‘Save the life of the river’: House passes bills on Colorado River drought, wildfires

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PHOENIX – The U.S. House passed a sweeping drought and wildfire relief package Friday that authorizes funding for drought-relief efforts on the Colorado River, strengthens wildfire recovery efforts and upholds tribal water rights along the Arizona-California border.

The measures, sponsored by Reps. Greg Stanton and Raúl Grijalva, both Arizona Democrats, are part of a larger package of 49 bills that seek to prepare the U.S. for an increase in droughts and wildfires, called the Wildfire Response and Drought Resilience Act.  

The package passed with 218-199, mostly along party lines.  

The money isn’t guaranteed. The package still needs to pass the Senate, which has blocked Democratic-backed House bills often this session. If it passes both the House and the Senate, the package will go to the White House for the president’s signature.  

One bill in the package, H.R. 8435, or the Colorado River Drought Response Act, would give the Department of the Interior $500 million in discretionary funds to relieve pressure on the Colorado River system and prevent Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which are at historically low levels, from declining to critically low levels.

Lake Mead’s water loss: NASA satellite images show Lake Mead water levels plummeting to lowest point since 1937  

The Colorado River, which is particularly sensitive to climate change, has seen declining water levels for years and last August the federal government took the unprecedented step of declaring a shortage on the river, triggering water cutbacks to some farmers in the region. 

Under the bill passed Friday, states and other entities could apply for grants for a range of things, including compensating users who volunteer to cut back their water use, drilling wells, lining canals to prevent water from seeping into the ground and increasing efficiency for hydropower production. 

The bill also puts a shorter timeline on certain elements from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, including the implementation of a water recycling and reuse program, and funding to improve watershed health. 

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A second bill, H.R. 8516, the Wildfire Response Improvement Act, would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency to update its policies regarding wildfires. Stanton and other northern Arizona advocates said this would encourage increased funding for post-wildfire recovery, like flooding and mudslides, and treat wildfires as seriously as other natural disasters.  

Flooding after wildfires has proven a serious issue in Arizona, for example, especially in northern areas of the state. Wildfires scar the earth and cause soil to become “hydrophobic,” preventing them from absorbing water as easily. Heavy monsoon rains after a wildfire can cause downhill flooding and mudslides.  

Flagstaff’s mayor declared a state of emergency on Wednesday because of post-wildfire flooding from the Pipeline Fire’s burn scar. 

“Today, federal support for fighting wildfires ends as soon as the fire is extinguished,” a press release from Stanton’s office read. “But post-fire risks are immense… Arizona’s state and local governments must bear the entire cost of post-fire expenses.” 

California in graphics: Oak Fire near Yosemite became California’s largest wildfire this year  

Grijalva’s measure mirrors one introduced in the U.S. Senate by Arizona Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema and authorizes the Colorado River Indian Tribes to lease water as part of a wider conservation effort. The House bill adds several changes sought by tribal officials.

Under the bill, the tribe could lease conserved water to users off the reservation and participate in conservation programs to help shore up regional water supplies. Tribal officials say the revenue could help repair aging water infrastructure.

The tribe needs congressional authorization to lease water, just as 17 tribes in the Colorado River Basin are able to do.

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CRIT Chairwoman Amelia Flores said the measure recognizes the need for drought relief on the river and reflects “our respect for the Colorado River and our commitment to save the life of the river.”

Other bills in the package would establish a minimum basic pay and mental health leave for wildland firefighters; require the creation of a 10-year strategy to address wildfire; and direct funding towards research and community planning around the health impacts of wildfire smoke.  

Follow Zayna Syed on Twitter at @zaynasyed_.