On Wednesday, two U.S. Senators, Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah), joined forces to request a review of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Watershed Protection Program. Bennet is the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry’s subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources.
Both Senators agree that the EWP is an essential tool for post-fire recovery in the West. Colorado and Utah recently received EWP funding following fires in 2018 that damaged watersheds and led to unprecedented evacuations. But attempting to use EWP funds to support recovery efforts can be complicated and burdensome for communities. They say that a review could help improve EWP to more effectively serve communities across the West, which now includes Chaffee, Fremont and Saguache counties, as they recover from devastating wildfires.
“While communities can implement a number of steps to reduce damage and mitigate risk following wildfires, these measures place an undue financial strain on property owners and state and local governments,” wrote the senators in their letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro. “Over the past few years in Colorado and Utah, post-fire flooding and erosion has caused millions of dollars in damage and required significant investments from state and local partners.”
Their letter went on to add: In recent years, wildfires have burned large areas of Colorado, Utah and other Western states. In the west, the risk extends beyond immediate damage to homes and communities. Watersheds in severely burned areas are more susceptible to flooding and erosion, which can threaten critical transportation infrastructure, wildlife habitats, and water resources.
Their request focused on several specific items they say need review, including:
- Approval processes under the program, including eligibility requirements that may limit entities such as water districts and ditch companies from qualifying for the program;
- Exigent project timelines and challenges, including opportunities to improve critical projects in rural areas;
- Opportunities to expand eligible projects, such as weather monitoring and alert systems to warn of post-fire floods;
- Agency and stakeholder views on program improvements to better meet the goals and intent of EWP.