Wildfires threaten Steamboat Springs’ water supply



There is a Joint Forest Fire Protection Plan which details plans to guard against forest fires in Fish Creek and protect water resources if necessary.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colorado – At the moment Frank Alfone, director of the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, believes he provides Steamboat Springs with some of the best water in Colorado.

The popular ski resort depends on Fish Creek for about 93 percent of its normal supply. The postcard rocky mountain stream begins as the snow melts before accumulating in a narrow canyon, where hikers flock to watch it roar above a 280-foot waterfall.

> Video above: How drought and forest fires lead to flash floods.

The water is calm and clear by the time it arrives at the main district processing plant above the city, but Alfone expects that to change soon. After months of drought, Colorado’s two largest active wildfires are burning near Steamboat Springs.

If a future fire hits the Fish Creek watershed, the charred landscape could erode every time it rains, eventually turning the town’s main water source into a cloudy soup of ash and debris. Sediments could fill reservoirs, trigger algal blooms, or poison water quality with heavy metals.

> This story is powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative. 9NEWS joined this historic collaboration with over 40 other newsrooms across Colorado to better serve audiences.

“It’s not if, it’s when,” Alfone said. “We are trying to do what we can to prepare for it. “

In the American West, other river basin districts have struggled to deal with the lasting effects of wildfires. Denver Water, Colorado’s largest river basin district, spent nearly $ 30 million to dig a reservoir and repair infrastructure after the Buffalo Creek fire in 1996 and the Hayman fire in 2002.

More recently, communities in northern Colorado have been grappling with the aftermath of the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires of 2020, the two largest in state history. Fort Collins and Greeley are already paying for helicopter crews to lay mulch near critical reservoirs in the burn area to stimulate plant growth and control erosion. Northern Water, the region’s main utility, estimates that total recovery costs in the watershed could exceed $ 500 million.

The Mount Werner Aquatic District and the town of Steamboat Springs are trying to overcome similar challenges. Their Joint Forest Fire Protection Plan, released in 2019, details plans for forest fire protection in Fish Creek and water resource protection if needed. It’s the kind of effort experts say other communities should make, especially since forests provide 80 percent of America’s water resources.

“It is evident that climate change has an impact on the frequency and intensity of fires, which is directly related to the need for us to be better prepared,” said Fernando Rosario-Ortiz, program director of environmental engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder.

RELATED: How Drinking Water Keeps Clean When Flood Pushes Burn Scar Debris Into Colorado Rivers

Prevent a fire until you can no longer

A map helped kick-start the Steamboat Springs planning effort.

The Colorado State Forest Service updates a detailed statewide fire risk overview every five years. Kelly Romero-Heaney, who managed Steamboat Springs’ water resources until the start of the year before leaving for the state, said it was impossible to miss Fish Creek as an area of ​​concern.

“It lit up bright red on the map,” Romero-Heaney said.

The 26 square mile drainage basin looks like a misshapen funnel from above. Two high-elevation reservoirs collect snowmelt and channel water into tributaries that feed Fish Creek. A narrow canyon carries water until it reaches Steamboat Springs and meets the Yampa River.

The protection plan, funded by a $ 50,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, modeled the most likely ignition sources for a watershed fire. He quickly focused on the Sanctuary District, an upscale development north of downtown Steamboat. If a fire breaks out there, it could quickly skyrocket into the canyon and affect larger parts of the watershed.

This discovery prompted residents to take action.

A work crew cleared brush and saplings from one of the neighborhood’s common areas on a recent afternoon. Anne Lauinger, president of the Sanctuary Neighborhood Homeowners Association, said the wildfire plan had helped her win over residents who were reluctant to help pay for the $ 300,000 project over two years.

“You say it’s for our community. Not just yourself, but your neighbors, ”Lauinger said. “That’s how we approached these people.

Since people make up the vast majority of forest fires, the plan recommends thinning forests near homes and trails. He found that rugged terrain and environmental projections made similar projects impractical across much of the basin.

Carolina Manriquez, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service in Steamboat Springs who advised on the fire protection plan, said these prevention efforts are not going far in areas affected by drought and growing numbers of residents.

“At the end of the day, there isn’t much we can do to minimize the risk of fire,” Manriquez said.

RELATED: Colorado Mudslide Threat Could Linger All Summer

Always have a backup

Alfone said the risk of fire is one of the reasons the Mount Werner Water District has developed a relief supply.

In 2018, Mount Werner expanded a second well-fed water treatment plant along the Yampa River. If the district lost access to Fish Creek, he said it would likely have to restrict outdoor water use, but could continue to provide indoor water from the auxiliary plant.

The Town of Steamboat Springs also has additional water rights along the Elk River. In the long term, he said the city could develop the resource into further safeguard.

Over the next two decades, Alfone said the Water District also hopes to upgrade its primary treatment plant along Fish Creek to treat water contaminated by runoff from wildfires. A new intake could help filter ash and debris, and a redesigned filtration system could also improve taste and toxin issues once the smoke clears from the water basin. Each project is described in the fire protection plan.

Alfone said the district would likely pay for the improvements through loans, increases in water customer rates, or trying to get federal grants.

He is optimistic about the latter option. President Biden recently doubled the size of a Federal Emergency Management Agency program to help communities prepare for extreme weather events. The water district likely qualifies after Routt County included the project in its overall disaster planning efforts.

“We’re not ready to the point where our plant can handle fire-contaminated water,” Alfone said. “We have made good progress. “

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