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How Valuable is Your Network? An Interview With Mike McHugh

Mike McHugh 2014 WEB HSThe Front Range fires of the past few years have been a huge wake up call to the region. However, Mike McHugh at Aurora Water didn’t just “wake up”, he’s been working with his colleagues for years on smart, resilient actions in their watersheds.

Mike is a terrific example of the leaders in our network – super smart, innovative, a mentor to many throughout the West, someone who helps move our Healthy Headwaters work forward.

Mike was one of the Healthy Headwaters delegates that went to Washington DC a few years ago to meet with members of Congress. He was part of the team that last fall helped the Eugene Water & Electric Board analyze the outcomes of their Voluntary Incentives Program. And Mike ensured that Aurora Water was the first to endorse the Policy Platform of the Healthy Headwaters Alliance – in both 2012 and 2016.

Interviewing Mike for Confluence, he told us that for all he’s done for the Healthy Headwaters Alliance, he’s gotten much in return. From building relationships with key funders to elevating Aurora Water’s national presence, check out what Mike has to say about the benefits of being part of Carpe Diem West’s Healthy Headwaters Network, and see our three tips on how you can participate.

Seize the day!

“Carpe Diem West’s… network of western water leaders is one that has been influential in implementing highly successful source water protection projects, and they will be able to assist you with yours.” 

Why did you get involved with Carpe Diem West and how does the Healthy Headwaters Program help you reach your goals?

I think that the Healthy Headwaters team itself is an interesting sort of policy group. We discuss legislation, we discuss the newest techniques, and what’s happening with academic and research communities for best management practices. I think that if I were to sum it up, there are a couple questions that we try to answer in the Healthy Headwaters team: “What are the changes that are being observed in the watersheds as they recover from fire and flood?” and, “What are the threats from prolonged drought and what are those implications for watershed management into the future?”

From my point of view, working with the Healthy Headwaters leadership team provides our city with new policy opportunities to consider and new connections to review ongoing policy discussions, so these can be brought back to Aurora’s City Council for their consideration and potential implementation. Participation in the Healthy Headwaters Leadership Team also gives Aurora the opportunity to represent our accomplishments to a national audience and to learn from other communities across the West about how they are having success building partnerships in their regions.

Another reason we got involved was to explore fiscal partnering in order to develop adequate funding for forest management activities. I think it’s pretty clear that there’s not going to be enough money available to the U.S. Forest Service under the current federal funding regime, and utilities aren’t going to be able to make up the entire shortfall by themselves. So where will this funding come from as communities try to take pilot projects to scale across the West?

What have you been able to accomplish since joining Carpe Diem West’s Healthy Headwaters Leadership Team?

One of the connections that I made through this Healthy Headwaters team was the National Forest Foundation’s Vice President, Mary Mitsos. They were providing funding, and in getting to know them through Carpe Diem West, they ended up matching the City of Aurora’s contribution to a project on a one-for-one basis. So we contributed $250,000 for each of two years for $500,000 that the National Forest Foundation matched. This strengthened Aurora’s contribution to the Trail Creek Restoration Project that has stabilized and reduced the contribution of sediment flow into the South Platte River by some 57,000 cubic yards annually.

The City of Aurora’s participation in the Healthy Headwaters Program has also allowed Aurora to be part of a well-recognized congressional presence as a source of non-partisan policy analysis for watershed protection and exposes us to techniques used by other utilities dealing with threats to their watersheds. This wealth of knowledge is invaluable to municipalities like ours who are seeking innovative ways to protect their water supply.

What are some of the challenges of protecting Aurora’s water supply that originates in headwater forests?

One of our biggest challenges, considering that most of our watersheds are in national forests, is working effectively with the U.S. Forest Service. That’s not to say there hasn’t been progress. I think that here in Region 2 we have some dedicated folks that are working really hard and trying to get as many people involved in source water protection projects as they can. For example, one of the projects that we’re working on is up in what we call the Tennessee Creek area. It’s the headwaters of the Arkansas River and surrounds reservoirs that are part of water delivery systems for the cities of Pueblo, Colorado Springs, and Aurora. Each of the cities has an agreement with the Forest Service to provide some matching funding to the Forest Service in order to improve the resistance and resilience of the forest around these reservoirs. So we are already working together, and Region 2 sees it as important enough that there are dedicated personnel to help us with that, which has been working really well.

Another difficult aspect of managing our headwaters is that we don’t have a dedicated watershed that’s just ours. Ours is co-mingled with partners — Denver Water, Colorado Springs Utilities, and the Pueblo Board of Waterworks.

One major setback we have been faced with was losing about 15% of our storage space at Strontia Springs. This happened when the Hayman Fire damaged the Trail Creek and Horse Creek tributaries of the South Platte River. The decomposed granite sediment that appeared post-fire behaves like little ball bearings when there’s water added. It just runs right off the slope. It creates deep rills and then gullies, and then large alluvial fans that can block the river. So even though we don’t derive any water from this particular part of the watershed, it’s absolutely crucial to our operations in terms of the Strontia Springs Reservoir, because all of this sediment washes downstream and has impacted that reservoir. Luckily, our partners at Strontia Springs, Denver Water, have been instrumental in trying to figure out a way to get that sediment out of the reservoir.

Considering these challenges, was there a particular motivation for getting involved with Carpe Diem West’s Healthy Headwaters program?

Yes. When you’ve got post-fire flooding, keeping the sediment upstream and stabilized is way less expensive than trying to dredge out the reservoir. We’ve found that out firsthand. So we began working with Carpe Diem West. As we moved forward we were also working with the Coalition for the Upper South Platte and with other funders such as Vail Associates and the U.S. Forest Service.

Do you have advice for western communities who want to implement a healthy headwaters project, but don’t know how quite yet?

Well, I think taking stock of what ecosystem services you have across your watershed and what condition they’re in, and which ones require a nudge and which ones require considerable work is a good way to help prioritize where you can make a difference. Then you can work with the Forest Service professionals to see what their prescriptions are for the different areas of the forest. So that means taking part in their planning efforts and commenting on forest plans and things like that. And I would recommend getting involved with Carpe Diem West’s Healthy Headwaters program. Their vast network of western water leaders is one that has been influential in implementing highly successful source water protection projects, and they will be able to assist you with yours.

Mike McHugh is is the Environmental Permitting Coordinator for Aurora Water. He has more than 25 years of experience in environmental restoration and water resources.

March 21, 2016

Photo Credit:  National Forest Foundation




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