This article is part of a collaboration with Boulder Reporting Lab, The Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder, KUNC public radio and The Conversation U.S. to explore the impacts of the devastating Marshall Fire one year after the blaze. The series can be found at the Boulder Reporting Lab.
On Dec. 30, 2021, one of the most destructive wildfires on record in Colorado swept through neighborhoods just a few miles from our offices at the University of Colorado Boulder. The flames destroyed over 1,000 buildings, yet when we drove through the affected neighborhoods, some houses were still completely intact right next to homes where nothing was left to burn.
Although the people who lived in these still-standing homes were spared the loss of everything they owned, when they returned after the fire, they found another disaster.
Noxious smells and ash on their windowsills and doorways initially made their homes unlivable – and potentially hazardous to human health. Some of these residents were still reporting health problems from being in their homes months later, even after the homes had been cleaned.
We study wildfires and their health effects, and we knew people who lost their homes in the Marshall Fire. We also knew we had to act fast to study the fire’s impact so lessons from the Marshall Fire could help homeowners elsewhere avoid similar hazards in the future.
Dangerous chemicals absorbed into homes
Early on, because of our expertise on air quality and health, members of our community reached out to us to ask how they could remediate their homes from the smells and hidden ash, and what health risks they should be concerned about.
But this fire was nothing like the wildfires that our research groups at the University of Colorado had previously studied. Most of what burned on that day was human-made rather than vegetation. When human-made materials like electronics, vehicles and home furnishings burn, they release different types of air pollutants and may affect health differently compared to when vegetation burns.
The outdoor air pollution was less of an issue because the wildfire was short-lived – the powerful winds that fueled the fire quieted down and changed direction about 11 hours after the fire started, and the first snow of the season finally fell. This snowfall ended the fire and cleaned the outside air of pollution.
The key concern was what chemicals lingered inside the undestroyed homes – soaked up into the fabrics of carpets, sofas, drywall, air vents and more – that would slowly release into the home for some time after the fire.
We hypothesized that there were lots of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – toxic gases, which were emitted during the fire that had seeped into homes and become embedded in the fabrics and building materials. Of particular concern were aromatic compounds like benzene, a known carcinogen, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are emitted from wildfires and have known health effects. In addition, we were worried about metals in the ash and soot deposited in homes, and the potential for it to become suspended in the air again when people returned and heating systems came on.
Despite knowing that some of these gases were toxic, we did not know the levels inside the homes, or what remediation efforts to suggest to residents, because little scientific research had been published on wildland-urban interface fires like this one. We realized that we needed to do some of that research to help our own community – and the next community affected by a wildland-urban interface fire.
Collecting evidence inside
Many community members volunteered their homes for study sites. When we toured these still-standing homes 10 days after the fire, we saw what a rapid evacuation looks like, with lunch in the process of being made, laundry being folded, toys in the middle of pretend play … and dust, lots and lots of dust resulting from the fire.
We collected dust samples in about a dozen homes and then analyzed the samples in our labs.
We looked for molecules that could help us think about the origin of the dust. Not surprisingly, the dust was a combination of windblown soil, ash from the fire and typical household dust. That ash was high in typical combustion byproducts that are known to be toxic, and there was lots of ash, so cleaning up all the dust was important to remediation.
The homes that had been exposed to heavy smoke also still smelled like a chemical fire. A colleague likened it to the smell of gunpowder.
As quickly as we could, we moved a state-of-the-art mass spectrometer into one of the most heavily affected homes in Superior and made measurements of airborne pollutants for five weeks.
Shortly after the Marshall Fire, we found that many pollutants, including PAHs, were indeed at higher levels inside smoke-affected homes than we would expect, but in early February these pollutants had decreased to more normal levels.
We researched ways in which people could protect themselves and found through experiments that air filters with activated carbon could provide excellent temporary relief from the indoor pollutants.
