In recent years, wildfires have burned millions of acres in the Mountain West. When those wildfires burn critical water supply watersheds, they can degrade water quality and cause erosion and flooding for months and years. In this interview, Eric Howell, the forest program manager for the watershed planning section at Colorado Springs Utilities, tells Municipal Water Leader about how the agency works with state and federal partners on fire prevention, suppression planning, and postfire mitigation.
Municipal Water Leader: Please explain your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Eric Howell: I went to Colorado State University and earned a forest management degree in 1991. I have been employed with Colorado Springs Utilities’ water services division since 1993, when I started in water distribution. I’ve also worked as a field technician for our water quality laboratory, as an environmental scientist, and as a water quality technical team supervisor. For the past 14 years, I’ve served as the forest program manager in our watershed planning section.
Municipal Water Leader: Please introduce Colorado Springs Utilities.
Eric Howell: Colorado Springs Utilities is a four-service public utility. We provide water, wastewater, electric, and gas services to a community of about 495,000 customer-owners, most within Colorado Springs and a few outside the city limits. We also serve five military bases: Fort Carson, the United States Air Force Academy, Peterson Space Force Base, Schriever Space Force Base, and Cheyenne Mountain Space Force Base.
Municipal Water Leader: What does your current role entail?
Eric Howell: I oversee a $2.6 million budget for forest health and hazardous fuel treatment initiatives to protect Colorado Springs Utilities’ water resources and collection system infrastructure. We work with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the Colorado State Forest Service, the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, the Nature Conservancy, the Colorado Springs Fire Department, and Colorado Springs City Forestry to conduct treatments in priority watershed areas and protect critical infrastructure. We also support various National Environmental Policy Act efforts in these watersheds to increase landscape-scale forestry treatments and are involved in state and federal efforts to craft wildfire and forest management legislation. Poor forest health and persistent drought in Colorado and the western United States have sparked broad interest in resolving these issues in order to better protect water supplies and infrastructure.
Municipal Water Leader: What is the source of the water you deliver, and who owns the land in the watershed?
Eric Howell: We collect water from over 3 million acres across 11 counties in Colorado. Most of that water originates as snowmelt from along the Continental Divide and is conveyed to us through a complex system of pipelines, tunnels, and storage reservoirs. The source water is delivered to terminal reservoirs in our local system on the Front Range of Colorado. About 90 percent of the land in our watershed is managed by the USFS and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The rest is privately owned or part of our municipally owned watershed lands on Pikes Peak.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you give us an overall view of the infrastructure that you own and operate to store and deliver water?
Eric Howell: Colorado Springs is not located near a major body of water, so most of our water is collected through various systems per our decreed water rights and conveyed to our city from more than 100 miles away. To do this, we maintain a considerable amount of infrastructure.
One of those collection systems, the Homestake Project, is a partnership with the City of Aurora. Water from along the Continental Divide is collected in the Homestake Reservoir and then sent through a high-mountain tunnel to Turquoise and Twin Lakes Reservoirs, both of which are operated by the Bureau of Reclamation. From there, the water is pumped either to Colorado Springs or to Spinney Mountain Reservoir, where Aurora stores its share.
Our Blue River/Continental-Hoosier collection system starts in Summit County, near Breckenridge, where it collects water from the Continental Divide into reservoirs at more than 12,000 feet of elevation. That water is conveyed through the Hoosier Tunnel to Montgomery Reservoir and then piped to our local terminal storage reservoirs. That system is completely gravity fed.
We also get water from the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project system, which begins above Aspen and delivers water via the Fryingpan River to our native Arkansas River basin, where it is primarily delivered to Colorado Springs via the Fountain Valley Authority Pipeline or our Southern Delivery System.
Finally, we collect water locally from the Pikes Peak watershed just west of our city. Our local system contains terminal storage for all our other systems and is where we store water prior to treatment and delivery to our customers.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you explain the issue of wildfires in your watershed? Have you had serious wildfires in the past 10–20 years?
Eric Howell: Historically, we’ve been fortunate. We have not had to deal with a lot of large wildfires, as federal, state, and local suppression resources have quickly contained many fires before they got out of control. The largest and most destructive fire we’ve had to contend with was the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire. The Waldo Canyon Fire spread to the Mountain Shadows neighborhood in Colorado Springs, where 347 homes were lost at a cost of $352 million. The destructive, 18,000‑acre wildfire damaged one of our terminal storage pipelines, which runs between Rampart Reservoir and our primary water treatment plant. The damage occurred under a postfire flooding event, which caused us worse losses than the fire itself.
