Colorado to receive billions from infrastructure bill for climate-resiliency projects

$35 million pegged for wildfire management

By: - November 10, 2021 5:00 am

The Pine Gulch Fire north of Grand Junction, was ignited by a lightning strike on July 31, 2020. (Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team/BLM)

Colorado will receive billions of dollars in the recently passed federal infrastructure investment bill, including money for both traditional infrastructure projects and ones aimed at increasing resiliency in the face of more frequent and more intense extreme weather due to climate change.

The bill includes approximately $50 billion for infrastructure resilience to climate events, preparing for incidents like wildfires, floods and storms. 

“I look at it as how our infrastructure can be more responsive and adaptable to climate change,” explained Joseph Kane, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on infrastructure. “That encompasses so many parts of our built environment.”

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According to a White House analysis, Colorado will receive approximately $3.7 billion for highways and $225 million for bridges in formula funding, with the idea to implement those resilient technologies, designs and planning in construction and repair — what Kane calls “generational improvements.”

“That’s what is going to provide the certainty and reliability when it comes to significant climate issues, whether it’s extreme storms or chronic issues like more droughts or floods,” he said.

Other funding for Colorado over the next five years in the infrastructure bill includes:

  • $916 million for public transportation options
  • $688 to improve water infrastructure
  • $432 million for airport infrastructure development
  • $57 million for an expanded electric vehicle charging network
  • $100 million to provide broadband coverage
  • $16 million to protect against cyberattacks

It’s an increasingly important concept as Colorado — and the country — experience more expensive, extreme threats to infrastructure.

“We have seen so obviously this summer that we need to make our infrastructure, our roads and bridges, resilient to climate change. There’s no better example than I-70 being closed this summer from climate change-induced mudslides,” said Jessica Goad, deputy director for Conservation Colorado. “It’s an investment to make sure our roads and bridges are up to snuff.”

Money for wildfire prevention

There’s also money to directly respond to extreme climate events. For example, Colorado should receive $35 million over the next five years to protect specifically against wildfires, as well as be eligible for competitive federal funding for weatherization.

“As communities across Colorado face more frequent and more severe climate-related weather events — such as the record-setting wildfires and terrible flash flooding we’ve witnessed this past year — it’s more clear than ever that we need to make major investments in our lands, our forests and our communities,” Rep. Joe Neguse, who represents Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, said in a statement following the bill’s passage on Nov. 5. 

Neguse led a proposal to include $5.75 billion in the legislation for wildfire management to reduce the threat of wildfire, rehabilitate burn areas and support forest restoration.

“For the last year we’ve been calling on Congress to robustly address the threat of catastrophic wildfire and fund climate resilient infrastructure. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which passed the House last night, we are delivering on several of these key priorities for Colorado,” he said.

Colorado in 2020 experienced one of its worst wildfire seasons, which saw both the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires, the two biggest wildfires in state history. Scientists say that drought and warmer temperatures caused by climate change can make fires larger and more intense. 

The infrastructure legislation calls for $500 million nationwide to plan and conduct prescribed fires as well as $500 million for the “mechanical thinning and timber harvesting” in an effort to reduce the threat.

Some conservationists, however, are against that subsidized logging provision, even though the legislation mandates the thinning in an “ecologically appropriate manner” that maximizes mature-tree retention. Over 100 scientists sent a letter to federal leaders in October to advocate against the logging provision.

“In 2016, the largest wildfire analysis ever was done, and it found that logged areas had higher levels of fire intensity than unlogged areas, because logging allows more sunlight and wind to reach the forest floor, which dries it out and makes it more flammable. Denser and more mature forests burn less intensely because they have higher canopy cover,” said Mike Garrity, the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

Garrity said it makes more sense to fire-proof buildings than to try and fire-proof forests themselves.

A partner to the Build Back Better bills

Though the infrastructure bill is of New Deal-proportions, experts want it to be a down payment on a larger, sustained investment.

“Just because you have a lot of money that you’re throwing at this doesn’t mean the problem goes away. On the one hand, some people have said this is the most historic and ambitious push we’ve seen towards greater climate resilience. Yet, at the same time, it’s inadequate,” Kane, with the Brookings Institution, said. 

Groups like Conservation Colorado are hopeful that the infrastructure bill is successfully coupled with the Build Back Better reconciliation bill, which House Democrats have pledged to vote on this month. That bill is likely to include provisions like the Sen. Michael Bennet-backed child tax credit and Neguse’s Climate Conservation Corps. In some ways, environmental groups see Build Back Better as the true climate change bill. 

“From where we’re sitting, they need to go hand in hand,” Goad said. “Real, true investment in resiliency and climate mitigation will come with the Build Back Better Act.”

Colorado’s congressional delegation voted along party lines for the infrastructure bill. President Joe Biden is expected to sign it this week. 

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Sara Wilson
Sara Wilson

Sara Wilson covers state government, Colorado's congressional delegation, energy and other stories for Newsline. She formerly was a reporter for The Pueblo Chieftain, where she covered politics and government in southern Colorado. Wilson earned a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and as a student she reported on Congress and other federal beats in Washington, D.C.

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