State declares Gore Creek tributary dirty |

State declares Gore Creek tributary dirty

Matt Zalaznick
Special to the DailyBlack Gore Creek, above, was once a pristine mountain stream. But over the years road sand used to provide traction over Vail Pass has leaked into the water, threatening fish and other wildlife. The stream now has been designated "impaired" by a state water quality commission.

Local activists have been concerned about the health of Black Gore Creek for years as highway sand used on Interstate 70 over Vail Pass during the winter has eroded into the streambed, choking the creek, lowering water flows and threatening fish and wildlife, activists and other environmentalists say.

Those activists, led by the Eagle River Watershed Council, convinced the state’s Water Quality Control Commission Tuesday to declare Black Gore Creek an officially “impaired” stream.

“Now we’re officially working to get off the list,” explains Caroline Bradford, executive director of the Eagle River Watershed Council.

If Black Gore Creek hadn’t been declared polluted, Bradford says, the Watershed Council would probably be going back to the Water Quality Commission in a few years to have Gore Creek –the stream that flows through Vail Village – designated as “threatened.”

“Right now, Gore Creek is threatened from the traction sand,” she says. “And that’s what we’re trying to protect – the natural resources of Gore Creek and the gold-medal fisheries.”

One statistic that appeared to sway the Water Quality Commission was a comparison of the amount of sand in Black Gore Creek to a Summit County stream the commission already has declared impaired, Bradford adds.

Black Gore Creek has twice as much sediment in its waters as Straight Creek, a polluted stream that flows near the Eisenhower tunnel, Bradford says.

The Watershed Council also had to prove how unnatural the sand-choked condition of the stream is. In other parts of Colorado, Bradford says, people are used to seeing muddy, sandy streams.

“People ask me how does the sediment differ from the sand and mud you see at the bottom of the stream,” Bradford says. “The difference is we put it there. It’s not natural. We like used a front-end loader to put it there.”

The Watershed Council has been working with the Colorado Department of Transportation, the White River National Forest, the town of Vail, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and Eagle County to clean up Black Gore Creek. The agencies have completed some small projects aimed at preventing sand from leaking into the Black Lakes, which are atop Vail Pass and feed into Black Gore Creek.

Over the past two years, dozens of barriers have been put up, the shoulders of the interstate have been paved and drainage has been improved at the Vail Pass summit to keep sand out of the lakes and streams.

Last fall, a roof was also put on top of CDOT’s somewhat infamous “sand castle” at the top of the pass. The peculiar-looking structure is where CDOT stores the sand it uses on Vail Pass. The roof prevents a lot more sand from reaching the waterways.

CDOT recently completed a $20 million plan aimed at stopping any more road sand from leaking into the lakes and streams. Though the plan has wide philosophical support, funding the project could be a dilemma.

But collecting the money may be a little easier now that the stream has been designated impaired, Bradford says.

“We believe it’s an uphill battle either way, but we couldn’t ever get out of the starting blocks if we couldn’t call the creek dirty,” Bradford says.

Watershed Council members Ken Neubecker and Tom Steinberg, Vail Town Councilman Chuck Ogilby and Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Taylor Hawes also went before the commission Tuesday to urge them to find the stream polluted.

“It is smothered with sediment, severely impacting aquatic life,” Hawes wrote in her letter to the commission. “Waiting another four years could be extremely detrimental to both Black Gore Creek and ongoing, locally driven efforts to improve water quality.”

The Eagle County Board of County Commissioners and White River National Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle also sent letters support the Watershed Council.

“Black Gore Creek has been on the monitoring list for several years and has shown no improvement,” Ketelle wrote in her letter to the Water Quality Commission. “The sooner Black Gore Creek is listed, the sooner it will be placed as a higher priority for funding solutions to the current problem.”

Failing to get the designation could have jeopardized the Watershed Council’s credibility, Bradford says.

“It was a risk to go for this because, if we failed, the effectiveness of the Watershed Council might have been questioned,” she says. “We rely on support, voluntary and financial, from a such a wide range of stakeholders that we had to evaluate the unintended negative consequences.”

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

Support Local Journalism