Tons of sand cleared along I-70 on Vail Pass |

Tons of sand cleared along I-70 on Vail Pass

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY ” More than 13,200 tons of river-clogging traction sand was cleaned-up along Interstate 70 this year between East Vail and Shrine Pass.

That’s around double the amount of traction sand actually put down by the Colorado Department of Transportation last winter in that area, said Ken Wissel, a deputy maintenance superintendent for the region.

The sand, which is used to keep icy and snow-packed roads safe during cold weather, has a profound environmental impact. It eventually seeps into Black Gore Creek below the highway, smothers insects, harms fish and eventually settles in Gore Creek, the trout stream that flows through Vail.

Much of the sand is caught in sediment basins along I-70 and Black Gore Creek. The basins though require regular cleaning, or else more sand will end up in the water where it does its damage.

“There’s 30 years of sand out there, so there’s plenty to clean up,” Wissel said.

The sand is one of the major concerns of the Eagle River Watershed Council, a watchdog group that promotes river health in the valley. The council has criticized the Department of Transportation in the past for being sluggish in cleaning up traction sand, but members were impressed with the amount of sand cleaned-up this year.

Much of the cleanup work along the highway this year was done with the GapVax, a giant vacuum truck purchased this year by the department of transportation for the sole purpose of cleaning up sand.

If the Department of Transportation continues to pick up more sand than it puts down, the river is headed for a healthy future, said Arlene Quenon, a board member on the council.

In the worst areas, Black Gore Creek has nearly 40 percent of its bottom covered with sand. Ideally, only about 14 percent should be covered. There’s already 150,000 tons of sand in the watershed.

And as sand is cleaned up, biologists will literally be counting bugs to determine if all these cleanup efforts are working.

The Forest Service will collect aquatic insects, measure how much sediment is on the stream bed and measure water pool depths to determine how well cleanup is working. All the measurements will be compared to several much healthier streams in Colorado, which are being used as guideposts in determining Black Gore Creek’s quality standards.

The more insects, the better. The deeper the pools, the better. The more Black Gore Creek starts looking like these other rivers, the better.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or

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