With a limited budget, growing needs, drought and an ever-present demand for water, the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services is taking steps to reduce its “water footprint.”
In recent years, the department has replaced some Kentucky bluegrass with native grasses in parks and on medians; native grasses are more drought-resistant and need less water.
Replacing grass with artificial turf on heavily-used athletic fields is another strategy being used, as well as xeriscaping (natural landscaping) and other landscaping to replace grass in some areas.
Parks & Rec also is investing more in technology to water grass more efficiently by monitoring water usage and reducing waste.
The department spent $515,000 in 2019 and 2020 on replacing irrigation systems, and expects to spend $150,000 this year; but nearly two-thirds of its present systems are 30 years old or more and replacing those outdated systems will cost an estimated $6.7 million — a process that will take 60 years with current funding levels.
That situation is partly why the department will ask voters in November to approve a slight sales tax increase to pay for a backlog of maintenance and other needs.
Parks & Rec also plans to build or upgrade parks that incorporate some or all of these amenities. Examples are the newer Venezia Park on the city’s northeast side, and the current renovation of Panorama Park on the southeast side.
The city budgeted around $4.7 million for parks watering in 2020 and used 98% of that amount, although some areas needed more than the amount of water allocated; this year’s usage is expected to fall below the budgeted amount of $4.4 million because of wetter weather…
In 2020, Colorado battled the four largest wildfires in its history, leaving residents anxious for another intense wildfire season this year.
But last week, fires weren’t the issue—it was their aftermath. When heavy rains fell over the burn scar from the 2020 Cameron Peak fire, they triggered flash flooding and mudslides northwest of Fort Collins which destroyed homes, killed at least three people and damaged major roads. Flooding along the 2020 Grizzly Creek and East Troublesome burn scars also unleashed mudslides across Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon and in Grand County just west of Rocky Mountain National Park.
These tragic events make it clear that the effects of wildfire don’t end when the flames go out. There can be environmental consequences for years to come—and keeping an eye on water is key.
CU Boulder Today spoke with Professor Fernando Rosario-Ortiz, an environmental chemistry expert who studies how wildfires impact water quality; and Assistant Professor and CIRES Fellow Ben Livneh, a hydrologist who studies how climate change affects water supplies and how fires and rain influence landslide risk, about how fire may shape the future of water in the West.
What happens to water in lakes, rivers and streams after a nearby wildfire?
Rosario-Ortiz: When you have open flames, a lot of gaseous reactions and solid phase reactions, it results in the transformation of chemicals and alterations to the soil, and we observe the effects once we look at the water quality. For example, we observe the enhancement in the concentration of nutrients in water, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can cause subsequent issues in the reservoirs like algae blooms. There can also be a mobilization of metals and enhanced concentration and activity of what we call organic carbon as well as turbidity, which can then impact water treatment production and formation of disinfection byproducts.
How do city water suppliers and treatment plants deal with these impacts?
Rosario-Ortiz: Ideally, you want to have a secondary water source. In Fort Collins, back in 2012 after the High Park fire, the river was impacted but the reservoir was not impacted. So they could draw from the reservoir and wait for the worst to pass.
If you don’t have that option, some of the challenges after wildfire and rain events include increased sediment mobilization, which is very challenging for water treatment operations. Those are short-term effects that might give you a headache, but they can also become long-term challenges. Never mind the fact that you may have issues with infrastructure.
How can wildfire affect water quantity and timing in a landscape?
Livneh: In the western U.S. we really rely on water that flows in rivers and streams, and that fills the reservoirs for our supply. So when we think about even small changes to the amount of water that comes off of the hill slope, or across the landscape, that can have a big impact on the total availability of water.
One of the most notable things that happens in a fire is that the texture of the soil changes. Initially, less rain will soak into the soil, and more rain will become surface runoff. There’s a lot of reason to think that you will get more total water—but it’ll be much more “flashy” when it comes.
On one hand, that can be good if you have a reservoir to collect it. But we’ve heard of water utilities actually turning off their intakes after a fire if the quality of the water is too low. And that’s tricky, because often drought is involved in some fashion. So there’s often this competing need for more water, and yet the quality is low.
What are the factors that affect the likelihood of floods or mudslides after wildfire?
Livneh: When water carries enough stuff with it, we call it a debris flow, which is a type of landslide. The bigger and bigger it gets, the more impactful it is. We have research funded by NASA where we looked at 5,000 landslide sites around the world. We found that sites that had a fire in the past three years required less precipitation to cause a landslide.
But there’s also a lot of local variability that really matters. Moderately steep, heavily vegetated areas, types of soils—especially sandier soils—increase risk. Also we now have a lot of people who have built structures on steep slopes in these areas, so there’s a human element there, too. And the time of the year that it happens can matter. A fire right before your rainy season is an important factor.
What does this all mean for the future of Colorado and the western U.S.?
Rosario-Ortiz: When homes burn, you’re not just combusting houses, you’re combusting everything inside those homes. You might now be combusting electric vehicles, for example, with a large battery.
Then what are some of the other potential concerns with exposure to air? Water? That’s going to be something that we will need to explore further over the next few years.
Livneh: Some estimates say the amount of forest area being burned each year in the western U.S. has doubled in the last 25 years. And it really poses risks to communities, especially in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Managing it is largely a kind of a policy problem, but in the next 10 years or so we’re going to continue to have these big fires.
First and foremost, people need to be paying attention to these flood watches and to local guidance on evacuation. The most important thing is saving lives.
What can we do to prepare for the future?
Rosario-Ortiz: Utilities might have to be thinking about potential upgrades in facilities. That means we may have to also consider financing of these projects and how to improve overall resiliency.
