Gore Creek cleanup in Vail seeks private help
• Portions of Gore Creek through Vail remain “gold medal” fishing waters.
• The creek in 2013 was added to a state list of “impaired” waterways.
• The biggest problem is the creek won’t support sufficient insect life.
• The town of Vail — working with the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and the Eagle River Watershed Council — approved a restoration plan in March of 2016.
VAIL — Improving the water quality in Gore Creek is a big job, and will require some big efforts. But a number of smaller efforts are just as important.
The town of Vail owns only about 40 percent of the creek’s streambanks through town. The rest of that property is in private hands. While the town works on stormwater drainage and runoff from streets, homeowners will be asked to consider changing the ways they maintain their creekside property.
Gore Creek through Vail looks like a pristine mountain stream, but it has a number of environmental troubles. Gore Creek, along with creeks and rivers flowing through many other mountain towns, in 2013 landed on a state list of impaired waterways. Since then, the town of Vail, along with the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, the Eagle River Watershed Council and other groups, has worked on plans to improve water quality in the creek. The plan’s genesis came from the water district, which is responsible for treating both drinking water and wastewater from East Vail to Edwards, as well as Minturn.
The main problem is that Gore Creek doesn’t support the kind of small-insect life required to maintain a healthy natural ecosystem, from fish to frogs to birds.
A complicated cleanup
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Bringing those insect populations up to acceptable levels is a tough job, given the variety of pollutants getting into the creek.
It’s the variety of pollutants that makes the job so difficult. Gore Creek has been affected by storm runoff and road sand. On a home-to-home level water quality can be affected by pesticide spraying and practices as seemingly innocuous as maintaining a lawn to the water’s edge.
The town in 2016 appropriated a bit more than $100,000 to work with homeowners on ways to improve the creek’s habitat.
That money is still available, and town officials are working on ways to use it for private property efforts, a program called Project Re-Wild.
Nothing’s settled yet, but town officials are looking at options ranging from public education and legal restrictions on creekside property to the purchase of easements — contracts that would allow the town to control the use of property along the streambank.
It’s unlikely the town would pursue many easements. Essentially buying the use of property in any community quickly gets expensive. In Vail, that effort would get prohibitively expensive without much effect on the stream corridor.
The town could also pass a stream protection ordinance, dictating what kinds of uses are allowed along the stream. An existing ordinance in Steamboat Springs prohibits mowing or vegetation removal right along the streambank.
There are problems with that approach, too. As soon as an ordinance is passed, a lot of homeowners would be in violation. That’s both an enforcement and public relations problem.
During Tuesday’s Vail Town Council meeting, Town Attorney Matt Mire said an ordinance prohibiting specific uses of private property could expose the town to lawsuits.
Council member Greg Moffet said a better alternative would be to put stream protection into the town’s design guidelines. That would apply to projects that come through the town’s approval process, but would put enforcement in the hands of the Vail Design Review Board. That. Moffet said, would bring “human judgment and reasonableness” to enforcement.
Another option is providing financial help for projects to improve the streambank on private property.
That’s complicated, too. Which property owners might receive grants, and how would the work be checked.
Education is essential
Again, there’s no firm policy in place yet, and the Town Council has the final say. But town of Vail Environmental Sustainability Coordinator Kristen Bertuglia said she believes the policy may be a hybrid of a couple of steps: education and technical assistance for property owners who want to help create buffer zones along the banks of the creek.
Those buffer zones don’t have to be very wide, but Eagle River Water & Sanitation District Communications Manager Diane Johnson said it doesn’t take much of a buffer zone to filter a good bit of runoff or pesticide.
And, Bertuglia said, a buffer zone “can be beautiful.” Those buffer zones can also hold a streambank together in a flood.
But, she added, there’s a “tremendous amount” of property in Vail that’s landscaped all the way to the water’s edge. That’s where education plays a role.
“I do think there are private property owners who are eager to learn and help the town improve the health of Gore Creek,” Vail Town Council member Kim Langmaid wrote in a text message. There are several simple landscaping techniques that can help, she added. Those include planting native shrubs and wildflowers.
“You don’t need to have a super-thick thicket of willows to have some riparian protection,” Bertuglia said.
While education is essential in the effort to earn the cooperation of private property owners, that’s a long, and constant, process.
Like the town’s recycling program, “we have to establish a norm,” Bertuglia said. “Then it becomes common practice.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.