From electric vehicles to river restoration, here are sustainability efforts being made in Summit County

An outside bend of the Swan River Restoration Project nearing completion is seen in October 2021. Habitat features, willow transplants, seeding and erosion control are finished, and planting pockets will be added this year.
Summit County Open Space and Trails/Courtesy photo

As communities across the U.S. are looking to adapt to warming temperatures and drought, some Summit County initiatives are already working to shrink local impacts on the environment.

Jess Hoover, climate action director for High Country Conservation Center, said that the two biggest focuses at the moment are water conservation and climate action. 

“If we do nothing, what’s going to happen in (the year) 2100 is temperatures here will be more like in Eagle County,” Hoover said. “That’s a lot hotter, which means I can mountain bike a lot sooner, which is great — except that also means it changes our runoff cycles, changes our recreation and causes a whole host of impacts.”

According to Hoover, more than 50 days out of the year in Summit County will be over 80 degrees by the end of the century, and the number of days below freezing between November and April could drop by half if climate change stays on the same trajectory.

Hoover added that the center is working on a video campaign to encourage electric vehicle use in the county to help reduce emissions. The series will feature local electric vehicle drivers and their experiences using them.

“Our initiatives are really focused on outreach and education to let people know that real Summit County locals drive them and it is just fine,” Hoover said.

Hoover said this is important because, according to 2017 data, transportation emissions largely come from passenger vehicles and light-duty trucks. She said they hope to see more federal support, in addition to support from the state level, to make electric vehicles more accessible for everyone.

Jordan Mead, resource specialist with Summit County Open Space and Trails Department, said that recent work through the Swan River Restoration Project will also help address climate change by capturing and storing carbon dioxide locally.

He said that planting additional trees is what is going to help mitigate increasing levels of greenhouse gases, not necessarily only replacing forests that had already existed. For carbon to be permanently removed by planting trees, forests have to remain in place for thousands of years in order to have long-term carbon sequestration effects.

The most recent portion of the Swan River project has been to finish Reach B, the final stretch of the publicly owned open space in the Swan River Valley that is left to be restored. The first step is the channel excavation, which is removing material and trying to get the water that was mostly flowing under the surface back into the stream.

The portion that was completed last year was excavating planting pockets for vegetation. The pockets will be backfilled with more topsoil and planted with woody vegetation, shrubs and trees. One of the goals is to create a connected ecosystem where aquatic organisms can move freely between these restored stretches and create a microenvironment on the site.

“We need to preserve the forested ecosystems that we have, and we need to convert nonforested lands that have been degraded back into forested ecosystems, or just vegetated ecosystems, which is what we’re (doing) here with the Swan River,” Mead said. “We’re not necessarily trying to restore a forest there. In this case, we’re starting with the groundwork. The grasses and shrubs started to build some soil on this, but they’re still going to have those net-additive carbon benefits because we’re taking something that was big piles of dredge gravel and had zero vegetation growing on it and turning it into 50-plus acres of vegetated, riparian ecosystem.”

As for the Swan River restoration, Mead said the project will annually reduce approximately 54 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, or 5,400 tons over the next 100 years. He added that though it’s a drop in the bucket compared to emissions being created, it is still sequestering carbon in an ecosystem that previously had not done any at all.  

“We really want to continue this work on reaches C and D on the Swan River,” Mead said. “There’s also 40 acres of dredged mine area in the French Gulch area near Breckenridge that can also be restored in a similar manner and have the same kinds of additives and carbon sequestration methods.”

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