We also observed the results of professional remediation efforts. We are still poring over the air pollution data to understand which materials that burned, such as plastics, car tires, furniture, carpet and roofing material, contributed the most to the air pollutants we observed in the homes.
Continuing health effects
In addition to the air pollution and ash concerns, people living in the neighborhoods that burned are concerned about their health.
In an initial survey, residents reported a variety of symptoms that they think may be due to the smoke or air quality concerns of the fire, with the most common being itchy or watery eyes, headaches, dry cough and sore throat. More than half of respondents also reported disrupted sleep due to the stress of the fire, and almost a quarter attributed headaches at least in part to the stress of the event.
The physical symptoms could be due to the exposure during the fire. However, of those who have moved back into smoke-damaged homes, they report the symptoms most often inside their homes.
This fall, more than nine months after the fire, some residents reported rashes and burning sensations despite having cleaned their homes of ash and the smell of VOCs having dissipated. Another round of surveys is now helping gather more information about lingering symptoms. In addition to physical health symptoms, we are also asking questions about mental health, which is a growing concern from so-called natural disasters.
While we know that the VOC concentrations inside the homes that we worked in have returned to normal levels, some individuals may be more sensitive than others. And while there has been research into the health effects of some VOCs, not all have been studied extensively, nor have studies looked at the health impacts of combinations of VOCs.
As global temperatures rise and more people move into once-wild landscapes at the edges of cities, the risk of wildfires spreading into urban areas rises. We hope that our work can help people deal with the air pollution aftermath of future blazes.
Colleen E. Reid, Assistant Professor of Geography, University of Colorado Boulder; Joost de Gouw, Professor of Chemistry, University of Colorado Boulder, and Michael Hannigan, Professor, University of Colorado Boulder
Click the link to read the article on the KSJD website (Gavin McGough). Here’s an excerpt:
The Dolores River starts high in the San Juans southwest of Telluride, passes through Dolores, Colorado, where it fills the Reservoir at McPhee Dam. From then on it trickles north through hundreds of miles of desert, meeting the San Miguel and feeding eventually into the Colorado River. Those who have boated it say it’s a river like no other.
“You start below the dam and you head into the Ponderosa Gorge with these big canyon walls and amazing majestic Ponderosa Pines, and you start to see more and more of this red rock coming out,” said Amber Clark, director of Dolores River Boating Advocates (DRBA) which promotes stewardship and recreation along the river.
“Then you transition down into less trees and more red rock canyon walls, and the Wilderness Study Area, and at different places it opens up more, and it’s kind of this ever-changing landscape, but the majesty of it never diminishes,” she said…
The DRBA is one of dozens of stakeholders who have been working to protect the Dolores as a National Conservation Area, or an NCA. Some rivers are protected by Congress under The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, but protection as an NCA is less controversial, especially amongst agricultural interests. Al Heaton, a cattle rancher in Dolores, is involved in the conservation effort.
“Wild and Scenic comes with some rules and regulations, some laws, that are pretty dramatic and would affect a lot of things, private property and things down the river,” said Heaton.
“Of course, grazing could continue in a Wild and Scenic setting but it could also be restricted, so I felt there had to be a better way.”
Time has not been kind to our rivers. For centuries, humans have diminished, degraded and simplified rivers around the world, creating unhealthy waterways that have lost ecological value.
The good news is that our collective understanding of how to restore rivers is improving, with a greater focus on using natural systems to meet society’s needs while also protecting the environment. With nature-based management, we have an opportunity to rebuild rivers with the space and freedom they need to thrive. In turn, these healthier rivers lead to healthier communities and a healthier planet.
I spoke with Peter Skidmore, senior program officer with the foundation’s Colorado River initiative, about how restoring river health through natural processes can help us in the battle against climate change. He is the co-author of a recent article in the journal Anthropocene exploring the issue.
Can you describe some of the ways that rivers have been degraded over the past several hundred years?
