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Experts call on federal government to mitigate drought, wildfires

Sen. Bennet says there’s a ‘five-alarm crisis for the American West’
The remains of a home left after a wildfire spread through the Village of Ruidoso, N.M., on April 13. (Alexander Meditz via Associated Press)

Agriculture, water and land experts urged the federal government to take decisive action on drought, wildfires and the climate crisis in the western United States on Wednesday at a U.S. Senate hearing.

The hearing was held by the Senate Subcommittee on Conservation, Climate, Forestry and Natural Resources and was chaired by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. It included testimony from experts from Colorado and Kansas about water conservation, agriculture and climate issues.

The hearing focused on finding solutions to persistent drought and creating resilience for issues facing forests and farmlands in western states such as Colorado. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, almost all of Colorado is at least abnormally dry, with parts of the state falling into severe, extreme or exceptional drought categories. The drought affects the water supply of the Colorado River, which provides water to 40 million people.

“We’re the first link in an immense chain vital to the health and future of the single most important natural resource in the American Southwest. The Colorado River is aptly referred to as the hardest working river in America” said Andy Mueller during the hearing. Mueller is the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

Mueller stressed the importance of the federal government taking action as the effects of climate change worsen in the region. As temperatures rise, the system of water that Mueller called “highly functioning” is in danger of failing, with only 34% of storage in the water system remaining.

Conservation group American Rivers ranked the Colorado River as the most endangered in the country in its 2022 list of most endangered rivers in the country. With climate change intensifying across the West, Colorado is more vulnerable to destruction from climate change because of its dry conditions.

“There’s a direct causal relationship between rising temperatures and the volume of water flowing in the Colorado River,” Mueller said.

Courtesy of U.S. Drought Monitor
Dry dirt can be found in abundance across Southwest Colorado, including on farms and ranches. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Courtney Schultz, an associate professor of forest and rangeland stewardship at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, said droughts make the entire state more susceptible to large-scale destruction. By 2050, drought is projected to cost the state $500 million in agricultural damages and reduce water availability to municipal and agricultural users, Schultz said. The increase in frequency and severity of wildfires is also a concern, she said, as are the mudslides and debris flows that can result from heavy rains after a fire.

Schultz highlighted potential solutions that can be implemented to confront the severity of the climate crisis. Some of the solutions Schultz listed included increasing funding for climate adaptation research and more U.S. Department of Agriculture climate hub partnerships.

“It’s far more expensive to respond reactively than it is to work proactively,” Schultz said.

Schultz said the best way to protect communities from fires is to work on creating defensible space and by doing fuels reduction around homes, as embers from fires can travel long distances and cause destruction. She also urged the federal government to find partnerships in communities in order to find and implement solutions, and pointed to things being done already on private lands.

“Partners have noticed that forest management in high-priority areas would require a $40 (billion) to $60 billion investment across jurisdictions in the next 10 years and must rely on federal, state, tribal, NGO (nongovernment organization) and private partnerships to accelerate action,” she said. “We got partway there in the infrastructure bill, and I would encourage you to continue seeking the necessary funding, with a few recommendations.

“Partners are seeking greater involvement, transparency and accountability for how these funds are being spent to be sure they are going to the intended purpose, being placed strategically, utilizing community-based partnerships, promoting carbon storage and going to areas that have been historically underserved,” she said.

In her testimony, Schultz said the next infrastructure bill should include funding for prescribed fire, which she said was an “essential” tool for forest management. She also said there needs to be a transparent discussion about how to use funds when they are needed, especially when it comes to shortages in the workplace and limited capacity in the industry to do restoration work.

Prescribed burns have been a source of tension in the western U.S., with the U.S. Forest Service attributing the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history in part to an escaped burn. On May 20, the U.S. Forest Service announced a pause on prescribed burns on National Forest Lands because of extreme weather conditions. Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District Rep. Lauren Boebert criticized the decision, telling The Durango Herald that the burns are “an important tool in the toolbox.”

“We know that regions and states in their state forest action planning processes have identified a lot of priorities,” Schultz said. “A lot of that was done under this banner of shared stewardship over the last several years, and so looking to the states and local people to say, ‘Where are your true priorities and where do you have community-based capacity to implement them?’ that’s going to be really important.”

Sen. Michael Bennet

Bennet compared the wildfire danger in the West to natural disasters in other parts of the nation, but he implied the federal government does more to respond to those situations.

“This is a five-alarm crisis for the American West,” Bennet said. “When hurricanes and other natural disasters strike the East Coast, or the Gulf states, Washington springs into action to protect those communities. That’s what a federal government is supposed to do – to bring the full power and resources of the American people together to help our fellow citizens.”

When asked by Bennet how federal money should be spent to tackle these issues, Schultz said there is still a large unmet need for reducing risks to communities as well as protecting watersheds.

“That’s something that we need to think of as a nation as a long-term investment in our fire-adapted forests. We really want to maintain them for water supply for permanent storage,” she said. “When we’re thinking about where to invest, I think that the 10-year strategy that the Forest Service issued makes a lot of sense in terms of investing near communities and priority watersheds in our dry, fire-growth forests. That’s really where we want to focus investments.”

Nina Heller is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at nheller@durangoherald.com.

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