A national struggle to get Colorado millions of federal dollars for watershed recovery could end Monday with a much-anticipated U.S. Senate vote.
Colorado politicians and land management officials have fought since the end of 2012 for Emergency Watershed Protection Program money, which lawmakers first cut then reintroduced into Senate and House bills. The Senate’s Monday vote could all but guarantee El Paso and Larimer counties much needed millions to rehabilitate watersheds damaged by wildfire.
For El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, who spent months calling attention to the county’s endangered watersheds, the vote would be a decided victory. But, the watershed protection money won’t be a cure-all, and won’t help complete all of the work left to do in burn area, according to the Colorado branch of the National Resource Conservation Service. The $8.7 million set aside for El Paso County is for erosion and flood control, said John Andrews of the NRCS in Denver.
“There are many more dollars than that needed to deal with the effects of the fire, besides erosion and flooding,” and only a small set of issues would be covered by the money, Andrews added.
FLOOD RISK HIGH
It won’t take much rain to generate damaging flash floods, after the Waldo Canyon fire denuded more than 18,000 forest acres that dump into canyons, creeks and drainages.
The water and mud from the blackened land could course down the mountainsides and into places like Mountain Shadows and Manitou Springs.
The Waldo Canyon fire damaged a water backup pipeline that serves Colorado Springs Utilities, and water quality remains a major concern for Greeley and Fort Collins, both near the High Park fire burn scar.
Last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied the state’s requests for money to help with erosion control and flood damage repair. Until now, rehabilitation of Colorado’s lands has been mostly funded by state grants.
Colorado officials saw an opportunity for some federal financial relief this fall when a bill was introduced that would have allowed states to access offered watershed protection money through the Emergency Watershed Protection program. The program supplies money to states with major disaster declarations to mitigate flood and erosion.
The bill specifically targeted areas damaged in October by Hurricane Sandy, but would have made some $125 million available to states like Colorado and Utah.
But watershed protection money was cut from the bill, and Colorado Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet launched campaigns to re-introduce a resolution in Congress to give states like Colorado access to the Emergency Watershed Protection pot.
In mid-March, the House approved $48.2 million for watershed protection and erosion control, and the Senate’s Monday vote could set aside at least $65.5 million in a continuing resolution to fund the federal government through end of the fiscal year.
COLORADO COMPETES FOR CASH
For Colorado, the Monday vote could be a victory with many strings attached.
The Senate’s final resolution to set aside $65.5 million is significantly short of the original $125 million.
Colorado has requested $17.6 million of the final pot — but Colorado could have to compete with 18 other states that have also applied for money to restore watershed damage, Andrews said. Money will go to the states with greatest need — namely those with the most crucial projects, Andrews said. If Colorado gets the $17.6 million, then $8.9 million will go to Larimer County, for the High Park fire, and $8.7 will go to El Paso County and Colorado Springs.
Although Colorado’s request for money was the largest of the 18 states, there is a chance that it will still have to compete with states like New York to get cash from the federal government.
“There are a number of states with presidentially declared disasters that are currently unfunded. If the appropriation is not a lot — they will be competing,” Andrews said. But in terms of need, Colorado has a good case, he added. “I am confident that Colorado projects rank very high.”
The final amount will be decided by a conference committee, during which the Senate and House will have to reconcile their budget proposals. After the committee meets, President Barack Obama will have to approve everything. It could take weeks or longer for the money to get into the hands of Colorado’s officials.
CASH A DOWN PAYMENT
For Clark and other members of the county’s Regional Recovery Group who are prioritizing projects, challenges will abound once the EWP funds are theirs.
Officials from the city of Colorado Springs as well as the county have been studying the culverts across the Pikes Peak Region. They will have to decide where to place their $8.7 million once they’ve got it. As a condition of receiving the money, local officials will also have to come up with a plan to match 25 percent of it, Clark said.
Williams Canyon, which could channel water and heavy debris into Manitou Springs, is a particular concern for Clark. The charred Flying W Ranch acreage also needs a system of ponds to hold back water and debris flow that could impact South and North Douglas Creek.
The money won’t buy forest restoration projects, like burned tree removal Andrews said.
“That’s a very important need, but we don’t have the authority to pay for it under out (EWP) program,” he said.
NRCS also wants to speed up forest recovery by reseeding the hillsides — a project that can’t be funded by EWP money unless the group can tie it to flood prevention.
“I think it would be a mistake to let the community believe that this $8.7 million is all that needs to be done and that it will save everything,” he said.