Wildfire needs drain water supplies
Rural water system not set up for disaster demand
MANCOS — The battle against a wildfire demands many resources. From manpower to equipment, the strength of the fight against a blaze is often measured by the amount of resources dedicated to the campaign.
But what happens when resources required to fight fire are already in short supply? And what happens to a community when firefighting burns up resources that will be needed once the flames have receded?
One of the most precious, and protected, resources in Southwest Colorado is water. Water is also a ubiquitous resource in firefighting. What happens when a water shortage meets a wildfire? That is a question water officials in Montezuma County have been forced to consider since the Weber Fire sparked on Friday, June 22.
In an announcement posted on the Montezuma County Sheriff’s website, Mancos Rural Water Company asked Mancos-area residents to back off of water usage in the area as the Weber Fire battle continues.
“Mancos Rural Water Company does not have enough domestic water to serve the tremendous amount of water that area residents are using to soak down the areas around their homes,” the announcement states. “If you live anywhere in the Mancos Rural Water District in the quarter due west to due north of Mancos, there is no immediate need to water down your house and the immediate vicinity. Don’t do this unless you have been given pre-evacuation notice. Leave some drinking water for others on the system.”
Mancos Rural Water manager Brandon Bell said the concern was prompted by the realization that the rural water system was not created to deal with crisis like the Weber Fire.
“Our main problem is that our system was just not designed with the capacity for fire protection,” Bell said. “We’ve had a lot of homes running sprinklers and watering down their property day and night and we are just not able to keep up with the demand on our system.”
Water for the Mancos Rural Water system is an allocation from Jackson Reservoir, located northwest of the small community.
Following a drier-than-normal winter and a hotter-than-normal spring, the reservoir entered the summer months less than full, which means resources were strained before a greater demand was added to the system.
“We were only able to fill to 85 percent,” said Gary Kennedy, superintendent for the Mancos Water Conservancy District, in charge of reservoir management. “We were able to give about a 90 percent allotment to irrigators, but we weren’t at capacity by far. This isn’t typical. Typically we fill the reservoir.”
Kennedy said the reservoir status is nowhere near dire, unlike the 2002 water season where the reservoir only filled to 36 percent capacity. However, there has been increased usage on the system from individuals, along with water being pulled from the system for firefighting purposes.
“There are certain areas, like down Weber Canyon, where I know people have turned on their sprinklers more than normal and we have given more draw to assist them keeping water on their lawns and fields,” Kennedy said. “We are also trying to help ponds and stuff, so we gave out an extra amount of water for that ditch from the district pool.”
Montezuma Water Company is working to help backfill depleted water resources, according to manager Mike Bauer. The company has long assisted Mancos Rural Water with additional resources when needed, though the call for help came early this year, Bauer said.
“Their usage has gone sky high with people watering yards and houses to make sure things don’t catch on fire,” Bauer said. “We are turning up the water a little bit and giving them more at their request.”
In addition to water being used to saturate local homes and lawns, firefighters are using copious amounts of the precious resource to battle the Weber Fire. Tenders and tankers are filling up from local water trucks and hydrants, and helicopters are dipping into stock ponds and lakes for buckets of water to be spread on hot spots and near endangered structures.
Montezuma Water Company has supplied water to incident command at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds, and as crews return to incident command for showers and meals, tender trucks are filled with water in preparation for their return to the fire. Most tenders are designed to hold roughly 1,000 gallons of water.
While local water companies will eventually receive reports on how much water was used, at this time they do not know how much.
Water used for air support is also in high demand. According to the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association, small, medium and large heli-tankers are capable of carrying anywhere from 100 to 3,000 gallons of water. Smaller crafts utilize heli-buckets to transport water to sites in need of precision placement, while larger crafts, such as the Skycranes in use on the Weber Fire, can dump up to 3,000 gallons at a time on a hot spot, using an impeller at the end of a hose to suck water from any water source deeper than 18 inches.
Beth Hermanson, public information officer for Rocky Mountain Incident Management Command Team C, the team managing the Weber Fire, said any water taken from private ponds to fight the fire is reimbursed to the landowner, whether through replacement water or monetarily.
“We keep track of where we take the water from,” Hermanson said. “The dip sites that we use we keep track of and we write a contract with the landowners. We take a very close count on how many dips and how much water. If a helicopter takes 15 dips per day out of a dip site we will reimburse that.”
Hermanson said the town of Mancos will also be reimbursed for water used from town hydrants. All reimbursements are based on a national rate.
Though official numbers are not immediately available in terms of how much water is being spread across the fire, Kennedy said he doesn’t think it is as much as most would assume.
“One of the things you have to realize is it takes a lot of those buckets to make an acre foot of water,” he said. “It is a tremendous amount of buckets they have to haul before you get to an acre foot. That’s a lot of water.”
An acre foot of water is the equivalent of a football field filled to the depth of one foot.
Kennedy estimates firefighting crews are using close to an acre foot a day, roughly the same amount a rancher would use in a day.
In terms of how fighting the fire will impact area water resources for the rest of the summer, Bauer said it is too early to tell, but a strain has certainly been placed on county resources.
“It is a big deal, absolutely,” he said. “Water usage is way up. Everyone is using a lot more water. It could create problems. And if we see some additional fires in the area and more resources are required it could complicate things. We will just have to wait and see.”
Reach Kimberly Benedict at email@example.com.