Emergency funding needed for Colo. watersheds in scorched areas
Written bySCOTT STREATER, Greenwire
Colorado politicians continue to press the Obama administration for more federal help in dealing with the worst wildfire season in the state's history.
Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet want the Senate Appropriations Committee to make an "emergency supplemental appropriation" to prop up an underfunded federal program that works to address runoff and soil erosion prevention to safeguard lives and property in the wake of wildfires -- a critical need in the state.
In a three-paragraph letter sent yesterday to Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), the senators said the Agriculture Department's underfunded Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program is preventing Colorado from receiving badly needed money to help stabilize scorched soils in the wake of the summer's wildfires that killed six, burned hundreds of thousands of acres and destroyed at least 650 homes.
Udall and Bennet wrote that USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Colorado estimated last week that the state's watershed protection and soil stabilization needs could reach $25 million.
"To compound the problem, we understand that the Colorado need has been added to a wait list for EWP requests totaling nearly $100 million nationwide," they wrote. "However, the current account balance for EWP is approximately $10 million for the entire country -- a shortfall of nearly $90 million."
Udall and Bennet did not ask in the letter for the Appropriations Committee to fund the entire $90 million shortfall, nor did they ask for a specific appropriation amount. A spokeswoman in Bennet's office could not provide an appropriation amount.
It's also not clear whether USDA considers the budget shortfall critical; a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which oversees the EWP program, did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
But the latest funding request again highlights the apparent frustration of Colorado's leaders with federal funding levels since President Obama in June declared the state a federal disaster area in the wake of the Waldo Canyon blaze in Colorado Springs and the High Park wildfire near Fort Collins. The two blazes burned more than 100,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes, though there have been other wildfires in the state -- including the Last Chance fire in Washington County and the Woodland Heights fire in Larimer County -- that were burning at the same time and that also caused extensive damage.
Colorado's congressional delegation last month sent a letter to Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate, signed by all nine members of the delegation, asking the administration to expand federal disaster relief efforts to include assistance to individual homeowners and businesses affected by the wildfires (E&ENews PM, July 20).
The delegation's letter asked Fugate to expand Obama's disaster declaration to include "FEMA Individual Assistance Programs" that would make housing support and other financial assistance available to affected families and businesses.
Along those lines, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) last week sent a detailed letter to President Obama asking him to broaden his original federal disaster relief declaration in the state to include funding streams to rebuild homes, roads and other damaged infrastructure (E&ENews PM, Aug. 2).
Hickenlooper also asked the president to add Larimer and Washington counties to the federal disaster list, writing that with "the current declaration, as it exists today, only a select handful of local governments and private non-profits will receive benefit of reimbursements and only in limited amounts. Most of the identified needs remain unmet and Colorado communities will be unable to fully recover without additional federal assistance."
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, accompanied by members of the multiagency Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team, visited Colorado Springs last month to inspect damage caused by the Waldo Canyon fire. The BAER team assessed, among other things, the potential dangers of burned soils and vegetation, including flash flooding and water quality problems caused by fire debris flowing into creeks and rivers.
During that visit, Salazar and BAER team representatives expressed concerns about debris from burned areas flowing into waterways used for drinking water, and Salazar said the federal government recognized that "there's still a lot of work to be done" (Greenwire, July 10).
Now, it's up to Congress to fund the federal programs that can help prevent runoff damage in fire-scorched areas, Udall and Bennet wrote.
"Chairmen Inouye, Ranking Member Cochran," they wrote, "we respectfully request that the Senate appropriations committee move to consider an emergency supplemental appropriations measure at the earliest practicable date to address this growing problem."