Updated: June 26, 2012 at 12:00 am
The Waldo Canyon fire has spread to one of the most crucial links in Colorado Springs’ far-flung water system, Rampart Reservoir.
The fire destroyed power lines leading to the reservoir overnight Monday, forcing backup generators to kick on, and the flames were three-quarters of a mile away early Tuesday.
“We are absolutely concerned. We don’t want anything to adversely impact our water supply, but I think we’re in pretty good shape,” said Andy Funchess, field operations manager for water systems operations for Colorado Springs Utilities.
The reservoir collects 70 million gallons a day from the Homestake Pipeline, diverted from high in the mountains near the Continental Divide. It is then piped downhill to a treatment plant and into the faucets of Colorado Springs.
Funchess said the fire doesn’t pose a threat to drinking water availability. Pipelines are buried and there is only one operational building, a valve house that has no trees or vegetation nearby, though a caretaker’s home could be threatened. The generators can power the facility for up to two weeks, and even if officials can’t get in to restore power or refill generators, gravity will keep the water flowing, he said.
Of greater concern is the long-term impact if the fire burns through the watershed.
About 20 miles north of Woodland Park, what happened at Cheesman Reservoir, owned by Denver Water, showed how devastating fires can be for drinking water supplies. The 1996 Buffalo Creek and 2002 Hayman fires scorched thousands of acres of watershed, and a decade later, water users are still paying the price.
Denver Water spokeswoman Stacy Chesney said the utility has spent $26 million restoring Cheesman and the surrounding hillsides since 1996. The problem is erosion. Every rainstorm after the fire sent ash, mud and debris into the lake, clogging facilities and piling up on the dam. The South Platte River below the dam ran black with muck.
“Because the vegetation takes a long time to reestablish, we see a lot more erosion when there’s a big rain, which then can wash into our system,” Chesney said.
Denver Water is still working to plant trees, control erosion and capture sediment around the reservoir and will be for years to come. It’s a nightmare scenario for Colorado Springs, though Funchess said conditions are different around Rampart Reservoir.
He said Rampart is not surrounded by the same steep terrain as Cheesman, so it’s not a “natural collection system.” But if the fire burned much of the land around it, there would be impacts, and officials would need to plant vegetation and control runoff. The lake could be closed to boating and fishing for an extended period as well, he said.
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