U.S. Senate passes bill funding watershed recovery after wildfires | SummitDaily.com

U.S. Senate passes bill funding watershed recovery after wildfires

Caddie Nath
summit daily news
Summit Daily/Mark Fox

Months after the High Park fire scorched more than 80,000 acres outside of Fort Collins, the city’s water supply center is now at risk for flooding and road washouts. The aftermath of the Waldo Canyon fire left a major pipeline in Colorado Springs exposed. And utility company Denver Water is still working to repair infrastructure damaged by the Hayman fire more than a decade ago.

The fallout from catastrophic wildfires extends beyond scorched landscapes and burned neighborhoods, impacting critical watersheds even years after the flames are extinguished.

Following this year’s drought-fueled wildfire season, which left thousands of acres of terrain charred across the state, the U.S. Senate passed a bill Monday securing $125 million in federal funding to support watershed recovery efforts in Colorado. It now faces the Republican-controlled House.

“Water is precious in Colorado – especially right now during the worst drought in years,” Sen. Michael Bennet stated in a release. “This bill will provide help for the Colorado communities that are recovering from the devastating fires this summer and are now facing threats to their water supply and the risk of flooding at the same time. I’m hopeful our colleagues in the House will quickly pass the bill and deliver this support to the communities that need it.”

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Summit County avoided any large-scale wildfires last summer, despite several close calls. But with a forest dominated by beetle-killed timber and drought conditions rated severe by the U.S. Drought Monitor, local communities may face another dry and dangerous summer in 2013.

Local officials say there could come a day when Summit County too might need the money secured by the legislation.

“We are one lightning strike, one campfire that got out of hand (away from) having a major catastrophic wildfire,” Summit County Commissioner and volunteer wildland firefighter Dan Gibbs said. “It’s important for Summit County that these funds stay in tact. Just in case in the future we have a major fire, we’re going to need to tap into those funds.”

On the heels of the success of the water recovery bill, Colorado’s Sen. Mark Udall chastised his colleagues in the Senate for killing an amendment to the Supplemental Appropriation for Disaster Assistance, which would have returned more than $650 million to the U.S. Forest Service for wildfire preparedness, suppression, hazardous fuels reduction, fire research and assistance in anticipation of the 2013 wildfire season.

“I am concerned that the U.S. Senate has decided to turn a blind eye to these predictable disaster needs,” Udall stated in a release. “Make no mistake about it: Wildfires threaten entire communities. I am hopeful that 2013 will not be as hazardous as forecast, but these resources would have given Colorado a running start to prepare for next year’s wildfire season.”

Local officials and Denver Water representatives also highlighted the need for wildfire mitigation measures alongside recovery efforts.

A significant blaze in Summit County could jeopardize not only local water resources, but also storage facilities – like Dillon Reservoir – that house water for other parts of the state.

Denver Water, which owns the reservoir, targeted the Blue River watershed near Dillon for fire- prevention treatment, following an analysis that identified specific areas of concern based on wildfire hazards and other risk factors, utility representatives said.

“There is a direct connection between healthy forests and sustainable supplies of clean water,” Denver Water spokeswoman Stacy Chesney stated. “We believe it is important to be proactive and invest in keeping our watershed healthy now, rather than paying for impacts from a catastrophic fire in the future.”

Denver Water has spent more than $26 million on recovery and restoration efforts following the 1996 Buffalo Creek fire and the 2002 Hayman fire, but is also partnering with the U.S. Forest Service to invest $33 million in protecting critical watersheds over the next five years, including 6,500 acres locally.

Dillon Reservoir holds nearly 40 percent of Denver’s water.

The legislation passed in the Senate Monday provides funding for emergency watershed protection program, which funds restoration projects for damaged drinking water infrastructure and eroded watersheds.

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