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Black Gore Creek cleanup gathering steam

Matt Zalaznick

Perhaps the most pressing environmental problem in the valley, rivers and streams is being choked by highway traction sand laid down along the Vail Pass stretches of Interstate 70 during winter snowstorms to keep the highway open for skiers, trucker, commuters and other travellers.

Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi attended a public meeting of the Eagle River Watershed Council on Thursday. He appeared ready to make Black Gore Creek a priority.

“I’m more and more convinced that this is something we need to work on,” Menconi said. “We see the importance of the environment and recreation and maintaining gold medal trout waters. If that’s means working harder, then that’s the right thing to do.”

The Eagle County Board of Commissioners has some control over how local transportation funds are used, Menconi said, but until now those funds have been directed at other projects. Menconi said the commission would have to redirect money from other projects toward cleaning up Black Gore Creek.

Over the past 30 years, more than 300,000 tons of sand have been dumped on the lanes of I-70 up and over Vail Pass, with heaps of it gradually eroding downhill and into the Black Lakes water storage reservoirs. Tons of sand also is trickling down Black Gore Creek, forming sandbars, dams and deltas that many believe threaten fish habitat. Eventually the sand will flow into Vail’s Gore Creek and on into the Eagle River.

The Colorado Department of Transportation and two local environmental groups, the Eagle River Watershed Council and the Black Gore Creek Steering Committee, now have a $15 million to $20 million “Sediment Control Action Plan.” The plan aims to prevent future sand applications from eroding into mountain streams.

“Essentially, what we’re looking at now is stopping the bleeding,” Ken Neubecker, president of the Eagle River Watershed Council, said at a public meeting Thursday. “There’s still a big pile of blood out there and that will be much tougher to crack.”

The recently released plan only aims to stop any more sand from getting in the creeks. It does not target sand already clogging Vail Pass waterways.

“If we go and spend money addressing the sandbars and the sand piles and we don’t take care of the root source, those sandbars and sand piles will be back,” said Jeffrey Kullman, director of the CDOT maintenance region that stretches from East Vail to Kansas.

The biggest question about the sediment control plan is where the $20 million will come from. The plan calls for the construction of barriers, retention ponds, drainage culverts and other structures meant to keep sand out of the streams.

Pristine snow melt trickling down from the highest peaks around Vail Pass would also be re-routed so they avoid flowing along the highway, where they pick up sand and carry it downhill, said consultant Mike Crouse, who wrote the sediment control plan.

Kullman said local officials in Vail and Eagle County have to put up some money to prove to the state – and even the U.S. Congress – that a clean-up is top priority.

“If you’re able to get this thing rolling, it lends you a lot of credibility,” Kullman said. “They know you’re serious about it.”

Officials say between 50 percent and 80 percent of the sand can be blocked from getting into the waterways. During a typical winter, about 15,000 tons of sand has been poured onto I-70.

Chad Young, an Edwards resident who attended the meeting, said almost all recreational activities in the valley depend on the health of the river.

“I bike that path and I kayak and I’m concerned about the river,” Young said. “I’m here because all water flows downhill.”

But a lack of $20 million won’t prevent small sand prevention projects from taking place this summer. Various agencies – including CDOT, the town of Vail and the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District – have about $700,000 to pave sand storage areas at the top of Vail Pass and build more barriers.

“Every little project like this has a big impact on how much sand gets downstream,” said Caroline Bradford, executive director of the Eagle River Watershed Council.

Vail Town Councilwoman Diana Donovan, who attended Thursday’s meeting, said it appears people in the valley are finally starting realize the environmental threat facing Black Gore Creek.

“I think it’s nice that everyone recognizes this is a problem and maybe now we can get something done,” Donovan said.

Black Gore Creek also has potential to become an issue in this year’s County Commission race.

“Eagle County exists in great part because of the environment,” said Gerry Sandberg, a Democratic candidate for commissioner and investigator for the District Attorney’s Office for Eagle County.

“Skiing is the environment, fishing is the environment, hiking, biking and hunting, it’s all the environment,” Sandberg said after Thursday’s meeting.

Crouse, the author of the plan, said the smaller projects expected be funded this summer will improve the health of Black Gore Creek.

“You can make a difference in Black Gore Creek and you can make a difference in five years,” Crouse said.

The Eagle River Watershed Council will lead a tour of Vail Pass, Black Lakes and Black Gore Creek on June 18. For more information call Caroline Bradford at 827-5406.


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