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Birds at Risk Along the Colorado River

Lizzie Schoder

In the arid West, we often hear how the Colorado River supports people–it provides drinking water to nearly 40 million people in seven states, irrigates 5.5 million acres of farmland and ranches, supports 16 million jobs, and has an annual economic impact of $1.4 trillion. We also hear about instream flows necessary to support our beloved fish populations and summer recreation adventures. We hear less about our avian friends–the 400 some species of birds that depend on riparian habitats like wetlands and marshes that dot the Colorado River. Even lesser known are the network of Western saline lakes that provide critical habitat for global migratory birds–populations that are drastically dwindling due to climate change as well as dams, diversions, and increasing water demand.

Whether stopping along Gore Creek in Vail, Nottingham Lake in Avon, or at Gypsum Ponds and Dotsero, you will likely hear the song of one of our local birds—in the springtime their return from down South signals the coming burst of life into our valley. Eagle County encompasses not only the entire length of the Eagle River, but 55 miles of the Upper Colorado River as well. Whether yellow warblers, American white pelicans, summer tanagers, sandhill cranes, marsh wrens, grebes, cinnamon teals, willow flycatchers, or white-faced ibises–bird songs in our valley uplift spirits, as well as play a critical role in our intricate food webs.

This July, Audubon released the first comprehensive report of climate change’s effect on bird populations in the Southwest. According to the Audubon report, although riparian zones make up 5% of the Southwest, they support over 50% of all regional breeding bird species, which includes over 400 species along the entirety of the Colorado River and 250 species of wildlife along the Eagle and Colorado Rivers in Eagle County. Commonly seen species such as the yellow warbler and summer tanager have significantly declined with the loss of cottonwoods-willow forests and similar habitats.

The destruction of habitat can be attributed to two main culprits: climate change and changes in water use. Raising temperatures due to climate change increases aridity and evaporation and disturbs the natural cycles of flooding and insect hatching. The water diversions along the Colorado have also invited the spread of invasive plants such as tamarisk, which reduce the overall biodiversity that make up these important riparian habitats.

The lesser known saline lakes are also being affected—these landlocked saltwater lakes provide birds with a critical network for migratory pathways to and from breeding grounds and winter escapes. Climate change is spurring these lakes to dry up, increasing the salinity and even introducing toxic dust into our air.

The future for Southwestern birds isn’t all grim, however. Collaborative and creative multi-stakeholder solutions such as Minute 319 in the Colorado River Delta have been a great start and template for tackling the complex issues that surround the Colorado River basins. For the first time in decades, the sounds of migratory birds can be heard again where the Colorado River meets the Sea of Cortez. That’s because of an experimental pulse flow that released billions of gallons of water for several weeks to the bone-dry delta in 2014. This agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, called Minute 319, was an effort to begin restoring the delta back to the historic ecological function it has provided for tens of thousands of years. A whole generation that had never seen the Colorado River meet the sea were able to play in water and see life spring back to the area.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s Conservation Pilot Program, enacted in 2014, is another important example of a collaborative solution. Through a voluntary program incentivizing farmers to utilize innovative agricultural irrigation systems, more than 60,000 acre feet in water was saved and kept in the river.

As long-time Edwards local, Eleanor Finlay, puts it: “For me there is great joy in seeing so many different birds on the river, and to greet them like old friends every year. These migratory birds also help me feel a connection with our neighbors to the South and North. Migratory birds do not recognize the artificial boundaries humans have drawn all over the globe. They need to find acceptable habitat all along their journey which often stretches from South America to Canada.”

Take a moment today when you step outside to really listen to the birds around you: what would it mean if you were met instead by silence?

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.

 

 

Capturing Rain in Your Backyard

Lizzie Schoder

The Eagle Valley is a headwaters community—the Eagle River feeds into the over-allocated Colorado River, which, in turn, provides water for seven states and nearly 40 million people annually. Water that flows out of sprinklers and hoses is the same potable water that flows out of our kitchen sinks and shower heads. Outdoor water use in Colorado accounts for half of residential water use and is more consumptive than indoor use, making each drop of water we use outside especially precious.

