Last week U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Vilsack and U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced a federal, local and private partnership that will reduce the risks of wildfire to America’s water supply in western states.
Through the Western Watershed Enhancement Partnership, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of the Interior (Interior) will work together with local water users to identify and mitigate risks of wildfire to parts of our nation’s water supply, irrigation and hydroelectric facilities. Flows of sediment, debris and ash into streams and rivers after wildfires can damage water quality and often require millions of dollars to repair damage to habitat, reservoirs and facilities.
The Memorandum of Understanding signed on Friday at Horsetooth Reservoir outside of Ft. Collins, Colo., will facilitate activities such as wildfire risk reduction through forest thinning, prescribed fire and other forest health treatments; minimizing post-wildfire erosion and sedimentation; and restoring areas that are currently recovering from past wildfires through tree planting and other habitat improvements.
Horsetooth Reservoir is part of the Colorado-Big Thompson water system which provides water to 860,000 people within eight counties (Boulder, Broomfield, Larimer, Logan, Morgan, Sedgwick, Washington and Weld) and to more than 650,000 acres of agricultural land. It also generates enough electricity to power 58,300 homes annually. The area has experienced several fires in the last few years, including the destructive High Park Fire in June, 2012.
USDA and Interior are working with state and local stakeholders toward formalizing additional partnerships in the following areas:
• Salt River-CC Cragin project in Arizona
• Boise River Reservoir in Idaho
• Mid-Pacific Reclamation Region in California
• Yakima Basin in Washington State
• Horsethief Reservoir/Flathead River in Montana
Nationwide, the National Forest System provides drinking water to more than 60 million Americans. The share of water supply originating on national forest lands is particularly high across much of the West, including the upper Colorado River basin where nearly half of all water comes from National Forests. Healthy forests filter rain and snowmelt, regulate runoff and slow soil erosion – delivering clean water at a far lower cost than it would take to build infrastructure to replace these services.
The goal of the Western Watershed Enhancement Partnership is to restore forest and watershed health and to proactively plan for post-wildfire response actions intended to protect municipal and agricultural water supplies, infrastructures and facilities, water delivery capabilities and hydro-electric power generation. Forest and watershed restoration activities and proactive planning can help minimize sedimentation impacts on reservoirs and other water and hydro-electric infrastructure by reducing soil erosion and the impacts of wildfires, helping water managers avoid costs for dredging, water filtration, and the need to replace damaged infrastructure.