Low water year, high fire risk dominates legislative discussion
Scott Jones, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — A series of blustery wet storms slated to blanket northern Utah over the next three days is doing little to douse early concerns at the Utah Legislature over drought and the looming wildfire season.
As members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriation Subcommittee plowed into base budgets on Wednesday for agencies like the Division of Water Resources and others, talk often drifted from future fiscal concerns to real-time worries.
"I am very concerned where we are going to be," said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, pointing to the need to have contingency plans in place to prepare for a shorter irrigation season.
Snowpack is "significantly" below average at 70 percent of normal in Utah and reservoir storage — in some areas such as the Weber Basin system — has dipped to 35 percent of capacity.
Those numbers will present serious challenges to those who use secondary or untreated irrigation water, said Eric Millis, state water resources chief.
"They will have to adjust adaptively," he said. "Start later and end earlier."
As water supply worries continue to nag at those in charge of delivery systems, other ramifications from a low water year such as dry soils and parched vegetation will lay an early foundation for enhanced wildfire threats.
The state, however, is already gearing up for the 2014 wildfire season.
Brian Cottam, the newly-named director of the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, told committee members that its forthcoming addition of another elite hot shot crew will bolster the state's ability to fight fires.
The "Alta crew," expected to be fully trained by late spring, will add to the efforts of the division's other crew, Lone Peak, bringing the total to five hot shot crews based in Utah.
"It's just been our desire to have that higher level of resource," said spokesman Jason Curry. "We are excited and happy that we will have this."
Cottam also laid out what the suppression costs were in 2013 for the Utah wildfire season — $6.2 million — and stressed that work to mitigate early and often before a fire starts will save the state signficant money in the long run.
"I hope to change that conversation because the numbers are just astounding," he said. "We need to get out in front of this."
A report by the state's catastrophic wildfire reduction committee, in fact, asserts that for every dollar spent in prevention saves $17 in fire suppression costs.
The committee identified 14 pilot projects across the state for on-the-ground prevention efforts, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is recommending $4 million in one-time money for those projects.
High priority mitigation efforts were highlighted for a wide variety of reasons — from the importance of the watershed area and the number of homes encroaching wildland areas — to the need to protect and conserve sage grouse habitat.
The state Department of Agriculture also announced this week the availability of $1.8 million in grants to combat the spread of invasive or noxious weeds — which provide fuel for fires, rob soils of moisture and harm grazing rangelands.
Last year, 41 projects were chosen for funding. Ten of those were continuation projects from the year before, while the remainder were new projects.
In 2012, the Legislature made $1 million available for the fight of invasive species and bolstered that funding with another $1 million a year later.
Applications are due March 17, with funds that will become available by the end of July.
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