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Group builds better habitat in Vail Valley

Derek Franz
dfranz@eaglevalleyenterprise.com
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Vail Daily
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VAIL VALLEY, Colorado –There is a wetland area full of cattails near the Hillcrest Drive Bridge in Edwards in Colorado’s Vail Valley. Scientists are researching it because no one is certain how it got there.

“Conclusions are still pending, but it is thought the marshland resulted from multiple human impacts combining with natural elements,” said Susan Nordstrom of Walsh Environmental Scientists and Engineers, which is based in Boulder.

One thing is clear, though: The birds love it.

“It’s one of the best marsh areas in the central Rockies,” said Don Golden, Eagle River Watershed Council’s senior administrator.

That’s why the Watershed Council is including the spot in its plans for improving a 1.6-mile stretch of the Eagle River. The goal of those plans is to improve fish and wildlife habitat and recreation facilities.

Judging by the issues presented during a round-table discussion in Glenwood last week dealing with climate change and examples of worsening habitats, Eagle County’s situation seems a little brighter.

A panel of experts at the round-table agreed on a general message: Global climate change is happening, whether caused by humans or not (though they said it’s human-caused) and people can take steps to soften the blow.

For much of Colorado, multi-billion dollar fishing and wildlife industries are at stake. Bird and animal migration patterns are shifting. Snowpack continues to decline. Wildfires are increasing and so is demand for water and other resources.

One way to address the widespread changes is to ensure wildlife has a good habitat in the first place. The Watershed Council has been doing that since the early 1990s, Golden said.

“What else can you do but make sure you have a good habitat?” he said.

In 2008, the watershed council started work on a flat spot in the Eagle River, which old-timers might remember referring to as “French Lakes.” After many decades of grazing and development, the riverbed was getting wider, which made the river shallower, slower and warmer. Trout couldn’t survive there and the habitat was basically lost. The council started narrowing the river channel and replanting natural trees and plants.

They started at the Eagle River Water and Sanitation facility near Hillcrest Bridge in 2008. The facility had to improve its “mixing zone” – where warm, treated water is dumped back into the river. The sanitation district joined forces with the Watershed Council and contributed about $380,000, said Melissa Macdonald, the council’s executive director.

It worked. Narrowing the stream channel sped up the water and cooled it down. As a result, the zone was better mixed, getting churned up in the faster, colder currents. In fact, the council’s success in that area – referred to as “Reach 1” – earned continued support from Eagle River Water and Sanitation, Macdonald said.

That is the kind of support that has been snowballing for the Watershed Council. That is also why the river restoration project, which is divided into five reaches, has expanded since it began in the fall of 2008. Local, state and national entities including Edwards Metropolitan District, Eagle River Foundation, Eagle County, Colorado Department of Health and Environment, Trout Unlimited and others have contributed grant money to the efforts.

“We are a proven commodity,” Macdonald said. “We are shovel ready, which means we’ve completed half the project and have our engineers and all that lined up. That makes us more attractive to grantors.”

Currently, a grant for $600,000 from state is all but official for the council to continue work on Reaches 4 and 5 next fall. Before that, though, the watershed council will conduct its popular annual highway cleanup May 1.

“Another thing that helps us with grants is that we are geared toward education and kids get involved,” Golden said, referring to several volunteer projects conducted by SOS Outreach members over the years.

Last year, SOS kids helped plant about 14,000 plants and trees as part of the restoration project. Not only that, they had to put in beaver mitigation for half of those plants. The next step SOS plans to tackle is landscaping the entrance to the recreation area near Hillcrest Bridge.

As far as the unusual wetland in Reach 1, Golden said they plan to install a parking and viewing area there, along with a boat ramp and restroom on the river.

“A large percentage of the wealthy population are bird-watchers,” Golden said.


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