(COLORADO) — The Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) announced three projects that will reduce risks posed by wildfires on the state’s water supplies for more than a million Coloradans Thursday, Jan. 19.

For 80% of Coloradans, water starts in the state’s forests before making its way downstream to their taps, said CSFS.

Given this connection between clean drinking water and forests, the Colorado Legislature passed House Bill 22-1379 during the 2022 legislative session to fund projects that will reduce wildfire fuels around high-priority watersheds and water infrastructure.

“We are excited to put these funds provided by the legislature to work in high-priority areas where an uncharacteristic wildfire could significantly impact water supplies and infrastructure,” stated CSFS’ Watershed Program Specialist, Weston Toll.

CSFS received $3 million through HB22-1379 to fund forest management in critical watersheds and has allocated $1 million each to three projects in the following locations:

North Slope of Pikes Peak, Teller County

The project on the North Slope of Pikes Peak will help protect essential drinking water and water infrastructure for the City of Colorado Springs. Reservoirs on the North Slope provide about 15% of the City’s drinking water supply, according to CSFS.

The project will add to more than 3,500 acres of prior fuel treatments on Colorado Springs Utilities’ (CSU) municipal lands and fill an important gap in treated areas around North Catamount Reservoir and the headwaters of North Catamount Creek, said CSFS.

Work in this area will also help protect infrastructure that transports water from the utility’s Blue River collection system to the reservoir.

“Colorado Springs Utilities’ 34-year-long partnership with the Colorado State Forest Service has enabled many beneficial forest management activities that reduce the risks and impacts of wildfire in and adjacent to our watersheds,” stated Jeremy Taylor, CSU’s Forest Program Manager. “It’s a valued partnership that prioritizes working together to improve forest health and protect our water resources, public lands and neighboring private lands.”

The Pikes Peak Watershed is noted as a high-priority area by CSFS, U.S. Forest Service and CSU. It is also a focus area for the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative.

Staunton State Park, Park & Jefferson Counties

Staunton State Park’s project will build on more than 800 acres to mitigate potential wildfire impacts on water resources, communities, outdoor recreation areas and wildlife habitats.

Creeks running through the park feed into the North Fork South Platte River, which flows into Strontia Springs Reservoir. 80% of Denver Water’s water supply moves through the Strontia Springs Reservoir.

Staunton State Park Manager Zach Taylor said the project will reduce the risk of a wildfire spreading from the park to adjacent neighborhoods.

“This project will allow us to get into areas of the park we haven’t been able to treat yet… [and] also reduces wildfire risk to creeks in the park and the entirety of the drainage,” he said.

The park has worked alongside neighbors in the area, including private landowners and the U.S. Forest Service, to address wildfire fuels since the park was acquired in the 1980s, according to Taylor.

“Staunton State Park lies between all of these communities,” he said. “This project could set up the park for the next five to ten years in helping us meet our goals for fuels reduction.”

The area is six miles west of Conifer and is a priority for CSFS, Denver Water, Upper South Platte Partnership, Elk Creek Fire Protection District as well as local Community Wildfire Protection Plans. It is also a focus area for the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative.

Fraser Valley, Grand County

The project in the Fraser Valley will lower the risk of wildfire to water supplies for Denver and the towns of Fraser and Winter Park by reducing fuels on U.S. Forest Service, Denver Water and private lands.

It connects to several prior treatment areas that have established a connected, large-scale fuel break that could allow firefighters to engage with a wildfire. During the 2020 William’s Fork Fire, the area was identified as a place where wildfires could spread into the densely populated Fraser Valley.

“These projects are critical for watershed health and source water protection for Denver Water and our 1.5 million customers,” stated Christina Burri, Watershed Scientist with Denver Water. “Healthy forests equal healthy watersheds.”

CSFS expects the projects to begin in 2023 and will monitor them in future years to evaluate their impact and efficacy. All three projects allow CSFS and its partners to achieve goals and enact strategies noted in the 2020 Colorado Forest Action Plan.

Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Dan Gibbs, said, “The three projects announced today build on existing efforts to increase resiliency and make impactful investments in key watersheds to create healthier forests and reduce the threat of future wildfires.”