The snows that fell again and again this spring did more than just annoy you. It saved this year’s rafting season on the Poudre River. In fact, outfitters and kayakers are looking forward to a normal year, whatever that is . The snowpack hovers around 100 percent of average, and the flows are pretty standard for this time of year. The river should peak around June 10, and it should be good for Memorial Day.
No one’s taking those flows for granted after the last two years. In 2011, an historic snowpack turned the river into a monster, with high, fast flows, and last year’s barely-there snowpack not only killed the season early, it stopped it all together for a few weeks in May because of the wildfires. Outfitters lost a quarter of their business just from the closures, said David Costlow, executive director of the Colorado River Outfitters Association.
Outfitters fretted this year before the spring because the snowpack was low and the reservoirs were almost empty. Outfitters need both for a good year. The cool spring not only saved the snowpack, it preserved it until rafting season opened on May 15. “The outlook’s really changed in the last six weeks,” Costlow said. “The river didn’t really start running until last week, and last year, it was March and April. We’ll enjoy it until August at least. It’ll be great.”
Still, because of those fires, the Poudre Canyon as a recreation area and a water provider won’t be normal for quite some time, maybe a decade or more, despite the efforts of volunteers, city and county officials in northern Colorado and a nonprofit group that should start operating in June. The burn area is closed, and that includes some popular spots such as the Mount McConnel/Kruetzer and Young Gulch trails. But the closed area will shrink after July 1, when mulching operations are complete, said Reghan Cloudman, spokeswoman for the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and the Pawnee National Grassland. All campgrounds are open and will close only for the season, not because of the burn. The area commonly referred to as the “Crystal Wall” climbing spot is open. The Old Flowers, West White Pine and Monument Gulch roads remain closed.
Falling trees are a safety concern, both in burned and unburned areas that were hit by the pine beetle. Rolling and falling rocks can also become a hazard in the burned areas. Flash floods in the burn area are a great concern now, and those visiting the canyon should check the weather for potential rains that can trigger flooding.
Crews are already doing preliminary work on the Young Gulch, and volunteers should help complete some rehabilitation during designated days this summer, Cloudman said. Additional road and trail work will also take place.
If you do visit the canyon, you could see helicopters flying overhead. They are mulching approximately 4,700 acres of forest service land with agricultural straw to protect the soil from erosion, the water supply from runoff and the area from flash flooding. Larimer County hopes to use the $9 million expected from Emergency Watershed Protection funds to mulch about 4,000 more acres of private land, said Suzanne Bassinger, fire recovery manager, but that mulching, along with other projects, will have to wait until the money arrives. She hopes to start the work by mid-June.
Bassinger said she’s the only fire recovery manager in the state and, because of that, she’s still learning on the job. She’s frustrated by the lack of resources, both in manpower and money, to get the work going. “It’s surprising how hard it’s been to get the recovery moving forward,” she said. “We all had jobs and responsibilities in the city and county and this came on top of it all. It’s a large amount of work that needs to be done.”
Much of her work will help private landowners. About half of the burn was on forest service land and half was on private property. A lot of the immediate work includes the mulching and other projects to help with flood protection. Even then, the runoff means cities that draw water from the Poudre, including Greeley, will struggle with water quality for the next five years, Bassinger said.
That’s why the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed will start work in June after the initial effort by non-profits and volunteer organizations who care about the river to monitor and coordinate recovery efforts. The mix of public and private land means “an alphabet soup” of agencies and private entities will be involved in restoration, and the coalition will help make sense of it all. “What if we did $30,000 worth of restoration, only to have a month later someone come along and rip up 300 yards of roadway?” asked Dick Jefferies, president of the Rocky Mountain Flycasters. “We hope to look at the big picture and coordinate all the efforts.”
The efforts also meant putting aside personal agendas. As an angler, fire can bring more nutrients into the river, and that can bring more bugs and, therefore, not only healthier fish but more of them. “But this has to do with 300,000 or 400,000 and their drinking water,” Jefferies said. “I have a biased perspective, but anyone who opens a tap to take a drink of water should probably be concerned about this.”
If sediment continues to run into the river, Greeley may have to stop using it again, as it did last summer, or clean it, which will be much more expensive, Jefferies said. There’s some speculation that it will cost a utility a million more dollars per year to treat it. But the restoration, such as mulching, could help with that, he said.
The Coalition plans to host several volunteer days to help control flooding and erosion. When the group was called the High Park Restoration Committee, it hosted 14 events with 785 volunteers to treat 185 acres of land.
It will take years for the Poudre Canyon to look the way it was before the fires. Bassinger visited the famous Hayman fire, which burned 138,000 acres 35 miles northwest of Colorado Springs 11 years ago, and the land still looks charred. The burned land up the Poudre looks the same, and it will for a decade, at least. But there’s hope, too. There were many areas licked, not consumed, by the flames. “With all the snow, it’s now green all over those areas,” she said. “It looks like Ireland.”