Providing Clean Water for Colorado and Beyond
Colorado’s forests and regional water supplies are inextricably linked. Trees capture pollutants before they enter rivers, streams and reservoirs. Effectively managed forests have a lower risk of uncharacteristic wildfire that may scorch the earth and lead to mudslides and floods, damaging municipal water infrastructure, such as reservoirs and pipelines.
Colorado is a headwaters state. Mountain snow provides water for four major rivers in the region: the Colorado, Arkansas, Rio Grande and South Platte. Colorado’s high-country watersheds provide water to Colorado and 18 other states; the need for effective forested watershed management cannot be overstated. The Colorado State Forest Service works with partners all over the state and region on projects to protect these vital resources.
Stressors on Colorado’s Watersheds
Forests have a critical impact on water quality. In addition to removing pollutants, forests keep sediment out of water supplies, regulate stream flows, reduce flood damage and store water. They also provide habitat for wildlife and increase biodiversity, which improves the resiliency of the entire forest.
Unfortunately, Colorado’s forests are vulnerable to increasing stressors:
- Uncharacteristic wildfire can trigger cascading effects. Areas that burn completely tend to have slower regeneration of trees and other plants, resulting in changes in snowmelt timing and a higher potential for flooding and debris flows that harm water infrastructure.
- Population increases in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) put more pressure on wildfire mitigation resources, heighten demand for water-intensive agricultural products and inflate the number of people recreating in Colorado’s forests.
- Insects and diseases can cause a slow but steady change in forests, frequently making wildfire in areas dense with beetle-killed trees more intense and more difficult to suppress.
- Climate change affects snowpack levels and the timing of precipitation. For example, the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University describes how the timing of peak snow runoff historically occurred in June. Recently, runoff has occurred in pulses that disrupt water storage systems and some runoff may not be captured.
These stressors already affect watersheds across Colorado, threatening water quality and availability for millions of Americans. Future water security requires direct and immediate action.
How the Colorado State Forest Service Protects Watersheds
As a headwaters state, actions taken in Colorado affect water security in other states. The CSFS addresses forested watershed protection in many ways, and it’s important to remember that the success of this work depends on effective collaboration and constant work with contractors, landowners and partners, whether they’re federal, local, private or non-governmental.
Identify Priority Watersheds
The Colorado Water Plan is the framework developed to meet the state’s water needs, and it describes a shared stewardship ethic to protect the health of watersheds. As part of this shared stewardship, staff at the CSFS consults with partners and other entities to identify priority areas for watershed protection projects. The CSFS’ 2020 Colorado Forest Action Plan identifies key watersheds that affect agriculture, downstream communities, recreation and ecosystem function.
The CSFS is uniquely positioned to lead cross-boundary, watershed-level projects that have large impacts on communities and individuals. Some examples of the agency’s partnerships include the Forests to Faucets program and the Forest and Land Management Services Agreement with Denver Water, which has supported healthy forest practices in Boulder, Clear Creek, Douglas, Eagle, Grand, Jefferson, Park and Summit counties since the mid-1980s.
CSFS staff regularly completes and oversees on-the-ground work in forests across Colorado. When insects or diseases have left swaths of standing dead trees, foresters take on fuels reduction to remove trees that increase the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire. This also happens in areas that have experienced decades of fire suppression and consequently have dense undergrowth that raises the risk of a high-intensity crown fire.
After disturbances such as wildfire, insect infestation or flooding, forests may require some management to improve the speed and quality of regeneration. These management techniques may include reseeding, planting seedlings, removing slash or spreading mulch to prevent landslides or flooding. All management activities require monitoring and adaptive management to ensure success over time.
High Priority Watershed: The Colorado River
The Colorado River originates from the high-elevation snowfields in Rocky Mountain National Park and supplies water to 40 million people downstream.
Decades of drought combined with higher demands on the water from growing populations have dramatically decreased the amount of water in the river, as well as the reservoirs it feeds. The Glen Canyon Dam, filled by the Colorado River, produces power for 5 million people in seven states. The dam holds back Colorado River water to create Lake Powell. KUNC reported that in 2022 the lake held less than 25 percent of its capacity.
Concerns about water availability are not hypothetical; shortages are already being felt and observed. As soon as June 2023, the Glen Canyon Dam may no longer produce electricity due to continuing low water levels in Lake Powell. The effects will not just be downstream. Front Range agriculture and municipal water consumption may be affected.
The CSFS is a forestry and outreach agency, dedicated to educating and assisting communities and individuals across Colorado with forest management, especially how it relates to watershed protection. For example, each May the CSFS works with partners to promote Wildfire Awareness Month and provide information to homeowners about steps they can take to reduce the risk of wildfire to their homes and properties.
Community groups, local governments and landowners can apply for several grant programs throughout the year. In 2022, legislation made it possible to provide approximately $15 million in grants to communities and groups through the Forest Restoration and Wildfire Risk Mitigation grant program. Two other programs include the Wildfire Mitigation Incentives for Local Government and Wildfire Mitigation Resources & Best Practices.
CSFS foresters in 17 field offices across Colorado provide direct assistance to landowners in their areas. They create forest management plans and advise on development of Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs). By working so closely with community groups, foresters can include watershed protection expertise when planning projects.
Support Timber Industry
Reduction and removal of hazardous, flammable materials is an important aspect of managing forests for watershed protection. Ideally, these materials can be used by the timber industry in some manner, whether it’s for firewood, building materials or furniture. Profitable Colorado wood products help offset the costs of forest management that protects our forested watersheds.
It’s impossible to separate watershed protection from other forest management goals and objectives. Activities that help reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire often reduce the risk of damage to municipal water infrastructure. Reforestation goals also promote watershed health by growing trees that remove pollutants from waterways. Protecting the forested watersheds that are the source of water for millions of Colorado residents, as well as residents of other states, is an immense responsibility and a guiding priority of the work of the CSFS.