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Preparing Eagle County for the Future

Some of the team representing Eagle County mapping out potential risks and hazards.

Cape Town, South Africa is counting down the days until “Day Zero,” where city officials will be forced to shut off the municipal water taps to their residents and businesses and implement even further restrictions on water use from about 13 to 6 gallons a day per person. Severe restrictions may have recently pushed Day Zero into next year, but Cape Town’s future remains tenuous. In this city of 4 million people, drought, climate change, and population growth exasperated the threat of dwindling water resources and escalated a dire situation much quicker than expected.

What’s perhaps less known is that Cape Town has won several international water management awards in years past. The city reduced per capita water use and implemented conservation measures, but failed to plan for precipitation patterns that differed from those seen historically. 2015 was the same year the rain stopped in Cape Town—they have been in their worst drought for the past three years, and rain (surface water) accounts for 90% of their drinking water. The city is exploring the option of desalination for water treatment, but will need a bond to do so. The costs will be passed down to the consumer and disproportionately affect low income populations and communities of color, as Cape Town is one of the economically inequitable and divided cities in the world.

Cape Town’s reality is an apt example of why sustainable planning doesn’t always cut it. Climate change and population growth among other variables introduce shocks with uncertain outcomes into our future, making it necessary to plan for a variety of overlapping scenarios—a  newer way of thinking called resiliency and adaptation planning. Resiliency is the capacity to reduce exposure as well as prepare for, recover from, and adapt to the direct and indirect effects of climate change.

What does that look like in Eagle County? As the climate warms, our future becomes uncertain. A low snow year like this year will strain our water resources, putting incredible stress on our aquatic environment and leaving less water in streams for junior water right holders. Lower snowpack will mean increased prevalence for wildfires, and the subsequent mudslides and erosion will load our rivers with sediment and place higher stress on our water treatment facilities.

A warming climate goes well beyond environmental concerns. We’ve seen smoke from fires affect our more vulnerable populations and infrastructure damage such as road closures will affect those populations as well. Protect Our Winters (POW) recently released a study that found tourism-based economies such as ours will take a $1 billion dollar hit and cost about 17,400 jobs compared to an average season due to climate change. And without affordable housing we won’t be able to attract a range of people needed to diversify our economy and buffer against potential shocks.

Too often the narrative is that these issues cannot be solved. But if we look around the country we’ll see examples of how communities are taking the initiative to plan ahead, be prepared, and come up with innovative solutions.

The city of Portland, for example, has a resiliency plan for an unprecedented 500-year flood and the looming 9.0 magnitude earthquake. Boston dove into resiliency planning following the terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon. New Orleans has a visionary plan embracing environmental change, preparedness, and equity.

Eagle County has made important strides in establishing a Climate Action Plan in 2016. Our county also has drought and wildfire mitigation plans, as well as source water protection, watershed, and emergency management plans. But a single overarching plan encompassing strategies to minimize risk and establish infrastructure to rebound from a multitude of scenarios does not yet exist.

A local team recently attended the Sonoran Institute’s Community Resiliency Workshop designed to give communities the tools to develop the framework for a resiliency action plan in our mountain community. Representatives from the County’s Wildfire Mitigation, Public Health, and Sustainable Communities Departments, along with a County Commissioner, and the Eagle River Watershed Council worked to identify the hazards, risk, and how these threats can be opportunities for economic improvement.

The process has only begun, and will include a comprehensive process of identifying the values that are most prioritized to our community, a range of scenarios that our community faces, and how we can best prepare for them and capitalize from them. Stay tuned for opportunities for the public to provide input and raise their voice in shaping Eagle County’s future.

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.

 

 

Where does all the traction sand go on Vail Pass?

Lizzie Schoder

The arrival of snow means traffic on I-70 over Vail Pass bustles with skiers and visitors to and from the Front Range, with cars braving storms and bumper-to-bumper traffic in search of a powder day. Without the help of traction sand or de-icers, our ability to constantly travel across the state would not be possible.

Roughly 5,000 tons of traction sand are laid down on Vail Pass each year, but where does all that sand end up? Originating from aggregate mines from the Western Slope and stored in the igloo tent atop Vail Pass, the sand is sprinkled along the highway corridor to ensure safer travel along the pass. Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) enlists contractors each year to come through in the late summer with vacuum trucks to suck up the remaining sand on the road ways and median. The used sand is then brought down to the berms that line the north side of the highway in East Vail. Sand is also flushed by rain and snow over the embankments and carried into sediment-catch basins or into Black Gore Creek, which closely parallels about 10 miles of the interstate from its headwaters at Vail Pass to the confluence of Gore Creek.

