National, local water and fire officials plan new West Slope summit

As forecasters call for a warm summer ahead in Colorado, threatening to further weaken the state’s water supplies, water and fire officials plan a major two-day confab later this month in Grand Junction, in hopes of bringing more people together to understand and plan how best to protect the state’s vital mountain watersheds.

Like other Western states, Colorado derives the majority of its water for cities, farms and industry from mountain snowmelt, a resource that is coming under increasing pressure due to drought and climate change.

“Before the Fire: Protecting the Water Towers of the West,” is designed “to frame the issue around challenges, and demonstrate the impacts of unhealthy watersheds and inaction,” said Christian Reece, executive director of Grand Junction-based Club 20, an economic development group that is sponsoring the conference.

Representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado State Forest Service, and other experts will be presenting at the conference, slated for March 24 and 25.

The summit comes as Colorado and other Western states prepare for what may become another rough wildfire season.

Colorado’s snowpack is resting at average for this time of year, and whether traditional spring snows will materialize to boost it above average remains unclear.

Peter Goble, a climate specialist with the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, said the weather outlook for the spring could go either way, but warm summer temperatures could leave the state under fire threat again.

“There is not as clear a picture as we would like,” Goble said. And though the near-term forecasts for March indicate the state could receive good snow, the runoff forecasts for the spring and summer are likely to be lower than average.

“The way temperatures are trending, we’re more likely to have a warmer summer and we need to factor that in,” he said.

The seven-state Colorado River Basin, suffering under what is considered to be the worst drought in 1,200 years, will need several back-to-back years of mega snowpacks in order to recover, according to the Colorado Climate Center.

“The 1,200-year drought is not good news,” Reece said. “But it helps make the case for why watershed work is so critical.”

After the catastrophic Marshall Fire burned 25 miles north of Denver on Dec. 30, the state has been on edge, unnerved by the emergence of urban wildfires and a winter fire season.

“Here in Colorado, after our 2020 fire season and now the Marshall Fire, I truly believe we have to change how we tackle wildfires,” said Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, via email. Gibbs will be presenting at the conference.

Among the topics on tap is how to utilize tens of millions of dollars in federal and state funding that is being set aside to reduce fuel loads in mountain watersheds and to help restore the water systems that lie within the burn areas.

“We’ll try to break down the silos and elevate the importance of watersheds,” Reece said. “We hope we inspire people so much that they leave the summit and decide that they want to take on watershed protection work when they get home.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at or @jerd_smith.

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