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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.

Eagle River expected to soon face the same problems affecting Gore Creek

Townsend Bessent | The Vail Daily

Townsend Bessent | The Vail Daily

EAGLE COUNTY — The Eagle River has made quite a comeback since the days when it was so polluted that fish couldn’t survive in parts of it.

Looking forward, though, a cleanup of a different sort will soon be in order if things don’t change along the riparian area at the river’s banks.

In the mid-1980s, high levels of zinc, copper and cadmium from the Eagle Mine, in the now-abandoned town of Gilman, prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to declare the zone a Superfund site — an area requiring emergency cleanup of hazardous substances. What resulted is the most successful cleanup of a moving water Superfund site to date, improving the fishery so much that rainbow and brown trout are now commonly pulled from the Eagle River by anglers fishing below the mine near Minturn. Those fish are healthy because they are supported by healthy bug populations in the river — macroinvertebretes — which feed fish and birds and give us a glimpse at the river’s overall health.

Recent findings, however, suggest a decline in macroinvertebrate populations may be on the horizon in Eagle County. The prediction for fewer bugs in the Eagle River has been made as a result of the current predicament facing Vail’s Gore Creek, which converges with the Eagle in Dowd Junction. Recently listed as “provisionally impaired for aquatic life” by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, Gore Creek has been seeing a marked reduction in macroinvertebretes during the past decade or so.

“We think it’s only a matter of time before the entire watershed is dealing with these same issues,” said Holly Loff with the Eagle River Watershed Council.

 

URBAN RUNOFF

Once the bug reduction problem was identified on Gore Creek, the second step in solving it has been to figure out what is causing the problem. Students at Vail Mountain School were able to play a detective’s role in helping solving the mystery by studying tributaries leading into Gore Creek.

“In general, (the Vail Mountain School students) found that bugs in and below developments suffered, while those above homes and other buildings were healthier,” Loff said.

The problem lies in riparian areas, the natural buffer that should prevent stormwater from running directly into the creek. In undeveloped areas, stormwater soaks into the ground first before hitting the creek, but in areas with mowed or paved surfaces along the creek, stormwater has a direct path into the stream. It’s called urban runoff, and it has prompted the formation of a local urban runoff group, a strategic action plan and a Gore Creek water quality improvement plan, funded by the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, the Upper Eagle River Water Authority, the town of Avon, the town of Vail, Eagle County, Vail Resorts, the Eagle River Watershed Council and the Climax Mine.

Much of the Gore Creek strategic plan is aimed at educating locals on best practices, but some regulatory efforts will be undertaken, as well.

“Our regulations just haven’t kept pace with the intense growth we’ve had, particularly for water quality and to protect aquatic health,” said Tambi Katieb with the Eagle-based Land Planning Collaborative. “Stream setbacks, for many years, were treated like other dimensional standards … We’re keeping the building away from the floodplain for certain aesthetic or building reasons. They weren’t really thought of as performance measures for aquatic health specifically, or for water quality specifically.”

 

LIMITED LAND

While Eagle County may feel rural in comparison to areas on the Front Range, the land use here is actually quite urban.

“We have a very limited amount of land,” Katieb said. “Most of the private, developable land is, in fact, in very close proximity to Gore Creek, the Eagle River and other streams and tributaries.”

Current regulations state that no development should occur 50 feet from the center line of Gore Creek, and 30 feet from the center line of any tributaries leading into the creek.

However, “If the homeowner owns the property up to the edge of the stream, there are no current regulations on whether or not to mow it, hence the discussion about whether or not to implement (regulations),” says Kristen Bertuglia, Vail’s environmental sustainability manager.

For now, if property owners want to engage in a voluntary no-mow zone, then an area extending at least 20 feet from the bank is recommended for stream health.

“It’d be great to have 100 feet,” Bertuglia said.

 

HEADING DOWNSTREAM

The Land Planning Collaborative has also identified 42 areas where riparian revegetation projects could have a big impact on water quality. The Skier Bridge area in Lionshead Village near Vail Mountain’s Eagle Bahn gondola is a prime example.

“There are lot of impacts (on Gore Creek near the Lionshead Skier Bridge) just from people trying to access the stream,” Loff said. “They’re trying to wade in it, they’re trying to jump from rock to rock, and all of that foot traffic has impacted the riparian area. You can see that there’s no vegetation in large swaths, and the ground is really compacted from everyone walking on it.”

The watershed council is planning a community volunteer day some time this summer to help correct the problems at Gore Creek near the Skier Bridge.

“Our plan is to remove six social trails and really make it clear for people where they should be walking,” Loff said. “This is a big one where you can become involved, and have a good time out on the stream, helping us to do some work.”

Katieb said regulation focused promoting vegetative buffers could impact, in a positive way, the conditions in Gore Creek and throughout the watershed. The Eagle River Watershed Council agrees.

“Instead of stopping with the town of Vail … we’re looking at ways we can do these same things downstream, and systematically start a process with the urban runoff group in looking at ways to attack the problem,” Loff said.

For more information, including when the Gore Creek volunteer day will be, sign up for the watershed council’s e-newsletter by visiting erwc.org.

 

Eagle River Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Call the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on May 27, 2016.

Community Cleanup Attracts Nearly 1000

CPHCU VDEAGLE COUNTY — Take it in today, for local roads never look better than they do the day after the Eagle River Watershed Council Community Pride Highway Cleanup.

