Contact: Jessica Goad, 720-206-4235

As the 2017 legislative session kicks off today, Conservation Colorado, a 22,000-member-strong environmental organization, outlined its key priorities for the session.

“We’re feeling positive and optimistic about this year’s session, and look forward to making progress with supporters on both sides of the aisle to protect what we love about Colorado: our way of life,” said Pete Maysmith, Executive Director of Conservation Colorado. “The election hasn’t changed what we plan to do here, and no matter who’s in charge in Washington, D.C., we must clean up our air, conserve our water, protect our lands, and ensure that every person in Colorado lives in a healthy environment.”

Specifically, Conservation Colorado has four key legislative priorities:

Chart our own path forward and create clean energy jobs.

  • Ensure we have the cleanest air in the nation and a thriving cleantech sector.
  • Help communities in rural Colorado become economically diversified, especially those that have been historically dependent on natural resource extraction.
  • Defend against attacks from the legislature, such as last year’s ill-fated effort to gut the budget of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment or attempts to turn our national public lands over to the state or private interests.

Plan for the future, particularly with regard to transportation and growth.

  • Advocate for investments in public transit, walking, and biking options.
  • Build upon the work the legislature did last year to make Colorado the best state in the nation to buy an electric vehicle. Now we must make sure that we’re the best state in which to drive one.

Protect the health of our children.

  • Ensure that oil and gas infrastructure does not encroach on our communities.
  • Make more progress on clean air and renewable energy, considering that children are one of the most susceptible populations to air pollution.

Incentivize the sustainable use of our resources and work to prevent waste and pollution.

  • Implement policies that help conserve precious water resources.
  • Promote solutions for saving energy.

“Importantly, the anti-conservation, anti-enforcement agenda did not win here in Colorado,” Maysmith continued, “as seen in the fact that pro-environment candidates won down our state ballot. Citizens in our state value a healthy environment and the Colorado way of life, and we will fight to turn those values into real change this session.”

Editor’s Note: For the past two years, Conservation Colorado has participated in the Community Solutions Program. The program contributes to the professional development of fellows from around the world by placing them with U.S organizations working to bring change in their communities. We are proud to participate in this program, as we also learn from the fellows we host.

Enkhtungalag Chuluunbaatar, Community Solutions Program international fellowMy name is Enkhtungalag Chuluunbaatar. I am the second international fellow working with Conservation Colorado through the Community Solutions Program.

My mission here for the duration of four months is to learn how Conservation Colorado does the valuable work they do, to contribute to their efforts, and to create and strengthen our network in Mongolia.

Mongolia

My home country is Mongolia, a vast country with one of the last nomadic cultures in the world. Even though I flew halfway around the world to be here, in many ways, I feel at home. The climate, the landscape, the wildlife, the sun, the altitude, the amount of precipitation, and the love for nature are all very familiar. It is no surprise that Denver and Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, are Sister Cities.

In stark contrast to the iconic images of Mongolian landscape and its nomadic culture often featured as travel destination, Mongolia has been urbanizing rapidly for the last 30 years since the country transitioned to a market-based economy. The country has undergone tremendous changes economically, politically, and socially, and challenges have arisen from unplanned urbanization and rapid development.

Modern challenges

About 70% of the total population lives in urban areas, and the number is expected to grow with steady rural-urban migration. The capital city, Ulaanbaatar, originally designed for 500,000 people, is now home to 1.4 million people; half the country’s population. Unplanned urbanization, coupled with poor planning and budgeting, has consequences: lack of basic infrastructure, urban service access, sanitation, environmental degradation and pollution. Ulaanbaatar now has the worst air pollution in the world during the winter.

Ger (yurt) in MongoliaThe ger (yurt) districts of Ulaanbaatar, an urban sprawl in continuous expansion, with inadequate infrastructure and services, is where about 65% of the city residents live. Air, soil, and water pollution come from power plants, coal-burning household stoves, an ever increasing amount of industries, automobiles, and construction, pit-latrines, and poor waste management systems. These urban challenges disadvantage the most underserved and vulnerable communities, such as low-income families, children, and people with disabilities.

Community-based solutions

The local NGO I co-founded in Mongolia, Ger Community Mapping Center, focuses on bringing a bottom-up approach to decision-making and urban planning through community mapping.