Livneh: One of the most robust features of climate change is warming, right? As rain becomes more prevalent, we’re just going to have to continue expanding our portfolio of things we do to keep up. The more open-minded we can be about managing for these things is important. I’m kind of an optimist. As humans, we’ve overcome so many technical challenges; it’s not going to be something we can’t solve our way out of.
As Lake Powell dropped to its lowest-ever level [July 23, 2021] — a decline that has forced dam tenders to unexpectedly release 125,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir — Wyoming stood behind five projects that could divert tens of thousands more acre-feet from waterways in the troubled Colorado River Basin.
Powell’s surface elevation dipped to 3,555.09, lower by 12 hundredths of an inch than the previous post-completion nadir of April 8, 2005. The new benchmark is “probably worth noting,” Wayne Pullan, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Region 7 director, said in a press call [July 27, 2021].
“The fact that we’ve reached this new record underscores the difficult situation that we’re in,” he said…
Friday’s mark amounts to a 150-foot drop in the storied Utah-Arizona reservoir over 24 years, a decline that’s spurred action to preserve irrigation flows, millions of dollars in hydropower revenue and myriad necessities for 40 million people in the West.
As the BOR began its “emergency” release of 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on July 15, a coalition of downstream water users called for a moratorium on new dams and pipelines…
In an era of drought, aridification and climate change, new water projects will be closely scrutinized, Pullan said…
Meantime Gov. Mark Gordon announced he will appoint a drought working group to ensure “local perspectives on issues that impact our water users and the State” are heard when planning for a crisis that “may last for years.”
Wyoming will not be deterred from its water development goals that would store, divert or otherwise use another 115,000 acre-feet in the upper reaches of the 246,000-square-mile Colorado River system, top officials told WyoFile.
“A pure, strict moratorium flies in the face of rights held by all seven [Colorado River Compact] states,” said Pat Tyrrell, Wyoming’s member on the Upper Colorado River Commission. “I would have a hard time recommending that Wyoming get itself in that position.”
The Bureau of Reclamation has a limited say in what Wyoming can do with its water and development, state Senior Assistant Attorney General Chris Brown said.
“They certainly don’t get to say ‘no,’” he said. “They certainly don’t have that authority in Wyoming to decide how Wyoming wants to develop its water.”
Here’s the release from the New Mexico Office of the Natural Resources Trustee (Elysia Bunten):
The New Mexico Office of the Natural Resources Trustee (ONRT) is in the preliminary stages of soliciting ideas for projects that will restore natural resources in New Mexico injured by the 2015 Gold King Mine release.
We welcome stakeholder engagement in our process and invite you, as a stakeholder who was affected by the contamination, to participate in this process. Please see the attached letter containing details about ONRT’s funding, process, upcoming information session, and timetable.
As a result of Audubon’s engagement, leveraged with our partners, Big Beaver Creek and White River will quickly receive needed water and all of Colorado’s rivers will retain their water quality protections. All thanks to you! In this drought-stricken year, these victories are true causes for celebration. Read on to learn what your actions accomplished for rivers and the birds and communities that depend upon them.
Water Quality Antidegradation
Birds and people rely on clean water from healthy rivers. High-quality water in our rivers, streams, and wetlands is critical to the long-term health of our ecosystems, wildlife, communities, and economies across Colorado, from urban neighborhoods to headwater streams.
In late spring of 2021, we called upon our Colorado network to sign a petition to stop a proposed rule change by the Water Quality Control Commission (Commission) that would have allowed more pollution in Colorado’s rivers and streams. Because of the impact this potential rule change would have had on rivers, birds, and disadvantaged communities, we needed your engagement like never before. And you responded.
Audubon Rockies broke all our previous engagement records by collecting 2,735 unique signatures and combined with our coalition to total more than 4,700 signatures! During the June hearing, the Commission received unprecedented levels of public comments. Sixty people signed up to speak. Many impassioned public speakers showed up to oppose the proposed rule changes and to support their “home waters.” All but one of the comments opposed rule changes due to potential impacts on Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color; recreation in urban streams; and the right to clean water.
The Commission listened to you and delayed making any decision to amend the antidegradation rule until 2031. Current water quality protections will stay in place for at least the next 10 years!
We still have work to do with the Commission to ensure our rivers and streams are protected from harmful rule changes that could increase pollution. We must also resist industry’s pressure to establish a stakeholder process in which only their high-paid lawyers and consultants have the means to participate.
With advocates like you, we know we can continue to make progress. Healthy flowing rivers support our environment and all water uses and users.
Instream Flows on Big Beaver Creek and White River
After a multi-year, multi-stakeholder effort to expand Colorado’s existing program to loan water to the environment, an instream flow bill (HB20-1157) was signed into law by Colorado Governor Polis in March of 2020. Audubon’s network submitted 1,463 action alerts to state legislators to support this bill, which ultimately benefits our environment, wildlife, and local economies.
HB20-1157 expanded the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s short-term water loan program to benefit the environment. The bill provides a 100 percent voluntary, flexible, and expedited or longer-term option for water users to divert less or no water during dry years, allowing for more water to stay in a river. The statute’s “emergency” or expedited option is in motion for the first time!
On July 21, 2021, the Colorado Water Conservation Board voted unanimously to approve an expedited temporary instream flow lease to support 43 stream miles of benefits to Big Beaver Creek and White River in Rio Blanco County. In this extreme drought year, water is needed in these waterways quickly. Due to your engagement and support, a quick and responsive option to support environmental stream flows is a reality.
Colorado thrives when our rivers do. The decisions we make about water and river health impact all of Colorado—birds and people alike. Audubon’s legacy is built on science, education, advocacy, and on-the-ground conservation. We bring all of this together through you: our network. This combination of expertise and engagement makes Audubon an effective force for bird and freshwater habitat conservation. Thank you for standing with us.