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Why we should care for our watersheds

Dan Ben-Horin
Staff Photo |

In September, the Middle Colorado Watershed Council hosted its annual river cleanup outside of New Castle. It was the kind of day that reminded many of us why we choose to live where we do — sunny skies, warm temps and smiling volunteers enthusiastically removing trash from the banks of the Colorado River.

These events have become ubiquitous throughout the country. Just a few weeks prior, upstream a few miles, the Eagle River Watershed Council hosted its 21st annual river cleanup event. This event has grown to be a massive community gathering where more than 350 volunteers help to restore almost 68 miles of rivers throughout Eagle County.

These inconceivable numbers are often tied to cleanup events. According to American Rivers, since that organization’s National River Cleanup program was launched in 1991, more than 17 million pounds of litter have been removed by more than 1,149,900 volunteers. Although these numbers seem to be beyond comprehension, they quite accurately represent the amount of trash that is hiding in our sensitive riparian areas. I am consistently impressed with the amount of trash that can be removed from even the smallest river cleanup event.



Riparian vegetation has a way of trapping and holding debris. Household litter is most commonly found; items such as shopping bags, Styrofoam, plastic containers and food wrapping can be found alongside almost any waterway in the nation.

Although stable in nature, some plastics may be hazardous to wildlife. Organ failure in seabirds has been directly linked to plastic ingestion. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 90 percent of the individual birds sampled had traces of plastics in their stomachs, with models predicting this number reaching 99 percent by 2050.



Organic wastes can have even greater impacts on rivers and streams. These wastes can alter the chemical and biological makeup of a river ecosystem, creating a less-than-suitable environment for fish and other aquatic life. Additionally, toxins can enter a waterway through certain types of litter such as pressure-treated lumber, batteries and automobile parts, changing the actual chemistry of the water.

Nationally, in several severe cases, total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) have been developed for significantly affected waterways. In these instances, rather than setting a limit to the amount of a pollutant that may enter a waterway as is typical with other TMDLs, trash TMDLs require a specific amount of trash to be removed. These trash TMDLs aim to reduce the total loading of trash to allow a river or stream to meet its water quality standards.

Regulations such as these are typically only delegated to dense urban areas where the sheer quantity of trash is enough to cause harm to the water body, but it is reflective of a river’s ability to collect and hold trash.

River cleanups give communities an opportunity to emotionally connect to their streams, to interact with these important places. We can see firsthand how our individual actions affect a greater system; we can literally get our feet wet and repair some of the damage that we have introduced.

These events are a fantastic way to leverage volunteer support to unify a community to clean up a shared resource, making the river a safer, healthier place for both the people and the wildlife that depend on it.

Here in Glenwood Springs, we sit at the confluence of two of Colorado’s great waterways: the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers. We see these iconic streams daily, yet how often do we actually take the time to sit on the banks and just listen to their peaceful song?

Each time I participate in a cleanup, I go through an entire range of emotions that renews my appreciation for rivers. I feel energized to take the boat out one more trip this season, maybe even sneak in a few casts after work, picking up as much micro-trash as I can along the way as a personal, mini-cleanup. The little that we do daily can add up significantly. Remember this is our watershed. Let’s love it.

Dan Ben-Horin is a watershed specialist with the Middle Colorado Watershed Council. His column, Your Watershed, of which this is the debut, will appear on the second Sunday of each month.


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