Happier bugs will mean healthier stream | VailDaily.com

Happier bugs will mean healthier stream

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL ” A rigorous plan is being developed to clean up Black Gore Creek, which has been filling with harmful traction sand ever since I-70 was built in the 1960s.

The sand keeps icy and snow-packed roads safe, but when gravity eventually pulls it down to the water, it smothers the river bed and disrupts the entire ecosystem. Fish and insects are struggling to survive, and many stretches of Black Gore Creek just can’t handle any more pollution, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Also, the sediment pollution in Black Gore Creek is already seeping into Gore Creek in Vail, which could eventually harm trout populations.

Planners have set some big goals and hope to have Black Gore Creek clear and thriving within 15 years. Getting there though will be especially tough for the Colorado Department of Transportation, which is being asked to clean up at least 6,400 tons of sand a year.

Overall, the goal is to make Black Gore Creek a happy place for fish and insects, which it certainly isn’t now, said Maria Pastore of the environmental group, Eagle River Watershed Council.

Quantifying that goal though is a big, messy, complicated ordeal.

In the worst case scenario, one section of Black Gore Creek has nearly 40 percent of its bottom covered with sand. Ideally, only about 14 percent should be covered, and that’s one of the benchmark goals for the Forest Service, watershed council and the department of transportation.

Some areas are much better off, but overall, there’s already 150,000 tons of sand in the watershed and more being added every year. Clearing it won’t be easy, especially since the department of transportation has drivers to protect. They dumped a record 30,000 tons of traction sand on the road in 2006.

The department of transportation fears that it won’t always be able to pick up the amount of traction sand recommended in the plan.

“Sometimes it’s just not possible to get out that 6,400 minimum,” said Ken Wissel, the agency’s regional maintenance superintendent. “We try our best every year.”

That sentiment is a little disheartening to some members of the watershed council and the forest service.

They have often been critical of the department of transportation’s efforts in clearing traction sand and believe 6,400 tons a year is a reasonable amount of cleanup to ask for, Forest Service biologist Brian Healy said.

“It’s a lenient amount, especially when they use 30,000 tons of traction sand on the road, like they did last year,” Healy said. “There are enough places to pick that much sand up. We could have asked for more.”

While removing at least 6,400 tons of sand isn’t a requirement in the proposed plan, it might be difficult to meet water-quality goals if the department of transportation can’t routinely reach that standard.

“If the stream is impaired, if we continue to allow for a net increase, we’ll never reach our goal,” Healy said. “They (the department of transportation) have got to make some headway.”

Whipping Black Gore Creek into shape will require a lot of work near the highway. Sediment basins along I-70 catch sand before it seeps into the water, and they need to be routinely cleaned out before sand washes down to the creek. Paved shoulders help trucks sweep sand, and a new vacuum truck will make much of the cleanup easier.

Then there will be big projects like the so-called “Basin of Last Resort,” which will involve clearing out several tons of sediment piled in Black Gore Creek where there was once a thriving fishing hole. The Basin of Last Resort, when it’s not filled up, will prevent sand from reaching Gore Creek.

Biologists will literally be counting bugs to determine if all these cleanup efforts are working.

The forest service will collect aquatic insects, measure how much sediment is on the stream bed and measure water pool depths to determine the plan’s success. All the measurements will be compared to several much healthier streams in Colorado, which are being used as guideposts in determining Black Gore Creek’s quality standards.

The goals will also be flexible, meaning if the quality changes in those other rivers, Black Gore Creek’s standards will change with it.

The basic idea won’t change though. The more insects, the better. The deeper the pools, the better. The more Black Gore Creek starts looking like these other rivers, the better, Healy said.

“We’re comparing Black Gore Creek to healthier streams, although they aren’t exactly in pristine condition, so we’re setting the bar a little low,” Healy said. “Our goals need to be obtainable.”

The plan will be reevaluated after five years of monitoring to decide if the cleanup is working or if more drastic measures need to be taken.

“If I-70 were to disappear tomorrow and we didn’t have to worry about more traction sand, it would still take a few years to see results,” Healy said.

Staff writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.

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