As a society, we have relegated rivers and streams to constrained channels. These simplified and stabilized channels have lost a lot of their freedom, complexity and biodiversity. Starting in the 19th century, the extermination of beavers fundamentally changed the character of streams as dams were removed and riparian wetlands disappeared. With development in their valley bottoms, rivers have also lost the space to run free, flood, erode and deposit soil. The construction of dams and diversions have further constricted river flows.
What are we learning about emerging opportunities to restore the health of rivers so they can provide critical ecosystem services?
There has been a lot of hard work done to restore river health over the past few decades, but we’ve fallen short in addressing the challenge at a scale to have lasting impact. Over this time, we learned a lot about the potential of “natural infrastructure” to better manage rivers and restore their health through dynamic, natural processes. That can mean removing constraints wherever possible – setting levees back, concentrating infrastructure at a few pinch points, reconnecting rivers to their floodplains and renewing native vegetation.
Is there an example of how natural infrastructure can restore river health and improve climate resiliency?
One way is by promoting the return of beavers and beaver-related wetlands that reintroduce much-needed complexity into river systems. Messy rivers and streams – with features like braided and irregular channels, wetlands, eroding banks and gravel bars – are more diverse, dynamic and healthy. A success story is Bridge Creek, in Oregon, where the installation of beaver-inspired natural dams led to the expansion of beaver activity. These structures create a virtuous cycle of restoration that slows down water flow, revives mountain meadows and recreate stream meanders and wetlands that are ultimately maintained forever by beavers. They help maintain and retain groundwater, provide natural firebreaks and refuge for wildlife, and can alleviate the sedimentation impacts of post-fire flooding. Since 2005, Bridge Creek has had a dramatic increase in aquatic habitat and native fish populations. In addition to those fish and wildlife benefits, scientists are also finding that this kind of low-cost, low-tech restoration helps with carbon sequestration, nutrient capture and moderation of stream flow and temperature – critical ecosystems services in the face of drought and climate change.
What potential does this kind of restoration have to increase climate resiliency if done on large scale?
River ecosystems have a tremendous capacity for passive restoration if given the freedom space for dynamic interactions between the channel and the floodplain. They can literally heal themselves, often more quickly and effectively than we can. Just like humans need exercise to stay healthy, rivers also need that exercise. They need the space to move around. That’s important because, right now, ongoing development is exacerbating the impacts of a warming climate and straining the capacity of aging, expensive gray infrastructure to provide water security and protection from floods and drought. Natural infrastructure holds the potential to be a cost-effective and self-sustaining way to improve environmental health. It can be a critical component in a mix of solutions to the social and ecological challenges posed by climate change.
How is the foundation supporting natural infrastructure in the Colorado River basin?
The foundation’s five-year Environment program strategy increases our efforts to improve river and watershed health by working to improve public policy so it promotes nature-based solutions, and leveraging funding to implement them on a larger scale. We’re working with partners to test and increase the use of nature-based solutions that improve water security for farms and cities and also provide environmental benefits. We’re investing in beaver-related restoration that re-establishes wetlands and begins to restore degraded stream systems. And we’ve initiated an effort to identify and map changes in vegetated wetlands and beaver ponds throughout the basin as a way to measure progress and assess the potential of this work to provide system-wide benefit for the Colorado River.
Many members of Standley Lake’s boating community saw a huge aspect of their community taken away with the ban of trailered boats in 2019. [Gary] Gambino used to work a graveyard shift and after, went straight to the lake.
“I would come home, hook up my boat, go out onto Standley, take it out in the back bay anchor in and take my four hours of sleep,” he said…
“Northglenn’s water in Standley Lake is irreplaceable, valued at more than $209 million dollars. There is no level of risk that our community is willing to accept when it comes to protecting our drinking water supply,” the letter reads.
