Wildfire, drought provisions in infrastructure bill bring new funding to old ideas on Western Slope

Billions allocated to address climate change issues in the West

John LaConte
Vail Daily


The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which is expected to be signed into law by President Joe Biden this week, has been much discussed nationally over the last few months as it aims to reach all parts of the country with the nearly $1.2 trillion in spending called for over the next eight years.

In the Colorado River Basin, the infrastructure bill addresses the most crucial infrastructure of the West in water infrastructure, allocating $300 million to implement the Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan.

The drought contingency plan evolved from the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines addressing the Colorado River’s deteriorating storage levels.

The guidelines identified “how to operate the river’s two major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, under hotter, drier conditions, and to share the risk of shrinking water supplies between the upper and lower basins,” explains Water Education Colorado. “But the 2007 interim guidelines, while temporarily keeping the basin out of crisis, did not anticipate the extent of drought that the basin would experience. In 2013, then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell directed states to consider additional measures or face unilateral federal action to avoid a potential crisis.”

The result is the Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which set benchmarks that will trigger a change in management for the basin. One of those triggers has already been met, and Lake Mead will start operating under Level 1 Shortage condition starting in 2022. The Bureau of Reclamation cited the drought contingency plan in its announcement following the release of its Colorado River Basin August 2021 24-Month Study.

“The study projects Lake Mead’s January 1, 2022, elevation to be 1,065.85 feet — about 9 feet below the Lower Basin shortage determination trigger of 1,075 feet and about 24 feet below the drought contingency plan trigger of 1,090 feet,” the Bureau of Reclamation reported.

The infrastructure act seeks to address the implementation of the drought contingency plan, allocating $50 million “for use in accordance with the Drought Contingency Plan for the Upper Colorado River Basin.”

The rest would be for use in the Lower Colorado River Basin — to conserve recurring Colorado River water that contributes to supplies in Lake Mead and other Colorado River water reservoirs in the Lower Colorado River Basin — or to improve the long-term efficiency of operations in the Lower Colorado River Basin.

Also included in the act is $50 million for endangered-species recovery and conservation programs in the Colorado River Basin, along with a $250 million infusion into the Bureau of Reclamation for “design, study, and construction of aquatic ecosystem restoration and protection projects,” along with $100 million “for multi-benefit projects to improve watershed health.”

Those provisions helped the bill to receive praise from Trout Unlimited, which touted the legislation for recognizing “the foundational role of water infrastructure and watershed health in preparing for water security as climate change continues to make conditions hotter and drier in the West,” according to an editorial from Trout Unlimited water policy associate Sara Porterfield. Among other provisions TU supports, “it would invest $400 million in the WaterSMART program to upgrade aging irrigation infrastructure and conserve water, including $100 million for projects that would improve the condition of ‘a natural feature or a nature-based feature.'”

Forest management

The infrastructure bill was also supported by Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper in Colorado and Rep. Joe Neguse, who represents part of Eagle County in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Neguse touted the act’s “wildfire prevention and collaborative forest programs,” saying, in a statement, that the bill aims to “to reduce the threat of wildfire” through wildfire management.

But the wildfire management practices called out in the bill have received criticism from the environmental community for allocating billions to what experts call an outdated approach to forest management which has led the West to the wildfire crisis it now faces.

“The biggest fires in the West this year were in heavily logged ‘managed’ forests,” said Mike Garrity, Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “Dense, mature forests burn less intensely than those that have been logged because they have higher canopy cover and more shade, which creates a cooler, more moist forest.”

In an Oct. 6 editorial for the alliance, Garrity cited an opinion from Dr. Philip Higuera, associate professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana.

“Studies have shown logged areas and young forest plantation projects have little beneficial effect on wildfire spread and can actually aggravate fire growth in some cases,” Higuera said.

Among those reports is a 2016 study published in Ecojournal that found “forests witah the highest levels of protection from logging tend to burn least severely.”

The study also found that “allowing wildfires to burn under safe conditions is an effective restoration tool for achieving landscape heterogeneity and biodiversity conservation objectives in regions where high levels of biodiversity are associated with mixed-intensity fires.”

Smoke lifts from the cliffs of Glenwood Canyon after the Grizzly Creek Fire tore through the area on Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

The infrastructure bill calls for $500 million in planning and conducting prescribed fires — $250 million for U.S. Forest Service lands through the Department of Agriculture, and $250 million for the BLM through the Department of the Interior.

In a $500 million provision called out in the bill for “mechanical thinning and timber harvesting,” $400 million is earmarked for U.S. Forest Service lands through the Department of Agriculture, and $100 million will go to the BLM through the Department of the Interior.

Community wildfire defense grants

Former Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke penned a column in 2018 for USA Today with strong support for logging as a means of preventing wildfires, saying, “Logs come out of the forest in one of two ways: They are either harvested sustainably to improve the health and resilience of the forest (while creating jobs), or they are burned to the ground.”

The bill marks a departure from Zinke’s ideology by recognizing that harvestingtimber should be conducted “in an ecologically appropriate manner that maximizes the retention of large trees, as appropriate for the forest type, to the extent that the trees promote fire-resilient stands.”

But opponents say the logging projects are inappropriate in the climate change era, regardless of the bill’s repetition of the word “appropriate” when it comes to logging. Logging removes “nature’s best, cheapest and most effective mechanism for filtering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” Garrity said.

Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist and co-founder of the John Muir Project, told E&E News the logging provisions in the infrastructure package are “a climate change nightmare.”

“We cannot overcome the climate crisis if we increase logging in our forests. All that’s going to do is increase emissions, and it’s not going to curb fires,” Hanson said.

Hanson mentioned the town of Greenville, California, which was destroyed in the Dixie Fire this summer.

“We’re seeing this over and over again, these fires are just sweeping rapidly through these vast areas where they’ve done (tree) thinning,” Hanson said. Authorities “said they would do that to save the towns. We’ve seen how that’s worked out.”

Tim Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, told E&E that other portions of the infrastructure bill reflect a legacy of misguided wildland firefighting tactics, citing a provision in the bill that calls for $500 million in creating fuel breaks, areas near communities in the wildland interface that have been cleared of vegetation to contain a fire.

“But fuel breaks have proven ineffective in wildlands, because embers can travel so far on the wind,” Ingalsbee told E&E News, citing the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire in Oregon that jumped the Columbia River.

Specifically, the bill says the fuel breaks should be made available for developing or improving potential control locations “including fuelbreaks … with a focus on shaded fuelbreaks when ecologically appropriate.”

The bill does included something which could go toward a goal of opponents like Garrity, who emphasizes that we can’t fireproof forests but can fireproof homes.

“Instead of spending more money logging, Congress should concentrate on helping people who live in forested environments to fireproof their homes from the threat of wildfire,” Garrity said. “Having non-flammable roofs and decks and reducing most vegetation next to homes has proven to be far more effective against wildfires than logging done miles from the nearest structures.”

To that end, the bill earmarks $500 million for community wildfire defense grants to at-risk communities and aims to incorporate modern thinking into those community wildfire protection plan, as communities that receive grants are to “carry out projects described in a community wildfire protection plan that is not more than 10 years old,” according to the language in the bill.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

The Sky-Hi News strives to deliver powerful stories that spark emotion and focus on the place we live.

Over the past year, contributions from readers like you helped to fund some of our most important reporting, including coverage of the East Troublesome Fire.

If you value local journalism, consider making a contribution to our newsroom in support of the work we do.