I went back to Colorado last week and it’s dry again out there. Ok, maybe not this past week when it rained a bit, but despite late snow (March to May), the forests are dry. The bark beetle problem has not made things easier, so lightning from thunderstorms can easily create fires, like the fire down in Colorado Springs or the Big Meadows fire that is ongoing in Rocky Mountain National Park. The latter has been ongoing (although fortunately mostly out) for over a month, and has closed some trails in the park. I hiked through the Fern Lake fire remnants (although virtually all the fire was around Cub Lake). That fire burned for a couple months last fall, only finally burned out in the winter after snowfall.
The west is dry and “drier than in the past” is the new normal it seems in Colorado. So now water managers are faced with three new challenges: less water, faster runoff and more difficult water to treat. The fires cause the loss of protective vegetation, which means less water is kept in the forest. As a result, the tiny, light ash particles easily run off in the rain. Ash is hard to remove without activated carbon or other advanced processes. The loss of vegetation increases runoff, which means larger sediment content in otherwise pristine water supplies. That can make a major impact on downstream water plants that may not have planned for such events. The cost of fire suppression for the last 60 years confounds the current water supply and quality problems. There are also ecological effects that may impact local economies.
All this said, I am unsure what the solution is. Clearly the climate in Colorado is changing. It is unlikely we can alter the current course any time soon. Instead we must adapt to the changes and attempt to mitigate the impacts on water supplies. Creativity, innovation and likely more infrastructure will be required. Concepts like aquifer storage and recovery are coming back to the fore as a result of the current condition. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.