What it takes to protect forests and watersheds year-round

Dry start to winter helps — and hurts — forest management in Denver Water’s critical water collection areas.

January 19, 2018 | By: Jay Adams

Lack of snow in the foothills during the start of winter created good and bad conditions for the forest managers protecting Denver Water’s critical watersheds.

“We take what Mother Nature gives us,” said Brian Banks, district ranger, Pike/ San Isabel National Forest, U.S. Forest Service. “There hasn’t been a lot of snow this winter, so we’ve been able to continue forest treatments we do in the summer and fall.”

The U.S. Forest Service and Colorado State Forest Service conduct forest thinning treatments in overly-dense forestland in Denver Water watersheds.
The U.S. Forest Service and Colorado State Forest Service conduct forest thinning treatments in overly-dense forestland in Denver Water watersheds.

The dry conditions have allowed the U.S. Forest Service to run forest thinning treatments like the project in Payne Gulch near Bailey and the Little Morrison area near Buffalo Creek.

The Forest Service typically conducts prescribed fire when the ground is wet or when there is snow on the ground. Dry weather in recent months has made it a challenge to do burns, but a snowstorm on Jan. 21, allowed crews to burn some material to reduce the amount of fuels available for wildfires.

The forest management projects are part of From Forests to Faucets, a partnership between Denver Water and the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service that started in 2010.

The Colorado State Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service joined the partnership in 2017.

From Forests to Faucets is a collaborative approach to keep our forests and watersheds healthy,” said Christina Burri, watershed scientist at Denver Water. “Our drinking water starts as rain and snow that passes through mountains and trees, so it’s important to take care of our forests.”

From Forests to Faucets began as a result of the devastating impacts of the Hayman and Buffalo Creek wildfires. Photo courtesy: Coalition for the Upper South Platte.
From Forests to Faucets began as a result of the devastating impacts of the Hayman and Buffalo Creek wildfires. Photo courtesy: Coalition for the Upper South Platte.

From Forests to Faucets began in response to the costly impacts of the 1996 Buffalo Creek and the 2002 Hayman wildfires. The two fires destroyed 150,000 acres in Denver Water’s South Platte River watershed.

After the fires, flash floods raced through the burn areas and cost Denver Water more than $27 million to repair infrastructure, remove sediment and restore land around key drainages that flow into Strontia Springs and Cheesman reservoirs.

“Those big fires taught us that investing in healthy forests is less expensive than dealing with the after-effects of a catastrophic wildfire,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO/manager, Denver Water. “When trees are destroyed, more sediment flows down the mountains, which causes water quality problems,dam safety concerns and takes up space in our reservoirs.”

Debris washed into Strontia Springs Reservoir in 1996 after the Buffalo Creek Wildfire.
Debris washed into Strontia Springs Reservoir in 1996 after the Buffalo Creek Wildfire.

Forest thinning treatments funded by the partnership are done in Denver Water’s priority watersheds known as “zones of concern”, across 10 counties in north-central Colorado. The “zones of concern” are sections of overly-dense forestland that are vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires.

If a large fire broke out in a zone, it would have devastating impacts to Denver Water dams, reservoirs, pipes and streams that supply water to the Front Range.

“Over the past 100 years, Colorado’s forests have become overly dense which makes them more prone to catastrophic wildfires,” Banks said. “When we thin the forests, we are restoring the land to how it looked before people settled here.”

Forest restoration involves three main steps: strategically cutting down trees to create more space and lowers the risk of fires in tree tops; selectively removing trees to reduce the amount of wood available as fuel for fires; and conducting prescribed burns to recycle ground fuels into nutrients which promote plant diversity.

Prescribed fire is a technique used to reduce the amount of debris that can fuel large wildfires.
Prescribed fire is a technique used to reduce the amount of debris that can fuel large wildfires.

