LARIMER COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4)  – As searchers work the grim task of trying to find three people believed washed away in Tuesday’s flash flood in Poudre Canyon, there are other worries about the damaged waterways and what they mean.

“It provides clean drinking water, it provides recreation, it provides a place that people want to live. When it burns it affects everybody,” said Adam Jokerst, deputy water director for Greeley Water and Sewer.

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Greeley draws about half its water from the Cache La Poudre. But since Tuesday, its intakes were turned off again.

“When it looks like tar, no treatment system can handle that,” said Jokerst.

Without mitigation above the river and Black Hollow Creek and other tributaries, the debris is likely to continue to flow. In Jokerst’s close looks at the burn scar, he’s seen a moonscape in places, particularly above Black Hollow Creek where some of the hottest parts of the Cameron Peak Fire burned.

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“Nothing living. Black trees, black soil, blackened rock,” he said. “The understory burns, the soil burns, and in fact the fire burns so hot that the rocks will disintegrate into sand. We’re talking intense heat.”

Greeley along with Fort Collins and other Northern Colorado water authorities and advocates are combining efforts to try and mitigate damage. On Monday, the day before the flash flood, one effort began with mulch crops via helicopter. They grind wood into pieces called, wood straw.

“It’s long and thin,” explained Jokerst. “When it falls from the helicopter it interweaves, it creates almost like a blanket that holds the sediment on to an extent… What we’re really hoping for is that vegetation establishes in that mulch, that mulch provides some moisture to get the seeds to germinate and we can re-vegetate those burned hill slopes.”

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There are other techniques as well, including barriers made from straw waddles commonly seen along road projects. Sometimes hard concrete barriers are poured to hold back mud and debris and so-called trash racks, essentially bars forming a grid, are installed. Workers also do directional felling of trees, perpendicular to the slope to hold back debris. The program that began Monday uses local, state and federal dollars to begin the effort, but the cost of mitigating the Cameron Peak Fire and East Troublesome Fire alone are currently $100 million short.

As long as there are unmitigated areas, there is the potential of more trouble downstream for residents, water customers and people who use the river for recreation. Another dry winter says Jokerst could mean shortages in reservoirs used for alternate supply and with the Cache La Poudre sometimes running black with soot and ash.

“Greeley and all of the Northern Colorado Front Range is going to be in trouble,” he warned.

Alan Gionet