Fire season in New Mexico has many chilling meanings. There are the immediate impacts - loss of homes, devastation of wildlife habitat, loss of vegetation, and alteration of most features we think of when we visualize our mountain lands. At the Natural Resources Conservation Service, fire season has another meaning for it can mean a time to mobilize resources to protect the land and people from the aftermath of fires through Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP).
When disaster strikes and the Natural Resources Conservation Service is called in, the first task of the conservationists on the ground is to assess the damage to the watershed. The immediate threat is flooding, for the land no longer has the vegetative cover to hold back New Mexico's torrential monsoon rains. To size up the situation, NRCS staff assess the size of the watershed to determine its capacity to generate large volumes of water. The characteristics of the soil such as permeability and depth are judged. The intensity of the burn is assessed, for low intensity fires generally regenerate vegetation without special treatment while high intensity burns often respond more quickly when reseeded and mulched. Slope is a factor for the steeper and longer the slope, the greater the risk from soil erosion and drainage problems. And finally local climate and the potential for "gully-washers" must be considered.
EWP is designed to resolve imminent hazards to life and property caused by fires and other natural disasters. NRCS may follow the assessment with EWP construction cost sharing depending upon a number of circumstances, including the availability of funds.
All EWP work must reduce threats to life and property. Furthermore, it must be economically and environmentally defensible and sound from an engineering standpoint. All work must present the least expensive, and generally restore the area to pre-disaster conditions.
EWP work is not limited to any one set of prescribed measures. Following a case by case investigation of the work needed, EWP funds may be used to remove debris from stream channels, stabilize road culverts and bridges, reshape and protect eroded banks, correct damaged drainage facilities, stabilize levees and structures, revegetate damaged areas, and purchase floodplain easements on lands subject to frequent flooding.
EWP work must be sponsored by a public agency of the state, tribal, county, or city government. Conservation or other special districts may sponsor the work. Public and private landowners are eligible for assistance but this work must be part of the project proposed by the sponsor.
Through EWP, NRCS reduces the imminent threat to life and property by providing assistance to prevent further damage from flooding, runoff, and erosion. This assistance protects homes, businesses, and other properties from further damage during subsequent storms. NRCS can typically pay up to 75 percent of construction costs of eligible emergency treatments. The remaining 25 percent must come from local sources and can be in the form of cash or in-kind services.
EWP rules allow for up to 75% federal assistance in completion of planned works of improvement in most of the state, and up to 90% cost share is allowed in limited resource counties where:
(i) Housing values are less than 75 percent of the State housing value average (currently tied to the 2000 Census of Population and Housing value for New Mexico, $69,800); and
(ii) Per capita income is 75 percent or less than the National per capita income (currently tied to the 2000 Census of Population and Housing value of $21,587); and
(iii) Unemployment is at least twice the U.S. average over the past 3 years based upon the annual unemployment figures (available from the US Department of Commerce, Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS) program).
For additional information about EWP in New Mexico contact Seth Fiedler, Resource Conservationist, at (505)761-4416 or firstname.lastname@example.org.