In August of 2016, Colorado House Bill 16-1005 passed, legalizing the use of rain barrels for homeowners in our state. Each household is allowed to collect up to 110 gallons each, or approximately two rain barrels. These barrels capture water from downspouts and are only intended for watering outdoor lawns, gardens, and plants—not for potable or indoor use. An estimated 1,200 gallons of water a year can be saved annually by watering your lawn and plants with rain barrel water.

Not only do rain barrels conserve water and make us more aware of the natural rain cycles, they also help keep pollutants out of our rivers and streams. Often after a big rainstorm, overflow rain from our gutters travels down our streets and sidewalks, picking up motor oil, dog waste, and other pollutants before entering our rivers untreated via our storm drains. By redirecting this water to your lawn, plants, and garden, the earth is able to naturally filter this water before it makes its way back into our waterways.

While rainwater collection can help homeowners become conservation stewards, it took several years for the legislation to pass. It may seem strange to East-Coasters that rainwater collection from rooftops is strictly regulated, but Coloradans know every drop in our overstressed western river system counts. Our water use is controlled by the prior appropriation doctrine, also known as “first in time, first in right.” Senior and junior water rights holders rely on runoff from snowmelt and rainfall to sustain their beneficial uses (agricultural, industrial, or household), with some farmers and ranchers with junior rights not getting any water other than rainfall in drier years. Opponents of the bill worried rain water captured “out of priority” would mean less water for those with legal rights to that water. Proponents and experts from Colorado State University argued that there would be no noticeable difference in water levels if water was entering through the ground as rainfall or from a downspout, or slightly later from a rain barrel. Both sides were able to agree when a provision was added to the bill mandating that the state engineer would monitor rain barrels’ effect on water levels closely, and have the power to curtail rain barrel use if harm to water rights is shown.

Want to incorporate a rain barrel in your home? Here are some tips and regulations to consider:

  • Barrels must have a sealable lid to prevent against breeding mosquitos.
  • Each single-family, or multi-family residence with up to four units, can collect a maximum of two 55-gallon barrels.
  • Prop your rain barrel up on cinder blocks or steps to allow space for a watering can underneath the spigot, and to allow gravity to help your water pressure.
  • Barrels should be rinsed out, dried, and stored in garages or basements, or upside down in the winter with the spigot open.
  • To prevent against algae and other contaminant build up, use your collected rainwater regularly!
  • Collected rainwater can be used only on your property (watering gardens, washing cars, windows, etc.) but cannot be used for watering livestock.
  • A downspout gutter extension may be needed to connect to the barrel. These can easily be purchased at a home or garden store like Home Depot–just be sure to measure your gutter beforehand!

The Watershed Council is partnering with the CSU Extension Office of Eagle County to offer rain barrel workshops with instruction on how to build them as well as kits and tips for how to best reuse water in your backyard this summer! The first workshop will take place on Wednesday, June 28th at the Crazy Mountain Brewery in Edwards from 5:30-7 PM. Register here to reserve your spot! Rain barrels are a great way to do your part in conserving our most precious resource, as well as become better attuned to our natural rain cycles.

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 June 29th, 2017.

 

New Bill Clarifies Water Uses for Eagle County

Beginner fly-fisherman Steven Kempf casts his line across a slow-moving section of the Eagle River. The Colorado Legislature this session passed a bill that better protects private water rights for recreational uses. Dominique Taylor | Daily file photo

Beginner fly-fisherman Steven Kempf casts his line across a slow-moving section of the Eagle River. The Colorado Legislature this session passed a bill that better protects private water rights for recreational uses. Dominique Taylor | Daily file photo

EAGLE COUNTY — Colorado water law received some needed clarification in the 2017 session of the Colorado Legislature.

