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Series 2022 - Wildfires and Watershed Health

Third in a series on local water issues provided by the Huerfano County Water Conservancy District.


Huerfano County’s water comes from the watersheds of the Cucharas and Huerfano Rivers. Recently, each has been struck by wildfires. When a watershed burns, the amount and timing of runoff (as well as its quality) are adversely affected. The Huerfano County Water Conservancy District (HCWCD) has been joined by other government agencies in the County in addressing the effect of those wildfires. Those joint efforts are summarized below; final reports are available on the HCWCD website, www.hcwcd.net .

Cucharas Watershed Assessment

Following the 2013 East Peak Fire (13,500 acres), HCWCD initiated a watershed assessment for the upper Cucharas basin near the village of Cuchara – at that time thought to be the most likely location of the next serious wildfire in the County. Beginning in 2013 with community meetings, a group of stakeholders coalesced around the idea of evaluating the prospect of a large wildfire and its impact on water facilities. JW Associates was retained to conduct the assessment. The effort was a resounding success in two respects. First, it convinced the participants that much could be accomplished by working together – an idea that has paid dividends several times. Second, the detailed analysis was of great assistance at the time of the Spring Creek Fire, which overlapped the study area.

Spring Creek Fire

In 2018, the Spring Creek Fire burned over 108,000 acres, severely damaging the watersheds of the Cucharas and Huerfano Rivers. At HCWCD’s invitation, the Arkansas River Watershed Collaborative (ARWC, part of the Arkansas Basin Roundtable) provided funding for immediate engineering and technical on-the-ground assistance to Huerfano County after the fire. The greatest long-term concern in the burn scar was the widespread occurrence of hydrophobic soil – soil so overheated by the fire that it no longer could absorb water. Consequently, during snow melt or a rain event, great amounts of water stream off the burn scar, causing erosion and flooding downstream. For flood and fire mitigation projects in the burn scar between 2018 and 2022, $1-million of grant funding applied for by HCWCD has been received from/committed by Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) and another $270,916 received from CDPHE.

Warning Gages

During early spring 2019, seven advanced flood warning gages were rapidly acquired and installed at streams below the burn scar and above La Veta and Walsenburg. They were financed through grants from CWCB and the Colorado Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, with very substantial in-kind assistance and expertise from the Division of Water Resources. During the 2019 and 2021 monsoon seasons, the gages generally worked as designed, giving real-time warnings of flood events. Refinement of gage use continues, and HCWCD continues to pay the satellite communication expenses.

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