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If you thought the drought was bad for water supplies, just add wildfires

Dead and fallen trees are pictured near Soapstone Basin in Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest on July 10, 2021.

Dead and fallen trees are pictured near Soapstone Basin in Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest on July 10, 2021. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)



SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's Dollar Ridge Fire in 2018 was an ominous knock at the door for water supply managers trying to keep water flowing to a million residents.

That fire led them to invest in a $28 million upgrade to the Duchesne Valley Treatment Plant after debris and sediment washed into Starvation Reservoir.

"We were able to treat the quality of water, but it brought to our attention another process that would be more protective," said Tom Bruton, assistant general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, explaining various filtration systems.

An Interior Department report notes that 80% of the nation's water supply originates on forested lands — areas that are under increasing assault due to catastrophic wildfires that especially plague the West and threaten water quality.

Like Utah, Colorado and other states in the West have had to invest millions in water treatment plant upgrades in the wake of devastating fires that could choke off residents' only source of water.

The fixes in the aftermath of a fire are expensive, so land managers, water districts, state forestry agencies, and other partners are heavily involved in a proactive, preemptive program to target high-priority areas with proven strategies to minimize risk.

It's called Shared Stewardship, and back in 2019, Utah became only the third state in the country to embrace this partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. Since then, the program has ballooned to include more than two dozen states across the nation.

"We can do all our work on the other side of the fence, but fire and insects don't know boundaries," said Tim Garcia, acting deputy regional forester for Intermountain Region 4 of the U.S. Forest Service headquartered in Ogden.

U.S. Forest Service firefighters Andrew Johnson and
Zach Bearman pile wood near Soapstone Basin in Uinta-Wasatch-Cache
National Forest on Saturday, July 10, 2021. The wood piles will be burned this winter.
U.S. Forest Service firefighters Andrew Johnson and Zach Bearman pile wood near Soapstone Basin in Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest on Saturday, July 10, 2021. The wood piles will be burned this winter. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Since its inception, Utah has chipped in $6.5 million for the Shared Stewardship program, while the Forest Service has contributed $14 million for projects. Water conservancy districts are also contributing money and other resources to tackle projects to minimize risk.

Bruton is meeting with Forest Service supervisors of each of the forests within the district's boundaries to map out ways to combat threats to vital water treatment and delivery systems.

"We're trying to gain a better understanding of the measures that can be taken to preempt catastrophic wildfires," Bruton said. "The need is far greater than the monies that are available."

It's a race against time, against the strong hand of Mother Nature.

If you thought the drought was bad for water supplies, just add wildfires
Photo: Deseret News

Bruton said that last year, the Range Fire came within a couple hundred yards of a critical water treatment plant in Orem that serves hundreds of thousands of people. And a 90,000-acre fire burned out the basin above Upper Stillwater Dam in the High Uintas in Duchesne County. Bruton said it remains to be seen if storms this season will wash debris into the dam and cause potential problems.

His district is working with the Forest Service on a Shared Stewardship project targeting the upper Provo River above Jordanelle Reservoir, a chief water source for the Wasatch Front.

The work through the program is more than just controlled burns but a strategic combination of lopping heavy forest growth, putting in fire breaks, and increasing defensible space.

Soapstone Basin in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National
Forest is pictured on Saturday, July 10, 2021. The U.S. Forest
Service is working in the area, stacking dead wood for later
burning due to fire danger.
Soapstone Basin in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest is pictured on Saturday, July 10, 2021. The U.S. Forest Service is working in the area, stacking dead wood for later burning due to fire danger. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Phase Four of the project has been completed, involving 1,155 acres. It created shaded fuel breaks along 22 miles of forest road and improved lodgepole pine stands.

Another phase targeting 1,967 acres is halfway complete and expected to wrap up in October. In part, it is using mechanical equipment to reduce fuel loads.

A contract for 1,934 acres should be awarded soon for another stage of the project which also involves targeting more than 250 acres to protect the water supply for the town of Kamas.

Bruton said these important projects will help avert problems down the road.

"We have not had a catastrophic fire above Jordanelle, but we have learned our lessons," Bruton said. "We are doing everything we can to keep the water flowing and safe."

Bruton noted that other water conservancy districts — Jordan Valley and Weber Basin — are also participating in Shared Stewardship projects.

"They say water and fire don't mix, but in this case water and fire do have to mix in order to control catastrophic wildfires," Bruton said.

Across the United States, the Forest Service has identified 80 million acres at above-average risk for wildfire due to insect infestations, dead trees, and in need of some type of restoration. On top of that, the federal agency says there are now 44 million homes within the wildland urban interface nestled among shrubs and trees that are a ticking tinderbox.

When it comes to Utah's Shared Stewardship targets, nearly 46% of "high-priority" areas are within the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest that in part abuts the Wasatch Front.

If you thought the drought was bad for water supplies, just add wildfires
Photo: Deseret News

Garcia says those priority areas are determined by an extensive review using technical specialists and GIS mapping.

The Utah Shared Stewardship website shows the level of those priorities, and as Garcia pointed out, it is like a sinuous spine that tracks along population centers as well as critical infrastructure that may be surrounded by unhealthy forests.

"The spine of where there are populations, water quality, and risk all align," he said. "The prevention work we are doing is good governance. It is the right thing to do for our citizens and our resources."

The teamwork and partnerships inherent in the Shared Stewardship program may seem like a given — after all land, water, homes, and businesses are all intertwined.

U.S. Forest Service firefighters Andrew Johnson and
Zach Bearman pile wood near Soapstone Basin in Uinta-Wasatch-Cache
National Forest on Saturday, July 10, 2021. The wood piles will be
burned this winter.
U.S. Forest Service firefighters Andrew Johnson and Zach Bearman pile wood near Soapstone Basin in Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest on Saturday, July 10, 2021. The wood piles will be burned this winter. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

But Garcia says it is more nuanced than that.

He recalls a time when he worked as a district ranger in Kamas about two decades ago and remembers the work the Forest Service was doing.

"We would work with local communities, but it was kind of a myopic view. We were not including everyone in those strategic discussions," he said. "It is like looking over your fence and wondering what your neighbor is doing without really coordinating. This is a heck of a lot more efficient."

In the forests and the mountains above the crowded cityscapes that make up the Wasatch Front, the quiet work of watershed restoration and fire prevention unfolds.

Signs warn campers for fire danger near Soapstone Basin
in Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest on Saturday, July 10,
2021.
Signs warn campers for fire danger near Soapstone Basin in Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest on Saturday, July 10, 2021. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

It goes on in the heat of summer and extends into the fall. In the spring, it resumes, as wildfire experts look to the coming season and weigh risk and threats.

Utah gets about 95% of its water from snowpack that melts, is stored in reservoirs or trickles to the valleys through streams, creeks, and rivers. The water is then turned on at the tap after it has moved through a complex delivery system made up of pipes, aqueducts, and importantly, water treatment plants.

The Shared Stewardship program is all about keeping that flow uninterrupted and that resource safe.

"It's all about the water," Garcia said.

Amy Joi O'Donoghue

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