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Wildfire's Damage Doesn't End When The Smoke Clears. It Can Also Taint Drinking Water

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Wildfires are an immediate danger to homes and people. The scorched hillsides they leave behind can also threaten drinking water for years after the smoke clears. Sam Brasch of Colorado Public Radio reports from one city that is trying to get ahead of the problem.

SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: At the moment, Frank Alfone says Steamboat Springs might have the best water in Colorado.

FRANK ALFONE: So essentially, it's this direction seven miles to the Continental Divide. And that's where all of the water originates for this plant.

BRASCH: Alfone manages the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District. I met him at the main intake along Fish Creek, which supplies almost 95% of the ski town's water. Alfone says it starts a snowpack high up in the Rockies before cascading down waterfalls, like the one you're hearing now. At the moment, it's a postcard mountain stream, but Alfone doesn't expect it'll stay that way.

ALFONE: It's not if; it's kind of when. So we're trying to do what we can to prepare for it.

BRASCH: The reason, he says, is wildfire. The state's two largest fires are now burning just miles from the watershed.

ALFONE: If there's a fire and then we had a major rain event after that, then we'd get a bunch of ash, a bunch of debris, a bunch of sediment in the actual creek.

BRASCH: Similar circumstances have overwhelmed other water districts. Denver spent millions digging ash and sediment out of reservoirs after one fire. More recently, other communities have paid to have helicopters drop mulch on burn scars to slow erosion. But Alfone says his district has a plan developed a couple of years ago.

ALFONE: To kind of look at what areas are most prone and are likely to potentially have a wildfire and what can we do to be prepared for that.

BRASCH: Fernando Rosario-Ortiz studies how fires impact water at the University of Colorado Boulder. He says this sort of planning is essential, especially since more than two-thirds of U.S. drinking water comes from forests.

FERNANDO ROSARIO-ORTIZ: It's obvious that climate change is impacting the frequency and intensity of fires, which directly relates to the need for us to be better prepared.

BRASCH: The Steamboat plan details how it'll keep taps running after a fire comes for Fish Creek. One part is to work with residents to try to prevent a fire for as long as possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOOD CHIPPER RUNNING)

BRASCH: In the Sanctuary neighborhood along Fish Creek, a crew feeds dry brush and branches into a wood chipper. Anne Lauinger leads the homeowners association for the high-end development.

ANNE LAUINGER: We felt under a bit of pressure to get it done.

BRASCH: That's because the water plan found a small fire here could easily rocket up a canyon and burn the whole watershed. Lauinger says that helped her convince some of her neighbors to help pay for this project.

LAUINGER: If you say this is for our community, your neighbors - so that's how we have approached those people.

BRASCH: But while clearing out forests might help prevent a wildfire, Alfone isn't counting on it. That's why his district has already made one major investment outlined in the wildfire plan - a second water treatment plant. It's an emergency backup fed by wells unconnected to Fish Creek. That means if a fire did take out the main water resource...

ALFONE: We would have to limit outdoor watering, limit car washing, limit, you know, cleaning of sidewalks. But we're pretty confident that we can provide water from a different source if this entire source had to be shut down.

BRASCH: Alfone says the next step is to improve this original plant so it can handle some wildfire debris and toxins. The only holdup is money.

ALFONE: As you know, these projects aren't inexpensive. So we're looking at rate increases. We're looking at potential loans. We're looking at grant opportunities, too.

BRASCH: Including federal disaster grants. And on that front, Alfone is newly optimistic. President Biden recently doubled the size of a program to help pay for projects like improving the Fish Creek treatment plant. Alfone says his district just might qualify, especially since it already figured out what it needs to do. For NPR News, I'm Sam Brasch in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE NATIONAL SONG, "EMPIRE LINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.