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Sediment from East Troublesome Fire dumps into Grand County lakes

Researchers are still working to learn more about the potential long term effects of the East Troublesome Fire on the area's water supply and ecosystem

GRAND LAKE, Colo. — Months after a fire, the focus is on the water.

Water runoff coming down from the mountains is at its peak this week. In places impacted by last year’s wildfires, that means streams and rivers are pushing potentially harmful sediment into lakes.

"I can look at this water and tell you that it’s not fine," said Ken Fucik, a researcher with the Upper Colorado River Watershed Group, as he looked at the water in Shadow Mountain Lake. "This is typically a clear water."

In one of the most beautiful parts of Colorado, perspective helps show the impact of the East Troublesome Fire long after the last firefighter went home.

From the ground, it's hard to see the murky water flowing out of the North Fork of the Colorado River and into Shadow Mountain Lake, connected to Grand Lake. 

Fucik works with the Upper Colorado River Watershed Group, using a grant from the state department of health to research the fire’s impact on the area’s watershed.

He uses the only tool that gives him the right view to see the damage: a drone. 

"If you look at this picture right here, you would think nothing is wrong," he said, standing by the lake. "Then we take the drone and we look at it from above, and we say nothing is right."

The fire left an already scarred watershed spewing sediments from the mountains into Shadow Mountain Lake and Grand Lake. The flames destroyed the vegetation around the river. The snowmelt is pushing ash and dirt and everything that comes with it down the mountain, with little to stop it.

"This water is brown. It’s like a chocolate milk shake. Normally it’s fairly clear," said Fucik. "Normally our streams up here are gravel, rocks. Now all of a sudden you’re bringing down loads of sediment which start accumulating in those streams and it starts changing the habitat of those streams."

Fucik said the impacts could be wide-ranging, from impacting fish habitats to causing the lake to get shallower to allowing more algae and weeds to grow. That could impact the environment, ecosystems and even the economy.

"That’s what we’re trying to find out. That’s what we really want to know," said Fucik. "The real concern is when we get all these sediments into the streams and it’s changing, can we ever get back?" 

We still don’t know the full impact of the fire. But when it comes to water, perspective shines a new light on a beautiful place.

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