From Forests to Faucets: U.S. Forest Service and Denver Water Watershed Management Partnership

As the water provider to 1.4 million people in the Denver metropolitan area, Denver Water directly depends on healthy forests and watersheds. Denver Water’s key collection and delivery infrastructure receives water from snowpack and streams on U.S. Forest Service lands.

The From Forests to Faucets partnership began in 2010 between Denver Water and the U.S. Forest Service – Rocky Mountain Region as a response to the costly impacts from a series of wildfires, including the 1996 Buffalo Creek and 2002 Hayman wildfires, which required expenditures exceeding $27 million for restoration and repairs to Denver Water’s collection system. More than 48,000 acres of National Forest System lands have been treated so far accomplishing important fuels reduction, restoration and prevention activities. That original five year, $33 million MOU expired on Aug. 11, 2015.

A renewed and expanded five year, $33 million partnership program was signed on Feb. 27, 2017. The new MOU includes the Colorado State Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service as partners to emphasize the importance of watershed and forest health across ownerships.

The goal of the new program is to treat approximately 40,000 acres within the critical watersheds and to maintain, as needed, the 48,000 acres previously treated under the original MOU.

Denver Water and the U.S. Forest Service have a shared interest in improving forest and watershed conditions to protect water supplies and water quality, as well as to continue providing other public benefits, such as wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities. The U.S. Forest Service administers more than 14.5 million acres of National Forest System lands in Colorado, and nearly 90 percent of these lands are located in watersheds that contribute to public water supplies.

Colorado’s forests are critical to the water supply for tens of millions of Americans, billions of dollars of agricultural production and vast economic activity, from California to the Mississippi River. Forest treatment and watershed protection activities can help minimize sedimentation impacts on reservoirs and other water infrastructure by reducing soil erosion and the risk of wildfires.

Wildfires and insect infestations have highlighted the need to take aggressive steps to protect forest health. Forest treatments, such as thinning, clearing, and creating fuel breaks, influence how quickly and intensely a wildfire can burn. Treatments can slow the spread of a fire, allowing firefighters to stop a fire before it reaches homes, power lines or valuable watersheds. Smaller, less severe fires also reduce the amount of soil erosion and other impacts to the watershed.

Wildfires

The 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire burned 11,900 acres. In 2002, the Hayman Fire  charred another 138,000 acres of land. The combination of these two fires, followed by significant rainstorms, resulted in more than 1 million cubic yards of sediment accumulating in Strontia Springs Reservoir. Prior to the wildfires, the reservoir had approximately 250,000 cubic yards of sediment, which had been accumulating since 1983 when the dam was completed. Increased sediment creates operational challenges, causes water quality issues and clogs treatment plants.

Following the Buffalo Creek and Hayman fires, Denver Water has spent more than $27 million on water quality treatment, sediment and debris removal, reclamation techniques, and infrastructure projects. Hayman Fire suppression costs for state and federal agencies were more than $42 million. In addition, the U.S. Forest Service has spent $37 million on restoration and stabilization efforts. The Hayman Fire led to a loss of 600 structures, including 132 residences. Total insured private property losses were estimated at $38.7 million. Loss of wildlife habitat, esthetics, tourism and recreation values are invaluable.

Insect Infestation

The mountain pine beetles have affected 3 million acres of land in Colorado since the first sign of outbreak in 1996. Essential water supplies for millions of people could be affected by the increased risk of fire. The heart of the epidemic in Colorado and Wyoming contains the headwaters for rivers that supply water to 13 Western states.