Whitepaper: “Wildfires and Forest Health – Colorado-Big Thompson Project”

Gerald Gibbens, P.E.1
Amy Johnson, P.E.2
Brad Piehl 3

The Colorado-Big Thompson Project (C-BT) and the associated Windy Gap Project deliver over 230,000 acre-feet of water annually to supplement municipal, agricultural and industrial water supplies for 860,000 people and 640,000 acres of irrigated land in Northern Colorado. Water is diverted from the Colorado River Basin to the South Platte Basin through a system of 12 reservoirs with a total storage capacity of nearly 1 million acre-feet, 35 miles of tunnels, 95 miles of canals, three pumping plants and six hydroelectric power plants with an installed capacity of 216 megawatts. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Northern Water) was created in 1937 to contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) for construction and repayment of project facilities, and jointly operates and maintains C-BT with Reclamation.
C-BT water supplies are nearly entirely dependent upon snowmelt from high elevation watersheds along the Continental Divide in Northern Colorado. Forest health and fires within these watersheds can have dramatic effects on the quality of watershed runoff and the ability of C-BT water supplies to meet municipal, industrial and agricultural water uses. Catastrophic wildfires that occurred in Northern Colorado during 2012-2013 drought conditions highlighted the risk that C-BT water supplies face given deteriorated forest health conditions, drought, and urbanization at the wildland-urban interface. Northern Water, in conjunction with its partner local, State and Federal agencies are taking a pro-active approach to addressing these conditions, including actions to protect water supplies from recent wildfires, as well as initiating the C-BT Headwaters Partnership, which will develop a plan and program to address forest health conditions in C-BT watersheds and pre-plan post- wildfire response in preparation for potential future wildfires.

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