SHARECOMMENTMORE

Democrats Mark Udall and Michael Bennet introduced legislation Tuesday to allow Colorado to access some of the $30 million that the Sandy-aid package would set aside for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, or EWP for short.

The White House's funding request to Congress, delivered on Friday, specifies that virtually all of the $60 billion should go to New York, New Jersey and other East Coast states ravaged by Sandy.

But President Barack Obama didn't explicitly say the watershed protection funds should go only to the East Coast. Udall's office said that means that some of that money could be used to help states elsewhere recover from other natural disasters.

Tuesday's bill seeks to write that into final hurricane-relief package Congress passes. Lawmakers are expected to consider the White House's request before the year's end.

Thirty states and Puerto Rico shared $235.4 million in watershed protection money distributed by the Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the agency's figures show.

Colorado was not among them.

Udall and Bennet say Colorado needs additional federal assistance to restore watersheds affected by the Waldo Canyon and High Park fires in the summer.

"Even though the fires have long since been extinguished, communities in Larimer, Weld and El Paso counties are to this day grappling with the long-term threat to their water supplies and the ongoing threat of flash flooding," Udall said. "This legislation will help ensure that Colorado's wildfires and their lingering effects are not forgotten."

While the East Coast should receive all the money it needs, Colorado endured its own share of natural disasters -- "catastrophic" wildfires and one of the worst droughts in decades, Bennet said.

"This bill will ensure adequate resources to help Colorado communities restore the stability of their watersheds and protect their drinking water infrastructure. The measure will also help other states struck by major disasters that have urgent EWP needs," Bennet said.
In November, Udall, Bennet, Democratic Rep. Jared Polis and GOP Reps. Cory Gardner and Doug Lamborn pushed for watershed money to be included in the Sandy-aid package.

The White House's Office of Management and Budget didn't respond to an email asking if Colorado could compete for watershed protection funding or a related $150 million program under which the government would buy land in flood-prone areas.
Congress will have the final say.

Bennet and Udall said in a statement that they want their measure to be part of the Sandy-relief bill that Congress approves. They said their bill is aimed at helping Colorado and states that were struck by other disasters like Hurricane Isaac draw from the watershed protection account.

Under federal rules, the funds can be used for things like removing debris from streams, shoring up eroded banks and repairing damaged drainage systems. The federal government typically pays 75 percent of the cost and local and state authorities must come up with the rest.

The watershed protection program hasn't been allocated money for fiscal 2013, but does have a $10 million balance carried over from the previous year, said Jody Holzworth, spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

By RAJU CHEBIUM, Gannett Washington Bureau

SHARECOMMENTMORE