Local environmental group brings attention to Summit County’s water woes during recent meeting | SummitDaily.com

Local environmental group brings attention to Summit County’s water woes during recent meeting

Dillon Reservoir pictured in July 2022. Snowpack levels can have major impacts on water supply for Colorado's reservoirs but rising temperatures threaten to evaporate the precipitation held in snow — especially at higher altitudes.
Nanako Mura/Courtesy photo

During a Wednesday, Jan. 18, meeting between members of the Summit County-based Forest Health Task Force — a volunteer group that undertakes environmental conservation efforts in the county — the issue of water and its relation to droughts and wildfires took center stage. 

“We’re really in a water deficit most of the year,” said Brad Piehl, a watershed planner for the Breckenridge-based organization JW Associates, during a presentation to task force members. 

As climate change raises temperatures, it threatens to evaporate more and more precipitation, leaving rivers and reservoirs with less water. According to Piehl, the county receives the bulk of its precipitation in snow during winter months, which is why experts have closely watched snowpack levels build as they seek to gauge what water supply will look like come summer. 

Despite varying levels throughout the county, its overall snowpack is 120% of the 30-year-median as of Wednesday, according to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service

A strong snowpack year can go a long way to mitigating crises such as wildfires and drought, but it’s not likely to change long-term trends that project major water challenges for the state. In Summit County, Piehl said much of the water that falls is eventually sucked into the ground and held onto by plants.

For this reason, Piehl spent much of his presentation seeking to debunk a decades-old theory for water conservation that he said has made a recent resurgence — despite its flaws. 

The theory revolves around cutting down trees to conserve more water, Piehl said, which dates back to at least the 1940s. Several studies from the 1980s showed that, in the short term, deforestation did increase water yield. But that is not a long-term solution, Piehl said. 

He pointed to a study by Colorado-based water researcher John D. Stednick that examined whether or not forests that lost trees due to beetle kill would garner more water yield for northern Colorado. Stednick’s research expected an increase in water yet found variable results, Piehl said. 

The reason has to do with a plethora of factors such as how the local vegetation adapts to moisture over time as well as its ability to release water back into the ground — and eventually into streams — over time, Piehl said. 

Howard Hallman, founding member of the Forest Health Task Force, questioned if vegetation acted as “somewhat of a sponge that can hold some of the rain or some of the snow from running off” before it is released more slowly. That answer, according to Piehl, is yes. 

Piehl said without duff layers — layers of decayed or partly decayed organic material on a forest floor — rainfall “just erodes the soil away,” exemplifying the importance of having a healthy forest floor.

Matt Benedict, captain of the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District, said the discussion weighs heavily on fire mitigation decisions in the county. In the instance of dead or dying trees, Benedict said it can be hard to decide if an area warrants clearcutting.

Benedict also recalled the fire that erupted in the Gold Hill Trail area near the town of Breckenridge and continued up the slope of Peak 2 in July 2017

“It had snowbanks in it,” Benedict said. “That was a north-facing slope that shouldn’t be seeing a lot of fire … these north faces that are drying out are scary.”

Piehl said he remembered watching the fire from his home. 

“We had a relatively good snow year that year, but then it just got hot and dry,” he said. “It can dry out so fast at elevation, that that’s what happens.”

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