Drought tour brings Colorado leaders together to talk actionable solutions (with video)
More than 50 people ranging from legislative aides to state department heads participated in an on-the-ground opportunity to learn about the extreme drought in Northwest Colorado during this week’s Drought Impacts Tour in the Yampa and White River Basins.
On two warm, hazy days, state and local leaders conversed during bumpy bus rides and educational stops at ranches, lakes and the Yampa River in Routt and Moffat counties. During the tour, participants and educators discussed many aspects of drought impacts such as agricultural livelihood, recreation, tourism, wildlife, water, wildfires and forest management.
“I have been learning way more than I ever expected on this drought tour. Hearing directly from ranchers and the things that they are experiencing is truly eye-opening and wonderful,” said Becky Bolinger, Ph.D., assistant state climatologist who works at the Colorado State University Colorado Climate Center. “We do know that the climate is warming, and with that warming climate, we are experiencing more frequent droughts, more severe droughts. These are things that all Coloradans are going to have to deal with.”
Bolinger said a key point people need to realize is how to make the connection between climate science information and residents’ own changes in work practices, especially in agricultural and tourism businesses. Bolinger said the facts of the shifting climate need to translate into changes in business practices and seasonal offerings in order to prepare for a warmer, drier future in Colorado.
“Knowing that they are already prepared by improving their management practices and other things to mitigate the impacts but also to adapt, hopefully it’s not always going to be this doom and gloom situation when we are talking about climate change,” Bolinger said.
The atmospheric scientist said Coloradans should focus on “always working on actionable solutions and getting through this together.”
The tour was organized by the Colorado Drought Task Force, which includes directors of multiple state departments such as natural resources and agriculture. The task force operated in past times of drought and was activated again by the governor in 2020. Task force information listed online (cwcb.colorado.gov/drought) notes that water year 2020 concluded as the 12th warmest water year on record in Colorado since 1895 and the third driest water year on record, trailing only 2002 (driest) and 2018 (second driest).
“It was the goal of this tour to bring decision-makers and folks from the state level to the local communities in the northwest region that have been impacted badly by drought and have more of a sense of what is happening on the ground so that (state leaders) can take that back and address those issues through policy,” said event organizer Sara Leonard, communications director for the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “It was a really great opportunity for two-way communication and collaboration.”
Gov. Jared Polis joined for part of the tour on Wednesday in Moffat County including a picnic at Loudy-Simpson Park south of Craig. U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert from Rifle attended the half-day session on Thursday, riding with staff in an SUV trailing the buses. Serving in her first term for the 3rd Congressional District that covers much of western Colorado, Boebert spoke as part of a panel during the tour’s last stop at Pearl Lake. The congresswoman said she introduced a comprehensive piece of forestry legislation that allows management of forests including requiring the harvesting 10 million board feet of timber every year.
“This really is a bi-partisan and could be a nonpartisan issue. We all want healthy forests. We all want clean air. We want clean water. I think there is a great path moving forward to work with everyone in ensuring we have adequate water supplies, in expanding our current reservoirs, in working on healthfully managing our forests and cleaning out some of this dead timber we see from the bark beetle epidemic.”
The tour included some reality checks, including a visit to Elkhead Reservoir on Wednesday afternoon where a bus muffler started dragging the ground on the bumpy dirt road. While organizers tried to redistribute passengers, Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Dan Gibbs, formerly a firefighter from Summit County, went under the bus to reattach the muffler so the tour could proceed, Leonard noted.
One message from the tour is that drought-related financial assistance and grant opportunities are broad and plentiful at this time. Leonard encouraged agencies, nonprofits and agricultural producers to review funding options found at cwcb.colorado.gov/drought-assistance.
For example, the Colorado Department of Agriculture is promoting new stimulus funding available as of July 1, including $2.5 million to expand market opportunities for funding for Colorado Proud producers, $5 million to expand agricultural efficiency and soil health initiatives, $30 million for agricultural revolving loan and grant programs including for individual farmers and ranchers, and more than $1.8 million for agriculture drought resiliency activities that promote the state’s ability to anticipate, prepare for, mitigate, adapt to or respond to drought.
The CWCB Agricultural Emergency Drought Response Program has a $1 million fund available on a rolling basis that provides immediate aid for emergency augmentation water during drought years in the form of loans or grants.
Residents who would like to share drought-related impact stories with state leaders can contribute to Colorado Drought Stories via the interactive website engagecwcb.org/agricultural-task-force.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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The Colorado River Water Conservation District board of directors approved a request to partially fund the permitting costs for a dam and reservoir project in northwest Colorado.