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Last Year's Wildfires Affecting Water Supply This Year In Northern Colorado

GREELEY, Colo. (CBS4) - Greeley hopes to return to drawing water from the Cache La Poudre River Tuesday after halting its use late last week because of ash and debris in the water from last year's Cameron Peak Fire.

"Too black, too sediment laden to try and bring that water in and treat it," said Sean Chambers, Greeley's director of Water and Sewer Utilities. "A lot of that sediment, the burn debris, the ash, it's all coming off the mountain in the form of soot, mud, debris flow and it's ending up in our waterways, our rivers, ultimately in our intake in our water plants."

Greeley draws about 45% of its water from the Poudre under normal circumstances. Otherwise, it pulls from places like Horsetooth Reservoir. Horsetooth still has a fairly clear water supply because water managers moved water from the East Troublesome Fire burn area early. A lot of that is drawn through a tunnel constructed decades ago beneath Rocky Mountain National Park, to bring water from the western side of the divide to the Front Range. But in the long run, it, too, could be affected.

"When our Poudre supply gets bad, we shift to Horsetooth Reservoir. And so if those supplies have challenging water quality, we're in for some challenging and expensive years ahead."

But mitigating is a huge project. The state in Senate Bill 240 recently approved about $30 million into the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which will distribute money through grant applications to entities like Greeley, Fort Collins and Northern Water to mitigate and improve water systems. But it's only a portion of what's needed.

"More than a million people in Northern Colorado rely on these sources of supply that are coming off burn areas. And so we're working with state and federal agencies to try to develop grant streams, funding that can help with the recovery." 

The estimation for mitigating both wildfire areas, however, is pricy.

"The Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires have more than 100 million of unmet mitigation needs," said Chambers. "We're only about 15% funded. There's a lot of mitigation work yet to be done."

There are several potential state and federal funding sources, but nearly 90% of the affected land is federal.

"We're tracking the federal infrastructure bill pretty closely. We think that there's a great opportunity to create green jobs recovering from these wildfires and create really good for the watersheds and more than a million people who rely upon them."

In addition, they are hoping for appropriation from the Federal Natural Resource Conservation Service. Those dollars are often set aside following disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes or fires. But there's a visibility problem, too.

"The natural disaster that is causing us impacts is pretty far in the rear-view mirror," noted Chambers about last year's fires.

But the reality is, those fires could cause problems for years to come.

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