WASHINGTON—U.S. Senators Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) today released a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report highlighting the challenges faced by Western communities in the aftermath of wildfire and detailing opportunities for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to improve its Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP) to more effectively serve communities across the West as they recover. After a destructive wildfire season, Romney and Bennet heard many community suggestions on improvements to federal wildfire recovery programs and requested that the GAO examine the USDA’s EWP program in November 2019. GAO accepted the request on December 10, 2019, and started auditing the program shortly thereafter.
“This report underscores the challenges faced by communities in Utah and throughout the West in the aftermath of wildfires,” Romney said. “It will better inform our work as we continue our efforts to both mitigate natural disasters and ensure that communities across Utah have the support they need to recover. To better address the needs of communities recovering from natural disasters—including our devastating wildfires—the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which is now law, provides $300 million to address the Emergency Watershed Protection Program’s severe backlog.”
“Last year, Colorado saw three of the worst wildfires in our state’s history, and our communities are continuing to rebuild and recover,” Bennet said. “This report supports the challenges Western communities face in the aftermath of wildfire and illustrates improvements to the EWP program to help communities in Colorado and across the West mitigate post-fire damage and protect private property. I look forward to Senator Romney’s continued partnership as we work together to find solutions based on the recommendations in this report.”
Romney and Bennet secured $300 million in EWP funding in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law this week, as well as $275 million in EWP funding in supplemental disaster appropriations that passed Congress at the end of September 2021.
In their initial request, Romney and Bennet asked the GAO focus on a number of specific items in its report, including:
- Approval processes under the program, including eligibility requirements that may limit entities such as water districts and ditch companies from qualifying for the program;
- Exigent project timelines and challenges, including opportunities to improve exigent projects in rural areas;
- Opportunities to expand eligible projects, such as weather monitoring and alert systems to warn of post-fire floods;
- Agency and stakeholder views on program improvements to better meet the goals and intent of EWP.
The GAO made four recommendations in its report:
- The Chief of NRCS should assess the time limits for EWP projects and determine whether program regulations need to be revised. In doing so, NRCS may wish to consider collecting data on how long it takes for projects to be completed and the frequency and durations of waivers on time limits, and challenges that stakeholders identified.
- The Secretary of Agriculture, in consultation with the Chiefs of NRCS and the Forest Service, should determine whether the department needs to seek another funding approach, including potentially changing how it requests funds from Congress, to minimize delays in getting EWP funds to sponsors. In doing so, the agencies may wish to assess how often delays occur, how long it takes sponsors to receive funds from the time they submit a request for assistance, and how this affects the program.
- The Secretary of Agriculture, in consultation with the Chiefs of NRCS and the Forest Service, should develop an MOU or guidance clarifying roles and responsibilities for how and when EWP projects can be done on National Forest System lands. In doing so, the Secretary may wish to consider if the federal regulations should be updated to better reflect the current administration of the program, with NRCS as the sole administrator.
- The Chief of NRCS should ensure, as the agency continues working on developing a sponsor guide for the EWP program, that the guide clarifies areas of limited guidance identified by stakeholders. In particular, the Chief should incorporate information regarding how and when EWP projects can be done on National Forest System and other federal lands into the guide.
The full report is available here.
Bennet and Romney have a history of working together in a bipartisan manner to improve wildfire recovery. Since requesting the GAO review in 2019, Bennet and Romney have continued to pursue solutions to challenges with the EWP program, including the introduction of the MATCH Act in January 2020 to expedite recovery and address the problems many communities face in navigating the EWP’s cost sharing requirements. The senators reintroduced the bill earlier this year with U.S. Representatives John Curtis (R-UT) and John Garamendi (D-CA).