EAGLE COUNTY — The Eagle River has made quite a comeback since the days when it was so polluted that fish couldn’t survive in parts of it.
Looking forward, though, a cleanup of a different sort will soon be in order if things don’t change along the riparian area at the river’s banks.
In the mid-1980s, high levels of zinc, copper and cadmium from the Eagle Mine, in the now-abandoned town of Gilman, prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to declare the zone a Superfund site — an area requiring emergency cleanup of hazardous substances. What resulted is the most successful cleanup of a moving water Superfund site to date, improving the fishery so much that rainbow and brown trout are now commonly pulled from the Eagle River by anglers fishing below the mine near Minturn. Those fish are healthy because they are supported by healthy bug populations in the river — macroinvertebretes — which feed fish and birds and give us a glimpse at the river’s overall health.
Recent findings, however, suggest a decline in macroinvertebrate populations may be on the horizon in Eagle County. The prediction for fewer bugs in the Eagle River has been made as a result of the current predicament facing Vail’s Gore Creek, which converges with the Eagle in Dowd Junction. Recently listed as “provisionally impaired for aquatic life” by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, Gore Creek has been seeing a marked reduction in macroinvertebretes during the past decade or so.
“We think it’s only a matter of time before the entire watershed is dealing with these same issues,” said Holly Loff with the Eagle River Watershed Council.
Once the bug reduction problem was identified on Gore Creek, the second step in solving it has been to figure out what is causing the problem. Students at Vail Mountain School were able to play a detective’s role in helping solving the mystery by studying tributaries leading into Gore Creek.
“In general, (the Vail Mountain School students) found that bugs in and below developments suffered, while those above homes and other buildings were healthier,” Loff said.
The problem lies in riparian areas, the natural buffer that should prevent stormwater from running directly into the creek. In undeveloped areas, stormwater soaks into the ground first before hitting the creek, but in areas with mowed or paved surfaces along the creek, stormwater has a direct path into the stream. It’s called urban runoff, and it has prompted the formation of a local urban runoff group, a strategic action plan and a Gore Creek water quality improvement plan, funded by the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, the Upper Eagle River Water Authority, the town of Avon, the town of Vail, Eagle County, Vail Resorts, the Eagle River Watershed Council and the Climax Mine.
Much of the Gore Creek strategic plan is aimed at educating locals on best practices, but some regulatory efforts will be undertaken, as well.
“Our regulations just haven’t kept pace with the intense growth we’ve had, particularly for water quality and to protect aquatic health,” said Tambi Katieb with the Eagle-based Land Planning Collaborative. “Stream setbacks, for many years, were treated like other dimensional standards … We’re keeping the building away from the floodplain for certain aesthetic or building reasons. They weren’t really thought of as performance measures for aquatic health specifically, or for water quality specifically.”
While Eagle County may feel rural in comparison to areas on the Front Range, the land use here is actually quite urban.
“We have a very limited amount of land,” Katieb said. “Most of the private, developable land is, in fact, in very close proximity to Gore Creek, the Eagle River and other streams and tributaries.”
Current regulations state that no development should occur 50 feet from the center line of Gore Creek, and 30 feet from the center line of any tributaries leading into the creek.
However, “If the homeowner owns the property up to the edge of the stream, there are no current regulations on whether or not to mow it, hence the discussion about whether or not to implement (regulations),” says Kristen Bertuglia, Vail’s environmental sustainability manager.
For now, if property owners want to engage in a voluntary no-mow zone, then an area extending at least 20 feet from the bank is recommended for stream health.
“It’d be great to have 100 feet,” Bertuglia said.
The Land Planning Collaborative has also identified 42 areas where riparian revegetation projects could have a big impact on water quality. The Skier Bridge area in Lionshead Village near Vail Mountain’s Eagle Bahn gondola is a prime example.
“There are lot of impacts (on Gore Creek near the Lionshead Skier Bridge) just from people trying to access the stream,” Loff said. “They’re trying to wade in it, they’re trying to jump from rock to rock, and all of that foot traffic has impacted the riparian area. You can see that there’s no vegetation in large swaths, and the ground is really compacted from everyone walking on it.”
The watershed council is planning a community volunteer day some time this summer to help correct the problems at Gore Creek near the Skier Bridge.
“Our plan is to remove six social trails and really make it clear for people where they should be walking,” Loff said. “This is a big one where you can become involved, and have a good time out on the stream, helping us to do some work.”
Katieb said regulation focused promoting vegetative buffers could impact, in a positive way, the conditions in Gore Creek and throughout the watershed. The Eagle River Watershed Council agrees.
“Instead of stopping with the town of Vail … we’re looking at ways we can do these same things downstream, and systematically start a process with the urban runoff group in looking at ways to attack the problem,” Loff said.
For more information, including when the Gore Creek volunteer day will be, sign up for the watershed council’s e-newsletter by visiting erwc.org.
Eagle River 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. Call the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.
This article ran in the Vail Daily on May 27, 2016.