Our mission is to inform, engage and empower local communities so they can be a part of how the city and neighborhoods evolve and develop.

We believe that the most underserved and disadvantaged communities should be able to voice their concerns, in their way, and participate in how these concerns should be solved.

We work to address an array of issues, ranging from urban service access to urban environmental degradation.

Community mapping is a tool we use to work with local communities. Community mapping allows different stakeholders to understand each other’s perspectives and come to a common solution that is inclusive.

3 Things Colorado and Mongolia Have In Common

Learning from the inner workings of Conservation Colorado and talking to the dynamic staff here has been valuable to improve planning for my work in Mongolia.

Though Denver and Ulaanbaatar are far apart, I found more commonalities between the two regions than you would expect.

  1. Both cities are experiencing significant population growth, especially that of young people, moving for school and work.
  2. Following the population growth, both cities are seeing very active developments, which change older neighborhoods and create new communities. This is a common challenge that both cities face and need to address through resource planning to cater to the current and future residents.
  3. Unstable political and economic currents undermine long-term plans for sustainable development. Where decision-makers and policies are not capable of bringing positive change, civil society needs to and can fill-in and lead the community, city, and the country in the right direction.

Conservation Colorado is a successful example of how an organization can play a leading role in influencing decision-making towards a sustainable and inclusive policies.

Help us empower local communities in Mongolia

Communities collaborate to make a planning mapAs a volunteer-based organization, our supporters are essential to ensure that we continue to work with local communities in Mongolia and engage them in decision-making on sustainable urban development.

You can help us to procure the necessary tools such as laptops, GPS devices, and cameras to document urban issues, develop maps, and effectively engage locals.

Please join our “Make Mapping Possible” fundraiser, to help empower local communities.

Written by Conservation Colorado staff

Climate change and rising temperatures don’t simply mean you need to get a nicer air conditioner. They also have major implications for public health. Research has shown myriad ways climate change will provide challenges for Coloradans staying healthy and safe. For example, climate change will cause disease-carrying insects like like mosquitos and ticks can move to colder areas. It means natural disasters will become less predictable and more severe. And it means allergens and air pollution will worsen.

In order to get a more thorough take on what’s at stake if we don’t act on climate, we interviewed Ken Scissors, a physician at St. Mary’s and a board member at Conservation Colorado. He’s been practicing medicine since 1980 and his insight on the effects of climate change and health are eye-opening.

According to Dr. Scissors, there are four overarching areas where climate change could affect our health:

1. Air quality

Climate change is linked to poor air quality and air pollution. Warmer air helps trap and hold smog around cities, so rising temperatures can actually worsen existing air pollution. Colorado is already vulnerable – 3 of the 25 worst cities in the US for ozone are in Colorado, according to the American Lung Association. These risks are most significant for lung and heart problems, as well as cancers and other disorders. These health issues already affect low-income communities more than average, and this effect will only grow worse with rising temperatures.

2. Natural disasters

Climate change brings also brings a substantial increase in frequency and devastation of natural disasters. Aside from the immediate injuries and death that can be caused by hurricanes, floods, and fires, they also lead to longer-standing issues. Sanitation can be compromised, illnesses spreads easily, and health care delivery is often obstructed. This health effect of climate change will be localized and dramatic, and difficult to predict or prepare for. The Union of Concerned Scientists highlighted wildfires as a major risk for Colorado. US Forest Service scientists predicted the area of wildfire burns to double by 2050. Burn scars also contribute to the severity of flooding damage. In short, Colorado may be safe from hurricanes or sea level rise – but we’re not exempt from the catastrophic effects of climate change.

3. Diseases

In general, harmful microbes, bacteria, and the animals that carry them (also known as “vectors”) prefer warm conditions. Disease-carrying animals like mosquitos, ticks, and rats will be able to move into previously-cooler areas. This increases the risk of devastating diseases like zika, ebola, hantavirus, and lyme. These diseases historically were limited by geography, but today their ranges are already expanding. Colorado is especially vulnerable to increases in West Nile, plague, and hantavirus. Biological hazards from climate change also include pollen and dust – as summers get longer, we’ll see more problems with dust and pollen in areas that never used to struggle with these problems.

