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National wildfire prevention, restoration initiative to include Boise River Basin

Windsurfer Jim Tighe sails across Lucky Peak Reservoir east of Boise on Tuesday morning, as smoke from wildfires in the hills above rolls in. (Chris Lee)
Windsurfer Jim Tighe sails across Lucky Peak Reservoir east of Boise on Tuesday morning, as smoke from wildfires in the hills above rolls in. (Chris Lee)

The U.S. secretaries of Agriculture and Interior were in Colorado today to launch the first of six pilot projects designed to protect the nation’s water supply from increased wildfire risk, and one of the projects is targeted for the Boise River drainage upstream of Boise. That’s where the destructive Trinity Ridge Fire in the Boise National Forest charred 220 square miles last summer; federal officials say increased erosion and sedimentation from the giant wildfire could affect Arrowrock Reservoir, Anderson Ranch Reservoir and more.

The Colorado project, announced at Horsetooth Reservoir outside Ft. Collins, is in the area affected by the destructive High Park Fire in June of 2012; plans there include forest thinning, prescribed fire and other forest health treatments to reduce wildfire risk; projects to reduce post-fire erosion and sedimentation; and restoration efforts on burned land including tree planting and other habitat improvement. Overall, the project, dubbed the Western Watershed Enhancement Partnership, also will include pilot projects in Arizona, California, Washington (Yakima Basin) and Montana (Horsethief Reservoir/Flathead River).

“In the West, more than 40 Reclamation dams and facilities are on or downstream from Forest Service lands where drier, hotter weather has exacerbated the risk of wildfire,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement. “This partnership can serve as a model for the West when it comes to collaborative and targeted fire threat reduction and restoration efforts to protect our critical water supplies.” Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the initiative is part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan; click below for a report on the announcement from the AP in Denver.

By the way, the photo above, taken by Chris Lee, shows windsurfer Jim Tighe sailing across Lucky Peak reservoir on the Boise River on Tuesday morning, as wildfire smoke rolled in from fires in the hills above.

Cabinet members, Udall promote wildfire prevention
By CATHERINE TSAI, Associated Press

DENVER (AP) — Federal and local agencies will try to speed up efforts to thin vegetation that could fuel catastrophic wildfires which threaten water supplies and hydroelectric facilities, federal officials said Friday.

The Western Watershed Enhancement Partnership was announced at Horsetooth Reservoir near Fort Collins by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. It will focus on accelerating forest restoration around reservoirs, dams, irrigation systems and hydroelectric projects to reduce the risk of intense fires.

"When a forest fire takes place, it can compromise the water supply that is in those reservoirs," Vilsack said. "Sediment can build up, and the ash created by fires can cause huge problems downstream in terms of water quality."

The partnership will help agencies leverage resources to reduce the risk of rivers and water projects getting sullied, Vilsack said.

The U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are launching the effort with a pilot project in the Upper Colorado headwaters and Big Thompson watershed in northern Colorado, where the High Park Fire burned last year.

Under the project, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and Colorado State Forest Service will work with the federal agencies on forest thinning and prescribed burns. The work also will include reseeding and restoring burned forests so not as much sediment will run off from burned areas.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, and the Interior Department, which includes the Bureau of Reclamation, are working to formalize similar partnerships around the Salt River-CC Cragin project in Arizona; Boise River Reservoir in Idaho; Mid-Pacific Reclamation Region in California; Yakima Basin in Washington state; and the Horsethief Reservoir and Flathead River in Montana.

The initiative builds from the successful "Forest to Faucets" partnership the Forest Service reached with Denver Water, Colorado's largest water utility, to share costs of mitigating wildfire risks and effects in Colorado.

After wildfires in 1997 and 2002, Denver Water spent more than $26 million to reduce or prevent debris runoff into its water supplies. It has said it would rather spend money preventing giant wildfires than dealing with problems caused by them.

The current wildfire season has led to deaths in Arizona and Colorado. Extended drought conditions and hotter, drier weather patterns have created a dangerous environment.

"Forest fires are in many cases a result of lightning strikes and are natural catastrophes in the same way a hurricane, or a flood, or a tornado is," Vilsack said. And yet the funding response to other natural disasters is different than it is for a forest fire, he said.

Money that would normally be used to restore forests is being used to suppress fires, meaning less is available to reduce the risk of large blazes in the first place.

"What we as a nation need to look at is how we could better and more consistently treat forest fires that are caused by Mother Nature in the same way as we do other natural disasters," Vilsack said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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