As part of Colorado Compact, Steamboat makes moves on climate change
October 31, 2018
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 11:10 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 1 to accurately reflect the amount the county spent on wildfire suppression on private lands in 2017.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As a member of the Compact of Colorado Communities, the city of Steamboat Springs has committed to taking action on climate change.
In Northwest Colorado, drought, wildfire risk and water shortage are among the most salient impacts of warming global temperatures, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment.
Much of Routt County saw the warmest average temperatures on record between October 2017 and September 2018. The parts of the county that didn't break the record saw average temperatures that placed them in the top 10 percent of warmest years of the record.
Three of the four driest water years on record in Colorado took place in the last two decades — 2002, 2012 and 2018. For the first time this year, some Yampa River water users were not allowed to draw water from the river as low winter snowpack and slight summer rainfall led to low flows. The city and Routt County are preparing for droughts and water shortage in the future.
There's a dollars-and-cents impact with this. Sales tax revenue drives the city budget, and the bulk of sales tax revenue comes in the winter tourism season, City Manager Gary Suiter explained. A bad snow year turns into a slower ski season, which negatively impacts city revenue.
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Last year, the $317,000 the county spent supporting area fire protection districts fighting wildfires on private land in the county exceeded the county's $31,000 budget for the expense. This year, Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan said he was sure this cost exceeded $100,000.
The Compact calls for communities to announce a goal or initiative toward climate action by December 2019. Examples include goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, bolstering renewable energy or reducing energy consumption.
"I realized that Steamboat was already doing so many things that the Compact asks us to do," said Kathi Meyer, Steamboat Springs City Council president pro-tem and the city's representative to the Compact. "I was very comfortable recommending to the rest of council that we sign on to the compact."
Joining the Compact is an ongoing discussion for the county commissioners, who aren't currently at a consensus on joining, Corrigan said.
Sarah Jones, executive director of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, said local action, including joining the Compact, is important when working to build up resiliency and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
There aren't one-size-fits-all solutions to issues presented by rising temperatures. In Routt County, heating buildings in winter brings heavy energy use and emissions. In Florida, the same issues emerge as people cool their homes in summer.
"By dealing with it on a local level, you’re really getting to what needs to get done, instead of a high level 'You need to do this," which doesn't always translate," she said.
The city, Routt County and the University of Colorado at Denver developed a Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory in 2005. The city is working to find partners to complete an updated assessment next year, Meyer said.
The city and county also are working to build up the area's resiliency to drought.
Steamboat's recently approved Yampa River Stream Management plan examines ways to supplement flows in low-water years. In the event of another call on the Yampa or curtailment of Fish Creek, the city's primary water source, Steamboat is working to place a million gallon water tank on the west side of town to ensure there's an adequate backup supply, Meyer said.
The city and Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District are also working to develop a plan to protect the water supply from Fish Creek should a major wildfire occur in the watershed. The county recently participated in a workshop that worked through the hypothetical impacts to agriculture if this summer's drought occurred for three consecutive years, Jones said.
The city also plans to re-evaluate its STAR Community Rating, Meyer said. The STAR Community program rates communities based on their climate adaptations, emissions, green infrastructure and a number of other criteria related to sustainability. Steamboat has a high rating — four of the five stars possible — and is one of two STAR-rated communities in Colorado.
There is more work to be done, Jones said. Increasing energy efficiency and the amount of waste diverted from landfills is an easy first step, she said.
There's progress here, too.
The Sustainability Council is leading the creation of a plan to divert more waste from landfills. The city has switched to LED bulbs, Meyer said, and the new combined law enforcement facility contains more than a $100,000 investment in energy-saving infrastructure, including a ventilation system that transfers heat from stale air to incoming fresh air.