VAIL — Gore Creek is more complicated than a scenic mountain stream ought to be.
If scenery was all the creek provided, then it would be a centerpiece of Vail life. But the creek provides much of Vail’s drinking water supply, water for snowmaking and water for everything from rubber duck races to “Gold Medal” fishing on its west end.
But Gore Creek is also a stream in trouble. The creek recently landed on the state of Colorado’s list of “impaired” waterways. The stream in places carries too many nutrients — primarily nitrogen and phosphorus. Those nutrients promote algae growth, with affects both fish populations and the populations of the bugs they eat. Water quality is also affected by storm runoff, which carries oil and other materials into the creek from two frontage roads, an interstate highway and who knows how many acres of parking lots. Road sand plays a role, as does the use of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides.
Linn Brooks, general manager of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, likened the stream’s health to be wounded by 1,000 cuts, a problem that may take 1,000 Band-Aids to cure.
The water and sanitation district will spend about $60 million during the next 15 years to upgrade its wastewater treatment plants in Vail, Avon and Edwards.
Here’s the problem, though. The “impaired” portion of Gore Creek is upstream from the wastewater plan — Gore Creek downstream from the plant is still listed by a state agency as “Gold Medal” fishing water.
The good news is that a group of local agencies — the water and sanitation district, the town of Vail, the Colorado Department of Transportation, Vail Resorts and the Vail Recreation District — have all been working with the Eagle River Watershed Council. That local nonprofit provides research and resources for studies and projects along the length of the Eagle River, including Gore Creek.
The result was a water quality improvement plan that both identifies the creek’s problems and suggests solutions, most of which are more complicated than just building a new, improved wastewater plant.
For instance, part of the reason stormwater is affecting water quality in the creek is the lack of “riparian” areas on the stream banks. Those areas, with tall grasses, willows and other plants, help filter water before it goes into the creek.
But a lot of the riparian areas along the creek have been mowed down during the years, taking away an important defense mechanism for the creek.
“The pollutants aren’t that unusual,” Brooks said. “It’s just that the stream has no filtering mechanism.”
Given a chance, the riparian areas will re-grow fairly quickly, Watershed council director Holly Loff said. Beyond filtering runoff, new growth will also provide new habitat for the bugs needed to support a healthy fish population.
With work already begun, a couple of questions remain — what else is needed, and how long will it take to improve the creek’s water quality?
The answer to the first is tricky. Vail Town Council member Margaret Rogers said the town already has regulations in place to protects streambanks, and a “zero-tolerance” policy for violators. The regulations currently in place are about all the town can do at the moment, she said.
The harder part of the problem is simply identifying the myriad sources of pollution, and what’s required for those sources to make a lesser impact on the creek.
“I’m very disappointed we didn’t fine (one) smoking gun,” Rogers said.
And, in the case of storm runoff, it’s not yet clear what will be required to ease the quantity of pollutants getting into the creek yet. Possible solutions — a stormwater treatment system of some kind — could be very expensive, and Rogers said town officials need to be confident anything with a high price tag will bring real results.
On the other hand, Rogers said, “We have lots of people looking at (the problem).”
With that in mind, Rogers said she’s confident the creek will be removed from the state’s “impaired” list, perhaps by the time the water and sanitation district is through with its wastewater treatment plant improvements — about 15 years.
Loff and Brooks also said that 15-year timeline seems realistic.
“All the parties are really engaged,” Loff said.
And, given the importance of a “pristine alpine stream” to Vail’s image, it’s unlikely any of the parties involved in the cleanup will slack off in coming years.
“We’re all very determined to get (Gore Creek) off that list,” Rogers said.