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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

The mighty Colorado faces challenges

The Colorado River, flowing 1,450 miles and supplying water to millions of people, plants and animals, begins in our backyard. It is up to us to ensure the quality and quantity of the headwaters. The Eagle River Watershed Council is here to help the community accomplish just that. 
Special to the Daily

The mighty Colorado. Its very name makes some nostalgic, others wishful of adventure and, still others, fearful. Whatever your feelings, we are lucky to have about 55 miles of the Colorado River flowing through our county. Not to mention the Eagle River is a significant headwaters tributary to the Colorado River, and many of us recreate on and/or near the Colorado River.

However, it is not a river without challenges, as drought, aridification, climate change, and human activities reduce flows and change the timing of hydrologic events. There are images everywhere of the “bathtub rings” in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, showing how low both of these water storage areas are, despite this big water year. And newspapers throughout the west have been reporting about the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan that was created through extensive work by the seven states in the Colorado River basin and signed by the President in April.

The Audubon Society said, “The DCP and Minute 323, the companion drought agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, are both agreements that represent a bridge strategy between the old ways of doing business on the Colorado River and the new ways that water users must adopt as the drought continues and the climate warms.”

The Watershed Council participates in the Colorado Basin Roundtable, which, as stated on its website, represents “the various water interests within the Colorado River Basin so that we can work together to solve water-related needs for the future of the basin and the state.”

Here in Eagle County, we see additional and different threats for the Colorado River. These were identified in the Colorado River Inventory and Assessment that we drafted with Colorado State University in 2014. CRIA highlighted the need to improve habitat for native trout on several tributaries such as Red Dirt Creek and the Piney River.

Examples of such improvements include stream bank reconstruction, decommissioning of old roads and campsites that otherwise introduce sediment to adjacent streams, and revegetation using locally-harvested willows and trees. The Watershed Council has worked with the U.S. Forest Service and National Forest Foundation to implement these habitat improvement projects on Red Dirt Creek, and together, we will complete a similar habitat restoration project on Piney River this summer. These Colorado River tributaries have a significant impact on the river’s mainstem, as problems always flow downstream.

The vegetated area around a stream, or riparian area, plays many critical roles, including filtering pollution from the water and providing habitat. Unfortunately, human activity, such as recreation, roads, homes and more, have removed significant riparian areas. CRIA outlined a number of locations where the riparian areas should be restored along the Colorado River, and we have worked with private property owners to begin these restoration efforts and will continue to do so.

Noxious weeds and trees, particularly tamarisk and Russian olive, along our county’s portion of the Colorado River are a constant threat to habitat quality, have a voracious need for water, and out-compete our native plants. We work with the BLM to monitor for these invasive trees and will be out in the coming weeks identifying trees for removal.

The Upper Colorado River Wild & Scenic Alternative Management Plan will be fully implemented in 2020. The Watershed Council is an active stakeholder in this collaborative partnership aimed at balancing permanent protection of the Outstandingly Remarkable Values along the Upper Colorado River, while also providing flexibility for water users.

Partnerships, collaborations and an engaged community are all critical to protecting water rights, river health, recreation, agriculture, and our way of life here in Eagle County. The Watershed Council encourages you to stay in tune with national and local efforts to protect the Colorado River, which will ultimately protect the surrounding habitats, people, recreation, and economies of the western US.

Our newsletter, newspaper articles, and Watershed Wednesday series are tools available to help you stay informed, and our volunteer projects allow you to actively engage in the restoration of the Colorado and Eagle River Watersheds. Learn more at http://www.erwc.org.

Holly Loff is the executive director 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://www.erwc.org.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on August 21, 2019

What in the World is W.O.T.U.S?

By Kate Isaacson

What in the world is WOTUS? Simply put, it stands for Waters of the United States. Currently, the determination of what is a water of the U.S. is being questioned and could have damaging effects to the environment and people of this country.

