Leaky Lake

The fractured tale of Avon's here-again, gone-again liquid asset

By Ted Katauskas June 1, 2013 Published in the Summer/Fall 2013 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

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In the fall of 2011, a local angler named Harry Chu cast his line off the end of the fishing oier on Nottingham Lake, looked down, and noticed an aspen leaf caught in a whirlpool near one of the docks pilings. Curious, Chu lay down on his belly, thrust  his fist into the vortex, felt around and found a silver dollar-size hole in the man-made lake's plastic liner. Chu called Avon town hall and was connected to the engineering department; Justin Hildreth remembers it like it was yesterday.

“It’s kind of funny,” says the town engineer, unrolling an enormous blueprint (“Nottingham Lake Liner Replacement”) over a conference room table. “He said, ‘I think I found your leak.’”

Aside from being a beauty spot for anglers and stand-up paddleboarders, the lake serves foremost as a reservoir for the irrigation water the city relies on to keep the athletic fields of Nottingham Park emerald green. So late that summer, when the lake slowly, inexorably began draining, dropping seven feet in a matter of weeks, alarm bells rang at Town Hall. Frogmen from Beaver Divers scoured the lake bottom and found nothing; city employees even paddled out onto the lake and dropped empty plastic milk cartons on the surface to serve as telltales. But the whereabouts of the leak remained a mystery—until Chu went trolling for trout.

“After he called, we went out to the pier, and sure enough, water was swirling around, just like in your bathtub,” Hildreth says.

Apparently, when the fishing pier—an amenity funded by the Colorado Department of Wildlife’s “Fishing Is Fun” program—was installed the previous March, one of the pilings had punctured the lake’s liner, which had grown brittle with age. Not long after Chu’s call, a diver dumped expanding foam into the hole, and just like that, the problem was solved. Seasons changed, and skaters traced figure eights on the frozen lake’s surface all winter. And things seemed back to normal the following summer. The town rented paddleboats to parents with children, and the Department of Wildlife stocked the lake with rainbow trout and hosted a father-son fishing derby that June.

But again, the lake sprung a leak, this time not just one, but many. The fragile liner, dating to Avon’s incorporation in 1978, had outlived its projected twenty-year life, and it needed to be replaced. The town budgeted $1.5 million for the project, and engineers went to work. To assess the damage and make temporary repairs that would allow the lake to be used as a venue for the 2013 XTERRA Championship, at the end of last summer a grounds crew opened sluice gates. Nottingham Lake drained into the Eagle River, gone before the first snowfall.

After a winter without skating in Avon, workers patched what holes they could find, and in mid-May diverted spring runoff from Nottingham and Metcalf ditches into the park.

On May 23, Avon Parks & Grounds superintendent Joe Histed stood on the deck of the pump house at Nottingham Lake’s eastern shore; the reservoir was nearly a third full. Histed, a thirtysomething ecologist from Pennsylvania who’s been tending the town’s signature green space since 2001, seemed wistful. Although the lake would be filled to capacity by the onset of summer, Histed, a new dad, pointed out that since the Department of Wildlife wouldn’t be restocking the lake this season, there would be no Father’s Day Fishing Derby this year. Paddleboat rentals would also be on hold. On the good side, he did note that since the drought restrictions of last year have been lifted, there would at least be a Salute to the USA sky show on the third of July. But after the XTERRA triathlon on July 20, the lake will go away. Again.

“As soon as that last swimmer comes out of the water, we start dumping the lake,” Histed sighed.

Once the lake has drained and baked in the sun, on August 15 contractors will start scraping the dirt away, remove the old liner, regrade the lakebed, reline it with PVC sheeting, and cover it with fresh fill. Then it’s up to mother nature to refill the lake, either in the fall or next spring. Until then, in the place of a scenic, multipurpose crown jewel, a crater will mar the heart of Nottingham Park.

“It’s a different park without the lake,” Histed says. “Nottingham Lake is one of those things most people don’t think about. They only notice it when it’s not there.”

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