September 14, 2022 | Cole Karr
The National Special Districts Coalition (NSDC) on Wednesday urged the U.S. Senate to expeditiously consider House-passed legislation crafted in response to worsening drought and wildfire conditions in the West.
The House passed, 218-199, prior to leaving for its August recess H.R. 5118 (Neguse/D-Colo.), the Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act. The omnibus-style bill was amended to include more than 40 stand-alone bills to address the crises.
In a letter sent Wednesday to Senate Majority Leaders Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., NSDC underscored the necessity of swift action as special districts continue to feel impacts of adverse climate conditions while also working to address and mitigate the crises.
“Too many communities served by special districts have fallen victim to catastrophic wildfire, sustaining damage or even total destruction,” the letter reads. “Many of those districts serve communities in the wildland-urban interface adjacent to federally managed lands. Irrigation districts providing crucial water resources to produce the nation’s food and fiber are experiencing shorter delivery periods and diminishing allocations. Previous cuts in Colorado River water paired with additional reductions on the horizon threaten the drinking water supply that special districts provide to tens of millions of people in the Southwest. These districts also feel the indirect impacts of wildland fires damaging the health of vital watersheds”.
Successfully amended onto the bill were three NSDC-supported bills, including two bills sponsored by Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., to reform FEMA’s approach to wildfire response and recovery and provide enhanced federal assistance for communities that experience more than one disaster over the course of three years. The third supported provision is Congressman Jimmy Panetta’s, D-Calif., Wildfire Emergency Act, which would allow public-private partnerships to execute mitigation measures on federal lands. The bill also specifically includes special districts as an eligible entity to enter into land stewardship grants, as authorized for five years should the bill be passed. All three supported bills have Senate companions introduced in the Upper Chamber.
H.R. 5118 authorizes increased spending on existing fire mitigation and drought programs, as well as establishes some new programs. Highlights of these authorization include:
- $1.6 billion for U.S. Forest Service wildfire preparedness projects.
- $2.35 billion for stewardship and management of U.S. Forest Service lands.
- $500 million for hazardous fuels reductions on federal lands.
- $500 million for programs geared toward habitat management.
- $500 million for wilderness and designated heritage site restorations.
- $600 million for WaterSMART grants for water reclamation and reuse
- $500 million to address the drying lakes of Lake Mead in Nevada and Lake Powell in Utah, along the Colorado River.
- $260 million for desalination project development.
- $100 million for a new grant program to address and mitigate declining drinking water quality in disadvantaged communities – specifically those with 60,000 or fewer population and an average non-metropolitan median income of less than 100 percent the Federal Poverty Level.
- $50 million over five years in U.S. Department of Agriculture programming to ensure public and private entities may fully fund improvements to drinking water quality.
The bill also directs the U.S. Department of Interior to establish a 10-year national wildfire prevention plan, and it would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency to update post-disaster public assistance programming to include broader wildfire-specific challenges, including impacts on drinking water.
In the letter’s closing, NSDC called out the realities affected special districts to underscore the policy’s urgency.
“As you read this letter, there are special districts in disadvantaged communities developing emergency plans for when wells inevitably run dry.” The letter continues: “Hundreds of volunteer and professional fire protection district firefighters are on the frontlines of wildfires. Water suppliers are taking unprecedented, yet innovative, steps to conserve and recharge crucial supplies. All this, as districts focused on resource conservation partner to provide essential mitigation and cleanup work for impacted communities. For these reasons, NSDC urges the Senate to move expeditiously to consider H.R. 5118, the Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act.”
The Senate returned to Washington last week and will need be prioritizing action on Fiscal Year 2023 appropriations bills ahead of the federal fiscal year’s end on September 30. H.R. 5118 is unlikely to move prior to the November elections.
NSDC will continue tracking this legislation and share updates with members as news develops. Contact Cole Arreola-Karr, NSDC Federal Advocacy Coordinator, for more information.