Project aims to keep fish in Eagle River healthy
June 6, 2010
VAIL VALLEY – Drifting down the Eagle River on a raft, Julie Ash points to the bank. It looks like someone sliced off the edge with a giant cake knife.”This is probably the most critical bend in this reach,” she says.In the distance, the culprits of the river damage graze in a pasture, held back from the river by a new solar-powered electric fence.”The cattle have, historically, been able to come right up to this reach,” says Ash, a water resource engineer who helped to oversee a river restoration project here.Over time, cattle tromped down and ate the plants along the waters’ edge, causing the banks to slough into the water.That’s just one example of the damage agriculture and urbanization have inflicted on this 1.6-mile length of river that runs through Edwards.The Eagle River Watershed Council and Trout Unlimited invited stakeholders on a rafting trip to tour the length of river where the $4 million restoration project is taking place.At one point, the rafts meander past a series of newly planted cottonwood trees along the banks. Chicken wire fences circle each plant.”When you see the cages around there, that’s because our friendly beaver population is enjoying the buffet we put out for them,” Ash says.About two-thirds of the river restoration project is complete, said Melissa Macdonald, executive director of the watershed council. In 2008, workers added stones along the banks that pinch the water into a narrower, deeper channel. That helps keep fish healthy when the river is low. This stretch of the river gets wide and hot during low flow times, which is bad for fish, Macdonald said.”The fish will either die or leave,” she said.As houses and parking lots proliferated upstream, Ash said water that would normally soak into the ground instead flowed into the river. That runoff carried extra sediment downstream, depositing it in this stretch of the river.That sediment caused the river to widen out, and clogged pebbles along the bottom that are an important habitat for the bugs that fish eat.The restoration project has been fixing those areas to make them more friendly for trout.”Our economy depends a lot on fishing and the health of the river,” Macdonald said. “The (federal) Clean Water Act says the water needs to be fishable and swimmable.”Last year, workers also added 14,000 trees and shrubs along the banks.This coming fall, the project will focus on adding more stones, called “cobble bars,” along the rivers’ edge and possibly plant 600 willows. A third phase of the project will add portable toilets near the boat launch, trash bins in areas with litter, trails and fishing docks near the Lake Creek apartments.The Eagle River Watershed council is still trying to raise the remaining $500,000 for the restoration. The rest of the money came from a $1.5 million grant from the Natural Resource Damage Fund and donations from the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and various metropolitan districts. Vail Valley contractor B&B Excavating has been doing the work.