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Year in Review: 2017

Every day, most of us catch a glimpse of the Eagle River, Gore Creek, or the Upper Colorado, but we might not give these rivers a second thought as we hustle to our jobs or the grocery. As we step back and contemplate 2017, let’s consider what our rivers give to us, and how our community has given themselves to protect these critical waterways right outside our doors.

Let’s start with what you have done to keep our waterways clean and healthy. In total, we had about 1,600 volunteers participate in 15 restoration projects, devoting over 5,000 volunteer hours. Your hard work during our annual Community Pride Highway and Eagle River Cleanups helped remove 26,000 pounds of trash that could have ended up in our drinking water, our favorite fishing holes, and the rivers we raft with our friends and family. You helped us restore riparian areas in Vail and EagleVail, and helped the cutthroat trout in the creeks on Shrine Pass. You learned how to make your own rain barrel to capture rainwater for your garden (yes, it’s legal in Colorado now!) and you and your kids stenciled more than 100 storm water drains throughout Eagle County with an educational message. Your time, hard work, and generous donations are critical to the Watershed Council’s ability to fulfill its mission to protect, restore, and educate our community about the rivers and streams in our valley. Thank you!

The Watershed Council team was busy this year, too. We co-hosted a Vail Symposium panel discussion with experts from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the Town of Minturn to discuss the history of the Eagle Mine and renewed efforts to protect the Eagle River, as well as offered two educational tours of the mine. We organized a bilingual community float on the Upper Colorado River with the help of Timberline Tours, educating and having boatloads of fun with families that were eager to learn about our rivers and how to protect them. The Watershed Council also continued its stream health monitoring and community engagement valley-wide through strong partnerships with Eagle County, all of the municipalities, CDOT, the US Forest Service, USGS and Eagle River Water & Sanitation District. This fall, along with our colleagues at Colorado State University Eagle County Extension, we hosted a workshop for the community to learn and share river-friendly landscaping techniques.

The work of local environmental organizations such as the Eagle River Watershed Council is not always easy. A few weeks ago, vandals ripped out more than 5,000 willow plantings at the Edwards Eagle River Restoration Site, wiping out a day’s worth of labor by 100 hard-working Vail Resorts EpicPromise volunteers. Watershed Council staff and my fellow Board of Directors are thankful for the outpouring of public support here in the Vail Daily, on social media, and in our daily encounters. We are heartened that this unthinkable act of vandalism has been countered by many of you, who yet again are showing support for the rivers and streams that form the lifeblood of our community and the State of Colorado.

We are now in a quieter time of year for river recreation, but the Eagle River Watershed Council is already planning some great events for 2018. Stay tuned for our Third Annual Wild and Scenic Film Fest in April and a full calendar of Watershed Wednesdays and other community education events, as well as some lighthearted evenings tying flies with new friends. We are also pleased to announce that the Watershed Council is leading the development of an Integrated Water Management Plan for the Eagle River. This multi-year planning effort will bring together over 30 stakeholders representing different water interests and perspectives. Our goal is to determine the environmental and recreational stream flow needs for the Eagle River. This will help us understand how future activities and projects in the watershed will impact the environment, recreation, and our economy.

As you walk along the Eagle River, catch a glimpse of the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon, or contemplate the snowmaking equipment aimed at your favorite ski hill, enjoy a little winter-season reflection on all that our rivers and streams add to our lives here in Eagle County. If you are interested in learning more about our river restoration projects or community events, or if you would like to make a donation or align your business with us through our Business Partner program, please contact us at 970-827-5406. Thank you for a great year in 2017!

Larissa Read is the Board President 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 25, 2017.

Current Efforts in Cutthroat Trout Conservation

Kendall Bakich

For decades, it was accepted that Colorado’s native cutthroat trout could be distinguished by their location:  Greenbacks were east of the Continental Divide; Colorado River and Rio Grande cutthroat were in their namesake watersheds; and yellowfin were extinct from Twin Lakes.  In 2007, however, through the use of innovative genetic techniques, researchers reported that half of Colorado’s remnant Greenback populations were actually Colorado River cutthroat trout. This entanglement of data was a blow to cutthroat trout recovery efforts.

