This Land Is Our Land: Partnerships form to protect water on public lands

Just north of Breckenridge the Swan River flows into the Blue River, which runs into Dillon Reservoir, one of Denver Water’s major storage pools. It’s a local fly fishing hotspot, but rock dredged up by mining in the late 1800s blocked the river’s flow, altered habitat, and disconnected three upstream forks of the river, forcing the water underground. In 2009, Corey Llewellyn, the then-fisheries biologist for the Dillon Ranger District in the White River National Forest suggested restoring the Swan’s natural corridor and floodplain to reconnect the river, rebuild cutthroat trout habitat, and provide space for recreation.

But the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) couldn’t do it alone. There were many stakeholders to invite to the table—Summit County and the City of Breckenridge had property rights and water rights in the Swan, private landowners abutted the stream, and advocacy groups felt strongly about the area’s future. Those users, along with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Trout Unlimited, the Blue River Watershed Group, and others began conversations around how to restore the ecosystem.

The USFS made a commitment to the project when it undertook a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process in 2012, which assessed the environmental impacts of proposed work on federal lands. “Summit County put together an implementation plan for public space, including the Forest Service land, the watershed group made a plan for the private land, and in 2013 we coalesced the two plans,” says Jason Lederer, a resource specialist with the Summit County Open Space and Trails Department who helped wrangle the project.

“You go back there and it’s totally different, there wasn’t a river before,” she says. “I think actually having a lot of stakeholders can help because you have a lot of vested interest. People care.” Sarah Barclay, fly fisher.

Restoration work on the Swan River.

Work was underway to reconstruct the Swan River in September 2016. Partners transformed the river from an underground trickle and ditch into a meandering stream. By Zach Mahone

Bill Jackson, district ranger for the White River National Forest’s Dillon Ranger District, says that although the USFS was dedicated to watershed health in the Swan River Basin, work didn’t really start until the county came on board to lead the first phase of the restoration work. Collaboration was crucial in every step, from deciding what to prioritize to finding funding, Jackson says. Through the county, the Swan River Restoration Project received $975,000 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB)—the largest Water Supply Reserve Fund grant ever awarded for a project of this type. The USFS and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service both contributed funds, as did the town and several local nonprofits, which also rallied volunteers.

With funding and a plan in place, partners began restoration work on the first mile of the Swan River project in 2016. By summer 2017, volunteers helped revegetate 16 acres of the adjoining floodplain and upland environment—the planned first phase of the project. The river began to settle into its new path, which includes a 65-foot-wide riparian corridor. Local fly fisher Sarah Barclay says she cried the first time she visited the site. “You go back there and it’s totally different, there wasn’t a river before,” she says. “I think actually having a lot of stakeholders can help because you have a lot of vested interest. People care.”

Our public lands serve as source watersheds for the vast majority of the state—80 percent of Coloradans drink water that flows out of national forest land alone.

Collaborative watershed management among federal agencies, state agencies, and local groups responsible for public lands is increasingly common—and important. Although boundaries surround public lands, the waters that cross them are unbounded. That water serves many purposes. Locally, it sustains wildlife habitat, diverse plant communities, and countless opportunities for recreation, along with tourism-based economies. But on a broader scale, our public lands serve as source watersheds for the vast majority of the state—80 percent of Coloradans drink water that flows out of national forest land alone. Healthy forests prevent erosion, filter contaminants, enhance soil moisture storage, can affect the timing of runoff, and reduce the likelihood of flooding. That high-quality water reaches beyond the state’s borders. Four of the country’s major rivers—the Colorado, Platte, Arkansas and Rio Grande—begin as melted snowpack in Colorado’s mountains, providing supplies to 19 states and Mexico.

The Rocky Mountain Youth Corps helps restore habitat along Swan River.

