To the uninitiated, it might seem unusual that a Colorado Springs Utilities employee won Partner of the Year, awarded by the Colorado State Forest Service. But Eric Howell’s dual titles of forest program manager for the Watershed Planning Section, and deputy administrator of the Colorado Springs Utilities Catamount Wildland Fire Team reflect CSU’s broad footprint in the state.
It’s a mammoth effort to protect water sources from fire; Howell oversees a $1.5 million annual budget dedicated to ensuring forest health in the CSU watershed. The legal responsibilities that have come home to roost for Pacific Gas & Electric after it caused deadly fires in California demonstrate the dangers of a utility company mismanaging fire prevention and suppression.
CSU manages water projects in 11 counties, covering 3 million acres of watershed property around the state. CSFS cited Howell’s efforts at creating the Front Range Good Neighbor Authority and Pikes Peak Good Neighbor Authority among CSU and the federal and state forest services. Good Neighbor Authority is a program launched by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its Forest Service properties nationwide, but Howell is unique in being a primary instigator of the local GNA program across forest agencies while working for a municipal utility.
A Colorado native, Howell has worked for CSU for 29 years, and has been in his current position for 13 years, since taking over from his mentor Vic Ecklund, who retired in 2008. Before taking on forest management duties that year, Howell spent several years in the water services division, working in both water distribution and in the water quality lab. In the laboratory post, he focused on source water protection, treatment plant support, compliance, and development of monitoring plans.
Howell’s been involved with multiple local, state, regional and federal entities in forest management over the past decade. His most recent project is a collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service in the Catamount Project, an effort funded by CSU to mitigate wildfire risks in the area surrounding North and South Catamount reservoirs on the north slope of Pikes Peak.
If local residents think of drinking water sources and their interplay with forested regions at all, they may be aware that the city takes drinking water from four North Slope reservoirs — the two Catamounts, Crystal Reservoir and Rampart Reservoir. But those local water storage systems provide only 15 percent of the water for the metropolitan region. More than 75 percent of the city’s water comes from reservoirs along the Continental Divide, connected through the collection systems dubbed Homestake, Fryingpan-Arkansas, Twin Lakes and Blue River. Some remote collection systems feed into Rampart Reservoir as a central storage facility. Reducing fire risk to those local sources is critical, but so is fire mitigation in areas around the state that CSU depends upon.
Forestry management reaches well beyond mitigation into fire suppression. The Catamount Wildland Fire Team has been in existence since 1988, and has grown to incorporate more than 50 CSU employees from the electric, natural gas, wastewater and water divisions. In a 2018 fire near Hanover, the multi-division team fought fires and protected power lines that were threatened in the blaze. Pacts with the county and city have existed for more than a century, mapping the way the utilities company works with local government agencies on wildfires. Howell said CSU also plays a key role in post-fire analysis, assessing damage to infrastructure in large conflagrations like the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire.
Were you involved in forestry organizations before Colorado Springs Utilities, or have you always been on the utilities side?
I began my career [at CSU] in 1987 in a college summer seasonal program. I was studying forestry and was intending to be a teacher, but working under Vic Ecklund, I quickly was hooked. I’d always loved camping, fishing, the great outdoors, so this was something that appealed to me on many levels. I spent several years in Colorado Springs Utilities’ water systems operations, and managed source water protection in the utilities’ water lab, but forestry management was always my top interest. When Vic retired in 2008, I took his former post.
You’ve been working on a Catamount Reservoir program recently, but it sounds like your geographical mandate goes much further.
If you take a big-picture analysis, many utility customers are only vaguely aware of our footprint. In recent years, we narrowed our mitigation footprint from 3 million acres to around a half-million acres, but that still means there is a huge element well outside the region, such as Summit County and the headwaters of the Arkansas. The majority of our water comes from well outside the reservoirs on North and South slopes, though Rampart Reservoir is a critical storage resource.
There’s often a lot of debate on the best way to manage fires, with USFS and the state forest services nationwide taking heat from some for letting small fires burn. Can you talk about management and mitigation steps taken in advance of fires?
Mother Nature took care of growth in decades and centuries past with many low-intensity fires, but such fires were totally unlike the massive outbreaks we’ve seen in recent years throughout the West. If we are not significantly ahead in managing the extreme drought problem spots, a bad fire year can arise very suddenly, even in a year like this when precipitation has been moderate.
We’ve been lucky on the insect blight front — or at least luckier than we might have been, right? There are many huge swatches of forest in northern Arizona, Wyoming and even northwest Colorado that seem to have been all but wiped out by the Ips and pine bark beetles. We are seeing spruce budworm and spruce beetle, but we were lucky that the large beetle infestations coming down from Wyoming were halted — for now, at least. We can’t be complacent, though. Stressed trees can lead to an unhealthy forest.
Even with the amount of land CSU directly owns on the peak, aren’t close relations with the U.S. Forest Service important?
We have a broad memorandum of understanding with USFS on all kinds of areas of collaboration. The new three-way effort with ourselves, U.S. Forest Service, and Colorado State Fire Service is critical to maintaining the health of the two national forests near us. In addition, a lot of our water comes directly from USFS lands.
Did you have an inkling this award was coming from CSFS?
This was a big surprise, even though I’ve been working with them since the late 1980s. The Woodland Park field office of CSFS is just a wonderful group, with some of the best regional experts in fire mitigation.