The legislature, this session, passed a bill in response to the 2015 Colorado Supreme Court decision in the case of St. Jude’s Co. v. Roaring Fork Club LLC. That decision held that direct diversions of water from a river to a private ditch for “aesthetic, recreational and piscatorial” purposes are not “beneficial uses” under state water law.

“Beneficial use” is a much-used term in state water law and originally encompassed primarily to agricultural and municipal uses. That definition has been evolving throughout the years — through both court decisions and legislation — to protect recreational uses, too, and the new legislation makes that clearer.

 

THE DEBATE CONTINUES

According to a summary on the legislature’s website, “The bill provides that the decision in the St. Jude’s Co. case interpreting section 37-92-103 (4) does not apply to previously decreed absolute and conditional water rights or claims pending as of July 15, 2015.”

What this means is that those who hold water rights from a stream can legally divert that water for purposes other than agriculture or municipal use.

The bill was sponsored in the House of Representatives by Democrat K.C. Becker and co-sponsored in the Senate by Republican Jerry Sonnenberg. In a statement after Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the bill, Becker said the law “provides the needed certainty for water rights holders in Colorado.”

Eagle River Watershed Council Executive Director Holly Loff agreed. In an email, Loff wrote that the group is celebrating the bill’s passage.

“It protects the tools that local governments have at their disposal to protect flows — both recreational and environmental — which were threatened by the broad language in the (Supreme Court) case. Recreational and piscatorial uses are most definitely beneficial and we are happy to see those protected.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on June 2, 2017.

 

Healthy Rivers Start in Your Backyard

Lizzie Schoder

Colorado is an arid state, averaging around 16 inches of precipitation a year. Factor in our high elevation, and the Eagle Valley can be a tricky place for gardening and landscaping. Fortunately, embracing the practices that allow our gardens and landscapes to thrive usually falls in harmony with best practices to keep our rivers healthy.

Landscaping practices have a direct and significant effect on the Eagle River and its tributaries. The pollution-intolerant aquatic insects, or macroinvertebrates, that make up the food chain for our gold medal waters and the lifeblood of our valley have been dropping in recent years. Sections of the Eagle River and Gore Creek have consequently been listed on the state’s 303d list of impaired streams.

Two of the three known primary stressors in our watershed as identified by the Urban Runoff Group are untreated runoff from impervious and urban areas, and the loss of riparian and wetland vegetation.

Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, pet waste, and organic matter can be carried by wind or picked up by rain and melting snow and carried directly into our rivers or through our storm drains. This overloads our waterways with sediment and nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, which kill macroinvertebrates and increase algae blooms—harming our fish, as well as our community’s source of drinking water, recreation, and tourism.

Those who are lucky enough to live next to our river understandably may want to enjoy an unobstructed view. However, the loss of riparian corridors, stemming from homeowners mowing all the way to the river and cutting down the native plants that may block their view, destroys the critical ecological function of these plants, which is to act as nature’s filter for the river and as a buffer from inevitable pollutants. These riparian plants also prevent stream bank erosion and provide important shade and habitat for fish and other wildlife.

Fortunately, landscaping practices that are kind to our rivers go hand-in-hand with overall long-term success for your gardens and backyards. Simple actions to take include:

-Using native grasses and perennials in your gardening. They are better adapted to the microclimates in our valley and require less water, fertilizers and pesticides. The Eagle County CSU Extension office and Betty Ford Alpine Gardens have comprehensive lists of native plants, as well as beautiful drought-tolerant plants.

-Allow streamside plants to grow, by not mowing all the way to the river. Leave a natural setback between your manicured lawn/garden and the stream. This varies with topography, geography and other factors, but should be 25 feet at minimum.

-Consider using permeable materials such as gravel and flagstones over asphalt and concrete for garden walkways, patios, and driveways.

-Limit your use of pesticides and fertilizers, especially before it rains! Make sure to read all labels and use the right amount. Consider using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques and compost to get desired results.

