Curious Nature: Keeping our rivers and creeks ‘pure as the driven snow’

Pete Wadden
Curious Nature
Plowed snow tends to be black with cinders and other pollutants and hardly resembles the “pure” flakes that fell months before.
Courtesy photo

In Eagle County, snow plays a big role in our lives. It drives our economy and feeds our rivers. Eighty percent of the water that flows through the Colorado River originates in the mountains of Colorado, most of it as snow.

When you think of snow, you may think of champagne powder on the slopes or a blanket of smooth white crystals in your backyard. It may evoke the phrase “pure as the driven snow.” However, runoff that flows into our rivers and creeks is rarely pure. As snow melts and flows over roads, parking lots, and lawns it collects pollutants along the way. Pollutants like pet waste, road salt, fertilizer, and herbicides all sneak into our rivers and creeks, carried by the melting runoff from a winter of accumulation.

Plow drivers should know how important it is to avoid pushing snow directly into waterways. If you have ever seen the Vail snow dump site in the spring, you know why. That “snow” tends to be black with cinders and other pollutants and hardly resembles the “pure” flakes that fell months before. The snow dump captures and isolates most of those pollutants, preventing them from ever reaching Gore Creek. But, the snow captured in that one-acre basin is a small fraction of Vail’s contribution to Gore Creek and the Colorado River Basin.

So, what can we do about the rest of the runoff? There are two ways to keep pollution out of our waterways. The best way is to keep it out of the snow in the first place. We can accomplish this by picking up after our pets, cleaning up fuel and oil spills with dry absorbents like cat litter, and applying snowmelt and salt sparingly.

The second way to keep pollutants out of waterways is to filter runoff before it reaches the creek. This can be done with expensive stormwater treatment devices, but the best filter is natural soil and vegetation. Attractive native landscaping maintained with minimal fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides is the best buffer a waterway can have from pollution. That is why the Town of Vail promotes the restoration of riparian buffers and maintenance of native plants. Native plants require less water and fewer chemicals than exotic ornamental plants or Kentucky bluegrass.

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Pet waste is a pervasive and unpleasant problem in Eagle County. The “land mines” that emerge from the spring snow are not natural wildlife droppings. Dog waste is slower to biodegrade because of the preservatives in dog food and can carry pathogens like cryptosporidium and E. coli. Every pet owner is responsible for cleaning up after their furry friends. In fact, it is against the law not to.

Each of us plays a part in protecting water quality. As the top of the Rockies and the headwaters of the Colorado River Watershed, our actions impact everyone downstream across seven states and portions of Mexico. Water inevitably flows downhill. It is up to us to make sure that water is as pure as it can be.

Pete Wadden is the Town of Vail Watershed Education Coordinator and serves on the board of Eagle River Watershed Council. His first job in the valley was with Walking Mountains Science Center. He can be reached at or 970 479 2144.


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