Burn scars left behind by the historic Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires are among areas of Colorado most in need of federal funding for restoration projects to protect water quality, prevent flash floods and mudslides, experts say.
Plus millions of acres of forest across the state need to be cleared of dead and dying foliage to prevent new wildfires or at least stop them from growing so large.
The federal bipartisan infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law last month set aside just under $3 billion for watershed restoration projects and wildfire mitigation work. But however much of that comes to Colorado, which U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse estimates will be “tens of millions,” won’t be enough. No additional money is guaranteed either, after West Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin said on Sunday that he won’t support Biden’s $2.2 trillion climate, tax and spending plan, the Build Back Better Act.
The Cameron Peak and East Troublesome burn scars sit top of mind for Neguse and many other state and local officials who recall the grim 2020 season that sparked the two largest wildfires in Colorado’s history. Estimates to restore those two areas alone range as high as $150 million. Mitigation and restoration work across the rest of the state would cost billions.
“The scale and scope of the need is breathtaking,” Neguse said. “We have long unmet needs here in our community and if we don’t address them now, we’re likely to reap the consequences for years to come.”
That means more massive wildfires, Justin Kirkland, Gypsum Fire Protection District chief, said. And more flash floods like the deadly one that flowed through Fort Collins in July and more mudslides like those that forced officials to close Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon later in the summer.
“We’re seeing different fires. First they called them ‘large fires,’ now they’re called ‘megafires.’ They just keep getting bigger and bigger,” Kirkland said. “Unless we change what we’re doing it’s going to get worse and worse.”
Mitigating and preventing wildfires
Year after year, Colorado is seeing drier conditions and more people are moving into or near the wilderness, said Kirkland, whose fire district covers 455 square miles from the Eagle County Regional Airport west toward Glenwood Springs.
Not only are wildfires inevitable but population shifts mean more people and their homes are at risk.
“Ground moisture is just so dry, fuel moisture is just so dry, we don’t have much ground cover,” Kirkland said. Forests in the district, bisected by Interstate 70, are “just ready for a fire.”
“That makes us very nervous,” Kirkland said.
His crew consists of eight full-time staffers, nine part-timers and an annual budget of $1.7 million. Kirkland said he used to have a roster of 30 volunteers but now that’s down to 11.
They can’t afford to cover wildfires as extensively as they could in the past.
“It all costs money,” Kirkland said. “Every person we call, every aircraft. None of it’s free.”
The more cost-effective way to fight wildfires is to invest in mitigation and prevention work, he said. Crews can remove dead and dying trees, thin forests and build fire breaks. But the Gypsum fire district can’t afford to do that work alone so they must partner with other government agencies, private organizations and nonprofits.
Much of the state’s wildfire risk sits on federal forest lands, according to Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. About 65% of the state’s forests belong to the federal government, the state Forest Service estimates.
The risk is also substantial along the Front Range, said U.S. Rep. Jason Crow.
“Tens of thousands of homes and dozens of communities have grown into high fire risk areas in the foothills and mountains,” Crow said.
In all, about 2.4 million acres of forest are “in urgent need of treatment to address forest health, wildfire risk and watershed protection threats,” the 2020 Colorado Forest Action Plan notes.
Watershed management and restoring burn scars
While there’s prevention and mitigation work to be done on the front end, widespread restoration work is needed along watersheds already scorched by wildfires, Gibbs said.
Wildfires actually burn the ground itself, torching all the organic material around so all that’s left is an ash-laden “powdery dust,” Adam Jokerst, Greeley’s deputy director for water resources, said. Nothing remains to absorb rain or snowfall, which then leads to flash floods and mudslides.
People also can’t drink that water, Jokerst said. Nor can Greeley, which supplies water to about 150,000 people, treat it at its Bellvue Water Treatment Plant northwest of Fort Collins.
“All that sediment comes down into the river and it turns the water jet black,” Jokerst said. “Picture ‘Pennzoil.’ That’s what it looks like. Black oil.”
While water from Greeley’s main water source, the Cache la Poudre River, was undrinkable, Jokerst said the city was able to take water from its Horsetooth Reservoir and a treatment plant in Loveland. But that’s expensive and as wildfires continue to surge across the state, those supplemental options shrink.
