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Community rallies to get tires out of Eagle River

We have come a long way in how we care for our rivers. Before the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, it was common to dump chemicals, trash, and waste into our rivers.

In fact, as recently as the 1940s and 50s, Minturn’s outhouses famously emptied directly into the Eagle River. The Eagle River also suffered from the tailings and contaminated water dumped directly into the river from operations at the Eagle Mine long before the mine overflowed and turned the river orange in the 80s, leading to the creation of the current Superfund site.

Humans both revere our rivers and try to bend them to our will. A good local example is at Camp Hale, where we straightened the curves of the river with tons of fill to fit its military operations, only to try to restore the ecosystem back to health with the original twists and turns today. One of the historic ways used to try to stabilize riverbanks was — believe it or not— with tires.

Today, we recognize better success with native riparian plants and their long and sturdy root structure, large boulders, and increased community education on the importance of these sensitive and critical areas where the land meets the river.

As a result of these old riverbank stabilizing practices, as well as the ignorant dumping of tires into the river, there is an undeniable tire pollution problem in the Eagle River. These tires collect near the confluence with Lake Creek in Edwards as the river abruptly slows in this area.

In fact, the 77-mile-long Eagle River drops 2,400 feet over its first 39 miles, but only descends 600 feet over the next 38 miles. The river faces a slight uphill near Lake Creek and is essentially an online pond where the tires were recovered. The decrease in slope and speed allows for anything being carried by the fast current upstream, such as tires, to drop down to the bottom of the riverbed.

The historically low flows last year revealed a shocking amount of tires lining the bed of the Eagle River right below the confluence with Lake Creek in Edwards. Thanks to the initiative of then-6-year-old Suri Raol, an effort to remove these tires from the river was set into motion.

After several years of communicating with authorities and working on best removal practices, Suri and her parents, Vik and Susan Raol, and their neighbors, Greg and Stephanie Keough, collected over 200 tires from the river bed. Their hard work culminated on April 13 when 30 local volunteers came out to remove the tires from the bar they had been stashed on and transported them to a staging location to be recycled by the Tires4Ward program through Bridgestone Tires.

Along with the tires removed from the river, another set of tires that was diligently collected by Eagle County staff during a recent Lake Creek Village community cleanup effort brought the total number of tires to be recycled to approximately 350.

What effect do degrading tires have on our aquatic ecosystems? The breakdown of rubber in our rivers changes the biochemistry of the water, negatively affecting our aquatic life. When the sun hits the tires, they release chemicals such as PCBs, PETs, DEHPs, antimicrobials, and bioretardants, which are then consumed by the food chain.

How can you help? First, recycle your tires properly. You can find details on how to do this with the help of one of our partners, Walking Mountains Science Center, here. If you see someone dumping tires illegally into the river, you can call (970) 328-8758.

Finally, we encourage you to get involved. The Watershed Council hosts the annual Community Pride Highway Cleanup in the spring and the Eagle River Cleanup in the fall, which are great ways to get out with your friends and family and clean tires and other trash out of our roadways and rivers! Find more information on our volunteer programs at http://www.erwc.org

Kate Isaacson is the Projects & Events 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 13, 2019.

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.

 

 

Announcing 1% for Land and Rivers: Conserving the best of our community

Announcing 1% for Land and Rivers: Conserving the best of our community

[Eagle County, CO, March 2018] Announcing the launch of 1% For Land and Rivers, a fund to protect Eagle County’s most important resources.

Did you know that Eagle County’s population is projected to double in 35 years to over 100,000 people? Although we welcome these anticipated newcomers, many of us worry about the impacts to our natural resources. Now is the time to think about conserving what we have.

Eagle Valley Land Trust (EVLT) and Eagle River Watershed Council (ERWC) together are Eagle County’s only non-profits exclusively focused on conserving and protecting rivers and open spaces for the benefit of the community. Together, we have launched the 1% for Land & Rivers Fund. EVLT and ERWC help local businesses establish and promote the program to their customers & clients who voluntarily participate by making a 1% donation with their purchase.

Funds collected help promote and restore healthy rivers, clean water, conscientious development, preservation of open space, wildlife and fish habitat, agriculture, water rights, and economic diversity throughout the Valley. Once the program reaches $100,000 in annual revenue, a portion of the funds generated will be allocated to a grant program, which will be open to organizations and entities working on land and water conservation projects in Eagle County.

The 1% for Land and Rivers Founder’s Circle will be comprised of the first ten business to implement the program thereby demonstrating their commitment to protecting our community’s most important resources.

Special thanks to the first five businesses: Minturn Anglers, Sunrise Minturn Cafe, Colorado Meat Company, Alpine Quest Sports, and Bonfire Brewing.

The next five businesses to implement the program will complete the Founders Circle. To learn more about the program, visit www.landandrivers.org or email  info@landandrivers.org.

The Eagle Valley Land Trust and the Eagle River Watershed Council are 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations dedicated to protecting Eagle County’s land and rivers.

To learn more about the program, visit www.landandrivers.org or email info@landandrivers.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.

 

Efforts to protect native fish getting funds

Chris Dillmann | cdillmann@vaildaily.com

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

John LaConte
jlaconte@vaildaily.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UNIQUE AMONG CUTTHROATS

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

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

STILL NEED FUNDS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Capturing Rain in Your Backyard

Lizzie Schoder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lizzie Schoder is the Education and Outreach Coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on June 29th, 2017.