Click the link to read “Standley Lake heads toward fifth summer with a firm no to powerboats” on The Denver Post website (John Aguilar). Here’s an excerpt:
But Westminster Councilman Dave DeMott said it’s “not realistic” to operate on a zero-risk basis “as there is no area where zero risk exists in this world.” He’s heard from boating enthusiasts that they are “frustrated” with the ban, which was made permanent in late 2019…
Northglenn — along with Westminster, Thornton and the Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Company — own the 42,000 acre-feet of water in the lake, which serves as the sole supply of drinking water for both Westminster and Northglenn. Standley Lake, which is fed by three canals diverted off of Clear Creek, accounts for about a quarter of Thornton’s drinking water supply. It, too, is in favor of maintaining the trailered boat ban. Any change in boating policy would have to be agreed to by the three cities…
Northglenn’s decision was likely re-affirmed by the September discovery of a single zebra mussel in Highline Lake State Park, northwest of Grand Junction. In late October, Colorado Parks & Wildlife announced more zebra mussels had been found in Highline Lake, giving the lake an official infestation listing. CPW says Highline Lake is currently the only Colorado body of water infested with zebra mussels. No quagga mussels are known to exist in the state, though Lake Powell in Utah has them.
“We don’t see the value in risking our drinking water supply for the benefit of a small group of people,” said Tami Moon, Northglenn’s environmental manager. “That is the only place we have to store our water.”
The Upper Colorado River Commission plans to revive a program that pays irrigators and other valid rights holders to voluntarily leave water in streams that feed the beleaguered Colorado River.
The System Conservation Pilot Program is one strategy among a handful that Upper Colorado River Basin states — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico — have offered to help satisfy their role in meeting a challenge by federal officials to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water system-wide in 2023.
“The goal is to have water conservation projects underway in April 2023 to reduce consumptive uses in the Upper Basin Colorado River system,” the UCRC stated in a Dec. 14 press release. More “durable” and “longer-term” solutions are still needed, however, the UCRC said. “The SCPP is a significant step to begin to partially mitigate the water supply crisis in the Upper Colorado River Basin brought on by a drier climate and depleted storage.”
The SCPP was initially implemented from 2015 through 2018 using funds from Lower Colorado River Basin stakeholders, including large municipalities such as Las Vegas. This time around, the UCRC proposes to instead use $125 million from the Inflation Reduction Act — an appropriation that backers hope Congress will approve in a spending bill.
Water users have only until Feb. 1 to submit proposals in response to a call for applications that was issued Dec. 14.
The UCRC scrambled in recent months to relaunch the SCPP water conservation program under pressure to lay the groundwork for both short- and long-term water savings amidst a growing crisis along the Colorado River. The river system serves some 40 million people in seven western states and Mexico.
The 22-year “megadrought” that has parched much of the American southwest — combined with growing demands on the river — has drained Lake Powell and Lake Mead to their lowest levels in history and shows no signs of abating, according to the federal Bureau of Reclamation.
The ongoing crisis, if drought conditions continue, could result in mandated water curtailments in Wyoming by 2028, according to the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office. Municipalities, including Cheyenne, Green River and Rock Springs, are among the most vulnerable because — generally — they hold junior water rights that, under the Colorado River Compact and Wyoming water law, would be among the first to be restricted under a curtailment. About one-fifth of Wyoming’s population relies on domestic water supplies subject to a curtailment under the Colorado River Compact.
Despite the quick turnaround to attract volunteer projects under the revived SCPP, water officials and conservation advocates in Wyoming believe there’s growing interest. Conservation groups such as Trout Unlimited played an integral role in the first iteration of the SCPP, seeing an opportunity to promote water conservation measures that also benefit fisheries and the general biological health of waterways by keeping more water in streams and rivers late in the summer.
Wyoming Trout Unlimited Water & Habitat Program Director Cory Toye helped introduce many agricultural water users to the SCPP in the first go-round, and that work has resumed in recent months, he said.
