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Bennet calls for money for Colorado's burned watersheds

By: RYAN MAYE HANDY
February 22, 2013
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photo - A rainstorm last summer in the Waldo Canyon burn area caused this mudslide on Highway 24. Photo by The Gazette file
A rainstorm last summer in the Waldo Canyon burn area caused this mudslide on Highway 24. Photo by The Gazette file 

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet stood in the snow on the Waldo Canyon burn scar on Friday and condemned the "political games in Washington" that he claims forestalled efforts to fund restoration of wildfire-impacted areas throughout the west.

Bennet's brief appearance in Colorado Springs alongside Mayor Steve Bach was yet another call for action in El Paso County, which had stood to gain the $20 million necessary to repair fire damage to watersheds. Federal funding that could have assisted counties across the state with similar work was cut from a relief bill targeted at Superstorm Sandy. Democratic senators Bennet and Mark Udall, along with a push from El Paso County politicians, have been fighting to get the funding provision restored.

On Friday, Bennet and Bach were taken on a short tour of a Wolfe Ranch property, off Flying W Ranch Road, a project managed by the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, or CUSP, a non-profit organization that specialize in wildfire restoration and flood mitigation. Carol Ekarius showed the mayor and senator a tiered system of catchment basins in the Wolfe Ranch drainage area that are meant to reduce the sediment and volume of rushing flood waters.

It won't take much rainfall to precipitate a large-scale flood, Ekarius explained. With the burned, hydrophobic soil, a 10-year flood event could become a 100-year flood event.

As Ekarius explained the catchment basin system, a group of AmeriCorps workers sawed through blackened trees, removing loose or dangerous limbs from the charred canopies. They stood on the sidelines and listened to Bennet talk, wearing soot-covered chainsaw chaps and their faces buried under layers of clothing. They are four weeks into an eight-week project managed by CUSP.

Bennet intends to remind the nation of the state of emergency in Colorado, he said, which has since been eclipsed by the disaster of Hurricane Sandy.

After the devastating Waldo Canyon fire, local politicians such as El Paso County Comissioner Sallie Clark, who joined the senator at Wolfe Ranch, are dreading the floods that spring and summer rains might bring.

"It was not a hurricane," Clark said of the fire. "But it will be our hurricane."

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