“It’s inevitable that these types of fires are going to increase the cost of water,” Jokerst said.
To restore burn scars, crews can drop heavy wood mulch by helicopter, install long tubes of straw called wattles on slopes and other blocks in streams and channels to catch sediment, Jokerst said.
“We need roots in the soil, that’s the only thing that’s going to stop the erosion of a watershed in the long run,” he said.
And that work takes time, Gibbs added, noting that utilities like Denver Water pay millions each year to restore decades-old burn scars. He mentioned the Buffalo Creek fire, which burned through nearly 12,000 acres southwest of Denver.
“If you’re a mountain biker and you go out there right now, it does not look like it did in 1990,” Gibbs said. “They’ve seen very little revegetation.”
For context, the East Troublesome fire burned nearly 194,000 acres in Grand County and Rocky Mountain National Park. The Cameron Peak fire burned nearly 209,000 acres in the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests, Rocky Mountain National Park and Larimer and Jackson counties.
Gibbs noted that the Grizzly Creek fire scar, spanning more than 32,000 acres east of Glenwood Springs, must also be restored.
Finding money for mitigation and restoration
Some state funds are available for the prevention, mitigation and restoration work. And more became available from bills passed by the legislature this year than ever before, Gibbs said.
Senate Bill 2040 earmarked $30 million for watershed restoration and Senate Bill 258 set aside $29.9 million this year and $1.8 million next year for wildfire mitigation.
But that’s not much relative to the need, which the state forest plan estimates is about $4.2 billion.
Restoring the East Troublesome scar alone will cost an estimated $50 million, Gibbs said. For the Cameron Peak scar that number’s closer to $70 million (Neguse and Jokerst estimated $100 million).
More money is on the way from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but nobody knows how much. Neguse acknowledged that his estimate of tens of millions allows for a wide range of possibilities.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for allocating the money and officials there said it’s too early to say how much states will receive.
Angela Boag, with the state Department of Natural Resources, said once the USDA finalizes its allocations some money will come to the DNR to dole out, some will be handed out directly by the federal government.
Understanding the funding mechanisms alone is complicated, said Boag, who works as deputy director for climate, forest health and energy. She expressed frustration that months likely remain before state officials will understand how much money they can expect.
However much money does come to Colorado, it’ll fall short, Jokerst said. Just this year, crews dropped mulch from helicopters over more than 6,000 acres of the Cameron Peak scar, less than 3% of the total area. All told, the work cost about $18 million, broken into about $87 per minute, per helicopter, he said.
“It goes quickly,” Jokerst said.
Plus, there are added complications.
Neguse said a $300 million chunk in the bipartisan infrastructure bill is earmarked for watershed protection but it can’t be spent on federal lands. Neguse wrote to USDA officials asking for more flexibility with that money, but so far told The Denver Post he hasn’t yet heard back.
Colorado’s U.S. representatives Jason Crow, Ed Perlmutter, Diana DeGette and senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper also signed that letter.
Money from the bipartisan bill amounts to a downpayment for the country’s forests and watersheds, Neguse said. But it doesn’t offer ongoing funding. For that, he pointed to the Build Back Better Act, which includes $27 billion for more mitigation and restoration work.
In light of Manchin’s opposition to Build Back Better, though, Crow said the bill’s future is uncertain and more negotiations are needed in the coming weeks. If Congress can’t pass the measure in its entirety, he said perhaps different parts of it could be pulled out and passed individually.
“We just don’t know right now,” Crow said. “It’s a week-by-week situation.”
Crow pointed to Congressional Republicans who have consistently voted against these types of funding mechanisms. U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, whose sprawling Western Slope district includes much of Colorado’s at-risk forests, voted against the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act.
Crow called Boebert’s opposition to those measures “quizzical.” Representatives for Boebert did not reply to a message seeking comment.
Consistent funding for mitigation and restoration work would not only make Colorado safer but it would also create jobs and pump money into the state’s economy, Crow said. And without that investment, the state will inevitably see more of the same devastation that has swept through in recent years.
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