July 29, 2022

Wildfire, drought resiliency efforts pass U.S. House of Representatives

Andy Lyon/USDA Forest Service

Fire approaches Highway 434 at Christmas Tree Canyon as firefighters work to keep the fire west of the road.

A package of about 50 bills to address wildfires, drought and climate change passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday on a 218-199 vote and now heads to the U.S. Senate. 

Among the provisions in the Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act include increasing pay for wildland firefighters, assisting people and businesses harmed by the Hermits Peak Fire, making it easier for tribes to access federal funding for water infrastructure, addressing the drying of the Rio Grande and sharing water data in order to inform policies and decisions.

While the total amount the package will cost has not been calculated, it does include large spending items like $500 million for the Colorado River to prevent Lake Mead and Lake Powell from declining to critically low water levels and $1.6 billion for firefighter pay. The package is not an appropriations bill. Instead, it is an authorization bill.

During debate on Friday, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Colorado, said that if this package is not passed wildland firefighters will see a decrease in pay because the funding that increased their pay that was authorized in last year’s infrastructure package was only temporary.

But Republicans in the House argued that increasing wildland firefighter pay will lead to the U.S. Forest Service laying off hundreds of firefighters.

“Our firefighters stand strong and steady,” U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, a Democrat representing New Mexico’s Third Congressional District, said during a press conference Neguse hosted on Thursday. “They fight to protect our communities, but they deserve a better wage because it isn’t enough to just say thank you. We must pay them what they deserve.”

Wildfire 

Leger Fernández said the costs of not passing the legislation will far exceed what the government will pay if the package does pass. She used the Hermits Peak Fire as an example.

Climate change is leading to larger, more frequent wildfires and, while the Hermits Peak Fire was started by the U.S. Forest Service, an investigation into the incident found that the burn plan failed to account for changes in climate. 

Leger Fernández spoke during a press conference on Thursday. She compared the Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act to “a gentle monsoon rain falling on our parched landscape.”

“It brings both hope and solutions,” she said.

Leger Fernández sponsored the Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act, based upon past legislation that helped people in Los Alamos County recover following the Cerro Grande Fire. 

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, a Democrat from New Mexico’s First Congressional District, said the Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act is so crucial to getting passed that they have included it in several packages including this one.

It was also included in the National Defense Authorization Act that passed the House earlier this month.

The Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act, Leger Fernández said, also sets up prescribed burn centers of excellence “to make sure that prescribed burns are done right because no community should be consumed by fires that our own government starts like it happened in New Mexico.”

Drought in New Mexico

As the House weighed the more than 500-page package, monsoon rains brought welcome relief to the rapidly drying Rio Grande corridor. The storms are the only thing preventing the river from running dry in the Albuquerque area. Fish rescue operations earlier this month removed native fish like Rio Grande silvery minnows from the receding channels and transported them to safety.

Stansbury spoke about the drying river channel both during the press conference and in a phone interview with NM Political Report. 

Related: In light of drought, NM congresswomen introduce bills focused on water and science

“We know that the West is facing a historic drought, a millennial drought,” Stansbury said during the press conference. “In fact, in my home district, the Rio Grande has gone dry for the first time in decades, the life sustaining waters that our cities and our tribes have depended on for thousands of years, our land grants and acequias for countless generations. And our communities and ecosystems that depend on this river for their life are currently facing one of the most difficult water years in history. And this is the direct impact of climate change. And that is why we have to pass this legislation and get it across the finish line in the Senate.”

Stansbury’s Rio Grande Water Security Act is one of the four dozen bills included in the package. As she spoke on the floor on Friday, she displayed a picture of the drying Rio Grande.

Right now, Stansbury told NM Political Report, there isn’t an institutional framework for managing the Rio Grande.

“What we have in place is a series of laws of interstate river contracts and international treaties that have compliance requirements that actually cause our water managers to have to allocate water in different places and spaces in ways that might not keep the water wet, that are detrimental to the overall wellbeing of the river and that impact our communities,” she said.

She said she hopes the Rio Grande Water Security Act creates a framework and federal plan through collaboration with tribes, states and local stakeholders. This plan, she said, should be based on the best available data and information and should help better manage the river in a more sustainable way.

In addition to the Rio Grande Water Security Act, two other water bills Stansbury sponsored are in the package—the Water Data Act and the WaterSMART Access for Tribes Act.

The Water Data Act is based on legislation Stansbury got passed in New Mexico while serving as a state representative. This would create a multi-agency initiative tasked with making sure data about water—including streamflow, precipitation, snow, water use, water quality and other factors—is easily accessible. That effort involves identifying water data, sharing it and integrating it.

“We need to be able to manage our water resources in real time and ensure that our communities have tools at their fingertips to solve those problems,” Stansbury said during the press conference. “Our ranchers, our farmers, our tribes, that they’re able to solve problems for themselves as they’re facing catastrophic change.”

The final piece of Stansbury’s three water bills focuses on Indigenous communities’ access to federal funding for infrastructure.

More than a decade ago, Congress created the WaterSMART Program, which is run by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. It provides grants to states, tribes and communities for conservation and water infrastructure projects and to help with resilience efforts. 

“What we found over time is that for many communities that are low income, or don’t otherwise have the capacity to provide a cost share, that it’s been a huge barrier to entry for them,” Stansbury told NM Political Report.

She said the WaterSMART Access for Tribes Act allows the Secretary of the Interior to waive the cost sharing requirement so that tribes can access these federal grants.

“We’re hoping that this will unlock millions of dollars for tribes, our Pueblos, the Navajo Nation,  the Apache Nation, to access vital water infrastructure funding for all manner of projects that are needed in communities,” she said. 

Next steps

The package now heads to the U.S. Senate, which Neguse said in the press conference, is often a place where “bills go to die.” 

However, many of the bills in the package have bipartisan support and some are even sponsored by Republicans, he said.

But, while Neguse emphasized bipartisan support for some aspects of the package, many House Republicans did not support it.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Arkansas, described the bill as “confusing motion with action” and said it will not actually reduce wildfire risk. He displayed a picture behind him of a wildfire burning behind a Smokey Bear sign showing the fire danger as extreme.

He further criticized the package as favoring environmental justice and ignoring the need for thinning of forests.

“This bill fails every American household,” he said.

Westerman offered an amendment on behalf of Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California that would authorize a grant program to assist rural communities that are experiencing water shortages. This amendment was ultimately agreed to by a voice vote.

U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican from California, said that the package spends lavishly but accomplishes almost nothing.

Like Westerman, McClintock argued for increased logging and reservoirs to increase water storage.

U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, a Republican representing New Mexico’s Second Congressional District, said instead of just focusing on wildfire response, they should focus on wildfire prevention.

“The only way to do this is to actively manage our forests,” she said.

She said the package adds new red tape and locks up more acreage in wilderness, making it more difficult to prevent catastrophic wildfires.

Herrell previously joined her Democratic colleagues from New Mexico in supporting the three water bills Stansbury sponsored that made it into the package.

She said the package should be amended and should include her Wildfire Prevention and Drought Mitigation Act, which would exclude certain forest management activities from having to go through an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement process.