Water conservation

Helicopter mulching aims to protect critical watersheds in the East Inconvenient burn scar


Northern spring water protection specialist Kimberly Mihelich filters a sample of wood mulch through wire mesh to ensure the mulch meets specifications on Wednesday, September 29. For three weeks, mulch was scattered over 2,200 acres of the East Troublesome burn scar in Arapaho National Forest.
Amy Golden / Sky-Hi News

GRANBY – Far East With an inconvenient burn scar, a tractor-trailer dumped approximately 50,000 pounds of wood mulch in the staging area near North Supply Creek.

The rainy and overcast Wednesday meant no helicopters were flying in the Arapaho National Forest, but there was still a lot of work to do for Kimberly Mihelich, source protection specialist for Northern Water, and Brad Piehl , an entrepreneur at JW Associates.

Mihelich picked up a sample of the mulch in a gallon bucket and sifted it through chicken wire with 1-inch square openings into a green storage container. She threw away the pieces too big to fit through and put the smaller pieces back into the gallon bucket. The debris remained below the line in the bucket marking a third of the sample.



“Good mulch,” Piehl said.

The mulch the two men were inspecting on Wednesday, September 29, which came from private property in Winter Park, must have a good size distribution in order to be dispersed over the burn scar in the Arapaho National Forest.



“We want bigger parts because they hold up much better on the descent,” said Piehl.

The work was part of a project to mulch 2,200 acres of the burn scar in the watershed emergency protection zone. Northern Water sponsored the $ 5 million project, but it wouldn’t have been possible without critical funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and matching funds from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and a number of other partners.

Grand County kicked off a similar project on Sunday October 3 for private property across Colorado Highway 125.

For the Northern Water project, over the course of three weeks, 300 trucks of mulch were transported to staging sites around the Supply Creek drainage. This mulch will be dispersed by helicopter to specific sites to help preserve the critical watershed.

“If we can stop some of this debris here, it won’t go down there,” said Jeff Stahla, public information officer for Northern Water, pointing to southeast Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Reservoir. “… Anything we can do to keep the debris in place will benefit the forest but also everyone downstream. “

A truck dumps wood mulch at a staging area in the Arapaho National Forest, near the supply stream drainage in the embarrassing burn scar. Helicopters lifted nets, like the one seen here, and scattered mulch over some areas as part of a three-week project coordinated by Northern Water.
Amy Golden / Sky-Hi News

On sunny days, helicopters lifted nets filled with up to 3,000 pounds of mulch and released them to targeted sites within a 2 mile radius, covering about a third of an acre per load. Mulching costs about $ 2,500 per acre, which means Northern Water must target sites to be protected.

Out of the nearly 200,000-acre burn scar, the water company has identified 23,000 acres of forest mulch needs that meet criteria for slope, burn severity, and proximity to roads not in the area. a wild area. The group worked on 2,500 acres of Willow Creek drainage earlier this summer, totaling about 4,700 critical acres mulched this year.

Piehl explained that Colorado’s natural forests tend to have a layer of organic matter that absorbs most of the precipitation, which means there is very little runoff.

“When you have a fire, even if it’s a moderate burn, it burns most of it,” Piehl said. “Most of the organic layer is gone. Now you can run water directly down the slope of the hill, which creates all kinds of trouble. “

Not only does the rain now erode the soil that has remained under the humus, but the soil can eventually settle downstream and into a reservoir or lake. Northern Water is particularly concerned about this, as Grand County’s reservoirs and lakes help the company provide water to more than a million people in northeast Colorado.

In addition to preventing peak flow rates which can be 10 to 50 times higher than pre-burning, mulch retains moisture to help plants regrow faster.

“Basically, you add that texture back to the ground so that the water can soak in,” Mihelich said.

Wood mulch is visible across the hill in part of the Supply Creek drainage area as a method of preventing debris flows in critical watersheds following last year’s fire. Both Northern Water and the Grand County government managed a mulch project as part of the Emergency Watershed Protection Program.
Amy Golden / Sky-Hi News

After the helicopters apply the mulch, Piehl and Mihelich go to the areas where it has been applied and perform ground inspections. The mulch should cover at least 70% of the target area.

Water quality specialist Katherine Morris said the Grand County mulch project taking place this week on private land will be a combination of mulching where seeds have already been applied and seeding and mulching in areas where the severity of soil burns is moderate to high over a period of 20 to 60% slope. Northern Water’s most recent project did not include seed mixing as it was not part of the Forest Service permit.

Grand County seeding and mulching will take place in the Coyote Creek drainage to Highway 125 as well as parts of the Drowsy Water drainage and Sheriff Creek for a total of approximately 390 acres.


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