GLENWOOD SPRINGS — The Grizzly Creek Fire was not even 10% contained. Jumbo jets still were dousing flames as firefighting teams from across the country scrambled to protect Glenwood Springs and a critical watershed above the Colorado River. And teams of scientists were in Glenwood Canyon, too, battling alongside firefighters.
Those hydrologists, biologists, geologists, archaeologists and recreation specialists are still there, even after the flames are gone, waging a behind-the-scenes battle to protect water and natural resources.
“So much of the wildfire recovery process is out of the public eye, but I think this is critically important,” said White River National Forest ecologist Elizabeth Roberts, who coordinated the multi-agency team of scientists who responded to the Grizzly Creek Fire while the flames raged unabated. “This was absolutely a community team effort to work through the wildfire and the short and long-term effect of this wildfire. We are going to be here for a while.”
Burned Area Emergency Response — or BAER — teams typically come in when a fire is 50% contained to assess damage and create a multi-year restoration plan. Roberts and the Grizzly Creek Fire BAER crew were on the ground when less than 10% of the fire was contained as both forest and fire managers recognized threats to water supplies. In less than three weeks, they had a map detailing where the Grizzly Creek Fire burned hottest, which helped the Colorado Department of Transportation identify areas where rockfall hazards increased in the fire.
In a twist on the BAER assessment — which usually focuses on protecting resources after a fire — the team helped build an emergency communication plan that helped firefighters in the canyon, and identified areas where they could swiftly take cover in the event of rockfall or a sudden rainstorm that could sweep debris and rocks off canyon walls.
It was this early assessment that sparked an urgent plea for help from Glenwood Springs. As firefighters battled back flames on the western edge of the wildfire, the city’s leaders rallied politicians far and wide to acknowledge damage to the city’s water supply infrastructure. Barely three weeks after the wildfire sparked along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, the city had a list of immediate work needed to protect the city’s watershed.
Sen. Michael Bennet prodded the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to unleash millions from the federal Emergency Watershed Protection program. Glenwood Springs was first in line, with a clear message that spring snowmelt, or even a rainstorm, could cripple the city’s water supply.
Bennet in early September convened a meeting with the media on a closed stretch of I-70 in Glenwood Canyon and cheered the swift, coordinated response to the Grizzly Creek Fire.
“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,” Bennet said at the time, standing only a few feet from where the fire sparked and eventually grew to 32,631 acres.
It didn’t take long for Glenwood Springs to identify immediate repairs and upgrades to protect water systems from expected sediment and debris flowing from scorched canyon walls. First on the list were intake systems on Glenwood Canyon’s Grizzly and No Name creeks. The city also needed an upgrade to a backup water intake on the Roaring Fork River, should the systems in the canyon go down. And finally, the city is eager to finish a long-planned bridge that could help residents flee a wildfire on the south end of town.
By early September, less than a month after the Grizzly Creek Fire started, the city had a list of $86 million in projects. And the money started flowing almost immediately.
The city secured more than $1 million from the NRCS’s Emergency Watershed Program for projects to protect intake infrastructure on No Name and Grizzly creeks, high above the Colorado River.
The city asked the NRCS for wiggle room on the requirement that municipalities pay 25% of the total grant. The service agreed to an 80-20 split, which meant the city needed a little less than $200,000 to protect the structures that funnel millions of gallons of water a day into the city’s water treatment plant.
Work on the Grizzly Creek intake started first, with helicopters ferrying workers 3.8 miles up the drainage. The workers put in steel plates to protect the diversion and valve systems from debris that could clog the intake during the next big rain or spring melt. They stabilized the banks upstream and downstream of the intake, which required flying 11 cubic yards of cement up the drainage.
The team finished in October and then turned to No Name Creek, where intake diversions and valves are accessible by truck. That work included similar protections as Grizzly Creek, plus a concrete wall to keep debris from hitting a city structure on No Name Creek.
The No Name work also included upgrades to a 1962 tunnel near the bottom of the creek, with new strainers and filters designed to remove bulky sediment before water reaches the treatment plant. The No Name work is ongoing but will be completed before the spring melt.
In addition to the intake repairs and upgrades, Glenwood Springs this month secured an $8 million loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The money was among the first awarded through the board’s 2020 Wildfire Impact Loan program, which streamlines funding for municipalities racing to protect watersheds after a wildfire. The program offers 30-year loans with no payment necessary for the first three years.
The $8 million will help design and construct new pipelines from the city’s pump station on the Roaring Fork River, which delivers water uphill to the Red Mountain Water Treatment Plant. Glenwood Springs has two water sources: the intake systems on No Name and Grizzly creeks and the pumps on the Roaring Fork River. The Roaring Fork water is a backup in case either of the intakes on the creeks above the Colorado River go down. But the intakes in Glenwood Canyon and the pumps on the Roaring Fork cannot run at the same time, and the city is building a second pipeline into the Red Mountain Water Treatment Plant so the two sources can deliver water simultaneously, if needed.
“This will give us a lot of resiliency moving into the future. Not just fire resiliency, but it gives us a lot of water resource resiliency,” said Matt Langhorst, the public works director for Glenwood Springs. “Having one water source is not acceptable. We need two or three and this would give us three.”
Glenwood Springs is applying for a Department of Local Affairs grant for the pipeline running from the Roaring Fork River, which would reduce its loan amount from the CWCB.
