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Opinion: Protecting rivers is key to preparing Colorado for wildfires

Contrary to the common phrase, fire and water actually do mix – and there’s often a direct connection between the two. 

This year in particular, wildfires have gripped Colorado with historic magnitude. And while we often think of property damage and air quality as the most immediate consequences of severe wildfire, rivers and drinking water supplies are often wildfire casualties as well.

2020 was Colorado’s third-driest water year on record and one of our warmest, with the hottest  August since record-keeping began in 1895. Models show that climate change and historic drought will continue to affect the Colorado River Basin and increase the severity and frequency of wildfires. 

Abby Burk

To combat this, we must strive to bolster the resiliency of both land and water, including our rivers and streams, to support our communities that rely upon them.

The good news is that Coloradans across the state recognize the need to invest in our rivers.

Voters this year approved two ballot measures that will generate additional funding to support the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District as well as the Colorado River Water Conservation District. The measures will generate a combined $8 million per year to support healthy rivers, local agriculture, watershed health and water quality across both districts.

That local funding will support the types of solutions and water-management projects outlined in Colorado’s Water Plan. The plan, finalized in 2015, provides a blueprint to address the gap between water supply and demand across the state. 

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And now we have a critical opportunity to build on that work – and voters’ recent mandates – by making updates to the Water Plan. These updates will provide a chance to identify and recommend a path towards a healthy, secure water future.

“From extreme drought to extreme fires, 2020 highlights the need for us to build our climate resilience and protect the watersheds that sustain our streams, farms and cities. Finding these opportunities and identifying the state of the science is at the heart of the Colorado Water Plan Update,” says Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Rebecca Mitchell.

Wildfire-related impacts on river health are significant, including post-fire floods, debris flows, erosion, and the threat of toxic debris flowing into our rivers and water supply. Laurie Rink of the Middle Colorado Watershed Council says that key stakeholders have expressed the need for coordinated planning and response to Colorado’s wildfires.

“Immediate focus will be on post-fire recovery and rehabilitation to reduce post-fire hazards, such as flooding and erosion. Longer-term efforts can turn towards planning for and implementing future fire risk mitigation throughout the watershed,” Rink says.

Healthy rivers flow from healthy watersheds. We must broaden the river health conversation beyond the river channel itself, to include the entire “riverscape,” comprised of the streams, floodplain, and vegetation surrounding them. 

Riverscapes support bird and wildlife habitat, as well as ecological services that directly influence water quality and quantity. Nearly 80% of Colorado’s clean, reliable drinking water comes from these forested watersheds. But significant data gaps exist around watershed health, and without current science, the effort to create projects and management plans to protect Colorado’s rivers is daunting.

Ensuring that Colorado’s riverscapes and forests can recover from future wildfires at a landscape scale is crucial. Implementing proven wildfire mitigation strategies such as forest treatments and prescribed fires, as well as investing in the health of our rivers and streams, will promote increased resilience to climate change and mitigate the effects of wildfires on water supplies and communities.

Colorado’s Water Plan strives to develop stream management plans for at least 80% of rivers and streams across the state, as well as 80% of critical watersheds with watershed protection plans, all by 2030. 

Current, accurate, scientific data is crucial for the development of these stream management and watershed plans. Fortunately, river health assessments can inform locally driven projects to protect or improve conditions and empower communities to develop tailored resilience strategies and track river health over time. 

It’s essential that an updated Water Plan provide funding and guidance for addressing river health information gaps.

While rivers connect all Coloradans, so does drought and wildfire in 2020. When we invest in the health of our rivers, we are also investing in future resilience to climate change and associated disruptions to our rural heritage and Colorado lifestyle.


Abby Burk is the Western Rivers Regional Program Manager for Audubon Rockies.


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com.

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