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Planning for Our Community’s Water Future

In low snow years like last year, the effects to our community can be felt immediately from the loss of revenue from ski tourism to low flows in our rivers in the following hot summer months leading to voluntary fishing closures and a lackluster whitewater season. Our angling, boating, recreation, wildlife and aquatic communities all feel the impact. While it seems Ullr has different plans this year, as we are in the midst of back-to-back storm cycles refreshing our snowpack and currently putting us at about 136% of normal, we aren’t nearly in the clear of the drought in the Colorado River Basin, or it’s longer term companion, aridification.

Research shows earlier runoff timing, higher ambient air temperatures, the dust-on-snow effect, and lower flows aren’t just periodic concerns, but more a representation of our new normal. The Eagle River and its tributaries support a wide array of uses inextricably tied to the wellbeing of our local economies and our high-quality of life, not limited to: drinking water, agriculture, boating, angling, wildlife & biodiversity, aesthetics, lawns & gardens, snowmaking, and industry & power production. The effects of climate change, coupled with increasing demand from our ever-growing population, and the likelihood of future water storage projects underline the need to plan for our community’s water future.

The Watershed Council—with the help of its many community partners and stakeholders— has undertaken an exciting initiative to be on the forefront of water management planning and engage the community through the Eagle River Community Water Plan. While the Watershed Council has undertaken successful planning and assessment initiatives in the past, including the Eagle River Watershed Plan and the Colorado River Inventory & Assessment, these completed plans have largely focused on water quality issues in our watershed. The Community Water Plan will place a greater focus on future water quantity issues and will address increasing demand shortage scenarios.

What is a Community Water Plan?

Colorado’s Water Plan, adopted by the State in 2015, set a goal of communities implementing community water plans, also known as stream management plans, on 80% of Colorado’s locally prioritized streams by the year 2030. The plan seeks to identify the desired environmental and recreational flows in our watershed and will provide the opportunity to safeguard the environmental, recreational, agricultural, tourism, and municipal uses of the river. In other words, the Plan will allow for the protection of river health as well as the other uses of water the community values.

Focusing on the entire length of the Eagle River, from its headwaters on Tennessee Pass to the confluence with the Colorado River in Dotsero, the plan will consider past, present, and future human and river health values to identify opportunities to correct historical degradation and mitigate against non-desirable future conditions due to stressors such as climate change and population growth.

The Plan’s diverse stakeholder group includes: local governments, fishing and rafting guide companies, Eagle County Conservation District, Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, American Rivers, National Forest Foundation, US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Colorado Division of Water Resources, and the Eagle River MOU partners, including Climax Molybdenum Company, Vail Associates, the Colorado River District, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, and the partners in Homestake Reservoir (the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora).

The Plan will culminate in a set of recommendations for projects, policies or management actions that can be used to mitigate stressors and encourage land and water management actions that promote ecosystem health.

The stakeholder group is committed to striving for equitable outcomes through engaging and listening to a broad range of community members. Community meetings will be held throughout the planning process to provide opportunity for the community to engage in the process. Although the first round of community meetings were held in late February with presentations about the plan and current river conditions, the opportunity to submit formal input through online surveys still exists. To have a truly representative Community Water Plan, members of the community are encouraged to complete these surveys that inquire about how the community uses the river, and which degraded segments of and threats to the river are most concerning. A recording of the presentations, surveys (in English and Spanish) and more information are available online at www.erwc.org. The Watershed Council and its partners encourage the community to make their voice heard in this important planning process and to stay tuned for future community meetings planned for this summer.

Lizzie Schoder is the Education and Outreach Manager 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 13, 2019.

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.

