The Cow Creek Fire & the Uncompahgre River Watershed

The Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (UWP) requested information from the U.S. Forest Service about the October/November 2019 Cow Creek Fire, to understand the possible impacts to the watershed. Based on the answers provided below and the plan provided at the link in fourth answer, the short-term impacts to water quality and supply appear to be minimal. Long-term impacts are not as clear, so follow-up inquiries will be made in the future. UWP has a water monitoring station on Cow Creek, above its confluence with the Uncompahgre River. When data is available from those samples, they could be evaluated for possible impacts from erosion and other fire-caused conditions.

Q&A with Public Affairs Officer Kimberlee J. Phillips of Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests Office, Dec. 2019-Jan. 2020

UWP: How much of the fire was on forest land and how much on land with other owners? 

Phillips: The fire completely burned within the jurisdiction of the U.S.F.S. See map below.

UWP: Does Cow Creek flow through the burn area? 

Phillips: Cow Creek does not directly flow through the burned area (Cow Creek’s riparian area was not directly impacted). The fire also did not directly impact Red Creek.

UWP: Are there other water tributaries or ponds/lakes in the burn area? 

Phillips: Three tributaries of Cow Creek and four tributaries of Red Creek are within the burn area.

UWP: Did the Forest Service create a Burned Area Emergency Response plan related to the Cow Creek Fire? 

Phillips: We have a signed fire suppression repair plan. Some portions of the plan have already been implemented. See Plan.

UWP: Would water monitoring downstream of the burn area be useful?

Phillips: Water monitoring downstream post-fire is always helpful in analyzing post-wildfire impacts. However, this fire did not burn with great intensity and exhibited more “patchy” characteristics. We don’t anticipate great water quality impacts in 2020.

UWP: Is there any plan to continue to monitor nitrogen in the water or other changes past this year?

Phillips: There isn’t a concrete plan to monitor nitrogen past this year but we operate best under adaptive management. I believe the state may have a plan to monitor the nitrogen in the water, but I’m not 100% sure. Based on our monitoring from 2020, we can make more concrete decisions for future monitoring needs based on the ecological responses that we observe.

UWP: Are there other types of assistance that our nonprofit could organize with other partners (volunteers, native plant experts, etc.) to help it recover from the fire in 2020? 

Phillips: There really isn’t much rehabilitation work that has presented itself thus far. The fire greatly aided in ecosystem heterogeneity and the majority of fire suppression repair has already been completed. Since this fire burned within the Uncompahgre Wilderness, we took extra precautions to preserve wilderness character and rehabilitation standards must comply with wilderness guidelines. Therefore, any additional rehabilitation activities will be carefully planned and analyzed prior to implementation.

See article on page 10 of the 12-24-2019 Ouray County Plaindealer about Cow Creek Fire discussion at December 2019 Ouray County Commissioners meeting for related information.