Sand harming Vail’s mountain stream | VailDaily.com
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Sand harming Vail’s mountain stream

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL “Traction sand from Interstate 70, through nature’s strange conveyor belt, is polluting Gore Creek, Vail’s once pristine destination for fisherman, sightseers and kayakers.

Construction should begin this fall though on a large sand trap called the “Basin of Last Resort” that is designed to catch much of that insect smothering muck before it ever reaches Gore Creek. The Colorado Department of Transportation announced Thursday that it would fully fund the project.

The basin already exists ” it just isn’t effective anymore, said Brian Healy, a forest service biologist.

The basin is a deep and flat 3-acre stretch of Black Gore Creek around mile marker 183 that’s been trapping sand and slowing downstream pollution ever since I-70 was built.

But more than 61,000 tons of sand have piled to the top of the basin pool and can more easily wash away and settle on the bottom of nearby Gore Creek. The sand, used to keep icy and snow-packed roads safe in the winter, is now covering insect habitats and harming our trout.

Members of the Eagle River Watershed Council, an environmental watchdog group, have been asking the department of transportation for years to clean out the basin and have often been critical of their efforts in clearing traction sand off of I-70.

The agency’s decision to fully fund the $1.1 million project and take the lead on construction is a big step in the right direction, said Maria Pastore, acting director of the council.

“There’s been a downward trend in aquatic health, so maybe we can reverse that,” Pastore said. “This is a great thing for CDOT to do.”

There are stretches of Black Gore Creek filled with so much sand that you can walk across them.

In Gore Creek though, home of a gold medal trout fishery, it’s too early to tell the full effect that I-70 is having on the water and ecosystem, Healy said.

What they can see though doesn’t look promising. “When you compare the insect communities in Gore Creek to other, less polluted streams, Gore Creek definitely seems degraded,” Healy said.

The thick, red sediment is also visible in the stream where once it wasn’t, but it’s hard to tell how much of it’s from Black Gore Creek, Healy said.

“You can go out there and see the difference, and although you could have additional sources of sediment, the amount from Black Gore Creek, just the magnitude of sand dumped in there, far exceeds what could come from other places,” Healy said.

Although much more damage has been seen on the east section of the stream, which is much closer to Black Gore Creek, impacts have already been seen on the west end where the trout fishery is.

“The gold medal stretch has been affected, we don’t know to what extent, but the whole area has definitely been on the decline,” said Bill Carlson, environmental health officer for Vail. “You can already see sandbars throughout the creek.”

This could end up being a really bad thing for Vail, which is known for great fishing, he said.

“It’s an important natural resource, for the recreation that it provides, the fly fishing groups and outfitters that operate here and downvalley,” Carlson said.

It’s hard to determine exactly how bad Gore Creek is because the sediment levels have only been monitored for a few years, Healy said.

“I’m definitely concerned. We could start seeing major effects,” Healy said. “Gore Creek has a huge economic impact on the area.”

With the Basin of Last Resort emptied and working, Carlson said he expects to see a significant improvement in the stream that flows through Vail Village.

“We feel that the traction sand will stop flowing into Gore Creek, and whatever is remaining will eventually work its way out,” Carlson said.

Department of transpiration engineer Pete Kozinski said cleaning the sediment out of the basin will require a few things: diverting the river through a pipe, letting the basin dry up, hauling the sediment away and returning the creek back to normal. Pathways also will be created so trucks can reach the water.

“It will allow more sand to deposit there instead of flushing through the system and going to Gore Creek,” Kozinski said. “Now, instead of sand filling it, there will be water.”

He expects work on it to begin this fall when water flow is at its lowest. He expects it to be completed before the snow comes.

Clearing the basin would then become a more regular thing, but it wouldn’t have to happen every year. The department will still focus more on clearing traction sand from I-70 before it reaches the stream.

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


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