Despite experiencing above-average precipitation this year in Northern Colorado, the onset of the wildfire season has merely been delayed. The city collects its water supplies from more than 1.5 million acres of watershed—most of it forested.
In observance of Source Water Protection Week (September 24-30) the American Water Works Association commends water utilities’ endeavors to safeguard this vital resource.
Matt Sparacino, a water resources project manager with Greeley Water and Sewer, points out that decades of fire suppression led to increased wood fuel debris. The compounding effects of pests, diseases, and a warmer, drier climate contribute to unhealthy forests. These conditions seem to amplify the size, duration, and frequency of wildfires in our region’s watersheds.
“The threat of wildfires will increase through late summer as heat persists and vegetation dries out,” Sparacino said. “Greeley continues to work with the United States Forest Service and local partners to mitigate the effects of fire and restore the Poudre River’s ecosystem.”
Through collaboration with its partners, Greeley strives to stabilize and revegetate north Front Range watersheds impaired by wildfire. In 2020, the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome Fires impacted all four watersheds Greeley uses for its drinking water. Three years later, the Colorado, Poudre, Big Thompson, and Laramie Rivers are still recovering.
Effects of wildfires on source water:
- Burns away vegetation holding soil and water in place.
- Increases the risk of flooding and erosion.
- Pollute water sources with ash, sediment, nutrients, and metals.
- Increases water treatment expenses and reduces the capacity of reservoirs.
However, wildfires aren’t the lone threat to Greeley’s drinking water. Rainfall within burn scars can cause significant runoff, transporting mud, rocks, and entire trees into rivers. This excessive sediment challenges water treatment plants to convert this source water into drinking water.
Protecting Greeley’s source water from past and future wildfires comes at a substantial cost. Around $30 million in grants from state and federal funding agencies have supported the post fire mitigation efforts. This once-in-a-generation funding enables Greeley Water and its partners to complete fire mitigation projects. But additional funding is needed to support widespread revegetation, stream restoration, and the repair of facilities damaged by fire.
Sparacino said post-fire recovery is a long journey, but he is beginning to see promising results. Some of the areas that were mulched to retain moisture and slow soil erosion after the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires are showing healthy robust revegetation.
“Healthy forests are needed to produce the high-quality water our customers expect,” Sparacino said.
As the watershed restoration work unfolds in its third year, Greeley’s commitment to protecting our source water remains resolute.