Swan River restoration wasn’t a solo effort. Stakeholders partnered to plan and direct the project while volunteers helped do the work. This Rocky Mountain Youth Corps crew installed 350 plantings in June 2017. Photo by Jason Lederer

But Colorado’s public lands and forests, which are managed for various uses, aren’t all pristine. And a growing population and changing climate bring new management challenges to the state’s public lands. In June 2017, for example, state parks saw a 10 percent increase in yearly visitation. More Coloradans also means more people living in Colorado’s wildland urban interface, or WUI, where development meets nature. According to a June 2017 report by the CWCB and Colorado State Forest Service, “Forest Management to Protect Colorado’s Water Resources,” more than 2 million Coloradans live in the WUI, where they’re more vulnerable to wildfire. The risk of catastrophic fires, in turn, has been exacerbated by a warming climate, which scientists believe has had a major hand in turning large swaths of our forest into tinder, in some places comprised largely of beetle-kill pine.

Fighting fires isn’t cheap, and land managers struggle to meet all of their objectives as more and more of their funding goes toward firefighting and mitigation and less is available for other work like restoration, maintenance and visitor services. At the same time, people who depend on public lands directly or advocate for their environmental or recreational attributes have strong interests in ensuring that the lands are managed to meet their needs. This amalgamation of interest, voice, risk and the need for funding is spurring Colorado’s stakeholders and land managers to work together to rethink management tools and find collaborative solutions to manage public lands.

Evolving Management

More than a third—nearly 36 percent—of Colorado is federal land. The USFS is responsible for 14.5 million acres of the state and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) takes care of another 8.4 million acres. There are also national parks and monuments, national recreation areas, and national wildlife refuges, as well as state forests and local parks, all with different management objectives, layers of protection, or permitted uses. Sportsmen, ranchers, natural gas and mining companies, loggers, farmers, and municipal water providers all depend on those lands, both for the resources available on-site, as well as for the water originating there. Many other stakeholders look to public lands for recreation, or value their environmental, historical and cultural attributes.

The directive given to the USFS from the get-go was to manage resources, including water, for multiple uses. Federal forest reserves were first set aside from the public domain as far back as 1891, when some began to worry about forest conservation. The Organic Administration Act of 1897 then provided guidance for the management of these lands for forest and watershed protection, water flow, and timber production. The USFS took over forest management when it was formed in 1905. A decade later, new conservation lands were set aside with the formation of the National Park Service through the 1916 Organic Act. By 1946, the BLM formed to manage land from the General Land Office and U.S. Grazing Service. Throughout the 20th century, additional laws expanded the missions of both the USFS and BLM to include oversight of grazing, recreation, fisheries and wildlife, mining, and minerals. Now, in the 21st century, the agencies have further expanded their understanding of watershed protection to include the concept of ecosystem services, like those provided by healthy watersheds.

“One hundred years ago, the West was being developed, the [USFS] agency was doing a lot of mining and timber harvest. It’s a good example of how our values change over time,” says Polly Hays, water program manager for the USFS Rocky Mountain Region. She says the agency’s attitude has changed from emphasizing resource development to also prioritizing how to maintain natural hydrologic function.

All federal land management agencies must balance development, conservation and water use. When any new use, like drilling or grazing, is considered on federal land, the user goes through the federal NEPA process to assess the potential environmental impacts of the project. “In every project, from grazing to recreation, we look at water quality and quantity,” says BLM spokesman Jayson Barangan. Agencies rely on science-based best management practices to avoid impacting water quality and watersheds. Those practices vary by activity, whether that be fishing or forestry, so the agencies work at the local level to gather input and fit the approach to each situation. “As public land managers, we respond to societal needs,” Hays says.

To maintain water resources, land management agencies focus on both legacy restoration and on protecting ecosystem function—that takes working across forest boundaries, Hays says. Especially when the budget is limited, the agency depends on water utilities, environmental organizations, and other groups who have a shared interest in the watershed. “Moving forward, partnerships across land ownerships are so critical in accomplishing what we all want,” Hays says.

Partnership on Hermosa Creek

Those cross-boundary partnerships can be fraught and tricky to come by. That’s why a mediator, Marsha Porter-Norton, presided over the parsing of the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act, a collaborative land and water use partnership in southwestern Colorado, for which it took stakeholders years to find consensus.

