The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) recently received $9.6 million for its Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWPP) to help Utah County restore watersheds affected by the Pole Canyon and Bald Mountain fires.
Last year, the Pole Canyon and Bald Mountain wildfires burned tens of thousands of acres of forest in the Utah County area of the Wasatch Front. However, the devastation of the wildfires did not end when the flames were extinguished.
"Generally after a wildfire, we experience another natural disaster, which is the flooding and debris flows," said Bronson Smart, a state conservation engineer for the NRCS and the watershed program manager.
Debris flows and flooding are major concerns in areas recently burned by wildfires, especially near populated areas such as the Wasatch Front. The ash from burnt vegetation and soil causes the top layer of soil to become hydrophobic, or water-repelling. When the rainwater water is unable to infiltrate the ground, it runs off into rivers, creating high flood-risks downstream.
Additionally, excess debris and sediment entering streams threatens water quality. Smart says that debris flows and heavy sediment can pollute springs used for community water supplies, making it more difficult for these water systems to generate clean water.
The NRCS will use the funds to address these immediate issues associated with flooding and debris flow, Smart said, and they will work closely with Utah County to address the community's concerns.
"These watershed plans are locally led for most communities, and that’s important to us here in the state of Utah. It’s a great testament to the partnership we have with the state government, the county governments, the local governments--we all work together to protect the life and property of those who are downstream and their communities," Smart said.
The NRCS is also funding $1 million for Utah County officials to develop a Watershed Management Plan that will address long-term planning for flood control, water supply and recreation challenges associated with future fires.