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Assessment of surface-water quantity and quality, Eagle River watershed, Colorado, 1947-2007

September 27, 2011

From the early mining days to the current tourism-based economy, the Eagle River watershed (ERW) in central Colorado has undergone a sequence of land-use changes that has affected the hydrology, habitat, and water quality of the area. In 2000, the USGS, in cooperation with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Eagle County, Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, Colorado Department of Transportation, City of Aurora, Town of Eagle, Town of Gypsum, Town of Minturn, Town of Vail, Vail Resorts, City of Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs Utilities, and Denver Water, initiated a retrospective analysis of surface-water quantity and quality in the ERW.
Surface-water quantity data and surface-water quality data were obtained from local, State, and Federal agencies to assist in the analysis of surface-water conditions in the ERW 1947-2007. Surface-water-quality data from 293 sites and 12 different source agencies were compiled into 192 unique sites located on streams and rivers in the ERW. Approximately 39 percent of the unique sites had fewer than 5 samples; while 23 percent of the sites had more than 100 samples. Physical properties were the most abundant type of samples collected, with major ions, nutrients, and trace elements also commonly collected.
For selected water-quality properties and constituents in the watershed, this report: (1) characterizes available water quantity and water-quality data, (2) identifies spatial and seasonal variability in water quantity and water quality, (3) provides comparisons to Federal and State water-quality standards or recommendations, (4) characterizes temporal changes in water quality, and (5) where possible, identifies potential causes of these changes. This report provides reconnaissance-level statistical summaries and comparisons of water-quality conditions and characteristics using available data within the ERW. The report also includes streamflow statistics such as: mean annual runoff totals, peak-flood-frequency recurrence intervals, and minimum 7-day mean streamflows for selected sites within the watershed.
The spatial patterns for concentrations of trace metals (aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron, manganese, and zinc) indicate an increase in dissolved concentrations of these metals near historical mining areas in the Eagle River and several tributaries near Belden. In general, concentrations decrease downstream from mining areas. Concentrations typically are near or below reporting limits in Gore Creek and other tributaries within the watershed. Concentrations for trace elements (arsenic, selenium, and uranium) in the watershed usually are below the reporting limit, and no prevailing spatial patterns were observed in the data. Step-trend analysis and temporal-trend analysis provide evidence that remediation of historical mining areas in the upper Eagle River have led to observed decreases in metals concentrations in many surface-waters. Comparison of pre- and post-remediation concentrations for many metals indicates significant decreases in metals concentrations for cadmium, manganese, and zinc at sites downstream from the Eagle Mine Superfund Site. Some sites show order of magnitude reductions in median concentrations between these two periods. Evaluation of monotonic trends for dissolved metals concentrations show downward trends at numerous sites in, and downstream from, historic mining areas. The spatial pattern of nutrients shows lower concentrations on many tributaries and on the Eagle River upstream from Red Cliff with increases in nutrients downstream of major urban areas. Seasonal variations show that for many nutrient species, concentrations tend to be lowest May-June and highest January-March. The gradual changes in concentrations between seasons may be related to dilution effects from increases and decreases in streamflow. Upward trends in nutrients between the towns of Gypsum and Avon were detected for nitrate, orthophosphate, and total phosphorus. An upward trend in nitrite was detected in Gore Creek. No trends were detected in un-ionized ammonia within the ERW. Exceedances of State water-quality standards (nitrite, nitrate, and un-ionized ammonia) and levels higher than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommendations (total phosphorus) occur in several areas within the ERW. The majority of the exceedances are from comparisons to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency total phosphorus recommendations. A positive correlation was observed between suspended sediment and total phosphorus. An upward trend in total dissolved solids in Gore Creek may be the result of increases in chloride salts. Highly significant trends were detected in sodium, potassium, and chloride with a significant upward trend in magnesium and a weakly significant upward trend in calcium. A quantitative analysis of the relative abundance of calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium to the available anions suggests that chloride salts likely are the source for the detected upward trends because chloride is the only commonly occurring anion with a trend in Gore Greek. A potential source for the observed chloride salts may be the chemical anti-icing and deicing products used during winter road maintenance in municipal areas and on Interstate-70. A downward trend in dissolved solids in the Eagle River between Gypsum and Avon may be contributing to the detected trend on the Eagle River at Gypsum. Significant downward trends were detected in specific ions such as calcium, magnesium, sulfate, and silica. Measures of total dissolved solids as well as comparisons to specific ions show that in water-quality samples within the ERW concentrations generally are lower in the headwaters, with increases downstream from Wolcott. Differences in concentrations likely result from increased abundance of salt-bearing geologic units downstream from Avon. Few sites had measured concentrations that exceeded the State standards for chloride.