In 2020, Colorado’s two largest wildfires burned more than 400,000 acres in the watersheds serving the city of Greeley and most of northern Colorado. The fires made the river water too dirty to treat, and for 45 days, the city turned to its reservoirs and a water swap with agricultural users for its water supply. Events like these demonstrate the importance of prefire preparation; postfire mitigation; and above all, resiliency. In this interview, Sean Chambers, the director of Greeley’s Water and Sewer Department, tells us about the city’s efforts in this regard.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Sean Chambers: I am the director of the Water and Sewer Department of the City of Greeley, Colorado. I’ve been in this role since 2018. Before this, I managed other water utilities and did private consultation for water utilities on long-range regional water planning. I am from Colorado and have lived most of my life here.
Municipal Water Leader: Please give us a brief introduction to Greeley’s Water and Sewer Department.
Sean Chambers: The City of Greeley serves a population of approximately 115,000 people within the city and is a regional treatment provider for 20,000 people outside our city. That means that we treat water from neighboring communities at our facility and deliver it back to them through master meters. Our system collects source water from four river basins in the Rocky Mountains. That diverse water supply builds resiliency in the system. We operate six high-mountain reservoirs, a variety of lower-river gravel-pit storage facilities, two conventional water treatment facilities, and several transmission pipelines for treated water. The city has a strong portfolio of surface water resources and also recently acquired a large aquifer storage and recovery project, which will enable us to store water underground over the long term, limiting evaporative loss and building our resiliency to drought.
Our water board members are appointed by our city council, and they are vested with more responsibility than those in some communities. They are service-oriented volunteers appointed to terms of service, but they don’t have term limits, which is important because water projects often take many years or decades to bring to fruition and institutional knowledge is critical. This has allowed Greeley to do a lot of long-range planning and strategic long-range investments. We have a healthy water supply and storage portfolio, and our two treatment plants make our system among the most resilient in the West.
Municipal Water Leader: Who are the primary owners of the land in your watershed?
Sean Chambers: Our watersheds are primarily federal land, and many of our high-mountain reservoirs are operated under special-use permits or by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). The USFS is the predominant landholder, but we also have some Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and private lands in the watersheds. About 10 percent of the property in the watershed is privately owned.
Municipal Water Leader: Before 2020, did wildfires occur frequently in your watershed?
Sean Chambers: The start of the era of record-breaking megafires in Colorado dates back to 2002, when the state had a record drought and record fire season. The Hayman Fire burned a significant portion of Denver Water’s South Platte watershed that year. The cycle of major drought and large fires started in northern Colorado in 2012. In June 2012, the High Park Fire became one of the largest and most destructive wildfires in Colorado history, burning nearly 87,450 acres along the Cache La Poudre River in the mountains west of Fort Collins, in the heart of our watershed, just upstream of our primary municipal treatment facility. Then, in summer 2020, the Cameron Peak Fire broke out. Over the next 4½ months, it burned 208,000 acres in our upper Cache La Poudre and Big Thompson River watersheds. Part of the reason the Cameron Peak Fire was not larger is that it burned right up to the burn area of the 2012 High Park Fire. In fall 2020, concurrent with the Cameron Peak Fire, the East Troublesome Fire grew rapidly in pine forests that had been plagued by a pine beetle kill in the upper Colorado and Willow Creek basins on the other side of the Continental Divide. The East Troublesome Fire burned nearly 200,000 acres in the upper Colorado River basin, the source watershed for Grand County and the Colorado–Big Thompson project, which is operated by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in partnership with the Bureau of Reclamation. The East Troublesome Fire burn area affected the watershed of nearly all the communities in northeastern Colorado. In a single year, 408,000 acres in our watershed burned on top of the roughly 87,000 acres that had burned in 2012. Managing the effects of wildfire is becoming a key aspect of our water utility business.
Municipal Water Leader: What were some of the effects of those fires on your infrastructure and water quality?
Sean Chambers: Each wildfire has been different in terms of its effects on the City of Greeley’s infrastructure and water quality. What we experienced in 2012 with the Hyde Park Fire was limited and a bit of an outlier, because the severe burn was followed by an unusual flood event in 2013 across several of the northern Front Range watersheds, including the Cache La Poudre. In 2013, a 500‑year event happened in most of the foothill watershed of Boulder and Larimer Counties on the northern Front Range. The floodwaters essentially scoured a lot of the debris that was on hill slopes and in the riverbed. Then, after any significant precipitation event, ash, debris, and sediment ran off the hills and into the tributaries of the main stem of the river. It turned the water turbid and black. The water was simply too turbid to treat cost effectively. Because of that, we had to shut off the intake to the water treatment plant periodically and take water from different storage sources that didn’t rely on the river. We found out for the first time how important it is to not be reliant on the river. We saw that play out again following the 2020 Cameron Peak Fire. Again, we had to turn off our diversions from the river and rely on stored water. In 2020, we built some additional resiliency into our response by trading the Cache La Poudre River water that was too dirty to treat to some agricultural partners, who delivered it through ditches to their fields. We were able to trade them for the high-quality water they had in storage, often at a one-to-one ratio. For 45 days in 2021, we couldn’t take water from the river, so we took it from storage and various reservoirs that were unaffected by debris.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about some of your mitigation efforts.
