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Public Statements

Wildfire Relief

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Mr. UDALL of Colorado. Mr. President, I rise to speak in favor of a critical issue for my State; that is, much needed wildfire relief.

I wish to be more specific. Colorado has been in dire need of emergency watershed protection funds since fires raged in my State just 6 months ago. Just 6 months ago we were in the news not only in our country but around the world because of fires in our State.

This is an important issue, one of the most important issues confronting my State because the last fire season was the worst, literally, on record. Although the fires no longer burn, the threats they pose to entire communities persist long after the final embers are extinguished. Literally, hundreds of thousands of Coloradans remain vulnerable to flooding and tainted water supplies in the aftermath of these fires.

To people not from the West, the reason why this is an emergency may not be immediately clear, so let me explain. In my State, the Hyde Park and the Waldo Canyon fires--these are two fires that were all over the news--tragically took lives, burned more than 100,000 acres, and led to catastrophic property loss. President Obama declared them national disasters, and he actually came to Colorado and joined me and the rest of the delegation to visit the scenes of destruction, where over 300 homes were destroyed in Colorado's second largest city, Colorado Springs.

But that initial impact in those initial scenes could pale in comparison to threats these communities will face in the coming days, months, and years. Why is that so? Because once a mountainside is stripped of all its trees and foliage and the soil is burned down to bedrock, there is nothing left to hold back the water and debris as it races downhill toward our communities.

Without rehabilitation and restoration, the watersheds that provide municipal and agricultural water are at risk from landslides, flooding, and erosion. In turn, that could result in serious infrastructure damage, water supply disruptions, and even loss of life.

Stabilizing and protecting these communities' watersheds is simply the right thing to do and, moreover--and this is important--taking action now is also fiscally responsible. Quite simply, if we do not do the repairs now, we will pay more later.

When Coloradans came to Senator Bennet and me to share these needs confronting our State, we immediately went to work. We delivered on the promise of providing fire relief when the Senate passed the emergency supplemental spending bill in December of last year, which also provided much needed relief funds for Hurricane Sandy victims. That was a bipartisan bill supported by Senate Republicans and Democrats alike. But the Republicans in the House regrettably gutted the bill and sent back legislation that explicitly cut out wildfire relief.

In that context, let me make one point absolutely clear. This is an emergency. Some people question the need for funding and have asked why we wouldn't limit dollars to just Hurricane Sandy areas, such as the bill does before us today. The short answer is it is a fiscally smart thing to do, the right thing to do, and the fair thing to do.

This bill is an emergency appropriations bill for all national disasters, not just Hurricane Sandy. It is our best hope of seeing wildfire relief.

I emphatically note the Colorado emergencies occurred before Hurricane Sandy, and the West should not have to continue to wait. Very few emergency supplemental bills pass Congress. This bill is passing now, and it should include aid for Colorado and other States across our country.

We, as Americans, are in this together. When deadly disasters strike, we all support each other. I know the Presiding Officer's home State of Hawaii has experienced natural disasters. We stand together when we get into these situations. That is why I am so frustrated that the House of Representatives dismissed Colorado's needs and ruined our chances, the West's chances, of immediate wildfire relief when lawmakers there failed to include emergency watershed protection funding for Colorado in this disaster relief legislation.

This neglect is particularly disappointing, because if the House had quickly taken up the Senate-passed disaster assistance bill at the end of last year, we would not be in this desperate position today. I say this somewhat reluctantly; I served in the House for 10 years. But I have to say the House is setting a dangerous precedent of arbitrarily legislating disaster relief funds. Communities across this country, and not just those affected by Hurricane Sandy, are at risk of catastrophic flooding and contaminated drinking water.

But House Republicans are either sending a message that the West doesn't matter or saying they don't care about certain communities once the TV cameras are focused elsewhere.

What is the latest development in this ongoing fight to help wildfire victims? Yesterday, I introduced an amendment to the House-passed disaster relief legislation that would help national disaster areas repair their drinking water supplies and the systems that back up those water supplies. This amendment would not add a single cent to the bill and instead simply reverses the House's decision to exclude all States other than those affected by Hurricane Sandy.

