Polluted stream gaining national attention | VailDaily.com

Polluted stream gaining national attention

Matt Zalaznick Assistant Editor/Local News
Federal agencies may step in to help clean up Black Gore Creek, a Vail Pass stream that has been damaged by traction sand dumped on Interstate 70 to de-ice the road during snowstorms.

This year and last, however, the town has put $100,000 in its budget to support the stream’s revival.

That’s an indication the pollution of Black Gore Creek, once the pet anxiety of a local environmental group, has become not only a regional but now a national concern, having attracting politicians such as U.S. Rep. Mark Udall to tour its banks. What’s polluting Black Gore Creek is the traction sand the Colorado Department of Transportation dumps on Interstate 70 over Vail Pass every winter in its dogged attempts to keep the road open during winter storms.

The Black Gore Creek Steering Committee, a group of conservationists, biologists, politicians and transportation officials has been working on the river’s restoration.

The organizer of the group, Red Cliff resident Caroline Bradford, says the Vail Town Council has been integral in making the creek an environmental priority. The creek, of course, flows down Vail Pass and into Gore Creek, which flows through the middle of Vail Village, under the famous Covered Bridge. In West Vail, the stream is a gold-medal trout fishery.

“The council really does look at environmental protection of the whole watershed,” says Bradford, also executive director of the Eagle River Watershed Council. “They really do take a holistic view of environmental health.”

Cash potential

The stream last September was designated an “impaired stream” by the state, which makes it eligible for more state and federal funding.

The de-icing sand oozes off the roadway, blankets hillsides and clogs up the stream, threatening the survival of the riverbanks, the fish and the insects the fish feed on.

“Getting classified as an endangered stream was a very big thing to have accomplished,” says Vail Town Councilman Chuck Ogilby, one of the staunchest advocates of the cleanup. “That will really bring in the big money, the federal money that will help in the effort. We really need about $15 million to restore the creek.”

The steering committee and the Colorado Department of Transportation – with some funding help from Vail Resorts, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and Eagle County – have begun attacking the pollution by building basins along the interstate that catch the sand before it spills into Black Gore Creek.

But the department of transportation’s current cleanup plans deal only with preventing any more sand from spilling into the stream. Its has no plan to cleanup the tons of sand already spilled on Vail Pass and in the creek.

Bradford said that job could be done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which may consider the stream for a $5 million “Ecosystem Protection Study.”

“If this goes through, the Army Corps of Engineers will determine how to return the streams – Black Gore and Gore creeks – back to health,” she says. “That would be huge. That would be massive.”

Local agencies, such as the Watershed Council and the town of Vail, would have to contribute to the $5 million study, Bradford says.

Local control

The state’s listing of Black Gore Creek as a damaged stream allows the Steering Committee and the public to determine when the stream is healthy.

“The community gets to decide, with all the agencies involved, how we measure the health of the stream,” she says. “We have to figure out how much sand can escape from the sediment basins –or never make it into the basins – and still be OK.”

Among the pollution-prevention projects already built by the various agencies:

– Wetlands around Black Lakes were restored in 2001.

– A building to store traction sand was built at the top of Vail Pass in 2001.

– Areas around that building were paved to make it easier for crews to clean spilled sand.

– Basins to catch the sand have been built at alongside I-70.

Ogilby says the town became more eager to give more money to Bradford’s efforts once other agencies also started contributing.

“The creek caught our attention right off the bat. But the reasons it gets more money every year is Caroline Bradford’s ability to leverage our money with the state, the county, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and Vail Resorts,” he says. “You don’t feel like you’re the lone contributor out there.”

Ogilby says the council has been “very happy” to contribute to the cleanup.

“If we let the sand go, every year it goes further down Gore Creek, and it will eventually ruin the aquatic life in Gore Creek – I mean the insect life that supports fish population,” Ogilby says.

Ogilby and Councilwoman Diana Donovan have been among the most involved in the cleanup efforts. Ogilby, having decided not to run for reelection, will leave the council at the end of the year. But he says the creek should remain a priority.

“The mission statement of the town is to be environmentally sensitive,” he says. “I think everybody realizes there is no more important asset to town than that river. I think there will always be voices coming to the council trying to save it.”

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.

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