Westcreek • In the nine years since the Hayman fire scorched 137,000 acres of central Colorado, 3.5 million seedlings have been planted.
The Coalition for the Upper South Platte, a group formed to protect the water quality and ecology of the Upper South Platte Watershed, has brought in 19,660 volunteers, who have rebuilt trails and roads and planted willows along countless miles of stream bank.
“What you can do with a group of volunteers is amazing,” said executive director Carol Ekarius. “And what you can do with a backhoe is even more amazing.”
Welcome to the heavy-machinery phase of the Hayman burn area restoration effort.
Friday, the U.S. Forest Service led a tour of the Trail Creek area near the Douglas County hamlet of Westcreek to showcase the first work in a $1.45 million project to restore the watershed to its natural condition. The area is about 15 miles north of Woodland Park.
The area was chosen as the initial phase of work because these scorched hills have seen frequent flash floods, including a 2006 deluge that swamped houses and destroyed several miles of Colorado Highway 67. Washed-down sediment continues to choke downstream reservoirs. And planting trees only goes so far to keep the soil in place.
“It seems 137,000 acres don’t heal as quickly as we’d like it to. Mother Nature needs a little help to get it to happen,” said Pike National Forest district ranger Brent Botts.
That help is coming in the form not only of volunteers but work crews and equipment paid for by a $750,000 donation from ski company Vail Resorts, $500,000 from Aurora Water and $200,000 from the Gates Family Foundation.
The donations also paid for a study by nationally-renowned river restoration expert Dave Rosgen and will fund the first two years of work. The project is sponsored by the National Forest Foundation, which works with the forest service to care for U.S. wildlands.
Rosgen demonstrated how crews will restore creeks like Trail Creek to their original state not with concrete, rebar or riprap (rocky walls), but with earth-moving and the natural ingredients in the charred forest.
Using heavy machinery, crews are piling dirt to raise the height of creeks and plowing steep eroded banks in an effort to re-create natural flows and allow creeks to spill into long-gone floodplains.
Burned trees will be placed in the new banks to fight erosion, and retention ponds will be carved to hold runoff and sediment.
It amounts to a “dispersion of energy, not a concentration,” when it comes to runoff, Rosgen said.
Flooding and erosion around Westcreek have been so severe because the fire burned so hot here, leaving the soil loose and unable to soak up rain. And with numerous steep gullies and roads, runoff can quickly become a torrent that damages nearby homes and roads and fills reservoirs with sediment, including those downstream on the South Platte River.
Rosgen identified 57 drainages and 157 miles of creeks in 13.5 square miles that need work. The initial $1.45 million included $165,000 for the study and funding to restore about 2.5 miles of Trail Creek and six smaller drainages. It will take years to complete the rest, though Botts said that with Rosgen’s report and expertise shared with the Forest Service, the agency will be able to do some work on its own.
Floods, however, will continue to occur, officials said.
“You can assume you’re going to have more frequent, higher-volume floods. There is no doubt,” Rosgen said. “It’s not going to change until the forested part of the burn grows back and is re-forested again, probably 80 years.”
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