EAGLE COUNTY — The Eagle River running through Minturn toward Avon once ran the color of rusty antifreeze. Some locals took notice, and that was how the Eagle River Watershed Council was born.
Arlene Quenon, one of the council’s first board members, remembered that she and her husband, Max, went fishing on the Eagle one day soon after moving to the valley in the late 1980s. She saw the river — polluted from runoff from the Eagle Mine at Gilman — and cried. More than 20 years later, the Eagle no longer runs in industrial-waste colors, but there’s still plenty of work to do.
The watershed council was formed as a conduit for grant money available to clean up the river. In the years since, the group has been busy focusing on the health of the river that runs through the valley.
These days, the group is putting the finishing touches on a $4 million river restoration project in Edwards, roughly from the spur road between Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 6 on the east to the bridge over the river just past the Lake Creek Village apartments on the west.
The river flattens out on that stretch, which allows sediment to drop out and make the stream more shallow. Decades of cattle grazing on a ranch on the east end of the stream segment had also degraded the riverbank. The result was a wide, slow-moving stream that often ran too warm to support healthy fish populations. The stretch was also prone to spring flooding.
Using a combination of grants and donations, along with professional and volunteer help, the project has narrowed the stream channel and planted thousands of new plants on the banks.
That work has already shown its effects. Former Eagle County Commissioner Jon Stavney said a fish census less than a year after the bulk of the work had been done showed a marked increase in fish populations.
The group has tackled similar work on the Eagle as it flows through Camp Hale and sponsors the valley’s annual highway and river cleanup days. Those cleanup days routinely draw 1,200 people or more. The most recent highway cleanup sent 12 tons of trash to the county landfill.
A grassroots effort
The group has always run on a shoestring, relying on donations, a supportive board and dedicated volunteers. The director of the group is Holly Loff. There’s another full-time employee, the board and a consultant.
That small group gets a lot done, which is why is was recently recognized by the Vail Valley Partnership as the Small Nonprofit of the Year.
A big part of that recognition was for the group’s work on a comprehensive plan for protecting the river and repairing old damage.
That recognition is a big step. When the council first started studying the river, its work wasn’t nearly as well received.
Quenon recalled that the council first proposed land-use regulations for property near the river, including how close to the stream a property owner could build anything. Quenon, who was also on the Eagle County Planning Commission at the time, said there were some long, contentious meetings between advocates for the new rules and property owners worried about their rights.
But the regulations were hammered out, helping keep landscaping from going right to the water’s edge and keeping buildings well back from the river.
“That’s been a real environmental plus,” Quenon said.
With 20 years of work in the books, Loff said this year will be busy, if not as obviously so as the past couple of years. The cleanups are a given, of course. The group is also moving from its current office above the 7-11 store in Avon to downtown Eagle, a place a bit easier for the public to reach.
“I think that’s going to change our position to something more community-focused,” Loff said.
The Edwards project is down to its final days, but the big news will be along the Colorado River.
The watershed group spearheaded a comprehensive look at the Eagle in 2005. That led to a plan for the river that local governments are incorporating into their planning efforts.
A similar assessment for the Colorado River will be finished this year, something Stavney said is much needed. While the Colorado is much-studied along most of its length, Stavney said that hasn’t been the case with the stretch through Eagle County, from east of State Bridge all the way to Dotsero.
Both Loff and Stavney said the current assessment probably won’t contain many surprises. But, Stavney said, it will provide a look at the state of the river now and will give river-watchers a way to measure improvements or setbacks.
Quenon is proud of the council’s accomplishments, and is looking forward to the work to come, especially as it brings local school kids into its projects.
“I think that’s where they’ll really hit another level,” Quenon said. “It bodes well for the future.”