Other than using drought-tolerant and native plants, new “smart” irrigation technology is available at increasingly reasonable costs. One landscaper in the valley, Kreston Rohrig of Four Seasons Landscaping and Irrigation, explains how the evapotranspiration (ET) systems he uses have shown an average of 40% water savings annually:

“The ET water system basically operates like a cell phone, so it gets updates constantly throughout the day, and has algorithms that pull from local weather station data. It basically equates for how much the system needs based on what current conditions are, and records how much water has been used to the gallon. These systems will learn specific flow rates per zone.”

Rohrig gave the example of a customer with a broken pipe: this would immediately generate an email alert to flag that that zone has a high flow rate. He explained “that saves a lot of water to quickly fix that zone that’s just bleeding out, and that also saves the homeowner a lot of money on trouble shooting. At the end of the day, their water bill is much less and their plants are also healthy.”

Rohrig’s pilot project with eight properties in Mountain Star saved over 600,000 gallons of water annually with no change to plant health.

With our county’s population predicted to double by 2040, the challenges facing our rivers will only grow. These solutions can help reverse impairments to our waterways, save water, and save homeowners money in the long run.

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 May 25, 2017.

 

Plastic Rivers

Lizzie Schoder

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 ranney@erwc.org.

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.

 

A Legacy of Wild & Scenic Rivers

Lizzie Schoder

“There is a religious experience in coming over top of a huge rapid and burying your bowman’s face down until you maybe can’t see him,” Claude Terry describes of our 39th president, Jimmy Carter—then Georgia Governor—completing the first tandem descent of the wild Chattooga River in 1974.

President Carter grew up near rivers under the guidance of his father, an avid fisherman, which built the foundation of his admiration and respect for wild waters. Under the tutelage of Claude Terry, the co-founder of American Rivers, he learned all he could about kayaking and canoeing, and the pair became the first to run the Class IV+ rated Bull Sluice rapid in an open canoe. The experience through the beautiful, rugged, and wild rapids on the Georgia-South Carolina border led him to advocate for the listing of the Chattooga River through the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.

The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, signed into law in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, is one of the earliest pieces of environmental regulations surrounding water. The Act’s aim is to protect the natural and healthy flow of certain rivers that exhibit “outstandingly remarkable” scenic, cultural, historical, recreational, geologic, and other similar values worthy of preservation for future generations. Essentially, it ensures the river will remain in its current free-flowing form and defends against future damming or development that would harm the river and its surrounding ecosystem.

Typically, a quarter-mile buffer surrounds designated Wild & Scenic Rivers.  Included with the designation of each river is a management plan specific to that stream to ensure the conservation of the “Outstanding Remarkable Values” (ORVs) for which the wild river was identified. The management plan is developed through a process that promotes participation across political boundaries and from the public. Existing water rights, private property rights, and interstate compacts are not affected by a listing or designation.

While there are about 3.6 million miles of rivers and streams in the U.S., only about 12,709 miles are protected under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act—about 0.35%. And while there is only one river in Colorado, the Cache la Poudre, currently protected by the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, Deep Creek in our own Eagle County was found “suitable” for Wild & Scenic designation in 2014. American Rivers and Eagle River Watershed Council are currently working with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to designate this pristine river as such.

Flowing from the Flat Tops and Deep Lake to its confluence with the Colorado River just before Dotsero, the river passes through a deep and narrow canyon of limestone rock that hosts one of the biggest and most complex cave systems in Colorado. Deep Creek is also home to rare species from riparian plants to bats, all of which will fall under the umbrella of protection with a Wild & Scenic designation. Sheep and cattle ranchers graze their livestock in the area as well. The Watershed Council and American Rivers have been working with these ranchers to ensure that their grazing rights are protected as they have used this land without impacts on the wild and scenic values of the creek for generations.

President Carter continued his legacy of environmentalism throughout his presidency, blocking numerous dam projects throughout the U.S. that would have negatively and permanently altered rivers and their ecosystems. A film by American Rivers, entitled “The Wild President” explores the groundbreaking first descent, and will be one of 10 inspiring and adventurous films shown at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival on April 12th at the Riverwalk Theatre in Edwards. The film festival was created by Patagonia and is hosted locally by Eagle River Watershed Council in an effort to increase community awareness of our relationship with the planet, particularly our waterways, and to inspire action. For more information and to buy tickets, visit www.erwc.org/events/calendar.

