Northern Water provides raw water and irrigation water to over 1 million residents of northeastern Colorado. Much of that water is sourced from the western slope of the Continental Divide and transported to the more heavily populated eastern slope via major infrastructure projects such as the federally owned Colorado–Big Thompson Project. Due to dry weather and threats to trees such as pine beetles, Colorado has recently suffered serious wildfires, which can pose risks to the quality of the water Northern Water delivers and to the infrastructure it uses. In this interview, General Manager Brad Wind tells us about the effects of the 2020 East Troublesome Fire and about the debris protection booms Northern Water installed in its system in response.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Brad Wind: I’ve been employed by Northern Water for 28 years and have been general manager for nearly 4 years. My experience is mainly on the engineering side and working on water rights. I also assisted staff on project operations for a couple of years. At the time, the focus was on the federal Colorado–Big Thompson project. I assisted staff in the field, both on the western side of the Continental Divide, where we collect most of our water supplies, and on the eastern slope, where Northern Water and the Bureau of Reclamation get those supplies positioned into local reservoirs and deliver them to the various beneficiaries of the project, including agricultural interests that receive water during the growing season and municipalities that receive water year-round.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about Northern Water.
Brad Wind: Northern Water was founded in 1937 and partnered with the Bureau of Reclamation to build the Colorado–Big Thompson Project, which collects water on the western side of the Continental Divide and stores it in federally owned reservoirs to be brought east into our service area in northeastern Colorado. Northern Water’s service area spans from the City and County of Broomfield, Colorado, in the southern portion of our service area up to Fort Collins, Colorado, in the north and eastward along the South Platte River to the border of Nebraska. We provide raw water to more than a million people. We also provide a supplemental supply to irrigated agriculture. There are over 600,000 irrigated acres within the service area. We not only provide water from the federal Colorado–Big Thompson Project, but we own and operate another project that also diverts water from the headwaters of the Colorado River called the Windy Gap Project. It captures water from the Colorado River and temporarily stores and maneuvers supplies through the federal Colorado–Big Thompson Project. The Windy Gap Project has a subset of beneficiaries on the eastern slope, primarily some of the larger cities along the northern Front Range.
Along the way, Northern Water has expanded its interest and understanding of the quality of our water, which originates in a massive watershed on the western slope of the Rocky Mountain National Park. We’ve doubled down on our investments in education around water conservation, recognizing that anticipated future demand for water in northeastern Colorado far exceeds existing supplies. The Colorado–Big Thompson Project includes several hydropower plants that are operated by Reclamation, with the generated power being managed and marketed through the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA). We’ve collaborated with some of the water users in our service area to invest in new infrastructure, primarily pipelines, to enable the more efficient delivery of water. On behalf of the participants of such projects, we operate the new facilities, including pumping plants. In addition, Northern Water continues to expand local water supplies by pursuing large regional water capture and water supply projects.
Municipal Water Leader: How many wildfires occur per year in your district, and is the issue worsening?
Brad Wind: Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen an increased number of forest fires. Much of that is due to the number of trees in our forests that have been killed by the pine beetle, making those forests more susceptible to fires. Many fires occur in remote areas, which means that battling them can present significant challenges. Every couple of years, the state gets hit with a major fire, but unfortunately, there were multiple wildfires throughout Colorado in 2020.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about how the East Troublesome Fire affected you and how much debris it created.
Brad Wind: The East Troublesome Fire was a late-season fire by traditional standards. The date of origin was October 14, 2020, and it was not declared contained until November 30. Typically, most of Colorado enjoys monsoonal moisture in late August and September, which provides forests some added protection against fire until the snow starts falling, but that did not occur in 2020. The East Troublesome Fire burned nearly 200,000 acres, much of which was in the watershed where we collect water, with some drainages hit harder than others. It was a rapid and hot-burning fire. On some days, the fire progressed 5 miles a day. In the evenings, there were a lot of high-velocity winds that moved the fire line at speeds no one envisioned. Ultimately, the East Troublesome Fire even jumped over the Continental Divide, a feat few ever contemplated.
The fire left a barren landscape that we were unsure how to handle. We were concerned about the effects of the debris on water quality and the risk of nutrient-containing sediment being dislodged from the mountainside and ending up in our reservoirs. We are blessed to have larger reservoirs in our collections and distributions systems, allowing for ample residence time for our water before it is put to beneficial use. Luckily, we’ve had a limited number of intense rain events since the fire and, as a result, have had few concerning debris flows. It could have been much worse if the 2021 late summer monsoon season had been strong or if a rash of moisture had come in, causing heavy rainfall. It’s going to take years for the watershed to heal.