“People were willing to trade some of their priorities for that sense of permanency, particularly for water.” Ed Zink, rancher

The act was spurred by a draft land management plan published in 2007 by the San Juan Public Lands Center, a joint planning venture between the USFS and the BLM, which recommended segments of Hermosa Creek and other rivers in the region as eligible for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. After future study, the federal agencies upped their interest by recommending Hermosa Creek, as well as sections of the Animas, the San Juan, Los Pinos, and the Piedra rivers as suitable for wild and scenic designation—suitability is just one big step away from wild and scenic designation.

Hermosa Creek rancher Ed Zink.

Ed Zink stands for a portrait in the irrigation ditch which flows through the historic Waterfall Ranch in the Animas River Valley. Dry in winter, this water channel will sustain the ranchlands throughout the summer season.

Wild and scenic designation aims to preserve rivers deemed to have outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values in a free-flowing condition and to protect those outstanding values on federal lands. It can be a powerful tool for safeguarding rivers, but also has the potential to preclude future water development or dams on protected stream segments. Wild and scenic designation hasn’t been popular with all stakeholders in Colorado, and while rivers can only be designated by Congress or the Secretary of the Interior with the state’s approval, stakeholder support is a crucial component of river suitability. Thus far, only 76 miles of one river, the Cache La Poudre, have been designated. However, the USFS and BLM have found stretches of other Colorado rivers, including the Upper Colorado, the Crystal, and Deep Creek, among others, eligible for either wild, scenic or recreational designation.

On Hermosa Creek, locals felt that wild and scenic designation would be too restrictive, says Ed Zink, a rancher who has been involved with land management designation in the area since the ‘60s. Zink’s family has ranched on Hermosa Creek for 100 years, but he also ran a mountain bike shop and guiding outfit—all businesses dependent on Hermosa Creek and the use of surrounding lands. “The community said ‘we like it the way it is, but by gosh we need to protect that water,’” Zink says.

The sentiment on the other suitable rivers in the region was the same, so stakeholders undertook an alternative to wild and scenic designation and formed the River Protection Workgroup. Through this river protection work, stakeholders on each wild and scenic suitable river worked together to agree on local values and protections along their river, then entered regional discussions to determine how to approach all of the suitable rivers as a package in the southwest part of the state. The group aimed to prioritize use and development on certain stream segments, while perhaps others could be designated as wild and scenic. “It was a broader discussion of ‘how do we deal with protection of the waters and outstanding values, while allowing for development to continue in some areas,’” says Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.

On Hermosa Creek, the San Juan Citizens Alliance and the Southwestern Water Conservation District brought together representatives from Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Scott Tipton’s offices, Purgatory Ski Area, and the Wilderness Society, along with local ranchers, snowmobilers and mountain bikers to decide how to best manage their watershed while maintaining its wild and scenic values. The group wanted to account for historical uses while at the same time considering future needs, including the potential for water storage to adapt to drier conditions in the future.

After two years of monthly meetings followed by five years of conceptual drafting, the Hermosa Creek stakeholder group came up with federal legislation that mostly satisfied everyone’s needs. “We decided, if we get this done and we get a law, we’re not looking over our shoulder for the next 50 years,” Zink says. “People were willing to trade some of their priorities for that sense of permanency, particularly for water.”

When the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act was finally signed in 2014, it designated a 40,000-acre wilderness area and a 70,000-acre special management area (SMA). Wilderness designation offers the highest level of conservation protection for federal lands—typically motor vehicles, roads and structures are prohibited to preserve that wild character. The special management area, a more flexible designation, allows for a broader range of activities. Porter-Norton says the management area allowed them to broker consensus and add things like potential future diversions. “If we got in some horrible crisis in 100 years and needed that dam, they could go build one,” she says. Once legislation passed, stakeholders collaborated with land managers to draft a more detailed management plan. The final Hermosa Creek Watershed Management Plan was released in late January 2018.

“Those who wanted full-blown wild and scenic designation didn’t get it, but the wilderness and SMA protects a lot.” Marsha Porter-Norton, Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act mediator

Collaboration doesn’t solve every problem. Zink says they decided on a land management approach that also protected Hermosa Creek, but couldn’t agree on how to protect and manage rivers on a regional scale. After five years of discussions throughout southwestern Colorado, the River Protection Workgroup came to an impasse and disbanded. “We did not reach consensus on alternative protections in other watersheds in the region, which may have allowed for wild and scenic designation on Hermosa Creek,” Whitehead says. The regional water protection package was not successful, though the effort could still be revived in the future. “Those who wanted full-blown wild and scenic designation didn’t get it, but the wilderness and SMA protects a lot,” Porter-Norton says.

