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Public Statements

Wildfire Relief

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. BENNET. Mr. President, I wish to thank my colleague, the senior Senator from Colorado, for his remarks and for his commitment to this important issue, and I rise today to speak briefly about the disaster bill that is in front of the Senate and to address an issue of enormous importance to the people of Colorado.

We have in front of us a disaster bill to respond to the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Sandy along the east coast, and we should obviously pass this bill to help our fellow citizens in their time of need. It is in that exact same spirit that the Senate passed a disaster relief bill at the end of last year that helped victims of natural disasters all across this country--not just the victims of Hurricane Sandy but also the victims of the devastating wildfires in my home State of Colorado and other States across the West.

We worked very hard to get that money into the bill the Senate passed in December. With the leadership of Mark Udall, we were able to successfully make the case that Colorado has a significant need for resources to help protect communities affected by the wildfires. We worked closely with the Senate Appropriations Committee, and they answered Colorado's call for help, and I thank those Members--Members from both sides of the aisle--who supported us. That was hard to do. It was hard to do, but in the end the idea that we are all in this together prevailed.

The House, however, let that bipartisan bill die at the end of last session, and now Congress has to start anew. Now here we are, asked to consider a House-passed bill that leaves Colorado behind, a bill where the House arbitrarily stripped out the money that would help our struggling communities in Colorado, and we are told this bill is unamendable. We are told the House has drawn a line in the sand and won't take any changes. Like my senior Senator, I am stunned by this and profoundly disappointed.

So let me tell my colleagues what this means for the people of Colorado. The Waldo Canyon and High Park fires in the summer of 2012 were the first and second most destructive fires in Colorado's history. They tragically resulted in the loss of life for several Coloradans. The fires destroyed hundreds of homes and caused millions of dollars of damage to critical infrastructure and some of the worst and most lasting damage to our watersheds. As anyone from Colorado or the West knows, our watersheds and the clean water they provide are the lifeblood of our communities.

Here is a hilltop that was completely devastated by the fires of 2012 and a road near Fort Collins that was overrun with sediment and debris in a mudslide after the High Park fire.

Here is the Poudre River after the fire, running completely black as the sediment, ash, and soot are washed off the singed hillsides into the water. This river provides drinking water for the cities of Fort Collins and Greeley, CO, home to one-quarter of a million people--home to 250,000 people--and home to agriculture and businesses that rely on having clean water to get through the day.

I recently met with the water providers at the treatment plant for this area, situated just yards from the charred mountains. They showed me a mason jar of black water, just like this. It could have been pulled directly from the Poudre. That is, unfortunately, because of our inaction and our foolishness, our shortsightedness, and that is what communities can expect if we don't start recovery work in these watersheds.

The resources provided under the USDA's emergency watershed protections--the EWP Program--would directly help these communities in Colorado. We fought for those resources, for the EWP Program, in the Senate bill last December, and reason prevailed. Republicans and Democrats came together and said: We understand the people of Colorado need this; they need our help. And I again thank our friends on the Senate Appropriations Committee for helping to make that happen. Yet we stand here today with a bill that doesn't include these funds, the funding stripped out, while an unmet need of $20 million persists in Colorado alone. And it is not just our State, there are 51 other projects across 19 other States that need these resources to recover from their disasters. This is a major national issue, and it is crazy that we are standing here in this position today. Lest anybody think this is a decision that somehow is fiscally disciplined, let me stand on this floor and guarantee you that as these hillsides wash into the river in the spring snowmelt, the cost of restoring these water treatment plants, the cost of making sure we have clean water will dwarf the $20 million we are talking about today.

To conclude, it is incredibly unfortunate, given the history we have in this country of coming together after a disaster, that the House would not follow our lead in the Senate and provide us these resources. There are reasons we are the United States of America, and one of those reasons is that we come to each other's aid at moments of natural disasters and help our friends and neighbors in other States. We make sure they get through to the next year.

Perhaps adding insult to injury is that funding for Colorado was stripped under the rationale, as I said, that the House was somehow being fiscally responsible, even though the exact opposite is true. The reality of this situation is that it is fiscally irresponsible because we can say with 100 percent certainty that the cost of fixing these problems later will be significantly more than it is now. So an ounce of prevention in this case is clearly worth a pound of cure. Any household or small business understands that making these investments today is the right move, instead of just waiting for the next disaster to happen, instead of waiting for matters to get worse, although that is the habit of this town, as the Acting President pro tempore will come to learn. The House just couldn't put rigid ideology aside and do something for the country as a whole.

Mr. President, I am not going to oppose the Sandy bill. We need to help our fellow citizens on the east coast. But this is a real head-scratcher for me and I know for the senior Senator from Colorado, even for this place. We are going to continue to work with our colleagues in the Senate to get these resources signed into law, but the fact is we had it done. We had it done in the Senate, in a bipartisan way, with the help of our friends on the Appropriations Committee and both Republicans and Democrats on this Senate floor. The House of Representatives let Colorado down, and now we are going to have to go back and find a way to make it right.

With that, Mr. President, I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.

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