VAIL — It’s hard to imagine Gore Creek through Vail as an “urban” stream. But it is, and while the stream isn’t about to catch fire any time soon, it does need some help, both now and in the future.
Changes to state water quality standards a few years ago landed Gore Creek on the state’s list of “impaired” streams, primarily because of “stressed” aquatic life, primarily insects. There are a number of reasons for the damage to the creek, but one of the big ones is “urban runoff,” which includes rainwater and melting snow running into the creek from streets, sidewalks and roofs.
Local officials were already monitoring water quality in local streams, but a couple of years ago an urban runoff group was formed. It includes representatives from Eagle County, the towns of Vail and Avon, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, the Eagle River Watershed Council, the Vail Recreation District, Vail Resorts and the Colorado Department of Transportation. While stream users have been monitoring stream chemistry and other factors for more than 20 years, the urban runoff group expanded that study and evaluation.
The group recently issued a report detailing existing threats to Gore Creek. Those threats include urban runoff as well as the loss of “riparian areas” along the creek.
During a recent presentation to the Vail Town Council, Seth Mason, of the Watershed Council, talked about those threats. He showed council members several photos of healthy riparian areas, in which natural trees, shrubs and grasses grow right down to the streambank. He also presented photos of homes with manicured landscaping right down to the water’s edge.
Mason said the natural zones provide shade to the stream, keeping water temperatures down. Those natural riparian areas also provide a natural filter for sediment and various chemicals and substances that would otherwise flow into the creek.
The question, then, is how to encourage property owners to let their very valuable streamfront property to grow out.
Mason and Vail council members talked about various approaches the town could take, including mandating “no-mow” zones on streamfront property.
But letting streambanks grow in presents other problems.
“We’re trying to maintain stream health and not be overrun with noxious weeds — what do no-mow zones mean for that?” council member Greg Moffet asked.
Mason said keeping weeds down will probably require spraying to some extent. That will require answering a host of new questions, he said.
The town could also impose “setback” regulations, which would mandate the distance from the stream landscaping or construction can be done. But Vail Town Attorney Matt Mire said those regulations could raise questions about government “takings” of private property.
Siri Roman, the wastewater manager for the Water and Sanitation District, said education will also play an important part in improving Gore Creek. That’s going to include helping both property owners and landscape contractors — the people who do much of the actual work — understand the importance of maintaining riparian areas.
The combination of education and regulation will also be crucial during new construction.
Streambeds naturally move over time, but “when you build a home next to a creek, that creek won’t move any more,” Roman said. That also applies to the “impervious” parts of a town — roofs, streets, sidewalks and the like. Understanding where runoff from those areas goes and how to control it will be important to Gore Creek’s future.
Diane Johnson, the Water and Sanitation District’s communications and public affairs manager, said while there’s been plenty of study and planning and a host of recommendations to go along with it, maintaining Gore Creek’s stream health will require many solutions.
And, Johnson said, it’s also important to remember that Gore Creek is a reasonably healthy stream right now.
“We need our waterways taken care of,” Johnson said. “We don’t ever want people to think the water’s icky.”
“We don’t have issues right now,” Johnson said. “We want to protect water quality, fishing, kids playing on the Gore Creek Promenade — all of it.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2939 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.