Sand unsettling for fish, bugs, environmentalists

Traction sand being removed from Black Gore Creek for the first time

Photo by Shane Macomber/Vail Daily
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A handful of mucky sand from the bottom of Black Gore Creek. The sand is harming fish, bugs and water quality.
Shane Macomber/Vail Daily

Nicole Frey
October 4, 2005

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VAIL — Up to their waists in murky brown water, two wader-clad men used a state-of-the-art magnum wand to suck sand from the bottom of Black Gore Creek near Black Lake #2 at the top of Vail Pass.

Seth Tucker wielded an instrument resembling a large, metal vacuum cleaner, which pushed water out one nozzle to churn up the sand and sucked it back up into hoses that snaked their way up the river bank. A few feet away, Jason Beach monitored two floating pumps that helped transport the water.


Photo by Shane Macomber/Vail Daily
A handful of rocks from the bottom of Black Gore Creek after sand has been sucked from the water.
Shane Macomber/Vail Daily

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“The payoff from looking back on projects like this is really cool,” Tucker said. “The stream is so much cleaner. You did something positive.”

The men of Streamside Systems rolled into town last weekend and launched into a project to remove about 1,100 cubic yards of so-called “traction” sand from Black Gore Creek.

The non-native sand, that now stands several feet deep in some portions of the stream, is a leftover from road construction and erosion from Interstate 70.

The sand is spread over the interstate to add traction to the often icy pass and stored on the side of the road.

Unhealthy for the existing ecosystem, Randall Tucker and his crew at Streamside Systems will suck the sand until they hit rock bottom, he said.

Benefits of the rock bottom

The mass quantities of sand in the water led the Environmental Protection Agency to classify Black Gore Creek an impaired stream in 2002, meaning current conditions are less than ideal for water quality and aquatic life. Essentially, the sand is choking the life out of the creek.

 See for yourself
The public is invited to visit Black Lake #2 where Streamside Systems will pump sand out of the Gore Creek between noon and 2 p.m. Thursday.

To get to the lake, take Interstate 70 east. Take the exit at the top of the Vail Pass at mile marker 187.9. Once off the interstate make a U-turn onto old state Highway 6 and follow the road until you reach a parking lot at a gate.

From there, follow the path on foot for about 15 minutes. Special accomodations can be made to shuttle guests from the parking area to demonstration site by calling the Eagle River Watershed Council at 827-5406.
“Trout rely on gravel beds for reproduction, and there needs to be a lot of flow of oxygen in the gravel bed to bring oxygen to the eggs,” said Bruce Zander, a who monitors the Clean Water Act for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“(Water insects) also attach themselves to the rocks in the water, and if you fill the bed full of sediment, they can’t populate," he said. "There’s no food base for the trout, so there’s not trout. It’s all interconnected.”

Without a cleanup, the stream’s ecosystem will change to allow sand-dwelling bugs, while pushing out the gravel bed bugs, said Bill Carlson, the environmental health officer and planner for the town of Vail.

The sand-resistant bugs also may push out the fish that rely on different insects for food, Carlson said.

Safe driving vs. the environment

The Colorado Department of Transportation has used sand mixed with salt “since the beginning of time” to provide traction on icy winter roads, said agency spokeswoman Stacey Stegman.

For the transportation agency, there are no easy answers to making sure the interstate is safe while also looking out for the environment, Stegman said.

“Each method has its downside,” she said. “We use all of them in limited quantities to get the safest roads that we can.”

With the development of liquid, chemical deicers in the 1980s, many roads received the new concoction. However, in colder locations with a large amount of snow pack, the liquid deicer was rendered less effective, and it was back to sand and salt.


Photo by Shane Macomber/Vail Daily
Jason and Kevin Beach used a high-tech wand to suck sand use for traction on nearby I-70 out of Black Gore Creek, the stream that flows down Vail Pass.
Shane Macomber/Vail Daily

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“We would have to use truckloads of (liquid) deicer for it to be effective up there,” said Stegman, who said large quantities of liquid deicer would harm water, vegetation and human health. “It’s not a good product to have in the environment.”

To compensate for spreading sand on roadways, Stegman said the transportation agency has and continues to spend millions to help repair the harmful environmental effects of sand.

In 2001, the agency built the “sand castle” a four-story building at the Vail Pass in which to store traction sand, instead of letting it sit on the side of the road and leak into the stream.

Caroline Bradford, director of the Eagle River Watershed Council, said the transportation agency also has built 38 sediment basins to catch the sand coming off the interstate. And while people praise the agency’s efforts, advocates say there is much left to do.

“Although there has been a lot done ... there is still inevitably this big movement of sand that makes it into Black Gore Creek,” Zander said. “There’s evidence that there’s still sand coming in, but not nearly at the rate that we’ve seen in the past.”

Beneficent beavers

Basins have helped alleviate the situation, and in a stroke of good luck, beavers have lent their obliging buck teeth to help out.

By building dams along the creek, the furry critters helped slow the flow of sand, allowing Streamside Systems convenient locations to begin pumping, Bradford said.

 What you can do
Today through Sunday, you can volunteer with the Eagle River Watershed Council to help remove sand from Black Gore Creek. Volunteers can be part of the following teams.

• Field and Stream Team: Put on waders and help use sand wands to suction sand out of the creek.

• Flaggers: Work to ensure the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians on the bike path.

• Shuttle van: Drive guests from parking area to demonstration site.

• Picnic hosts and greeters: Simple picnic sandwiches and bottled water will be served to guests who join the effort at noon.

Call the Eagle River Watershed Council at 827-5406 or e-mail to sign up as a volunteer for three- to five-hour shifts on any or all of the days.
However, when the dams wash out, as many inevitably will, the sand will move downstream and into Vail Village’s Gore Creek, said Bob Weaver, a project manager with Hydrosphere Resource Consultants.

“This usually happens at a time when streams have high flows and a great capacity to transport the sediment; it’s typically not a lasting or significant impact,” Weaver said.

“But in the Black Gore Creek, that process is really accelerated … When (the dams) fail, there’s a larger impact. It’ll be harder to wash it out of the system.”

This project will remove just a small portion of the massive amount of sand in Black Gore Creek, but Bradford maintains all the baby steps are invaluable.

“It seems like they’ve got all the right actors in the play,” Zander said. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

The sand sucked from the river bottom will be bagged and dried out in large, four-foot high bags along the Vail Pass bike path. Once dried the sand will fill 100 trucks and has potential to be used in other ways.

“It’ll be important to monitor the results of this project, and see if it’s beneficial,” Weaver said. “If it is, it could set a precedent for the future.”

Staff Writer Nicole Frey can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or

Vail, Colorado