Vail Resorts snowmaking tank suspected in large fish die-off recorded in Vail

Colorado Parks and Wildlife finds 120 dead fish in Gore Creek

A dead trout, photographed in Gore Creek on Tuesday. Town of Vail Water Quality Education Coordinator Peter Wadden said a die-off event affecting 1,500 feet of stream in Vail killed trout as big as 16 inches.
Peter Wadden/Town of Vail

VAIL — A large die-off of fish in Mill Creek and Gore Creek over the weekend from a suspected accidental discharge from a tank used for snowmaking on Vail Mountain has caught the attention of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife department.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials visited Vail on Tuesday to investigate. Representatives from the town of Vail and Colorado Parks and Wildlife said Mill Creek had been visibly impacted by a blue-gray color Tuesday.

Parks and Wildlife officials took water samples and recorded the totals of dead fish found, which included 85 mottled sculpin, one cuttbow, 16 rainbow trout, one brook trout and 17 brown trout.

Aquatic Biologist Kendall Bakich said the discharge appeared to be coming out of a culvert on Mill Creek, which flows into Gore Creek near Pirate Ship Park in Vail Village.

A Vail Resorts spokesperson confirmed Tuesday that the company has reported an incident to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

A blue tint was observed in Gore Creek by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the town of Vail on Tuesday. The creek is being tested for toxicity after fish and algae were found dead.
Peter Wadden/Town of Vail

Open valves

Bakich said approximately 1,500 feet of stream was affected by the discharge, which killed fish, macroinvertibrates and even algae in the stream.

Town of Vail water quality education coordinator Peter Wadden said the dead algae could mean the toxicity of the water might have been relatively high.

The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District confirmed its operations staff noticed an abnormally high water demand in the core Vail area over the weekend, and traced the flow to a storage tank at Golden Peak, where the major user is Vail Mountain’s snowmaking system.

Vail hikers have confirmed they observed the snowmaking system blowing water out of snowmaking guns in the Golden Peak area Friday.

Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said the district contacted Vail Resorts on Monday morning. Vail Resorts then discovered that some isolation valves on its snowmaking system had been left open.

“Once the system was drained, we believe it continued to pull water from our storage tank (which would be the source of abnormally high demand) due to the open valves,” Johnson said in an email. “Vail Resorts closed the valves and the high demand in our system stopped.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers visited Vail on Tuesday to investigate a fish die-off in Gore Creek in Vail. A blue tint was observed in the creek.
Peter Wadden/Town of Vail

Examination underway

The total amount of water released, more than 2 million gallons, caused an increase of 2-3 cubic feet per second in Gore Creek above Red Sandstone streamgage beginning Saturday, Wadden said.

Wadden shared a theory: “My understanding is the Vail Resorts snowmaking system operates primarily off of raw water, so it was a mistake that the valves that connected to the potable water system were left open whenever they flushed their system, so when they went in to do routine preseason maintenance and flush the system again with raw water, somebody did that late in the day on Friday and then went home not knowing that it would keep flowing all weekend with all this potable water.”

Wadden said the town of Vail is awaiting lab results from water samples taken Tuesday. The results will determine what contaminants might have been in either the raw water from Vail’s snowmaking reservoir pond or the potable water that also flowed into the creek.

“We might find a smoking gun — we might find one obvious culprit like copper or lead or we may find that it was kind of a cumulative toxicity issue, a little bit of chlorine in the drinking water, the stagnant water coming out of a snowmaking pond, or maybe even an abrupt change in temperature, triggered by the introduction of all that water,” Wadden said.

Holly Loff with the Eagle River Watershed Council said the Mill Creek/Gore Creek confluence was a healthy section of water in Eagle County.

“We don’t have all of the facts yet, so it is hard to know what happened. However, the report that I read said 85 mottled sculpin, one cuttbow, 16 rainbow trout, one brook trout and 17 brown trout were found dead. That diversity of fish, particularly with the high number of our native sculpin, which are food for the trout, is a sign that Mill Creek was pretty healthy in that stretch,” Loff said. “This is really a shame and extremely disappointing after all of the restoration work and community education to improve the health of Gore Creek.”