Each year, the Eagle Valley Library District and the Walking Mountain Science Center present the High Country Speaker Series. H2Know Colorado, this year’s winter series, focuses on water, something we’re all interested in, especially given the current drought conditions. As part of the EVLD focus, there is an exhibit of six topographic maps of the Eagle River printed in 1954 by the U.S. Geological Survey. With accompanying historical photographs from our collection, the exhibit begins at the western end of the Eagle River and goes upstream to the headwaters in six beautifully drawn contour sheets. The seventh sheet is a profile sheet showing the various elevations of the river as it drains Eagle County.
The Eagle River begins in southeastern Eagle County at the Continental Divide and flows for about 70 miles before meeting the Colorado River at Dotsero. It is fed by multiple tributary streams and contributes to dry-land agriculture through numerous ditch systems. In the days before refrigeration, the river also supplied ice to railroads and towns , permitting the shipping of agricultural products, including lettuce.
As early as 1910, the U.S. Geological Survey maintained a stream gaging station on the Eagle River above Turkey and Homestake creeks at Red Cliff, “for the purpose of determining the discharge of the river available for possible irrigation or water power development in the upper section of the Eagle River. Morning and evening observations of the river [in 1913] are made by Miss Hazel Howard. … About 2,000 acre-feet annually are diverted from the Eagle River drainage basin to the headwaters of the Arkansas through the Ewing ditch across Tennessee Pass.” [Eagle Valley Enterprise Oct. 19, 1923 p.1] Moving Western Slope water to the front range in various diversion projects has kept water lawyers in business for over a century. Homestake I water project resulted in the John P.”Jack” Elliott Dam, dedicated June 18, 1967. Homestake II, moving more water from the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, was blocked in court after that, but various diversions are floated regularly.
Water quality has been an issue over the years, degradation coming primarily from mining sites along the upper Eagle River. The orange color of the river testified to the leaching from the Eagle Mine system and was visible all the way through Minturn. “Steps to clean up the river by the Eagle River Restoration Project in Minturn is being funded by the Natural Resource Damage Fund, which was created to restore areas of the Eagle River affected directly or indirectly by the toxic metals from the now-defunct mine.” [“River restoration begins in Minturn,” by Matt Terrell, Vail Daily Aug. 31, 2008 p.A4]
River restoration was also needed to curb the damage done by development; buildings built near the river, highways, railroads and agriculture all contributed to damaged riverbanks and erosion. The Eagle River Watershed Council, a non-profit river advocacy group, raised funds to restore the area around Edwards. In the 1800s, the banks were tree-lined. With agriculture, the riverbanks weakened, silt contributed to the shallowness of the river, and water temperature rises. By putting cobbles in strategically along the banks, the width of the river is tightened making the river run deeper, cooler and faster.
As we look at continued growth in Dotsero, Gypsum, Eagle and Wolcott, the stress on the river in drought years will continue to grow and the contributions the Eagle River makes to the Colorado River at Dotsero will lessen. The H2Know Colorado speaker series showcases the concern we all share for our water resources and the quality of life in Eagle County.