Officials: Leak posed no danger to creek | VailDaily.com

Officials: Leak posed no danger to creek

For the record

The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District Board of Directors was briefed twice about a storm sewer pipe that was also carrying diluted sewage. The board’s agenda packets for the group’s Oct. 22 and Nov. 19 meetings. The information is on pages 36 and 31, respectively.

VAIL — This is a story that sounds much worse than it turned out to be: A stormwater drain pipe near Lionshead Village in October was found to be leaking diluted sewage into Gore Creek. That leak took weeks to isolate, but it has now been stopped.

Here’s what happened:

During a river cleanup in September, someone found algae around a stormwater pipe draining into Gore Creek. Stormwater drains aren’t supposed to grow algae, the first evidence that the pipe was carrying something it shouldn’t.

A subsequent investigation by the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District found sewage effluent in the runoff from the pipe. That was reported to the town of Vail and the Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

David Kurz, the lead wastewater engineer for the division, said the discharge, while a concern, wasn’t a disaster for the stream. For one thing, the effluent was diluted by groundwater

“There are risks in the water that are natural,” Kurz said. “This was not out of proportion to those natural conditions.”

Still, the leak had to be found and contained. That’s where the real work began.

“It was a bit of a needle in a haystack,” Kristen Bertuglia, town of Vail environmental sustainability manager said. “It’s not always obvious where these come from.”

Finding the source

The source of the sewage was soon traced to the Arrabelle hotel area. That’s when the work got harder.

According to an email from Liz Biebl, Vail Resorts’ senior manager of communications in the Hospitality and Real Estate Division, the company was notified about the leak by the sanitation district in early October.

The problem, Bertuglia said, was that a sanitary sewer pipe had accidentally been plumbed into the groundwater drain. That had apparently happened fairly recently, since Biebl referred to the pipe as one that was “regularly tested.”

But there hundreds of water lines at the Arrabelle and its surrounding commercial spaces. Finding the pipe responsible was going to be tricky.

“It’s a progressive thing — it takes time,” Kurz said.

Once the possibilities had been narrowed down, dye can be injected into the lines.

“That’s foolproof, but you can’t do it all at once,” Kurz said.

The mis-plumbed line was finally found Tuesday in a commercial space adjacent to the Arrabelle and used for ski school operations. The mistake was corrected, and the sewage leak was stopped.

Situations like the one at the Arrabelle aren’t common, but they aren’t terribly unusual, either. Kurz, who works around the state, said he can think of a handful of similar cases in just the past couple years.

No fines

And, as was the case in Vail, there aren’t many fines issued.

“It’s usually a mistake,” Kurz said, adding that the important thing is to get problems fixed, and fixed as quickly and effectively as possible.

“Fines are typically for egregious things that have been uncorrected,” Kurz said.

In this case, state officials said Vail Resorts and local agencies worked together to get the problem solved.

While work proceeded relatively quickly on this leak, it was discovered in something of a random way. Kim Langmaid said she’d like more attention paid to possible problems with the creek.

Langmaid, a new Vail Town Council member and also an elected member of the water and sanitation district’s board of directors, wrote in a text message that she’d like to see a “creek watch” hotline established “to help our community become more educated and vigilant.”

Holly Loff, director of the Eagle River Watershed Council, echoed those comments.

“We want to be sure these things are being caught more quickly,” Loff said. “Good people are paying attention, and it was caught this time. But we want to stay ahead of things like this in the future.”

That’s part of the purpose of a town-initiated study this year. The town hired SGM, a Glenwood Springs-based engineering company, to conduct an inventory of all the town’s storm sewers.

Vail Director of Communications Suzanne Silverthorn wrote in an email that the storm sewer inventory is part of a strategic action plan for Gore Creek. That plan is currently being reviewed by the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission. The Vail Town Council is expected to review and adopt the plan within the next few months.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com or @scottnmiller.