No one questions that we need to help hurricane victims in the Northeast. But wildfire relief is not pork. I will say that again. Wildfire relief is not pork. Colorado's record-setting wildfires in 2012 displaced tens of thousands, destroyed more than 600 homes statewide and tragically resulted in deaths. Wildfires destroy communities, and their devastation persists for decades.

These restoration projects of which I speak must get started now before our spring snow melt sends tons of ash and sediment into our water supplies and buries homes and infrastructure under mudslides and floodwaters.

As I said earlier, I know these fires may seem to be old news for some, but Coloradans are living under the ongoing threats every day. I wish to remind all of my colleagues that in the past the Natural Resources Conservation Services, the NRCS, had the flexibility to provide EWP assistance for earlier disasters before moving on to the needs created by subsequent events.

As of December, 2012, an estimated $47 million was needed to mitigate damaged watersheds in the aftermath of other Presidentially declared Stafford Act disaster areas in Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Florida, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Utah, and Wisconsin, North, South, East, and West.

Of the $180 million the House approved for Sandy-related emergency watershed protection relief, only $30 million has been requested. Yet the House bill is saying other communities cannot have access to these funds to protect their own people. It is senselessly wasteful to leave these other communities behind to suffer the effects of less-recent disasters, whether they faced wildfire, hurricane or flood.

Mr. President, I am not being an alarmist. Coloradans unfortunately have already experienced some of these effects. For example, the usually crystal-clear Poudre River has been flowing black--literally flowing black due to ash and runoff from the fires. This forced the downstream city of Fort Collins to shut off its water intake for over 100 days. Senator Bennet was on site just a week ago, and the pictures were tragic and they compel action.

Further downstream on that important water course, the Poudre, the city of Greeley shut off its water intakes for 36 days and is still only able to take a small fraction of its normal intake.

I have a photo here that shows a water main that supplies 75 percent of the backup drinking water supply for the city of Colorado Springs, our second largest city, south of Denver. This pipeline used to be buried 8 feet deep but is now exposed due to runoff. It has been exposed because of the runoff from the fire area, and, of course, it will be exposed to more runoff.

You can see the effect of what is happening after these fires. How much more of an emergency do we need, when our most basic resource--drinking water supplies for three of Colorado's largest cities and its families and businesses--is threatened?

Let me share one more example. The flood potential in the burned areas is now 20 times higher than before the fire, which means that areas are experiencing 100-year floods from the same amount of rainfall that would have caused a 5-year flood before the wildfires.

Look at this photo. This is Highway 14, which is the major east-west artery through northern Colorado. This mudslide is one of many that occurred during one very minor rainstorm after the High Park fire. These mudslides on our major roads put people, property, and commerce at risk. Already families in the Colorado Springs vicinity, which I mentioned earlier, have received at least four flash flood warnings since the Waldo Canyon fire. Stabilizing this ground and restoring the burned areas on both Federal and private land is critical to public safety, public health, and the prevention of another disaster.

So as I begin to close, I would just say, don't get me wrong, I support the recovery of the communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy, but I want to ensure that my colleagues understand the gravity of the situation we are facing in Colorado and in other States that are confronting disaster needs. The Senate delivered when it came to providing fire relief, in part because of my colleague Senator Bennet's great work on the Agriculture Committee, but the House unwisely sent us a package that turns a blind eye to Colorado and the West. If we do not act soon, communities across this Nation will see unnecessary flood risks, contaminated water supplies, and the potential looms for tragic deaths caused by our inaction. That is simply not acceptable.

So when someone asks whether the EWP--the emergency watershed protection provisions and program--is necessary, critical, or even an emergency, the answer is an emphatic yes. For many of our communities in Colorado, this is their No. 1 priority in Congress, and I, for one, am not going to let their critical needs go unmet. Mark my words. This is not an issue I am going to let die. It is not an issue Senator Bennet will let die. We are going to keep at it until we stabilize these soils, protect our water supplies, and stand up for the people of Colorado and the people of our country.

I thank the Acting President pro tempore for his attention, and I yield the floor.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT


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