Driving along I-70 in the springtime as the snow melts, various types of trash can be seen scattered along the grass median. This isn’t uncommon for a major highway running through a populated area, but unlike other communities, our roadways run parallel to our water source–the Eagle River and its tributaries.
Wind can obviously blow lightweight litter to the streams, but snow and rainfall also picks up plastic bags, motor oil, chemicals, fertilizers, cigarettes, and dog waste left on or near our roads and carries it directly into the river or into our storm drains, which aren’t filtered before emptying out into our streams. Our roadways have historically been built along the path of least resistance, following our valley floors, and as a result, everything flows downhill to the nearby rivers. Urbanization and an increase in impervious surfaces (parking lots, roads, rooftops, and other materials that aren’t absorbent) have been identified as the one of biggest threats to water quality in not just Gore Creek, but also the Eagle River and its tributaries.
In fact, this past year in Vail, dry cement mix, paint, window cleaner, cooking grease, and 120 hot dogs were dumped down storm drains, according to Pete Wadden, the Town of Vail’s Watershed Education Coordinator. Our storm drains are different than our sanitary sewers, and dumping anything down a storm drain is equivalent to dumping it directly into a creek. But this awareness isn’t fully present in our valley yet, and people that love our rivers are polluting them unintentionally from improper disposal.
The effects of trash in our rivers extends beyond the reaches of our community, too. The Ocean Conservancy found 2,117,931 cigarettes, and over one million plastic bags and plastic bottles each in our oceans in 2016. By now, plastic-covered beaches around the world have been covered widely in the news. The statistic from World Economic Forum that by 2050, our oceans will contain more plastic than fish has hit home with many. It is commonly known that water bottles and to-go containers create problems, but the lesser known forms of pollution are microplastics—either microbeads from beauty products, microfibers from our clothing, or the breakdown of bigger pieces of plastic from the sun. When these microplastics break down, the chemicals they contain such as PCBs, PETs, DEHPs, antimicrobials, and bioretardants, are released and consumed by the food chain.
“Recently a huge fact came to light, that in U.S. and Indonesian fish markets, a quarter of the fish contain microplastics, and a third of shellfish contain microplastics. And ultimately, where do those microplastics and contaminants end up? With the top predator,” explains Dr. Maria Campbell, a marine biologist with Plymouth University in the film, Plastico.
And since our rivers all flow to our oceans, it’s essential that we as a river-side community not contribute to the plastic pollution epidemic.
How can you help? Most importantly, reduce your use of disposable plastics such as to-go containers, plastic bags, straws, etc. before they make their way into our rivers, and recycle plastics whenever possible. Choose beauty products without microbeads such as natural face washes. Aside from these preventative measures, we also welcome you to join us in picking up the trash that has blown out of vehicles traveling our roadways. Each spring, following ski season and just as the trash emerges from underneath the layers of snow, the Watershed Council hosts the Community Pride Highway Cleanup with more than 950 volunteers. You can come out and help to clear trash from more than 138 miles of Eagle County roadways (I-70, Highways 6, 24, and 131) on May 6th. In the Watershed Council’s 17-year history of coordinating the event, the amount of trash cleared has decreased significantly from 45 tons collected per year to 10 tons. With greater public awareness, more recycling, and greater care for where our trash goes, hopefully this number will continue to decrease. The Watershed Council is always looking for more volunteers for this great community event. To get registered for the event, please call the office at (970) 827-5406 or email email@example.com.
Lizzie Schoder 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 www.erwc.org.
This article ran in the Vail Daily on April 25, 2017.