Last summer, Colorado suffered its two largest wildfires ever, the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs, which burned 18,400 acres, and the High Park fire near Fort Collins, which burned 87,000 acres. When such disasters occur, all of the elected officials in the state pitch in to support the residents. With my arrival in Senator Bennet’s office in October, I immediately started to contribute as I could. I learned how much the incredibly dedicated staff from federal agencies worked with the Senator’s state staff to get information to people who had been affected. People don’t automatically know what programs exist for assistance, when the programs are relevant, and how to apply for that help. Thus there is an urgent need for people who have that knowledge to talk to communities and residents to make those connections and get the process started. My contribution from across the country several months later was relatively small; I got to write a letter recognizing the dedication of the people who had helped.
Before this visit, the closest I had come to seeing the aftermath of a forest fire was hiking through Yellowstone National Park more than a decade after the devastating fires there. I wanted not just to look at pictures but to see for myself the scar from a fire. It was really Waldo Canyon that originally made me start thinking about a trip to Colorado.
My hosts for the day were from Colorado Spring Utilities, one of whom I had met in DC on several constituent visits, and he kindly set up the tour for me. I also invited our local Bennet state staffer who deals with environmental issues to join us, and she was thrilled to come along.
We hopped into a four wheel drive vehicle and started off overlooking Rampart Reservoir, which supplies about 75% of Colorado Springs’ water. Oddly, the majority of the water is piped in from other locations rather than being local. As it was explained to me, the snow falls on the western slope of the Rockies, but the population is all on the eastern side, so some of the water is actually piped under the Continental Divide to this reservoir.
It was pointed out to me that the dense forests of green trees that we had been seeing were actually extremely unhealthy. Instead of 100 trees per acre, a healthy forest for that area should have only about 10 trees per acre, and that extra tree density translates to more fuel for fires. The juxtaposition of severely burned trees and patches of forest that hadn’t been touched was striking.
Unlike hurricanes or tornados, wildfires are actually a sequence of disasters that may go on for years. First is the immediate devastation of the fire itself, but that turns out to be just the start. Burned trees don’t absorb water and there is virtually no undergrowth after a fire. When a fire stays in one place for a while, the burn severity is more intense, and the oils in the trees turn into a smoke that soaks into the soil. When the fire stops, those oils become a hard waterproof crust that sheds water rather than absorbing it. At the very least, the storm water flowing down a drainage doubles compared to pre-fire flows, and in some cases, there was a tenfold increase expected.
Water quality can also be affected since the ash is washed into the local rivers, streams, and reservoirs, sometimes turning the rivers black. Since much of the source water for Colorado Springs isn’t local, they have had less trouble with water quality, but there was a thick crust of black sediment in every reservoir and stream.
Nichols Reservoir demonstrates the effects of both problems. Nichols is low not only because of the current drought, but also because they aren’t storing water in it at the moment. The transfer line to move the water from the reservoir to the water treatment plant got wiped out in a flash flood less than two months after the fire. The storm wasn’t anything special, just something that would happen on average every two years, but there was so much water gushing down the drainages that it ripped up culverts, stacking them downstream, and carried so many three foot boulders that the transfer line didn’t have a chance. For the next year, there is only one transfer tunnel that can bring water out of Rampart Reservoir, and everyone is nervous about the lack of redundancy in the system.
Treating the impaired watershed to reduce runoff, reduce sedimentation, and protect people and property from future damage is a critical priority following a wildfire, especially in Colorado where the steep slopes make all of those problems worse. Colorado Springs benefitted from the experience of veterans of the previous record-holding 2002 Hayman fire that burned near Denver, since those folks had to devise entirely new strategies for trying to rehabilitate the watershed. We met with man who was responsible for one of the projects, and he showed us around.
The reality is that it will be at least ten years before the storm water flows return to their previous levels. There is little to be done about the volume of water, so the focus is on trying to slow it down to reduce erosion and to give the flows a chance to dump their debris and sediment upstream instead of pounding infrastructure downstream. Where there is enough land, and where it is possible to get equipment in, large sediment cachement ponds can be dug to give the water and debris a chance to collect. On this project, the earth from digging two ponds was used to level out the stream bed to spread out and slow the flow. Just above and below the surface, there are logs from burned trees embedded to prevent erosion. On the slopes leading to the drainage, more burned trees have been wedged cross-wise again to slow the flow and collect sediment. The cachement ponds are preserved by walls of logs assembled like Lincoln logs upstream. Our guide explained that he had never been on a project that involved so much field engineering rather than working from detailed plans, but they learned rapidly and picked up speed. The first log wall took two days to build. The second log wall, which was larger, took them just six hours.
Sadly, all of these efforts are a tiny fraction of the work that needs to be done, but they are a start. Many of the slopes show the efforts of aerial mulching, straw or wood chips dropped from helicopters, to reduce the water flows by about 20%. It barely makes a dent, but every little bit helps.
Our next stop was to Glen Eyrie, a local conference center located in a castle built by General William Jackson Palmer, the founder of Colorado Springs. The Navigators, who own Glen Eyrie, were faced with needing to find an immediate treatment to protect the castle since of the 5000 acres that drain into their canyon, 4000 burned in the fire. The Hayman-type treatments were not quick enough or appropriate for their drainage, so they went a different route. First, they “hardened” the foundation of the castle with an interlocking system of concrete blocks so that even if debris comes down the canyon, it won’t be able to erode away the bank. Another advantage is that they can put down topsoil and grass seed on top of the blocks so that it won’t look any different, but the castle will still be protected. Up the canyon, they have installed two flexible steel debris nets designed to stop the big boulders and trees from coming downstream. That was the end of their financial resources for the year; they accept that the old stone bridges are choke points for the water flow which will exceed the capacity of their culverts, but there simply isn’t time or money to address those problems.
One of the best parts of the tour was that both at Glen Eyrie and with the Colorado Springs Utilities work, they made a point to identify the projects that were supported by funding that Senator Bennet had fought for months to obtain. The Emergency Watershed Protection fund, which is intended to help communities stabilize their watersheds after a disaster, had been nearly empty when the fires happened. Knowing how much energy, effort, and dogged determination went into passing legislation to put more money into the fund, it was enormously satisfying to see those funds making a difference in how people could make plans to cope with the post-fire flooding issues.
To finish on an additional cheerful note, we saw an amazing amount of wildlife during our tour as well. We saw a pair of bald eagles skirmishing with a red hawk over territory. We saw two different coyotes (pronounced cay-oat around here), still sporting their white winter coats. We also saw a dozen big-horned sheep munching on early spring grass. I told my companions that it was my impression that they spent all of their days this way, but they said that no, my tour had been a treat for them as well.