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Wildfires Impact Water Resources in Colorado

2012 September 12

By Nancy Stoner

It has been a hot and dry summer across most of the U.S. and one of the results has been an unusual number of forest fires. While controlled burns for fire suppression are a good thing, forest fires can be devastating to communities, causing loss of life, property damage, destruction of habitat, and severe water quality impacts.

I had the opportunity to visit a fire-ravaged area near Colorado Springs last week along with representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, the Colorado Springs Utility, and my EPA colleagues from our regional office in Denver. We were observing the 18,000 acres affected by the Waldo Fire earlier this summer and the work of the burn area emergency response team led by the Forest Service to stabilize the most highly burned areas on steep slopes so that mud slides would not cause further loss of life, blockage of roadways, and loss of waterways.

The drinking water utility had already completely lost use of one of its reservoirs due to the extreme sedimentation caused by mud pouring off the charred landscape after even modest storms. While long-term restoration of the forest and all of its water protection benefits will take many years, the immediate business was mulching and strawing areas completely devoid of green vegetation. The forest service team of experts was doing this by dropping mulch and straw from the sky with helicopters.

EPA is contributing to this effort and will be contributing to additional watershed restoration efforts through its Clean Water Act 319 nonpoint source funding through the State of Colorado. Protection of surface water sources like this, which provides tap water for about 500,000 residents of Colorado, is one of the main uses of the 319 funding.

This is a great cooperative effort of the federal, state, and local governments working together to protect public health and safety. Hats off to the whole team for their fast and efficient work to address this emergency. EPA is proud to be a part of this effort.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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One Response leave one →
  1. Evan Ravitz permalink
    September 20, 2012

    Here’s a solution to several problems:

    Those concerned about climate change are familiar with “biochar,” which basically is charcoal. All the charred trees, etc. left from wildfires could be chopped up and plowed into agricultural land with these benefits:

    1. Biochar acts as a sponge, aiding the water retention of soil, thus reducing the need for precious water in a drought.

    2. Biochar is fantastic fertilizer, lasting for thousands of years, famous as “terra preta.” See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terra_preta

    3. Burying biochar is a great way to “sequester” carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere.

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