Freeway sand creates wetlands in Vail |

Freeway sand creates wetlands in Vail

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colorado ” Traction sand from I-70 may be falling into our streams, killing insects and harming trout, but all that piled-up sand in the water has formed wetlands in Black Gore Creek.

Walk down to the creek at mile marker 183, and you’ll see the swampy bi-product of the highway. The sand has piled up so high you can walk across the stream in some places. Wetland plants such as the willow that didn’t grow there before I-70 was built now grow in abundance out of the sediment, said Brian Healy, a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Although these wetlands were born from the busy highway, they’re still wetlands, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says they need to be protected. This puts an unexpected kink in plans to clear out a large sand trap in Black Gore Creek called “The Basin of Last Resort,” which has for years prevented traction sand from entering Gore Creek, the gold-medal trout stream running through Vail.

Now that the basin has filled up, sand can more easily wash down stream and into Gore Creek. The Colorado Department of Transportation is funding a $1.1 million clean-up project to remove more than 36,000 tons of sand from the basin, so it can start filling up again.

Cleaning out the basin could destroy some or all the wetlands, if they aren’t careful.

The Forest Service is recommending a few ways to make sure the wetlands are preserved, all the while still being able to remove plenty of sand.

For one, they won’t be clearing out near as much sand to preserve some of the more stable, long lasting wetlands that have formed, Healy said.

Instead of clearing 36,000 tons of traction sand out of the river, they’ll be working around the wetlands, and only 24,000 tons will be cleared. Anne Esson, board member of the Eagle River Watershed Council, said she wishes they could dig out more, but the job will still be done.

“Overall, we can live with that. It’s still a big enough block to make a difference and it shouldn’t be an impediment,” Esson said. “The basin is still our best chance to preserve Gore Creek.”

In one area of the basin, wetland plants will actually be transplanted to a different spot on the creek. There shouldn’t be any net loss of wetlands, Healy said.

The wetlands have created more timing problems than anything.

Construction on the sediment basin was supposed to start last November, but was delayed indefinitely after the Environmental Protection Agency asked for an environmental study of the wetlands.

Now, construction on the basin could begin at the end of the summer. If more objections are raised though, construction could be delayed another year, Esson said.

Last year, the Colorado Department of transportation cleaned up more than 13,200 tons of river-clogging traction sand between East Vail and Shrine Pass.

That’s around double the amount of traction sand actually put down by the Department of Transportation last winter in that area.

Much of the sand is caught in sediment basins along I-70 and Black Gore Creek. The basins though require regular cleaning, or else more sand will end up in the water where it does its damage.

Sand clean-up on I-70 has been improving, Esson said.

The watershed council has criticized the Department of Transportation in the past for being sluggish in cleaning up traction sand, but members were impressed with the amount of sand cleaned-up this year.

Regular sand cleanups on the highway, along with the construction of the Basin of Last Resort, should mean good things for Black Gore Creek, she said.

“Over time, we ought to see some improvements,” Esson said.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or

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