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Gore Creek watershed, Colorado — Assessment of historical and current water quantity, water quality, and aquatic ecology, 1968–98

January 1, 2001

The historical and current (1998) water-quantity, water-quality, and aquatic-ecology conditions in the Gore Creek watershed are described as part of a study by the U.S. Geological Survey, done in cooperation with the Town of Vail, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority. Interpretation of the available water-quantity, water-quality, and aquatic-ecology data collected by various agencies since 1968 showed that background geology and land use in the watershed influence the water quality and stream biota.

Surface-water nutrient concentrations generally increased as water moved downstream through the Town of Vail, but concentrations at the mouth of Gore Creek were typical when compared with national data for urban/undeveloped sites. Nitrate concentrations in Gore Creek were highest just downstream from a wastewater-treatment plant discharge, but concentrations decreased at sites farther downstream because of dilution and nitrogen uptake by algae. Recent total phosphorus concentrations were somewhat elevated when compared to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended level of 0.10 milligram per liter for control of eutrophication in flowing water. However, total phosphorus concentrations at the mouth of Gore Creek were relatively low when compared to a national study of phosphorus in urban land-use areas.

Historically, suspended sediment associated with construction of Interstate 70 in the early 1970's has been of primary concern; however, recent data indicate that streambed aggradation of sediment originating from Interstate 70 traction sanding currently is a greater concern. About 4,000 tons of coarse sand and fine gravel is washed into Black Gore Creek each year following application of traction materials to Interstate 70 during adverse winter driving conditions. Suspended-sediment concentrations were low in Black Gore Creek; however, bedload-transport rates of as much as 4 tons per day have been measured.

Water samples were collected during spring and fall of 1997 from five alluvial monitoring wells located throughout the Town of Vail. Nutrient concentrations generally were low in the alluvial monitoring wells. Specific-conductance values ranged from 265 to 557 microsiemens per centimeter at 25 degrees Celsius. Concentrations of radon in monitoring-well samples exceeded the 300-picocuries-per-liter U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed maximum contaminant level (which has been suspended pending further review). Low levels of bacteria and methylene blue active substances indicate there is little or no wastewater contamination of shallow ground water in the vicinity of the monitoring wells and one of the municipal water-supply wells. Ground-water ages in the alluvial aquifer ranged from about 2 to about 50 years old. These ages indicate that changes in land-management practices may not have an effect on ground-water quality for many years.

Differences in macroinvertebrate-community structure were found among sites in Gore Creek by evaluating changes in relative abundance, total abundance, and dominant functional feeding groups of the major macroinvertebrate groups. Ephemeroptera (mayflies), Plecoptera (stoneflies), Trichoptera (caddisflies), and Coleoptera (beetles) exhibited relatively low tolerance to water-quality degradation when compared with Diptera (midges) and non-insects (sludge worms). More than 80 percent of the macroinvertebrate community at sites located farthest upstream was composed of mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies, indicating favorable water-quality and habitat conditions. The relative percentages of midges and sludge worms greatly increased in the downstream reaches of Gore Creek, which drain relatively larger areas of urban and recreation land uses, indicating the occurrence of nutrient and organic enrichment in Gore Creek.

The macroinvertebrate community in Black Gore Creek indicated adverse effects from sediment deposition. Macroinvertebrate abundance was considerably reduced at the two sites where streambed sediment was more prevalent; however, differences in abundance also may have been related to differences in habitat and availability of food resources.

The lower 4 miles of Gore Creek, downstream from Red Sandstone Creek, have been designated a Gold Medal fishery in recognition of the high recreational value of the abundant brown trout community. Gore Creek contained twice as many trout as a reference site with similar habitat characteristics in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Moderate increases in nutrient concentrations above background conditions have increased the growth and abundance potential for aquatic life in Gore Creek, while at the same time, esthetic and water-quality conditions have remained favorable. The spatial distribution of nitrate concentrations was consistent with the observed spatial distribution of algal biomass and macroinvertebrate-community characteristics. Algal biomass was limited by available resources (sunlight and nutrients) in the upstream reaches of Gore Creek and limited by macroinvertebrate grazing and water-quality conditions in the downstream reaches. The fish community has benefited from enhanced biological production in the downstream reach of Gore Creek. Increases in algal biomass and macroinvertebrate abundance, in response to higher nutrient concentrations, provide ample food resources necessary to support the abundant fish community.

Trace-element data for surface water, ground water, streambed sediment, fish tissue, and macroinvertebrate tissue indicate that concentrations are generally low in the Gore Creek watershed. In streambed-sediment samples, cadmium, copper, and zinc concentrations were below background levels reported for the Upper Colorado River Basin in Colorado. Concentrations of cadmium, copper, iron, and silver in surface water have occasionally exceeded stream standards in the past, but recent surface-water data indicate these trace elements currently are not of concern. Manganese concentrations commonly exceeded the 50-microgram-per-liter stream standard in Black Gore Creek. Elevated manganese concentrations were primarily attributable to the sedimentary geology of the area.

Concentrations of organic constituents are low in the Gore Creek watershed. Pesticides were detected infrequently and at low concentrations in surface-water, ground-water, bed-sediment, and whole-body fish-tissue samples. Volatile organic compounds also were detected at low concentrations in surface- and ground-water samples.

Publication Year 2001
Title Gore Creek watershed, Colorado — Assessment of historical and current water quantity, water quality, and aquatic ecology, 1968–98
DOI 10.3133/wri994270
Authors Kirby H. Wynn, Nancy J. Bauch, Nancy E. Driver
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series Number 99-4270
Index ID wri994270
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization National Water Quality Assessment Program