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Western US lawmakers push to protect watersheds from impacts of wildfires

A bipartisan team of lawmakers from Colorado and Utah are urging Congress to help safeguard the nation’s watersheds by considering a new bill aimed at expediting the cleanup of contamination caused by wildfires. 

The Watershed Protection and Forest Recovery Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah), would accelerate watershed recovery efforts on federal land, while also protecting private property and water resources downstream. 

Joining Bennet and Romney in supporting the legislation are Reps. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), Yadira Caraveo (D-Colo.), Celeste Maloy (R-Utah) and John Curtis (R-Utah). 

“We need to make it easier for local water managers and the U.S. Forest Service to collaborate to restore the health of our watersheds following a natural disaster,” Bennet said in a statement. 

Watershed recoveries from recent major wildfires, such as Colorado’s 2021 East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires, have faced major slowdowns because the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) existing Emergency Watershed Protection Program applies only to non-federal lands, the lawmakers explained.  

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the Burned Area Response Program, focus only on protecting federal assets, and neglect drinking water supplies downstream. 

The bipartisan legislation would therefore create a new Emergency Watershed Program — still within the USDA, but overseen by the U.S. Forest Service rather than the Natural Resources Conservation Service. 

Rather than only providing technical and financial assistance to local communities that are restoring watersheds on non-federal property, the program would also extend such aid to federal forest areas. 

The program would harness a dedicated funding source to rehabilitate resources located within U.S. Forest Service land, as well as those on private property downstream, in the aftermath of a wildfire, according to the lawmakers.

“Over the last several years in Utah, we have seen the need for a program to streamline the funding process that restores water resources on U.S. Forest Service land,” Romney said in a statement.  

The Utah senator cited “major obstacles” encountered following the Dollar Ridge Fire in 2018, when the Central Utah Water Conservancy District sought to repair its facilities. 

“I’m pleased to team up with my colleagues to introduce the Watershed Protection and Forest Recovery Act to help our communities more efficiently recover from wildfires,” Romney added.

In addition to revamping the Emergency Watershed Program, the bill would authorize specific measures — such as soil-erosion prevention, flood mitigation and runoff retardation — following the sudden impairment of resources on national forest land. 

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

The legislation would also expedite project timelines by reducing environmental reviews and requiring project leaders to complete recovery work within two years of a natural disaster’s conclusion.

“This common-sense bill cuts red tape and helps ensure that communities and landscapes recovering from wildfires don’t face unnecessary hurdles in their efforts to protect their drinking water,” Bennet said.

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