Millions needed for next steps to maintain local drinking water |

Millions needed for next steps to maintain local drinking water

Fire potential in Fish Creek Watershed pushes plant upgrades

Fish Creek Water Treatment Plant, pictured in fall 2015, will have fire fuels mitigation work done in 2022 on some of the 60 private acres surrounding the plant. (Courtesy photo/ Mount Werner Water)

Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District is currently seeking funding for $6.5 million in improvement projects set for completion in 2022 and 2023 at the Fish Creek Water Treatment Plant that processes drinking water for Steamboat Springs.

The district received the final Water Treatment Facility Master Plan report in April from Carollo Engineering, which outlines 20 years of recommended work in four implementation phases at a substantial cost of $53 million, said Frank Alfone, general manager at Mount Werner Water.

The first phase of improvements addresses operational needs and updated regulatory requirements issued within the past five years from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment related to copper and lead rules, as well as measurement of residual chlorine in the water, Alfone said.

“We are embarking on two major capital improvement projects and figuring out a financial strategy to fund those projects,” Alfone said. “This is one of several phases of upgrading the plant so we satisfy existing regulatory requirements but also are planning for any sort of wildfire contaminated water. We can’t work on the wildfire portion because we have these two regulatory projects that have to be first.”

The district is working with the financing arm of Carollo to investigate funding options, such as loans, grants and possible customer rate hikes. The district board will decide this fall if the necessary work will lead to future rate increases for customers of the district, which serves the city south of Fish Creek. Alfone said the district rates will not increase in 2021, also noting that current rates are, on average, lower than the statewide average.

Following the required regulatory improvements, the next phase in the master plan would be $6.5 million for work in 2028 to boost efficiencies in water filtering and processing capabilities for sediment and taste and odor issues from increased debris flow in the case of wildfire in the Fish Creek Watershed, Alfone said.

Fire experts say the Fish Creek Watershed represents one of the highest wildfire risks in Routt County due to the topography and fuel types.

“If we get a fire and it gets large, suppression efforts are going to be very difficult,” said Kevin Thompson, U.S. Forest Service local fire management officer.

The topography upstream from the water treatment plant includes the forested Fish Creek drainage that is a steep canyon several hundred feet deep. The canyon normally stays very wet, but during dry years, a fire in the canyon could be very destructive. The box canyon could function as a powerful funnel for flames during wildfires, said Drew Langel, a local forester with the Colorado State Forest Service.

“If fire was to get in there (the canyon), there would be high potential for high consequence,” Thompson said.

Alfone said if a serious wildfire were to hit the Fish Creek drainage now, “the likelihood of us being able to treat the volume of water we treat would be substantially compromised if it’s a very severe wildfire, and the flows down the creek are full of contaminated water.”

The water district has applied for Colorado State Forest Service funding to complete identified fire fuels mitigation work next year on some of the 60 acres of private land surrounding the treatment plant, Alfone said. The district and the city of Steamboat Springs would provide matching funds to the CSFS grant.

Fire fuels mitigation work will start in early June for common areas in The Sanctuary neighborhood, which borders water treatment plant land, said Anne Lauinger, president of homeowners’ association. Lauinger said the mitigation work is a two-year, $300,000 project that will address some 100 acres that include fire fuels from previous tree falls, ground fuels, beetle-killed trees and a tree blow-down area from a storm last fall. The work is being performed by All Weather Services in Steamboat.

Thompson noted some 200 acres of fire fuels mitigation work on Forest Service land was completed in 2018 in the Burgess Creek Road area east of Thunderhead ski lift. He anticipates more fuels reduction work would be completed in the area near The Sanctuary in the near future.

The Water Treatment Facility Master Plan, conducted for Mount Werner Water and the city, was completed across 14 months at a cost of $140,000, paid for by the city and the district, Alfone said. The third implementation phase is estimated at $15 million and would include improvements to the raw water intake on Fish Creek.

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