Watershed group seeks tougher stream listing
As much as 300 million cubic yards of traction sand from nearly three decades of winter sanding on Interstate 70 is choking the stream next to the highway over Vail Pass and silting in reservoirs at the top of the pass.
The sand is applied by state highway trucks to keep traffic moving on the interstate over the snowy and heavily traveled 10,660-foot pass.
The request to list the stream as impaired is a first step toward securing federal funding and accelerating the pace of initial cleanup, which has been estimated at $20 million or more just to keep the problem from getting worse.
The sand is slowly moving into Gore Creek, which is the main water supply for Vail. The creek also is a high-quality Gold Medal trout fishery.
“This will substantiate what most of us know about the stream,” said Bill McKee of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. “It needs help and this (listing) will help generate money.”
So far the cleanup has been largely voluntary and has involved the Colorado Department of Transportation, a number of local water users and local units of government. This year about $675,000 is being spent on sand control structures.
Making the job more difficult is the fact that sediment is not a regulated pollutant, said McKee. “You can’t issue a fine and their hands are tied because there are no standards like they have for other pollutants,” he said.
Much of that funding has come from the Transportation Department, which has developed a sediment control plan. But the cleanup has had to compete for funding with other department budget priorities, said McKee.
In a letter to the Watershed Council board, Ken Neubecker noted: “Without funding or any other means to implement the SCAP that CDOT prepared earlier this year, the situation on Black Gore Creek will only get worse.”
Stream sedimentation is not a regulated pollutant under the federal Clean Water Act, so having the state list the stream impaired will help convince Congress to fund it, said McKee.
“Based on the data we have, it certainly has some problems. It has less bugs and fish. If it was a healthy brook trout fishery, it certainly would see more, bigger fish.” said McKee.
The move is not without precedent. In 1998 Straight Creek on the west Eisenhower Tunnel approach received an “impaired” designation and the sediment choking that stream has been reduced since then, according to reports.
With an “impaired” listing, the state will be able to ascertain what level of sedimentation the stream can sustain. That total maximum daily load is significant because it creates a point after which cleanup will be mandated if the maximum amount is exceeded.
“Everybody is playing catch-up,” said Michael Crouse of Clear Creek Consultants, who has worked on the Straight and the Black Gore sedimentation projects. “The state will have to come up with metrics to measure changes in sediment, over time.”
The $20 million cleanup tab will only address sand already on the ground within 30 feet of the highway (about 70 acres) shouldering the 10-mile-long sediment choked pass..
The cost of cleaning up the sand that already has moved farther toward and into the creek has not been established, transportation officials noted in the sediment control plan.
The U.S. Forest Service has pressed the state Department of Transportation to develop a cleanup plan because the Forest Service issued the state an easement through federal land for the highway.
One positive development over the years, according to the Transportation Department, has been the use of liquid de-icers that diminished sand use on the pass.
“This (“impaired’ designation) will tie them into a formal process,” said the Forest Service’s Cal Wettstein of the Holy Cross Ranger District. “There’s really no choice.”
Watershed Council members on Tuesday will apprise the county commissioners of their plans.
Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or email@example.com