Colorado Springs Utilities will partner with the U.S. Forest Service in a wide-ranging agreement to restore the Waldo Canyon burn scar and protect watersheds in the utility’s water system.
The partnership was announced Thursday at the Flying W Ranch, the popular tourist destination largely destroyed by last summer’s Waldo Canyon fire, the most destructive in Colorado history.
The two agencies signed a “memorandum of understanding” for protection of watersheds, under which Utilities will spend $6 million over the next five to 10 years on projects in the burn scar area and in the 10 other counties that hold part of the city’s far-flung system that diverts water beneath the Continental Divide and from the Arkansas River.
Flooding is a major concern in the years after a forest fire, because burned areas don’t absorb moisture. In Colorado Springs, the threat is exacerbated by the steep hills and large number of homes in the path of potential flooding.
The agreement doesn’t call for the Forest Service to spend any certain amount, but rather to “complete on-the-ground planning and treatment in areas that complement Colorado Springs Utilities investments,” according to a news release. Projects will focus on preventing flooding and wildfires in city watersheds.
“Just about everywhere we take water from we’re coordinating and partnering with the Forest Service,” said Utilities Water Service Officer Gary Bostrom.
“The Forest Service … is the landlord here and has to manage the property properly so the surrounding communities are not adversely affected, to the degree humanly possible,” said U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs.
“We’re going to deal with a number of these restoration issues as a result of the fire, but equally important we’re going to try to get ahead of the curve and be proactive with future threats and future issues that come up,” said Harris Sherman, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment.
He called the partnership with Utilities “part of a model we are building in the Front Range of Colorado.”
Forest Service Pikes Peak District Ranger Allan Hahn said it’s too soon to say how many national forest acres will be involved.
The memorandum of understanding is independent of federal emergency watershed protection funds local officials have been seeking since the embers were still smoldering.
Sherman said $9 million of $19 million allocated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service to Colorado to help recovery from last summer’s wildfires will come to El Paso County for watershed projects. He hopes the money will be delivered by the end of April.
The announcement was held at the Flying W Ranch to show the type of work that will be done. Volunteer groups have been working for months, reseeding, planting trees and building structures to slow runoff and control erosion, such as log barriers on hillsides and ponds along creeks to hold water.
Jason Moore, director of facilities and operations at the ranch, said volunteers have built 25,000 linear feet of log barriers and built five ponds to catch runoff. The destroyed buildings have been cleaned up and the ranch hopes to build a pavilion this summer “just to get music back in the hills, get some of our people back employed.”
But with so many bare hillsides looming above the ranch, the work will go on for a long time.
“I won’t feel optimistic for years to come. There’s a tremendous amount of work,” he said. “We’re looking at years of work on the property.”