CO river flows blackened by fires, diminished by drought


Mar 11, 2001
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River flows blackened by fires, diminished by drought


DURANGO, Colo. (AP) - Runoff ash and other debris charred by the Missionary Ridge fire have fouled water in streams and ditches in southwestern Colorado.

Rivers in the area, at record lows for early summer, have turned black with fire runoff as scattered monsoon rains push the material into streams. The mucky water is flowing from the Pine River and Vallecito Reservoir to residential and agricultural users.

It's a double-whammy that has water-supply managers anxious. But most say they have plans to deal with the combined effects of the worst drought in history and the stream-choking debris from 70,000 acres of fire-ravaged forest surrounding three main rivers and two key reservoirs.

"Right now, the reservoir is clean, but what if it fills with mud from the tremendous amount of burned area?" Pine River Irrigation District Superintendent Joe Brown said Friday. "I'm worried."

Federal, state and local water managers agree that another nearly snowless winter would mean disaster here. Without heavy monsoon rains, the water outlook could be bleak as early as summer's end, they say. But the rains could also be a curse.

Flash floods, rock and landslides and thick black runoff are predicted in the three river drainages charred by the fire: the Animas, Florida and Pine.

Fire-singed, drought-diminished Vallecito Reservoir has supplied millions of gallons of water to fight the Missionary Ridge blaze. It also provides drinking water to the town of Bayfield and the Southern Ute Tribe. The tribe, in turn, supplies the town of Ignacio out of its water rights - one-sixth the water in the reservoir.

In Bayfield, mild outdoor watering restrictions have been in place for a couple of months, and households also have been paying a $4.04 monthly surcharge.

Bayfield Public Works Director Robert Ludwig said he believes the town has purchased enough extra water from the reservoir to meet municipal demand without more restrictions.

Barring a catastrophe, Ludwig said, "We've got enough water to make it through the end of this year."

Farmers in the area received only a third of their normal supply this spring and summer.

The city of Durango takes its drinking water directly from the Florida and Animas rivers. It has only one small reservoir for minimal storage, which is full. Right now, the city has no restrictions on water use because, Public Works Director Jack Rogers says, the reservoir can't get any fuller.

"If there was a way to store more water, we would conserve it," Rogers said.

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