Grand County Watershed Recovery efforts to return this summer
Grand County and Northern Water continue to mitigate East Troublesome Fire’s impact on watersheds
In July 2021, helicopter blades could be heard flying over the burn scar at Willow Creek Reservoir. Trees as frail as toothpicks rose from a landscape blackened by the East Troublesome Fire. The helicopter overhead released its load — 3,000 pounds of seed and mulch — before flying back to base to pick up another bag. The whole operation took only six minutes, so helicopters could cover a lot of acreage efficiently. This aerial mulching was essential to restoring the Willow Creek watershed, preventing erosion and potential mudslides and bringing back vegetation.
Ground treatments like these have been occurring all over burn scar areas in Grand County, thanks to the Grand County Watershed Recovery project. This project is funded by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Emergency Water Protection Program. The program offers federal assistance to relieve imminent hazards to life and property that were created by the East Troublesome Fire, such as mud slides, erosion of debris/ash and drinking water contamination. Since its inception in July 2021, aerial mulching projects have covered over 5,000 acres.
The Emergency Water Protection Program is sponsored by Grand County Board of Commissioners and Northern Water. Last week, representatives from Northern Water and Grand County’s water protection department met with the board to update them on the restoration work they’ve accomplished this past year, and what work is yet to be done to restore the fire-torn landscape.
First, the presentation highlighted that the Grand County Watershed Recovery project is necessary because impacts from the East Troublesome Fire are longstanding and multifaceted.
“It’s often not the first year after the fire that’s the worst, it’s the second, third and fourth years, so the community needs to be prepared for that,” said Esther Vincent, Northern Water’s environmental services director.
One longstanding wildfire impact is sediment runoff, which normally is held in place by trees and vegetation. In summer as the snow melts, this becomes a greater issue.
Another impact is hazardous algae blooms, caused by nutrients from the burn scar traveling into water bodies during rainstorms. Algae, feeding off these nutrients, bloom to toxic levels.
“It’s very likely we’ll see more algae blooms as there are more injections of nutrients into the system, like the one we had in Willow Creek Reservoir last year,” said Vincent.
The Willow Creek bloom prompted a closure at the reservoir to keep people and pets safe.
“We’re going to have a variety of water quality issue to deal with in the Three Lakes, Willow Creek, the Colorado River and many other streams and flat-water bodies for a long time,” said Katherine Morris, Grand County water quality manager.
Next, the representatives showcased what projects they’ve completed to minimize the fire’s impacts. Projects took place in the burn scar in the following areas: Troublesome Creek, Drowsy Water Creek, Willow Creek, Stillwater Creek, Corral Creek and throughout Grand Lake.
All Emergency Water Protection projects were done on private land, or some portions of federal land that are connected to private lands. Therefore, all projects need the landowner’s consent. Private lands represent about 10% of the burn area.
“We’ve had really positive interactions with most of the landowners; I’d even go as far to say all of them. We’ve had some landowners say ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ at their own decision and discretion. They felt the project wasn’t the right fit for them,” said Brian Murphy, Grand County’s watershed recovery coordinator. For example, the project on the North Inlet and Tonahutu Creek was declined since the landowners there did not come to an agreement.
Even if a few landowners did not agree with Emergency Water Protection projects, they participated in grassroots efforts such as placing sandbags around their property or seeding barren ground. The Middle Park Conservation District and Grand Foundation provided assistance with this.
“People want to help out and do things to help protect their property. I can’t thank the Grand County staff and Grand Lake staff enough for helping make those things happen,” said Kyle Whitaker, Northern Water’s Colorado River programs manager and Emergency Water Protection manager.
All in all, Grand County Watershed Recovery accomplished a lot in 2021. With Emergency Water Protection funds, the recovery has completed 5,200 acres of mulching throughout the burn area. Mulching took place both on private land and some U.S. Forest Service land. Together, Northern Water and Grand County made agreements with 250 landowners, completed 22 projects and utilized $18 million federal funds, plus funds from other organizations.
“Huge kudos to Northern Water. We wouldn’t have been able to aerial seeding and mulching off the ground without hitching our horse, if you will, to their helicopters and crews,” said Murphy.
Northern Water has also been hard at work expanding their robust water quality monitoring systems.
“Following the East Troublesome Fire, we increased our water monitoring frequency and added additional parameters to those sites,” said Kimberly Mihelich, Northern Water’s source water protection specialist. “Wildfire recovery was new to most of our staff, but we’ve learned that wildfire impacts don’t just last a year or two. … We can see these impacts up to 10 years or more.” Northern Water is also involved in post-fire recovery improvement groups and a West Slope cyanobacteria workgroup, which studies hazardous algae growth.
Finally, Northern Water and Grand County Water Protection told the commissioners what plans they have for next year. These include: more aerial mulching of private, Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land; flood mitigation such as berms and artificial barriers; gully erosion control; sediment management; head gate protection; and roadway protection.
Kyle Whitaker said one major undertaking this summer will be at the Red Top Valley Ditch, which runs from the Colorado River above Shadow Mountain Lake to the Three Lakes Water & Sanitation District. East Troublesome had burned along this area, causing sediment to end up in the ditch.
“There were days where that ditch was completely black and smelled like a sewer. … That water looked like used motor oil, it was so viscous,” said Commissioner Merrit Linke.
“The concern is (debris) could mobilize during a precipitation event and end up plugging up and breaching the ditch,” said Whitaker. “We’re attempting to automate all the structures on the Red Top Ditch to prevent an uncontrolled discharge. This way, we can relax a little bit during rain events and not have to worry about the homes below the ditch.”
Northern Water will install electric slide gates to open and close depending on weather conditions. The project is expected to begin this July pending supply chain delays for the electric motors.
On June 10, Northern Water will hold an event in Grand Lake to talk to community members about the next stage of the watershed recovery process.
“We’re working on scheduling some VIP tours with critical folks to continue to enhance our lobbying efforts and educate decision-makers on all levels on the importance of doing this work,” said Esther Vincent. “We can’t wave a magic wand and make post-fire impacts go away. What we can do is minimize these impacts and protect life and property, and the natural resources that are so valuable to all of us in this part of the world.”
As Grand County Watershed Recovery enters its next phase, Grand County and Northern Water staff will redouble their efforts to keep the area’s landscape and people safe. Once again, helicopters will take flight to deliver mulch and seed to burned forests ready for regrowth.
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