Pass sand monitoring plan being dialed in |

Pass sand monitoring plan being dialed in

Cliff Thompson

Black Gore Creek is listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as an impaired stream, because of the sediment loading from the traction sand that has formed sandbars and choked off aquatic life.

That listing requires a formal cleanup plan be in place. A major part of that will a biological and geological monitoring plan to determine the success of cleanup efforts.

“This will be a living document,” said geomorphologist John Elliott of the Colorado Department of Health. “Right now we have to measure what’s happening.”

One measurement to help determine the stream’s health is the total maximum daily load of sediment the creek can handle. Elliott said that’s a standardized measure of how much a stream is impaired by sediment.

The clean-up of the sand may take as long as 20 years, participants say, because there is so much of it, and money for the cleanup is scarce.

It has been estimated that just cleaning up the sand will cost $20 million. It’s spread 30 feet outward from either side of I-70. In some places it’s six feet deep.

Finding money for the cleanup will be nearly as tough as the cleanup itself. The Colorado Department of Transportation has seen its budget slashed by $250 million this year as Colorado attempts to balance its budget.

Steering Committee members agree money will need to come from a variety of local, state and federal sources.

Some sand is already eroded into the creek bottom and will cost more to remove. Some of it will be removed by the stream itself, participants said, but removing some of the sand may cause more environmental damage than the sand itself.

Sand is applied by highway maintenance crews during the snowy winter months, to keep the traffic flowing on the busy interstate.

Cleaning up the three decades of sand is vital to the health of Black Gore Creek, which serves as part of the water supply for Vail. The main stem of Gore Creek is a Gold Medal trout fishery that will be threatened if the sand continues migrating downstream.

Scientists are now busy monitoring and quantifying the magnitude of the sediment and biological problems. They have established monitoring stations on streams that are not clogged with sand -Resolution Creek at Camp Hale and the upper reaches of Polk Creek on Vail Pass – for a basis of comparison with Black Gore Creek.

Even gathering data will require an understanding between the state, federal and local government, so the participants standardize what they’re measuring.

That’s significant, said Keith Powers of the Colorado Department of Transportation. He said because of the length of the cleanup, the cast of characters could change, and having a standardized plan would ensure continuity.

Powers said the transportation department removed nearly 50,000 cubic yards of sand from the pass this summer, and also created a number of sediment basins to trap new sand. Sand collected in those basins will be removed. That cleanup cost nearly $200,000, but it was curtailed this year because early snow fell, making sand collection problematic.

That sand has been used to create some hulking sound berms along I-70 in East Vail. Powers said the berms will be landscaped and seeded with windflowers.

One of the largest cleanup efforts will begin next spring and summer when the transportation department will spend approximately $6 million resurfacing the worn-out pavement on the west side of Vail Pass.

Powers and engineer Ina Zeisman said the department will be coordinating sand cleanup and remediation efforts around that construction, which will begin as soon as the weather allows and will last into October.

“When we looked at what work needs to be done, we can do some of the work (on sand clean up) inexpensively,” Zeisman said.

In the last five years, the transportation department has been using more liquid de-icer on the pass, reducing the need for traction sand, said Powers. But the sand is a necessary component of the snow and ice-fighting arsenal of the highways crews. There are times when the de-icer cannot be used and sand is the only thing left.

Last winter, a mild winter, 26 tons of sand and 700,000 gallons of magnesium chloride de-icer were used on the 10-mile-long western side of Vail Pass.

Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or

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