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The Grizzly Creek fire is threatening the Colorado River and water for the entire West

As the Grizzly Creek Fire rips through Glenwood Canyon, it endangers vital infrastructure for millions of westerners. Sediment and debris could foul the Colorado River for years to come.

The Grizzly Creek fire burns in rugged terrain just north of Glenwood Springs on Friday August 14, 2020. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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EAGLE — White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams was driving home from vacation on Aug. 10 when he glanced up and saw the plumes billowing out of Glenwood Canyon and knew a historic wildfire was coming.

It wasn’t just that the flames licking up the craggy canyon walls were threatening homes, a railroad, a major highway and a power plant. It’s that the now 25,000-acre-and-growing Grizzly Creek Fire was burning in the municipal water supply of Glenwood Springs and in the headwaters of the Colorado River watershed, which eventually slakes more than 40 million downstream users. 

“I knew we were in trouble,” Fitzwilliams said.

In many ways, the Grizzly Creek Fire — the largest in the history of the White River National Forest — is a public works fire, threatening vital infrastructure for millions of westerners, all wedged into a tiny sliver of steep canyon that pretty much prevents on-the-ground firefighting. 

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“That watershed and municipal water supply, after people and their homes, has been one of our highest priorities in this fire,” Fitzwilliams said. “I have not been involved in a fire in such a relatively small area where there are so many things going on.”

The Grizzly Creek Fire’s proximity to homes in a challenging and critical watershed is only part of the reason it ranks as the nation’s top firefighting priority.  

“In addition, fire behavior, fuel conditions, critical fire weather forecasts, potential for extreme fire behavior, and resistance to control are also factors” for federal fire agencies when ranking priorities for national firefighting assets like air tankers, helicopters, hot shot crews and smokejumpers, said incident command spokesman Mike Ferris.

A Type-2 helicopter dips water from the Colorado River along I-70 north of Glenwood Springs on Aug. 14, 2020. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Grizzly Creek wildfire is unique because ground crews are not fighting flames in the precipitous Glenwood Canyon. They can’t even reach them. Firefighters can’t haul their hand tools up the steep canyon walls. They can’t venture into narrow side drainages where flames could trap them. That means this is an airshow, with both air tanker jets and helicopters dumping fire retardant and water to help ground crews above the canyon — along Coffee Pot Road and above the No Name drainage — build lines to corral the fire. 

Firefighters on the Grizzly Creek fire are working toward total suppression, Ferris said, just as they are at the Pine Gulch, Cameron Peak and Williams Fork fires. 

Firefighters are using a variety of strategies in their mission to protect water and watersheds. Those include avoiding retardant drops within 300 feet of water. Helicopters also avoid scooping water from rivers, streams and lakes known to contain invasive species, like zebra mussels or water fleas. Crews are not building bulldozer lines on steep slopes or in identified debris-flow zones and municipal watersheds. Crews also protect plant ecology in different canyons by cleaning equipment before arriving on a scene and using a vehicle-cleaning station at the incident command post in Eagle to remove noxious weeds and other invasive species.

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The National Interagency Fire Center’s Burned Area Emergency Response team — or BAER — typically arrives at a fire after it has been contained to address repair, rehabilitation and restoration of terrain damaged by flames and suppression work. At Grizzly Creek, which is 0% contained, the BAER team joined the initial firefighters in assessing potential impacts. 

The BAER team is studying satellite imagery and fire growth to assess possible debris flows that could clog the Colorado River or block Interstate 70 in a rain storm after the fire. They study topography, geology and geography in burn zones — as well as data from other similar fires — to predict where debris may cause problems as rain scours burn zones.

They’ve been through the drill before. In July 1994, the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs burned nearly 2,000 acres. Two months later, a September rainstorm deposited more than 25 tons of scorched debris onto sections of Interstate 70 spanning more than 3 miles west of the city. And the fire on Storm King, which killed 14 firefighters, was in less steep terrain than the Grizzly Creek Fire.

The BAER team is working with Glenwood Springs to help the city predict potential impacts to its water supply as well as possible disruptions in the flow of the Colorado River, which eventually delivers water to residents in Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California. 

Hydro-electric plant shut down by fire

The Colorado River Conservation District, which spans 15 counties on the Western Slope, is not working with firefighters but it is watching closely for how rainstorms in the fall might impact the watershed. The district has water in its own Wolford Mountain Reservoir upstream of the fire and leased water in Ruedi Reservoir downstream to use if debris causes problems with river health or the needs of its municipal users. 

One issue the district is watching closely is the shutdown of Xcel Energy’s Shoshone hydro-electric power plant inside Glenwood Canyon. That historic power plant has lost transmission lines in the fire and will not quickly return to service after the fire is extinguished. 

The Shoshone Generating Station has one of the largest and oldest water rights on the Colorado River, allowing it to divert 1,250 cubic-feet-per-second of Colorado River water for its non-consumptive use. That water is sucked from a dam in Glenwood Canyon near the Hanging Lake trailhead and funneled through 2 miles of diversion tunnels along the canyon’s northern wall into two penstocks tucked high in the cliffs of the canyon. The water tumbles down to the riverbed and turns two 7.5-megawatt turbines inside the 1909 power plant. Electricity from the plant is distributed across the Western Slope. 

In the middle of the summer, pretty much the entire Colorado River is directed through those tunnels and deposited back into the river at the Shoshone boat ramp, fueling one of the state’s most vibrant rafting economies. (In 2019, more than 65,000 commercial rafters floated through Glenwood Canyon, spending more than $8.8 million.)

The Shoshone plant shut down in February after ice buildup damaged the tunnels. It took months for Xcel to repair equipment and the utility only resumed generating electricity on July 25. The plant shut down again shortly after the Grizzly Creek Fire exploded a few miles downstream. 

