This case study introduces students to the impacts that wildfires have on water resources as well as the challenges associated with managing these risks. By examining the development of a collaborative watershed group galvanized by the 2012 High Park Fire in Colorado, the case engages with the longstanding conundrum of how better to align ecological and social scales in natural resources management. It explores the role that collaborative groups are playing in addressing water resources problems at the watershed scale despite fragmented governance at that scale. A phased case study format allows students to investigate the motivations of diverse stakeholders and appreciate the challenges faced in watershed-based collaboration after a catalyzing event, such as a wildfire. Upon completion of the lesson, students will be able to (1) explain wildfires’ impacts to water resources and stakeholders; (2) assess the challenges and benefits of approaching management based on the physical boundaries of a watershed, rather than political boundaries; (3) identify and interrogate how collaborative watershed groups form as well as the factors that are key to their success; and (4) evaluate the outcomes of these collaborative efforts and their ongoing strengths and opportunities as well as their limitations and challenges. This line of inquiry is increasingly significant as collaborative watershed management groups proliferate in the United States, in many instances catalyzed by a disaster. Ultimately, this case study explores how collaborative watershed groups emerge and the role(s) they play in tackling long-term, multi-jurisdictional, and watershed-scale management challenges.

INTRODUCTION

Wildfire hazards are intensifying globally, exacerbated by decades of wildfire suppression, human development in flammable landscapes, and climate change [1]. The United States saw 10 million acres burned in 2015 and 2017—over triple the average annual acreage from the 1990s—and could face up to 20 million burned acres annually by mid-century, an area the size of Maine [2, 3]. While wildfires are a necessity for fire-evolved ecosystems, they also take a toll on communities that reside within these ecosystems. Arguably, wildfires’ most far-reaching impacts are to water supplies, making them especially threatening for communities that depend on fire-prone watersheds for drinking water [4]. Wildfires generate two difficult and intertwined challenges in this context. From a hydrological perspective, wildfires cause erosion, the export of nutrients and heavy metals, debris flows, and flooding that can negatively impact water quality and water infrastructure from months to years after a burn [510]. From a social perspective, wildfires’ threats to water resources are challenging to address because most watersheds are made up of a complex patchwork of public and private land ownerships and because watersheds have both local and downstream dependents. As a result, any given watershed houses a wide variety of stakeholders and institutions with differing values, goals, risk perceptions, responsibilities, and available resources. Mitigating wildfires’ impacts on water resources therefore involves coordinating across spaces that are hydrologically and socially complex.

These intertwined challenges motivate the following question: How can communities better manage wildfires’ risks to water resources at the watershed scale despite fragmented governance at that scale? Natural Resources scholarship has long grappled with the challenge of how to better align social processes, such as water resources management, with ecological processes, such as wildfire. In recent decades, an increasingly common response has been the emergence of collaborative watershed management groups that aim to stitch together diverse watershed interests to achieve water resources and environmental goals [11]. This case study examines the development of one such group in Colorado. It describes how the organization now called the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed (CPRW) came together to mitigate wildfire risks in the Poudre River watershed1 after a particularly damaging wildfire season. Leveraging collaborative governance theory, the CPRW case challenges readers to question how and why collaborative watershed management groups emerge, how they function, and how they reconcile their strengths and limitations to achieve watershed-scale management goals [12]. This line of inquiry is increasingly significant as collaborative watershed governance cases proliferate in the United States, in many instances catalyzed by a disaster [13]. Indeed, CPRW is one among a growing subset of collaborative management groups galvanized by wildfire in particular [12].

CASE EXAMINATION

Theoretical Context: Collaboration under Fire

Collaborative governance refers to the processes that aim to engage multiple stakeholders, both public and private, in common forums to arrive at consensus-based management decisions. Such processes often focus on the management of natural systems and environmental resources, particularly those that are contentious and cross-jurisdictional boundaries [14]. Ansell and Gash define collaborative governance as “a governing arrangement where one or more public agencies directly engage non-state stakeholders in a collective decision-making process that is formal, consensus-oriented, and deliberative and that aims to make or implement public policy or manage public programs or assets” ([14], p. 544). Such processes show promise in resolving conflicts over natural resource issues and improve management by aligning management goals across traditional jurisdictional boundaries; however, several challenges can prevent their successful implementation including varying levels of commitments to the collaborative process and problems associated with lack of trust and uneven power dynamics, to name a few.