That milder late-summer precipitation pattern has allowed us to treat lands with mulch and to aerially seed hillsides that meet certain erodibility criteria. In conjunction with Reclamation and the U.S. Forest Service, Northern Water has also put floating debris booms in place near susceptible reservoir inflow locations and release points. The booms are designed to capture large pieces of debris that happen to float into and across reservoirs before they find
their way into other parts of the project and cause damage. Debris can also impede flow through tunnels and canals and hydropower plants.
Municipal Water Leader: Where were the debris booms installed, and how effective have they been?
Brad Wind: We have three debris booms in place now, all of which are similar. I would argue that they indirectly protect all infrastructure beyond their location. One is designed and situated to collect debris in a stream that enters a reservoir. That stream can have a lot of variability in flow, particularly as a result of rainfall and snow runoff. The second debris boom is situated in advance of the point where water flows into a large canal that leads to a pump plant that lifts water into other reservoirs. It helps prevent dislodged debris from reaching the pump plant. The third boom is placed in front of the entrance to the transbasin tunnel that transports water from the western side of the Continental Divide to the eastern side.
Municipal Water Leader: When you were selecting the booms, what features were you looking for, and how did you select the booms you ended up with?
Brad Wind: Paramount in our selection process was the fact that we needed a debris boom that could handle the weather conditions we have in high elevations, including ice in the reservoir. A debris boom is only as good as it can be when it’s collecting debris. If you have too much debris in front of it, it’s not going to function efficiently. We’re doing some debris removal from the ends of the booms by track hoe, but we are looking into using small barges or pontoons to remove debris from the middle of the reservoir and other locations farther from the shore. We ordered our booms from Worthington Products of Canton, Ohio.
Municipal Water Leader: Were you able to get federal and state funding for these debris protection measures?
Brad Wind: All the debris protection measures have been funded by a combination of Northern Water’s own money and funds from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program. We also received funding from Reclamation, since in addition to benefiting us as water users, the project also generates hydropower for Reclamation’s partners, including WAPA. We’re investing a significant amount not only in the booms but also in the watershed. It’s not all in place yet, but the State of Colorado is also matching the funds we received through the EWP program. We continue to have a relationship with Grand County, which has invested money and work into other parts of the burned watershed, benefiting the health of the county’s streams and waterways and ultimately its residents.
Municipal Water Leader: What results have you seen with the booms?
Brad Wind: It’s fair to say we’ve been 100 percent satisfied. We’ve been fortunate not to have excessive rain events that might have caused more debris to flow into the reservoirs the first year after the fire. The booms don’t grab everything, but they’re stopping the timber that would cause us problems. Staff feel that the booms are capturing the debris we’re worried about. If this debris got into other features, it would cause significant outages in the project’s operations. We made this investment one of our highest priorities, and it was a good investment. It takes more time than one might think to order booms and have them delivered and permitted. Some permits go through Reclamation, and some go through the U.S. Forest Service. We are putting in debris collection booms near a small town, and we intend to address the concerns of nearby residents regarding how the booms will be installed and maintained. It’s a good thing we made it a high priority to get the booms in place by late summer so that they could provide their function as rain events became more common. We envision keeping them in place for 5 years or more just to try to get through the worst of the watershed conditions following the loss of the tree canopy in the burn area. Hopefully, as the wildfire damage heals, they can be removed.
Municipal Water Leader: Is there anything you would like to add?
Brad Wind: These forests and watersheds need additional care and maintenance moving forward. The cost of wildfire recovery can far exceed what we might have otherwise invested in these forests earlier to make them healthier and more resilient to severe wildfires. Considering the beetle kill and the fuel loading that we see in our forests, we need to support investments to harvest the available resources in a thoughtful way that will lessen the fuel load. That’s a challenge throughout the West. For several decades, folks have been recognizing that if you have a healthy canopy and a healthy forest, it has a much lower chance of burning at the rate and with the intensity that we have been seeing more recently in Colorado and nearby states. Many forests have accumulated significant biomass, and while this fire has had huge effects over a large part of our watershed, there’s plenty more to burn. We should make it a priority to access these lands and manage them in a way that lessens the chance of future wildfires.