4. Heat-related issues

High temperatures can also be problems in and of themselves. Heat stroke and heat stress are real risks for people who work outside or who do not have air conditioning. But for places that are already hot, for those who cannot afford air conditioning, and for people who are already in poor health, this can be a life or death matter. Like many risk factors, this is most likely to affect the sick, old, young, and poor.

Part of the struggle with climate change is that it’s a long and gradual process. Weather events can go against the grain of greater climatic shifts. The same goes for the health effects. It’s almost impossible to say if climate change caused a specific hurricane, a bad day of smog, or a breakout of a microbial disease. But we can look at trend lines and see that the frequency and severity of these events is changing.

Prevention is the best cure for most ailments, and this is no exception. The sooner and more aggressively we can slow down or even reverse climate change, the better things will come out for us. There are also some things we could do to anticipate and be proactive against health risks in the future.

We can put more resources and science into disaster preparedness and disaster relief. We can identify weaknesses and vulnerable populations and put resources into being able to reduce risks or act quickly. And importantly, we can continue working to cut carbon pollution and transition to clean energy sooner rather than later. Identifying these future threats to our health and working to decrease their impact is the only way to move forward.

As the climate warms, agriculture in Colorado is on the front lines. The agriculture industry in Colorado is worth $41 billion, and so the impacts that climate change will have on food production should be of tremendous importance to all of us.

We interviewed two researchers to get a sense of what the impacts may be. Colorado State University researchers Dr. Pat Byrne and Dr. Scott Denning both work to understand how crops can adapt to climate change.Their research may help farmers identify ways to adapt to climate change in the future.

The Problems that Colorado Agriculture is Facing

Dr. Denning explained that as the global climate changes, average temperature will rise sharply. Because Colorado is so far inland, this effect will be stronger because large bodies of water help mitigate temperature swings and Colorado is far from our oceans or Great Lakes. We can expect temperature increases in Colorado to be 1.5 to 2 times as large as global averages. Imagine the climate of Albuquerque as far north as Greeley.

Hotter temperatures come with longer growing seasons. But they also bring major problems for agriculture. Hotter temperatures make plants “thirstier” even as soaring temperatures reduce Colorado’s snowpack. That means a hotter Colorado is also a drier Colorado.

So, farmers will be needing to get more water for irrigation. With booming population growth, obtaining water rights is already challenging in Colorado. Dr. Denning’s biggest worry is water issues – for both plants and people. We’ll see an increase in irrigation needs for agriculture as snowpack decreases and city populations increase. As he puts it, “Where the heck are they gonna get the water?”

We get most of our water from snowpack. We divert about 83% of collected water to agriculture. Only 17% goes to cities. We’ve already seen a 20% decrease in snowpack.

Dr. Scott Denning

To make matters worse, climate change also creates more variability. Future summers may be cool and damp one year, but scorching and dry the next. As Dr. Byrne points out, it’s one thing to breed a strain of wheat that can withstand hot and dry. It’s another to create a strain that can withstand all extremes. Farmers will struggle to know what to plant in the face of the extremes predicted. Low yields not only spell economic trouble for farmers, but consumers as well.

The Research

Farmers are already adapting to this unpredictable world. They’re implementing low-till or no-till methods to reduce water loss, getting crop insurance, and starting to plant crops like sorghum and millet farther north. Crop diversity is good insurance against climate variability.

While the farmers who produce our food try to adapt, scientists are also searching for more drastic solutions. Dr. Byrne hopes his research on plant genetics will find or create a strain of wheat that thrives in a wide variety of conditions. He worries that common strains of wheat won’t be profitable for farmers in the future. He says of the struggle, “The biggest challenge is variability, not major changes in one direction. If, for example, we could [selectively breed plants] for increasingly hot and dry places. That would be hard but it would be possible. But what makes it hard is the swinging back and forth.”

Implementation

So far, scientists haven’t come up with a one-size-fits-all climate change solution for agriculture. But they are constantly looking for and researching new ideas. One of these is a technique called precision agriculture. Raj Kholsa, another CSU researcher, lays precision agriculture out like this: “Precision farming can help today’s farmer meet these new challenges by applying the right input, in the right amount, to the right place, at the right time, and in the right manner. The importance and success of precision farming lies in these five R’s.”

Farmers can remedy financial stress from low yields in other ways as well. Some farmers in Europe have had success in partnering with renewable energy companies to share land. The income from leasing land for windmills or solar can make a difference in tough years. Some farmers may take out crop insurance, which will pay them a sum of money if the harvest is bad.

