As wildfires, avalanches and drought increase in intensity, worried city managers are planning and budgeting for better water systems and backup sources.
The Grizzly Creek fire still is smoldering, but Glenwood Springs is already contemplating the challenges it will leave behind: severe damage to the forest drainages the Western Slope city depends upon for its drinking water.
“We are concerned about a lot of mud and ash coming down the creek,” said Shelly Kaup, the city’s mayor pro tem. Sensors have been placed upstream to alert Glenwood when debris-laden water is headed toward the municipal intake pipes so they can be shut.
Plans are also already underway to buttress the city’s water system at a cost of $2.5 million to $4 million.
Communities across Colorado are facing similar problems linked to a changing climate, from forest fires to drought. They are also already spending money on solutions to address them.
It cost Summit County nearly $88,000 to dig out from under historic avalanches in 2019 and in Carbondale the year before, low stream flows imperiled the town’s water supply spurring a $600,000 water system upgrade.
“The impacts are very real and lived and are concretely affecting communities,” said Jacob Smith, executive director of Colorado Communities for Climate Action, a coalition of 34 local governments promoting state climate policies.
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At the moment, Colorado finds itself grappling with its worst wildfire season ever. Hundreds of thousands of acres burned in eight significant fires this fall, including the three largest on record, as all of the state drifted into drought statusfor the first time since 2013.
“So much of this is happening in real time and on scale that makes it difficult to pause long enough to figure out a long-term strategy because they are dealing with these impacts every day – though many are trying,” Smith said.
In real time, the threat to water supplies by forest fires is front and center.
Over the past few decades, forest fires have been more frequent and larger in a hotter, drier West. This year’s unparalleled wildfire season Colorado coincided with the state’s warmest August on record.
Studies have shown that average summer temperatures in Colorado have risen by more than 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1986. The growing heat creates drier soils, lower snowpack, earlier thaws, lower stream flows.
All those add up to increased risk of wildfires and, according to one study, added 26 days to the average fire season in the West between 1979 and 2015, a 41% increase.
There are serious risks when wildfires fires damage or destroy the watersheds towns and cities rely upon for their drinking water.
“Burned watersheds are prone to increased flooding and erosion, which can impair water-supply reservoirs, water quality, and drinking-water treatment processes,” according to the U.S. Geological Service.
The 2010 Fourmile Canyon fire, for example, burned just 23% of the watershed near Boulder, still a USGS study found that after severe thunderstorms the water heading to the city’s water treatment plant was laden with mud, nutrients and metals – some at levels four times normal.
After the High Park fire burned more than 87,000 acres in Larimer County in 2012, the Poudre River ran black after heavy rains and choked the intake pipes of Fort Collins’ water treatment plant. The water smelled and tasted like smoke.
The city now has sensors in 10 locations in the Upper Poudre to alert the treatment plan if there is a water quality problem and Fort Collins Utilities runs an average of 110 lab tests a day on its water.
Fort Collins is now “very concerned” about the Cameron Peak fire, the state’s largest fire ever, burning west of the city, Gretchen Stanford, a utility spokeswoman, said in an email.
The utility’s Horsetooth Reservoir is out of commission for upgrades, leaving it only with Poudre River water. Stanford said processes are in place to deal with any water quality, odor or taste problems.
And the effects of these fires can last for years. Five years after the 2002 Hayman Fire, Denver Water was still dealing with water quality problems created by the wildfire, including a $30 million project to remove tons of sediment from the Strontia Springs Reservoir.