A Healthy Watershed Now and in the Future
The South Platte watershed provides Colorado with 75% of its municipal water while constant threats from weather and human activity damage the fragile ecosystem. The contamination of the water source requires constant maintenance to remain healthy. The Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP) works with local partners and volunteers to focus on project planning, implementation, and monitoring within the watershed. Water quality threats from wildfires, sediment erosion, weed control, and human impact are CUSP’s top interests. With a vital natural resource at stake that many people depend on, the necessity for Colorado residents to become aware of this organization’s plans in protecting the quality of their drinking water is crucial. CUSP’s approach proves highly effective in educating citizens living within the watershed of water quality concerns while informing of steps that can be taken to protect the natural resources. CUSP requires improvements in various areas of their organization. Competition for funding, inadequacy of volunteers and stakeholders, and regularly changing Colorado Water laws and regulations are shortcomings that must continue to be met with implemental strategic techniques such as volunteer workshops, funding events, and staff interest in the Colorado Water Trust Board.
Two issues contributed to the initial interest in forming this organization. The first was the 1994/95 U. S. Forest Service (USFS) study of segments of the South Platte within Forest Service boundaries to access whether any river segments within the boundaries might qualify for designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Denver Water Board was concerned that designation would give the USFS operational control of the river, negatively impacting their ability to operate their water rights. Secondly, the EPA guidelines on Source Water Assessment Programs require water providers to look at areas that impact their water quality. Based on these issues, they pulled together interested parties to assess ways to protect the Outstandingly Remarkable Values (ORVs) set in place by the Wild and Rivers Scenic Act without Federal designation. In early 1998 this group began working on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). Under the MOU, they agreed to keep the management program looked upon as voluntary, not regulatory. This established the Coalition’s goals of protecting and addressing the impacts of water quality, sustaining productivity and diversity of ecological systems, manage nonpoint pollutant sources and minimize impacts of disastrous events.
Living with fire is part of life in the watershed. Having strategic plans in place for post-fire reclamation are as important as the means of preventing future fires, especially those in high fire danger areas. The torrential rain following the Buffalo Creek fire of 1996 washed tons of silt into Denver’s main water intake structure, threatening the drinking water of the city and closing the structure for three weeks. It is important to access the fire damage surrounding Colorado Springs throughout the following years to manage the contaminants in our water system. During the year of 2012, major wildfires burned close to 250,000 acres in Colorado. While wildfires are an important aspect of a healthy environment, the problem is rooted in the aftermath of these fires. The initial unleash of tons of sediment — sand and decomposed Pikes Peak granite — that slumped from barren mountainsides into the streams has increased at an alarming rate. Due to the Hayman Fire, 20,000 tons of sediment now flows yearly through local creeks as opposed to the 1,200 tons before 2002. This drastic impact on the watershed requires constant volunteer efforts to keep the water quality healthy as well as educational efforts to promote conserving the purity our water.
The Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires had a direct impact of Colorado Springs’ future water quality due to the high-heat blaze of these fires resulting in incidents of high erosion and sediment loss. Many homeowners along the Waldo Canyon burn scar are still facing flooding issues due to the harsh storms the following summer of 2013. For the past two years, CUSP has been working with its volunteers at the Flying W Ranch in efforts to prevent erosion with log boundaries and soil management. Their efforts are ongoing and in constant need of additional volunteers to return this historic Colorado Spring’s landmark to a stable ecological condition.
Water quality in the watershed is affected by many attributes. Contaminants of concern include sediment loadings caused by both natural conditions and human activities such as those of the result from land use and development, transportation and agriculture. Colorado has over eighty abandoned mines and several permitted mines still functioning. These mines contribute to the drainage of various metals and acids having a devastating impact on the surrounding water sources. CUSP started a program dedicated specifically to the control and eradication of noxious weeds throughout the watershed to protect native plants against dangerous invasive weeds. Various foreign weeds such as the Orange Hawkweed, Oxeye Daisy and Spotted Knapweed damage the environment by acting as an herbicide to surrounding vegetation, threatening livestock. While agriculture and ranching do not play as large of a role as they previously have in the watershed, current agriculture operators tend to stray away from the heavy application of herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers to maintain quality drinking water for Colorado’s citizens.
The CUSP’s goals of creating an educated, water-literate culture are disrupted by lack of funding and division issues such as the South Park Conjunctive Use Project. Their funding has been predominately crisis initiated; however, through their efforts they still had an average net loss of over two hundred thousand dollars per year during the past three fiscal years. CUSP is eager to reach their goals using implemental strategic techniques such as developing fundraising plans and information outreach programs as well as plans for wildfire management: monitoring sediment, recreation use and agriculture concerns to provide a healthy watershed. They hold multiple workshops throughout the year covering various topics from agriculture to weed management open to all stakeholders and involved members and volunteers. These agriculture workshops are aimed to inform ranchers and ranchette owners on topics such as managed grazing and holistic management. Water quality workshops develop study plans for phosphorous impacts from trans-mountain diverted waters and conducting phosphorus study. CUSP strives to manage the watershed while respecting recreational usage and land development growth while maintaining the public’s access to these lands.
In its fourteen years of active service throughout central Colorado, the CUSP is responsible for maintaining many events and programs throughout the state, such as the Antero Ice Fishing competition and the Woodland Park Healthy Forest Initiative. Without CUSP’s constant funding and activity of many volunteer members, many of these programs would not exist on the scale they do today. Volunteer growth has been steady since the start of the organization but CUSP is not yet where they would like to be. They are always accepting new participants eager to practice conservation and preservation while encouraging any interested members to attend the various stakeholder-run workshops provided throughout the year. The Coalition of the Upper South Platte is the backbone to providing clean municipal water to over a million residents while promoting educational efforts to cultivate more eco-friendly residents.