Edwards: The worst stretch? | VailDaily.com

Edwards: The worst stretch?

Nikki Katz
Courtesy of the Eagle River Watershed CouncilConservations say the stretch of the Eagle River in west Edwards in the most damaged. In this photo, piles of sediment can be seen.

EAGLE COUNTY – Every time David Lach of Edwards goes fishing on the Eagle River near his house in Homestead, he finds abandoned beer bottles on the downtrodden banks.”I keep trying to find a spot no one uses,” he said. “But it keeps getting harder and harder . . . and they’re just adding more and more subdivisions.”As humans encroach on Edwards’ wildlife, the Eagle River and the marsh suffer severe consequences, said Caroline Bradford of the Eagle River Watershed Council, who considers this stretch of the river the most degraded in the valley.”At this rate . . . (the Eagle River in west Edwards) will be significantly more degraded as time goes on,” she said.This stretch’s biggest problem is pollution, from oil to pet waste to dirt, that is pulled from the land to the river by storm waters, irrigation water and melting snow, said Bill Andree, a Colorado Division of Wildlife officer. Since this type of pollution has no one identifiable source, it’s a difficult problem to tackle, Andree said.Irrigation water typically picks up nutrients from waste materials like fertilizer and pet feces, which can be harmful for the river. The river water comes from melted snow at the rocky peaks of mountains and is naturally low in nutrients. The fish thrive in this low-nutrient water, Andree said.Although additional nutrients result in larger fish, they also encourage the growth of plants like algae that use up a lot of the oxygen fish need.Uncontrolled rain water, infused with materials from nutrients to chemicals, is often directed to the river by old drainage pipes, said Ray Merry, director of Eagle County’s Environmental Health Department. Newer drainage systems send storm waters to treatment plants first, he said.

Cars, wind and natural erosion send extra sediment to the bottom of the river, filling in important grooves, or “pores,” on the river floor. Not only do the insects that trout eat live in the pores, but trout also use those areas for spawning. Their whole habitat may be threatened, or at least changed severely, Andree said.”It could go from a rocky bottom to a bottom covered in soil,” Andree said. “Then the river water absorbs more heat because the soil is a darker color, and as you add more soil, you get more plants. The plants in turn trap more soil, which changes the route of the river.”Also, a river that’s mucked up with sediment attracts the tubifex worm, which causes whirling disease in fish. The disease affects the cartilage of fish under 4 inches long, curving their spines so they swim in circles until they die.Construction sites, like the Cordillera Valley Club construction across Interstate 70 from the Eagle River, are a major source of loose dirt that gets into the water.The law used to require sites of 5 or more acres to have organized systems for keeping their dirt on their plot. The law now applies to 1-acre sites in most of Eagle county, and Vail’s policy extends to sites that are a fraction of an acre.Unlike sediment, refined gas and oil pollutants sit on top of the river, making them easier to clean up. But what most people don’t think about is the chain of consequences of this type of pollution, Merry said.”First, there’s a sheen (from oil) on the water, and the oxygen is depleted,” he said. “If there’s no oxygen in the water, and there’s oil instead, those things go through (the fish’s) gills, which affects their reproduction and ability to grow.”The best way to avoid these kind of problems is to keep a clean river, which is hard to do with developments like Brett Ranch and The Riverwalk crowded along the banks, Andree said.

The “riparian zone” – the strip of land bordering a river – is possibly the most crucial river area to protect, Merry said. This zone’s vegetation makes up important wildlife and insect habitats.By law, people cannot lay building foundations closer than 50 feet to the river, but the law doesn’t limit homeowners’ porches and landscapes, Bradford said. Also, some older houses have been “grandfathered in” because they’ve been on the water’s edge since before the law was enacted.”It’s really important to have a good buffer area to not disturb the natural vegetation 50 feet to 75 feet away from the river,” Andree said. “Some people don’t want to have a lot of trees and bushes blocking their views. They want to see the river, so they change what’s there and make lawns down to the water.”The riparian zone protects the river by absorbing some of the human-caused pollution. Stripping vegetation from along the river not only reduces the water’s shade, which warms the water and puts the trout at risk, but also destroys insect habitats, which limits the fish’s food source.Most importantly, lush riparian zones ensure a small strip of wildlife habitat in an area where human developments take over “their land,” Andree said. Merry said he’s concerned about human control over the course of the river. Naturally, the river would determine its own path, but Edwards developments have forced the path of the river’s flow.”Once we started developing in areas, no matter what distance the (buffer zones) are from the stream, man has already decided how the stream will evolve,” Merry said.

Deena Koundouriotis of Edwards said she chose to live at The Riverwalk mainly because it’s close to the river. “I can hear (the river) from my condo,” she said. “It’s so natural and beautiful, and I have a great river view.”Koundouriotis also has a view of the path between The Riverwalk and the Eagle River that makes the river accessible for activities like picnicking and fishing. In some places, vegetation on the bank has been cleared to make way for benches, tables and steps down to the water.With the loss of its riparian vegetation, like willows and cottonwoods whose roots stabilize the soil, the south bank is heavily eroded. The erosion sends sediment downstream to west Edwards, where it settles and can become a problem.Fly fisherman Jim Hess, who also lives at The Riverwalk, said there’s a noticeable difference between the south bank and its less-exploited counterpart across the river.”Fewer people go there,” he said, gesturing to the north side of the river. “It looks like there are more wildflowers, and it’s just healthier.”Susie Wendt, another Riverwalk resident, said she isn’t concerned at all about the health of the river in Edwards.”I think people are pretty reasonable in this area, in a valley like this,” Wendt said. “And companies know what they’re doing.”Part-time Edwards resident Leon Escude agreed.”Somebody a lot more knowledgeable than me has looked at the impact of the residents and the community,” he said. “We all need to respect (the river) and take care of it, and I think we do.”

With the loss of its riparian vegetation, both banks are eroding and slumping into the river in west Edwards, threatening parts of the river that are already very wide and shallow, Bradford said. The Eagle River Watershed Council plans to narrow and deepen this part of the river and secure its banks. Added “riffles,” or obstacles like rocks that river water passes through, will also boost the oxygen in the water and give the trout a better habitat.The watershed council is now raising the estimated $2 million to $4 million the project will cost. Since most of the land bordering the river is privately owned, the owners will need to give the council their permission before any work on the river can begin. The watershed council also hopes to get donations from all owners in that area, Bradford said.”We really want everybody to want this,” she said. “That’s about the only stretch of river in the whole valley that’s this degraded. But for other parts, just because it’s in good shape now doesn’t mean it always will be.”The river is a system, so if part of it’s affected, it’s affected as a whole, Bradford said.”We want this stretch to be more like a healthy, functioning river,” she said. “We have to protect the river everywhere.”Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado

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