No easy answers to health of Gore Creek

VAIL — There are three essential things to know about Gore Creek and its presence on the state’s list of “impaired” streams:

• The stream is still in pretty good shape, considering.

• The problems the stream does have are complex.

• It’s going to take time, and a lot of cooperation between the public and private sectors, to get the stream off the state’s list.

Town of Vail officials recently hosted a lunch meeting to discuss some ideas for helping the creek, inviting people who do landscaping, spraying and similar work in town, along with residents.

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The presentation featured a discussion of problems facing the creek, including parking lot runoff, landscaping that causes stream bank erosion and spraying that can kill the small insects that fish depend on for food.

Given the audience, a lot of attention was paid to mowing and spraying.

Town landscape architect Gregg Barrie said the town has already changed its practices along the stream. Town officials and Vail Recreation District officials are still talking about ways to protect the stream through the town’s golf course. But the town and the Recreation District only own or control about half the property along the creek through Vail. More than 40 percent is private property. That’s where the landscaping industry plays a role.

Pesticide Use

Barrie said that because of waves of bugs that have attacked lodgepole pines, spruce trees and now aspens, there’s been a lot of spraying in order to protect trees in town.

The town and landscaping companies have a lot of tools at their disposal, but some property owners still spray their trees from the top down, almost inevitably leading to pesticides getting into the creek and killing beneficial bugs.

Mowing to the stream bank can also harm those bugs, taking away natural habitat and shade for fish.

“We’re trying to reduce or change pesticide use in town,” Barrie said, adding that town officials are asking private property owners to both stop widespread spraying and leaving “no-mow” zones along the stream banks.

Besides spraying, town officials are asking property owners to re-think their landscaping plans. Todd Oppenheimer, the town’s capital projects manager and a longtime landscape architect, told the audience — which nearly filled Donovan Pavilion — that it’s long past time to stop planting spruce trees. Oppenheimer showed an aerial photo of East Vail from 1980 that showed few homes and fewer trees.

As the neighborhood has built out, property owners have planted trees to the point that branches are overlapping in many areas. That leads to less-healthy trees and also gives bugs an easy path from tree to tree.

Oppenheimer asked landscape professionals to vary what they plant, make sure irrigation plans are appropriate for what’s been planted and properly maintain landscaping.

“More fertilizer isn’t always better,” he said.

In addition to killing bugs, Barrie said some weed-killers can also harm fish and the bugs they eat. That’s important to know when tackling invasive weeds, he said. While spraying often helps, there are times when old-fashioned hand labor works well, and without any environmental damage.

After the meeting, Ted James, a former school teacher in the valley and the current president of the Colorado Watershed Assembly, said he was impressed by the presentation, and the fact there was a good turnout for it.

“Public awareness is important,” James said. “I’m pleased to see adults participating, and not just school kids.”

Mike Earl, of Land Designs by Ellison, has worked for years on the various infestations plaguing local trees. He said he’s seeing progress, particularly when it comes to educating customers about “best practices” for trees in sensitive areas.

The problem, he said, is that alternatives to spraying are effective, but generally they are quite a bit more expensive. In a place like Vail, where real estate near the creek is more expensive, property owners are generally willing to pay for those alternatives.

“If they trust you to choose, you can do it,” Earl said.

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