Lawmakers in the western United States advocate for measures to safeguard watersheds from the consequences of wildfires

A group of lawmakers from Colorado and Utah, representing both political parties, are coming together to call on Congress to take action in protecting the country’s watersheds. They are advocating for a new bill that focuses on accelerating the cleanup efforts of contamination caused by devastating wildfires.

The Watershed Protection and Forest Recovery Act, which is co-sponsored by Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah), aims to expedite the restoration of watersheds on federal land. Furthermore, this legislation seeks to safeguard private property and water resources downstream.

Supporting the legislation alongside Bennet and Romney are Representatives Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), Yadira Caraveo (D-Colo.), Celeste Maloy (R-Utah), and John Curtis (R-Utah).

According to a statement by Bennet, there is a need to facilitate better collaboration between local water managers and the U.S. Forest Service for the purpose of restoring the health of watersheds after a natural disaster.

Recovering watersheds after significant wildfires like Colorado’s 2021 East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires has encountered significant delays due to the limitations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) current Emergency Watershed Protection Program. This program is only applicable to non-federal lands, as explained by the lawmakers.

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In contrast, the Burned Area Response Program solely prioritizes the protection of federal assets, overlooking the critical aspect of safeguarding downstream drinking water supplies.

The proposed legislation aims to establish a fresh Emergency Watershed Program. This program, which falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service instead of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, will be housed within the USDA. The introduction of this bipartisan bill seeks to address and mitigate the challenges posed by emergency watershed situations effectively.

The program aims to expand its assistance beyond non-federal property, by providing technical and financial support to local communities involved in restoring watersheds within federal forest areas as well.

Lawmakers have proposed a program that aims to restore resources on U.S. Forest Service land and private property downstream after a wildfire. The program would utilize a dedicated funding source for this purpose.

“In Utah, we have recognized the need for a program that can simplify the funding process for restoring water resources on U.S. Forest Service land,” stated Romney.

Senator from Utah, Mike Lee, highlighted the challenges faced by the Central Utah Water Conservancy District in restoring its facilities after the Dollar Ridge Fire in 2018. He pointed out that there were significant obstacles that hindered the repair efforts.

“I am delighted to join forces with my colleagues in introducing the Watershed Protection and Forest Recovery Act, which aims to enhance our communities’ ability to recover swiftly from devastating wildfires,” Romney expressed his enthusiasm.

The bill not only aims to revamp the Emergency Watershed Program but also seeks to authorize specific measures for addressing issues such as soil erosion prevention, flood mitigation, and runoff retardation. These measures would be implemented in response to the sudden impairment of resources on national forest land.

According to the bill text, the U.S. Forest Service would be able to enter into agreements with tribes, states, local governments, water utilities, and water districts to implement such measures.

The proposed legislation aims to streamline project timelines by minimizing environmental reviews and mandating that project leaders finish restoration work within two years after the end of a natural disaster.

According to Bennet, this bill aims to simplify processes and support communities and landscapes that are recovering from wildfires. Its main goal is to remove unnecessary obstacles in their endeavors to safeguard their drinking water.

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