by Rick Langenberg:
Ute Pass area residents may finally get some help from the feds in fending off potential floods and mud slides in the Waldo Canyon burn scar.
After an exhaustive campaign from local, state and national leaders to assist fire-torn zones in Colorado, including the Ute Pass, the U.S. Congress has taken the first step in approving nearly $20 million for mostly soil erosion work. A watershed protection package, totaling $48.2 million for Colorado and in nine other states, has been approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and is headed to the Senate.
If this pact gets the final congressional okay, it could amount to good news for Green Mountain Falls, Chipita Park and Cascade residents. They were recently told at a public meeting to prepare for the worst and to start making evacuation plans, consider purchasing emergency power generators and plan for frequent Hwy. 24 closures. Moreover, the future scenario for the Waldo Canyon fire area doesen’t look promising, with the reality of 10-year flood invasions ripping across the Ute Pass this summer and turning into regular occurrences. Plus, the residents were informed that the fallout from Hurricane Sandy left the area out of the funding loop. Initially, these funds were part of a Hurricane Sandy relief package, but were pulled out of the package at the 11th hour, when a furor erupted over the Sandy assistance situation in New Jersey and New York City. But apparently considerable pressure for leaders in the region and from our federal representatives has paid off. El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, who recently addressed residents at a forum in Green Mountain Falls, has referred to this pending threat as Colorado’s version of “Hurricane Sandy.” “We have a hurricane waiting to happen if don’t do anything to protect the watershed,” she added.
Clark stressed the critical importance of protecting watershed areas, especially with a region so close to a major thoroughfare. “It is about these small communities being impacted. All of us are working together,” said Clark, when addressing local residents recently. Moreover, this is one issue in which Republicans and Democrats have both endorsed. Democratic Senators Michael Bennett and Mark Udall have lobbied hard for these relief monies. Bennet visited the region recently and blasted his colleagues on the Hill, referring to the delays in help as “political games in Washington.” The effort also has an ally with President Obama, who toured the region last summer.
The money, amounting to an estimated $17 million, would be used to prevent mudslides, erosion and floods in the burn sections of the Waldo Canyon and High Park fire area. Specifically, it would protect lands through soil retention pods, tree removal, mulch and special seeding work. Local officials concede that these funds still aren’t enough to do the necessary prevention work, but say this will definitely help. Also, it’s not sure that with the current timing of this legislation, if it will help the region in time to prevent disasters this summer.
The Coalition for the Upper South Platte is currently doing a study on how to mitigate the scar area and has already enlisted more than 900 volunteers to help with Waldo Canyon relief efforts. Another important part of the relief package includes $500 million to the U.S. Forest Service for its wildland fire management fund. Indirectly, this could reap major benefits for Teller County and the lower Ute Pass.
Even with last weekend’s snowstorm, the local area is still suffering from extremely dangerous drought conditions. According to Carol Ekarius, executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, the current fire conditions are more dangerous than the 2012 season, which were described as the most threatening from a fire prospective in 10 years. With the Springer and Waldo Canyon fire blazes last summer, more than 10,000 residents in the area were either evacuated from their homes or put on a stand-by alert status.
But unless the region has an extremely moist March, emergency service authorities say this summer could be worse than 2012.