Have you ever wondered how our day-to-day activities here in the Eagle Valley affect water quality? Well, you aren’t alone. For years, local stakeholders have engaged in efforts to understand changing water chemistry and aquatic life conditions in the Eagle River.
Until the 1980s, the Eagle River seemed healthy enough and people looked no further. All that changed, however, with the shuttering of the Eagle Mine in 1984. When the miners emerged from the tunnels for the last time, the owners turned off the pumps that for years had kept the mine dry and workable.
As water flooded through the abandoned mine shafts, it leached out metals, particularly zinc, copper and cadmium, and carried them into the river. Zinc, though harmless to humans, clogs the gills of fish, making it difficult for them to breathe. The dissolved metals in the water stained the river banks orange as well as the snow-making snow that was being pumped from the river onto Vail Mountain. This very visible effect coupled with dwindling fish populations drew much attention and people began to demand an explanation. Consistent monitoring provided those answers.
Since that time, water monitoring programs have proven to be valuable tools for evaluating a wide range of natural and human-caused changes to our waterways. A collaborative monitoring effort coordinated by the Eagle River Watershed Council utilizes collaboration between local industry, towns, utilities and county government (12 entities in all) to guide and support a long-term monitoring network across the Eagle River watershed.
Throughout the year, these groups collect monthly water and macroinvertebrate samples from the Eagle River, Gore Creek and numerous tributaries. The samples are analyzed in the lab, recording the concentrations of various chemical constituents and the structure of macroinvertebrate communities.
These water quality indicators are then compared to standards defined by the state of Colorado. These standards are implemented statewide in order to protect streams and rivers for recreation and agricultural purposes, for use as drinking water and to support aquatic and riparian communities. If and when measures of certain parameters exceed the state standards, efforts begin to identify the cause of the impairment and to address possible mitigation strategies moving forward. One such effort is currently under way on Gore Creek.
In 2011, macroinvertebrates living along the creek bottom showed signs of stress; at this time, concerned stakeholders initiated the Gore Creek Water Quality Improvement Plan in order to better understand the situation. The recent completion of the plan relied on close cooperation and funding from the town of Vail, CDOT, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Vail Recreation District, the Eagle River Watershed Council and the town of Avon.
The plan was published in August of this year and identifies three likely contributors to macroinvertebrate community impairment: Degradation of riparian zones along Gore Creek, a high percentage of impervious cover (such as roadways, roofs and parking lots) on the valley floor, and a variety of land-use activities.
This trio of contributing factors is closely interconnected. Loss of dense riparian vegetation from stream banks reduces the ecosystem’s ability to filter water as it moves along the ground toward the stream. A high percentage of impervious cover associated with residential and commercial development means water moves quickly through stormwater drainage networks and across the ground to the stream. This water often carries nutrients, pesticides, hydrocarbons and other chemicals associated with transportation corridors, lawn care and the like. In effect, damage to or loss of riparian zones exacerbates the impacts of urban runoff associated with impervious land cover, which, in turn, leads to a greater loading of chemicals in the stream.
Addressing these issues will require a long-term, concerted effort on the part of municipal governments, utilities and residents of the Gore Creek watershed. Moving forward, this collaboration will work to identify the types of policy changes, education and outreach campaigns, and construction projects necessary to protect important natural resources. While such efforts represent an enormous step toward improving and protecting water quality, the actions of local residents largely dictate the effectiveness of these top-down approaches. So, the big question remains: What are you willing to do to reduce negative water quality impacts on our streams and rivers?
Seth Mason is a hydrology consultant and serves as the director of water programs for the Eagle River Watershed Council. The council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.