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 March 21, 2017.

Climate Change is Water Change

Lizzie Schoder

This past year will likely break 2015’s mark of being the hottest year on record. Colorado has seen a similar trend, with a 2 degrees Fahrenheit bump statewide in the last 30 years. Colorado, like much of the Southwest, has also seen drought for the past decade, which has been felt most strongly in the western part of the state.

How does this affect our rivers? A warmer atmosphere has a drying effect overall — meaning more precipitation falls as rain rather than snow and peak runoff and snowmelt happen earlier in the year. Although there is no significant change detected (so far) in the amount of precipitation, the change in the form of precipitation is what’s significant. Our snowpack levels, measured in snow water equivalent, act as nature’s time release to recharge our rivers. Less snowpack, or more precipitation that falls instead as rain, means less natural recharge, since rain runs through the watershed at a quicker rate.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports show trends of peak runoff and snowmelt occurring anywhere from one to four weeks earlier in the spring. Rain is an immediate surge to our rivers, but can give way to evaporation during hotter months of the summer. Snow, on the other hand, melts slowly, recharging the rivers at a steadier pace, especially during July and August when we need it most. Though predictions of how this will affect annual runoff vary, the 2011 Bureau of Reclamation report estimates that Colorado River flows will decrease by about 8.7 percent by 2060, or roughly the annual amount diverted by canal to Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. These trends along with increased evaporation due to warmer temperatures does not bode well for a region already dealing with prolonged drought.

Snowpack levels are a pivotal factor in ski communities. But it matters too for agriculture, irrigation, hydropower, river recreation and water quality. Lower water levels lead to shallower and therefore warmer rivers, affecting our plant and fish populations, as well as the aquatic bugs they need for food. Warming temperatures also mean that everything from crops to humans will need more water to compensate. The Colorado River supplies water to 40 million people in seven different southwest states. The rising temperature trend will only put more pressure on an over-allocated system, pushing both the supply and demand of the Colorado River in the wrong direction.

While communities that depend on the Colorado River have gone to extraordinary lengths to buffer the impacts of climate change, we are heading for times where water shortages will be felt more than ever. According to the New York Times, Lake Powell provides water to one in eight Americans and waters one-seventh of the nation’s crops. Like the other dams and reservoirs in the Colorado River system, it’s completely over allocated — the water levels continue to dwindle and more water is being taken out than what flows into it. If Lake Powell isn’t able to supply the 7.5 million acre feet annually to the Lower Colorado Basin as required by the 1922 interstate compact, then a river call requiring Upper Basin communities, such as Eagle County, to use less water could come into effect in coming years.

The national political debate over the legitimacy of climate change will inevitably continue. But with our county’s population projected to nearly double by 2050, we must recognize that water is a nonpartisan issue. It is important that we voice our opinions and demand action at the national level, while also encouraging action at state and local levels where it can likely happen more quickly. From the standpoint of water and river protection however, we do not need to stand around waiting for our leaders to reach consensus on the existence of climate change.

There is no arguing that the level of water in Lake Powell — and its sister, Lake Mead — continue to drop, making it clear that water conservation and efficiency is of critical importance. That can happen through legislative actions, regulatory measures, but also where you can make an impact — in your home and garden. For more information, visit erwc.org.

 

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 http://www.erwc.org.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on January 19, 2017.

Eagle River Watershed Council Year in Review

Gary BrooksIt’s been a busy year for the Watershed Council. The board and staff would like to take this time to thank everyone that participated in the wide variety of activities presented by our organization in 2016—from our educational Watershed Wednesdays series held throughout the valley, the sold out Wild and Scenic Film Festival, our annual Highway Cleanup, to our signature River Cleanup event. We would like to thank all of our funding partners that supported our mission of advocating for our rivers through educational programs, special events, restoration projects, monitoring, research, and community engagement.

