Partnership signed to protect watersheds

FORT COLLINS – The Big Thompson River is playing a key role in a federal, local and private partnership to reduce the risks of wildfire to western states’ water supply.

The Western Watershead Enhancement Partnership was announced today by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell as part of President Obama’s climate action plan, which outlines a comprehensive approach to reduce carbon pollution and better prepare the nation for the impacts of climate change, including increased risk of wildfires and drought.

A memorandum of understanding to launch the partnership was signed today at Horsetooth Reservoir. It will facilitate activities such as wildfire risk reduction through forest thinning, prescribed fire and other forest health treatments; minimizing post-wildfire erosion and sedimentation; and restoring areas currently recovering from past wildfires through tree planting and other habitat improvements.

Horsetooth Reservoir is part of the Colorado Big-Thompson water system, which provides water to 860,000 people within Larimer, Weld and six other Colorado counties, and to more than 650,000 acres of agricultural land. It also generates enough electricity to power 58,300 homes annually. The area has experienced several fires in the past few years, including the destructive High Park Fire in June 2012.

Through the partnership, Interior and the USDA will work with local water users to identify and mitigate risks of wildfire to parts of the water supply, irrigation and hydroelectric facilities. Flows of sediment, debris and ash into streams and rivers after wildfires can damage water quality and often require millions of dollars to repair damage to habitat, reservoirs and facilities.

USDA’s Forest Service and Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation will kick off the new partnership through a pilot in the Big Thompson and Upper Colorado Headwaters watersheds. The partnership will include the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and Colorado State Forest Service and builds off of past agreements between the Forest Service and municipal water suppliers, such as Denver Water’s Forest to Faucets partnership.

“Today’s announcement brings together the West’s largest forest land manager with the West’s largest water provider to ensure the resilience of our forests and their capacity to provide water supply amid climate threats,´ said Vilsack. “This partnership will increase forest resilience, improve water quality and reduce the risk of catastrophic damage from wildfire. This is good news for anyone who pays a water bill, and it is good news for our environment.”

“In the West, more than 40 Reclamation dams and facilities are on or downstream from Forest Service lands where drier, hotter weather has exacerbated the risk of wildfire,´ said Jewell. “This partnership can serve as a model for the West when it comes to collaborative and targeted fire threat reduction and restoration efforts to protect our critical water supplies.”

USDA and Interior are working with state and local stakeholders toward formalizing additional partnerships in other Western states.

Nationwide, the National Forest System provides drinking water to more than 60 million Americans. The share of water supply originating on national forest lands is particularly high across much of the West, including the upper Colorado River basin where nearly half of all water comes from National Forests. Healthy forests filter rain and snowmelt, regulate runoff and slow soil erosion – delivering clean water at a far lower cost than it would take to build infrastructure to replace these services.

The goal of the partnership is to restore forest and watershed health and to proactively plan for post-wildfire response actions intended to protect municipal and agricultural water supplies, infrastructures and facilities, water delivery capabilities and hydro-electric power generation. Forest and watershed restoration activities and proactive planning can help minimize sedimentation impacts on reservoirs and other water and hydro-electric infrastructure by reducing soil erosion and the impacts of wildfires, helping water managers avoid costs for dredging, water filtration, and the need to replace damaged infrastructure.

Although comprehensive data on wildfire costs for water users is unavailable, several wildfires in recent decades illustrate the diversity and magnitude of direct costs. For instance, the 1997 Buffalo Creek and 2002 Hayman fires forced Denver Water to spend more than $26 million on dredging Strontia Springs Reservoir, treating water and reseeding the forests in the watershed.

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