Skip to main content

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.

 

 

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.