Teamwork boosts Eagle River health | SummitDaily.com

Teamwork boosts Eagle River health

MATT TERRELL
eagle county correspondent

EAGLE COUNTY ” Mix a team of jargon-tongued U.S. Forest Service biologists with a feisty river watchdog group, and you have a much healthier Eagle River.

That’s why the long-lasting and effective partnership between the Holy Cross Ranger District and the Eagle River Watershed Council is being honored in Washington D.C. Wednesday.

Traction sand and mine pollution are just a couple of the major problems facing rivers and streams in Eagle County, and all those problems are being kept in check thanks to years of cooperation between the Forest Service and the Watershed Council.

The relationship has brought about big changes for the Eagle River and its surrounding streams and creeks. There have been major efforts to clean up traction sand in Black Gore Creek, mine pollution cleanups and tightened water quality standards.

Brian Healy, a biologist with the Forest Service, and Caroline Bradford, a longtime water advocate and former director of the Watershed Council, will accept the partnership award being presented by the chief of the Forest Service.

The Watershed Council has led major campaigns to increase public awareness of water issues. It’s fought to improve water quality standards, clear mine pollution in the Eagle River and clean up the tons of traction sand that falls from the I-70 into Gore Creek, smothering the river bottom and severely disrupting the ecosystem.

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The council did this, though, with science. The Forest Service brought pure biology to the table and helped educate agencies and the public on the damage done to rivers, the damage that could be done in the future and what needs to happen to make a difference.

The Watershed Council became sort of a mediator among a large group of influential groups like the Colorado Department of Transportation, the town of Vail, Eagle County and the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District” groups that don’t always have the exact same goals. The Forest Service provided consistent scientific context for all their discussions, Bradford said.

“Instead of wasting energy on conflict and argument it was focusing on water quality issues,” said Bill Carlson, environmental health officer for Vail. Carlson said he’s watched relationships between all these groups improve over the years thanks to the council and the Forest Service.

“Caroline has been a pretty powerful force bringing all these different groups together and working toward solutions for pretty complex problems like the Eagle Mine and Black Gore Creek,” Healy said.

Often, the messages the Forest Service wants to get out are dense and complicated. Even the name of the award Bradford and Healy will receive” the “Collaborative aquatic resource stewardship award” is a bit brainy. The watershed council has done a good job of translating those problems for the guy on the street, Healy said.

“The most important thing we’ve been able to do is bring together all the other agencies and municipalities in the county to work on issues together,” Bradford said.

Here’s a case study in their collaboration ” the ongoing problem of traction sand on I-70.

The sand keeps icy and snow-packed roads safe, but when gravity eventually pulls it down to the water, it smothers the river bed and disrupts the entire ecosystem. Fish and insects are struggling to survive, and many stretches of Black Gore Creek just can’t handle any more pollution, according tothe Forest Service.

Also, the sediment pollution in Black Gore Creek is already seeping into Gore Creek in Vail, which could eventually harm trout populations.

The Forest Service, the Watershed Council and several other agencies have been developing a rigorous plan to clean up the river in the next 15 years. The council helped bring everyone together, and the Forest Service is taking care of much of the science.

Healy has been heading efforts to quantify how much sand needs to be cleaned up every year. Some areas are much better off, but overall, there’s already 150,000 tons of sand in the watershed and more being added every year. Clearing it won’t be easy, especially since the Department of Transportation has drivers to protect. They dumped a record 30,000 tons of traction sand on the road in 2006, according to the Forest Service.

Sediment basins along I-70 built in the past five years will catch sand before it seeps into the water, and they need to be routinely cleaned out before sand washes down to the creek. Paved shoulders help trucks sweep sand, and a new vacuum truck will make much of the cleanup easier, said Watershed Council officials.

Then there will be big projects like the so-called “Basin of Last Resort,” which will involve the Department of Transportation clearing out several tons of sediment piled in Black Gore Creek where there was once a thriving fishing hole. The Basin of Last Resort, when it’s not filled up, will prevent sand from reaching Gore Creek, Healy said.

Biologists with the Forest Service will literally be counting bugs to determine if all these cleanup efforts are working.

The Forest Service will collect aquatic insects, measure how much sediment is on the stream bed and measure water pool depths to determine the plan’s success. All the measurements will be compared to several much healthier streams in Colorado, which are being used as guideposts in determining Black Gore Creek’s quality standards.

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