 

 

River Voices

This time of year, the theme of love is in the air. This Valentine’s Day, the Watershed Council wanted to give Eagle County locals the chance to write a love note to something often underappreciated–our rivers and streams! Hear from them on why they love our rivers:

To me, our rivers represent the connection we all have in Eagle County. The Eagle has its headwaters high in our mountains, and connects the Eagle River Valley to the mighty Colorado. The Colorado River is joined by the Roaring Fork and Frying Pan rivers in the western regions of the state–the water connects us all. We depend on the rivers not only to nourish our bodies but to feed our souls. The rivers are the fuel for our economy–whether the water is the liquid gold treasured by fishermen and women, or the frozen flakes that provide a mecca for snowriders both local and international. Agriculture still provides the bedrock of our County, and agricultural water rights keep streams flowing and water on our side of the divide. Eagle County is blessed to be home to the White River National Forest, wilderness areas, and open space — all are vital for fish and wildlife, and all depend on water. Water that flows down the Colorado nourishes people, animals, agriculture and landscapes all the way to Mexico. We must be ever-vigilant to be good stewards of this precious and limited natural resource. Water is life.   

-Kathy Chandler-Henry, Eagle

Si alguien me pregunta porque son importantes los rios de Colorado? Mi respuesta seria porque son los que ayudan a Colorado ser hermoso y unico. Tambien lo que me gusta de ellos es que estan serca y accesibles. Para mi los rios son como una terapia donde me puedo apartar de todo y disfrutar de la naturaleza. Cuando camino serca de ellos me gusta escuchar el sonido que hace, cuando el agua que va corriendo golpea las rocas. Ni ablar de el hermoso paisaje que tenemos. Y el sonido lo puedo escuchar una y otra ves disfrutando la naturaleza y vivirla. Otra de las cosas porque me gustael rios es que la gente puede disfrutar del. Cuando miro que estan percando o en el canotaje pienso que esas personas lo disfutan tanto. Serca de donde yo vivo a los ninos les gusta saltar y meterse a el rio, durante el verano, eso me trai muchas memorias hermosas. Mi familia tubo la oportunidad de estar en un viaje flotante que la comunidad organizo, durante el verano. Fue una experiensia fabulosa que todos lo disfrutamos mucho. Estoy muy contenta de vivir en un lugar tan maravilloso como Colorado.

If someone asked me why our Colorado rivers are important, I would say: rivers are important because they make Colorado so beautiful and unique. I love that they are so close and accessible to us. For me, rivers are like a therapy, where I can get away and enjoy nature. When I walk close to the river I like to hear the refreshing sound that the river makes when it hits the rocks. The landscape around the rivers creates a picture-perfect vista. When I see other people fishing, floating, or rafting, they look like they are having such as a great time. Close to where I live, there are always children jumping in the river which brings back wonderful memories. My family had the opportunity to go on a float trip that the Watershed Council offered during the summer and it was a great experience. I am very happy to live in a wonderful place like Colorado.

 -Perla Gurrola, Edwards

 I have always been drawn to rivers. The unique environment and topography that eventually gives rise to a river is pretty neat. We are very fortunate to have many great rivers in our area to experience: from the biggies like the Colorado, Green, Snake, Dolores, and San Juan to our local Eagle River and watershed. My local favorite is Homestake Creek and the high mountain lakes and streams that feed it. What a great resource to have in our backyard. As the seasons change, so do the recreational opportunities. It’s a fun river to explore and get to know. The spectacular wetlands and surrounding habitat are full of wildlife like moose, beaver, lynx, pine marten and migratory birds. The fishery has improved, which is evidenced by the number of guides with clients casting flies. The life-sustaining water supply, valuable wildlife habitat, and exceptional year-round recreational opportunities require that we protect this very valuable watershed.

                                                            -Howard Tuthill, EagleVail

 In Eagle County rivers are one aspect of our culture. Our community prides itself in our outdoor lifestyle of skiing, snowboarding, rafting, biking, and hiking. I love our rivers because of rafting and because rivers are an important part of our community. At Gypsum Creek Middle School in 7th grade STEM, we learned how to count the number of macroinvertebrates to tell if the water was healthy.  We learned that pollution intolerant macroinvertebrates such as mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies were good indicators of clean water.  We also tested water quality through a series of tests such as pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature, phosphate, and nitrate level.  This taught us how important our rivers are and we are now excited to take care of the Eagle River watershed. Designing and creating conservation practices in our watershed is a goal for the future health of our water and to protect our rivers from storm drain pollution.”

