Study seeks to define "normal’ for Eagle River
Cleanup of the Eagle Mine, the abandoned mine at Gilman, had gone badly wrong. Aiming for a bargain-basement solution, the geologists, engineers, and lawyers had grievously erred, turning a sickly river into a deathly ill river. After a heated meeting in Minturn attended by hundreds of angry locals, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in to ensure a proper cleanup.
For all practical purposes, the mine cleanup is now complete, the Environmental Protection Agency largely removed, and the Eagle River returned to relative health. But is it “normal?”
That question of “what is normal” underlies two studies in the Eagle River Valley, one completed and one still underway.
First was the study of Gore Creek. The study tracked the water quality from 1968 through 1998, providing a snapshot of the water quality in Vail at the end of the century.
Importantly, this snapshot of water in the Gore Valley is not a blurry image, but instead a detailed picture of what’s in the water and why, as allowed by the more precise analysis made possible by technology in the late 20th century.
Now, the U.S. Geological Survey is conducting another study, this one of the Eagle River. Towns and water districts up and down the valley, as well as several Front Range cities, are assisting the agency and funding the study.
Like the study of water in Vail, this Eagle River study attempts to carefully provide a baseline for what the river is like at the start of the 21st century. Water quality has been studied before, but never this comprehensively, with so many pixels – 15 to 18 ways of looking at the river quality.
Why is a high-resolution image important? Returning to the mine pollution of the 1980s and 1990s, there was a dead giveaway that something had gone terribly wrong – the orange water. But often, changes are more subtle and cannot be traced as easily to a single source. That’s why such a baseline of information is important, to provide a broad matrix of data for helping define “normal.”
Taking the pulse
Kirby Wynn, a Grand Junction-based hydrologist who supervises these and other studies for the U.S. Geological Survey, likens it to doing a thorough physical exam of a person. Once the baseline is provided, then it will be a matter of returning periodically to take the pulse.
When things begin changing in the river, he says, they can be detected before too much time – and damage – has passed.
“The baseline will allow us to recognize sooner rather than later if the balance goes out of whack,” says Wynn, who will explain his work at the Eagle Library Wednesday evening.
This baseline helps provide the foundation for analyzing tricky cause-and-effect relationships, he says.
Importantly, the data from both Gore Creek and the Eagle River are available on the Internet, the better to allow the general public to be part of the monitoring and decision-making process.
In the background is the specter of drought. When there is less water, as occurred in the infamously dry summer of 2002, the water-based ecosystem becomes more vulnerable to natural processes as well as human activity.
For example, shallow waters heat more rapidly, making both fish and the insects they depend upon more vulnerable. But temperature alone, says Wynn, is not the sole determinant.
Wynn will be working on the study well into next year, but so far he sees no cause for a loud cry of alarm, at least nothing comparable to the Eagle Mine pollution.
“It really did get harmed by the mine,” Wynn says.
That’s not to say, however, that human damange is not occurring, or that it do not pose a threat.
In the case of Gore Creek, the study provided key information that has been fundamental in justifying the allocation of significant sums of money to the problem of sand from Interstate 70.
“It is the base for all the work that has occurred on I-70,” says Russell Forrest, Vail’s municipal director of community development.
But aside from highway and mining pollution, who cares about water quality? After all, the river of today has traveled to Glenwood Springs or Grand Junction tomorrow. And does it really matter if houses and offices encroach into riparian areas?
The answers to these questions are more complex than, for example, analyzing the levels of manganese. Yet arguably, the environment is at the core of the economy of Vail and the Eagle Valley. Fishing, rafting and kayaking all obviously depend upon high water quality. Who wants to do an Eskimo roll in squalid waters, anyhow?
Less directly, but no less important, is that general sense of purity that is part of the quality of life. Would you find the Eagle River as satisfying if you thought it contaminated? Would the valley be as rich if the wildlife that depend on the river were harmed.
While Wynn will be on to other projects, the key to making this major exam useful is periodic monitoring. That’s where the community of Vail and Eagle Valley may want to stay engaged, says Caroline Bradford, executive director of the Eagle River Watershed Council.
Ultimately, as was shown the year when the river turned orange, it’s the local eyes and ears that matter most.
“That’s why we’re monitoring it, so the river never turns orange again,” says Becky Bultmeier, finance officer for Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.
AT A GLANCE
Kirby Wynn, studies chief for the Western Slope office of the U.S. Geological Survey, will be speaking at the Waterwise Wednesday forum on Wednesday at the Eagle Library. The title of the talk is, “Eagle River Retrospective Analysis: What do we know about our rivers?”
A reception begins at 5 p.m., and Wynn’s presentation starts at 5:30 p.m., continuing until 7 p.m. Those planning to attend are asked to call the library at 328-8800 to ensure adequate seating. The forum is co-sponsored by the Eagle Valley Library District and the Eagle River Watershed Council.