Strontia Springs Reservoir, 30 miles south of Denver, Colo., looks like water you'd want to scoop up in your dipper. Sunshine and pine reflect off its aqua-blue surface. But 16 years ago, it looked more like a latte clogged with cinnamon bark. In 1996 and 2002, major forest fires scorched the Upper South Platte River watershed. In the aftermath, heavy rains washed debris, burned logs and more than 750,000 cubic yards of sediment into the reservoir, which supplies over 7,000 acre-feet of drinking water annually to Denver.
Denver Water -- the utility that supplies 1.3 million people in the metro area -- spent more than $26 million dredging Strontia Springs, treating the water and reseeding the watershed's forests. The U.S. Forest Service spent millions more to reinforce hillsides, reseed and plant trees. But the damage to the city's drinking water could have been much worse: Just 150,000 acres burned out of the 2.5 million acres in Denver's watersheds.
In hopes of avoiding future expensive wildfires, in 2011, Denver Water and the Forest Service signed a $33 million cost-sharing agreement for watershed restoration. The average residential water user will pay an extra $27 over the course of five years to match the Forest Service's $16.5 million allocation.