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by Terry Scanga and Chelsey Nutter, Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District

No doubt fire is on everyone’s mind this summer. It is clear that being proactive with the health of our local forests is imminent. Not only does it protect people, wildlife, the surrounding communities and infrastructure, it also protects important water resources.

The flashflooding and resultant runoff that occurs with every big rain event following a wildfire – full of sediment, rocks and debris – impacts tributary streams, creeks and, ultimately, the Arkansas River. Forest fires also threaten storage reservoirs, which provide critical water supply to all water uses – agricultural, municipal, environmental and recreational. Here at the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District, we’re working on an innovative forest and watershed health project on Monarch Pass to address wildfire before it happens.

A Proactive Approach to Watershed Health

The spruce beetle activity across the Monarch Pass area has increased to endemic levels, deteriorating the forest at an alarming rate. The U.S. Forest Service is moving forward with a fuels mitigation project that will treat approximately 3,000 acres of forest on Monarch Pass by harvesting the dead trees. The conservancy district has joined these efforts to help secure funding and partners for approximately 600 acres on steep terrain.

Generally, steep slopes are excluded from forest mitigation projects due to safety concerns and the high costs associated with using traditional methods to remove down and dead trees. Yet treating steep slopes is imperative. Often, our most critical water supplies, such as reservoirs and important drainages that feed into the Arkansas River, are surrounded by steep slopes. Initial research has identified over 20,000 acres of this type terrain in the mountainous areas of the Arkansas River drainage.

Fortunately, the Forest Service has identified a new technology that can treat the steep slopes on Monarch Pass while at the same time saving money, reducing the impact to the environment and improving safety. This cutting-edge technology has never been used in Colorado and, when successfully demonstrated, will very likely become a statewide model for treating steep slopes across Colorado and, hopefully, encourage investment from private industry.

The Upper Ark conservancy district is helping to lead this effort and taking a very active role with outreach for the project to bring more partners and money to the table to protect our local water supply as well as to introduce this new technology to others in the state. We recognize the urgency of protecting our forest and water resources, and matching dollars from state, local and nonprofit entities help expedite the process significantly.

We’re excited that, to date, the district – in partnership with Chaffee County, the city of Salida, the town of Poncha Springs, Trout Unlimited, Colorado Springs Utilities and the Arkansas River Watershed Collaborative – has secured the needed matching funds to apply for a Colorado Water Conservation Board grant that could provide over a half million dollars for the project. The district is continuing to look for additional funding partners throughout the state and the water community to move this project toward implementation and prevent a catastrophic forest fire.

We encourage the water community, local municipalities and other entities to support this project and to make it a priority. Although matching dollars are the best resource to move this project forward, letters of support are also vital and demonstrate that our community is committed to a hands-on approach to addressing forest and watershed health concerns.

A special thank you goes to Central Colorado Conservancy for being the first local nonprofit to provide a letter of support and volunteer hours for this project. It is not a matter of if our local forests and water supply will be impacted by wildfire, but rather a matter of when. Let’s be proactive today.

Naturally, what is emerging out of this project is a grassroots local watershed entity – a group of local and statewide partners working together on an important forest and watershed project. We hope to continue to build upon the momentum and strength of this effort for future projects. For more information, please contact Chelsey Nutter at the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District.