Hermosa Creek facilitator Marsha porter-Norton.

Marsha Porter-Norton facilitated the Hermosa Creek work group. Photo by Jeremy Wade-Shockley.

Such processes to find consensus among myriad stakeholders bound together by a shared interest in water on public lands continue to evolve across Colorado. In the works still is an alternative management plan for the Upper Colorado River, which is being drafted with input from a stakeholders group that formed in 2007, when the BLM found nearly 55 river miles, from Gore Canyon to No Name Creek, eligible for wild and scenic designation. The group recommended against moving forward with wild and scenic designation, but the agencies have maintained the river’s eligibility. Stakeholders are now working to develop indicators to track whether the outstanding values of the river are being maintained—and citizen involvement is still as strong as ever. “There are 40-plus people in the room every time we have a governance committee meeting,” says Ken Neubecker, Colorado projects director with American Rivers. While such a high level of engagement should mean wide buy-in on any consensus the group reaches, it’s slow getting there. “It’s not hard to agree. It’s hard to come to a point of agreement,” Neubecker says.

Source Water Protection and Fire

 In 1996, Colorado’s Buffalo Creek Fire tore through almost 12,000 acres. Then in 2002, the Hayman Fire ravaged another 138,000 acres of forested watersheds southwest of Denver and northwest of Colorado Springs. Fires in forests where utilities source their water can load rivers with nutrients and toxins, but the biggest threat to water quality is sediment. In the wake of the fires, heavy rains washed more than 1 million cubic yards of sediment into Denver Water’s Strontia Springs Reservoir, where the South Platte River is dammed and water is diverted to the Foothills Water Treatment Plant. Denver Water spent $27.7 million reacting to the historic fires and dredging the reservoir. The Colorado State Forest Service estimates that the Hayman Fire cost nearly $230 million. Nearly $37 million was spent on fire suppression, with Colorado shouldering about $7.3 million and the USFS accountable for about $32 million. More was spent rehabilitating the devastated watershed. The American Planning Association estimates housing losses totaled more than $42 million.

“We’ve got a large system with some flexibility, but there’s the threat that we could get a large-scale fire that crosses both [collection] systems and we’d have no water.” Christina Burri, Denver Water

Denver Water's Christina Burri at site of Hayman Fire.

Christina Burri with Denver Water stands at the Hayman Fire burn scar, where the water provider spent millions of dollars reacting to the 2002 blaze. Photo by Matthew Staver.

“We’ve experienced the cost of being reactive [to wildfires],” says Christina Burri, watershed scientist with Denver Water. Starting in 2010, Denver Water, which sources water from 2.5 million acres of watershed, more than half of which is national forest land, initiated a partnership with the USFS. They called it the Forests to Faucets project and each entity committed $16.5 million to fire treatment and restoration across 50,000 acres of the Pike, San Isabel, Arapahoe, Roosevelt and White River National Forests.

Forest to Faucets requires the cooperation of many different stakeholders, all working to mitigate the risk of high-intensity fires by thinning trees that could fuel a wildfire and planting new vegetation in burn zones to reduce runoff. The USFS teamed up with a range of local, on-the-ground partners including the Colorado State Forest Service, county open space managers, nonprofits, and local volunteer coalitions, who were often the ones doing the tree thinning or restorative planting work. “It’s important to be proactive to prevent another high-intensity fire,” Burri says. “We’ve got a large system with some flexibility, but there’s the threat that we could get a large-scale fire that crosses both [collection] systems and we’d have no water.”

