Quality and Quantity Concerns: Water Lessons from the Marshall Fire

As I was preparing recently to write this blog post a few weeks ago, several friends had just lost homes in the Marshall Fire that occurred in Boulder County on December 30th, and I was reminded that my LAST blog post, dated October 22, 2020, “Climate Change Impacts on Colorado Water Users,” specifically touched on increased wildfires as a potential consequence of climate change. In October of 2020, Colorado was just coming out of one of the hottest and driest summers in recorded history.  Unfortunately, the beginning of 2022 isn’t shaping up to look much better.  As of the date of the Marshall fire, Colorado, and the country as a whole, had just experienced the hottest six months in recorded history.  The next highest six-month average temperature occurred during the 1930s, during the Dust Bowl.

The data, sourced from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, illustrated that the average Colorado temperature between July and December reached 53.4 degrees, which is over a degree and a half warmer than the same six-month span in 2020.  The next highest six-month state average was 52.1 degrees in 1933.

For the US, the same six-month average was 59.77 degrees, over a full degree higher than the same period in 2020. While these average temperature increases may not seem significant, even a minor increase can mean more ground and surface water lost from streams, ditches and reservoirs into dry soils or to evaporation.

As I mentioned in the previous blog post, these same drought conditions can lead to decreased/earlier/faster runoff from snowmelt in the spring, as well as a longer and more severe wildfire season.  But as we know from the aftermath of the Marshall fire, water quality and supply may be impacted as well.  The water treatment plant for the City of Superior caught fire and was forced to go temporarily offline.  The two water treatment plants left, in Louisville, reportedly struggled to keep up with the demands presented by the fire.  Kurt Kowar, Louisville director of public works and utilities, was recently quoted by 9News as saying, “[b]ased off how windy it stayed all day and how hard they had to fight those fires, we would have run out of water probably early in the afternoon.”

The city made the difficult decision during the fire to release raw, untreated water through the municipal system to ensure firefighters had adequate supply to protect homes and businesses in the path of the fire, which is part of the reason Louisville was under a boil order for tap water for almost a week after the fire started. Further, Louisville and Superior residents reported even after the taps were running again that their drinking water had a strong taste and smell of smoke.  While the water was tested and found safe to drink by CDPHE, the problems with taste and smell were reported by Colorado’s Fox31 to be due to ash contamination that had settled on top of area storage reservoirs during and after the fire, or due to runoff from precipitation that fell in the vicinity and then collected in the reservoirs.

2020 was the most active fire season ever recorded in Colorado history, and we had the three largest wildfires in Colorado history reported that same year.  The Marshall fire in December of 2021, while not the state’s largest in terms of acreage, was the most destructive in Colorado history in terms of the value of the homes and other structures destroyed, due to the heavy damage it caused in a densely inhabited residential/suburban area.

Except for the mountains, the entire state of Colorado currently remains in a moderate to extreme drought statusWater Education Colorado reported recently that the connection between snowpack and healthy spring streamflows, upon which many municipal water providers have historically relied for planning purposes, continues to become more tenuous as the western states continue a 20-year drought trend, and soils get drier by the year, meaning that an increasing amount of spring runoff is absorbed into the soil every year before it even reaches the stream.

If climate trends continue along with the front range population/development boom we are currently seeing, Colorado water suppliers may need to consider not only increasing the quantity and reliability of water rights in their municipal portfolios, but also their water treatment technologies.  While the Marshall fire brought us many difficult lessons, it is unlikely to be the last fire of its magnitude.  For municipal planning purposes, it also taught us that we can no longer take for granted that our taps will always run in sufficient quantities, or that the water coming out of them will be drinkable, even after the fires are out.

Lyons Gaddis has helped water users of all types plan for drought and other changes in water availability and type of use, and our water team is available to answer any questions you may have about this topic.