The 2019 Arkansas River Basin Water Forum, held in Pueblo April 24 and 25, touched on some serious topics related to water in the Lower Arkansas Valley.

The Arkansas Valley Conduit, the Colorado River Basin and climate change were big topics at the meeting. Chris Woodka, issues management coordinator for Southeast Colorado Water Conservancy District, reviewed a panel on fire and flood perspectives with the La Junta Tribune-Democrat.

Since 2000, the impact of fires and floods has become harder to ignore, Woodka indicated.

"Water users have noticed that wildland fires are increasing in size and severity ... ," said Woodka. And they're burning hotter and over larger areas, he added.

The increased frequency and intensity of wildland fires has resulted in soil being impacted for longer periods of time. A fire a decade ago that might have impacted the land for two years could today leave its mark for up to 10 years, and a fire that altered land over a 10-year period would today leave its mark for 100 years.

The longterm effects of wildland fires include destruction of the composition of the soil, which leads to increased runoff when it rains. Sedimentary runoff has also become more commonplace.
Woodka explained that over a 10-year period, the same amount of rain that fell over land that had not been burned would produce "much less" runoff than when it fell over areas of land that had been burned.

"We see it in several places in our water shed," said Woodka. "You see it up in El Paso County, which feeds into Fountain Creek, which has particular interest, I think, for the lower valley.

"The Waldo Canyon Fire and the Black Forest Fire from 2012 and 2013 are now sending much more water down Fountain Creek."

And fires in Fremont County are impacting the Arkansas River above the Pueblo Reservoir, said Woodka.

"It's become a major issue for the Arkansas Basin Roundtable," said Woodka. "I don't think there's always sufficient funding for doing all of the mitigation that you need to do on areas that have already burned. ..."

A major theme Woodka noticed throughout the forum was that of teamwork. Regardless if the topic was preparing for climate change, funding the Arkansas Valley Conduit or dampening the impact of wildland fires, the conversation has shifted toward a results-based dialogue.

In previous years, people used the forum to talk about what's wrong with water in Southeastern Colorado or the problems they are facing.

The problems are still discussed, of course, but Woodka observed at this year's meeting that people were more drawn to talk about solutions.

"I think people in the Arkansas River Basin have learned to work together more often than merely stating their problems at a public forum and venting. They've gotten to the point where they'll talk about solutions to those problems more readily than they used to," said Woodka.

The forum was intended as a reflection on the last 25 years.

"It was the 25th anniversary, so our theme was kind of 'A river of dreams and realities then and now,'" said Woodka. "We really tried to tie what was going on back in 1995 with the present."

cburney@ljtdmail.com