Adding to the perplexity, fish biologists discovered that fish genetically resembling Greenbacks were numerous on the West Slope.  This led to the evaluation of extensive museum collections of trout specimens assembled and preserved up to 150 years ago by the explorers. The historic specimens revealed that each major river basin had a distinct lineage of cutthroat trout prior to settlement and the rampant fish stocking that began in the mid-1800s.  Two cutthroat lineages are extinct–those from the San Juan (newly recognized & not yet named) and Arkansas (yellowfin) basins.  However, four native cutthroat lineages persist:  South Platte (greenback), Yampa-White (identified as Colorado River cutthroat), Rio Grande and Upper Colorado (previously unrecognized).

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) focuses conservation efforts in three areas: location, protection, and expansion. Our recovery efforts of native cutthroat have always used the “best” science available.  Even without our current understanding of Colorado’s cutthroat trout, past efforts expanded native cutthroat populations across Colorado, preserving genetic diversity and resiliency of the species.  Indeed, existing habitat was protected, rehabilitated, and restored; and streams were secured from invasion by exotic fish species and disease.  Since these new revelations, CPW has located new populations enduring in remote streams, and has re-established populations in their rightful historic watersheds.

Local efforts focus on protecting the only remaining population of our native cutthroat in the Eagle River watershed in Abrams Creek.  The native cutthroats persist alongside a historic, rudimentary water diversion that has dewatered the creek for more than 100 years, and negatively impacted the population below the diversion point.  Fortunately, a pioneering water agreement between Trout Unlimited and Buckhorn Valley (the diverter), was reached in 2016 and agrees to protect the cutthroat by piping miles of the leaky ditch, thereby reducing the water needed to supply Buckhorn’s irrigation reservoir. Buckhorn will still receive their full allocation of water, but the savings from fixing the leaky system will stay in the creek. This will run as a covenant with their water right, protecting the stream in perpetuity while maintaining an important Pre-Compact Water Right. Additionally, local agencies plan to increase Abrams’ instream flow to prevent future water depletions. Due to the length and remote nature of the project, the costs are high – over $1 million.  Fundraising efforts by project partners Trout Unlimited, Eagle Valley Trout Unlimited, Buckhorn Valley, CPW, and Eagle River Watershed Council are nearing the funding goal.  Funds come from grants offered through the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado River Basin Roundtable, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Town of Gypsum as well as donations from Bureau of Land Management, Colorado’s Species Conservation Fund, and Alpine Bank.  The remaining 13% of the project funding is still being sought.

As stewards of native cutthroat trout, CPW will continue to work with partners like TU and Eagle River Watershed Council and identify opportunities to protect and expand our unique remnant populations, ensuring the legacy of Colorado’s cutthroat long into the future.  Information on Colorado’s cutthroat trout conservation efforts can be found on CPW’s website (www.cpw.state.co.us), and for Abrams Creek Cutthroat Project information or to make a donation go to www.coloradotu.org/abramscreek.

Kendall Bakich is an Aquatic Biologist for Colorado Parks & Wildlife. Bakich is a friend of the Eagle River Watershed Council which 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 October 22, 2017.

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.

 

 

New Developments on the Horizon for the Eagle Mine

Lizzie Schoder

Long-time residents of the Eagle Valley remember a time nearly 30 years ago when the Eagle River ran orange. Linda Jones, who worked at Battle Mountain High School, would pass by the river and its orange-stained rocks on her way to work, football games, and ski practices. Joe Macy and his colleagues at Vail Resorts (then Vail Associates) dealt with blowing orange snow on Beaver Creek’s ski slopes in the winter of 1989-90, as their snowmaking process pulls water straight from the Eagle. Those who weren’t around in the eighties might not realize that the scene at the Eagle River was not unlike the 2015 Gold King Mine spill on the Animas River. The leaching of hazardous heavy metals into the lifeblood of the Eagle Valley eventually caused the mining area to be declared a Superfund Site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1986.

