Curious Nature: Keeping our rivers and streams “pure as packed snow”

Plowed snow tends to be black with ash and other pollutants and bears little resemblance to the “pure” flakes that fell months before.
Courtesy picture

In Eagle County, snow plays a big part in our lives. It drives our economy and feeds our rivers. Eighty percent of the water flowing through the Colorado River comes from the mountains of Colorado, most of it in the form of snow.

When you think of snow, you might think of champagne powder on the slopes or a blanket of smooth white crystals in your backyard. This may evoke the expression “pure as beaten snow”. However, the runoff that flows into our rivers and streams is rarely pure. As snow melts and runs down roads, parking lots and lawns, it accumulates pollutants along the way. Pollutants like pet waste, road salt, fertilizers and herbicides all seep into our rivers and streams, carried by melting runoff from a winter of buildup.

Snow plow operators need to know how important it is to avoid pushing snow directly into waterways. If you’ve ever seen the Vail Snow Dump in the spring, you know why. This “snow” tends to be black with ash and other pollutants and hardly resembles the “pure” flakes that fell months before. The snow dump captures and isolates most of these pollutants, preventing them from reaching Gore Creek. But the snow captured in this one-acre basin is only a small fraction of Vail’s contribution to Gore Creek and the Colorado River Basin.

So what can we do about the rest of the runoff? There are two ways to prevent pollution of our waterways. The best way is to keep it out of the snow in the first place. We can achieve this by picking up after our pets, cleaning up fuel and oil spills with dry absorbents like kitty litter, and applying snowmelt and salt sparingly.

The second way to keep pollutants out of waterways is to filter runoff water before it reaches the stream. This can be done with expensive stormwater treatment devices, but the best filter is natural soil and vegetation. Attractive native landscaping maintained with a minimum of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides is the best buffer a waterway can have against pollution. That’s why the City of Vail promotes the restoration of riparian buffers and the maintenance of native plants. Native plants require less water and fewer chemicals than exotic ornamentals or Kentucky bluegrass.

Pet waste is a pervasive and unpleasant problem in Eagle County. The “landmines” that emerge from spring snow are not natural droppings from wildlife. Dog feces are slower to biodegrade due to preservatives in dog food and can carry pathogens like cryptosporidium and E. coli. Every pet owner is responsible for cleaning up after their furry friends. In fact, it’s against the law not to.

Each of us plays a role in protecting water quality. As the summit of the Rockies and the source of the Colorado River watershed, our actions impact everyone downstream in seven states and parts of Mexico. Water inevitably flows downward. It is up to us to ensure that the water is as pure as possible.

Pete Wadden is the Watershed Education Coordinator for the City of Vail and sits on the board of the Eagle River Watershed Council. His first job in the Valley was at the Walking Mountains Science Center. He can be reached at or 970 479 2144.

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