Glenwood Canyon slides likely to continue as rainfall scours Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar | PostIndependent.com
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Glenwood Canyon slides likely to continue as rainfall scours Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar

Crews make progress in cleaning up the lower eastbound decks of Interstate 70 near MM120 after a mudslide swept down the cliffs in Glenwood Canyon in the area of the Grizzly Creek burn scar in late June.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Catastrophic wildfires now tend to go beyond just consuming vegetation above ground, according to one expert.

That’s partially why it will take more than the recent rains to provide meaningful relief from drought in Garfield County.

“We’re now seeing our crown fires or catastrophic wildfires in that they burn everything down through the root zone,” Colorado River District Director of Government Relations Zane Kessler explained. “It’s no longer playing its natural role within the ecosystem of burning out the underbrush and thinning out the weakest trees if they are truly catastrophic in nature.”



This is why burn scars like the one left by the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire, which consumed nearly 33,000 acres in and around Glenwood Canyon, continue to wreak havoc every time heavy rain falls on the area.

When you rob terrain of all of its vegetation, there’s a significantly increased likelihood of erosion and of mudslides. This ultimately impacts water quality, and it can impact water quantity downstream because it makes runoff less efficient, Kessler said.



One aspect the Colorado River District monitors throughout the Western Slope and throughout the Colorado River Basin is soil moisture. Though it’s directly unrelated to wildfire, it’s another compounding problem, Kessler said.

“When it comes to soil moisture, that a significant amount of our snow melts and our precipitation — instead of turning into runoff and flowing to the creeks and the streams and ultimately the rivers for folks to be used downstream — it is just absorbed directly into the soil, never to be used downstream,” he said. “So that’s a significant factor that we’ve seen this season.”

But despite consequential debris flows at Glenwood Canyon leading to intermittent closures of Interstate 70 lately, recent rainfall has of course been accepted with open arms. In fact, it prompted federal officials to decrease fire restrictions to the less restrictive Stage 1 tier come Friday.

DROPS IN A DRY, HOT BUCKET

The real question, however, is if the rainfall is really enough.

“The recent rainfall has been welcome and is certainly a brief relief,” Kessler said. “But the long-term forecast for the summer is still well-below-average precipitation, well-above-average heat and temperature expectations.”

The conditions have led many in the water community and land managers to renewed fears of another catastrophic wildfire season on the Western Slope, Kessler said.

“And for us, that’s serious, because those catastrophic wildfires wreak havoc on our watersheds and our water supply,” he said.

Through accumulated data, there has been a 3.5 to 4.2 degrees Fahrenheit temperature rise over the past 120 years, Kessler said. For every degree the temperature rises, Colorado sees 5% less water in the river.

Not only does the majority of Garfield County continue to fall under the highest tier exceptional drought intensity on the U.S. drought monitor, but data from the National Resources Conservation show the entire Colorado River Basin is below average in reservoir storage as well.

Right now, the basin is 94% of average reservoir storage. Some may think that number isn’t half bad. To put things into perspective, however, 2020 was at 109% of average reservoir storage.

“That said, I think it’s important to note that bigger reservoirs on the Roaring Fork — for example, Ruedi Reservoir above Basalt — have really been helpful in protecting flows on the lower Roaring Fork, keeping temperatures down by keeping water levels up.

Kessler said lower water levels lead to hotter water temperatures. That in turn stresses out fish populations, and people start seeing closures of areas in really hot, dry years.

But regardless of how hydraulically helpful Ruedi Reservoir is during such trying times, the Roaring Fork River’s discharge rate is still well below the historic average. Right now, data show that the lower Roaring Fork at Glenwood Springs flowing at 1,000 cubic feet per second of discharge. The historic average over the past 49 years is 2,000 cubic feet per second.

It’s even worse at the Colorado River at De Beque Canyon, known to experts as the “Cameo Gauge.” There, the latest rate recorded on July 6 shows the river flowing at 2,000 cubic feet per square second. The median historic average over the past 87 years in that area is 6,000 cubic feet per second.

“We’re dealing with 1/3 of what we would be at the median statistic over nearly 90 years,” Kessler said.

This is one aspect that is truly saving everything right now, Kessler said. The historic “Cameo Call” brings water westward to agricultural users in the Grand Valley. In other words, had it not been for the “Doctrine of Prior Appropriation” — a 19th-century law developed in the Western United States — essentially less water would flow through Garfield County and thereby further exacerbate drought conditions.

“The senior agricultural rights are really helping to keep our rivers flowing west,” Kessler said.

Another saving grace comes with the presence of the Shoshoni Outage Protocol Agreement of 2016. According to legal documents, the Shoshoni Call “can command the flow in the Colorado River and its tributaries in certain stream conditions by exercising the Shoshone Water Rights against upstream junior water rights.”

“That’s a hard-fought win by the Colorado River District that guarantees that we get some of that water through Glenwood Canyon, even when the Shoshone hydropower plant is not running,” Kessler said.

In an effort to perhaps mitigate some concern over drought conditions, Kessler said people may have to start using less water altogether. Meanwhile, the Colorado River District and many other water stakeholders are looking at mitigating water corridors by removing certain vegetation and implementing contingency plans, Kessler said.

For now, however, when rain continues to drop on the Grizzly Creek burn scar, it pours.

“It’s not going to be fixed overnight,” Kessler said of the burn scar. “But, you know, I don’t know the exact answer to that. … This is going to be a long, healing process for some of these burn areas.”

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or rerku@postindependent.com.


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