GUEST COLUMN: Watershed funding is crucial to protecting state’s property, lives

By: Michael Bennet
March 9, 2013

Colorado, like many other states across the country, endured one of the hottest and driest years on record in 2012.

The drought, combined with the summer’s heat, created a very dangerous situation for communities throughout our state. Our forests became a tinderbox, resulting in some of the most devastating wildfires we’ve experienced. The Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs and the High Park fire in northern Colorado were the first and second most destructive fires in the history of our state. Combined with over a dozen other fires that raged in Colorado this past summer, they scorched hundreds of thousands of acres, destroyed hundreds of homes, caused millions of dollars in damage, and tragically resulted in the loss of several lives.

Now, these communities are going through the difficult process of picking up the pieces and putting their lives back together. It’s this resilience that epitomizes Coloradans. Like so many Americans who have been forced to recover from a natural disaster, we’re rebuilding homes, repairing infrastructure, and restoring land.

We’ve come a long way, but there is still work to be done.

When disasters like these occur, our country has a strong tradition of coming together to aid communities in need. Last December, the Senate followed that tradition when it passed a bill that would have provided assistance to the victims of Hurricane Sandy and other disasters, like the Colorado wildfires.

That bill, which received bipartisan support, included funding for the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program that would have helped Coloradans restore damaged drinking water infrastructure and eroded watersheds in Colorado Springs and northern Colorado.

The damage from last year’s wildfires has increased the risk of flash flooding and road washouts, and compromised clean drinking water supplies. These critical resources would be used to clear debris-clogged stream channels, rebuild unstable riverbanks, and fix jeopardized water control structures and other infrastructure that was damaged in the fires.

Both Republicans and Democrats from Colorado’s Congressional delegation supported the EWP resources.

Unfortunately, the House of Representatives ultimately removed this critical funding and passed a bill that excluded resources for Colorado wildfire recovery.

This was another case where Washington’s inability to act in real time is absolutely penny-wise and pound-foolish. Making these investments now will actually save us millions of dollars in unnecessary costs in the long term.

Although we don’t have the snow pack we wish we had, the spring snow melt will cause these hillsides to wash into our streams if we don’t do something now. The effect on our water systems and producers could be very significant. It’s yet another case where Washington is playing games instead of focusing on what’s going on at home.

It seems that the House has finally heard the message from Colorado. Just this week, the House passed a bill to fund the government for the rest of the year that includes $48 million in EWP funding. These resources will help protect personal property and save lives. Our state’s delegation has worked together in this fight we and will continue to make Colorado’s case to Congress and the Administration until this funding is made available to Colorado.

Michael F. Bennet is a United States senator from Colorado.

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