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Year in Review: 2018

The beginning of the year is a great time to look back on our accomplishments as a community engaged in protection of our precious watershed. In 2018, roughly 1,500 volunteers and dozens of agency, business, and municipal partners helped the Eagle River Watershed Council keep our waterways clean and healthy. As with any New Year’s resolution, it is nice to look back on the year behind us and reflect on how our successes set us up for this year ahead.

The Eagle River, Upper Colorado River, and their tributaries cover about 989 miles in Eagle County. That’s a lot of river miles that need attention around our beautiful county, from picking up trash to planting and controlling erosion. Some of the community’s hard work is easy to spot – 1,300 people in bright yellow vests filled orange bags with 24,000 pounds of trash during our annual Community Pride Highway Cleanup and River Cleanup events last year. To those who contributed: nice work keeping all that trash out of our favorite launch sites and fishing holes along our rivers!

In partnership with Eagle County Open Space and Eagle Valley Land Trust, we and almost 30 volunteers gave Miller Ranch Open Space in Edwards some much-needed attention in August. Fencing was installed around sensitive riparian and wildlife habitat, and degraded social trails (unauthorized trails) were scratched out. New signs were installed to direct visitors to safer and less erodible trails down to the Eagle River.

We are lucky to have partners and friends from one end of the watershed to the other. We continued our multiyear restoration project near Shrine Pass with the US Forest Service, Town of Vail, and 100 Vail Resorts EpicPromise volunteers. More than 200 people from the valley attended our third annual Wild and Scenic Film Festival in April. Local homeowners in East Vail worked with us to review and improve their riparian area landscaping techniques to reduce erosion while maintaining private owner’s needs. And we organized our second annual bilingual Community Float on the Upper Colorado River with support from Timberline Tours and Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement. With help from many community and municipal partners, we also provided public tours of Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery, the Shoshone Hydroelectric Plant, and the snow telemetry station up at Beaver Creek, and were happy to partner with Betty Ford Alpine Gardens to provide an update on water quality monitoring efforts below the Eagle Mine.

The Watershed Council team continued important work on local watershed initiatives and education efforts this year, too. As part of a larger, continued effort to designate Deep Creek in western Eagle County as a Wild and Scenic River, we held an onsite photography tour and a fun but educational evening at the Minturn Saloon. We co-hosted a Vail Symposium panel discussion about the Law of the Colorado River, and an evening with scientist Dr. Brad Udall to dive into climate change, weather patterns, and their impact on the Colorado River Basin. And we are leading a Community Water Plan process that will include municipal and public engagement events throughout 2019 and well into 2020, so stay tuned! Watershed Council staff and partners also continue their hard work behind the scenes on issues including the Eagle Mine Superfund site, resiliency and fire management planning in Eagle County, and expanding our education and outreach efforts up and down the valley.

If you are interested in learning more about our river restoration projects or community events, or if you would like to align your business with one of our several partnership programs, please contact us at 970-827-5406 or check out our webpage at Happy New Year from the Eagle River Watershed Council!

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

This article ran in the Vail Daily on February 13, 2019.

Letter to the Town of Eagle Regarding Concerns over Whitewater Park

Dear Mayor McKibbin and Eagle Town Trustees,

When Eagle taxpayers voted for the Eagle Whitewater Park, they did so under the premise that the town river park will “improve and conserve natural areas, open spaces and wildlife habitat; protect and improve water quality in the Eagle River.” This was in the first sentence of the ballot initiative and was pointed to often during the campaign. Recent newspaper articles and the town’s own Eagle Eddy newsletter are touting the wonderful improvements to fish habitat. In fact, the Eagle Eddy’s January edition stated “The river, riparian zone health and fisheries continue to be a priority for the project team and the Town of Eagle. This is and has been a key focus on the design, construction and completed park.”

Eagle River Watershed Council has not seen these stated priorities come to fruition. Instead, we have seen element after element that was designed to protect the river, riparian areas, and the fishery eliminated from the plan or significantly reduced. We believe, however, it is not too late to achieve the goals voted for by the community and expressed by the Town. I will outline here our three areas of concern (the lack of: riparian revegetation, stormwater mitigation and fish passage) as well as, solutions for each of these.

Throughout the planning process the Watershed Council participated as one of the many stakeholders. We repeatedly stressed the importance of the riparian area in maintaining water quality and conserving natural habitat. In every meeting we brought attention to this need, and the other stakeholders/community members present agreed that this was a priority. When the design plans came out, we were satisfied to see that the Town and project designers listened to this suggestion and riparian revegetation plans were included.

In reality, we have found that in an effort to meet the Army Corps of Engineers’ permit requirements, the Town spent $50,000 of the park funds (taxpayer dollars) to buy wetland credits in the Yampa River watershed near Steamboat Springs, the Town has stated that this has relieved the Town from their obligation to revegetate the project here in Eagle. These funds could have purchased diverse native plant species like currents, dogwood, native roses, cottonwoods and more for our park. The wetland credits purchased may improve water quality and habitat in the Yampa River, but they will do nothing for our local Eagle River.

