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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

Wildfire Runoff Could Complicate Routine Maintenance For Fort Collins Water Supply

Horsetooth Reservoir, on Sept. 12, 2018. Aerial support provided by LightHawk.
Nick Cote for KUNC/LightHawk
Nick Cote/Aerial support provide
Horsetooth Reservoir, on Sept. 12, 2018. Aerial support provided by LightHawk.

The Cameron Peak Fire burning near the headwaters of the Cache la Poudre River could complicate some routine maintenance scheduled for the city of Fort Collins’s drinking water infrastructure this fall.

The city usually gets its drinking water from Horsetooth Reservoir via the Soldier Canyon Dam outlet and the Poudre River. But with the outlet scheduled for maintenance starting in October, and the Poudre potentially affected by ashy runoff from the fire, officials have had to take a closer look at a back-up plan.

If runoff from the Cameron Peak Fire degrades the Poudre too much, Fort Collins and smaller water districts will have to rely on an emergency pump station with limited capacity. The exact location of the pump station isn’t being disclosed publicly because it could end up being key to the city’s drinking water supply for more than a month this fall if the Poudre is too laden with ash and sediment to treat.

“We have an emergency pump station set up that will be able to pump water out of Horsetooth Reservoir into one of our pipelines and bring Horsetooth water back down to our plant,” Kempton said.

The pump station will only be able to handle the city’s winter demands, which are much lower than fall or summer demands for drinking water and outdoor irrigation. That’s why this summer, city officials have been including a notice in water bills telling customers to end all outdoor irrigation starting Oct. 1 in anticipation of the Horsetooth outlet being under construction.

“So we want to bring down demands as much as possible just in case we would have to turn the pump station on,” Kempton said.

A spokesman for Northern Water, the agency that oversees the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which fills Horsetooth with water from the Western Slope, said the agency would proceed with the outlet maintenance, and monitor for any potential unexpected runoff into the Poudre.

“Our water resources staff recognizes that this fire could affect water quality for many future runoff seasons. Because of that, it’s critical that outlet maintenance occurs before potential issues occur,” said Northern Water’s Jeff Stahla in a statement.

The Horsetooth maintenance is scheduled to start in October and wrap up by Thanksgiving.

This story is part of a project covering water in the western U.S. and the Colorado River basin, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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