                                                -Sylvia Fochesato, Gypsum

Do you have a river story? Submit them to the Watershed Council at info@erwc.org for our next River Voices feature! Visit erwc.org for more information on how to get involved with river stewardship locally.

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

Wildfires and Our Mountain Streams

With the arrival of fall colors, wildfire season in the West is on the retreat. It’s important to look back on the toll these fires have taken on Colorado’s watersheds. In 2015, wildfires burned a record-breaking 10.1 million acres across the U.S., according to High Country News. We’ve seen a similar magnitude of burns this summer from California to Idaho and in our own backyard with the Hayden Pass, Cold Springs near Boulder, Beaver Creek and Sylvan Lake fires. Aside from the risks to houses and human lives, wildfires also pose threats to our watershed and river systems.

Wildfires have been scorching the earth as long as humans have existed. They are a natural force that keeps our ecosystems in check and natural cycles in motion. As human populations grow and encroach into wild places, wildfires have left that balance teetering. In mountain communities, our local firefighters, Forest Service, and water providers continuously monitor and manage the risks.

Increasing global temperatures means an increase in forest fires in the West, putting greater pressure on our natural resources, including water systems. So what kind of effects are they having on our rivers?

 LOW TO MODERATE INTENSITY

Fires, when low-to-moderate in intensity, can actually maintain the long term health of forest and riparian ecosystems by facilitating vegetation succession, which leads to diverse riparian zones. Diversity and regrowth in riparian banks is essential in maintaining bank stabilization and the natural filtration capabilities of native plants. High water flow, flooding, and a surge in nutrients can provide natural habitat for fish reproduction, and can load organic matter that can spike productivity. When these fires are lower intensity, and even prescribed as a forest management tool, they carry on healthy, natural processes.

 HIGH INTENSITY

The most detrimental effects to a watershed from high intensity fires are excessive erosion and runoff. Unburned forests act like sponges with rainfall, with the healthy vegetation and litter absorbing water and protecting the soil layer from intense rain. The plant layer slows down the water’s speed as it runs towards the river. The loss of vegetation after a burn leads to greater-exposed, loose soil and less absorption leading to higher runoff volumes. Some plants even release a waxy, water-resistant cover after being burned, further decreasing the forest’s absorptive capacity.

These effects can last years following a fire. The increased runoff leads to flash flooding as river banks overflow with excess volumes. Ash, woody debris, and sometimes fire retardant chemicals are flushed through our rivers, loading pollutants such as phosphorus, nitrate, and ammonia into our water systems. Increased runoff and loss of plants leads to stream banks eroding, adding on to increased sedimentation in our rivers which negatively effects spawning fish and can even clog their gills.

All of this harms aquatic insect life, water temperatures, fish habitat and reproduction, fisheries, and irrigation systems. Increases in sediment load can also put additional pressures on drinking water treatment processes and congest reservoirs downstream of the burn.

PROTECT YOURSELF

Our local firefighters and wildland specialists can only do so much to manage the force of fire — it’s essential to be proactive and aware yourself. Heed fire warnings and bans, fully put out fires while camping, and do not store your firewood on your deck. Homes should be surrounded by fire breaks, or 200 feet of defensive space between their perimeter and the nearest trees. Home consultation services, such as REALFire, exist in our valley to best protect where we live and work. More information can be found at http://www.realfire.net. If, as expected, our county population doubles by 2050, the wildland-urban interface will continue to be tested severely, but deliberate, responsible measures can prevent adding unnecessary risks to our already threatened watershed.

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 October 2, 2016.