When the Watershed Council asked about this discrepancy, the project team explained that although they are not obligated to do any riparian revegetation in the project area thanks to the purchase of wetland credits, they do think it is important- though they have no revegetation plan in place. The project team explained that last fall, while a contractor waited for materials to arrive on site, one employee installed willow stakes (unrooted saplings) around the project area. We appreciate this effort as we often use this method in conjunction with other revegetation procedures; however, putting in a few saplings in a completely denuded area is just one small aspect of what should be a comprehensive revegetation plan.

The project proponents have repeatedly stated that this section of the river was degraded due to the impacts of the Interstate 70 construction and river realignment. We have heard recent arguments that the riparian area was non-existent previously, and therefore the lack of the revegetation is not a degradation. However, this project was sold to taxpayers as improving a degraded stretch of river–as it currently stands, the community is not going to gain these benefits. Additionally, prior to the project start there were not large expanses of exposed soil where erosion and noxious weeds were of concern- there is now.

Upon seeing the large amount of exposed, denuded streambanks, Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) has committed to pursue grants and provide assistance with revegetating this riparian area collaboratively with the Watershed Council. Without meaningful revegetation, risk of erosion increases along with potential impacts to water quality, and a high potential for significant noxious weed growth that could compel the use of pesticides on the river bank. It is discouraging and troublesome that tax funds were collected specifically to avoid these adverse outcomes, and now a state agency and local nonprofit must see the job through.

Our second concern involves stormwater management, which was to include a rain garden in the middle of the terraced upland park area. The rain garden could provide a beautiful landscape of native, low-water and low-maintenance flowers and plants that would receive snowmelt and rain runoff from adjacent parking lots and paths and filter the water through the soil before it ever reaches the river. Filtering runoff water can significantly reduce water quality impacts from stormwater contaminants. Due to apparent overspending on the whitewater features, this was eliminated from the plans. However, the project team explained to the Watershed Council that the areas intended to be paved will not be at this time, eliminating the impervious surfaces that would contribute to runoff. The unpaved areas would typically allow stormwater to filter naturally through the ground removing the present need for a rain garden. However, with concentrated use of the planned paths (as well as the unplanned, but likely, social trails) the soils will become compacted and therefore impervious even without paving. Therefore it is critical that the Town commit to and memorialize that upon adding pavement to the park, or the pathways/parking lot compacting, a rain garden must also be installed. We recognize that funds for the project are running short, but we strongly encourage that you, at a minimum, spend the funds now on the appropriate rock, infiltration bed and grading so that the future installation will function as rain gardens are intended and mitigate stormwater runoff from the parking lot and path. We also recommend that the Town source and use limestone crusher fines in the pathways, as these look nice and will harden over time while maintaining their pervious nature so that water will infiltrate rather than runoff.

Our third concern is for the fish and their ability to move through the whitewater park. For a healthy fishery to exist, fish of all species and sizes should be able to move up and down the river to find food, access reproductive habitat, avoid predators, and pursue optimal environmental conditions that vary seasonally. Originally, the park was intended and designed to have a roughened channel bed and “fish notches” through the lower two structures to enhance fish passage upstream through the unnaturally high velocity features that are necessary to make the whitewater park structures fun. If fish were able to move through the lower two structures, they could then access the fish passage channel to move around the upper two structures. These specific elements were developed in cooperation with CPW. However, upon inspection, CPW discovered that a roughened channel bed did not extend through the lower structures due to smooth concrete chutes constructed on the upstream end.

Furthermore, the fish notches were not installed within the structures as presented in the design, which incorporated small alternating rocks along the channel bed. Instead, large flat boulders (rather smooth themselves) were utilized. Thankfully, during the final site visit Town engineers agreed to add some roughness features through the concrete chutes as touted in the Town’s newsletter. However, the large, flat boulders were not easily replaceable, thus the high velocities through the whitewater park structures will remain unmitigated for fish passage across most of the channel. It is true that the velocities are slightly lower along the banks of the river through these structures and some fish may be able to navigate through the features in those areas, although this will certainly not allow for the majority of fish to be able to do so. Overall, it is quite clear that the fish notches were not constructed as presented in the park’s designs and we believe that the Army Corps of Engineers should not sign off on this project until the permitted mitigation for fish passage is added. The project team should be obligated to complete the park as intended and designed to improve and conserve fish habitat. Furthermore, if fish passage remains severely reduced and mostly unmitigated through the lower two structures, it makes the fish passage channel around the upper two structures almost pointless.

Finally, while the Watershed Council has been asked to consult on educational signage at the river park, without the critical riparian vegetation, stormwater mitigation and fish passage pieces, we feel that we cannot support and promote this project as a prime example of these elements, which were the points these signs were intended to highlight. Once these concerns are addressed we will be happy to work on signage.

