Best of the West: Infrastructure package supports regional goals; digitally mapping fire damage; crossbreeding sustainable cattle; and developing North Dakota’s first ‘water trail’

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Nov. 8, 2021. (Photos courtesy of the Water District of Southern California and Cassidy Araiza)

After months of debate (and continued advocacy from WGA), Congress approved the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act worth roughly 1.2 trillion dollars. Along with funding to improve outdated roads and bridges, many Western states will receive significant sums of federal aid to address the region’s most pressing issues – including droughtwildfirecybersecuritybroadband connectivity and energy.

With a total of $3.3 billion appropriated for wildland fire, $200 million will be available for post-fire restoration projects; The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service will each get $250 million for planning and conducting prescribed burns; and $500 million will be allocated for mechanical thinning projects, which will work in tandem with current state and local programs like the Arkansas River Watershed Collaborative, a first of its kind collaborative working to thin hundreds of acres trees killed by the mountain pine beetle on Monarch Pass in Colorado

Better managing forests and protecting communities from fire is only part of the Act’s environmental focus. As part of the Act, Congress also earmarked $8 billion for water projects throughout the region. The money will help pay for programs to rent water from farmers so that more of the resource will flow downstream to avoid water cuts during extremely dry years, as well as water recycling programs – like the Central Arizona Project, which will produce up to 150 million gallons a day and serve more than 500,000 homes in Arizona and Southern California – and improved water management programs like The Central Utah Project Completion Act, which diverts water from the Colorado River Basin to the Wasatch Front for municipal water use, hydroelectric power, fish and wildlife habitat, and conservation. 

Aside from the environment, another key area of focus in the infrastructure package is to upgrade the region’s technical capacity and enable it to meet the needs of the modern economy. To this end, $1 billion will be allocated to state, local, tribal and territorial governments to enhance their ability to protect against cyber-attacks. Another $65 billion will be allocated for broadband expansion in underserved communities; $7.5 billion will fund the deployment of EV charging stations; and $21.5 billion will fund new technologies that demonstrate clean energy production, including $1.5 billion for clean hydrogen manufacturing projects similar to the North Dakota Hydrogen Hub

MAPPING FIRE: Using cloud computing and machine learning, fire managers can now transform photos from a 360-degree camera into mapping data that shows "what was damaged, where it was damaged and how badly it was damaged," to more efficiently allocate resources – a tool that could be of great use once federal funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is allocated to the states. 

HYDRO STORAGE: Developers of a pumped-storage hydropower project that is being constructed in Wyoming believe the technology could be a solution for the variability of wind and solar power. Using surplus energy to pump water from a lower reservoir to an upper reservoir, utilities can store the water until more electricity is needed, at which point it's released and flows back down to the lower reservoir through turbines that generate power when demand is high but wind and solar potential is low.

SUSTAINABLE RANCHING: By crossbreeding different types of cattle, like Brahmans that originate from the subtropics, a growing segment of western ranchers are looking to develop smaller, lankier cows that retain less heat, aren’t as thirsty and live off the native grasses and bushes without the massive grain feedlots synonymous with the American cattle industry. Learn more about convservation ranching by watching the WGA's 'Working Lands, Working Communites Initative' workshops.  

WATER RECREATION: With funding generated from tax revenue on oil and gas production, the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are developing a 180-mile water trail for kayakers and canoeists along the Sheyenne River. When completed, the state will ask the National Park Service to make it an official state water trail, a designation that does not yet exist in the state, but that North Dakota Tourisim hopes will further connect the public to the outdoors and generate interest from a growing outdoor recreation industry

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