To structure this case and its analysis, we utilize a framework of collaborative management of wildfire risk proposed by Sturtevant and Jakes [12]. The authors emphasize that successful collaborations coordinate and scale-up individual efforts to reduce wildfire risk, but they do not mandate a single scale for action, noting that local context is key. Instead, they argue that successful collaborations work at a scale “that evokes shared values, collective action, and a sense of place” ([12], pp. 44–45). The framework describes stages of the collaborative process and desired outcomes, which we outline in Table 1 along with associated challenges. We then discuss each stage in the case that follows.

TABLE 1.

Summary of the collaborative management framework and its components (adapted from Sturtevant and Jakes [12]).

ComponentDescriptionChallenges
Collaborative context 
Environmental The unique ecology, geology, fire regime, and hydrology of wildland fire-affected ecosystems Understanding differences in fire ecology by location, including return intervals altered by fire suppression and compounding ecological influences such as drought and insect infestations 
Social The diversity and complexity of social systems including land ownership and development, socio-economics, education, politics, and social networks necessary for community action Engaging with diverse values and goals and complex social relations and power dynamics; effectively leveraging social capital and attachment to place to engage local communities and other stakeholders 
Steps of the collaborative process 
Assessing risk Developing credible information on wildfire-related risks, rating risk levels, and identifying high-risk locations Effectively measuring, framing, and communicating risk while acknowledging differing risk perceptions 
Developing common goals Agreeing on the purpose of the collaboration, which provides a course of action and group identity; often encapsulated in a mission statement Identifying shared values upon which to build goals; effectively prioritizing goals without marginalizing stakeholders 
Building relationships and trust Creating new relationships and strengthening old ties; fostered through face-to-face interactions and by building from the areas of agreement Identifying attainable goals to build support; maintaining a presence in the community; and engaging stakeholders face-to-face despite time and resource constraints 
Information sharing and shared learning Developing a common knowledge base and learning about other collaborators’ values, interests, and risk exposures via inclusive processes of data collection and interpretation Avoiding disputes over data; fostering proprietary data sharing; and fostering civic science and volunteer efforts 
Acknowledging interdependence and pooling resources Sharing personnel, equipment, and information to increase efficiency and combat the constraints of shrinking agency budgets; linking to outside resources, including funding opportunities Encouraging sharing of resources while respecting primary duties of individuals, the missions of their organizations, and resource limitations; successfully attaining competitive funding 
Public outreach Engaging with local homeowners, particularly to foster dialog, understand the local context, build legitimacy, communicate risk, and implement on-the-ground projects Overcoming distrust of government and/or non-governmental organizations; maintaining a consistent presence and respectful, learning-focused posture 
Outcomes of successful collaborations 
Increased capacity of leadership, networks, and resources Building leaders of many forms (taskmaster, coordinator, facilitator, cheerleader, etc.); developing networks that enhance capacity for communication, trust, and conflict resolution; accelerating day-to-day cooperation and resource sharing Effectively engaging and developing multiple leaders with diverse skill sets; avoiding burnout of those few, most-involved leaders; devoting time and energy to developing social capital to facilitate collaboration 
Increased understanding, fire preparedness, and shared learning Affected individuals and communities understanding the nature of wildfire risks; motivating individuals and groups to participate in risk mitigation Clear, consistent communication of risks and mitigation strategies; maintaining trust and respect within community interactions 
Increased support and mobilization of resources Broadening the base of political support for collaboration and wildfire risk mitigation; improving social acceptability of treatments, such as prescribed burns; and broadening the base of funding and resources Utilizing social capital, which must be developed, to invoke action—including personal action, treatments, and pressure on local leaders for wildfire-informed policies 
Implementation of projects and policies Executing projects such as post-fire restoration and proactive risk mitigation including fuels treatments (e.g., forest thinning, creation of defensible space, and prescribed burns); creating new policies, such as local building ordinances Effectively utilizing human, financial, and resource capital for risk mitigation activities; aligning funding allocations and implementation of mitigation work within the same cycle 
