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Wildfires and Our Mountain Streams

With the arrival of fall colors, wildfire season in the West is on the retreat. It’s important to look back on the toll these fires have taken on Colorado’s watersheds. In 2015, wildfires burned a record-breaking 10.1 million acres across the U.S., according to High Country News. We’ve seen a similar magnitude of burns this summer from California to Idaho and in our own backyard with the Hayden Pass, Cold Springs near Boulder, Beaver Creek and Sylvan Lake fires. Aside from the risks to houses and human lives, wildfires also pose threats to our watershed and river systems.

Wildfires have been scorching the earth as long as humans have existed. They are a natural force that keeps our ecosystems in check and natural cycles in motion. As human populations grow and encroach into wild places, wildfires have left that balance teetering. In mountain communities, our local firefighters, Forest Service, and water providers continuously monitor and manage the risks.

Increasing global temperatures means an increase in forest fires in the West, putting greater pressure on our natural resources, including water systems. So what kind of effects are they having on our rivers?

 LOW TO MODERATE INTENSITY

Fires, when low-to-moderate in intensity, can actually maintain the long term health of forest and riparian ecosystems by facilitating vegetation succession, which leads to diverse riparian zones. Diversity and regrowth in riparian banks is essential in maintaining bank stabilization and the natural filtration capabilities of native plants. High water flow, flooding, and a surge in nutrients can provide natural habitat for fish reproduction, and can load organic matter that can spike productivity. When these fires are lower intensity, and even prescribed as a forest management tool, they carry on healthy, natural processes.

 HIGH INTENSITY

The most detrimental effects to a watershed from high intensity fires are excessive erosion and runoff. Unburned forests act like sponges with rainfall, with the healthy vegetation and litter absorbing water and protecting the soil layer from intense rain. The plant layer slows down the water’s speed as it runs towards the river. The loss of vegetation after a burn leads to greater-exposed, loose soil and less absorption leading to higher runoff volumes. Some plants even release a waxy, water-resistant cover after being burned, further decreasing the forest’s absorptive capacity.

These effects can last years following a fire. The increased runoff leads to flash flooding as river banks overflow with excess volumes. Ash, woody debris, and sometimes fire retardant chemicals are flushed through our rivers, loading pollutants such as phosphorus, nitrate, and ammonia into our water systems. Increased runoff and loss of plants leads to stream banks eroding, adding on to increased sedimentation in our rivers which negatively effects spawning fish and can even clog their gills.

All of this harms aquatic insect life, water temperatures, fish habitat and reproduction, fisheries, and irrigation systems. Increases in sediment load can also put additional pressures on drinking water treatment processes and congest reservoirs downstream of the burn.

PROTECT YOURSELF

Our local firefighters and wildland specialists can only do so much to manage the force of fire — it’s essential to be proactive and aware yourself. Heed fire warnings and bans, fully put out fires while camping, and do not store your firewood on your deck. Homes should be surrounded by fire breaks, or 200 feet of defensive space between their perimeter and the nearest trees. Home consultation services, such as REALFire, exist in our valley to best protect where we live and work. More information can be found at http://www.realfire.net. If, as expected, our county population doubles by 2050, the wildland-urban interface will continue to be tested severely, but deliberate, responsible measures can prevent adding unnecessary risks to our already threatened watershed.

Lizzie Schoder is the education and outreach coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on October 2, 2016.

Help Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers in Eagle County

Nick Rzyska-FilipekAs enjoyers of our aquatic playgrounds in the summertime, most of us that fish and boat are aware that human activity has impacts. We’re probably less conscious that our own recreation practices may be leaving a mark. Invasive pests known as aquatic nuisance species are a growing threat to our water systems. These aquatic hitchhikers include disease-spreading bacteria, animals, and plants — some can be seen, others can’t. As non-native species they have no natural competition or predator, which makes it easy for them to spread rapidly and decimate our native species.