We ask that Town Council work with their design team to ensure that the ecological
benefits be incorporated into this project as promised by:
• Insisting the fish notches be installed in the whitewater structures as designed,
• Providing support for the effort to vegetate the riparian areas, and
• Installing the foundation for the future install of a rain garden and completing the
install once runoff associated with the upland park amenities is identified.

The Town should live up to the goals presented to the Army Corps of Engineers, CPW, the Watershed Council, and your constituents, who voted in 2016 for the tax increase to support this fun recreational opportunity that would also “improve and conserve natural areas, open spaces and wildlife habitat; protect and improve water quality of the Eagle River” (as stated in Ordinance 14). This was billed as supporting our quality of life here in Eagle- it is upon you to make it so. The Watershed Council is here to support you in your efforts.

Holly Loff
Executive Director

Holly Loff is the Executive Director for the Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council advocates 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

Beavers: An Untapped Water Source?


Beavers are second only to humans in their ability to change a landscape. Some of us admire that ability, others aren’t exactly fans. Love them or hate them, beavers may play a huge role in helping us to meet our growing water supply needs in the arid West.

Prior to European settlement, it’s estimated that the U.S. and Canada were home to somewhere between 60-400 million beavers. In the 1700 and 1800s, the popularity of beaver hats in Europe made for a very active beaver trapping industry throughout North America. As the beaver populations in the Eastern U.S. were wiped out, trappers moved westward and set up shop in the Rocky Mountains, making Colorado an important fur trade location by the mid-1830s. But by 1840, the popularity of beaver hats was waning. It was too late for beaver populations, however, which could no longer be found in most of the US. Today, only 10 percent of the viable habitat in Colorado is inhabited by this keystone species, or a species on which other species of the ecosystem depend such that if they were removed, the ecosystem would be drastically changed.

But let’s back up to what it was like prior to fur trappers. What did upwards of 60 million beavers spread across the continent look like? If you are imagining beaver ponds sporadically dotting the river valleys, you need to think bigger.

“Beaver ponds and their dams were like rice paddy terraces going down the stream. When beavers were wiped out, the land dried up. When farmers and ranchers arrived at these dry landscapes, they thought it had always been that way,” explained Ken Neubecker, Colorado Projects Director with American Rivers.

In other words, the arid landscape we call home is due in large part to the loss of healthy beaver populations. The land was much more lush and wet under the management of the beaver. In fact, a study by The Lands Council in Spokane found that a single beaver can store an estimated 10 acre feet of water. To better picture this—one acre foot is roughly the size of a football field covered one foot deep in water. The Sierra Club estimates that it would take 40 million beavers, still well below their historical distribution, to store all of the water that was used in the U.S. in 2010—which includes drinking water, irrigation, agriculture, and industrial uses.

A study completed in 2004 on the Colorado River in Rocky Mountain National Park by Colorado State University and the USGS found that “beaver ponds elevate the water table [or groundwater] during both high and low river flows and slow the decline of the water table during dry months.”

It is no surprise then that the reintroduction of beavers is being recommended by some hydrologists. In areas where beaver reintroductions aren’t practical, hydrologists encourage the building of beaver dam analogs, or human-made beaver dams. Both actual beaver dams and analogs can improve water quality and increase base flows according to Ellen Wohl, an expert on the topic and a geosciences professor at CSU.

In areas where space allows for beavers, but local residents are reluctant to welcome them, education can help. Property owners should understand that their landscaping can be protected by simply wrapping trees with hardware cloth or painting the trunks with sandpaint. Both of these practices are used successfully by the Watershed Council at our restoration projects. Flooding from beaver ponds can be mitigated with a pond leveler, or a piping system that creates a continuous leak from a beaver pond that cannot be dammed by the animal.

It is important to also note that the benefits of beaver ponds go well beyond water storage. Dams improve water quality, capture sediment and reduce erosion. Beavers also create and sustain wetlands, which make up only 5% of land in the contiguous U.S., but provide habitat to more than 1/3 of endangered and threatened animals. Wetlands are home to 31% of plants in the U.S. and experts estimate that as many as half of the North American bird species nest or feed in these important ecosystems. While mosquitos are often associated with beaver ponds, studies have shown that mosquito populations decrease significantly following the development of beaver ponds.

The reintroduction of beavers would provide a number of benefits and could play a leading role in accomplishing the water storage goals of the Colorado Water Plan. Perhaps it is time that state officials and local residents alike seriously consider the role of the beaver in the state’s water portfolio.

Holly Loff is the Executive Director for the Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council advocates 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

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



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 or email

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 or email

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 for our next River Voices feature! Visit 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



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



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

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 (, and for Abrams Creek Cutthroat Project information or to make a donation go to

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

This article ran in the Vail Daily on October 22, 2017.

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