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Using the river to death?

Scott N. Miller
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EAGLE COUNTY – More people will ask more from the Eagle River in the coming years. Can the river deliver?More residents will ask for more water. More kayakers, rafters and fishermen will ask for more places to put in their boats or wade into the water. All those people will expect the river to be much as it is today: mostly undammed, mostly clean, and wild in spots. It’s a tall order for a river that parallels an interstate for much of its length.Here’s a look at what some people want, and what’s happening now and in the immediate future:

Whether it’s boating, fishing or just playing, the places where the public can use the river are getting busier every year. That’s not going to stop, and some locals have advice for handling the demand in the future. “With all the construction and building, there should be certain spots for taking boats out of the water,” said Sally McNutt, a kayaker who lives in Vail. “They should make it obvious.”James Jouflas, who runs a fishing business at Wolcott, said he’d like to see the Colorado Division of Wildlife protect big, breeding fish by imposing restrictions on what size fish can be legally taken from the river.And every year, more people use the Bureau of Land Management’s campgrounds and “day use” areas at Wolcott and west of Gypsum.”It’s going to be a challenge to provide services people want,” said Karl Mendonca of the Bureau of Land Management’s Glenwood Springs office. “We know there’s going to be more use in the future. Part of our planning is looking at the recreational resources we have, and projecting the amount of use they’ll get in the future.”At the day use area in Wolcott, planning for the future means a set of new picnic tables with metal sun shelters. Bureau officials are looking at the campgrounds and day use areas at both Wolcott and Gypsum and trying to determine just what those areas need.Some of those areas are easy to get to. Others have outhouse-type restrooms. But a couple of areas between Gypsum and Dotsero are little more than ways to get from U.S. Highway 6 to the river.”Should we be looking at those areas for more development?” Mendonca said. “We hear from people who like the river the way it is, but other people want to have boat put-ins.”One thing that probably won’t change soon is the price. It will always cost to camp along the Eagle – and campers can only stay in one spot for seven nights – but it looks like those who just want to picnic, fish, or drop a boat into the water will be able to do that for free for the foreseeable future.”We want to make it all available to the public,” Mendonca said.

The Eagle is relatively wild, with only a few dams and reservoirs, all of which are near the river’s highest points near the tops of Fremont and Vail passes. But as the valley’s population grows, and as the Front Range continues its thirst, the Eagle is a prime target for a major new reservoir.”I think it’s inevitable we’ll have one,” said Tom Backus, who runs the 4Eagle Ranch guest ranch north of Wolcott. “But I don’t think it’ll happen in the near term.”The 4Eagle property is owned by Denver Water, which provides water to Denver and many of its suburbs. The property was bought by the water district years ago, both for its water rights and because it’s the most likely place to put a reservoir that pulls water from the Eagle River.Before a reservoir is built, though, a lot has to happen, mainly some sort of agreement between Denver Water and local and regional water officials.”It could be two to five years before we determine if we can put together a coalition to build a reservoir,” said David Little of Denver Water.While it will be years before anything is built, Glenn Porzak, a Boulder-based water attorney who represents local water districts, said work done this year will have a long-term effect.The big action, Porzak said, is a June, 2007 trial in Colorado Water Court regarding the status of Denver’s water rights along the river.At least one local fishing guide would love to have a reservoir at Wolcott, mostly because it would create a “tailwater,” an area just downstream from a dam that has mostly calm, cool water – it’s the kind of place where big trout can thrive.”If they make a tailwater here, it’s going to be awesome,” said Aaron Tiley, a guide with Gorsuch Outfitters. “The fishing would really be great.”Even if it’s more than a decade, something is likely to get built. Growth demands it.



As the valley’s population grows, new residents will need water, much of which will come from the Eagle River.

In Wolcott, contracts have been signed for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District to provide water for the Vines at Vail project’s 50 homes, lodge and winery. The water district can expand its plant there for future growth. Near timberline, close to Fremont Pass near the Climax Mine, is the Eagle Park Reservoir, which was built by local water authorities specifically to keep water in the Eagle during the late summer and through the winter.Keeping water in the stream is crucial for fish populations, which are especially sensitive to temperature changes in the heat of summer. More water keeps the river flowing cooler, which means fish are better able to thrive through heat and cold, as well as high and low flows.Keeping that flow going will become harder over the years without conservation and new reservoirs. So will maintaining, or even improving, water quality.



With more people using the river, maintaining streamflows and keeping with water clean will get harder over the years. And, after a century of mining, relatively recent efforts to clean up the river’s trouble spots are paying dividends.In addition, a plan to monitor the river’s health has been in place for several years.Since 1998, Eagle County, the towns of Eagle and Gypsum, and the upvalley water districts have been setting up a network of monitors for the river. Those monitors keep track of how much water is in the river, how quickly it’s flowing, and its temperature. The network also includes monitors for about 60 wells along the length of the river and its tributary creeks. Together, the network can point to trouble spots from construction areas that might be putting chemicals or silt into the river. The river can also suffer from chemicals or fuel spilled during accidents along the highways that parallel the river over most of its length.Some of those spills can take years to clean up. There’s still a monitoring station between the railroad tracks and the river at Camp Hale, the result of a train derailment in the mid-1990s.With that information in hand, the agencies in charge of regulating activity on and around the river can work to protect it, said Ray Merry, Eagle County’s environmental health director. But, Merry said, it’s up to everyone who lives along the river to ensure its future.”Everyone is ultimately responsible to understand their impact on the earth, from their energy use to how they use water,” Merry said. “It boils down to stewardship.”Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.Vail Daily, Vail Colorado


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