Bennet, Romney, Neguse, Maloy, Caraveo, Curtis Introduce Bill to Protect Communities’ Water Resources After Wildfires in National Forests

Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) alongside U.S. Representatives Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), Celeste Maloy (R-Utah), Yadira Caraveo (D-Colo.), and John Curtis (R-Utah) introduced the Watershed Protection and Forest Recovery Act to help communities and water users protect their water supply after natural disasters on U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lands. The legislation would create a new Emergency Forest Watershed Program (EFWP) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to streamline recovery efforts and protect life, private property, and water resources downstream of America’s national forests.  

“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,” said Bennet. “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.”

“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. This was evidenced during recovery efforts from the Dollar Ridge Fire in 2018 when the Central Utah Water Conservancy District faced major obstacles in repairing 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,” said Romney.

“Across the West, our communities continue to grapple with devastating wildfires,” said Neguse. “These wildfires put watersheds and the drinking water supplies for many of our communities at risk. Our bill, the Watershed Protection and Forest Recovery Act, aims to ensure that critical federal resources are available to assist communities address these watershed risks in the aftermath of catastrophic wildfires.”

“Wildfires threaten Utah communities and their water supply every year,” said Maloy. “A new Emergency Forest Watershed Program will be instrumental in protecting Utah’s private property and our water resources on U.S. Forest Service lands following such natural disasters. I’m proud to sponsor this bill in the House to help mitigate those damage and recovery costs moving forward.”

“Protecting our watersheds is a commitment to safeguarding the very existence of our communities in Colorado. Unfortunately, wildfires, rainfall and changing climate are threatening the stability of the water in our state,” said Caraveo. “I am glad to co-lead the Watershed Protection and Forest Recovery Act to help in the restoration and protection of the natural resources that provide drinking water for communities like the city of Greeley, and surrounding communities in Northern Colorado I am proud to represent.”

"In the face of devastating wildfires across the West, it's clear we need a unified approach to protect our vital water resources,” said Curtis. “The Watershed Protection and Forest Recovery Act bridges critical gaps, ensuring swift, effective recovery efforts for our national forests and safeguarding the water supply for communities downstream. I'm proud to support this essential legislation, reinforcing our commitment to the health of our watersheds and the safety of Utahns."

Following devastating wildfires across the American West like the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires in Colorado, water providers have encountered bureaucratic obstacles that limit their ability to protect the drinking water supply for communities downstream from the fire. Because the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Emergency Watershed Program (EWP) was designed to help non-federal lands recover and the USFS Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Program focuses on the protection of Federal assets, drinking water supplies for communities downstream of National Forests are left at risk after a natural disaster. The Watershed Protection and Forest Recovery Act is designed to fill this gap.

Specifically, the bill would:

  • Create the Emergency Forest Watershed Program and authorize watershed recovery protection measures to protect downstream private property and water resources following natural disasters on USFS lands;
  • Allow Tribes, States, local governments, and water providers to enter into agreements with USFS to implement watershed recovery protection measures;
  • Speed up project timelines and require recovery project to be completed within two years after the conclusion of a natural disaster; and
  • Fully fund projects on federal lands by waiving matching requirements.

“Senator Bennet’s bill shows visionary leadership in addressing urgent watershed restoration needs on National Forest after events like the 2020 East Troublesome Fire,” said Brad Wind, General Manager, Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “The ongoing damage to watersheds and the threat to drinking water for millions highlight the critical nature of this initiative. Bennet’s dedication to fire recovery is commendable, and this new authority is vital for future wildfire recovery, stressing collaborative efforts across governments and partners to protect our communities and resources.”

"The 2020 Cameron Peak Fire burned over 208,000 acres across the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest and spanned three watersheds. Securing funding for the immediate recovery needs was challenging because the majority of the burn was on federal land, and the existing Emergency Watershed Protection Program is limited to use on private lands. After a severe wildfire, post-fire changes to hydrology and sediment delivery put many watershed values at risk- thus it is important to implement projects quickly and efficiently 1-2 years post-fire,” said Hally Strevey, Executive Director, Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed. “The Watershed Protection and Forest Recovery Act comes at a critical time as many of our western watersheds at risk for severe wildfire are comprised largely of federal land. The Emergency Forest Watershed Program would ensure available funding to address priority post-fire projects on federal land to restore key watershed functions, improve water quality, and reduce risks to life and safety." 

“The City of Fort Collins is grateful for and supportive of this needed solution to fix gaps and unnecessary delays in post-fire treatment on Forest Service land that directly impacts the health of our region’s watershed,” said Kelly DiMartino, City Manager, City of Fort Collins.

??“Quick access to emergency funds to protect the Glenwood Springs watershed following the Grizzly Creek Fire was vital to our community’s ability to continue providing clean, safe and reliable water to our residents,” said Ingrid Wussow, Mayor, City of Glenwood Springs. “Water is connected, and emergency incidents rarely conform to jurisdictional boundaries. These funds will cover gaps in Colorado’s emergency recovery capabilities and prepare our communities for greater resiliency following natural disasters.”

“We are pleased to see new bipartisan legislation that helps Western communities recover watersheds impaired by wildfire,” said John Gates, Mayor, City of Greeley. “The City of Greeley continues to work with State and Federal partners to recovery from the destructive Cameron Peak Fire to protect the water supply and water quality that are essential to a high quality of life in our community. This bill will empower communities across the West to be post fire stewards and partner with federal agencies in the recovery of our watersheds after wildfire.”

“Snow and rain falling on National Forests provide clean drinking water for millions of people, yet these forests are increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires. When a rainstorm hits a burn scar, debris flows can foul drinking water sources and inflict immense property damage downstream. Quick action to reduce erosion and slow runoff is important to reduce these risks and protect our communities. The Watershed Protection and Recovery Act will streamline the mobilization of resources to do just that,” said Matt Rice, Southwest Region Director, American Rivers.  

“Protection of our watersheds and forest resources following natural disasters is best achieved through an all-lands approach,” said Scott Phillips, President, National Association of State Foresters. “The Watershed Protection and Forest Recovery Act will provide expeditious restoration and recovery of watershed resources on National Forest System lands following natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes that can have devastating impacts on these resources and downstream communities. We applaud Senator Bennet and Representative Neguse for introducing this legislation to create essential safeguards for forest health and forest-related resources within watersheds on our national forests.”  

The text of the bill is available HERE. A summary of the bill is available HERE.