Tons of sand cleared in Vail Pass Area |

Tons of sand cleared in Vail Pass Area

eagle county correspondent

EAGLE COUNTY ” More than 13,200 tons of river-clogging traction sand was cleaned-up along Interstate 70 this year between East Vail and Shrine Pass.

That’s around double the amount of traction sand actually put down by the Colorado Department of Transportation last winter in that area, said Ken Wissel, a deputy maintenance superintendent for the region.

The sand, which is used to keep icy and snow-packed roads safe during cold weather, has a profound environmental impact. It eventually seeps into Black Gore Creek below the highway, smothers insects, harms fish and eventually settles in Gore Creek, the trout stream that flows through Vail.

Much of the sand is caught in sediment basins along I-70 and Black Gore Creek. The basins though require regular cleaning, or else more sand will end up in the water where it does its damage.

“There’s 30 years of sand out there, so there’s plenty to clean up,” Wissel said.

The sand is one of the major concerns of the Eagle River Watershed Council, a watchdog group that promotes river health in the valley. The council has criticized the Department of Transportation in the past for being sluggish in cleaning up traction sand, but members were impressed with the amount of sand cleaned-up this year.

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Much of the cleanup work along the highway this year was done with the GapVax, a giant vacuum truck purchased this year by the department of transportation for the sole purpose of cleaning up sand.

If the Department of Transportation continues to pick up more sand than it puts down, the river is headed for a healthy future, said Arlene Quenon, a board member on the council.

In the worst areas, Black Gore Creek has nearly 40 percent of its bottom covered with sand. Ideally, only about 14 percent should be covered. There’s already 150,000 tons of sand in the watershed.

And as sand is cleaned up, biologists 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 how well cleanup is working. 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.

The more insects, the better. The deeper the pools, the better. The more Black Gore Creek starts looking like these other rivers, the better.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or

Construction could begin next fall on a large sand trap called the “Basin of Last Resort” that is designed to catch sediment in Black Gore Creek before it reaches Gore Creek in Vail.

The Colorado Department of Transportation is fully funding the $1.1 million project ” good news for groups like the U.S. Forest Service and the Eagle River Watershed Council.

The basin already exists ” it just needs to be cleaned out. It’s a deep and flat 3-acre stretch of Black Gore Creek around mile marker 183 in East Vail that’s been trapping sand and slowing downstream pollution ever since I-70 was built.

But more than 61,000 tons of sand have piled to the top of the basin pool and can more easily wash away and settle on the bottom of nearby Gore Creek.

The sand, used to keep icy and snow-packed roads safe in the winter, is now covering insect habitats and harming trout.

Environmental assessments on the project must be finished before it can start.