Eagle River Watershed Council believes that our rivers and streams are the life-blood of our valley. Their preservation and restoration supports our economy, culture and quality of life.

The Watershed Council’s annual programs and events represent the public side of the work we do, but we are also involved in a variety of partnership efforts such as providing water quality sampling along Gore Creek, the Eagle River, and various tributary streams within the watershed.  The sampling data collected and compiled by the Watershed Council is available in an interactive and easy to understand format online at wqcourier.erwc.org. The data also provides a baseline which can be used to identify emerging threats or effectiveness of stream health improvement projects.

Eagle River Watershed Council has coordinated the effort to improve water quality in our local streams through its participation in the Urban Runoff Group, a stakeholder committee that includes entities such as Eagle County, CDOT, Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, the towns of Avon and Vail, Vail Resorts and the Vail Recreation District.  This group initiated the Gore Creek Water Quality Improvement Plan in 2013 and the Gore Creek Strategic Action Plan in 2015 culminating in the “Restore the Gore” program, for which projects are currently underway. The Watershed Council applauds the Vail Town Council for their vision in understanding that the health of Gore Creek benefits all user groups and for beginning the process of improving water quality on the Gore.

The three major factors that are likely affecting aquatic life in Gore Creek are not exclusive to that stream and can affect all urbanized waterways within the watershed. They are:

  • Pollution from chemicals used in urbanized areas adjacent to streams, such as fertilizers, weed killers and pesticides used in landscaping.
  • An increase in stormwater runoff from impervious areas such as roads, parking lots, buildings, and other hardscape areas that prevent infiltration of rain and snowmelt that would recharge the aquifer and support base flows.
  • Loss of vegetation along the stream. These riparian plants normally play a critical role in filtering pollutants from storm water runoff before it enters the stream.

 

The Watershed Council, through the Urban Runoff Group, has just completed an action plan for a segment of the Eagle River from its confluence with Gore Creek downstream to the EagleVail half diamond interchange. In assessing this section of river, the Watershed Council provided recommendations to mitigate the effects of urbanization affecting water quality. This includes recommendations for changes to land use regulations, improved storm water infrastructure, and projects to restore vegetation along the stream.

In 2017, we look forward to assisting with the implementation of the completed Action Plans and completing the same process through the other communities in the valley.

We have a full schedule of Watershed Wednesdays, filled with great tours and engaging presentations, coming together for the year as well. Our 2017 restoration projects are in design and planning now, we look forward to utilizing our wonderful cadre of volunteers this next summer in implementing those. Stay tuned if you are interested in getting involved.

With the addition of new boat ramps, increased river access through open space parcels and an increase in population over the last several years, river usage is at an all time high. We as a community need to be vigilant to balance the economic and recreational usage of our rivers that we all enjoy with the need to improve or maintain a high level of water quality throughout the watershed.

Gary Brooks is the Board Chairman 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 December 23, 2016.

RiverFest 2015 tickets on sale now!

Join us Saturday, June 13th, for our 6th annual RiverFest — tickets are on sale now!

This year, we’re partnering with Timberline Tours for a special guided rafting trip to explore a beautiful stretch of the Upper Colorado River.** As the sun sets and the evening begins, join us for a festive celebration of our rivers at the Wolcott Yacht Club nestled along the Eagle River. Guests will enjoy a catered dinner, local craft beer, specialty cocktails, a silent auction, dancing, and a very special performance by bluegrass super-group Taarka from Lyons, Colorado!

We hope that you’ll join us for this full-day celebration of the protection and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle Rivers! Click here to purchase your tickets today!

