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Eagle River rehabilitation under way

Matt Terrell
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyAn excavator digs up the bottom of the Eagle River to make it deeper for fish as part of the river restoration project Friday between Minturn and Dowd Junction in western Colorado. By making the river narrower and deeper in sections, it will give trout a healthier holding area through the winter.
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MINTURN, Colo. ” Restoration work has begun on a warm, wide and shallow stretch of the Eagle River in Edwards, Colo. ” an area notoriously unwelcoming to fish.

Passersby can expect to see construction crews and heavy equipment actually in the river, moving rocks and dirt.

Restoration previously began on a stretch of the Eagle River running through Minturn that was badly damaged by early development in town. Minturn is southeast of Edwards.

Back in the 1800s, trees used to line the flat section of river between the Edwards Spur Road Bridge and the Hillcrest Drive bridge, which was a perfect place for grazing. Years of agriculture and development weakened the riverbanks and slowly allowed silt to fall into the river, smothering insects and providing a breeding ground for the trout-killing whirling disease.

The shallowness, along with the absence of trees on the river’s edge, led to high water temperatures and low amounts of dissolved oxygen ” conditions that aren’t conducive to trout.

The Eagle River Watershed Council, a nonprofit river advocacy group, raised about $1.5 million to make the stretch deeper, cooler and faster running ” they way it likely used to be 100 years ago.

So-called “bars” of gravel, cobbles and boulders will be installed on alternating sides of the riverbank, which tightens the width and forces water to flow more heavily on the opposite side, creating deeper stretches of water and decreasing the temperature.

This creates a natural looking “meandering effect,” according to Julie Ash, the water resource engineer with Walsh Environmental and the project manager.

Sediment will then more easily wash downstream, especially when water levels are low. Insects won’t be smothered, whirling disease won’t thrive, and trout will have better places to live and spawn.

Next spring, a lot of trees ” such as willows and cottonwood ” will be planted. Trees provide shade, which cools the water and helps the fish. Having trees nearby also helps jump-start the food chain by allowing leaves and logs to fall in the water. The leaves feed the little fish, the little fish feed the big fish, and insects thrive in decomposing logs, which also makes the fish happy, Ash says.

This area will certainly look better after the restoration, planners say. It looks especially bad when compared to the sections of river both upstream and downstream, which are actually quite healthy.

Crews should be out of the river by Nov. 15, said Melissa Macdonald, project administrator for the Watershed Council.

In Minturn, development had a similar effect on the river as it did in Edwards.

As homes and businesses were built near the water’s edge decades ago, the river was reshaped and deformed, creating high and unstable river banks that couldn’t hold plant roots.

As the river banks eroded, wildlife habitat was destroyed, and fish moved away, said Dave Blauch, the project manager and a senior ecologist with Natural Resource Consultants.

The restoration area extends roughly from the Interstate 70 westbound bridge to the Bellum Bridge in Minturn ” about 1.6 miles. The goal is to return the river to a more natural state.

Restoration will involve strategically placing boulders and cobbles in the river, which will create a variety of homes for fish. There will be some fast moving shallow areas, and some slow moving pools.

On the riverbank, workers will begin planting cottonwoods, willow, spruce and a variety of shrubs and grasses. In some areas, workers will extend the bank.

Restoration work will finish in mid-October, but in the meantime, there will be heavy construction equipment in the river and the construction work will sometimes cloud the water.

A similar restoration project was done on another section of the river running through the heart of Minturn a few years ago.

mterrell@vaildaily.com


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