines changed to a plethora of other materials such as coal, lead, molybdenum and even uranium to keep incomes constant. Of course, not every mine could withstand the test of time. 

Although mining is still active in the state, according to the Colorado Geological Survey there are an estimated 23,000 abandoned mines in the state. Prior to 1977, almost no laws existed in the country that required reclamation of the mines, and no closing procedures were in place. These old mines pose a risk, especially when it comes to water quality.

Eagle County was reminded of our mining history in 1984, after pumps draining the Eagle Mine near Red Cliff were shut off, allowing the mine to flood. As water from snowmelt and rain filled the mine, it dissolved zinc, copper, cadmium, and other heavy metals from the rock. Once the mine completely filled, heavy metal-laden water overflowed into the Eagle River.

The spill turned the river orange and it became uninhabitable by many fish species. Zinc coated the gills of fish, making it impossible for them to breathe. The State of Colorado filed notice and claims against the former mine operator and had the 256-acre mine listed on the National Priorities List as a Superfund site, therefore launching the cleanup process.

During a recent Eagle River Watershed Council tour of the Eagle Mine, representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, and Ramboll, the wastewater treatment plant operator, told participants about restoration efforts in the area and how much progress has been made.

One of the efforts highlighted was the dramatic restoration of a former tailings pond back to the wetlands we see on the west side of Tigiwon Road. The contaminated waste, along with roaster piles and other waste rock that had the potential for acid generation around the site, have been consolidated to an engineered pit and capped with vegetation.

This prevents runoff from mixing with the waste, but also captures any groundwater that may come in contact with the tailings for treatment. The treatment facility, which also receives any water that has come in contact with contamination in the mines, is located just south of this pile. Taking up a relatively small building, the industrial treatment operation has a big job to do, removing 178 pounds of metal from the water per day, and returning 100 million gallons of clean water to the river each year.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the tour was the Eagle Mine Site at Belden, where many participants were wide-eyed and intrigued as they learned about cribbing walls keeping waste rock from entering the river and modern monitoring systems juxtaposed with abandoned buildings. It is here that many of the roaster piles were located, right on the banks of the Eagle River.

Eagle River Watershed Council and other local partners continue to push for real-time monitoring of the site, to warn us of any potential problems or spills in the area. We are pleased to have trust and open dialog with the EPA, CDPHE, the mine owner and its contractors.

Though much has been done and immediate threats to human health and the environment have been mitigated, the cleanup of this mine site and treatment of its contaminated water will go on in perpetuity, as will our need to closely monitor and support the success of cleanup efforts 

The Eagle Mine and its surrounding areas are private property and a Superfund Cleanup site. Please respect this and do not trespass on the property.

James Dilzell is the education and 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 erwc.org.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on September 11, 2019