For this installment of “Organization of the Month,” we chatted with the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed about their work in north-central Colorado. The Poudre is Colorado’s only Wild & Scenic designated river and provides recreation and drinking water for more than three hundred thousand people. Pollution, development, drought, and wildfire are all having impacts on the Poudre watershed, and the Coalition is working to create a more-resilient and restored watershed–follow along to learn more!
Flylords: Tell us a little bit about the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed. How did CPRW start?
CPRW: The Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed (CPRW) was formed as a result of the Hewlett Gulch and High Park Fires that occurred during the summer of 2012 and burned 95,172 acres of the upper watershed. Severe erosion, higher than normal runoff volume, and debris flows all contributed to extreme degradation of water quality in the mainstem and tributaries of the Cache la Poudre Watershed. This in turn impaired not only instream ecological health but also threatened critical water supply infrastructure. The Upper Poudre River Watershed supplies drinking and industrial water to much of the northern Front Range and is the principal source of raw water for the cities of Fort Collins and Greeley. After the fire, sediment and turbidity levels prevented the cities from using the Poudre as a source of drinking water supply, particularly after summer storm events.
The High Park Fire was a call to action for many organizations in Larimer County. Shortly after the fires began, a group of natural resource agencies, nonprofits, representatives from the cities of Fort Collins and Greeley, Larimer County local businesses, and individuals gathered to discuss how they could work together to rehabilitate the lands affected by the burn. Initially formed as an informal network known as the High Park Restoration Coalition, the group was successful at identifying the top priorities for restoration efforts, finding funding to implement the plans, and training volunteers to help with implementation. Based on the success of these early efforts, in May 2013, members of the High Park Restoration Coalition organization evolved into a formal nonprofit coalition, the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed (CPRW), with the goal of providing leadership and coordination for the collaborative stewardship of the Cache La Poudre River Watershed.
Flylords: What is the mission of CPRW?
CPRW: Our mission is to improve and maintain the ecological health of the Poudre River watershed through community collaboration.
Flylords: On that note, how do y’all accomplish that? Can you describe some of your regular activities?
CPRW: As a watershed coalition, collaboration is most important to our success. We work with partners and stakeholders including state and federal land management agencies, local non-profits, private businesses and landowners to accomplish our mission of community collaboration. By utilizing collaboration and the best available science, we are able to effectively plan and implement projects in the watershed.
Our core programs are watershed planning, forest and river restoration, wildfire mitigation, and post-fire restoration, all with a focus on creating a resilient Poudre River Watershed that can recover quickly from disturbances such as flooding and wildfire. Our watershed resiliency work is multi-disciplinary in nature and is based on work from a variety of fields of science including ecology, hydrology and geomorphology.
Our regular activities in the past year have centered on Cameron Peak post-fire mitigation and restoration, including erosion control, reforestation, seeding, and aerial mulching.
Shortly after the fire started, we worked to bring critical partners together to plan, prioritize and fundraise for Cameron Peak Fire recovery. Our staff facilitates the “Water Recovery Work Group” within the Larimer Recovery Collaborative Wildfire Team. We also worked with partners and consultants to complete a “Cameron Peak Fire Watershed Hazards, Treatments and Targeting Prioritization” to identify and prioritize post-fire hazards to water supply, helping to guide restoration work on the ground moving forward. This prioritization effort supports our current project to complete aerial mulching on 10,000+ high-priority acres within the Poudre Watershed. The goal of these mulching operations is to mitigate the negative consequences of the wildfire to high priority watershed values including water quality and supply, river ecosystem function and health, and to reduce flood impacts to downstream communities in both the Cache la Poudre and Big Thompson watersheds.
Within the Lower Poudre Watershed, we have been working with a committee to design and implement river restoration projects on several stretches of the Poudre River. These areas were identified in our Lower Poudre Watershed Resilience Plan published in 2017. Activities include fish passage, enhancement of aquatic and riparian habitat, and ditch/diversion restoration.
Flylords: What are the biggest threats facing the Poudre?
CPRW: The most immediate threat to the Poudre Watershed is post-fire impacts from the Cameron Peak Fire of 2020. The fire burned over 208,000 acres and affected nearly 600 miles of river within the Poudre Watershed alone. This summer, with the monsoon rains, we are seeing a host of predictable post-fire impacts including debris flows, flash flooding, and water quality issues. Just this week, on July 20, 2021, flash floods destroyed multiple homes, killed at least one, and left other residents missing within the area of Rustic, CO.
Our hearts go out to those who have been impacted by the recent flash flooding. Lives have been lost, people are missing, homes have been destroyed, roads are blocked and closed from massive debris flows, fish are suffocating, the river is closed for recreation, and water runs so black and turbid it can’t be treated and used for drinking.
