Photo Credit: DWaRF’s public debut at the Dolores River Festival, June 2016. Photo by  Gabi Morey.

The phrase “timing is everything” couldn’t be more true than when talking about the start-up of the our collaborative focused on the Dolores Watershed in Southwest Colorado. In early 2015, the FAC Learning Net released a watershed quick guide series. An article came out on the Rio Grande Water Fund. I returned from my first national FAC Net workshop in Santa Fe, where I observed Santa Fe watershed treatments and learned about payment for ecosystem services models. All these factors motivated me to stop thinking about “what would happen if,” and start thinking about “what can we do to protect the Dolores Watershed?”

The First Steps

I began by inviting the water conservancy district that manages McPhee Reservoir to attend a field trip to the 2013 West Fork Fire area. This field trip, put on by San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership, Rio Grande Watershed Emergency Action Coordination Team and the Southern Rockies Fire Science Network turned out to be the start of a conversation about how to address the wildfire risk to our watershed.

The initial meeting to gauge interest in a watershed wildfire protection partnership occurred on July 30, 2015. The Bureau of Reclamation, USDA Forest Service, Colorado State Forest Service, Montezuma County, Dolores Volunteer Fire Department and Mountain Studies Institute joined FireWise of Southwest Colorado and the Dolores Water Conservancy District to determine if stakeholders wanted to work together to improve ecosystem health, hydrologic function and wildfire resilience in the upper watershed. Participants agreed to move forward, and invited a few more players to the table, especially wood products industry representatives. We discussed the need for watershed-scale forest restoration, and a foundation of successful regional efforts, especially the Ponderosa Pine Forest Partnership that existed on the Mancos/Dolores Ranger District of the San Juan National Forest in the 1990s. With this, our nameless, loosely organized partnership was born.

Poised for Success Despite Our Size

Residents diverting the mud flow following the Weber Fire. Photo courtesy of Dan Bender, La Plata County Sheriff’s Office.

Residents diverting the mud flow following the Weber Fire. Photo courtesy of Dan Bender, La Plata County Sheriff’s Office.

Past successes in complex watershed management issues by the Dolores Water Conservancy District and leadership in community wildfire preparedness from FireWise of Southwest Colorado provided a strong foundation to bring key stakeholders to the table. The costs of inaction had also been demonstrated. The group was well-aware of other communities that had been heavily impacted by wildfires. In addition, locally, there are stories of property owners frantically bulldozing diversions for the debris flow that had reached their patio, and a river of fish choked by ash following the 2012 Weber Fire. And after the 2002 Missionary Ridge fire, the City of Durango spent $1.5 million on erosion control and infiltration basins to protect the its water supply.

Our biggest challenge is that, unlike many of the watershed wildfire protection groups that give us inspiration, our 666,575-acre watershed is enormous relative to number of direct users: less than 50,000. Efficient use of treatment funds and offsetting costs with forest industry profits will be exceptionally difficult. Other than aspen harvesting, the timber industry in southwest Colorado is extremely limited.

Despite the scale of the problem, a limited forest product industry and an uncertain climate future, the collaborative is poised for success. We agreed on shared values early in our process, and we have strong engagement from diverse participants. The group grew from 11 participants at our first meeting to 23 at the second meeting in September 2015. In a little less than a year, this watershed collaborative has established shared goals, prioritized shared values within the watershed, and grown to include 62 stakeholders on our e-mail roster. Local newspaper and radio news reporters have also joined our effort, attending meetings and our first field tour on June 1.

Abundant Skills, Networks, Other Resources to Tap Into

Together we have identified challenges to overcome and resources that each stakeholder brings to the table. Participants have self-selected into teams to direct the wildfire risk assessment and to set demonstration site objectives. The county GIS department has been instrumental in mapping our values across the watershed. Public lands partners have studied wildfire and post-fire risk-to-value models from other regions and created a rigorous wildfire and post-fire risk analysis that should be completed by the end of the year. A forester is engaged who has been practicing stewardship thinning since before contracts existed for it. A water manager has been working collaboratively on complex land and water issues with an adaptive management approach for over 30 years. A scientific partner has experience developing a grassroots forest resilience partnership as they guide the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership two counties to the east, and they can help us develop monitoring plans to measure treatment effectiveness.

Members of the DWaRF collaborative examine a 15-year old Ponderosa Pine Partnership restoration site. Photo courtesy of Thurman Wilson

Members of the DWaRF collaborative examine a 15-year old Ponderosa Pine Partnership restoration site. Photo courtesy of Thurman Wilson

Our local capacity has been greatly bolstered by our networks. The FAC Net provided several thousand dollars of critical seed money for group coordination, which we leveraged to bring in $5,000 from the Dolores Water Conservancy District. FAC Net watershed quick guides (January 2015) painted a basic picture for establishing a watershed wildfire protection group, while the FAC Net members that contributed to those have been real jewels to learn from. FAC Net also has a community of practice focused on watersheds. Colorado has a consortium of watershed wildfire protection groups whose quarterly meetings I attend via webinar.

I couldn’t be more grateful for the shared knowledge and experience that is guiding every step of our development. FireWise of Southwest Colorado has always focused on fire adapted communities, and now we are delving into watershed-scale, forest resilience partnerships. In our rural area, this meant not getting caught up with formal partnership agreements and naming right away.

I’m happy to announce that, after 8 months of enduring meeting titles like, “Upper Dolores Watershed/ McPhee Reservoir Protection Interest Meeting,” we have become the Dolores Watershed and Resilient Forest (DWaRF) Collaborative.

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