An Xcel spokeswoman said in a statement that the company’s crews were working with firefighters to protect the historic power plant. 

Large red containers to mix fire retardant sit in the middle of I-70 near No Name, north of Glenwood Springs. The makeshift helicopter dipping area will aid three different types of firefighting helicopters tasked with dropping retardant on the Grizzly Creek Fire. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When the Shoshone Power Plant is offline, river flows can drop because the plant is not exercising its senior rights for water and users upstream can store and use their junior rights. But a 40-year agreement forged in 2016 between a host of federal, state and regional water managers — called the Shoshone Outage Protocol Agreement — keeps water in the river when the power plant is shut down for repair or maintenance. Without that agreement, the Colorado River would be ankle deep in Glenwood Canyon when the Shoshone plan is shut down as it is now.

Colorado River could have murky sediment for years 

It likely will take five to seven years for the downstream watershed to recover from the burn scar inside Glenwood Canyon, said Kevin Houck, chief of the watershed and flood protection section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. 

During the next two or three years, the scorched soil won’t absorb even small amounts of rain. Instead, rainwater will flow into the river, carrying ashy soil and soot along with it, he said. 

“We see instances where as little as a quarter- to a third-inch of rain can trigger debris flows,” Houck said.

The fire tearing through Glenwood Canyon reminds Houck of the 2012 fire in Waldo Canyon, which, for years afterward, affected the water flowing in Fountain Creek toward Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs. Grizzly Creek is in some ways more challenging because the sides of Glenwood Canyon are steeper.

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The water board, housed within the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, is studying what happens in Glenwood Canyon and has plans to warn residents of the canyon and Glenwood Springs what to expect as the river fills with ash, soil and torched pieces of trees. When the fire is out, water scientists from the department will begin the work of trying to improve the health of the river. 

Houck isn’t worried about increased flooding in the area, mainly just a high amount of sediment that will turn the river silty and muddy. It will affect the water supply, as well as rafting and fishing. The area is already prone to rockslides, and those will increase, he said, perhaps even creating new rapids.

The first few years it will seem almost as if “no recovery is taking place at all,” Houck said. “Boy, I’ll tell you, I think you’re going to see these conditions in Glenwood Canyon for another two summers after this. It’s going to be like that every time you get a thunderstorm running through the canyon.”

The river isn’t expected to stay murky all the way to California, he said. As the Colorado River flows into Glenwood, it’s joined by the Roaring Fork, which will dilute it somewhat, and then further downstream, it’s joined by the Gunnison. 

“I would suspect this is going to be a Colorado problem — we’re not going to see the majority of this sediment flowing to Lake Powell,” he said. 

While Houck, like the rest of Colorado, celebrated the news that the forest surrounding Hanging Lake had been spared, he wasn’t entirely relieved. People should prepare themselves for long-lasting effects that reshape the whole area, including Hanging Lake, one of the state’s most beloved natural lakes. 

“That area is still under a big threat in the coming years,” he said. “It’s going to be under a lot of stress.” 

Hanging Lake near Glenwood Springs. White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said much of the lake and surrounding area, including the boardwalk, “are very much intact” after the Grizzly Creek Fire swept through the area. (Photo by Max and Dee Bernt, via Flickr)

Denver Water spent $18 million dredging up sediment after Hayman Fire

The folks responsible for Glenwood Springs’ water supply have already reached out to Denver Water, which has spent more than $30 million in the past decade to help make forests more resilient to wildfire. 

After the Hayman Fire in 2002, Denver Water spent $18.5 million dredging sediment out of the utility’s main source of water, Strontia Springs Reservoir. The water utility spent an additional $9 million on equipment and infrastructure at its treatment plants to get the extra minerals and organic carbons out of the city’s drinking water. 

“We’re still dealing with the impacts today and the costs today,” said Christina Burri, a watershed scientist for Denver Water. 

In 2010, Denver Water began its “From Forests to Faucets” partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado State Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The agencies match Denver Water’s contribution, and use the funds to keep forests healthier — all for the purpose of avoiding another major wildfire, like the Hayman Fire, which burned more than 130,000 acres and 133 homes.

“The goal is to reduce the intensity of those fires,” Burri said. “When you have a lot of fuel in the forest, and you have an unhealthy forest, it can create a really hot fire. That changes the soil structure and it causes it to be more erosive. You get accelerated erosion and that all ends up in the reservoirs.”

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Glenwood Springs and Denver Water do not share the same watershed, but Denver Water officials plan to share lessons learned from the Hayman Fire as well as the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire, which caused erosion and massive flooding. Burri also plans to share the state’s post-fire playbook, which helps local governments plan for the aftermath. 

Several other water utilities — including Colorado Springs and Aurora — are working on similar partnerships with forest agencies. 

“Partnering is essential — we have to work together,” Burri said. “We are in a fire-adapted ecosystem so we’re going to have fires, it’s just trying to understand fire behavior and trying to reduce these costly impacts post-fire.”

For years, the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest was dubbed “the asbestos forest” for its resiliency against large wildfires. But the seven largest fires in the forest have occurred since 2002, which Fitzwilliams says is due to a warming, drier climate. 

“These subtle changes in climate can result in significant changes in fire behavior, and I believe we are seeing exactly that right now,” he said. “Combine it with more development and a ton more people and it just creates the conditions where these large, complex fires are going to be more common moving forward.”

Fitzwilliams said the fire above the canyon is proving ecologically beneficial as it spreads across meadows and groves of dense aspen, scrub oak and piñon. 

“It’s the canyon area and those watersheds that are our biggest concerns,” he said. “Our forest plan emphasizes watershed protection heavily. This fire is stressing that part of our management. We will deal with this for years to come, I’m sure.”

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