Nearly 975 volunteers signed up for the event this year, or about 1.8 percent of the county’s 53,600 residents. With a large turnout this year, this year’s Community Pride Highway Cleanup saw all of I-70 from Glenwood Canyon to East Vail cleaned, as well as U.S. Highways 6, 24 and 131 in Eagle County.

“We didn’t do Vail Pass, because there was too much snow,” said project coordinator Brooke Ranney. “But we did do Highway 24 all the way up to Red Cliff.”

Ranney said there were a lot of children present at this year’s cleanup despite the rainy conditions.

“Young and old, people just keep doing it every year,” she said.

 

KIDS, ADULTS

Piper Sassi, 10, said she found someone’s tax forms, still in their original packaging. Her friend Savannah Desportes, 9, dressed up in a French fries costume, complete with the cardboard container resembling that which you might find on a trash cleanup day like Saturday’s.

“If you find stuff like this out there, then you should pick it up,” Desportes said of her costume.

In a Vail Valley cleanup, when there’s cash spotted, it’s usually not ones and fives. A couple volunteers reported finding $20 bills, and at least one $100 was rumored to have been found, as well.

In the adults only section, alcohol outnumbered marijuana this year, with several airplane bottles of spirits being found, along with a six-pack of Budweiser and a can of Pinhead Pilsner — all unopened. Juxtaposed next to the alcohol was a plastic medical container of marijuana cookies and a copy of AC/DC’s 12th studio album, “Ballbreaker.”

 

ROADWAYS, WATERWAYS

The best find on the day receives the golden toilet seat award every year. This year it went to Monika Brindzakova, of The Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa team, who found three golf clubs — a long iron, a mid iron and a short iron. With no par three courses in the area, explanations on that find were hard to come by.

“I found them by the river,” she said.

While Saturday’s event was technically a highway cleanup, it’s the trash’s tendency to end up in the local waterways that makes the Eagle River Watershed Council get behind the effort every spring.

“This event really fits into our mission, because if that trash was not picked up, it would make its way into the rivers and streams,” Ranney said.

Following the a period of heavy use during the summer, the watershed council also holds a river cleanup every fall.

Monday marks the start of cleanup week in the town of Avon, where the town offers free removal of large items such as washers, dryers or furniture. On Saturday, Avon will host a town cleanup day, with volunteer registration beginning at 9 a.m. at the Avon Performance Pavilion in Nottingham Park.

The town of Vail will offer free collection, by appointment, of large items in residential neighborhoods from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 19, with their annual cleanup day following on Saturday, May 21. Check-in starts at 9 a.m. at Donovan Park.

Eagle River Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Call the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on May 8, 2016.

Cutthroat restoration facing uncertainty; lineages baffle

Kendall BakichColorado fish biologists have been embroiled in a mystery surrounding Colorado’s native cutthroat trout.

For decades, biologists accepted that Colorado’s native cutthroat could be distinguished by their location: Greenbacks were east of the Continental Divide while Colorado River and Rio Grande cutthroat were in their namesake watersheds. This was important because the Colorado River and green back cutthroat are difficult to differentiate due to similar coloration and spotting.

Thought to be extinct by the 1930s, vestige greenback populations were discovered by biologists in the 1950s. Subsequent recovery efforts led to their down-listing from “endangered” to “threatened” in 1978. However, several years ago, researchers using innovative genetic technology, revealed half of these remnant greenback populations were actually Colorado River cutthroat trout.

This was a blow to recovery efforts since many of these populations were used to establish new populations. Spurred by the revelation, fish biologists tested cutthroat populations statewide and discovered that fish genetically-resembling greenbacks were numerous on the Western Slope, suggesting a possible deficiency in the genetic analyses.

At the time, genetic researchers were confident that their tests were reliable and thought the unexpected distributions of cutthroat could be reflecting the widespread sportfish stocking efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Colorado Parks & Wildlife, still wary of the findings, partnered with genetecists to develop a new genetic test to clarify the differences between our native cutthroats.

FISHING FOR INFORMATION

Fish taxonomists dug through historic federal and state records and accounts of fish stocking to develop a better understanding and a more detailed history of past events. Researchers also evaluated extensive museum collections of trout specimens assembled and preserved up to 150 years ago by explorers, before fish stocking was rampant. These historic specimens revealed that, prior to settlement, each major river basin had a distinct lineage of cutthroat trout.

It is now clear that Colorado historically had six – not three – distinct lineages of native cutthroat trout: Greenback cutthroat originated in the South Platte River; yellowfin cutthroat, thought to be indigenous only to Twin Lakes, actually inhabited cold waters throughout the Arkansas River basin; Rio Grande cutthroat continue to persist in their namesake watershed; a previously undescribed lineage existed in the San Juan River; and, two Colorado River cutthroat lineages were isolated in the Yamp/White and Upper Colorado watersheds. Historic fish stocking widely distributed fish, resulting in the inadvertent preservation of the greenback cutthroat outside of their native basin. Unfortunately, extensive searches for the descendants of yellowfin and San Juan cutthroat within and outside of their native drainages have failed.

Recovery efforts for our native cutthroat have always used what is considered to be the best science available. For a time, reintroduction efforts used fish that were not necessarily indigenous to the waters where they were introduced, but this increased the number of native cutthroat populations across Colorado, preserving the genetic diversity and resiliency of the species. As well, existing habitat was protected, rehabilitated and restored; and streams were secured from invasion by exotic fish species and disease. Now we are tasked with continuing these preservation efforts and expanding our unique remnat populations to ensure the legacy of Colorado’s cutthroat long into the future.

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. Call the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on March 19, 2016.