Wildfires continue to roar across national forests and other public lands, blazing through the West with increasing severity across larger areas and for longer seasons. A 50 to 200 percent increase in the area burned in Colorado each year is projected by 2050, according to “Forest Management to Protect Colorado’s Water Resources,” a report by the Colorado State Forest Service and CWCB. Recent voracious blazes like the Waldo Canyon Fire, High Park Fire, and West Fork Complex Fires have charred Colorado’s public lands. Those uncharacteristically catastrophic and hot burns demand more resources than ever to contain, fight and mitigate. Climate change plays a large role in the increased frequency of fires, but decades of suppression and fuel buildup have augmented their intensity.

Lands around Cheesman Reservoir are still being stabilized years after Hayman Fire.

Years after the Hayman Fire, although vegetation is reestablishing above Denver Water’s Cheesman Reservoir, the water provider continues to work with the U.S. Forest Service and local partners on new plantings to stabilize the slopes. Courtesy Denver Water

More than 50 percent of USFS costs are going toward fire management—that’s money that would have funded trail maintenance, interpretation, restoration work, or other USFS duties but is instead being “borrowed” for fire management. “We find ourselves in a predicament now—not being able to keep up,” says Steve Lohr, director of renewable resources for the USFS Rocky Mountain Region. While the agency is talking with Congress to repair the funding situation, they’re also working more closely with others. Partnerships like Forests to Faucets can make a big difference.

“Public water providers typically don’t own the land that filters the water before they get it into their treatment plant, and we, as the regulatory agency, don’t have ultimate control of what happens on the land.”  John Duggan, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

State agencies and water providers are also collaborating in the name of healthy watersheds, addressing source water issues other than fire. “Public water providers typically don’t own the land that filters the water before they get it into their treatment plant,” says John Duggan who runs the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s (CDPHE) source water protection efforts. “And we, as the regulatory agency, don’t have ultimate control of what happens on the land,” he says. CDPHE is incentivizing water providers to complete source water protection plans through a grant program. It’s a way to combine forces so that each involved entity can use its biggest lever to push for clean water. CDPHE’s source water protection program is voluntary. But many have seen the payoff and the reach these local plans can have over public lands and across a range of stakeholders.

Fires, mine drainage, agriculture, changes in the timing of runoff, or reduced inflows due to climate change—the list of potential impairments and threats to Colorado’s watersheds is long and growing. Duggan says one of the challenges of protection plans is looking at future risks and what might change over time. For instance, in 2009, when oil and gas drilling was on the rise, leases were proposed on BLM land in Meeker and Rangely. Both communities had source water protection plans in place. Water providers identified specific priority areas to protect and worked with the BLM to make sure the agency knew where the water resources were. The BLM came back and withdrew some of the leases to maintain clean water.

Such cases, where federal agencies work with utilities and local community members and adjust management plans accordingly while still allowing for development, provide a balanced approach to planning for the future. “If you do nothing, you have no risk of contaminants, but we also need to have an economy and balanced recreation,” Duggan says. “[The agencies] want to harness the resource—and we need it—but how can we do it effectively so we don’t impair the resource that we drink?”

That’s why projects like Forests to Faucets are important. Because it has been so successful, in 2017 Denver Water reinvested an additional $16.5 million to extend the program for another five years. This time the utility will partner with the USFS, Colorado State Forest Service, and Natural Resources Conservation Service to make a collective investment of $33 million in forest treatments to restore another 40,000 acres. Other water providers like Colorado Springs, Northern Water and Aurora Water are investing in similar source water protection restoration projects in their priority watersheds.

Back in the Dillon Ranger District, partners in the Swan River project still hear concerns about traffic, wildlife impacts, and water quality, says Jason Lederer. For instance their plan to reintroduce native cutthroat trout has been postponed because of questions about how the trout would impact other species. But they’ve seen the river channel readjust, and overall they consider it a success. There’s more to come in the 2018 season. Once new vegetation is firmly established, partners will weave public access trails through the area and look upstream of the remediation site to address additional segments of the river within the White River National Forest and on private parcels for which the USFS has obtained easements.

What has been the lesson from all these collaborative projects to protect water on public lands? They take working together, and they’re most successful when all stakeholders’ voices have value, there’s buy-in, and everyone’s clear about the process. “If you want to achieve landscape-scale true change you can’t just piecemeal it,” Burri says. ”Water doesn’t stop on land management boundaries.”

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