City, Mount Werner Water planning to protect Steamboat’s drinking water from wildfire |

City, Mount Werner Water planning to protect Steamboat’s drinking water from wildfire

The Fish Creek watershed lies between the plumes of the Ryan and Silver Creek fires in late summer 2018. With most of the city’s drinking water coming from Fish Creek, local water managers are planning for what to do should a fire burn through the forests surrounding Fish Creek.
Courtesy Kelly Romero-Heaney/city of Steamboat Springs

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Steamboat Springs’ drinking water starts as snow on Buffalo Pass, trickling into Fish Creek and Fish Creek Reservoir. About a mile after the creek barrels over Fish Creek Falls, it flows through the Mount Werner Water District treatment plant, where — after treatment — it courses into faucets all across town.

As the city’s main source of drinking water, water managers in Steamboat know the possibility of wildfire in the Fish Creek watershed places drinking water at risk.

“We recognize there’s a vulnerability there, and we need to focus on what we can do to protect that source,” said city water resources manager Kelly Romero-Heaney.

To plan for this, the city and Mount Werner Water, the two agencies that work together to operate water infrastructure in Steamboat, are using grant funding to understand what can be done before, during and after a wildfire to protect Steamboat’s drinking water supply.

Two contractors, Respec and Anchor Point, were selected to develop the Fish Creek Critical Community Watershed Wildfire Protection Plan, which will outline these actions. The plan was funded by a Colorado Water Conservation Board grant.

The plan was presented in a community open house on Thursday.

Respec’s Megan Burke, a fire hydrologist who served as the project manager, said fire changes the way water moves through plants and trees in the forest. Less water absorbs into the ground, and as more runoff flows over the ground after a fire, it picks up more sediment and erosion.

This sediment can include ash, debris and other contaminants. Removing these contaminants makes it harder and more expensive to treat water to make it safe to drink, according to the city, and additional sediment can fill reservoirs leaving less space for stored water.

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To learn more about the Fish Creek Critical Community Watershed Wildfire Protection Plan, visit

The consultants first identified what areas of the Fish Creek watershed have the greatest potential for wildfire and what areas have the greatest chance to impact water quality if a fire does occur.

Then they used information from those analyses to prioritize actions that can be taken both in Routt National Forest and in area water infrastructure to prepare for the impacts of fire on our drinking water supply. This includes steps that can be taken before, during and after a fire occurs.

These recommended actions include upgrading and adding some infrastructure at the Mount Werner Water treatment plant. The plan also highlights certain pollutants and possible issues the plant should look out for if a fire occurs.

If a fire were to impact water quality or the treatment plant at a point where that water couldn’t be used, Romero-Heaney said the water treatment plant on the Yampa River would be able to process water to keep taps running, though residents would be asked not to water yards. 

The Fish Creek watershed
Courtesy city of Steamboat Springs

This redundancy — having another water source in case Fish Creek is compromised — is another element of the plan. The city and Mount Werner Water are working to expand the treatment capacity of the Yampa River plant. Romero-Heaney said the city is also working to ensure water rights are in place that would allow Steamboat to build an additional treatment facility west of town on the Yampa or the Elk River. 

In areas where humans are most likely to accidentally spark a wildfire, such as Steamboat’s Sanctuary neighborhood and areas where there is a lot of outdoor recreation, the plan suggests creating fuel breaks, an area where flammable vegetation is cut back. Maintained trails and roads can also be used as fire breaks. These breaks could help prevent a spark from a muffler or a grill igniting a more widespread fire. 

Burke said wildfires are often ignited by the community, so protecting the water treatment plant with fuel breaks and building on fire prevention strategies planned for the Sanctuary neighborhood could “protect the watershed from this human ignition source.”

It also suggested improving some U.S. Forest Service roads that would give water managers and firefighters better access to critical areas in a fire. And for after a fire, the plan identifies areas where right after the flames pass, land and water managers could place temporary ponds to catch eroded soil and debris. The plan also identifies the areas where removing flammable vegetation that fuels a fire would be most effective.

Another recommendation called for more public education about the importance of preventing fire near Fish Creek.

“There are a lot of (recreation) users in this watershed,” Burke said. “Most people don’t know that they’re hiking where their drinking water comes from. … So, there’s an opportunity to make people aware that you’re in your drinking water watershed. That this is fire prone. Please behave accordingly.”

The plan is still being finalized. It will ultimately be presented to the Steamboat Springs City Council and Mount Werner Water District Board for final approval.

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.

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