Acting on climate change is imperative for our future food security as well as the current job security of farmers. Aside from supporting climate change champions politically, you can help by supporting local research institutions as they work to find solutions. Support local farmers financially through CSAs and farmer’s markets, and ask them if they use any of the mitigation efforts mentioned above. Supporting the right people with your dollars can help them make bigger changes in the future.

Written by Conservation Colorado staff

Imagine a game of Jenga. As each wooden block is removed from the tower, it becomes less and less stable. While the removal of one block has little effect, the removal of another will cause the entire tower to collapse.

Now, imagine each Jenga block is a species. There are plants, snakes, birds, mammals, and all the rest. Imagine each player is a threat to an ecosystem. There’s climate, habitat loss, and pollution. As each player removes a wobbly, loose piece, the entire tower gets shakier. Water pollution may remove a crustacean. Habitat loss easily takes out a few big predators. New diseases or fungus with expanding ranges hurt amphibians and bats.

The tower gets shakier.

But climate change is the biggest threat of all, the one that could cause the entire tower to tumble.

Maxwell Plichta with his research subject, the pika.

This is the scenario we are faced with now. Colorado’s animals are facing threats from all sides, with climate change front and center. Take, for example, the pika. This high-alpine critter is “as charismatic and curious as you and me,” according to Maxwell Plichta. He’s been researching pika for 3 years with the Front Range Pika Project. He loves seeing pika on hikes and points out that they’re also an important species for gauging how the environment is reacting to climate change. They’re a furry, high-alpine “canary in a coal mine.”

Pika are in especially bad shape when it comes to climate change Jenga. These little critters don’t do well above 78 degrees Fahrenheit. If they can’t find a place to cool off, they die. Comfortable in the winter and high-alpine environments, pika can’t do well at both extremes. In Colorado, pika live in high mountaintops. This means that they’ve got nowhere to go if their home gets too warm.

Pika have already disappeared from a third of their habitat in Oregon and Nevada. Recent studies show pika are doing OK in Colorado – perhaps due to the high mountain habitat available. According to pika researcher Liesl Erb, “It is good news that pikas are doing better in the Southern Rocky Mountains than some other places. It is likely that the geographic traits of the Rockies are a big reason why we are not seeing significant declines, at least not yet.”

According to Erb’s research, the places in the southern Rockies that lost pika were the driest, not the hottest. She points out that some models predict the exact sort of hot, dry climate in Colorado’s future that dooms pikas. This just goes to show how difficult it is to predict how climate change will affect wildlife.

Pika are considered an indicator species. Removing their Jenga block from the tower may not cause its collapse. It shows the danger what could happen with unabated climate change. Pika are early, easy targets. Their demise may predict danger for less vulnerable species later. In other words, disappearing pikas could be a stark warning of what is to come.

Emissions and carbon pollution threaten the air, water, and climate of both animals and people. We can protect animals from climate change the same way we protect people – support good climate policy, elect leaders who make climate action a priority, and work on ways to curb our own personal use.

Written by Audrey Wheeler

Alongside the Rio Olympics and a presidential election, 2016 is an important year because it marks the 100th birthday of our national parks.

Our national parks help tell the story of who we are as a nation. Some of these places are memorialized for the human history of the area, while others are preserved for their wild character and natural heritage.

While the history of our national parks is often discussed through figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, there are scores of other stories embedded into our nation’s lands that aren’t told enough.

In fact, a 2014 analysis of all our national parks and monuments found that only 112 out of 460 national park units across the country had a “primary purpose” of recognizing the history, culture, or contributions of a traditionally underrepresented community.

Luckily, this deficit has been recognized and things are changing. Several of our new national parks are devoted to telling the full story of this country. These include the Stonewall Inn in New York City that is an important historical site for the LGBT rights movement, the Cesar Chavez National Monument in Southern California that tells the important story of Hispanic migrant laborers, and the Pullman National Monument which describes the history of the “first all African-American union in the country.” .

Colorado’s national parks are doing an excellent job of telling diverse stories. Our analysis of our national park units’ online materials reveals that seven out of the twelve have a primary purpose of telling the stories of underrepresented communities.

