Fire Response in Colorado

By Kris Polly 

In the last half-decade, more than 40 million acres of land in the United States, mostly in the West, have been burned by wildfire. These wildfires affect water quality, send ash and debris into reservoirs, and create the conditions for destructive floods and landslides. In this issue, we talk to professionals from several Colorado water agencies about how they are responding. 

In our cover story, Municipal Water Leader Contributing Editor Jeff Kightlinger interviews Denver Water CEO and Manager Jim Lochhead about progress on the utility’s largest-ever capital development program, which includes the construction of a new water treatment plant and the raising of Gross Dam, as well as its responses to fire, climate change, and water supply challenges. Next, we talk to Denver Water Watershed Scientist Christina Burri for an in-depth look at the years-long effects of wildfires on the agency’s water supply and the mitigation and forest health initiatives it is carrying out. 

We also talk to water management professionals from two other Colorado cities: Eric Howell, the forest program manager for the watershed planning section at Colorado Springs Utilities, and Sean Chambers, the director of the Water and Sewer Department of the City of Greeley. They tell us about wildfire’s effects on their expansive, largely federally owned watersheds; their agencies’ pre- and postfire mitigation activities; and the importance of guaranteeing a resilient water supply. 

A little further south, the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District is soon to begin construction on the Arkansas Valley Conduit, a 130‑mile pipeline that will bring high-quality water to 39 communities and 50,000 people east of Pueblo, Colorado. Chris Woodka, the district’s senior policy and issues manager, fills us in on the conduit’s history and importance. 

Finally, we speak with Aaron Chavez, the executive director of northwestern New Mexico’s San Juan Water Commission, about drought, power costs, and endangered species and about his current role as the president of the Colorado River Water Users Association. 

A changing climate and millions of acres of overstocked forests mean that wildfire is a problem that is not going away, but as our interviews this month demonstrate, water agencies in Colorado and across the West are working systematically to better understand and address the challenges they pose. 

Kris Polly is the editor-in-chief of Municipal Water Leader magazine and the president and CEO of Water Strategies LLC, a government relations firm he began in February 2009 for the purpose of representing and guiding water, power, and agricultural entities in their dealings with Congress, the Bureau of Reclamation, and other federal government agencies. He can be contacted at