Quick response needed for post-fire water concerns

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams points out areas along the Grizzly Creek burn area to Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., near the Grizzly Creek Rest Area before a media briefing on Thursday afternoon.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

What can often take months following a major natural disaster — mobilizing the resources needed to deal with post-event mitigation and recovery — is already happening just weeks into the Grizzly Creek Fire.

The reason is simple — a major interstate highway and the Colorado River run right through the middle of the still-burning fire above Glenwood Canyon.

Glenwood Springs’ very livelihood is dependent on both.

“Water is life. It is our lifeline, and that’s what’s being threatened right now in Glenwood Springs,” Glenwood Mayor Jonathan Godes said during a media event in Glenwood Canyon on Thursday afternoon that was attended by numerous federal, state and local officials, and organized by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.

Godes said it’s estimated the city and other local entities will need upwards of $10 million to prepare for water quality impacts that could be triggered by heavy rains and spring runoff next year.

The city’s main water supply comes from diversions on Grizzly and No Name Creek. Both drainages were heavily burned by the fire that started along Interstate 70 near Grizzly Creek on Aug. 10, and has since burned nearly 32,500 acres.

The city intends to apply for grants and loans that are available through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and the Colorado Water Conservation Board to protect those supplies.

“As we started to get a handle on this (fire), we realized what it was going to do to our watershed, and how devastating it was going to be for our water quality, and for our tourism,” Godes said.

That fact that I-70 was shut down for two weeks due to the fire was a major blow to Glenwood’s summer tourism and came on top of the COVID-19 impacts that were already being felt.

“This part of I-70 is critical, and not just to Colorado but to the entire country,” Sen. Bennet said during the event, held on the elevated westbound lanes, which are currently closed due to construction and ongoing firefighting efforts.

“We’re standing basically in the middle of the country on the most important thoroughfare there is,” Bennet said. “I think I can speak for the entire delegation, Republicans and Democrats together, that we are going to fight hard to make sure that we get this built back better than it was, and that we get the resources that are needed for Glenwood Springs’ water supply.”

On Tuesday, Bennet joined with U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and U.S. Reps. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., and Scott Tipton, R-Colo., in urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to move fast in approving Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) funding to mitigate and recover from the wildfire damage.

In a letter to Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey, the Colorado delegation requested an initial tranche of EWP funds for Colorado and encouraged the USDA to provide maximum flexibility in terms of matching requirements for local project sponsors.

“The resulting damage (from the wildfires) could threaten watersheds, private property, and infrastructure for years to come,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. “Mesa, Garfield, Larimer, and Grand County are already in need of EWP assistance. The quick approval of EWP funds to mitigate post-fire flooding and damage in these areas now will pay dividends.”

Gene Bakehouse, acting state conservationist for the NRCS, said during the Thursday press event that $3.7 million has been approved for use in Colorado to deal with the impacts of not only the Grizzly Creek Fire, but also the Pine Gulch Fire burning in far western Garfield County.

That’s crucial, said Andy Mueller, general manager for the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District.

“Glenwood Canyon is part of a larger watershed that provides water for every city downstream from here,” he said. “It’s critical that the rehabilitation and revegetation efforts are done as soon as possible, and it’s absolutely critical to the quality of our drinking water.”

That’s especially true as wildfires become more frequent and more devastating, Mueller said after the event.

“What we’re seeing in these fires this year, and in 2018, is really the cumulative effect of rising temperatures and a drying out of the watershed,” he said. “That directly affects the amount of water flowing in the river to begin with, which already threatens our water supply. Then, to have a water quality event like ash flow and debris flow on top of that, is even worse. It’s something we’re going to be facing more and more as we move in the future.”

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams praised the quick response to planning for the fire’s aftermath.

“Usually, it takes months to get everyone together, so this is a tribute to everyone working together and avoiding turf battles,” he said.

The White River National Forest, through a special fund set up via the National Forest Foundation, as well as a local coalition including the city, the local chamber and the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, are also raising funds for fire restoration efforts.

Some of that work will include revegetation and other slope stabilization projects.

Fitzwilliams said he opened a card just last week — in it was a $5,000 check from someone in Aurora to put toward that effort.