Sean Chambers: We have not gotten deeply involved in preventive forest treatments yet, but our experience over the last 10 years makes it clear that landscape-scale prewildfire mitigation is critical, and that’s the next frontier for our utility in partnership with the USFS and local watershed groups. Our historic data show that temperatures are increasing both in the community of Greeley and in our watershed. The forest has seen 100 years of fire suppression, and the climate is now drier more frequently than it has been historically. All those factors increase the risk of large fires. Prefire forest mitigation has been proven to work, especially if it can be done on a landscape scale. There’s a lot of good work happening in Colorado on that front, both in developing the financial resources to make it possible and in developing the expertise and political will to get the mitigation work done.
At this time, we’re working hard just to protect our current water supply from the existing burn areas. We’re working with a team of postfire recovery consultants and the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed to identify the most severely burned areas, which are also highly correlated to effects on water quality. We use two strategies that have been proven to work in past fires and are supported by science. The first is on-the-ground point mitigation— specific treatment such as building a barrier wall or retention wall to protect diversion structures from future sediment flows, for example. We also build check structures with natural materials and catchment basins upstream in areas of the tributaries that tend to bring debris and sediment into the river. There is more point mitigation work to be done, some of it related to USFS roads in the burn area that have repeatedly washed out and contributed a lot of sediment to tributaries and the river. We’ve also been busy with watershed-scale mulching work to address the most severely burned and remote areas, not including severe burns in designated wilderness areas. Aerial mulching involves dropping a heavy chipped-wood product from helicopters over the forest floor in areas of severe burn. The wood mulch helps the soil retain moisture, promotes vegetation, and helps prevent rapid runoff and debris flows.
Municipal Water Leader: Where do you get the funding for your fire response and mitigation efforts?
Sean Chambers: We’ve sought funding at the local, state, and federal levels. We and our partners at the Cities of Fort Collins and Loveland have secured funds through our city councils to match the mitigation funds we’ve secured from state and federal programs. We have been blessed to receive a lot of financial resources from the State of Colorado through the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). The CWCB has a long-standing watershed-restoration grant program, and its rapid response to our grant requests has allowed us to undertake major impact mitigation work within 7 months of the fire being extinguished. Because of the extreme wildfire year we had in 2020 and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money that was made available to the state in 2021, that grant program grew robustly. Senate Bill 21‑240, signed by Governor Polis, transferred $30 million from the general fund to the Watershed Restoration Grant Program managed by the CWCB. This funding will be used for critical watershed recovery efforts to address the effects of Colorado’s 2020 wildfire season. Greeley and our partners in the Cameron Peak Recovery Collaborative were able to access about $10 million of that funding and matched it against local dollars and other federal funding. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which is the recovery sponsor for the East Troublesome Fire, was able to access approximately $10 million from that fund as well.
Greeley was also able to access funding through the NRCS Emergency Watershed Protection Program. We had prior experience accessing Emergency Watershed Protection dollars after the Hyde Park Fire. This program requires you to match its funds, but it is effective and allows you to get mitigation measures in place very quickly after a fire. It is primarily focused on private property. We were able to use it on our own private property, on the private property of many people in the Cache La Poudre basin, and around our special-use permit areas on USFS land.
In September 2021, a continuing resolution provided about $67 million to the USFS for postfire recovery. We think we may see around $15–$17 million under a USFS participating agreement that allows us to do postfire watershed recovery on USFS land. That’s important because some of the funding we received through the NRCS program was not eligible for work on USFS land, and about 90 percent of our watershed is federal land, most of it owned by the USFS.
Municipal Water Leader: What trends do you see in the future?
Sean Chambers: Many of the recent wildfires in the West have happened in places where the communities that were affected had resilient systems and multiple intakes as well as the financial resources to go chase money. We’re fortunate that we’ve been able to navigate the severe water restrictions and that the communities in our customer bases have not been greatly affected. But that is not true for many regions in the West. Many communities have a single intake of the river and may have a small amount of water and storage, and they could never go 45 days or longer without being able to divert water from the river. I think the magnitude of recent wildfires in Arizona, California, Colorado, and New Mexico are telling us that water systems need to look at resiliency in a new way.
Municipal Water Leader: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Sean Chambers: Greeley appreciates the strong legislative advocacy we’ve received from our state and federal representatives on wildfire recovery and funding for initiatives that protect the watershed from the effects of a warmer climate. Our representatives have been responsive and have helped us find funding to take action in the forest and prepare for the next fire. We’re hopeful that the next Farm Bill will consider more permanent funding sources for USFS and NRCS programs to help communities like ours recover from wildfires.