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Tour examines drought’s impacts in La Plata County

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Tuesday, July 24, 2018 5:50 PM
Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne listens to several speakers on Monday on County Road 201 as they discuss the 416 Fire, its aftermath and the conditions that led to it during a drought tour of La Plata County.
Al Harper, owner of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, talks to a group on Monday during a tour of drought conditions in La Plata County. The tour stopped on County Road 201 to examine the 416 Fire burn area.
Tom Compton of Durango looks at a jar of sludge on Monday during a 2018 tour of drought conditions in La Plata County. Butch Knowlton, director of the La Plata County Office of Emergency Management, collected the sludge from the Animas River.

The long-lasting impacts of drought were apparent Monday as a flare-up began to produce a small plume of smoke in the 416 Fire burn scar just as Al Harper, owner of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, finished speaking to a crowd of about 40 people examining La Plata County’s parched conditions.

Local and state leaders led by Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne gathered Monday for an all-day tour of La Plata County to listen to speakers and observe the impact of long-term drought.

The first stop was at the top of County Road 201 to discuss the ongoing 416 Fire and its aftermath. Officials from agencies including the La Plata County Office of Emergency Management and the San Juan National Forest drew connections between long-term drought and large wildfires.

“You don’t want the state to come in, look at the fire and then just go away,” Lynne said in an interview with The Durango Herald.

Lynne said the tour is a way to learn about how to address droughts in local communities, where every thing is interconnected.

Colorado Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne listens to several speakers on Monday on County Road 201 as they discuss the ongoing 416 Fire, its aftermath and the conditions that led to it during a drought tour of La Plata County.
Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

Drought is an issue that will impact Coloradans for years to come.

“This is more important than roads to me because we’re not going to need the roads if we can’t provide the resources that we need, and water is the most fundamental of those resources,” she said.

Butch Knowlton, La Plata County director of emergency preparedness, pointed to the delicate interconnectedness of nature exposed during times of drought.

For instance, snowpack and rainfall in the San Juan Mountains and in the north county is directly related to farmers in the south.

“What falls in the north half of the county is what makes life happen,” he said.

What happens in the mountains also impacts those at the base of the mountains when floods and debris flows happen, he said.

Knowlton, along with Matt Janowiak, San Juan National Forest Columbine District ranger, said it was evident that a big fire could occur during fire season as early as December 2017. Low snowpack led to drier fuels in the forest that were set to burn quickly, which became all too apparent with the 416 Fire.

Janowiak pointed to the hillside behind him to illustrate the fire-scorched portions and other parts still green. As far as rehabilitation, this is a good thing, he says, because natural seeds remain in the forest to be distributed by nature.

Other portions of the national forest, not just the fire burn scar, have been impacted by drought.

Pine and spruce beetles have killed extensive amounts of trees, Janowiak said. Logging will be done to remove dead trees as well as contain the beetles, he said.

Further, drought and the resulting fires impact the recreation and tourism industries.

“The Hermosa Creek Trail is an iconic trail,” Janowiak said.

For a period of time, the popular Colorado Trail was also closed. Janowiak said ranchers and outfitters who hold permits within the San Juan National Forest feared grave consequences to their livelihoods.

On the tourism end, Harper said the D&SNG lost 40,000 passengers and $6 million in revenue.

The 416 Fire and the extreme drought conditions have led the railroad to change the way it operates. Harper said the railroad will now station fire engines north of Durango and expedite fire mitigation work along its tracks.

The railroad has started rebuilding two diesel-powered engines for use on the narrow gauge tracks. Also, it is converting one coal-fired engine to oil-powered, he said.

“It’s all real, and we’ve got to come up with some solutions,” Lynne said. “We have our drought problem, whether there are fires or not.”

A public listening session late Monday was well-attended, but did not garner much participation.

La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff said drought’s effects are being felt on many levels, from irrigators to people who rely on wells for domestic water.

“It’s just a cumulative chain reaction we’re seeing on many different levels,” she said. “As long as the drought continues, things will keep getting worse.”

rsimonovich@durangoherald.com Herald Staff Writer Jonathan Romeo contributed to this report.

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