by Rick Langenberg:
Nothing can overcome partisan bickering like major success in securing much needed fire mitigation relief money. The only question now hinges on when the cash will arrive, and can the work get done in time to combat pending floods in the Ute Pass, originating inside the fire battered Waldo Canyon burn zone. Can relief efforts be mobilized in time? Or will area residents have to start building an Ark.
After an exhaustive campaign from local, state and national leaders to assist fire-torn zones in Colorado, including the Ute Pass, the region recently scored a major triumph with the passage of the Emergency Watershed Protection funds by Congress. And better yet, the monies didn’t get bogged down by the constant fiscal fight in Washington over shutting down the government, with the U.S. House of Representatives giving the okay to a continuing resolution that establishes $65.5 million for watershed recovery around the nation. The resolution was signed last week by President Obama.
Out of this money, about $17.6 million will help repair watersheds in the Waldo Canyon and High Park fire areas. This portion of the pot will be split evenly between both areas and the money can only be used for watershed restoration and flood erosion control work. It will be distributed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
More importantly, this is an issue that has united leaders from both parties. Colorado Democratic Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall were strongly supportive of the measure, along with Republican Congressman Cory Gardner.
A big player was El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, who lobbied hard for the money, comparing this to a “Hurricane Sandy” in the making. Clark made a number of trips to Washington D.C. in an aggressive effort to lobby for the emergency funds. And although the commissioner made frequent references to Hurricane Sandy, this disaster played a role in de-railing the Waldo Canyon relief project. Funding for Hurricane Sandy was initially supposed to include money for the Waldo Canyon burn scar. But when pressure grew to provide more money for Sandy victims, relief money for Colorado and other watershed areas got axed.
Clark and other leaders, though, refused to throw in the towel. In an earlier meeting in Green Mountain Falls, Clark expressed optimism that the funding situation would get worked out. “We are trying to do what we can. It’s a long process,” she told residents.
And throughout the fight, she stressed that the lower Ute Pass could find itself under water this summer if they don’t get more help from the feds. Residents at a recent public meeting were told to prepare for the worst and to start making evacuation plans, consider purchasing emergency power generators and plan for frequent Hwy. 24 closures. In fact, the reality of 10-year flood invasions ripping across the Ute Pass, which damaged the Ute Pass Elementary School playground last fall and nearby properties, could become regular occurrences.
The failure of these funds to get approved in the Sandy bill may have actually emerged as an eventual life savior. The issue commanded much attention in recent weeks, with Rocky Mountain area congressional leaders arguing that they were getting the short end of the stick. Plus, it didn’t hurt that President Obama visited the fire-torn area last summer.
Local officials still conceded that these designated funds, amounting to about $8.8 million, aren’t nearly enough to do the necessary work in the Waldo Canyon burn scar. The Coalition for the Upper South Platte has already enlisted more than 900 volunteers to help with the necessary work. Local business owners and operators are anxiously pulling for a prompt conclusion to efforts to combat potential floods. Many business leaders are optimistic about the summer of 2013, but only if Hwy. 24 remains open between Colorado Springs and Woodland Park.
On the downside, wildland fire management efforts emerged as one of the big losers of the package. About $400 million worth of proposed funds for fire suppression efforts were cut from the continuing resolution by Congress. This money would have gone to the cash-strapped U.S. Forest Service. This is a big blow for local leaders and emergency service workers, who are still quite worried that the 2013 fire season may be just as bad as last year.
Even with recent snow storms, the local area is still suffering from extremely dangerous drought conditions. Woodland Park has already initiated water restrictions to save its resources.