ComponentDescriptionChallenges
Collaborative context 
Environmental The unique ecology, geology, fire regime, and hydrology of wildland fire-affected ecosystems Understanding differences in fire ecology by location, including return intervals altered by fire suppression and compounding ecological influences such as drought and insect infestations 
Social The diversity and complexity of social systems including land ownership and development, socio-economics, education, politics, and social networks necessary for community action Engaging with diverse values and goals and complex social relations and power dynamics; effectively leveraging social capital and attachment to place to engage local communities and other stakeholders 
Steps of the collaborative process 
Assessing risk Developing credible information on wildfire-related risks, rating risk levels, and identifying high-risk locations Effectively measuring, framing, and communicating risk while acknowledging differing risk perceptions 
Developing common goals Agreeing on the purpose of the collaboration, which provides a course of action and group identity; often encapsulated in a mission statement Identifying shared values upon which to build goals; effectively prioritizing goals without marginalizing stakeholders 
Building relationships and trust Creating new relationships and strengthening old ties; fostered through face-to-face interactions and by building from the areas of agreement Identifying attainable goals to build support; maintaining a presence in the community; and engaging stakeholders face-to-face despite time and resource constraints 
Information sharing and shared learning Developing a common knowledge base and learning about other collaborators’ values, interests, and risk exposures via inclusive processes of data collection and interpretation Avoiding disputes over data; fostering proprietary data sharing; and fostering civic science and volunteer efforts 
Acknowledging interdependence and pooling resources Sharing personnel, equipment, and information to increase efficiency and combat the constraints of shrinking agency budgets; linking to outside resources, including funding opportunities Encouraging sharing of resources while respecting primary duties of individuals, the missions of their organizations, and resource limitations; successfully attaining competitive funding 
Public outreach Engaging with local homeowners, particularly to foster dialog, understand the local context, build legitimacy, communicate risk, and implement on-the-ground projects Overcoming distrust of government and/or non-governmental organizations; maintaining a consistent presence and respectful, learning-focused posture 
Outcomes of successful collaborations 
Increased capacity of leadership, networks, and resources Building leaders of many forms (taskmaster, coordinator, facilitator, cheerleader, etc.); developing networks that enhance capacity for communication, trust, and conflict resolution; accelerating day-to-day cooperation and resource sharing Effectively engaging and developing multiple leaders with diverse skill sets; avoiding burnout of those few, most-involved leaders; devoting time and energy to developing social capital to facilitate collaboration 
Increased understanding, fire preparedness, and shared learning Affected individuals and communities understanding the nature of wildfire risks; motivating individuals and groups to participate in risk mitigation Clear, consistent communication of risks and mitigation strategies; maintaining trust and respect within community interactions 
Increased support and mobilization of resources Broadening the base of political support for collaboration and wildfire risk mitigation; improving social acceptability of treatments, such as prescribed burns; and broadening the base of funding and resources Utilizing social capital, which must be developed, to invoke action—including personal action, treatments, and pressure on local leaders for wildfire-informed policies 
Implementation of projects and policies Executing projects such as post-fire restoration and proactive risk mitigation including fuels treatments (e.g., forest thinning, creation of defensible space, and prescribed burns); creating new policies, such as local building ordinances Effectively utilizing human, financial, and resource capital for risk mitigation activities; aligning funding allocations and implementation of mitigation work within the same cycle 

The High Park Fire: Hydrological and Social Context

The High Park Fire (HPF) burned in June 2012 northwest of the city of Fort Collins and was among the most destructive fires in Colorado history [15]. Growing to more than 350 km2 in size, the fire killed one person, destroyed 259 homes, evacuated approximately 4,300 homeowners and their families, generated air pollution that rivaled some of the most polluted cities in the world, and halted mid-summer recreation and tourism (Figure 1; [1417]). Fire suppression cost US$38.4 million and employed over 2,000 firefighters at its peak, and damages exceeded US$55 million [15, 18, 19]. Nearly half of the wildfire zone burned at high to moderate severity, generating high ecological impacts and greater post-fire risks to water resources.

FIGURE 1.

The study area in northern Colorado. The top panel shows the location of the High Park Fire, the distribution of land ownership around the fire (federal public lands are in green; other lands are primarily privately owned), and municipalities downstream from the burn area. The bottom panel shows downstream water utilities affected by the fire. In blue, both panels show the location of the two sources of water supply for the City of Fort Collins, the Horsetooth Reservoir and the Cache la Poudre River (shown from downstream of the burn scar through Fort Collins).

FIGURE 1.

The study area in northern Colorado. The top panel shows the location of the High Park Fire, the distribution of land ownership around the fire (federal public lands are in green; other lands are primarily privately owned), and municipalities downstream from the burn area. The bottom panel shows downstream water utilities affected by the fire. In blue, both panels show the location of the two sources of water supply for the City of Fort Collins, the Horsetooth Reservoir and the Cache la Poudre River (shown from downstream of the burn scar through Fort Collins).

Significant hydrological impacts of wildfire can be both acute and chronic. Immediately after the fire, the Poudre River, which runs through Fort Collins, ran black with ash and sediment [20]. Fort Collins Utilities, which serves approximately 125,000 people, were forced to stop drawing water from the river and to rely on secondary water supplies from the Horsetooth Reservoir for 98 days (Figure 1; [17, 20, 31]). The contributing watershed of the Horsetooth Reservoir narrowly avoided being burned in the HPF, demonstrating the additional risk of a single fire affecting both of the sources of water supply for Fort Collins and other downstream users. Over the long-term, water quality can remain degraded for years after a fire with additional exports of sediment, nutrients, and heavy metals from the watershed. Five years after the fire, acute impacts had subsided; however, water quality impacts can last upwards of 15 years. Continued challenges with sediment loads and nitrogen concentrations remain, occasionally requiring Fort Collins to shut off its intake of Poudre River water [21]. This concerns many local residents, who are proud of the Poudre’s high water quality that supports many industries [22]. As of 2017, Fort Collins ranks third in the United States in breweries per capita with 11.6 breweries per 100,000 residents, and these breweries rely on the high quality of water for their operations [23]. The Poudre, which is the only river in Colorado designated as a National Wild and Scenic River, also supports an outdoor recreation industry that includes fishing, hiking, and whitewater rafting and depends on pristine water quality and an aesthetically pleasing river and landscape.

Of course, the HPF did not heed political boundaries when it burned across the Poudre River watershed. As a result, land ownership in the burn scar is a diverse patchwork, with nearly half owned by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS; 48.7%), close to half owned by private landholders (45.2%), and the remaining fractions owned by the state of Colorado (5.7%) and other federal owners (0.3%) (Figure 1; [23]). The mismatch of the natural watershed and sociopolitical boundaries has serious implications for conducting post-fire restoration work and future risk mitigation. For example, risk management projects conducted on public lands must follow time-consuming public land management processes, while activities on private lands require buy-in by many individuals. Activities conducted on both public and private lands also need funding and operational support, and projects are made much more effective when they are coordinated (e.g., linking large public lands projects to small individual projects and vice versa to more closely align with watershed-scale dynamics). Furthermore, multiple downstream communities and their water providers rely on the Poudre River and also have a stake in watershed management, as do environmental groups and various industries. We provide an overview of key stakeholder groups in Table 2.

TABLE 2.

Overview of relevant stakeholder groups through the initial development and ongoing operations of CPRW.

Stakeholder groupLocation in watershedGoals and prioritiesExample groups
Federal public land managers Land owned in the upper watershed; operations throughout and below the watershed Managing forests and protecting multiple uses (e.g., timber, recreation, and forest ecosystems) USFS; Natural Resource Conservation Service 
State forest managers Land owned primarily in upper watershed (including Lory State Park); some parks in the lower watershed Managing forests and protecting multiple uses (e.g., timber, recreation, and forest ecosystems) Colorado State Forest Service 
Local governments and water utilities Throughout watershed; utilities serve customers in the lower watershed and have the infrastructure in the upper watershed Protecting local water supplies, infrastructure; serving constituents and customers; and local ecological, public, and economic well-being Fort Collins and Greeley Utilitiesa; Larimer County 
Private landowners Throughout and downstream of the watershed Post-fire recovery efforts; reducing risks to their lives, property, and local infrastructure from fires, plus related flooding, landslides, and erosion Individual property owners; homeowners’ associations 
Regional residents with outdoor recreation and environmental interests Throughout and downstream of the watershed Protecting the local environment for outdoor recreation, esthetics, and ecosystem function; includes anglers, hikers, campers, whitewater rafters, cyclists, climbers, etc. The Nature Conservancy, Larimer County Conservation Corps, Wildlands Restoration Volunteers, Rocky Mountain Flycasters (Trout Unlimited); Trees, Water & Peopleb 
Stakeholder groupLocation in watershedGoals and prioritiesExample groups
Federal public land managers Land owned in the upper watershed; operations throughout and below the watershed Managing forests and protecting multiple uses (e.g., timber, recreation, and forest ecosystems) USFS; Natural Resource Conservation Service 
State forest managers Land owned primarily in upper watershed (including Lory State Park); some parks in the lower watershed Managing forests and protecting multiple uses (e.g., timber, recreation, and forest ecosystems) Colorado State Forest Service 
Local governments and water utilities Throughout watershed; utilities serve customers in the lower watershed and have the infrastructure in the upper watershed Protecting local water supplies, infrastructure; serving constituents and customers; and local ecological, public, and economic well-being Fort Collins and Greeley Utilitiesa; Larimer County 
Private landowners Throughout and downstream of the watershed Post-fire recovery efforts; reducing risks to their lives, property, and local infrastructure from fires, plus related flooding, landslides, and erosion Individual property owners; homeowners’ associations 
Regional residents with outdoor recreation and environmental interests Throughout and downstream of the watershed Protecting the local environment for outdoor recreation, esthetics, and ecosystem function; includes anglers, hikers, campers, whitewater rafters, cyclists, climbers, etc. The Nature Conservancy, Larimer County Conservation Corps, Wildlands Restoration Volunteers, Rocky Mountain Flycasters (Trout Unlimited); Trees, Water & Peopleb 

aThe City of Fort Collins Utilities and City of Greeley Sewer and Water are responsible for the potable water systems of Fort Collins and Greeley, CO, respectively.

bTrees, Water & People was involved in the HPRC and held an original spot on the board; however, their work is less well-aligned with the current formulation of CPRW, and Trees, Water & People limited their involvement to initial startup support.

The Emergence of the CPRW

Assessing Risk

Shortly after the HPF,2 a group of environmentalists, natural resource managers, local government agencies, and water utilities joined together in an ad hoc coalition to focus on initial emergency response and recovery efforts in the burned area to reduce well-known immediate post-fire hazards, such as flooding and erosion [24]. Several governmental members of the group (local, state, and federal) collaborated to quickly produce a Burned Area Emergency Response report, which identified areas of the highest need for hillslope stabilization through mulching and seeding, installation of physical barriers, clearing channels and drainage ways, increased culvert sizes, and additions of warning signs [25]. This analysis allowed the group to prioritize project areas to work quickly and effectively with a limited budget. These emergency treatments were projected to cost US$24 million. The group, which called itself the High Park Restoration Coalition, worked to obtain emergency funding through the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Emergency Watershed Protection Program to implement the recommendations from the Burned Area Emergency Response report. Because no one stakeholder has jurisdiction over the burned areas or upper watershed, the coalition provided a forum for individual stakeholders, both public and private, to discuss the actions necessary for post-fire recovery, arrive at consensus, and implement solutions in the most vulnerable areas of the watershed.

Developing Common Goals, Building Relationships and Trust, and Shared Learning

During the course of conducting immediate post-fire work, the members of the restoration coalition began discussing the need for a longer-term collaboration that could more proactively improve wildfire-water dynamics, so that future fires in the upper Poudre River watershed would be less damaging [24]. This objective inspired the formation of the 501(c)3 non-profit CPRW [24]. As the group formalized, it developed a board with three permanent members—representatives from Fort Collins Utilities, Greeley Sewer and Water, and Larimer County—plus two stakeholder committees that are open for participation by any interested party. The stakeholder committees focus on the upper and lower watershed, respectively. Because they do not have a formalized leadership structure, managing priorities across geography and stakeholder groups is an ongoing work-in-progress [24]. However, the formalization of CPRW allowed the focus to expand geographically from recovery in burned areas to watershed health and management.

As CPRW gained its footing, it continued to work on post-fire recovery projects that had already gained group approval to build momentum and social capital based on existing areas of agreement. The nascent collaborative also set about expanding its repertoire, which required arriving at a broader set of common goals. As in any watershed collaborative, challenges exist in navigating diverse values and interests, as well as pre-existing relationships and jurisdictional fragmentation [12]. These social complexities may lead to disagreements about a collaborative’s purpose and its prioritization of goals. For example, water utilities may be more concerned with watershed health in protecting water quality, while homeowners are worried about fire mitigation and the protection of private property and infrastructure. On the other hand, different stakeholders can benefit from similar outcomes despite differing motivations. For example, reduced sediment loads and improved water quality are beneficial for both water utilities and anglers. Improvements in water quality reduce the cost of water treatment and provide the reliability of water supplies while also promoting healthy fish populations that promote an outdoor recreation economy.

CPRW structured its goal-setting activities by writing a resilience plan for the upper Poudre River watershed in collaboration with stakeholders. This planning process helped to set broader goals such as maintaining healthy forests within watersheds to reduce overgrowth and fuel loads and minimize risks [24, 26] in addition to identifying specific areas in need of attention so that participants could prioritize attainable projects within a vast watershed [21, 24, 25, 27]. Broadly, CPRW aims to create “defensible landscapes,” which they define as being resilient to fire and allowing for the coexistence of people with fires in the wildland-urban interface [24, 26]. For example, the plan advocated for (a) fuel treatments around Horsetooth Reservoir and in several specific drainages; (b) linking existing defensible space projects being conducted around individual homes with new, landscape-scale projects being planned for public lands; and (c) securing funding for ongoing work.

These initial projects and planning processes allowed stakeholders to build relationships and trust while also sharing information and developing a common understanding of wildfire risks in the upper Poudre River watershed. CPRW maintained and leveraged this social capital as it carried on its work [12, 14, 24]. CPRW is uniquely positioned to carry out its work at the watershed scale. While traditional jurisdiction of many stakeholders limits their geographic reach, CPRW can operate throughout the Poudre River watershed and across public-private boundaries. However, the operations of a collaborative group, such as CPRW, may be slow in comparison with the actions taken by traditional actors, including municipalities, because of the need to build trust, obtain buy-in, and arrive at a consensus.

Acknowledging Interdependence, Pooling Resources

The executive director of CPRW calls the group “a planning and coordination hub.” She explains, “We are a bridge among organizations that have shared interests, but maybe their own individual missions or structures prevent them from doing some step of that… no one political entity has the power to completely take charge, but as a collective we can try to work across jurisdictions” [24]. This “coordination hub,” formed and maintained through a collaborative process, helps to align the ecological and political scales. By coordinating planning across traditional jurisdictional boundaries and working for consensus concerning proposed actions, CPRW can achieve greater health and fire protection across the Poudre River watershed. Today, CPRW has a total of three full-time staff working in the capacity to coordinate restoration and risk mitigation planning among participating entities and contract out the on-the-ground work to professional and volunteer crews. The collaborative has pooled resources from its three permanent board members (the two municipal water utilities and Larimer county, listed above), emergency funds provided by state and federal agencies, donations from foundations, and grants [24].

Pooling resources comes with challenges of its own. For example, water utilities, specifically, have pushed to provide more funding for restoration efforts because the quality of their supply is threatened; however, getting the money approved and allocated is a slow process, and work cycles often misalign with funding cycles. There can be a similar disconnect between the allocation of monies and the implementation of work for funding from federal grants. Only after funds are available can CPRW book work crews; however, there are only two operators in the region with appropriate equipment and expertise, and they are booked for work well beyond a year out when annually allocated funds have already expired. Often, if these funds go unused in any given year, it is difficult to justify their reallocation in subsequent years [24].

Public Outreach and Engagement

Working with its partners, CPRW has made large strides in terms of visibility and relationship building in the mountain communities of the upper watershed [24]. CPRW conducted most of its outreach and education by organizing or attending community events, hosting tours of sites where treatments had already been completed, facilitating a seminar series about the ecology of fire and the connections of forests, fires, and watershed health, and writing a monthly column for the mountain community newspaper [24]. Neighbor-to-neighbor interactions seem to be the most effective method of spreading information and garnering favor within the community, which aligns with findings in the academic literature [28]; however, this is also one of the slowest ways to disseminate information. Future outreach and engagement goals also include (1) a mini-documentary series to post online and present to communities and at an independent theater or local breweries and (2) helping to adjust messaging at a local museum exhibit about the HPF to focus on watershed and fire ecology and the role of treatment rather than the disaster recovery cycle [24]. These engagement efforts are essential for a collaborative group that gains legitimacy and consent through consensus-based decision-making. While traditional jurisdictions can at times implement top-down solutions, CPRW has no formal implementation authority apart from the buy-in obtained through the collaborative process.

Outcomes, Continuing Challenges, and Opportunities

CPRW has seen positive outcomes in terms of increased leadership and resource capacities, increased understanding and support, and the implementation of projects. Since its inception as the High Park Restoration Coalition, CPRW has been able to consistently obtain funding and grow its staff; this expansion has allowed for increased leadership and presence in mountain communities, new analyses for long-term goal setting, and implementation of post-fire recovery and forest management projects [24]. Though some local stakeholders were initially apprehensive about CPRW and its presence in their communities, they have received CRPW more warmly as they have gotten to know CRPW representatives and CPRW has worked to engage landowners in planning processes before any regulatory decisions or management actions. For example, the ability to interact face-to-face and explain the location, purpose, planning, and safety measures for specific treatments and prescribed fire in general has helped to ameliorate some resistance to the idea of prescribed burns. The organization has gained trust through its continued presence and engagement with local communities, helped increase awareness of the realities of living with wildfire risk, avoided conflict and antagonism among and with communities, and along with the USFS, had success in gaining permission to conduct forest treatments on private lands and to implement prescribed burns in and around local communities [24].

CPRW has also developed a strong network of partners, including the Elkhorn Creek Forest Health Initiative, The Nature Conservancy, Wildlands Restoration Volunteers, Larimer County Conservation Corps, and the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch, through which they can share resources to implement treatment projects [29]. CPRW has implemented policies and projects in three major areas—the development of resiliency master plans, post-fire restoration, and wildfire risk reduction. The organization currently has three master plans addressing upper watershed resilience, post-fire prioritization—which is a result of identifying stakeholders and their priorities and analysis of relevant, available data concerning risk within the watershed—and lower watershed resilience. Post-fire restoration projects within the Poudre River Watershed are ongoing; thus far, CPRW has facilitated the restoration of over 1.5 miles of river and 600 acres of hillslopes impacted by the HPF. Finally, by working with their partners and the USFS, CPRW has spearheaded forest treatments on approximately 300 acres within the Poudre River watershed, including prescribed burns, to reduce the risk from future wildfires [29]. The work conducted at this watershed-scale exceeds the ability of any other individual stakeholder to conduct similar work financially due to its large size and geographically due to jurisdiction.