Extensive sediment loading to Black Gore Creek from nearly three decades of I-70 operations have severely impaired the stream, resulting in losses of aquatic habitat, impacts to wetlands and an overall reduction in water quality. In addition, the accumulation of sediment in Black Lakes near Vail Pass encroaches upon the storage capacity of water supply reservoirs that serve Vail and are used to maintain instream flows.

Black Gore Creek Steering Committee’s Efforts

Since 1997, the Black Gore Creek Steering Committee (BGCSC), headed by Eagle River Watershed Council, has worked to mitigate the impacts to Black Gore Creek and the health of its aquatic life. The committee is made up of a number of important partners in the community, including Eagle River Watershed Council, Colorado Department of Transportation, Eagle County, U.S. Forest Service, Town of Vail, Eagle County, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Lotic Hydrological, River Restoration, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, and concerned citizens.

In 2002, Black Gore Creek was listed on the State’s 303(d) list of impaired waters for sediment—which is different than Gore Creek’s more recent listing in 2012 for aquatic life impairment. Although the State has yet to come out with a limit of how much traction sand can enter the creek, CDOT, in collaboration with the other BGCSC partners, has taken great initiative to address these issues over the past 10 years.

 Recent Accomplishments

To date, CDOT is picking up nearly the same amount of traction sand as they are putting down annually, which has improved since the years when no cleanup occurred, and the basins slowly filled.

Besides capital improvement projects such as repaving the medians and bike path enhancements, one of the most significant improvement projects has been the identification of a long-term maintenance solution for the Basin of Last Resort. A 3-acre section of Black Gore Creek around mile marker 183 on I-70, the Basin is a control structure that traps sediment missed by upstream catch basins. There has been concern with its effectiveness as the basin fills with sediment. In the fall of 2017, construction of a road allowing for easier access to excavate the basin more regularly and efficiently was finalized.

More work is to be done, however, as the goal is to have less sediment reach the Basin of Last Resort in the first place. Through field assessments, mapping activities, and sediment transport modeling, consultants to Eagle River Watershed Council, namely River Restoration and Lotic Hydrological, are working to identify opportunities for capturing traction sand before it leaves the highway corridor and enters the creek.

Traction Sand vs. Mag Chloride

CDOT has also installed sophisticated software in their plowing vehicles that senses how much traction sand or de-icer they should be applying on any given segment of the highway. The increased prevalence of de-icers, commonly referred to as “mag(nesium) chloride,” has been an inevitable outcome from the pressure on CDOT to reduce the amount of traction sand applied. Although very effective at melting snow and preventing ice formation, de-icers aren’t without their downsides. Studies have shown that elevated levels of chloride in rivers can be detrimental to aquatic life. The Watershed Council and CDOT both conduct chloride-loading studies to understand how chloride concentrations differ in Black Gore Creek and Gore Creek and whether they are approaching harmful levels.

“We don’t see the kinds of widespread impairments of the biological communities on Black Gore Creek that you would expect if they were really being negatively impacted by chloride. The health of those communities may be somewhat limited, but they do not meet the Colorado State definition for impairment right now,” reports Seth Mason of Lotic Hydrological. That is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about chloride levels in Black Gore Creek. While macroinvertebrate communities in Black Gore Creek may look better than those on Gore Creek through Vail, they may be stressed by elevated chloride concentrations and more vulnerable to other impacts on the creek. While more studies chloride’s effects are needed, the BGCSC is committed to not replacing one pollutant with another.

 Related to Gore Creek’s Woes?

With all the recent attention on the Restore the Gore effort surrounding Gore Creek, some long-time locals believe the impacts from Black Gore Creek are at fault. Up until 2012, the State associated high sediment levels automatically with impaired aquatic life. In conducting macroinvertebrate sampling in our watershed, we are finding that aquatic bug scores on Black Gore Creek are healthier than those in the highly developed sections of Gore Creek through Vail. This along with other evidence leads to the belief that stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces in town and the loss of riparian areas along Gore Creek from development are a greater contributor to Gore Creek’s impairments.

The important efforts on Vail Pass have not slowed–in fact CDOT has spent about $7 million since 2013 to clear out the catch basins and sweep our roadways. The Watershed Council will continue the collaborative dialogue and mitigation efforts of the stakeholders to ensure the important progress continues in keeping our waterways healthy and clean.

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.