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Gov. Polis, lawmakers ask for more investment in wildfire investigations and recovery

View of the East Troublesome Fire from Hot Sulphur Springs around 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 21.
Courtesy Blake Crossland
View of the East Troublesome Fire from Hot Sulphur Springs. Soot and ash produced by fires can be washed into streams and rivers by rain, overwhelming the filtration system at water purification plants. That leaves people downstream without clean water.

Colorado elected officials are seeking more funding for wildfire investigations and recovery efforts.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week, Colorado lawmakers and Gov. Jared Polis called on the federal government to send more fire recovery funds to the state. They said ash and soot left over from fires remain a problem as they flow into public water sources during rainfall.

In Northern Colorado, the aftermath of the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires continues to pose threats to Front Range watersheds. As funding dries up, efforts to reverse the environmental damage have stalled.

“(It) makes it very difficult for our water treatment plants to be able to get water to a drinking quality standard,” Jeff Sahla with Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District said.

Sahla said that puts drinking water at risk for more than a million people in Colorado.

Meanwhile, Colorado lawmakers are looking for a way to prevent destructive fires from happening in the first place. Senate Bill 13, if passed, would create a reserve in the state treasury called the Fire Investigation Fund dedicated to supporting wildfire investigations across the state.

The bill would require at least 80% of the fund be used for investigations into the cause and origin of wildland fires. It would specifically support local fire department investigations and help pay for third party wildfire investigators. The remainder could be used for investigations into other types of fires, as long as it’s not needed for wildfire investigations.

The bill would also mandate the Division of Fire Prevention and Control to submit an annual report detailing the state’s wildfire investigations over the previous year. The division already presents a report on wildfire threats and the state’s preparedness level.

Still, achieving sufficient funding for wildfire investigations and recovery will take time. Last year, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District said that the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests still needed $228 million to complete fire recovery efforts. This week's letter from Gov. Polis asking for fire recovery funds requested less than a quarter of that upfront, though he did acknowledge the $228 million shortfall and called for greater budgetary attention to the district.

“The cities of Fort Collins and Greeley saw that in recent years on the Poudre river when runoff in the aftermath of the Cameron Peak fire clogged up the Cache la Poudre River, making it untreatable for the treatment plants that those cities use,” Sahla said.

The cities managed to obtain drinking water from another source after the fire, but that may not always be a viable option in the future..

“Luckily, they were able to draw upon Horsetooth Reservoir to be able to provide drinking water suitable for their treatment plants,” Sahla said. “But this is something that we know is going to be an ongoing issue, really, for years to come.”

As a general assignment reporter and backup host, I gather news and write stories for broadcast, and I fill in to host for Morning Edition or All Things Considered when the need arises.
Originally from Southern California, Lucas spent the last decade living in New York City, which is where he started his journalism career. He's been an NPR junkie for as long as he can remember, but really fell in love with reporting radio news at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he received his master's degree. He's reported on a variety of issues, including covering healthcare at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City.
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