Gold and silver mining activity in the 235-acre area dates back to the 1870s, until lead and zinc mining took over in 1905. Ownership of the operation changed hands multiple times, until 1984, when the mine operator, Glenn Miller, went into bankruptcy and failed to pay the electricity bills. Without electricity, the water pumps in the mine stopped running and the mine workings began to flood. For the next five years, the water level in the mine continued to creep higher, until finally spilling over and flooding the river with lead, cadmium, copper, arsenic and zinc. Water quality began suffering long before the spill, however, as up until the Clean Water Act of 1972 was enacted, discharging contaminated water into the river was a perfectly legal and common practice.

The State of Colorado and the EPA both filed separate lawsuits against the former and current mine operators resulting in the cleanup being governed by two settlement agreements. Today, the site is owned by Battle Mountain, but the successor of Gulf + Western—CBS Corporation—is still paying for the cleanup and will continue to in perpetuity.

Over the past three decades, multiple agencies and partners have worked together to remediate, monitor, and improve the cleanup and the Eagle River. In many ways, the Superfund Site is an example of a very successful remediation in Colorado.  Ore was originally processed through roasting and magnetic separation, resulting in metals-laden roaster waste. The tailings from the milling process also contained high concentrations of metals and were slurried through a pipeline away from the mine area. The deposited waste led to acid mine drainage. To date, all of the roaster waste and tailings that threatened human health and water quality have been consolidated from the old tailings pile, capped with a protective cover and revegetated to prevent any further groundwater contamination. Contaminated groundwater is currently treated at a water treatment facility before entering the river. Institutional controls and monitoring were established around the waste rock piles to determine acid generation potential and the water quality impact from runoff. The EPA also created secondary cribbing walls beneath Belden as a safeguard from waste rock crumbling into the Eagle.

Though extensive remediation has occurred on site, the primary remaining concern is water quality and the ecological risks to fish and the tiny aquatic insects they feed on. The Eagle River is currently being managed as a brown trout fishery under Colorado Parks and Wildlife. In 2008, the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission set new standards for cadmium, copper, zinc, and arsenic levels. The change in standards required a new “feasibility study,” a Superfund process for the development and evaluation of new plans for cleanup. Today, the need for further cleanup is clear as the metal levels tend to exceed limits in March and April, as the snow is melting at the Eagle Mine site but the river hasn’t hit peak flow yet.

It’s important to note while arsenic levels peak in the spring, they are still well below limits for safe consumption of fish. The highest arsenic level is about .31 micrograms per liter (ug/L), while the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sets the standard for safe fish consumption at 7.6 ug/L, and under the Safe Drinking Water Act the limit is 10 ug/L. At a recent panel discussion of the Eagle Mine, both project managers from the EPA and CDPHE said they would let their kids and pets play in the river, and eat a fish from it as well.

The EPA broke the site into three manageable operable units (OUs): OU1 deals with site-wide water quality; OU2 is concerned with human health, primarily in the town of Gilman; and OU3 encompasses the North Property Redevelopment, or the Battle Mountain Project. The EPA and CDPHE have recently released Proposed Plans for Operable Units 1 and 3, which can be found online here and here or at the Minturn Town Hall. These new plans outline different alternatives for future remediation of the Superfund Site, to both bring metal concentrations into compliance in the spring as well as address land use changes in the future. Public comments on the plans will be accepted until September 10th of this year and can be submitted by email or mail—the addresses for each can be found within the plans. As these Plans are the first step in determining the next actions in the ongoing cleanup of the Superfund site, the Watershed Council encourages the community to read the plans and provide comments.

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 August 31st, 2017.

