Who’ll pay to clean up Vail Pass?
Plans for a $20 million cleanup to reduce the stream-choking mountain of highway traction sand along Interstate 70 at Vail Pass have been made public.But one significant question remains<Who’s going to pay for it?During winter for nearly three decades, highway maintenance crews have distributed an estimated total of 300,000 tons of sand to assist drivers with traction on the 10-mile stretch of snowy highway that crests at the 10,666 feet above sea level. That’s nearly 20,000 dump-truck-loads of sand. The sand has been spread, plowed off the road and left there. Until recent years, none of it has been recovered.”It will be a cooperative effort,” says Jeff Kullman, regional director for the Colorado Department of Transportation. “We need to control sand at its source.”Money for the project is mired in cumbersome budget processes and made more difficult by recent budget cuts. While local, state and federal agencies have money to maintain operations, none have enough money in their budgets to fund any kind of true cleanup operation.Eagle County commissioners, meanwhile, say they think it might take an act of the U.S. Congress. They approached Colorado’s congressional delegation last month with requests for as much as $15 million for a cleanup, among other items. One transportation department official, however, says budgets are so tight that even the number of copies of requests being sent to cleanup stakeholders has been limited limited.”The single best thing you can do,” says another CDOT regional director, Owen Leonard, “is to contact your elected officials and support getting more money for transportation.”He says the transportation department’s budget is again being pared down.One notable funding exception, however, is from the town of Vail, which when asked for $35,000 by Black Gore Steering Committee organizer Caroline Bradford, dug deeper and gave $50,000. .”Every bit helps. It really was generous,” she says.Mountains of sandThe force of gravity moves highway traction sand, along with snowmelt and run-off from rain, downstream from Vail Pass into Black Gore Creek, smothering the watershed, destroying riparian habitat and degrading water quality. Nearly 5,000 tons of sand make it to the creek annually. And in some areas between the highway and the banks of the creek, accumulations of sand are 4 to 6 feet deep.Sand also has begun to accumulate in the Black Lakes storage reservoirs atop the pass. That sand has reduced the storage capacity of the reservoirs, which store water for snowmaking and human consumption throughout the winter.Black Gore Creek, meanwhile, is a major tributary of Gore Creek and is used for water storage and raw water for the town of Vail. Gore Creek is also a designated Gold Medal Trout Fishery that attracts thousand of fishermen to the Vail Valley annually.”It’s like triage,” said the U.S. Forest Service’s Howard Kahlow. “This (plan) proposes to stop the bleeding. (But) there’s still a whole lot of other problems.””Old’ sand vs. “new’ sandThe cleanup will require the participation of a variety of stakeholders in the project, including CDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, Eagle County and others.Most of the money, however, would come from Congress.The cleanup of the sand in the Black Gore watershed would be a two-part program consisting of removing the recently distributed “new sand” that is within 30 feet of the road and a program aimed at dealing with the historic accumulations “old sand” already well into the watershed.Removing just the new sand has been estimated to cost $20 million author Mike Crouse of Clear Creek Consulting. Most of that would fund creation of structures to capture future sand. Crouse estimates annual sand-removal costs at $580,000. Last year, approximately $40,000 was spent on creating some sand control structures.Nearly 200 hundred sand traps and drainage structures would be built, according to the study. Existing sand traps have a estimated sand capture rate of 80 percent, allowing CDOT to remove about 10 percent of the annual tonnage of sand.Sand liabilityThe program to clean up the mess accelerated last winter when the Forest Service, which issued an easement to CDOT for the roadway, pressured the state agency to develop a cleanup plan as outlined in the easement.Driving the participating agencies to cleanup the sand is the knowledge that failure to remedy the situation could spawn a plethora of lawsuits claiming environmental degradation.Making the cleanup effort more difficult is the fact that nearly every government and private agency participating in the cleanup has faced budget cuts in the last year. CDOT alone has seen $75 million in cuts.This year, staunching the flow of new sand from the roadway is top-priority. As much as $700,000 could be available to create sand traps at two problem areas near the top of the pass. The sand traps can be cleaned out periodically using heavy equipment.CDOT has already had some experience removing sand from a watershed<at Straight Creek, which drains the valley west of the Eisenhower Tunnel in Summit County. That project began four years ago and has been showing some success, CDOT officials says.One of the most visible projects so far is the $500,000 “Sand Castle,” an aesthetically unpleasing, three-story circus tent-like warehouse of sorts at Vail Pass that was constructed 18 months ago to merely prevent erosion from huge storage piles of sand stored there.Additional drainage structures and sand traps could be constructed to prevent sand from reaching the watershed, Crouse’s report notes.Bygone sandIt is the historic, or old sand, in the drainage that will be the most difficult to extract, however. CDOT’s Terri Tiehen suggests that much of it will have to be removed by Mother Nature because using equipment on the steep hillsides may actually create more impacts on the stream. Her assessment is echoed in the report.Some of that sand will be immobilized by an aggressive revegetation program, adds CDOT resident engineer in Eagle County, Keith Powers. Plant roots will stabilize the sand and gravel particles, but hobbling that effort will be the difficulty in getting vegetation to grow at high altitude on steep slopes.The most problematic drainage area of the pass is at the steep narrows between Mile Markers 186 and 186.4, four miles west of the summit. There, maroon sandstone is subject to “mass wasting” and highway runoff has concentrated on the west side of the highway.”This area was identified previously as having the single largest source contribution of sediment load to Black Gore Creek,” the study notes.Why the sand?Traffic has more than doubled on I-70, the main east-west corridor across the state<since it was completed nearly 15 years ago. At Dowd Junction just west of Vail, some 40,000 vehicles per day use the highway.During the winter of 1994, however, icy weather and traffic accidents closed the highway 38 times. Since then, keeping the highway open has been a major priority for CDOT. The agency has intensified its maintenance and has enlisted magnesium chloride, a liquid deicer that has allowed crews to reduce dependence on traction sand. Last year nearly 700,000 gallons of the deicer were used.The traffic, meanwhile, is expected to get worse. Vail is projecting 1.7 million skiers will hit the slopes in 2005, and skier traffic is projected to grow 2 to 3 percent per year for the next 20 years.Truck traffic is also projected to grow significantly.Over the last five years, highway crews have expedited efforts to reduce the amount of sand used on the highways, and that amount has been significant, says CDOT Supervisor Paul DeJulio.In 1996 and 1997, for example, highway crews used nearly 35 tons of sand and 275,000 gallons of mag chloride, DeJulio says, but by the winter of 2000 sand use on the pass dropped to 26 tons. The use of mag chloride, which costs about 30 cents a gallon, increased to 700,000 gallons annually, DeJulio adds.
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VAIL — The lift operator in the maze at Vail Village’s Gondola One tilts his head back and hollers: “Masks up please!”