A third project, still part of that $8 million from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, will plan and construct a concrete basin above the Red Mountain Water Treatment plant that will mix water coming from the Grizzly Creek and No Name intakes with the water from the Roaring Fork River. The mixing basin helps remove sediment and creates a consistent type of water so technicians do not need to overhaul various treatment processes to accommodate different sources of water.
A fourth project — and the biggest — would upgrade the entire Red Mountain Water Treatment Plant, which has not been updated since 1977. An upgraded plant, with new technology, would be able to more quickly and efficiently remove sediment from higher volumes of incoming water.
Beyond the water projects, Glenwood Springs is seeking $29 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s “Building Resilient Infrastructure & Communities” program to pay for about half of a new bridge over the Roaring Fork River.
The “South Bridge” was what spurred Jonathan Godes to run for Glenwood Springs City Council in 2016. Godes, who is now mayor, called the Coal Seam Fire in 2002 “a warning shot.” That fire burned more than 12,000 acres, destroyed 29 homes in the city and forced the evacuation of thousands who waited in long lines to escape the wildfire. The city in 2005 secured a $5 million federal earmark — thanks to then-U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis — to launch land acquisition, environmental study and design of a bridge that could help residents more easily escape a wildfire in south Glenwood Springs.
The bridge design is nearing completion and the Roaring Fork Transit Authority has committed $4 million to its construction, which the city estimates at close to $45 million. The city has bond funds approved by voters in 2016 and is pursuing support from Garfield County’s commissioners, hoping to have a sizable pool of money that could match federal investment as part of any new infrastructure legislation.
“If there is an infrastructure spending bill that comes out this next Congress, we need to be well positioned to take advantage of that,” said Godes, who fears a “Paradise, California, scenario” without a new bridge, drawing comparisons to the 2018 Camp Fire that torched the entire northern California town of Paradise. “We have a very competitive project and I think we are a very attractive proposition to attract funding,” he said.
Grizzly Creek was the nation’s top priority for several weeks, with the country’s top firefighting teams corralling the flames before they swept into the city.
“I can’t imagine trying to fight this fire alongside the fires in California, Grand County and the Front Range,” Godes said, praising firefighters whose swift response prevented the fire from spreading west and into the city. “If we didn’t have those firefighters there, we might be talking about a town that doesn’t have the caverns and adventure park. They are the reason this fire stopped — at what, 35,000 acres? — and didn’t reach 350,000 acres.”
Sprinkling special-made seeds
The Colorado Water Conservation Board’s emergency loan program was developed in response to the 2013 floods. The idea was to get emergency funds approved by the board ahead of time so communities do not have to wait through a prolonged application and review process. The board’s emergency loan program distributed $23 million in emergency watershed protection funding following the devastating floods in September 2013.
“We still have to take this to the board for approval for each of these loans but now it can be done in a matter of a couple weeks as opposed to a few months or longer,” said Matt Stearns, a project manager with the CWCB who helps applicants navigate the board’s loan programs.
Communities do not have to pay interest for the first three years of the CWCB loan, which allows time for other grants and federal assistance programs to land.
“This loan program, with us providing funding up front, is a powerful tool for giving communities the ability to get moving with these projects before the spring runoff, which is critical for Glenwood Springs,” Stearns said. “I think we definitely look at this as a model for success.”
Roberts, the White River ecologist, joined fire management officials in the first days of the Grizzly Creek Fire, recognizing the threats posed by scorched earth in the watershed and critical transportation corridor.
With the fire climbing out the canyon by the middle of September and the risk to crews reduced through communication plans and safety maps, Roberts’ BAER team of specialists started their work on emergency stabilization and long-term restoration.
They created a second burn severity map along with a satellite-derived data map of vegetation in the burn zone. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Landslide Hazards Program also created a similar map identifying areas where debris flow could be heaviest during a rainstorm.
The BAER team started hiking into the canyon, sometimes driving up to the top of the canyon and dropping in from above, and sometimes hiking up. They scoured the soil in burn areas for organic, woody debris and intact roots, which raise the likelihood of natural recovery. Roberts said new plants already are pushing through the charred topsoil.
“What we have seen to date is there is a lot of that organic material and native seed left in the soil that is allowing a lot to come back,” Roberts said, describing a patchy burn in a “mosaic” pattern. “We see good potential for recovery.”
Roberts and her team assisted the natural recovery process, sprinkling seeds as soon as rain and snow dampened the soil. They walked all the fire suppression lines where bulldozers hastily cleared entire swaths of forest and yanked out non-native weeds that took root. And they threw seeds everywhere.
Roberts collected native grass seed from the nearby Flat Tops to create a seed mix for Glenwood Canyon. The mix will produce resilient grasses that help stabilize soil and combat invasive weeds. The team’s reseeding of suppression lines is nearing completion as the snow piles deeper. The stabilization work will continue into next summer.
Emergency trail and road stabilization will pick up in the spring, when Roberts will move into the restoration phase, which includes aggressive mitigation to prevent non-native weeds and monitoring vegetation growth.
Researchers with Utah State University also joined Roberts in the field and launched a year-long study of how the Grizzly Creek Fire impacts runoff and erosion. The researchers expect the data — gathered from USGS gauges upstream and downstream of the burn zone as well as monitoring equipment inside the canyon — will help better calibrate the models used to predict debris flow in areas burned by wildfire.
“Ultimately, this data will directly support and inform post-wildfire management and restoration, which costs tens of millions of dollars across the western U.S. each year,” reads the university’s research proposal for a grant from the National Science Foundation, which last week awarded the school $50,000 for the study.