“It’s certainly on people’s minds,” Toye told WyoFile. “For the most part, it still makes economic sense for a lot of [irrigated ag] operations.”
Participation among Wyoming water users increased incrementally over the first four years of the program. All told, the SCPP in Wyoming saved a total 23,886 acre-feet at 26 project sites. It cost $4,079,233 — about $171 per-acre foot, according to a report by the upper basin commission.
For now, the commission envisions a “fixed term” compensation of $150 per acre-foot under the SCPP in 2023, although it may consider higher rates based on circumstances, according to the agency’s request for proposals.
Eric Barnes, an irrigator on Fontenelle Creek — a tributary of the Green River in western Wyoming — was among the first SCPP participants in the state, and he’s eager to enroll in the program in 2023, he said. Barnes irrigated as usual in the spring to grow an early season crop, he said, then curtailed irrigation later in the summer — a water conservation practice known as “split season deficit irrigation.” All 26 projects in Wyoming during the first four years of the program fell under this category.
“It was beneficial for me,” Barnes said. “I was able to take advantage of the water early in the season and then shut [irrigation headgates] off and get paid for [conserving water] in the same year.”
The practice — at least on Fontenelle Creek, Barnes said — left more water in the creek to support the trout fishery; a benefit to the local recreation economy and a priority for groups like Trout Unlimited.
“It was a good way to help people understand what life may look like with less water and what diversifying [irrigation] operations might look like,” Toye said. “And the scale of the projects went from scattershot those first couple of years to tying entire tributaries together.”
For now, the program makes sense for a lot of Wyoming ag irrigators subject to the Colorado River Compact, according to Toye, particularly in the upper reaches of the Green River and its tributaries. Although Wyoming and its fellow upper Colorado River basin states are eager to revive the program, it will soon evolve and be replaced by a larger conservation program with more sophisticated water-accounting protocols that are recognized by stakeholders throughout the system.
Those changes may entice ag irrigators like Barnes to take on water conservation strategies beyond simply foregoing a second round of summer irrigation, Toye said. However, he added, the program isn’t intended to shrink or replace ag production.
“The goal is to make sure people can do as much as they have historically with less water, or at least be prepared to do that,” Toye said. “So the intent is to explore different irrigation patterns and perhaps identify places where efficiencies can occur.”
Click the link to read the article on the Department of Agricultural Economimcs at Montana State University website (Nick Hagerty):
Imagine you keep an old truck in your driveway. Sometimes when you want to use it, it’s gone – your neighbor has driven it somewhere. When you ask your neighbor to stop using your truck, he says it’s his truck too. Confused, you inform him you inherited the truck from your dad, but he says it came with the property when he bought his house. You resist any temptation to make physical threats and instead hire an expensive lawyer who slaps your neighbor with a lawsuit. To prove your ownership, the court requires you to put together detailed records of not only every time you’ve ever used your truck and how far you drove it, but also the same for your dad, going back all the way to when he bought it. If you’re missing any of this paperwork you might lose the truck. Even if you win the case, you still might sometimes catch your neighbor taking your truck for a spin in the middle of the night.
Sounds ridiculous, right? But this scenario is not too far off what water rights are like.
I was thinking about water rights recently because I saw some ads objecting to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes–Montana Water Compact. The CSKT Water Compact is an agreement between the Tribes, the State of Montana, and the federal government to settle disputes over water rights in and around the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana. Essentially, the Tribes have given up most of their claims to water rights in exchange for more certainty around the ones they retain.
(The Compact was the product of bipartisan negotiation involving both Senators Daines and Tester. It was approved by both Trump and Biden administrations and ratified by Congress, the Montana Legislature, and the CSKT. It now must be adopted by the Montana Water Court, but while I’m not an expert in water law, it sounds like only some kind of extraordinary new information would be able to stop it at this point.)
I won’t go into the details of the Compact, but it’s a chance to explain why economists generally see efforts to clarify water rights as good for society overall – and why some people still oppose individual settlements.