Colorado’s twelve national park units tell many different stories. For example, Mesa Verde National Park has incredible artifacts and remnants of Ancestral Puebloan cultures, while Bent’s Fort National Historic Site weaves together the tales of Hispanic settlers, European fur trappers, and Native Americans on the Great Plains.

How can we do this?

The beautiful spaces of Rocky Mountain National Park should be made welcoming and accessible to all.

There are plenty of excellent ideas that have been under discussion. A national coalition of civil rights, environmental justice, and conservation groups have been pushing to increase the use of national parks by minorities, employment of minorities at parks, and the number of parks and monuments that highlight the role of communities of color in American history. The coalition has also called on President Obama to issue a memorandum to encourage federal land management agencies to reflect the growing diversity of the country.

While these changes represent huge progress towards more discussion of diversity in our national parks, we recognize that this change isn’t going to happen immediately nor without the  effort of everyone who enjoys national parks. Colorado is an incredibly diverse place, and this second century of our incredible national parks, should ensure that they are accessible to and honor all people of our nation.

Written by Audrey Wheeler

Rain barrels are officially legal in Colorado on August 10th!

This finally ends the ban on rain barrels in the state of Colorado. At last, we can all have access to an easy conservation tool that will help remind us of our connection to Colorado’s water supply.

Now, of course, the practical questions remain — where do I even find rain barrels? How do I install one? Look no further! We’ve done the digging for you.

Where do I get a rain barrel?

You can find all varieties of barrels at Lowe’sHome DepotAce HardwareAmazon and other home and garden stores. Make sure you follow Colorado guidelines that say your barrels can have up to 110 gallons storage total each, and that your barrel needs to be sealable to keep out breeding mosquitoes.

The company BlueBarrel gives recycled barrels a second life and helps you set them up into a rainwater catchment system! Make sure to grab an online voucher before checking out their stores in Denver, Lafayette, and Louisville.

Who can use rain barrels under this new law?

Anyone who lives in a house or townhouse with fewer than 4 units can use a rain barrel. No permits are necessary. For other narrow exceptions on who can collect rainwater, check out information on the State Engineer’s website.

How many rain barrels can I have?

Each household can have up to two rain barrels with 110 gallons of storage capacity. This is enough to help water your vegetable garden, outdoor plants, or a small lawn.

What can I use the water for?

Rain barrels can capture rainwater from roof downspouts and the water can only be used for outdoor purposes on the property from which the rainwater was captured. So, it can be used to water outdoor plants, lawns, or gardens, but cannot be used for drinking or indoor water needs.

For more very useful facts on Colorado’s new law (including concerns about mosquitoes and water quality), check out these quick answers from Colorado State University!

What else do I need to install my rain barrel?

Just a gutter. In order to make the most of your rain barrel, you may want to to create a raised platform for the barrel, such as cinder blocks or a wooden pallet. The higher your platform is, the higher the water pressure coming out of the barrel will be and the easier to get a watering can under the spigot.

Depending on your gutter structure, a flexible gutter extension can be useful, and may need to be secured with screws and sealed with caulk. Don’t forget to measure your gutter and buy a downspout extension that is the right size!

How do I install a rain barrel?

Here’s a nice how-to guide from Tree People: How To Install a Rain Barrel

And here is a collection of videos by Blue Barrel Systems for how to set up their systems: Videos

What do I need to do to maintain my rain barrel?

Below is some good advice from Tree People. CSU also has some helpful hints on how to keep out impurities and contaminants. And you’ll want to make sure to winterize it for our cold winters (see next question for tips)!

Once your rain barrel is installed, maintenance is easy. Simply use the water you’ve collected to water your garden and make sure the rain barrel is emptied on a regular basis. Don’t forget to double check that the rain barrel system is ready to go before a big storm!

What do I do with my rain barrel during the winter?

In Colorado, it’s not a good idea to leave your barrel set up in the winter, as water inside may freeze and damage the system. Right around the first frost, it’s time to pack it up for the winter. Adjust your gutter downspout so the water will run away from your house. Empty your barrel completely, rinse it, and let it dry. Then, either store it inside a garage or basement, or turn it upside down and leave it outside for the winter, covering it with a tarp if you have one. Make sure the spigot is open and all components are clean. In the spring, you can put it back in place and start harvesting rainwater again.

Will my rain barrel make a difference?

