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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)

GLENWOOD CANYON — Standing mere feet from where a human-caused spark on Interstate 70 above the Colorado River ignited the now 32,000-acre Grizzly Creek fire, Jonathan Godes painted a nightmare scenario that could have been. 

Glenwood Springs’ mayor said if that spark had been 5 miles downstream and exploded into a wildfire the size of Grizzly Creek on the south end of his city, it would have trapped more than 5,000 residents without a way to escape and “we would be talking about people dying in cars and people losing homes and another Paradise,” said Godes, referring to the northern California town was that leveled by the 2018 Camp Fire. 

“We would not just be talking about water,” he said. “We would be talking about lives lost.”

Glenwood Springs residents and homes may not be threatened by flames from the Grizzly Creek Fire, but the city’s water supply is imperiled by the deluge of ash, debris and mud that will pour into the Colorado River in the coming months when rain, snow and ice melt scour the scorched walls of Glenwood Canyon.

The city has identified $86 million in critical projects it needs to protect its water and residents from the ravages of the Grizzly Creek Fire, now 82% contained, and future wildfires. The city needs $261,000 by the end of October to protect its existing water supply and another $10.2 million before year’s end for debris and sediment mitigation projects.

The Grizzly Creek Fire started Aug. 10 in the median between the eastbound and westbound lanes of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon and climbed the canyon’s north wall before spreading throughout the canyon. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

“Water is our life and it is our lifeline and that is what is being threatened right now,” Godes said. 

The city is presenting state and federal agencies with a big ask for not just disaster recovery, but pre-disaster mitigation. It wants $45 million for a new bridge over the Roaring Fork River to provide a fire evacuation route for roughly 5,000 residents living up Four Mile Road, a narrow valley with only one road accessing a small bridge over the river. The city said it would use bond proceeds to raise $14.3 million for the $57.3 million bridge.

The city got some federal funding for planning the South Bridge over the Roaring Fork after the 2002 Coal Seam Fire, which burned 29 homes and forced the evacuation of thousands of Four Mile and West Glenwood residents. 

“The town is ready to go,” said Godes, noting that the city is able to begin building the bridge in the spring next year.  

Glenwood Springs also is requesting $1.8 million from the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Emergency Watershed Program to protect its water supply from ash and debris. The city is hoping the service will reduce the requirement that local municipalities provide a 25% match and only require a 10% match for the project. 

Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes thanks firefighters during a presentation with local, regional, state and federal agencies and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, middle, in Glenwood Canyon on Sept. 3, 2020. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Gene Backhaus, the acting state conservationist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service, said the agency’s Colorado team has put together a plan for recovery work in the Glenwood Springs watershed and last week received $3.7 million in federal funding to protect municipal infrastructure in Colorado. 

“We are trying to assist counties in a more lucrative sense and getting them from 75% of those funds and up to potentially 90% of those funds,” he said Thursday, during a gathering in Glenwood Canyon with a host of local, regional, state and federal officials working on restoration, rehabilitation and revegetation in the Grizzly Creek Fire burn zone above the Colorado River. 

Glenwood Springs also is seeking a $1.4 million water plan grant and 30-year loan of $7.9 million from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to upgrade its emergency water supply infrastructure to better protect the city’s Red Mountain Water Treatment Plant from sediment runoff. 

The city plans to apply for a $1 million Department of Local Affairs grant to pay for a pipeline connecting the city’s emergency water pumps on the Roaring Fork River with its Red Mountain Water Treatment Plant, which treats water from the Colorado River. 

The Colorado Water Conservation Board estimates it will take seven years for the watershed below the Grizzly Creek Fire to recover. 

“We stand ready to be part of the solution,” the board’s director Becky Mitchell said Thursday at the gathering.

There was a potpourri of agency acronyms on the empty stretch of Interstate 70 above the Grizzly Creek rest area on Thursday. 

There were representatives from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Glenwood Springs, Garfield County, the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Colorado Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team that is working to contain the wildfire, the Federal Highway Administration, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Colorado River District and the Forest Service. 

Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet listens to a host of local, regional, state and federal officials discussing the multi-agency effort to protect watersheds downstream of the Grizzly Creek Fire. The group met on a closed stretch of Interstate 70 on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020, a few steps away from where the fire started. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

And they were all working together on a multi-agency, multi-million-dollar plan to help restore the scarred landscape above the Colorado River. 

“The debris flows and ash flows that are going to come as we see rain, flows and ice melt, make the rehab and revegetation efforts and restoration efforts here … absolutely critical to the quality of our drinking water and the quality of our food grown in Western Colorado,” Colorado River District manager Andy Mueller said. 

Many of the attendees, which included Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, heralded the cooperative effort as a new model for swift, multi-agency response to not just containing a fire, but repairing the burn zone. 

The trees along Grizzly Creek were largely unscathed by the Grizzly Creek Fire but the cliffs above the creek that spills into the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon are scorched. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Bennet on Thursday announced the Natural Resource Conservation Service has approved the first wave of $5 million of Emergency Watershed Protection funds for wildfire restoration projects in Mesa, Garfield, Larimer and Grand counties. 

 “I tell my colleagues in the Senate all the time, if you are downstream of Colorado you need to care about Colorado’s watershed and you need to care about the condition of Colorado’s national forests,” said Bennet, who wore a U.S. Forest Service cap and urged for more people working on fire mitigation projects on public land. “A lot of this has to do with how good a job we are doing taking care of our forests. When you see the kind of collaboration that is represented here, I think it shows what is possible, not just on the back end of a crisis like this but on the front end as well.”

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins