Collaboration yields $1M project to protect Upper Provo watershed in Uintas
The mountains of Summit County contain the headwaters for four major water systems and provide drinking water to hundreds of thousands of Utahns.
County Councilors have spoken of the seriousness with which they take the responsibility of protecting that resource, and have pursued various methods to keep the area clean.
The County Council has attempted to gain watershed protections in a federal Public Lands Initiative for years, and despite achieving stakeholder consensus — not an easy feat when balancing the needs of ranchers, recreators and conservationists — have come up short on getting anything passed through Congress.
Earlier this summer, Councilors advocated switching tactics and fighting for state and federal dollars for “shovel-ready” watershed management projects, especially in areas threatened by wildfire like national forest land.
County Councilors and staff recently toured a site in the Uintas where federal, state and private dollars are funding a nearly $1 million project to reduce the potential size of wildfires that threaten waterways there.
The fourth phase of the Upper Provo River Watershed Restoration project is gearing up for a series of controlled burns this fall and should take about a year to fully implement, Kamas-Heber District Ranger Daniel Jauregui said.
“We’ve actually been working on it since 2015 or 2016,” he said. “The main goal for that is to break up vegetation so that fires don’t get to a certain size.”
The idea is to remove vegetation around existing roads, trails and other natural fire breaks to avoid damaging more land than is necessary and increase the area’s ability to withstand fires.
“We’re trying to let fire do what it’s done in the past as best it can,” Jauregui said. “To keep those fires at something relatively smaller than 150,000 acres.”
He said the U.S. Forest Service is fighting an uphill battle because of past forest management practices that have disrupted the natural behavior of fires and led to more destructive infernos. But he sees progress and said the major players have recently gotten on the same page regarding goals and, importantly, financing.
In May, Gov. Gary Herbert and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, signed a shared stewardship agreement that indicated $20 million would be spent over four years on programs that would restore and protect priority landscapes, working with existing programs including Utah’s Watershed Restoration Initiative.
The project county officials toured on Friday is partially funded through that initiative.
In addition to prescribed burns, crews will use mechanical treatments, including something called a masticating head that can turn a tree into mulch in a matter of seconds.
The tour was a couple weeks after a meeting with stakeholders from Summit County, the Forest Service, Central Utah Water Conservancy District, staff from Sen. Mitt Romney’s office and U.S. Reps. John Curtis and Rob Bishop, the state Department of Natural Resources, the Summit County fire warden and the Mountain Regional Water Special Service District.
In that meeting, participants were briefed on the Upper Provo project and the effects of catastrophic wildfires, Deputy Summit County Manager Janna Young said.
It fit with the directive from the County Council to find partners in the effort to protect watersheds and afforded participants the opportunity to ask questions.
County Councilor Kim Carson attended both events and said she has seen firsthand the work the Forest Service has done on her many trips into the Uintas to cross-country ski or camp.
“The results of catastrophic wildfire can have the most dramatic negative impacts on watersheds,” Carson said. “I’m amazed they were working all winter. It’s exciting that you can already see progress up there.”
The effects reach beyond water quality into wildlife populations and pollution, she said.
“Cost for cleanup and remediation after these fires — it’s horrendously expensive,” she said.
Jauregui mentioned one of the effects of the 2018 Dollar Ridge Fire that burned nearly 70,000 acres in the Ashley National Forest. Managers of the nearby Starvation Reservoir looking to buy a $2 million piece of equipment for algae mitigation are now facing a $25 million purchase to deal with sedimentation from the fire.
“It’s not like that’s money they have sitting aside,” Jauregui said.
Carson said the county has not abandoned the idea of pursuing a federal Public Lands Initiative, which, in the latest version, would have created a new watershed area designation with rules to protect those lands. But in the meantime, the county is doing what it can, including encouraging partnerships like this one.
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