“The goal of our treatments isn’t to stop fires, it’s to prevent large catastrophic wildfires,” said Erin Connelly, Pike/San Isabel National Forest supervisor, U.S. Forest Service. “Fires are an important part of the ecosystem, so we want to treat the forests to promote smaller, more frequent fires and prevent large ones that have devastating impacts on communities, wildlife, recreation and water supply.”

“Since 2010, From Forests to Faucets funding has paid for forest treatments across 48,000 acres,” Burri said. “We’ve also planted more than a million new trees in the burned areas in our priority watersheds.”

The partnership was extended in 2017, and the partners will invest an additional $33 million in forest management projects through 2021. The goal is to restore 40,000 acres of overly dense forestland, and continue reforestation efforts in areas ravaged by wildfires.

More than 800,000 trees have been planted in burn areas as part of From Forest to Faucets.
More than 800,000 trees have been planted in burn areas as part of From Forest to Faucets.

Adding the Colorado State Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service allows forest managers to conduct treatments on non-federal and private lands as well as national forests.

“Forestlands cover all land ownerships across Colorado, and when a fire breaks out, it simply doesn’t respect those boundaries,” said Scott Woods, watershed management forester, Colorado State Forest Service. “It’s important that all landowners work together to manage our forests and reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfires.”

Working together serves as a win-win for all four partners.

“By combining resources, we’re able to treat more acres than we could on our own,” said Brian Ferebee, Rocky Mountain regional forester, U.S. Forest Service. “By building healthy forests, we’re able to help Denver Water protect their resources so they can ensure their customers a reliable source of water.”

2 thoughts on “What it takes to protect forests and watersheds year-round”

  1. This comment…“Over the past 100 years, Colorado’s forests have become overly dense which makes them more prone to catastrophic wildfires,” Banks said. “When we thin the forests, we are restoring the land to how it looked before people settled here.”…. seems to capture the greater problem in Colorado.
    – Who thinned the forests before people settled here? Natural wildfires!
    – Why have the forests become overly dense only in the past 100 years? Man’s control of natural wildfires!
    I suspect the forests took care of itself just fine before people settled there.

    Your video “forest thinning treatments” shows our tax dollars spent removing young trees to prevent the “ladder” effect of forest fires, and then replanting new tree seedlings over time. Does this seem overly intrusive, egocentric and ridiculous to anybody? I get that we need the fresh water, and our population growth now mandates management of our resources. But lets not lie to the people and pretend that we are doing nature any favors. And the sooner we admit that we are the problem, the sooner the conversation will shift to solving the real issues in Colorado. Thank you

    1. Thank you for your interest in our story about the From Forests to Faucets partnership.

      It’s important to make it clear that we are replanting trees in the burned areas, not where the treatments occur.

      Denver Water relies on the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado State Forest Service to manage this work, as they are the experts in this field. Denver Water’s involvement at this stage is to review the implementation and funding plans developed by the USFS, CSFS and Natural Resources Conservation Service each year.

      The critical work done in these priority watersheds doesn’t only mean improved water quality for Denver Water customers and millions of downstream water users, but it also provides a healthier ecosystems, which benefit forest visitors and wildlife.

      Forest and watershed restoration activities can help minimize sedimentation impacts on reservoirs and other water infrastructure by reducing soil erosion and the risk of uncharacteristic or catastrophic wildfires.

      Forest and watershed restoration also can help the forests become more resilient and resistant to future insect and disease epidemics and changes in climate.

      Restoration of forests provides many benefits to the public, including: reduced risk for communities, improved wildlife habitat, reduced hazards for recreationists, carbon sequestration, jobs, locally-sourced wood products and renewable energy from woody biomass.

      From Forests to Faucets funding is used to plant new trees in burn areas only. The USFS and CSFS do not plant new trees in areas that have been thinned.

      It’s also important to note that Denver Water does not receive any tax dollars and does not make a profit. We’re funded by water rates, bond sales, cash reserves, hydropower sales and fees for new service (called System Development Charges).

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