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.