Vail Daily column: Healthy rivers start in your backyard
May 25, 2017
Colorado is an arid state, averaging around 16 inches of precipitation per year. Factor in our high elevation, and the Eagle Valley can be a tricky place for gardening and landscaping. Fortunately, embracing the practices that allow our gardens and landscapes to thrive usually falls in harmony with best practices to keep our rivers healthy.
Landscaping practices have a direct and significant effect on the Eagle River and its tributaries. The pollution-intolerant aquatic insects, or macroinvertebrates, that make up the food chain for our gold-medal waters and the lifeblood of our valley have been dropping in recent years. Sections of the Eagle River and Gore Creek have consequently been listed on the state's 303D list of impaired streams.
Two of the three known primary stressors in our watershed, as identified by the Urban Runoff Group, are untreated runoff from impervious and urban areas and the loss of riparian and wetland vegetation.
Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, pet waste and organic matter can be carried by wind or picked up by rain and melting snow and carried directly into our rivers or through our storm drains. This overloads our waterways with sediment and nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, which kill macroinvertebrates and increase algae blooms —harming our fish, as well as our community's source of drinking water, recreation and tourism.
Those who are lucky enough to live next to our river understandably may want to enjoy an unobstructed view. However, the loss of riparian corridors, stemming from homeowners mowing all the way to the river and cutting down the native plants that may block their view, destroys the critical ecological function of these plants, which is to act as nature's filter for the river and as a buffer from inevitable pollutants. These riparian plants also prevent stream bank erosion and provide important shade and habitat for fish and other wildlife.
Fortunately, landscaping practices that are kind to our rivers go hand in hand with overall long-term success for your gardens and backyards. Simple actions to take include:
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• Using native grasses and perennials in your gardening: They are better adapted to the microclimates in our valley and require less water, fertilizers and pesticides. The Eagle County Colorado State University Extension office and Betty Ford Alpine Gardens have comprehensive lists of native plants, as well as beautiful, drought-tolerant plants.
• Allow streamside plants to grow by not mowing all the way to the river. Leave a natural setback between your manicured lawn or garden and the stream. This varies with topography, geography and other factors, but should be 25 feet at minimum.
• Consider using permeable materials such as gravel and flagstones over asphalt and concrete for garden walkways, patios and driveways.
• Limit your use of pesticides and fertilizers, especially before it rains. Make sure to read all labels and use the right amount. Consider using Integrated Pest Management techniques and compost to get desired results.
Other than using drought-tolerant and native plants, new "smart" irrigation technology is available at increasingly reasonable costs. One landscaper in the valley, Kreston Rohrig, of Four Seasons Landscaping and Irrigation, explains how the evapotranspiration systems he uses have shown an average of 40 percent water savings annually:
"The ET water system basically operates like a cellphone, so it gets updates constantly throughout the day and has algorithms that pull from local weather station data. It basically equates for how much the system needs based on what current conditions are and records how much water has been used to the gallon. These systems will learn specific flow rates per zone."
Kreston gave the example of a customer with a broken pipe: This would immediately generate an email alert to flag that zone has a high flow rate. He explained, "That saves a lot of water to quickly fix that zone that's just bleeding out, and that also saves the homeowner a lot of money on trouble shooting. At the end of the day, their water bill is much less and their plants are also healthy."
Rohrig's pilot project with eight properties in Mountain Star saved more than 600,000 gallons of water annually with no change to plant health.
With our county's population predicted to double by 2040, the challenges facing our rivers will only grow. These solutions can help reverse impairments to our waterways, save water and save homeowners money in the long run.
Lizzie Schoder is the education and outreach coordinator for the Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Please contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit http://www.erwc.org.