When an environment is damaged from wildfire, even relatively short high-intensity rainstorms can trigger large and deadly flooding and debris flows. Witnesses from earlier this summer have reported 2 inches of rain in one hour during the event that occurred over the Black Hollow drainage–a true force of Mother Nature to be reckoned with, especially over a fresh burn scar. These types of events are expected after a wildfire such as Cameron Peak, but very difficult to grapple with when it becomes a reality.
These events over the past few weeks illustrate the need to allocate more state and federal dollars to wildfire mitigation to protect life, property, and water supply.
If you live in the Poudre Watershed, we hope you will stay engaged with these issues as we work to bring attention to the mitigation and restoration necessary to save lives, and protect properties and water supplies. If your drinking water comes from the Poudre River, these issues should be on the forefront of your mind. You are a stakeholder.
We will have more updates daily as we work with our partners to evaluate the current situation and work to reassess priorities for mitigation and restoration.
Flylords: You guys have a bunch of ongoing projects–care to highlight any?
CPRW: Our work to create fish passages at various diversion structures within the Lower Poudre River Watershed is very exciting for our fisheries. The Poudre is riddled with these diversion structures that are necessary for us to live and thrive within an arid environment, but they also cause fish habitats to become disconnected. Creating ways for fish to move up and down these diversion structures will create habitat connectivity and improve the overall health of the fishery, especially for the many native fish that live within the lower Poudre.
Flylords: Drought and wildfires, unfortunately, have taken hold in Colorado and much of the American West. Can you touch on some of the effects wildfire is having on the Poudre and other Colorado watersheds?
CPRW: 80% of Colorado residents depend on forested watersheds for their drinking water. Wildfires are having a huge (mostly negative) effect on Colorado’s watersheds. Fire does play a critical role in the long term health and resiliency of our fire-dependent forests, but a long history of fire suppression and lack of forest management, combined with more people living in the wildland-urban interface, have led to a growing and unsustainable problem for our state.
In the Poudre Watershed alone, we have seen nearly 300,000 acres burned just in the last 10 years, leading to a host of problems, which I already spoke to above. The forest management needed to reduce fuels and mitigate wildfire risk to Colorado’s residents, lands and water supplies is not happening fast enough. We need a substantial increase in funding from state and federal sources to increase the pace and scale of forest mitigation and restoration work.
Flylords: Is there anything that can be done to defend against wildfires? Can you make regions more resilient against wildfire?
CPRW: We have invested a significant amount of time and energy into wildfire mitigation work to reduce the risk of high severity wildfire in the Poudre watershed at a landscape scale. This work includes mechanical and hand thinning, pile burning and prescribed fire. To date, CPRW has completed over 1,000 acres of collaborative wildfire mitigation forest projects in the Poudre Watershed. In addition, we are a founding member of the Northern Colorado Fireshed Collaborative (NCFC). NCFC’s mission is to create resilient landscapes by facilitating an increase in the pace and scale of not only mechanical fuel reduction methods but also prescribed fires and strategically managed wildland fires across jurisdictional boundaries. NCFC participants represent federal, state, and local government agencies; nonprofit organizations; university-based entities; and watershed coalitions. More info at www.nocofireshed.org
Flylords: If there’s one thing I’ve learned in conservation, it’s that nothing happens by going at a problem alone. Can you speak to the network of partners and volunteers you guys have?
CPRW: Yes! In a watershed like the Cache la Poudre, where the river is worked so hard, and there are so many different stakeholders and interests, collaboration is absolutely necessary. CPRW has created an incredible network of stakeholder and practioner partners from all sectors including state and federal land management agencies, local non-profits, private businesses, Larimer County, City of Greeely and Fort Collins, Colorado State University, and private landowners. We strive to find innovative win-win solutions to the complex, cross-jurisdictional challenges facing our watershed. We value collaboration because we believe it is the best tool for stakeholders with different views to openly express their knowledge/concerns and work together to find a mutually beneficial solution. We strive to listen, learn, and give a seat at the table to all those that are knowledgeable and passionate about the Poudre River Watershed.
Flylords: Similarly, how can motivated readers–maybe some from in the area–get involved in improving the health and resiliency of the Poudre River?
CPRW: First and foremost, take time to learn about your local watershed. If that is the Cache la Poudre watershed, find out where the headwaters are located; learn about Colorado water rights, diversion structures, hydrology, etc. Get out and explore the river, hike the trails, sit on the banks of the river, fish! When we have a better understanding of where our water comes from and threats to our water supply, we are more inclined to protect the watershed we depend on for life.
You can support CPRW’s work to maintain and improve the Poudre River Watershed by making a donation, volunteering or sharing our work with your friends and family. As a small nonprofit, we are always working with too little resources.