**Those participating in the float must meet Timberline Tours at the State Bridge boat ramp at 12:30 on Saturday. Float tickets must be purchased in advance, the last day for purchasing float tickets will be Friday, June 12th.**

RiverFest 2015

Pressures threaten Colorado River’s health

While most people would consider it blessing enough to have just one incredible asset such as the Eagle River flowing right through their communities, Eagle County residents are lucky to live in close proximity to two remarkable rivers. The Colorado River flows through Eagle County for 55 miles and is known locally as the Upper Colorado. It is the economic and cultural lifeblood for much of our state and most of the Southwestern U.S.

Bill Hoblitzell works for the Watershed Council on the Colorado River Restoration & Conservation Project (CRRCP) and other projectsThe Upper Colorado plays a vital role in our mountain community identity, as well as our tourism and recreation-driven economy. Locals and visitors log tens of thousands of river days each year, and the region’s difficult geography preserves much of the classic Western Slope Colorado culture and scenery that remains undeveloped in Eagle County. Large landscapes and low-intensity land uses such as ranching help support intact ecosystems that host numerous valued species such as bald eagles, river otters, cutthroat trout, mountain lion and bighorn sheep.

Like many rivers across the state, internal and external pressures on the Upper Colorado threaten the economic, ecologic, and recreational values it has historically provided. Additional transmountain diversions and climate change may reduce streamflows in the mainstem and its already-struggling headwaters streams; increasing recreational pressures can easily tip the balance from sustainable use to resource damage.

Preserving Value

In 2012, Eagle River Watershed Council initiated the Colorado River Restoration and Conservation Project to inventory ecological conditions on the river, and prioritize restoration and conservation efforts that will protect, restore and maximize the many values provided by the river to human and natural communities. The project exists as partnership between Colorado State University and Eagle River Watershed Council, with financial support from Eagle County, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado River Basin Roundtable.

CSU researchers have completed two years of fieldwork and the results will soon be available in the Colorado River Inventory and Assessment report. Researchers reviewed a library’s worth of existing information and spent hundreds of hours gathering new data about water quality, aquatic life, stream habitat and riparian conditions.

Findings revealed that riparian and aquatic life communities in the corridor are largely doing OK, thanks in no small part to the development intensity in the region. However, the river’s natural flow regime — the annual timing and magnitude of high and low flows — has been heavily altered by man. These alterations contribute to increased summer water temperatures that may impair cold-water adapted trout species. More importantly, these low flows result in an inability of the river to maintain its own channel and flush fine sediments from the bed. Fine sediments choke off fish reproductive habitat and may impair the macroinvertebrate food base upon which wild fisheries depend.

Tug-of-War

The Upper Colorado River is caught in a decades-long political, legal and cultural tug-of-war between transmountain diverters and Western Slope irrigators. Century-old water rights held by Grand Valley farmers and Shoshone Power Plant in Glenwood Canyon are the primary reasons the Upper Colorado still sustains boating and fisheries in summer and fall. Unfortunately, this situation remains tenuous.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has asked state leaders to complete a Colorado Water Plan by the end of this year. This plan lays out the strategy to secure our collective water future for decades to come (www.colorado waterplan.com). New transmountain diversions and storage projects to support continued population growth could fundamentally alter the future of the Upper Colorado River in unforeseen and potentially negative ways. The Eagle River Watershed Council’s and CSU’s work provides an important baseline against which the ecological and economic effects projects will be weighed and judged.

Stewards of the River

In addition to timely information on flow regime issues, the report provides much-needed data on riparian and stream life communities. That information will form the basis for exciting new partnerships, restoration projects, and volunteer opportunities through the watershed council for many years ahead. In the past, the remote character and low population of this region helped to create a vacuum of stewardship and ownership on important river conservation issues. Eagle River Watershed Council is proud to step forward as stewards for the river, not only for the communities of Eagle County, but for visitors statewide from Garfield County to the Front Range who continually return to the special experience that the Upper Colorado provides year after year.

Public presentations and release of the full report are slated for later this summer. For more information, stay tuned to www.erwc.org/projects/ and the Vail Daily.

Bill Hoblitzell works for the Eagle River Watershed Council on the Colorado River Restoration and Conservation Project and other projects. The 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. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on July 12, 2014