Here’s the release from Senator Bennet’s office:
Today, U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry’s Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources, and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP).
The EWP is an important tool for post-fire recovery in the West. Recently, Colorado and Utah received EWP funding following fires in 2018 that damaged watersheds and led to unprecedented evacuations. However, communities often face hurdles and added burden when attempting to use EWP to support recovery efforts. A GAO review would help improve EWP to more effectively serve communities across the West 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 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.”
The Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) administers the EWP to reduce financial strain and help communities address imminent threats following a wildfire. Despite the valuable assistance these funds have provided, concerns remain with the implementation of EWP, including its eligibility requirements and approval processes.
“While the funding has helped some of these communities recover, there is concern with how NRCS approves and completes projects, and other hurdles that communities face in the process of receiving EWP funds,” wrote the senators. “Therefore, we request the GAO conduct a review of the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, specifically its implementation and effectiveness in helping communities in the aftermath of damaging wildfires.”
Bennet and Romney requested that the GAO focus on a number of specific items, 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 exigent 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.
In his role as Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry’s Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources, Bennet has led efforts to help Colorado and other Western states improve forest and watershed health and recover from wildfires. Bennet secured $19 million in EWP funding in 2013 to assist recovery from the Waldo Canyon and High Park fires, $57 million in EWP funds in 2015 for conservation work following the September 2013 floods, $10.2 million in EWP funds in 2016 to help restore watersheds in El Paso County, and $20.2 million in 2018 to help with wildfire recovery efforts in La Plata, Huerfano, Costilla, and Eagle counties.
The full text of the letter is available HERE.