06.27.16 | By Jessica Hanson

Colorado’s South Platte River Basin is the state’s most agriculturally-productive basin, and its most populated. In 2013, huge fires followed by catastrophic flooding threatened ecological conditions in the watershed, jeopardizing the water supply for nearby communities. A year’s worth of sediment drained into open-water reservoirs, costing millions to clean, and forest fires still threaten the region today. Forest restoration is underway - but choosing which areas to prioritize is not an easy task.

Floods that follow wildfires can be devastating to homes and communities in Colorado.

Floods that follow wildfires can be devastating to homes and communities in Colorado.

In cooperation with the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, Earth Economics is embarking on a new project focused on the South Platte River Watershed in collaboration with the Ecosystem Sciences Foundation and Plan-It Geo. The project will assess the watershed’s ecological health with the aim of identifying and prioritizing restoration and conservation areas. Earth Economics will be conducting an ecosystem services valuation to guide prioritization.  As a nationally-recognized leader in natural capital valuation, we are poised to inform effective watershed management with data on ecosystem services.

Effective management will have to address both threats to watershed health and vulnerable resources in need of protection. The South Platte River Watershed has a host of threats to contend with - pine beetles wreak havoc on tree stands, and wildfires sweep through with increasing intensity and frequency. Invasive species persistently threaten the watershed’s health. There are also highly valuable resources to protect - water reservoirs, sensitive species, healthy forest stands, and the areas where people live.

Forest treatment will be a crucial element in watershed management.  Damaged trees will have to be removed, and forests will need to be treated to reduce fire risks and develop suitable habitats for key species. Part of Earth Economics’ work will involve collaborating with scientists and stakeholders to discuss the benefits of forest treatment.  With our data, land managers will be able to prioritize forest treatment areas and other types of restoration that will keep the South Platte River Watershed healthy, like planting vegetation along riparian areas or connecting fragmented forests and floodplains.

Pine beetles are a significant threat to the watershed's health.

Pine beetles are a significant threat to the watershed's health.

One major challenge of the project will be in bringing together the many stakeholders and the immense datasets that can inform priorities. One example is the Colorado State Forest Action Plan – it’s a huge source of data, but it provides 28 separate spatial datasets with different priority areas and threats.  As stakeholders move forward with management plans, this data will have to be carefully compiled if it’s going to help inform priorities.

In May, Earth Economics’ Project Director Zachary Christin traveled to Colorado to present to regional stakeholders. Zachary and the local project team collected feedback and data sources in an effort to incorporate stakeholder feedback before research begins. As the team quickly discovered, the diverse landscape of the South Platte River Basin also has a complexity of perspectives among its stakeholder groups. Reconciling these diverse perspectives will be an important part of the work.

This assessment should have far-reaching impacts – affecting land-use managers, local communities, and area residents. Managing agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency will have access to results that can inform landscape management across the watershed.  If restoration projects are implemented, city and regional water utilities will benefit as the risk of water supply contamination lessens. Restoration projects will also benefit private landowners through lower fire insurance and less risk of losing homes to fire.

The project’s success will depend on meeting stakeholder needs and leveraging existing research and tools. Most importantly, this project has the potential to serve as a replicable framework that addresses multiple threats, benefiting ecosystems and communities from the mountains to the city, and from government to local citizens.

Banner Photo Credit: Zachary Christin. Meg Halford, Assistant District Forester for the Colorado State Forest Service, shows the team a post-project example of forest thinning. Thinning primarily addresses forest fire risks, but also provides habitat benefits, especially for attracting moose to open areas.