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  1. 11/2/2007 VAST TINDERBOX THREATENS COLORADO’S WATERSHEDS
  2. Reprinted from MainStream, Vol. 51, No. 3 (September 2007), by permission. Copyright © 2007, American Water Works Association. For additional information about safe water issues, visit www.awwa.org or call 800 926 7337.


    As the wildfire season ebbs this fall, a group of Colorado water managers, foresters, and scientists are all fired up about protecting watersheds from forest fires that could ravage drinking water infrastructure.

    Seven Front Range Colorado water providers met with representatives of the Colorado State Forest Service, US Forest Service, US Geological Survey, National Park Service, other related entities, AWWA, and AwwaRF at an August 15 workshop hosted by AWWA in Denver.

    At the half-day meeting on Protecting Front Range Forest Watersheds From High-Severity Wildfires, forestry experts and water utility managers with first-hand experience spoke about the link between forest fires and drinking water quality.

    Water towers of the West

    “Seventy percent of Colorado’s drinking water comes from headwaters on forest service land,” Rick Cables, Rocky Mountain regional forester, USFS, told the group of nearly 40 workshop attendees. “We are the water tower of the West.”

    Colorado’s Rocky Mountain forests encompass 11 watersheds that provide water for nearly 4 million Coloradoans—two thirds of the state’s residents—said Dennis Le Master, senior fellow at the Pinchot Institute for Conservation in Everett, Wash.

    As the snow melts in the spring and early summer, water drains through the 11 watersheds before being transported through nine conveyance systems operated by seven major utilities from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs.

    Some 2.1 million acres (850,000 ha) in eight of the eleven Front Range watersheds are rated at level 4 or 5 wildfire hazards, Le Master said. Level 5 denotes the highest risk for a severe wildfire.

    Much of Colorado’s forests on both sides of the continental divide have been blighted by the pine beetle, adding to the fire risk.

    With a vast tinderbox threatening water quality, utility managers at the meeting expressed an urgent need to launch huge-scale forest treatment efforts to avert catastrophic wildfires from devastating critical drinking water reservoirs and infrastructure.

    Fire’s costly toll to DW

    “It’s not a question of whether it will happen. The question is when,” said Chips Barry, manager of Denver Water.

    Two months after the 1996 Buffalo Creek Forest Fire, which encompasses a DW watershed, the utility was hard-hit when heavy, intense rainfall washed tons of debris into the Strontia Springs reservoir.

    Scorched timbers and soil erosion from two major wildfires continue to plague Denver Water’s watersheds in the foothills west of Denver. The utility is spending $300,000 to remove sediment from two creeks. Photo courtesy Denver Water.

    “Two inches (5 cm) of rain fell in decomposed granite soil,” Barry recalled. “The flow of erosion occurred in the middle of the night and washed debris and 400,000 yd3 (366,000 m3) of sediment downstream ½ mi (0.8 km) into Strontia Springs. We got 12 years of sediment overnight.”

    In addition to the sediment, piles of driftwood, portable toilets, abandoned tanks, and other junk filled the reservoir and shut down one of the system’s major treatment plants. “It took us eight to nine months to clean out the debris. We’re still dealing with the sediment,” Barry said.

    DW implemented a forest restoration project to treat 645,000 acres (260,000 ha) on the Upper South Platte Watershed Basin, which supplies water to 70 percent of the utility’s 1 million customers. Working with the state and national foresters, utility crews thinned the forest, removed excess growth, reseeded bare soil, hydraulically mulched 300,000 burned trees, and began planting 25,000 to 30,000 tree seedlings per year. (See May/June 2002 MainStream.)

    Benefits of healthy forests

    When the Hayman wildfire—the largest and most severe to hit Colorado—occurred in June 2002, it burned 138,000 acres (558,500 ha). The fire scorched the same watershed, this time extending to DW’s Cheesman reservoir.

    Because much of the 8,500-acre (3,400-ha) watershed around Cheesman, DW’s largest parcel of land in the mountains, had been treated after the Buffalo Creek fire, the reservoir itself wasn’t severely affected by the Hayman fire, Barry said.

