To help watersheds recover quickly from catastrophic wildfires, federal and state funds need to be available continuously, rather than on an as-needed basis, and water districts and local governments need to be shielded from the liability that normally comes when working with federal wildfire recovery programs, according to a new report.
The draft report, 2020 Post-Fire Watershed Restoration: Lessons Learned, was presented two weeks ago at the annual convention of the Colorado Water Congress in Aurora. It focused on the post-fire recovery response to the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires in 2020. The fires are the largest in Colorado history and engulfed Northern Water’s system in Rocky Mountain National Park as well as water systems that serve Fort Collins, Larimer County and the city of Greeley. Those systems deliver water to more than 1 million people on the northern Front Range and help irrigate hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland.
“Having predictable annual funding for wildfire recovery is urgent because these events are going to happen,” said Esther Vincent, who led the report team and who serves as director of environmental services at Northern Water.
After the two fires were contained, local communities and water districts began working quickly using funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program. But that federal fund is replenished on an as-needed basis and is used by all 50 states when disasters occur. When it runs out, as it sometimes does, it can take years for Congress to approve more cash.
“Waiting until there is enough political will is an inefficient way to fund the EWP Program,” said Sean Chambers, who also served on the report team and who is the director of water and sewer utilities for the City of Greely. Greeley coordinated much of the recovery work on the Cameron Peak Fire.
“When we started recovering from Cameron Peak there was money available and we were able to start immediately addressing some high-risk slope stability issues on tributaries, around reservoirs, on private property. But then we ran out of money,” Chambers said.
More money was found in the EWP Program by asking other states to turn over unused funds, but it took months during a critical time window when the watershed restoration teams only had a few weeks to work before the burn scars were covered with snow and became inaccessible, Chambers said.
Another issue that hampered the immediate post-fire recovery effort is the liability that must be assumed by those who partner with key federal programs that provide funding, including the EWP Program.
Northern’s Vincent said the Northern Water Board was deeply concerned about assuming the liability, which requires local partners to assume full financial responsibility for the work, which can cost millions of dollars. But ultimately the board agreed to do so.
As a result, the report recommends that Congress remove the liability requirement from its disaster contracts and also suggests that a new insurance pool be created to limit the liability of restoration partners, according to Peggy Montaño, an attorney who serves as Northern’s legal counsel and who also served on the report team.
Todd Bolt is the state coordinator of the EWP Program and a member of the work group that wrote the report. He declined to comment on the federal funding and liability recommendations, but he said the report was “eye-opening.”
“It brought a lot of people together who have first-hand experience, state, federal, local. And it has opened everybody’s eyes that there are things we can do better with the post-fire effort in Colorado,” Bolt said.
Two additional recommendations that the report makes are to streamline data collection and modeling analyses and to refine them so that they can be used to make decisions faster. The second is to have “local navigators,” who are trained and ready to help immediately after a fire.
More than a half dozen agencies can be on the ground post-fire, gathering data and trying to understand what might happen with rain storms, sediment loads and debris flows. But agencies often use different parameters for collecting the data they use in their modeling. Some, for instance, might use only the burn area itself for modeling, when a broader watershed boundary is needed to understand what’s happening on streams above and below the burn scar.
Northern’s Vincent said there were so many different modeling and data collection efforts underway that it made it difficult to know which would be the best to use.
“Bringing all of this information together and digesting it when you are the practitioner on the ground and you have to make decisions about what these models mean and what mitigation strategies are going to work is difficult. We were swimming in this downpour of modeling outputs, with little guidance and understanding of ‘OK this is where we have a problem. This is where we need to take action and do mitigation.’”
Bolt said that a “local navigator” program would specialize in connecting local residents and local governments with the resources they need to begin restoration work post-fire.
“Someone who could lead them through the process would be helpful,” he said.
Looking ahead, report authors plan to share their findings with lawmakers and others who are working on protecting Colorado from the wildfires they say are sure to come.
“No matter how successful we are with forest management and helping our watersheds be more resilient, it is going to take a long time to do the projects that need to occur at a landscape scale,” Vincent said. “We are still going to have devastating, large-scale megafires. We need to focus on paths to being prepared and getting better at the post-fire recovery process.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.