While firefighters work to protect communities from wildfires blazing around the state, federal funds are coming in to help other areas address water pollution caused by fires.
Summit County commissioner Dan Gibbs said protecting homes and properties from wildfires is the major objective of local fire crews, but post-fire damage caused to watersheds is also important to consider.
“Just because you put out a wildfire, your problems aren’t all solved. In many ways, the challenges have just begun,” Gibbs said. “It creates a challenging situation when you look at drinking water for communities.”
Wildfires have resulted in costly consequences on drinking water supplies for Summit County neighbors. Wildfires damage soil, making affected areas more prone to erosion from runoff. The increase in sediment causes water quality issues and can clog treatment plants.
Denver Water has spent more than $26 million on water treatment and debris and sediment removal and on reclamation and infrastructure projects following the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire and the Hayman Fire in 2002.
The damage caused by the fires, followed by significant rainstorms, resulted in more than 1 million cubic yards of sediment accumulating in Strontia Springs Reservoir, according to Denver Water.
Gibbs stressed the need for government support to provide funds to deal with water pollution resulting from wildfires.
“Funding is crucial because it’s very expensive dealing with the costs of mitigating water after a fire,” he said.
This week Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced that the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will send more than $19 million in Emergency Watershed Protection Program funds to Colorado communities that are recovering from last year’s High Park and Waldo Canyon fires.
State Rep. Jared Polis lauded the effort.
“I am thrilled that our communities in Colorado will be receiving these much-needed emergency watershed funds to protect our drinking water and prevent catastrophic flooding and erosion in the wake of forest fires,” he said in a recent news release. “After months of efforts to secure emergency relief funds, Colorado communities will finally be able to complete their recovery from the most devastating fire season in Colorado’s history.”
Local officials have embarked on projects to protect drinking water in Summit County in the event of a wildfire. The county, towns and the U.S. Forest Service came together to complete a forest-restoration project and manage sediment to improve water quality in Straight Creek — the town of Dillon’s main water source.
“Projects like Straight Creek are a perfect example where broad stakeholders come together to focus on one area,” Gibbs said. “That is a great model to continue.”
Summit County’s Community Wildfire Protection plan focuses on protecting human safety and infrastructure from wildfires, but because local entities have finite resources, the efforts to protect local water sources are limited, Gibbs said.
“There is always room for improvement to make sure we protect our watersheds,” he said.