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Poudre River turns black as heavy rains push burn scar debris downstream

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FORT COLLINS, Colo. (KDVR) — In a sight rarely seen over the past decade, the Poudre River has turned jet black running through Fort Collins, forcing water utilities to find alternate sources.

The color is a result of heavy rain that occurred over the Cameron Peak burn scar Tuesday afternoon, dozens of miles upstream from Fort Collins.

“I’ve never seen this in my life,” resident Mark Baca said. “It looks like chocolate milk.”

Baca runs by Whitewater Park every day. He said on Tuesday morning, the water was clear enough to see fish near the bottom.

That quickly changed Wednesday morning, as ash and debris from the Cameron Peak burn scar began to arrive in the city.

River supplies half of Fort Collins’ water

Water utilities quickly made the decision to stop pulling water from the river, which supplies about half of Fort Collins’ water supply.

“It’s really driven the water quality down to an unusable point,” said Gregg Stonecipher, with Fort Collins Utilities. “We’re not taking any water from the river right now for drinking water.”

Stonecipher said instead, they’re pulling from Horsetooth Reservoir. It’s the second time this year they’ve had to do so, the first being during the spring runoff in April.

“We were off the river for 10 days at that time, and this is an order of magnitude worse than that was,” Stonecipher said. “It could be weeks or months. It’s very hard to predict how quickly the water quality will recover.”

Greeley relies almost entirely on Poudre

Communities like Greeley, which rely almost entirely on the Poudre for water, are also now pulling from reservoir storage.

Greeley water director Sean Chambers said aerial mulching operations started this week on portions of the burn scar, but the efforts had to stop after the Tuesday flood for search-and-rescue operations and debris-clearing work.

Stonecipher said Fort Collins crews are monitoring debris flow, in addition to water quality.

“We’ve got plans in place to remove the debris and dredge silt out if we need to from in front of our intake,” Stonecipher said. “It’s just a lot of monitoring right now, and planning. This could potentially be a problem for weeks or months.”

At this point, Stonecipher says they’re confident they have enough water in Horsetooth to make it through the summer should water levels continue to be an issue in the Poudre River.

“The projections for availability of water from Horsetooth look good for the rest of the year,” he said. “So as we’re standing right now, things are looking good to meet the needs of the city of Fort Collins out of the Horsetooth Reservoir for the remainder of the season.”

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