Summit watershed assessment prioritizes beetle-kill remediation
Summit County Correspondent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
When it comes to battling the bark beetle aftermath, the big question is often where to begin. But plans for addressing that are becoming available as agencies continually recast priorities and balance them with available resources.
The Blue River Wildfire and Watershed Assessment, the latest of which was presented by JW Associates environmental consultant Brad Piehl on Tuesday in the County Commons building, is one of many tools used by the U.S. Forest Service and by Colorado water officials as they prioritize work to be done to protect water sources.
But the epidemic – with its falling trees and potential fire threat – also affects power lines, recreation and other issues across Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota. Without power, it’s impossible to deliver water, participants in Tuesday’s presentation noted. And so-called “hazard trees” impact the local population’s ability to enjoy the forest.
With limited resources, agencies and municipalities must use the tools on hand to make tough decisions about where to do work in the 3.5 million acres of affected forest in the Rocky Mountain region of the national forests.
“[The assessment] is not a clear picture of a driving force that [agencies] will follow,” said Howard Hallman, president of Summit County’s Forest Health Task Force, explaining that water officials and U.S. Forest Service representatives will use the study to evaluate wildfire and watershed protection along with other, competing priorities.
“Each water system has different threats,” said John Duggan, a state source water assessment and protection coordinator, adding that in Summit County, wildfire and emergency response to hazardous-waste spills and other problems are significant pieces to consider.
“Our source water protection plan is a holistic, broader approach,” he said, explaining that the Blue River assessment is among a quiver of information to use as they approach issues surrounding water protection. “Wildfire is a piece of it. A significant piece.”
The Blue River Wildfire and Watershed Assessment overlays maps illustrating information gathered from the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Resources Conservation Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Park Service and more to determine high-priority areas for forest treatment in watershed areas. Roads, vegetation types, land ownership, access, slope, soils, fire patterns are among the factors tied into the assessment.
It’s one of several other Colorado High Country watershed studies produced by JW Associates. Though the analysis in the assessment is largely complete, the full report has yet to be written. Piehl said he’s gathering feedback from agency and municipality representatives during the next few weeks to include in the report.
Some of Summit County’s high-priority areas for wildfire and watersheds include inflows to Dillon Reservoir, Old Dillon Reservoir, areas in and around Frisco, Tenmile Creek, Keystone Gulch, and the Snake River.
Some of these areas already have projects in place or planned, such as areas targeted by the Forest Service that overlap with the assessment’s high-priority areas. The Forest Service plans to transition from hazard tree removal to watershed protection this year.
“Overall, [Forest Service] projects are consistent with the zones of concern and where we are planning future treatments,” said Cary Green, forester in the Holy Cross/Eagle Ranger District of the White River National Forest. He added that, when planning management projects, work can be limited based on access, ownership and other factors included in the assessment.
“Once these are considered, the area that can actually be treated may be limited,” Green said. “The [Forest Service] takes all these aspects into account when designing projects.”
Green said the Blue River Watershed Assessment is a good place to start identifying opportunities for watershed improvement or catastrophic wildfire preventative treatments, though it’s “just a small piece of the puzzle.” Each zone of concern needs further analysis based on the objectives of those with vested interest in the area – such as what officials with the Town of Breckenridge water department or Denver Water aim to do – and the benefits of a proposed project, such as supplying forest products to local industry, reducing fire risk, creating future wildlife habitat and creating forest diversity.
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Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon closed around 9 p.m. Thursday for a flash flood warning.