A 14-mile stretch of Cattle Creek in Garfield County falls on Colorado’s list of impaired rivers. The Roaring Fork Conservancy has been monitoring this stream. Environment reporter Elizabeth Stewart-Severy recently joined the nonprofit to follow the creek from its headwaters on National Forest land to the confluence near Highway 82.
In many ways, Cattle Creek is emblematic of the variety of issues that have surfaced in the Roaring Fork watershed. Chad Rudow has been collecting samples and monitoring Cattle Creek for two years. He is clear that there is no one villain polluting this stream.
“Everybody jointly is impacting the creek and we’re just trying to understand that,” Rudow said.
The headwaters of this mountain stream are pristine, settled in White River National Forest. The Clean Water Act requires that states keep an eye on water quality, and within the national forest boundary, the creek ranks “outstanding” and hosts species of native cutthroat trout.
But as that water runs through ranchland, residential subdivisions, and commercial areas, state testing shows a decline in the health of populations of aquatic insects, called macroinvertebrates, which indicates a drop in water quality. Garfield County is funding the Roaring Fork Conservancy study, which just wrapped up collecting data.
“I think the number one issue, and it’s not really one that can be fixed, is that a large portion of the water that runs out of the headwaters of that stream is diverted into another basin,” said Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky.
These diversions are largely for agricultural uses, and water starts being pulled from the creek just downstream from the forest service boundary.
These diversions, including one that fills Spring Park reservoir near the top of Basalt Mountain, exacerbate downstream pollution. Irrigation ditches pull clean water out of the creek, while new contaminants wash in.
“We’re seeing a lowering of flows, which increases the concentration, but we’re also seeing additional pollutants entering as we work our way downstream,” Rudow said.
Those pollutants include manure and fertilizers — called “nutrients” in water studies — that wash into the stream, especially during peak runoff. They also include nitrates, which could be from faulty, aging septic systems.
“There’s no smoking gun,” Rudow said. “We can’t pinpoint it on any one land use.”
As you drive down Cattle Creek Road, it’s easy to see the varied impacts. Up high in Missouri Heights, cattle graze in wide fields, wading through the stream in places. The creek winds towards Highway 82 through ranchettes and residential neighborhoods, with manicured lawns running right up to the riverbank. Finally, it passes through the Cattle Creek commercial area, in spitting distance from construction and storage companies.
In many of these areas, humans have largely removed the riparian vegetation that naturally helps to clean up water and protect the stream.
All of these impacts mean that there is no easy solution.
The Roaring Fork Conservancy is still analyzing data before giving recommendations to Garfield County commissioners and residents. In the meantime, Rudow says landowners can allow natural vegetation to grow along the banks, and put fences up to keep cattle away from the stream.
A primary goal for the study is to identify where, exactly, the water quality is poor to focus efforts on key spots.
“We’re hoping that by filling in the gaps with more data, we can actually go back to the state and show, ok, maybe Cattle Creek is still impaired but the stretch of creek, the reach, that’s impaired is much smaller than what they’ve listed,” Rudow said.
Even if that happens, all solutions will not be simple. Diversions that pull water out are managed by water rights, and it’s also tough to fix some of the pollutants, like leaky septic systems.
“Proper septic system maintenance is something we always encourage as a department and are working to try to do outreach on,” said Morgan Hill with Garfield County environmental health. “Maintenance of a septic system may not really always be an easy thing, because if the system has failed it can be a significant expense for the homeowner. But it’s really important.”
Complete analysis of the Roaring Fork Conservancy study is expected in early 2017, and the process to remove sections from the impaired rivers list would likely take more than a year.