Moving forward, CPRW has begun to expand its goals further to (a) address watershed health issues in addition to wildfire and (b) engage in collaborative efforts in the lower Poudre Watershed in addition to the upper. This topical and geographic expansion will allow CPRW to increase its impacts, but it may also make it more challenging to identify common goals. One important watershed health topic that CPRW will need to navigate is climate change, as Colorado is expected to become hotter and drier, which will increase fire hazards and other watershed stressors [30]. However, CPRW’s recent resilience plan does not explicitly engage climate change because of the limitations of data, time, and money. The collaborative is also looking to secure more stable funding. Thus far, CPRW has existed on a year-to-year cycle of funding, which limits the range of work that can be planned [24]. As the organization moves from focusing on disaster recovery into long-term management, it will be important to identify more stable and less restrictive funding sources (e.g., unrestricted money from individual donors, rather than federal grants on an annual cycle).

CONCLUSION

Wildfires often create serious negative impacts on water supplies. These impacts were severe following the HPF due to its size and severity. Though impacts become more severe with more extreme disturbances, water quality impacts can be observed following smaller fires. Managing watersheds to mitigate and address these impacts is challenging because it requires coordinating across many diverse institutions and stakeholders. Collaborative watershed management groups, such as CPRW, may emerge post-fire as “planning and coordination hubs” that bridge these interests in the service of greater watershed goals [24]. Strong leadership, common stakeholder goals, and partnerships to build community trust have been essential components of CPRW’s successful initial efforts around post-fire recovery and the group’s work toward promoting a resilient watershed over the long-term. However, challenges remain, including executing on-the-ground projects amidst logistical challenges, coordinating among a growing number of stakeholders and their varied concerns and goals, securing consistent funding, and planning for the impacts of climate change on wildfire, forest, and watershed dynamics.

CASE STUDY QUESTIONS

  1. How does a wildfire physically change a watershed? In other words, what are the hydrological impacts of wildfire?

  2. Who are the relevant stakeholders in post-fire watershed management? What are their values, interests, and goals? How do these perspectives affect their participation in collaborative management efforts?

  3. How do collaborative watershed management groups such as the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed come together? What factors are important to their formation and to gaining momentum on watershed problem-solving?

  4. What makes these collaborative watershed management groups successful? What are the biggest challenges they face in post-fire restoration and proactive risk mitigation work in watersheds?

  5. How does fragmented watershed management (i.e., the presence of multiple land ownership types, institutions, and stakeholders) affect the management of post-fire landscapes? What are the advantages of, and challenges to, managing watersheds at physical scales (i.e., based on hydrological, rather than political boundaries)?

  6. How applicable is the framework for other cases of fire recovery, watershed restoration, or other geographic regions? Are there any local watershed restoration efforts in your area, and what components of the framework can be observed in their operations?

  7. How does the CPRW case study alter our understanding of the framework used in its analysis? What components would you add to or remove from the framework based on these results?

AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS

KB and AK: conceptualization, data curation, investigation, and methodology. KB: formal analysis, project administration, software, visualization, and writing the original draft. AK: funding acquisition, resources, supervision, and review and editing the draft.

We would like to thank the executive leadership of CPRW for their time and insights during our interview. We would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers, whose suggestions have helped to clarify and improve this case study and the supporting teaching materials.

FUNDING

Financial support was provided by the Hydrologic Sciences and Engineering Program at Colorado School of Mines (KB) and the Division of Humanities, Arts, and Sciences at Colorado School of Mines (AK).

COMPETING INTERESTS

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIALS

Teaching Notes (.doc): Description of the key points for learning objectives and their sources; teaching strategies including a sample lesson plan, anticipated results, and background and pre-class reading suggestions.

Slide Deck (.ppt): Sample lesson slide deck matching lesson plan included in teaching notes. Comments in the notes section of the PowerPoint give more information on what is contained within the slide, suggested discussions, and ideas for accompanying activities.

1.

The full name of both the watershed and its river is “Cache la Poudre”; however, they are both known locally simply as the “Poudre.” We therefore use the latter vernacular throughout the text.

2.

In May 2012, before the ignition of the HPF, the Hewlett Gulch Fire burned approximately 7,500 acres in the Poudre River Watershed. We focus on the HPF because of its size and impact, but the social and hydrological dynamics described in this case were instigated by the two fires in combination, as both threatened downstream municipal water supplies (see map included in the Supplementary Material slide deck, slide 10).

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