Municipal Water Leader: Do you consider the Waldo Canyon Fire an unusual occurrence, or is it a sign that conditions relating to wildfires are worsening?
Eric Howell: Colorado has been under drought conditions for more than two decades. At the time of the Waldo Canyon Fire, we were already 13 years into it. High winds, high temperatures, and low fuel-moisture conditions resulted in a damaging, high-severity fire. It’s important to note that the area of forest that burned in the Waldo Canyon Fire had not been managed to reduce the fuel load. Much of the state’s forested areas are overstocked with lots of ladder fuels because fire has been suppressed for well over 100 years. However, through our forest management program and partnerships, we can make landscape-scale changes to increase the resiliency of Colorado Springs Utilities’ priority watersheds against wildfire while improving forest health in general.
Municipal Water Leader: Why is it important to manage wildfires for watershed health?
Eric Howell: The effects of postfire flooding, erosion, and sedimentation are worse than fires themselves. In 2012, shortly after the Waldo Canyon Fire, we had a storm event that caused about $12 million worth of damage in one afternoon. The storm took out several culverts, and floodwater washed out a service road where two of our major pipelines were located. Substantial restoration work over multiple years was required to repair the road and stabilize 3,000 acres of watershed hill slopes. We learned that implementing forest treatments is much cheaper than conducting repairs and restoration to address postfire damage.
Municipal Water Leader: When did Colorado Springs Utilities start doing this wildfire mitigation work? What does the work involve, and what effects have you seen from it?
Eric Howell: Our first dive into this work occurred in 1986, when my predecessor started a partnership with the Colorado State Forest Service. Today, our work is focused on three areas: prefire mitigation, fire suppression planning, and postfire mitigation. Prefire mitigation involves using mastication or harvesting equipment to reduce the number of trees per acre in a forest based on specific prescriptions. Through funding and partnerships, we treat 3,500–4,000 acres annually.
Fire suppression planning involves working with our partners to help them understand our watershed and infrastructure risks. With that knowledge, fire suppression resources can be better focused to protect these valuable resources. During a wildfire event, we coordinate closely with area agencies to determine what we can afford to let burn in specific areas and what we can’t. Colorado Springs Utilities operates its own wildland fire team with specific knowledge and expertise to support incidents involving any of our assets. Anyone can request the services of our wildland fire team, especially when it involves our municipally owned watersheds.
Postfire mitigation involves assessing all the pipelines and creek crossings for damage and ensuring that they have adequate capacity to operate as designed and keep floodwater in stream channels. Since the Waldo Canyon Fire, we’ve implemented a program that helps fund the replacement of undersized or damaged culverts, helping to minimize damage to our water collection systems during postfire flooding.
Municipal Water Leader: Are there any challenges involved in working on USFS land?
Eric Howell: We are restricted in the types of forest management work we can do on federal land. For example, no forest treatments are allowed in designated wilderness areas, which cover much of our priority watersheds. Forest management work can be done in designated Colorado Roadless Rule areas, but there are restrictions on that work, and it must first be approved through a process established by the USFS and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
There are still ways to get work done, but funding programs come and go. The USFS’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program provided many funding opportunities, but the program ended after 10 years. Looking ahead, we see substantial money coming through the USFS in response to the devastating wildfires in Colorado and the western United States in recent years.
Municipal Water Leader: How have your mitigation activities protected the city and the utilities from the effects of wildfire and avoided expenses that you might otherwise have had?
Eric Howell: Some of the treatments we’ve done in our local watershed have helped prevent fires from spreading. Because of the treatments, we were able to quickly contain the fires and put them out. But the emphasis of our work is on forest health. We have a lot of insect problems, tree diseases, and tree mortality. We mitigate wildfire risk, but we’re also trying to improve forest health and resilience.
Municipal Water Leader: What is your vision for the future?
Eric Howell: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is bringing more money to forest management in Colorado and the West. Additionally, the USFS and BLM will be receiving $70 billion, which is tied to the 10‑year wildfire crisis money, in the next few years. It is going to take a lot of capacity-building to scale up our work with the USFS, BLM, and other federal agencies. We’re going to need to be strategic about where we work, since drought conditions are likely to persist.