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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!

Wild & Scenic Film Festival

May 6, 2020 , 6:30 pm

COVID-19 can’t stop our 5th Annual Wild & Scenic Film Festival! 

Our event has shifted to an online format, meaning you can stream all 10 of the films from the comfort of your own couch!

We are using Vimeo as the online platform that you can access from your computer, smartphone, tablet or smart TV. 

We recognize the value of celebrating environmental & community awareness & we want to make sure that anyone anywhere can attend – whether they are able to give $1 or $100 – so tickets are available by donation.

Click HERE to learn more and get tickets!


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.

Cancelled: Community Pride Highway Cleanup

April 25, 2020 , 8:00 am

Health can’t wait. Trash can.


The Watershed Council has cancelled the highway cleanup for this spring in light of COVID-19 concerns; observing directives from Eagle County Public Health officials and following CDOT’s temporary restrictions on their Adopt-a-Highway program.

As the extremely-infectious disease can last up to 9 days on glass and 6 days on plastic and there is no practical way of tracking the source of debris we are asking all our teams to sit tight this year.

We realize that there is a great deal of debris needing to be gathered, but rest assured we are still planning to move forward with our Eagle River Cleanup this fall (barring any social distancing regulations that would not allow us to do so).

Please be sure to mark your calendars for next year’s Community Pride Highway Cleanup – scheduled for Saturday, May 1st, 2021.

Peak Flow Prediction Contest

April 22, 2020 , 6:00 am May 10, 2020 , 11:59 pm

Think you know the
Eagle’s Flow?

It’s easy to participate!

1. Enter the contest here.

2. Decide how many tickets/guesses you’d like to purchase. $20 or 3 for $50 – saves $10 to triple your chances of winning! Simply enter your guesses for the cubic feet per second (cfs), date, and time of the Eagle’s peak flow at the Gypsum gauge.

3. The closest guesses to the actual results will be contacted – the prizes are better than ever! See below for a selection of what our awesome contest sponsors have provided to support our efforts!


$20 – $50 per ticket or $50 for 3 (no limit to #tickets)

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.