March 22, 2015--Why Denver spends water fees on trees (Ecosystem Marketplace)

The Colorado utility Denver Water delivers clean drinking water to 1.3 million people spread across more than 335 square miles, and most of that water comes from rivers and reservoirs that capture run-off from forest-covered hills in clearly-delineated watersheds. The forests both protect the steep slopes from erosion and regulate the flows of water by mopping it up and then releasing it slowly over time. But climate change has extended summers in Colorado just enough to give the northern pine beetle the comfort it needs to multiply like never before. The bug has taken full advantage – devouring bark at a rate ten times higher than ever recorded, killing trees and leaving them scattered like kindling for wildfires. And those fires now take hold with increasing frequency, reducing the forest to lumps of silt and sludge. Lush slopes degenerate into unstable masses of goo. The water upon which the city depends becomes muddy and irregular, which makes it more difficult – and expensive – to assure people they can turn on their faucets and trust the drinking water that comes out. Enter the US Forest Service (USFS), which is charged, in part, with ensuring clean headwaters by maintaining healthy forests.

Both the USFS and Denver Water are struggling to meet their budgets in the face of these challenges, so in August of 2010 the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain office cut a $33 million deal with the Denver utility to proactively manage 38,000 critical acres in five key watersheds – if Denver Water comes up with half the money. Denver Water took the offer, despite – or perhaps because of – its own struggles with a slew of disaster-related expenses, including a $26 million bill to remove silt and mud from a reservoir in just one wildfire-damaged watershed. Convinced that spending money now will save money in the long run, the utility agreed to finance the removal of dead trees in sensitive areas among other activities that will halt the beetle's massive tree-eating ventures by implementing water fees that will amount to about $27 dollars per household over the next five years. Five years on, the project is operating under budget, and it’s expanded in both scope and ambition, says program manager Don Kennedy. The initial objective of 38,000 acres has since risen to 46,000, but the program only spent $14.5 million – versus the allocated $16.5 million – on the necessary fuel treatments (mechanical underbrush removal to lessen the intensity of fire), restoration and prescribed burning. With the extra funds, the program was able to partner with the Colorado State Forest Service, a longtime partner of Denver Water, along with the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, a nonprofit conservation organization. The extra partnership meant additional treatment in sensitive areas that further protect the region's water supply. To view the full article visit the Ecosystem Marketplace.