Upper South Platte (USP) Watershed Protection and Restoration Project

A Collaborative Project In Colorado's Front Range

A "Red Zone" assessment identified extensive areas along Colorado's Front Range that are at high risk of significant catastrophic losses from fire, insects or disease. Poor forest health, fuel accumulations and housing density, along with a high historic disturbance frequency, created this condition.

The ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir forests in this area are more dense, younger, and homogeneous than they were prior to European settlement. Additionally, they contain an ever increasing component of residential and commercial development fueled by population growth rates that are among the highest in the nation.

Historic photoThe South Platte is a very important watershed within this high-risk portion of Colorado's Front Range. The South Platte River drainage is a major recreational attraction, and it also furnishes 70% of Denver's water supply. Unfortunately, the South Platte drainage is a place in trouble. Here, forest and urban conditions intermix. A very limited forest products industry limits the chance to restore a sustainable condition and prevent catastrophic disturbances. Wildfire and insect and disease epidemics threaten watersheds, and inevitably, public health and safety. The South Platte was identified as a watershed critically in need of restoration.

In 1996, the Buffalo Creek Fire burned 11,900 acres of this watershed over a two-day period. The fire destroyed 12 homes and caused the loss of essential forest cover on the highly erodible granitic soils common to much of the South Platte drainage. In the months following the fire, a series of heavy thunderstorms formed over the fire area. Torrential rains and flooding killed two individuals and caused much additional damage to homes, roads and local water systems. Massive amounts of soil washed into the nearby Strontia Springs Reservoir, a critical part of Denver's water distribution and treatment system.

Project locationThe homes have been rebuilt, but the watershed damage continued to result in tons of soil being eroded after every heavy rain event and transported to the reservoir. The City of Denver's Water Board eventually spent millions of dollars for reservoir dredging. These catastrophic events and the continuing watershed problems received interest in the Denver media and have been a concern to residents along the Front Range. These events underscored the need for comprehensive watershed-level restoration projects involving all ownerships, public and private, so that comparable disturbances are avoided in the future.

Closer view of the projectThe US Forest Service, Denver Water Board, Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS), and Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station formed a partnership to begin addressing this concern within the Upper South Platte Watershed. Each of the partners are dedicated to provide, to their fullest capability, the financial, technical, and human resources necessary to insure the project's success.

A Core Team was established from among the key partners to provide project direction throughout the process. Core team members are those who have direct responsibility for project development and implementation. The team consisted of two Colorado State Forest Service employees and three US Forest Service employees. Denver Water contracted with the Colorado State Forest Service for land management services. The CSFS represented Denver on this Team. Watershed Restoration operated and guided philosophy for project planning and management of the Upper South Platte Watershed.

Primary Objectives for the Upper South Platte Watershed Protection and Restoration Project

  • Conduct a landscape scale assessment of selected "sixth level" sub-watersheds within the larger Upper South Platte watershed. The assessment encompasses an area of approximately 650,000 acres.
  • Identify an initial primary project area.
  • Use assessment findings to develop a menu of landscape-wide management opportunities which will maintain, protect and help restore appropriate watershed function.
  • Implement various kinds of watershed restoration activities in an integrated manner which will reduce the extent and intensity of future disturbances, enhance watershed "resilience" following such disturbances and mitigate current effects of the post-wildfire event with regard to erosion and noxious weed proliferation.

The assessment process recommended a number of commercial and non-revenue producing management practices. These Historic photo of Deckerspractices included non-commercial thinning, fuels reduction, prescribed fire, reforestation, sediment control and others.

It was anticipated that initially up to 8,500 acres would be treated by one or more practices. Initial practice implementation occurred on Denver Water Board and privately owned lands. The necessary planning and public input procedures required in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for practice implementation on US Forest Service lands were immediately initiated.