    The utility had spent $1 million over five years to clean up after the Buffalo Creek fire and nearly another $1 million on the forest restoration program surrounding Cheesman. Barry believes the restoration program was well worth it.

    He urged water managers: “If you own the watershed, go do the treatment work on it. If you don’t own the land your watershed is on, work with the landowners. Work with everyone you can to reduce the possibilities of damage to your system,” Barry said.

    Now Denver Water is ready to fight fire with fire. The day after the fire protection workshop, the Colorado Air Quality Board approved the utility’s request to use prescribed burns on much of the 60,000 acres (24,000 ha) it owns to reduce fire hazards and protect water quality.

    Barry noted there are many variables when considering what forest treatment plans to implement, including the type of fire, soil conditions, location, slope, likelihood of rain, and other factors.

    “We have 11 reservoirs in our system. Every one of them could get screwed up by a fire and runoff. Some are more vulnerable than others, and it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen.”

    Other issues

    In addition to debris and sediment, gases and chemicals used to fight fires can also affect water quality, said Deborah Martin, US Geological Survey Water Resources Discipline hydrologist. Contaminants from ash may include minerals, volatile organic compounds, total organic carbons, and mercury, she said, along with lead from gasoline.

    Martin said low to moderately severe fires can wreak havoc on water systems, and she urged water managers to develop mitigation strategies and identify resources and risks.

    Colorado forests are especially vulnerable to wildfires now because of the widespread pine beetle infestation, Peter Binney, Aurora Water manager, noted. The number of trees killed by the epidemic beetle blight in the last decade is the highest recorded in Colorado history.

    Eric Wilkinson, general manager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Berthoud, Colo., said his district is “in a crisis. If there’s a wildfire in Grand County, Lake Granby could be turned into a sediment pond.” The pine beetle infestation has killed nearly 660,000 acres (267,000 ha) of lodgepole pines in the county.

    Wilkinson, whose utility serves 700,000 people and several farmers, urged the USFS and CSFS to “proceed effectively, efficiently, and immediately to change their approach” to forest treatment.

    “We have to have a concurrent effort to prevent a disaster and raise public awareness about the damages and risks that unhealthy forests pose for drinking water infrastructure,” he said.

    Fire and water in the West

    The potential risk to water supplies by wildfires is not just a Colorado problem.

    The problem is compounded because most water providers do not own the watersheds.

    According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the federal government owns land encompassing watersheds that supply water to a total of 11,625 utilities.

    The US Department of Defense owns watersheds affecting 4,886 systems; the US Forest Service owns watersheds affecting 3,300 water systems; the National Park Service, 2,004 systems; the US Bureau of Land Management, 1,219 systems; and the US Department of Energy, 216 systems.

    Some funds approved

    In Colorado alone, restoring healthy forests is expected to cost nearly $1 billion. Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, California, and other states are faced with similarly huge restoration projects that require coordinated efforts of national, state, and local governments and water utilities.

    The state recently approved $1 million in grants for wildfire mitigation and removal of trees killed by pine beetles in Grand County and 10 other counties. Approved by the Colorado Legislature, the grant program requires recipients to provide 40 percent of funding from other sources.

    Congress is considering the Forest Management Improvement Act to reduce the risk to Colorado communities and water supplies from severe wildfires, especially in areas of insect infestation.

    Public awareness, political will key to fire prevention

    Others at the meeting stressed the importance of public awareness about the high risk some 4 million Coloradoans in the Front Range face in damage to their homes and water quality.

    Rick Cables agreed and suggested the utilities and water providers continue to meet with the state and federal foresters to devise watershed protection projects.

    The cost of restoring healthy forests is estimated at nearly $1 billion. All agreed that the restoration costs would be outpaced by the cost of damages if Front Range utilities were affected by forest fires. They also noted the costs could be mitigated by encouraging investors to launch biomass businesses using beetle-kill pines.

    Jeff Jahnke, director of the Colorado State Forest Service, concluded that if the group continues to work together, they can forge “the momentum and a social structure to drive public policy.” All agreed to continue to meet and form either official or unofficial partnerships, broaden the stakeholder group, and educate the public and legislators.

    Water managers from Brighton, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Westminster, and Boulder also attended the meeting.