DENVER — Federal and local agencies will try to speed up efforts to thin vegetation that could fuel catastrophic wildfires and threaten water supplies or hydroelectric facilities, federal officials said Friday.
The Western Watershed Enhancement Partnership was announced at Horsetooth Reservoir near Fort Collins by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. It will focus on accelerating forest restoration around reservoirs, dams, irrigation systems and hydroelectric projects to reduce the risk of intense fires.
“When a forest fire takes place, it can compromise the water supply that is in those reservoirs,” Vilsack said. “Sediment can build up, and the ash created by fires can cause huge problems downstream in terms of water quality.”
The partnership will help agencies leverage resources to reduce the risk of rivers and water projects getting sullied, Vilsack said.
The U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are launching the effort with a pilot project northern Colorado, where the High Park Fire burned last year.
The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and Colorado State Forest Service will work with the federal agencies on forest thinning and prescribed burns. The work also will include reseeding and restoring burned forests so not as much sediment will run off from burned areas.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, and the Interior Department, which includes the Bureau of Reclamation, are working to formalize similar partnerships in several Western watersheds, including Washington’s Yakima Basin.
The initiative builds from the successful “Forest to Faucets” partnership the Forest Service reached with Denver Water, Colorado’s largest water utility, to share costs of mitigating wildfire risks and effects in Colorado.
After wildfires in 1997 and 2002, Denver Water spent more than $26 million to reduce or prevent debris runoff into its water supplies. It has said it would rather spend money preventing giant wildfires than dealing with problems caused by them.
This wildfire season has seen deaths in Arizona and Colorado. Extended drought conditions and hotter, drier weather patterns created a dangerous environment.
“Forest fires are in many cases a result of lightning strikes and are natural catastrophes in the same way a hurricane, or a flood, or a tornado is,” Vilsack said. And yet the funding response to other natural disasters is different than it is for a forest fire, he said.
Money that would normally go to restore forests is being used to suppress fires, meaning less is available to reduce the risk of large blazes in the first place.
“What we as a nation need to look at is how we could better and more consistently treat forest fires that are caused by Mother Nature in the same way as we do other natural disasters,” Vilsack said.