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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

For The West’s Drinking Water, Wildfire Concerns Linger Long After Smoke Clears

Speaker 1: 00:00 For many Western communities, their water supplies originate from melting snow high up in the mountains. But this summer is record breaking wildfires have reduced some headwater forest to heaps of Ash, Luke Runyon from K U and C reports. Wildfires can cause big problems for municipal drinking water systems Speaker 2: 00:21 Until eight years ago, the city of Fort Collins, Colorado is main water source. That pooter river was nearly pristine. It tumbled out of the Rocky mountains into the city's treatment plant. No problem. Speaker 3: 00:33 We had been privileged and in some ways probably took for granted that these watersheds were providing us consistently clean, clear water all the time, Speaker 2: 00:44 Water quality manager, Jill, or a Payza were along the river, just outside of town, downstream of where the high park fire burned more than 87,000 acres in 2012, where the first year after the fire, every time it rained, the river turned black mud slides of Ash and scorched soil spilled into it. And before workers could turn off the rivers intake that muddy water clogged pipes leading to the treatment. Speaker 3: 01:11 We ended up with a lot of sediment in our pipelines that was difficult to remove. Speaker 2: 01:16 And even if they got the water through the full treatment process, it still tasted and smelled smoky that led the city to install an early warning system. From where we're standing. You can see a long metal pipe stuck in the middle of the river. It's measuring how turbid or cloudy the water is. If the sensor detects too much sediment, utility workers can turn off the plants intake and switched to water from a large reservoir to avoid clogged, Speaker 3: 01:44 Right? It became really important for us to have a heads up for when those changes in water quality were occurring. Yes. Speaker 2: 01:52 Facts of the high parks burn scar on water quality only lasted a few years, but this early warning system is about to get a lot more use because this summer is Cameron peak. Fire has burned another broad sweep of the river's watershed. Yeah, Speaker 1: 02:07 I think that's one of the most important points about this whole fire is that it's in a sort of high value location for water supply in the front range. Speaker 2: 02:17 Chuck Rhodes is with the forest services, Rocky mountain research station and studies. How big disturbances in forest can affect water quality between the high park and Cameron peak fires nearly the entire Southern half of the pooter river watershed has burned in the last decade. And Rhodes says that will have big impacts on people downstream, Speaker 1: 02:38 Whether there are agriculturalists, whether they're residential folks, whether they're people that are floating the river or the aquatic aquatic organisms that are using the river, they're all really linked to what's happened, Speaker 2: 02:49 But because the high park fire happened so recently, Fort Collins might be more prepared than other places in the West to deal with this new fire. Jen [inaudible] runs the coalition for the pooter river watershed. She says the people who formed her group after high park are already talking about recovery from the current one while it's still burning, Speaker 4: 03:10 It doesn't make the situation less stressful, or maybe it makes it moderately less stressful. But the reality of fire footprint, this big is just it's. It's a lot to take in. Speaker 2: 03:22 [inaudible] says the 2020 fire season has renewed a region wide discussion about forest health. And if cities want to avoid long-term water quality problems, she says, they need to be thinking about how to first reduce the risk of mega fires Speaker 4: 03:37 In the West. It's not a question of if it will happen to your community. It's a question of when one of these large events will happen to your communities Speaker 2: 03:47 Back on the banks of the pooter river, the city of Fort Collins, Jill or a Payza says decisions made after the last big fire, like building new infrastructure to remove sediment will help them respond this time around. And they already have relationships with researchers, federal agencies, and others to ease the burden Speaker 4: 04:06 In fire-prone, um, watershed. Speaker 2: 04:10 And that is our part of our responsibility to Speaker 4: 04:13 Adapt to that reality, Speaker 2: 04:16 A reality that includes drier forests, hotter summers and extended fire seasons across the West. I'm Luke Runyon in Fort Collins, Colorado. The story is part of a series produced by K U N C K J Z K H O L, Aspen public radio and Wyoming public radio support comes from the Walton family foundation.

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For many communities in the West, the water that flows out of kitchen faucets and bathroom showerheads starts high up in the mountains. This summer’s record-breaking wildfires have reduced some of those headwater forests to burnt trees and heaps of ash.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments