Your Watershed column: Protecting our source waters from wildfire
Last year, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration released the Colorado Climate Plan, which recognized that Colorado has warmed substantially over the past 30 years. Future estimates in the plan expect temperatures to rise an additional 2.5 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050.
As we slowly shift from a society beginning to accept the reality of climate change, we’ll need to plan for its implications, both nationally and on a local level. While a few degrees may not seem significant for our day-to-day activities, these increasing temperatures may have devastating local effects. As we have seen countless times over the past decade, wildfires have become an increasingly regular occurrence, and a warming climate may be to blame.
According to the plan, “the state’s natural resources and habitats will experience changes as temperatures warm, making conditions more suitable for [the] increasing potential for more severe wildfire.”
Over the past few weeks, fires have been popping up all over the state. The Beaver Creek fire outside of Walden has been burning since June 19 and, as of Aug. 7, was 12 percent contained. Farther south, the Hayden Pass fire was ignited on July 8 and crews do not anticipate full containment until Oct. 1.
Over the past decade, large, destructive fires have become commonplace. So much can be learned by gaining an understanding of how wildfires occur and what they can potentially do to our communities. Fires are not only a direct risk to the homes in their path, but can have long-lasting effects on our environment. Plant and wildlife communities can take decades to recover. Evidence of the Storm King fire outside of Glenwood Springs in 1994 is still visible today. Especially susceptible to the consequences of a fire are our sources of drinking water.
In our December column, we began to discuss a few steps that all of us can take to protect the sources of our drinking water, but wildfire is one potential source of contamination that seems completely out of our control. Fire can quickly devastate source water areas. Once a fire tears through a watershed, the affected area is more prone to flooding and erosion, which has impacts on water supply infrastructure, water quality and drinking water treatment processes.
This past spring, after a wildfire tore through the forest outside of Fort McMurray, Alberta, heavy rains prompted workers at the city’s treatment plant to close the intake valve in order to avoid overloading the plant’s filtering system. Locally, the city of Glenwood Springs lists wildfire as the No. 1 priority of focus for No Name and Grizzly Creeks in its Source Water Protection Plan.
According to the United States Geological Survey, the degree to which wildfire degrades water quality and supply depends on the fire’s extent and intensity, post-wildfire precipitation, watershed topography and local ecology. Potential effects of wildfire on municipal water supplies and downstream ecosystems include:
• Changes in the magnitude and timing of spring runoff;
• Increased loading of streams by nutrients and sediment;
• Post-fire erosion and transport of sediment and debris to downstream water-treatment plants, water-supply reservoirs and aquatic ecosystems; and,
• Changes in source-water chemistry that can alter drinking water treatment.
These problems are not short-lived. In the aftermath of the massive 2002 Hayman Fire southwest of Denver, it took almost five years for workers at the downstream water treatment plant to begin to recognize improved water quality.
The 2012 Garfield County Community Wildfire Protection Plan acknowledges that several actions can be taken to reduce the risks of source water contamination from wildland fire. Prevention of not only wildfire but of the conditions that cause wildfire are key.
The Bureau of Land Management and United States Forest Service would need to follow their fire management plans and resource management plan stipulations with regards to fuel management, fire suppression and post-fire stabilization. In addition, private landowners can work with the Colorado State Forest Service, local conservation districts, or the Natural Resource Conservation Service to address ways to protect water sources from wildland fire management on their properties. Additional caution can be taken by water service providers by installing erosion control devices around source water intakes. Source water intakes can be evaluated to identify actions needed to provide protection from contaminants.
Many of our communities in Garfield County lie directly in the wildland-urban interface. The entirety of the No Name and Grizzly Creek watersheds are located in identified interface areas. Because of the high probability of wildfire occurrence in the county, watershed health and water quality are at high risk to impairment and contamination from wildfire. Understanding these risks is the first step that can lead to safe and reliable drinking water supplies.
Dan Ben-Horin is a watershed specialist with the Middle Colorado Watershed Council, which works to evaluate, protect and enhance the Middle Colorado River Watershed through the cooperative efforts. To learn more, go to http://www.midcowatershed.org.