ACWA Leadership on Headwaters Health Driving Long-Term Response to Wildfires

  • by Dave Eggerton
  • Oct 16, 2020
  • Voices on Water

Another year of catastrophic wildfires have wrecked historic damage to our state and its natural resources. We have at least another month before we can expect the arrival of any meaningful precipitation to provide relief. 

The lethal Camp Fire that destroyed most of Paradise two years ago struck late in what used to be a defined wildfire season. We have since discovered that the threat of these disasters has become virtually year-round. Yet the eventual outcome of this tragic event showed the ACWA community at its finest. Even in the midst of one disaster rolling into the next, water agencies can count on one another for help in recovering and rebuilding.

In the aftermath of the Camp Fire, ACWA member agency Paradise Irrigation District’s (PID) home community suffered the loss of 85 lives and more than 18,000 structures, including the homes of employees. Multiple ACWA member agencies responded by dispatching crews and donating equipment to PID, traveling from nearby Northern California water districts and from as far away as Southern California to help PID start restoring water service to its devastated community. 

This is just one among many inspiring examples of water agencies uniting to lend a hand in a sister agency’s recovery efforts. However, a larger challenge remains on a statewide scale. Another round of catastrophic wildfires, unprecedented in scope and intensity with a changing climate, have once again damaged entire watersheds. Ash and other sediment and debris will wash into reservoirs and ultimately add another layer of difficulty in delivering safe and reliable water. We have overcome this difficulty before, and will again. However, what can be done on the ground to lessen this threat, if not eventually overcome it?

An important part of the answer is taking leadership in advocating for and working to implement projects to restore the health of our headwater forests. In that, ACWA and our member agencies are part of the solution. Multiple ACWA members are collaborating with local, state and federal agencies as well as nonprofits and corporations to reduce the fuel-loading in our forests and restore the healthy function and resiliency of these watersheds. It is a massive undertaking that includes mobilizing work crews, applying prescribed fire and utilizing machinery such as masticators to improve the condition of each forest, acre-by-acre. With millions of acres of forests in need of assistance, we are only at the beginning of what must be a sustained, multi-generational effort.

ACWA advocacy stands behind this on-the-ground work. In Sacramento and in our nation’s capital, member-supported engagement is helping secure funding for headwater forest health. For example, ACWA is a member of the California Forest Watershed Alliance. This alliance of diverse interests, including organizations that represent water, environment, local government, timber and agricultural interests is dedicated to finding a solution to California’s forest-health and fire-risk issues.  

Within California, ACWA’s input in the development of the state’s Water Resilience Portfolio emphasized the vital importance of headwaters health to water supply, quality and reliability. And in Washington D.C., our advocacy is constantly keeping headwaters health a top priority in federal funding and regulatory reform. Much of this work is guided through an ACWA Headwaters Workgroup formed through our Federal Affairs Committee and led by Willie Whittlesey, General Manager of Yuba Water Agency and a trained professional forester. 

By now, the increasing severity of California’s wildfires have affected all of us in one way or another, from smoke and its effect on air quality, to more severe impacts with members of the ACWA community losing homes in recent years. 

Six years ago, my family and I were preparing for a potential evacuation order in El Dorado County. I remember standing in my front yard as a building wall of smoke from the King Fire towered above our home, which we easily could have lost had the wind changed direction. One year later, I experienced the Butte Fire as General Manager of Calaveras County Water District (CCWD), which destroyed most of the upper watershed of one of our main water sources and threatened a water treatment plant. I will always remember the incredible dedication of CCWD staff who worked tirelessly to keep the water system in operation and fire flow available to firefighters on the front lines. 

In the larger picture, ACWA’s collaboration toward improving the health of our forested headwaters makes all of us part of the solution. It may be a quieter story of dedication told over years, but it is one all member agencies are helping make happen.

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