C-BT Headwaters Partnership

Devastating Wildfires Scarred Watersheds
With years of record-breaking drought conditions and beetle epidemics, it’s not surprising that 2012 and 2013 brought devastating wildfires to Colorado, leaving scarred watersheds and serious water quality concerns in their wake.

The devastation brought on by the wildfires led to the formation in 2012 of the C-BT Headwaters Partnership between Northern Water, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado State Forest Service and the U.S. Forest Service. The three entities signed a memorandum of understanding in 2012.

The goal of the partnership is to proactively restore forest and watershed health, and to preplan post-wildfire response to protect C-BT infrastructure and water supplies. Watersheds include those on the West Slope in the headwaters of the Colorado River, and those on the East Slope in the headwaters of the Big Thompson River. 

Grasses in Lory State Park above Horsetooth Reservoir have
regenerated as a result of seeding and mulching following the High
Park Fire
. The C-BT Headwaters Partnership is working to restore
watershed health following the devastating wildfires in 2012 and 2013.

Burn Areas Susceptible to Runoff and Erosion
At least a quarter of Northeastern Colorado’s drinking water supply comes from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which collects and delivers water to a 1.6-million-acre area with 860,000 residents. Burn areas in C-BT watersheds are susceptible to increased rates of runoff and erosion after vegetation and soil is burned. When precipitation and resulting runoff bring post-fire sediment, ash or debris into streams or facilities, drinking water treatment becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Farming can also be harmed by fires. More than 120 ditch companies and many individuals own C-BT water, which irrigates about 650,000 acres in the region. Ash, sediment and debris can clog diversion structures, conveyance facilities and sprinkler equipment.
In summer 2013, the Munroe Canal diversion, which diverts from the Poudre River within the High Park Fire burn area and delivers C-BT water to the North Poudre Irrigation Company, became plugged with rock and debris during heavy rains. Deliveries were interrupted for 10 days while crews removed hundreds of cubic yards of material.

The 2012 fire season was a wakeup call to water supply entities in Northern Colorado that watershed health is paramount to delivering clean, reliable water to customers. This, along with other Colorado water suppliers’ experiences responding to wildfire and forest health planning led to the formation of the C-BT Headwaters Partnership. 
Changing Watershed Conditions 
Due to a variety of factors, including tree mortality caused by the mountain pine beetle epidemic, drought and the buildup of fuels in the forested landscape, C-BT watersheds on the West and East Slopes are becoming more susceptible to high-intensity wildfires that create poor water quality runoff conditions. Protection of C-BT water is important to Northern Water. 

Water quality has gained even more attention because of the High Park Fire. The City of Fort Collins, City of Greeley, and the Soldier Canyon Filter Plant – which together serve drinking water to more than 300,000 people in Northern Colorado – are relying more heavily on Horsetooth Reservoir because of occasionally untreatable Poudre River supplies. 
One of the immediate goals of the C-BT Headwaters Partnership is to develop a five-year operating plan that can be used by agencies to develop individual levels of funding for the cooperative efforts.

A local contractor removed dead lodgepole pine and other
timber at the Willow Creek timber sale in Grand County
in 2013.

Wildfire  Zones of Concern
Map shows wildfire zones of concern in the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
Click map to view it.


Composite Hazard Ranking
Map shows Colorado-Big Thompson Project small watershed composite hazard ranking.
Click map to view it. 

Wildfire Zones of Concern and Watershed Analysis
Utilizing procedures developed by the Front Range Watershed Protection Data Refinement Workgroup, which built upon recommendations by the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, J.W. Associates developed zones-of-concern priorities and a small watershed analysis, which will serve as the technical backbone of the operating plan. Zones of concern are a subset of C-BT watersheds that are of particular importance due to their proximity to C-BT facilities. 

The operating plan, currently being developed by the partnership, will develop goals for overall watershed health, targeted types and levels of treatments within each watershed, and estimated costs for these treatments.  Timelines for treatment will largely depend on the level of funding available from each entity. Projects will complement more than 16,000 acres of treatments already completed within C-BT watersheds by the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Larimer County, private landowners in conjunction with the Colorado State Forest Service and others.
Watershed and Fuels Reduction Projects
The C-BT Headwaters Partnership used preliminary planning documents to begin implementing targeted watershed and fuels reduction projects throughout C-BT watersheds.

In 2013, Northern Water received a $133,780 Wildfire Risk Reduction Grant from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources for projects on both the West and East slopes. The projects are administered by Northern Water and the Colorado State Forest Service, with grant money sub-granted to private land-owners on a 50/50 cost share basis. Treatments included the Willow Creek timber sale on approximately 115 acres of forested land owned by Northern Water in the Willow Creek watershed, and 230 acres of treatments on private land in the Shadow Mountain Reservoir area, East Portal area south of Estes Park, and Pole Hill area west of Carter Lake.
In 2014, Northern Water received a second Wildfire Risk Reduction Grant for $131,000 in partnership with Larimer County Department of Natural Resources and private landowners to implement fuels reduction projects on the East Slope, again on a 50/50 cost share basis.  Work began in July 2014 on approximately 220 acres at  Chimney Hollow Open Space and adjacent lands owned by Northern Water, Horsetooth Mountain Open Space, and at Cheley Colorado Camps south of Estes Park.
Northern Water and the U.S Forest Service entered into an agreement in June 2014 to split the cost for a $180,000 project to treat 205 acres in the Kawuneeche Valley on the West Slope. The purpose of the project is to improve the health and resiliency of forests and watersheds in areas critical for providing and delivering water.
Projects focus on fuels reduction and forest restoration. The work includes the removal of dead, dying and disease infected trees, thinning, creating patch cuts in unnaturally dense stands, and creating fuel breaks.  At the Willow Creek timber sale, aspen regeneration will be encouraged as they are known to provide good fire resistance.  Biomass is utilized for commercial or other uses where reasonable.
Keith Stagg

More Information
For more detailed information on the fires, watersheds, response efforts and maps, see these publications and links: 

  Colorado’s Forests: Challenges and Opportunities Video Series