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Burn areas from 2020 wildfires can impact water supply as snow melts

Last year, Greeley City Council declared a disaster emergency related to the watershed damages from the Cameron Peak fire.

LARIMER COUNTY, Colo. — There's growing concern about flash flooding and the quality of water in northern Colorado – the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires burned hundreds of thousands of acres and now that burn area will impact water supply as the snow melts. 

"We are going to have ash and debris and sediment and all of that stuff has to be removed," said Sean Chambers, the director of Greeley's water and sewer department. 

The City of Greeley operates two treatment plants to purify mountain snowmelt water before it is delivered to more than 100,000 citizens. 

Before the snow begins to melt, Chambers is worried about the quality of the water supply. The areas that feed water into rivers and eventually their plant were torched by fires last year. 

Of the more than 200,000 acres burned by the Cameron Peak fire, Greeley and partner agencies seek to immediately mitigate damages to at least 10,000 acres, most of which lies of U.S. Forest Service lands. 

The estimated cost to repair and fix this damage is over $35 million.

"Gravel, sediment, all filling into the river creating complications for reservoir operations or diversion and ditch structure operations which is essentially how we get our water off the river," he said. "If those things plug up with sediment and debris, we have a real challenge just getting water into the system to treat and deliver it."

Springtime snowmelt runoff and summer rains will trigger flash flooding, debris flow, and water quality degradation, according to Chambers.

The water is going to get dirty and cleaning it for the public to drink and use will be expensive. 

The partnering agencies are working with a small budget to do what they can to build erosion controls and protect infrastructure. All of the agencies continue to seek state and federal funding to help with the project.

"We have a high degree of confidence that we can protect and ensure public health almost regardless of what comes off the burn area," Chambers said. "The challenge will be at what cost."

With over 400,000 acres burned in the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires, Chambers said the total estimated cost of recovery is $136 million. 

“Mitigation is urgently needed to prevent flooding and erosion from the burn area, but funding to do so is severely limited. We are seeking support at all levels – federal, state, and local – to protect our water supply in the coming years,” said Adam Jokerst, deputy director for Water Resources at the Greeley Water and Sewer Department. 

More than one million people depend on the burned watersheds for drinking water supply, crop irrigation and recreation, according to Chambers.

Right now, a bill in the state senate would help fund some of this mitigation project.

RELATED: Water quality tested in Williams Fork burn area

RELATED: Cleaning up after the 2020 fire season will take years, not months

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