 WORST OFFENDERS

Some of the worst offenders in Colorado include zebra and quagga mussels, the New Zealand mudsnail and Eurasian watermilfoil.

Their impacts are big enough for the state of Colorado to have a budget of over $5 million for the control of aquatic nuisance species.

Zebra and quagga mussels can wreak havoc on boat engines and water supply infrastructure by encrusting and clogging pipes and fans. The New Zealand mudsnail feasts on the same aquatic insects that form the foundation of our native species’ food supply, surviving up to 50 days on a damp surface and several days on a dry one. Eurasian watermilfoil forms dense mats of noxious weeds that choke out native plants, slow water flow, invite mosquitoes to breed and decrease the water’s oxygen content. All of this inhibits swimming, fishing and boating.

‘ROCK SNOT’

In Eagle County, didymo (“rock snot”), the rusty crayfish and whirling disease are rampant in our waterways. Didymo or “rock snot” produces thick brown or bright green algae blooms that line stream bottoms and rocks, limiting oxygen for bottom-feeder organisms. The rusty crayfish is an intrusive and aggressive crustacean that feasts on the small insects and plant life that feed native fish.

 WHIRLING DISEASE

Whirling disease causes skeletal and neurological problems and sometimes death, in young rainbow, brook and cutthroat trout. This is a particular issue at the confluence of the Eagle River and Lake Creek, where the substrate hosts the disease-causing tubifex worm. Colorado Department of Wildlife now stocks whirling disease-resistant rainbow trout to lessen the blow for the angling community, but mitigation efforts are costly and fail to completely solve the spread of disease, which makes prevention more important than ever.

AGGRESSIVE PREVENTION

Since 2008 the Aquatic Nuisance Species Act has required mandatory inspection for all out-of-state boats entering Colorado waters and all of the boats entering or leaving known aquatic nuisance species-positive and high-risk waters. While there are no Colorado Department of Wildlife inspection stations in our county, there are several in reservoirs frequented by Eagle County residents including Rifle Gap, Ruedi, Harvey Gap and Blue Mesa Reservoirs.

 BUDGET CUTS

While Colorado has been a leader in aggressive aquatic nuisance species containment compared to its neighboring states, the program budget is facing major cuts. Only two local government contracts from Denver Water and Colorado Springs Utilities, in addition to contributions from the U.S. Forest Service, remain. If Colorado slashes its aquatic nuisance species programs, then an epidemic like that seen in other states will likely follow. In 2015, Colorado Department of Wildlife caught and decontaminated a record breaking number of out-of-state boats before they entered Colorado waters. Already in 2016 that record has almost been broken, providing clear evidence that this is not the time to cut the program.

 CHECK YOURSELF

You don’t need a boat to contribute to the spread, either. Even the most innocent behaviors can transfer these nuisance species to healthy streams. They can be spread by wading boots, fishing and construction equipment, bait, and standing water. Even our beloved pets can transport these pests from stream to stream so it’s important to check, brush and wash your dog’s coat and paws after every dip.

 FOUR WAYS TO DECONTAMINATE

What’s the good news? Despite all of these issues, some relatively simple measures can make a huge difference and help stop the further spread of aquatic nuisance species in the waters we enjoy. Here are four ways to decontaminate anything that comes in contact with a water source.

Pick one:

• Dry equipment for a minimum of 10 days.

• Freeze equipment overnight.

• Clean with hot water (140 degrees) for a minimum of 10 minutes.

• Remove any mud, algae or debris and soak equipment for 10 minutes in a decontamination solution of 6 ounces of ammonia-based, industrial-strength cleaner per gallon of water.

Though these species have made it to the heavily traveled lakes and rivers in our county, many high mountain lakes and streams are as pristine as they were thousands of years ago. While I encourage everyone to seek out, explore, fish and enjoy their favorite mountain stream this summer, I urge you to consider what you may be bringing with you.

 

Nick Rzyska-Filipek is the habitat and restoration intern for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on July 18, 2016.