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New Mexico Senators pushing bill to protect watersheds

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(The Center Square) – Two Democratic United States Senators unveiled a bipartisan bill they say will protect the forests and watersheds.

U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, and Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, joined U.S. Senators Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and others to introduce the Headwaters Protection Act.

The bill aims to expand support for two U.S. Forest Service programs Heinrich got put in the 2018 Farm Bill.

The programs try to prevent “water pollution at the source, improve the health of our watersheds, and ensure investments benefit downstream communities,” according to a press release.

“Nearly a decade ago, I was proud to lead the bipartisan effort with Senator Jeff Flake to establish these programs within the U.S. Forest Service,” Heinrich said. “While our work helped improve the management of watersheds in our national forests and reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfires, last year’s historic wildfires made clear: there’s more work to do. As we continue to confront the reality of drier forests and more extreme wildfire seasons, we must extend and strengthen these programs to support the long-term sustainable use of our land and water.”

Luján concurred, arguing that the bill will ensure more people can access clean drinking water.

“Water is vital to every community. Protecting our watersheds is a high priority to ensuring access to safe drinking water is available,” he said. “That’s why I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing the Headwaters Protection Act. This legislation will invest in water pollution prevention and watershed management to help ensure clean water for the livelihood of our communities and habitats.”

And Crapo said the legislation could benefit rural communities.

“Protecting our natural resources and the environment is a collaborative effort at every level,” he said in the release. “This legislation provides much-needed funding for watershed restoration while encouraging collaboration as a benefit to small, rural, and disadvantaged communities and tribes without exerting federal control over private lands.”

America’s National Forests supply drinking water for nearly one-fifth of the country. However, many of those watersheds are either impaired or at risk, according to the release.

The Forest Service has two major authorities to manage forests for watershed health, according to the release: the Water Source Protection Program and the Watershed Condition Framework.

The Protection Program supports initiatives to prevent water pollution by fostering collaborations between farmers, ranchers, water utilities, Tribes, local governments and the Forest Service. It aims to restore forest health and impaired watersheds. Meanwhile, the Framework establishes a standardized evaluation process within the Forest Service to assess watershed health and ensure that investments positively impact communities downstream.

The Headwaters Protection Act would increase funding for the Water Source Protection Program by $20 million a year and prioritize local partnerships to protect forests and watersheds, the Senators argue. It also increases Framework funding by $30 million a year and tries to improve the program’s long-term sustainability.

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