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Fire, Drought, and Water Supply Resiliency in Fort Collins
Aaron Lien

In the early morning hours of June 9, 2012, a lightning strike in the Rocky Mountain foothills west of Fort Collins, Colorado sparked one of the most destructive wildfires in Colorado state history. Burning throughout the month of June and into early July, the High Park Fire raged across 87,284 acres of private, state, and federal land. The fire claimed one life, destroyed at least 259 homes, and caused dangerous air quality problems in Fort Collins during the month it burned through the hills above the city. Included in the burn area are also the Poudre Canyon and a significant portion of the watershed of the Cache la Poudre River, an important water source for the city of Fort Collins.

Sources of Water for Fort Collins
The City of Fort Collins receives its water from two primary sources: the Colorado-Big Thompson Project (C-BT) and the Cache la Poudre River (Poudre River). The C-BT is a significant trans-mountain diversion water project owned by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. The project diverts water from the headwaters of the Colorado River high in the Rocky Mountains, across the continental divide, and into the Big Thompson River watershed.Once in the Big Thompson watershed, water is stored and delivered to C-BT shareholders. C-BT water for Fort Collins is stored in Horsetooth Reservoir just west of the city and was not affected by the High Park Fire.

Front RangeThe Poudre River offers direct flow rights for Fort Collins, including supplies imported from theMichigan River basin. From its headwaters in the front range of the Rocky Mountains, the Poudre River flows east through the steep, forested hillsides of Roosevelt National Forest, flowing through Fort Collins, and joining the South Platte River just east of Greeley, CO. The Poudre River supply was significantly impacted by the High Park Fire, which burned though upland portions of the Poudre watershed and the steep, highly erodible slopes of Poudre Canyon.

In total, Fort Collins owns water rights of approximately 72,000 acrefeet of water per year as a result of its C-BT shares and the Poudre River rights. An acre-foot of water is the amount of water needed to cover one acre to a depth of one foot (325,851 gallons). However, not all of the city’s water rights are available in any given year for potable delivery to customers. Average water availability from the city’s water rights are adequate to deliver 31,000 acre-feet of potable water during a 50-year drought (a drought that on average will occur once every 50 years). Currently, the city’s potable water demand is about 26,000 acre-feet per year. This gap between water demand and water availability provides the city with some flexibility in how it manages its water rights.

In the months immediately following the High Park Fire, Fort Collins relied on its C-BT supplies. The city did not begin using Poudre River water for potable supply until September 2012. Substantial rainstorms during the summer resulted in heavy sediment and ash loads in the river due to increased erosion on bare, hydrophobic soils in intense burn areas. When the city did begin using Poudre River supplies in September, additional activated carbon treatment was added to the existing water treatment process to address taste and odor issues - activated carbon removes smoky taste and odor from treated water. Taste and odor are a particular concern in Fort Collins; some of the city’s largest water customers are breweries, which rely on high quality water. The presence of smoky flavor or odor in water would require either additional onsite treatment by breweries or prevent them from using city water for brewing.

Responding to Fire Impacts
Front RangeThe impact of the High Park Fire on the Poudre River watershed, the source of half of the city’s water supply, was significant and forced the city to stop using this source for long periods. However, quick postfire mitigation response and a long-term, highly effective water efficiency program insulated the city from the worst potential impacts and have allowed the city to meet water demands without water restrictions. However, uncertainty about ongoing fire-related water quality impacts to the Poudre River continue, and the city plans to rely heavily on CBT water. In addition to the fire, the city’s water supplies have been compromised by continued drought conditions and low snowpack. To reduce per capita water consumption, the city implemented water restrictions from April through June, and continued its water efficiency programs. The city also is considering innovative approaches to source water protection.

Fort Collins, the US Forest Service, and other local and federal entities took a number of immediate steps to address and mitigate the impacts of the High Park Fire in the near term. The burn area was assessed to identify areas where the fire was more or less intense. Of the 87,000-acre burn area, more than 40,000 acres burned at moderate or high severity. The assessment identified the areas most critical to source water protection. Fort Collins and other area utilities provided funds to conduct aerial seeding and mulching in August 2012 in the highest priority source water protection areas. This work was a first step in mitigating the immediate impacts of the fire. Mitigation efforts will continue well into the future.

At the same time, a group of non-profit conservation organizations and state entities organized as the High Park Restoration Coalition to deliver restoration activities in the Poudre watershed. The Coalition conducted post-fire restoration education and training programs and throughout fall 2012, carried out restoration projects on public and private lands in the burn area.

Water efficiency has been a priority for Fort Collins Utilities for years. By reducing average per capita water use, the utility is better able to withstand droughts and other uncertainties, such as reduced water availability due to wildfire impacts. The long-term goal of the city is to reach an average water use of 140 gallons per capita per day (gpcd). In 2011, the city had already reached an average of 144 gpcd. The average Fort Collins family now uses less than one third of an acre-foot per year, well under the US average of one half an acre-foot. For comparison, Fort Collins average use from 1985-1992 was 233 gpcd. Despite population growth, the city water utility delivered millions fewer gallons of water in 2011 than it did in 2000. These water savings are the result of a comprehensive and aggressive water efficiency program.

Looking ahead, Fort Collins is considering two new initiatives to protect its source water and incentivize additional water conservation: the Colorado Conservation Exchange and Conserve to Enhance. Led by Colorado State University’s Center for Collaborative Conservation, the Colorado Conservation Exchange is an effort to apply a payment for ecosystem services approach to conservation and restoration activities in northern Colorado, including the Poudre and Colorado-Big Thompson watersheds. The Exchange is still under development, but has piloted two projects on ranch land in the Poudre watershed to demonstrate how a payment for ecosystem services approach can provide the incentives needed to encourage changes in management on private lands to benefit water quality. The organizations involved in developing the Exchange are now investigating approaches to bring the effort to scale for the benefit of both Fort Collins and other downstream water users and upstream landowners.

Front RangeThe Conserve to Enhance program seeks to make the linkage between urban water use and the environment. The program encourages water customers to participate in voluntary conservation programs, such as rebates and landscape audits, and then to donate all or a portion of their cost savings resulting from purchasing less water to an environmental enhancement fund. In Fort Collins, donations to the program would likely be used for restoration projects along the Poudre River within the city. While these projects would not provide direct benefits for drinking water quality, they would help improve the health of the river and the additional water conservation resulting from the program will increase Fort Collins’s water security and flexibility during times of severe fire impacts, drought, etc. There may also be opportunities in the future for a partnership between the Conserve to Enhance program and the Colorado Conservation Exchange to achieve common goals. Fort Collins Utilities is currently working with the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center to plan and implement a Conserve to Enhance program for city water customers.

The High Park Fire had a significant impact on Fort Collins’s municipal water supply. The majority of the fire’s 87,000 acres are in the Cache la Poudre River watershed. Following the fire, heavy sediment and ash loads in the river caused the city to shut down its Poudre River intakes and rely on water from other sources. Due to a forward thinking, aggressive water efficiency program by Fort Collins Utilities, the city was prepared for the water supply limitations. The city and regional partners continue to look to the future. Through quick post-fire mitigation and longer-term efforts like the Colorado Conservation Exchange and Conserve to Enhance, the city is preparing for expected future threats to its source watersheds from fire and drought.

Aaron Lien is a Research Analyst at the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona. He previously managed the development of the Common Waters Fund at the Pinchot Institute.
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