Hotter than ever: August was the warmest, driest month in western Colorado history — what does that mean for Routt County?
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — This has been a record-breaking summer for Routt County, but it’s no cause for celebration.
Last month was the hottest, driest August on record for western Colorado, according to Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s state climatologist and director of the Colorado Climate Center. He was one of three expert panelists who spoke at the third Yampa Basin Rendezvous discussion Thursday, which focused on changes in temperatures and precipitation amid what they described as a rapidly changing climate.
Routt County isn’t the only place topping charts. In its 2020 State of the Climate report, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association said the year is gearing up to be the planet’s second-warmest year in 141 years of temperature records. The warmest year thus far was 2016.
According to Schumacher, “These changes are going to affect the water cycle and everything that depends on it, which is pretty much everything.”
Among the most pressing threats climate change poses to Routt County are higher temperatures, reduced snowpack, increased risk of wildfires, more severe droughts and more extreme weather, according to a 2018 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory. These would cause residual impacts to the local economy that depends on the ecosystem for everything from tourism to farming and to public health and safety, the report adds.
A parched Yampa Valley
To get a more complete picture of drought conditions, Schumacher presented graphs showing how temperature impacts dryness in the Yampa and White River basins. The graphs use the Standardized Precipitation-Evapotranspiration Index, which takes into account temperature, precipitation and evapotranspiration, or the moisture the earth loses to the atmosphere from both evaporation and transpiration from plants.
Hotter temperatures mean the earth loses more moisture to a thirstier atmosphere. Using this index, Schumacher showed how extremely dry August was, far surpassing any records from the last century.
Unprecedented drought conditions pose serious risks to the Yampa Valley, from natural ecosystems to the people who depend on the health of those ecosystems. Ranchers have had an especially hard time this summer as they struggle to water their crops. For the second time ever, water managers placed a call on the main stretch of the Yampa River in August, meaning certain water users had to stop or curb their usage.
Longtime Steamboat Springs rancher Adonna Allen said her senior water rights meant she was not as affected by the call as some of her neighbors, but the dry summer has caused problems for everyone in agriculture.
Those growing hay have seen anywhere from 25% to 45% reductions in yields, Allen said. To make up for the loss, Allen had to convert pastures her family normally uses for grazing their cattle into hay fields, pastures she has not touched in 10 years.
“We knew we needed the extra hay to get through the winter,” she explained.
Allen considers herself lucky to have the option to add extra hay fields. Other operations have been forced to purchase hay, which has ramped up demand and therefore the cost.
“The price of hay right now has just skyrocketed,” Allen said.
Feeling the heat
Among the most devastating effects of hot, arid conditions for Colorado has been the propensity for large wildfires. The Pine Gulch Fire, sparked by lightning July 31 near Grand Junction, is the state’s largest wildfire in Colorado history. As of Friday, it was more than 139,000 acres in size and 95% contained, following about six weeks of firefighting efforts.
The Middle Fork Fire, 10 miles north of Steamboat, had grown to 5,445 acres Friday, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It continues to spread, fueled by gusting winds and dry weather.
Even after the flames are extinguished, such massive wildfires pose long-term hazards, such as flash flooding, mudslides and debris flow.
It isn’t just the environment that suffers. The consequences of a hotter, drier state have posed several health hazards for local communities.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued multiple air quality advisories for Routt County this week due to heavy smoke from the Middle Fork Fire in North Routt and out-of-state wildfires. The latest advisory is in effect through Saturday morning.
It recommends people stay indoors if smoke is thick, particularly for those with heart disease, respiratory illness, the very young and the elderly. People should consider limiting their time outside when moderate to heavy smoke is in the air, according to the advisory, and possibly relocate if smoke gets indoors and starts to make people sick.
“If visibility is less than 5 miles in smoke in your neighborhood, smoke has reached levels that are unhealthy,” the advisory states.
Looking ahead to winter, warmer and drier conditions do not bode well for powder-hungry skiers and riders.
Snowpack across Colorado has been thinning since the 1950s, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, with losses as much as 60% at some measurement sites. Scientists from Colorado State University and the University of New Hampshire project further reductions in snowpack by the end of the century, with losses as high as 30% in some areas.
That said, the northern mountains, including the area of Steamboat Resort, are less vulnerable to decreases in snowpack than southern parts of Colorado, Schumacher said. This is because the weather patterns that can deliver large snowfall are more dependable than farther south, where he described winters as either “boom or bust.”
The Farmer’s Almanac, in its extended winter forecast for 2020-21, predicted “above-normal snowfall” for northern portions of Colorado. Of course, even five-day weather forecasts can be unreliable, as Yampa Valley residents know particularly well, and a single winter is not indicative of broader trends.
Sarah Jones, Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp.’s first-ever director of sustainability and community engagement, said the effects of climate change are becoming major talking points in the resort’s decision-making and future planning. Jones, the former executive director of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, was hired last year amid efforts to improve the resort’s environmental impact and pursue goals related to climate and energy.
“We are dependent on snow. We are dependent on the river, and both will be impacted by climate change,” Jones said, not just of the resort but of the broader community that relies on winter tourism.
In the past, Ski Corp. has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to local environmental efforts such as the Yampa River Fund and the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council.
As Jones explained, the COVID-19 pandemic has stalled some progress with sustainability goals and climate action investments as the ski area and its parent company, Alterra Mountain Co., grapple with widespread disruptions. Still, Jones said she has several projects in the works, with the help of a consultant, to make the resort more energy efficient and offset their carbon footprint with the use of renewables.
All is not lost in the fight against the negative effects of climate change. Where there are problems, there are also people like Jones working toward solutions.
Locally, the city of Steamboat and Routt County are collaborating on a climate action plan with support from Steamboat Resort and the Steamboat Springs Chamber. Local leaders are exploring solutions around five distinct areas: energy, transportation, land use, waste, education and advocacy.
Jones is a member of the project management team overseeing the creation of the plan, which is scheduled for adoption by the end of the year. The team recently conducted a survey to get the public’s feedback about what actions and projects the community should prioritize in the years ahead.
The city and county hired an outside consultant, Lotus Engineering and Sustainability, LLC., which is putting together recommendations for green projects from various local industry groups, such as Yampa Valley Electric Association and Atmos Energy.
During the Yampa Basin Rendezvous on Thursday, panelist Courtney Peterson, a coordinator for the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, talked about broader efforts to help ecosystems prepare for and survive a rapidly changing climate.
Her institute developed the Climate Change Response Framework, which is meant to be a guide to help organizations and communities tailor projects that work best for their unique situations when it comes to natural resource management. As she explained, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work for the myriad of ways climate change impacts different parts of the country.
Personalizing strategies is not only more effective, she said, it helps a diverse range of landowners and local leaders support environmental efforts.
For example, the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science worked with Indigenous tribes in the Northeast and Midwest to take their cultural values into consideration and use their ecological knowledge to come up with creative solutions.
“Their input was very valuable in this process. Building trust and reciprocity was important,” Peterson said.
She encouraged landowners and organizations in the Yampa Valley to see how they could use the Climate Change Response Framework and an adaptation workbook to guide their own projects. To download the workbook, visit adaptationworkbook.org.
There also are two free, eight-week courses on the framework. The first begins Sept. 28, and the other begins Jan. 25, 2021. To register and learn more, visit forestadaptation.org.
“These tools are really helpful,” Peterson said, “but ultimately your knowledge and expertise, especially in the Yampa River Basin, is going to be crucial.”
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