Vail Valley trout decline stumps experts |

Vail Valley trout decline stumps experts

Dustin Racioppi
Vail, CO Colorado
Daily file photoOil, litter and other chemicals are likely getting into Vail Valley's Eagle River and maybe harming fish,a biologist says

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado ” The brown trout population in the Avon section of the Vail Valley’s Eagle River has decreased between 20 percent and 30 percent the last four years and nobody is sure why.

Several factors are in the equation to try and explain the drop-off in recent years ” spring water levels, urbanization, contamination from the Eagle Mine site ” but none have made sense to John Woodling, a biologist who has been tracking the Eagle River for 19 years. He shared his findings at a talk sponsored by the Eagle River Watershed Council’s Waterwise Wednesday program at the Avon library this week.

“Something is impacting this river in a very serious way,” he said. “This river needs some attention.”

Metals from the mine seriously damaged the river but a cleanup has been underway over the last several years. Woodling pointed out that the cleanup efforts to this point have been “amazing” and brown trout ” lots of them ” can be found downstream of the mine.

Woodling took samples near the Boneyard property in Minturn and found that there were lots of brown trout and other fish.

“Whatever’s impacting the fish population in the river happened downstream of the Minturn site,” he said.

There’s still work left to improve the water quality near the Eagle Mine, but Woodling said there are other threats to the river that people should worry about.

Brake dust, oil, litter and any other material you can find on the highway or on streets and in parks can almost always be found in the river, Woodling said. All those materials can harm the river.

“There is reason to still worry about the mine site, but there’s probably more reason to worry about what’s happening downstream of the mine site,” he said. “There’s human action affecting this river that isn’t at the mine site.”

Melissa MacDonald, interim executive director of the Watershed Council, said sediment from parking lots in front of stores can run off into the river and disturb the fish habitat.

But Woodling isn’t sure if that is the reason for the declining brown trout population. Spring water levels don’t seem to add up, either. The river level hasn’t been so out of whack that it could explain the drop, Woodling said.

He also paraphrased an old quote that, “you never step in the same river twice.” And the Avon section of the Eagle River isn’t what it was a decade or two ago. It never will be, Woodling said, because of the urbanization of the area.

“You don’t live in the mountains, you live in Manhattan,” Woodling said, referring to all the development in the area. “And it’s all going into the river.”

Now Woodling wants to figure out what is causing this shift in the river’s habitat. He urged residents to participate by either joining the council or volunteering to work on the river.

Tom Steinberg, a member of the council who has been studying the Eagle Mine site for years, echoed Woodling’s call for public service and said it’s important to get involved for more reasons than to figure out how the river has changed. The Environmental Protection Agency and other entities meet every few years to change the various water standards, which could have a serious impact on the river, he said.

“In five years you can get organized, go in and try to up these standards,” he said.

Staff writer Dustin Racioppi can be reached at 970-748-2936 or

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