 

Efforts to protect native fish getting funds

Chris Dillmann | cdillmann@vaildaily.com

In this Sept. 9, 2016 file photo, Jeff Bennett with the Buckhorn Metro District checks the flow of Abrams Creek outside of Gypsum. The creek is home to a native population of cutthroat trout and efforts are underway to retain more water in the creek through improved diversion techniques.                                                                     
WHAT’S A CUTTHROAT?
Recognizable for the red neck slash that gives it the appearance of a murder victim, the cutthroat is the only fish in Colorado that’s native to the state. In the Eagle River Watershed, Abrams Creek is the only area to contain a native population of cutthroat trout, unaffected by the introduction of rainbow trout, brown trout and brook trout to the area during the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s one of only a handful of indigenous populations left in the entire Upper Colorado River watershed, a fact that was recently uncovered through improvements in the field of genetic research. The Abrams Creek cutthroats are known to geneticists as green lineage fish, indigenous to that particular drainage and different from the blue lineage cutthroats found in other parts of the state.                                                                         
HOW TO HELP
Donations can be made by visiting http://www.coloradotu.org/abramscreek, or checks with “Abrams Creek Project” noted can be mailed to the Eagle Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Attn: Elbert Bivins, P.O. Box 8096, Avon, CO 81620.

John LaConte
jlaconte@vaildaily.com

EAGLE COUNTY — A rare species of cutthroat trout found near Gypsum is expected to thrive if an idea for stream restoration is realized.

Thanks to recent donations, that idea is much closer to becoming a reality.

Trout Unlimited announced Monday that the Abrams Creek restoration project has been awarded several local and federal grants in recent weeks, totaling $190,500.

The goal of the project is to provide water to Gypsum’s Buckhorn Valley neighborhood via pipeline, rather than the irrigation ditch that is currently used. It will cost more than $1 million to do, and the recent donations bring the total money raised to more than $500,000. If the water is able to be piped to Buckhorn Valley, then it will leave about 40 percent more flows in Abrams Creek for the benefit of the cutthroat trout population.

The fact that the Abrams Creek cutthroat survived the formation of the ditch is a testament to the fish’s resilience. The ditch was dug by hand in 1906 by a rancher named Julius Olsen; being one of the oldest water rights on the Western Slope, the Buckhorn Valley Metro District isn’t about to relinquish it, despite their support of the cause.

Through negotiation and a lot of study and engineering, the plan to pipe in the water was formed, said John Hill with the Metro District.

“The water quality will be better, there’s less maintenance required, and the fish will get their water,” Hill said.

UNIQUE AMONG CUTTHROATS

Less water means shallower, warmer water, and when Olsen originally dug his ditch, it certainly resulted in less water for the Abrams Creek cutthroat. This means the fish itself may be genetically suited to handle an impending rise in water temperature. For that reason, biologists are especially excited about the discovery of the native fish.

“Colorado Parks and Wildlife values the Abrams Creek cutthroat, which are the last remaining population of aboriginal cutthroat in the Eagle watershed and exhibit characteristics unique even from other cutthroat populations,” said Kendall Bakich, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist. “Receiving substantial support from a diversity of community organizations and members helps protect these important native trout well into the future for the citizens and visitors to Colorado, as well as gives us the opportunity for future reintroduction efforts locally.”

STILL NEED FUNDS

Last week, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that it was awarding a $90,000 Cooperative Watershed Management program grant to the Abrams Creek project.

About a month ago, the town of Gypsum also voted in favor of contributing $100,000 from its wildlife impact fees fund to the project. Alpine Bank in Gypsum also threw in $500.

“After almost a decade of analysis, planning and collaborating, the Buckhorn Valley Metropolitan District is very grateful for the magnanimous endorsements by all these important donors,” Hill said. “The hard work of CPW, (Trout Unlimited), (Bureau of Land Management), Eagle River Watershed Council and Buckhorn’s own staff, engineers and attorneys is going to pay off with an enduring legacy habitat for this important species.”

In March, with the support of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, the Colorado Water Conservation Board granted $364,711 to the project. Other contributors include the BLM ($10,000) and the Eagle River Chapter of Trout Unlimited ($5,000).

“With these donations, we’re at the halfway mark for cash needed to fund the project,” said Mely Whiting, with Trout Unlimited.

The project continues to seek funding through grants and donations. Whiting said earlier this month, they applied for a grant with the state water conservation board, which appeared to be tailor made for the Abrams Creek trout.

“It’s a program where the state helps fund restoration for fish and wildlife impacts caused by water diversion projects,” Whiting said. “So we think it’s a good fit. … We should know by the end of summer.”

This article ran in the Vail Daily on June 27, 2017.

 

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.