In 2015, the Obama administration passed the Clean Water Rule (part of the Clean Water Act) to clarify rules for the management of our nation’s waterways — and pollution thereof. In 2017, President Trump signed an executive order for the review of the 2015 rule with the ultimate goal of rescinding or revising it. The revisions are now referred to as the Dirty Water Rule, which includes these changes:

  • Eliminating protections from interstate waters, such as streams that flow through more than one state.
  • Excluding from protection isolated water bodies that are not connected with downstream waterways, wetlands and prior converted agricultural lands and ephemeral watercourses (streams that flow only briefly during and following rainfall).
  • Inviting comments on any and all other issues. This could create a slew of possible negative environmental factors. Policy experts speculate that this single change could lead to the elimination of water quality standards and regulation of oil spills, sewage dumping and more.

This would eliminate federal punishments for the dumping of pollutants into these waterways.

In a recent seminar, representatives from the National Resource Defense Council and National Wildlife Federation noted that this repeal would affect 70% of waters in the United States if passed. There has been no analysis by the Trump Administration of the effect these rule changes would have on public health and safety, environment and ecological systems, and the economy — a stark contrast to the countless hours the scientific community spent researching the 2015 Clean Water Rule prior to its implementation.

We can consider ourselves lucky here in Colorado. Our state officials have created stringent laws to protect our waterways. But our state would not go unaffected if this change were to be implemented.

Tribal nations (such as the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute nations in Colorado) are not subject to state law. This federal law would directly impact these communities that already struggle with clean water access in the arid desert.

Furthermore, we are an interconnected country. Any degradations upstream could flow right through our state. Not to mention that, like many of you, I have friends and family all over the country that would be hard hit by the Dirty Water Rule.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River fires in Ohio, which was caused by the unregulated dumping of industrial waste into the water. We cannot return to such conditions.

The public comment period is now closed, but a resounding 525,000 comments were received in the two months that public comment was open, showing the clear public concern for this issue.

So what can you do now? Even though the public comment period is closed, you can contact your political leaders and government agency representatives and ask them to oppose the Dirty Water Rule. Do it soon, however, as it is set to take effect at the end of this year.

The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers will ultimately decide the fate of this proposal. Write letters or send emails to them and your state officials to demand accountability from the deciding entities.

You can find your representatives at house.gov or senate.gov or by calling the U.S. Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121. Tweet using @EPA, #ProtectCleanWater, and #DirtyWaterRule to call attention to the issue. And most importantly, educate yourself and stay in tune with how this rulemaking is progressing by visiting epa.gov/wotus-rule or protectcleanwater.org for more information.

Kate Isaacson is the Projects & Events 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://www.erwc.org.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on July 17, 2019.

Local river lover wins a Rocky Mountain Raft for peak flow prediction

John Christensen Wins Raft

Eagle River Watershed Council’s inaugural Peak Flow Prediction contest provided the opportunity to win a Rocky Mountain Raft for anyone who could correctly guess the date of the Eagle River’s peak.

With all of the late snow, cooler early summer temperatures and rain, runoff in the Eagle was prolonged and the peak was later this year than typical, peaking on July 1 at 11 a.m. with a flow of 7,480 cubic feet per second.

The contest had just short of 150 guesses submitted. The contestants had varying knowledge and experience — some drawing on years of data available online, others on gut extinct. However, the majority guessed that flows would peak around the first two weeks of June with flows between 4000 and 6000 cfs at the Gypsum gauge.

In a typical year, one of those guesses might have been the winner, but this year was anything but typical. The winner was the contestant that made the latest guess of June 29 — Jon Christensen of Eagle.

Another contestant guessed June 29 so the tie-breakers of time and flow had to be used to determine Timm Paxson of Vail as the runner-up. Paxson will enjoy a three-day canoe trip for two with Centennial Canoe Outfitters. The third-place winner, Jill Kelsall of Avon, walks away with a $500 dining certificate from Vail Resorts.

Like many of the winners, Kelsall made three guesses and also walked away the winner of fifth place, which was three dry bags from Sea to Summit. Joe Robinson of Edwards took home an Orvis backpack for the fourth-place guess and Gary Brooks grabbed the sixth place prize of two REI day packs.
In a release, Watershed Council executive director Holly Loff said, “This contest was a lot of fun, people really got into it. And it raised over $2,000 for our outreach programs and stream restoration projects. Thanks to everyone that participated.”

The Watershed Council plans to run the contest again next April. Contest information will be announced in their newsletter, The Current, in the spring. Registration for the newsletter is free online at erwc.org.

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 www.erwc.org.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on July 17, 2019.