As the water provider to 1.3 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.
A partnership has been established between Denver Water and the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, to accelerate our mutual efforts to improve forest and watershed conditions. Through this partnership, Denver Water plans to match the U.S. Forest Service’s $16.5 million investment, totaling $33 million, toward forest treatment and watershed protection projects over a five-year period in priority watersheds critical to Denver Water’s water supply.
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.
The 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire burned 11,900 acres. In 2002, the Hayman Fire — the largest wildfire in Colorado’s history — 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 $26 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.
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.