No easy solutions for creek
Ryan Summerlin October 18, 2013
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the Vail Homeowners Association monthly report. We publish weekly excerpts from the association, which keeps a close eye on economic and political trends in and outside of the town. The newsletter electronic version with links to supporting documents is available at www.vailhomeowners.com.
There are no simple solutions to removing Gore Creek chemical pollutants. The town’s current approach to treatment of urban drainage is spotty. At a limited number of locations, urban runoff is strained through sand filters or slowly through the soil in retention ponds. Both of these methods are not effective in removing dissolved chemical contaminants. That would require advanced treatment, which could become costly. Who should bear the cost of paying for advanced treatment is an important question for both landowners and taxpayers.
According to the authors of the government report, there is not one specific source for the contamination. It is a cocktail of substances that they say accompanies increasing urbanization. There are, however, candidates that lead the list of likely sources. One of the most prevalent is the chemical components of urban runoff that come from paved surfaces such as streets, interstate highways and parking lots. A high percentage of the paved surfaces that drain urban runoff into Gore Creek are both publicly owned and regulated by the town, state or federal governments. How much of the cleanup costs will be borne by tax dollars from each of these entities is an important matter needing further public discussion.
The town of Vail is in a difficult position. Government officials are being challenged to find approaches that balance environmental preservation needs with economic development desires. There are strong competing interests on either side of the issues competing for the allocation of public funds. The most immediate example is the installation of a drainage system and artificial turf on the Ford Park athletic fields.
Some tourism interests want to open the athletic fields for play on Ford Park earlier in the spring so that more out-of-town sports teams and their families will book their stay in Vail. The town exceeded its Ford Park budget by $1.5 million partially due to the addition of an extensive drainage system to dry out the athletic fields. Included in the proposal is the installation of rubber based artificial turf on portions of fields; again, so that play can begin earlier in the spring. This however may lead to unintended consequences; a state of Connecticut water quality study reports that rubber-based artificial turf is the source of groundwater pollutants producing contaminants similar to those identified in the Gore Creek water quality study as needing to be controlled and removed.
A conscientious fisherman recently provided photographs to the Town Council, indicating visual symptoms of possible pollution at a drain outlet that flows into Gore Creek from the newly-installed drainage system for the athletic field. Perhaps, as a precaution, before installing the artificial turf, the town should first test to see if there has been ground water contamination created at a nearby installation of a similar artificial turf technology which has been in place for several years.
Water quality planners are calling for the implementation of comprehensive regulations and do not want to wait for more detailed studies. Additional studies and increased inspection could be helpful in targeting specific locations where contaminants are at their highest concentration, such as the drainage outlets from street and parking lot runoff, which in most instances flow directly into Gore Creek. The result of these studies could be used to determine clean-up costs and priorities for improvement.
There are low cost solutions that could be immediately implemented. Increased enforcement could improve erosion controls on construction sites and inappropriate dumping into streams of contaminated snow removed from private parking lots.
Accurate mapping (yet to be done), frequent inspection and testing of urban runoff at locations that flow directly into Gore Creek, particularly during spring runoff and storm events, could help isolate problem areas. The town, in the short term, may need to redeploy and perhaps increase its code enforcement personnel.
The state has provided the local water and sewer district with a grant to upgrade its wastewater treatment plants, with the intention of bringing plant effluent into compliance with new regulations. The upgrade may not be without unforeseen outcomes, as the water quality data shows macro-invertebrate populations are healthier below than above the West Lionshead plant. This anomaly remains unexplained, but some experts informally attribute it to nutrients from the plant’s effluent, which is one of the pollution contaminants scheduled for treatment. The water quality study seems to indicate that there is a balancing of certain levels of the appropriate nutrients that are beneficial to aquatic habitat. Also, this section of Gore Creek below the plant is designated as a gold metal trout stream, which makes the balancing of treatment methods all the more important.
A more effective urban runoff treatment system could be a very useful tool in reducing contamination levels. The current wastewater system is not designed to treat urban runoff. Snow dumps and the like, where the outflow can be regulated, could be treated by specialized urban runoff treatment facilities. Who would pay for and who would operate any potential runoff treatment system remains to be determined.
Town officials were in the process of investigating methods to reduce urban runoff from Interstate 70 as part of proposed changes and landscape improvements to the East Vail Interchange. This project and other improvements that could have included upgrades to drainage systems associated with the community’s frontage roads and interstate highway may be put on hold for the long-term. There is a more pressing need to make repairs to extensively damaged roads from recent catastrophic flooding on the Front Range.
Vail, to protect its tourism, cleaned up its air pollution in the early 1980s by regulating wood burning stoves and fireplaces. Now, after 50 years of keeping water pollution at bay, it must take the necessary steps to clean up its waterways. The challenge, however, may not be as easy as regulating wood burning fireplaces; the problem may prove to be far more intransigent and costly to solve.
Perhaps the solutions lay with a collaborative relationship between federal, state and local governments, including the cumulative actions of individual property owners who recognize they must change their way of coexisting with Gore Creek.