Colorado's 1996 Buffalo Creek wildfire burned 11,900 acres upstream from the Strontia Springs Reservoir, a large man-made pool that supplies both Denver and Aurora. Then, in 2002, the Hayman wildfire -- the largest ever in Colorado's history -- torched another 138,000 acres of land.
The fires, combined with heavy rains, sent more than a million cubic yards of ash and soil streaming down a mountainside and into the reservoir. The erosion more than quadrupled the amount of sediment in the reservoir, creating operational challenges, harming water quality and clogging treatment plants.
"People would turn on their faucets and see brown water running out," said Rick Cables, director of Colorado's newly created Division of Parks and Wildlife, who recently retired after roughly a decade as regional forester of the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region.
The water problems sparked a $33 million, five-year partnership between the public utility Denver Water and the Forest Service to support restoration projects on more than 38,000 acres of national forest watersheds critical for Denver's water supplies and infrastructure.
Such partnerships with cities and non-government groups are critical as the Forest Service brings its budget to fiscally concerned lawmakers in Washington, Cables and other experts say. Leveraging non-federal dollars bolsters the agency's case to appropriators, Cables said.
The Buffalo Creek and Hayman fires cost Denver Water more than $10 million in water quality treatments, sediment and debris removal, reclamation and infrastructure projects. That inspired Cables' conversation about eight years ago with Chips Barry, a longtime manager of Denver Water who died last year, about whether the utility could help the Forest Service gird forests upstream of the city to withstand severe wildfires such as Hayman.
"I felt it was an opportunity to enhance the public's understanding of the role these high headwaters play in supplying water," Cables said.
The result of their conversation was announced in April 2010. Denver Water agreed to pay for half the project, which includes forest thinning and other wildfire fuels reduction projects upstream of the Strontia Springs, Gross, Antero, Eleven Mile Canyon and Cheesman reservoirs, and near the town of Winter Park.
More recently, other cities have followed suit. The Forest Service manages more than 14.5 million acres in Colorado, 90 percent of which includes watersheds that supply public water.
The Aurora City Council last week announced a memorandum of understanding with the National Forest Foundation and Forest Service committing $500,000 over the next two years to restore 45,000 acres of the Pike National Forest that was burned by the Hayman fire.
A total of $4.6 million will be split evenly by partnering organizations and the Forest Service.
"We know from records that two-thirds of the U.S. land area used to burn once every 30 years or more frequently," said Laura McCarthy, senior policy adviser for fire and forest restoration at the Nature Conservancy in Santa Fe, N.M. "Because we know fire is going to happen, do we want fires to burn destructively or do we want to take steps to protect values important to people, like water supply?"
McCarthy has helped establish a municipal water fund to support forest thinning work in the Santa Fe National Forest, which supplies a pair of reservoirs that provide more than a third of the city's water.
Forest thinning partnerships have also drawn bipartisan support recently after severe wildfires wreaked havoc this year on forests in Arizona and New Mexico.
New Mexico's Las Conchas fire burned 136,955 acres this summer. But while the fire was the largest in state history, past thinning efforts helped spare much of Los Alamos, including its national nuclear weapons lab (Land Letter, July 7).
And witnesses at congressional hearings in Washington have distributed pictures of the 500,000-acre Wallow fire in Arizona that illustrate how past thinning protected cities like Alpine, Ariz.
A 'wake-up call'
McCarthy said Santa Fe's water fund -- which seeks to raise $200,000 to $300,000 to maintain forest treatments in its 17,000-acre watershed -- was inspired by the Cerro Grande fire about a decade ago, the first of the so-called "megafires" that caused millions of dollars in damage to Los Alamos' reservoir and water delivery system.
"It was a big wake-up call for the community of Santa Fe," McCarthy said. The fire charred nearly 50,000 acres and destroyed the homes of about 400 families.
Elected officials realized overgrown forest conditions were just as bad in the Santa Fe watershed as they has been in Los Alamos, McCarthy said. No forest health treatments had been done since the 1930s, she said.
The city in fall 2009 approved a watershed protection plan that included the water fund and an initial $1.3 million infusion from New Mexico's Water Trust Board. The money will help the Forest Service thin and burn small trees and underbrush while retaining large trees in a 7,000-acre area of mostly ponderosa pine, McCarthy said.
The initial funding, split evenly with the Forest Service, will last through 2014. Santa Fe's water fund will help pay for maintenance and monitoring.
But while a Nature Conservancy poll showed that three-fourths of city residents are willing to pay a 65-cent surcharge on their water bills, passing a new ordinance for forest health faces its critics, said Rosemary Romero, a member of Santa Fe's eight-member city council.
The city may also incorporate the money in its operating budget or issue bonds.
Romero said about half the council is on board with the surcharge. Some say ratepayers can't afford it, while other say forest treatments won't benefit their constituents.
"Anytime a rate gets increased, people take it to heart," she said. Romero, who has worked on several watershed restoration programs in New Mexico, said convincing urban residents of the importance of forest protections has brought new challenges. About 30,000 homes are affected by the Santa Fe watershed, she said.
"It's been intriguing for me seeing how people in urban areas wrap their heads around watershed restoration," she said. "Partnerships are about the only way to protect what we care about. People are willing to pay for it."
With success in Santa Fe, McCarthy and Cables said they see more cities coming on board. Those could include Ashland, Ore., or Salt Lake City, which depends on surface water from surrounding foothills, McCarthy said.
Cables said he could even see large cities like Las Vegas or Los Angeles contributing to forest work. Mountains in Colorado provide the headwaters for 90 percent of Las Vegas' water, Cables said.
"A nickel a month could generate millions of dollars of work to take care of the headwaters," he said.