The truck story shows just how much we take for granted the basic assumptions that underlie a well-functioning market economy. Ownership is clearly defined: when you buy a car, you register it with the country and receive a title. Property rights are reliably enforced: if someone steals your car, law enforcement officers will try to find it and return it to you. If there is ever a dispute, it gets settled by a fair justice system. Most importantly, the fact that we all have confidence in these institutions of government means that they are rarely needed: 99.99% of the time, everyone just accepts that your truck is yours, and my car is mine.
Water rights aren’t usually nearly as secure. This is partly because water itself is slippery: it’s a lot harder than a car to measure, store, and tell yours apart from other people’s. (Though one time my friend and I did accidentally get into someone else’s Toyota Camry because it was the same color as his, it was parked next to his, and his key worked on it!) But it’s also because across the West we haven’t invested in the kinds of record-keeping, monitoring, and enforcement systems that would be necessary to give water users the kind of certainty we take for granted when it comes to vehicles, houses, and land.
As a result, water resources are too often a chaotic mess of uncertainty, arguments, litigation, and political battles. Farms and ranches, developers, water utilities, and government agencies have to spend their time and energy thinking about water conflicts instead of focusing on the main things they care about. They have to pay water lawyers for years-long court battles. Worse, uncertainty can hamper investment and wise decisions about the future. If you aren’t sure whether you’re going to get the water you think you’re entitled to, you might not move forward with that purchase you’ve had your eye on.
All of this has real economic costs, and could be considered deadweight loss in economics terminology. So any efforts to resolve disputes, codify water rights, and reduce uncertainty can bring big benefits to everyone involved (and maybe the broader economy too). Since 1979, Montana has slowly conducting a statewide adjudication, in which water rights are formalized and recorded. One study found that a similar adjudication in Idaho, conducted between 1987 and 2014, increased the state’s agricultural output by $250 million per year.
The CSKT Water Compact could be considered another piece of the effort to reduce deadweight loss around water rights. By quantifying and officially recognizing CSKT water rights and creating new streamlined procedures for resolving disputes, the hope is that the Compact will reduce future litigation and bring more certainty and predictability to all water users.
So why do some people still oppose settlements like the Compact? Probably because even if clarifying water rights and resolving ongoing disputes is efficient – meaning that it benefits society overall – it doesn’t mean that every individual water user benefits from it. There may be some water users who find themselves with lower-priority water rights than they had before. There also may be some users who did not in fact hold secure water rights but were holding out hope for a more favorable settlement – they actually preferred the uncertainty.
This is why policymaking is so hard – it’s rare to find a solution that makes everyone involved better off.
Humanity + energy + debt + growth addiction + planetary boundaries: guess what’s coming. Can we learn to bend not break? https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800919310067
Here’s the abstract:
Our environment and economy are at a crossroads. This paper attempts a cohesive narrative on how human evolved behavior, money, energy, economy and the environment fit together. Humans strive for the same emotional state of our successful ancestors. In a resource rich environment, we coordinate in groups, corporations and nations, to maximize financial surplus, tethered to energy, tethered to carbon. At global scales, the emergent result of this combination is a mindless, energy hungry, CO2 emitting Superorganism. Under this dynamic we are now behaviorally ‘growth constrained’ and will use any means possible to avoid facing this reality. The farther we kick the can, the larger the disconnect between our financial and physical reality becomes. The moment of this recalibration will be a watershed time for our culture, but could also be the birth of a new ‘systems economics’. and resultant different ways of living. The next 30 years are the time to apply all we’ve learned during the past 30 years. We’ve arrived at a species level conversation.
“Ecological Economics addresses the relationships between ecosystems and economic systems in the broadest sense.” – Robert Costanza, (the first sentence in the first article in the first issue of Ecological Economics)
“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.”– E.O. Wilson
“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” –Jean Baudrillard
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin