It’s easy to forget that fresh water is not a limitless resource. In fact, there isn’t much of it in the world. The precious supply we do have must be protected and preserved. That’s where Eagle River Watershed Council (ERWC) comes in.
The group, comprised of three full-time staff members, a board, a team of about 1,000 volunteers and countless partners and overseers that range from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Town of Vail, considers itself “the watch dogs” of the Eagle River and the Vail Valley’s rare bounty of fresh waterways. The council works to preserve and restore the Eagle and Colorado Rivers, and all of the tributaries that run through Eagle County. It organizes mass trash pickups along the roads that line the waterways, tests water quality levels and makes sure the ecosystems of the rivers and streams are intact and also cleans up areas that have been compromised by pollution. Some of the organization’s bigger cleanup and restoration tasks include the portion of the Eagle River below Gilman that has been declared a Superfund site due to the area’s mining toxins leaking into the water. Another project involves storm and infrastructure work along Gore Creek to restore the diversity of the creek’s insect habitat, which then ensures that it maintains its status as Gold Medal fishing waters.
Ask any member of the ERWC why the organization refers to the Eagle River as the “lifeblood” of the Vail Valley, and the explanations are staggering.
“We call it the lifeblood because it affects every piece of life here in the valley, whether it’s recreation or the ski resorts,” says Brooke Ranney, ERWC’s projects and events coordinator. “We all depend on the river for drinking water, and we make sure we have a good quality water source. Then, there’s getting out on the river and its economic value.”
According to the group, the fly-fishing industry alone is worth $4 billion, to say nothing of the valley’s most prized asset—the ski industry which relies on the Eagle River for snowmaking.
“The Eagle River as well as the Upper Colorado draw a lot of people here, even if that means they came to ski or snowboard. People are using the mountains for skiing and snowboarding, not realizing that the manmade snow comes from water pulled from the river. As people stay here or come to visit in the summer and expand their visitation of Eagle County, the river plays a huge role in their decision to stay or come back again,” says Holly Loff, ERWC executive director.
Lizzie Schoder, the group’s education and outreach coordinator, heads up Watershed Wednesdays, free interactive tours, workshops and presentations centered around the watershed. The group also travels to local schools, teaching students of all ages various components of the watershed, from vegetation, insects and wildlife that comprise the streams’ habitat to ways they can preserve and protect the water supply—being mindful not to litter, turn off water while brushing teeth, pick up after one’s dog and avoid overusing water for landscaping or washing cars.
“We’re noticing people are unaware that storm drains flow directly to the river, so picking up after your dog is a huge one, not mowing lawns all the way to the river, letting native plants grow along it, being mindful of chemicals and pesticides used on the lawn,” Schoder says. “It’s something often forgotten … that we have so little true, fresh water in the world, so the way we allocate it and manage it is vital.”
The council collaborates with numerous local, regional and national entities to protect and preserve the water that runs through Eagle County. Also crucial to keep in mind is that while the rivers are the lifeblood of everything in this valley—the drinking water, snowmaking source and cornerstone of the flyfishing, kayaking and rafting industries—it also trickles down … quite literally.
“It’s important to note that we’re the headwaters of both the Colorado and the Eagle Rivers, so if we do anything to impact water quality here, everybody downstream suffers,” Loff points out. “If our rivers weren’t protected and there wasn’t vegetation there, it wouldn’t have the impact and draw that it does. Our economy would suffer quite a bit. It goes beyond people who are hardcore kayakers and recreationists. Water slows everyone down and reconnects you to nature and things that are really important in life. The EPA is always front and center in protecting clean water nationwide. Although drinking water is critical to all of us, people need to be more vigilant and stand up for clean water.”
Needless to say, the Eagle River Watershed Council is doing its part for the Vail Valley and beyond.