It may not seem like a lot, but in Colorado every drop counts. Using two rain barrels to water your plants could save up to 1,200 gallons a year, just from one household! It’s also a great way to connect to Colorado’s water supply, as using a rain barrel tunes you into the natural water cycles of our region.

Here’s Drew in a canoe to tell you a little more about why rain barrels matter:

More questions about the law on rain barrels?

Check out this short articleColorado Department of Water Resources page, or this fact sheet from CSU.

Written by Eliza Carter

The bill to legalize rain barrels has passed both chambers of the Colorado legislature and was signed by Governor John Hickenlooper this month! Soon you’ll be able head out to the store and purchase your very own legal rain barrel.

It’s clear to us that all of our amazing supporters felt very strongly about this issue. Every time we talked to folks in the community, we heard that you all wanted a rain barrel to use your rainwater more efficiently. Part of that is because it seems so silly; whoever heard of a Home Depot product that is illegal in a state where you can buy marijuana-infused gummy bears?

However, rain barrels are also a very important tool for people to become more informed about their water use and our water limitations in the West.  Here’s the thing: water scarcity can be a difficult thing to keep in mind. Many of us know that our water is limited, but very few factors in our daily lives really reflect that limitation. When we need some water at home, we can get as much as we want from the faucet or the shower or the garden hose. Not so with rain barrels. When it’s been raining a lot, a rain barrel will fill up and you’ll have water to use on your garden. But when you leave the spigot open or it’s been dry, that water will be gone before you know it.

But what’s next for water conservation in our state? Rain barrels are a great first step for a more empowered public, but that’s just part of ensuring a healthy water future and there are many more steps to take.

Colorado is facing some staggering challenges when it comes to our water supply. And until recently, we didn’t have a plan in place on how we were going to meet our growing water needs in light of population growth, climate change, and other stressors.

People are moving to Colorado by the thousands every month, and our water supply is not going to increase to meet the demand. Further, climate change is exacerbating drought and  threatening to dry up our rivers. So we need to get smart about how we use our water. Fortunately, Governor Hickenlooper recently released the final Colorado Water Plan, which will serve as a road map for how we manage our water for years to come. It contains some strong goals and that, if met, will help us ensure that future generations will have enough water and our rivers will stay healthy and flowing. The plan recognizes that increasing water conservation in our cities is one of the easiest ways we can help protect the health of our rivers.

But we’ve got to make sure the plan is implemented. It’s possible that this plan will simply get filed away, and we really can’t let that happen. If we’re going to confront the water challenges we face, we need to put in the work and buckle down, right now.

So what can you do?

Well, a whole lot, actually.

First, we should thank the governor for signing the bill!

Second, we’ve got to ensure our legislators know that this is a priority for their constituents. Over the summer, legislators on a water committee will be meeting to discuss possible legislation for next year. At this we should ensure that our elected officials make conservation and implementation the water plan a priority.

Third, you can tell the Colorado Water Conservation Board you want conservation to be a priority for them as well.

You can also keep all this in mind this November. If Colorado is going to confront its water future in smart and innovative ways, we need our elected officials to support conservation. So read up about the candidates on our elections page and vote for the folks who will keep our rivers healthy and flowing!

Finally, go buy your new rain barrel and encourage your friends to do the same!

Written by Conservation Colorado staff

Whether it’s obvious or not, Latinos are conservationists and have been connected to madre tierra for generations. That’s because our Latina moms are constantly reminding us to conserve, recycle, and enjoy the outdoors. We may miss the message when it comes from trained environmentalists, but not when it’s from nuestras mamás. Here are four examples of how Latinos conserve every day to save money and resources.

While a climate expert will tell you to reduce your carbon footprint by using less energy, nuestras mamás teach us about energy conservation by having us turn off the lights when we don’t need them… Simple, right?

Conservation is part of our culture. For example, nuestras mamás always remind us to never throw things away that can be used to save leftovers – reusing everyday items saves money and helps preserve our natural resources.

Latina moms will always encourage us to enjoy parks and play outdoors – especially in the beautiful state of Colorado! So yes, Latinos agree that recreating outside is good for keeping us active and healthy. Incidentally, it’s also pretty good for our economy: public lands add $24 million to our state’s economy every year!

We are taught to conserve water by nuestras mamás as they time our showers and tell us to cerrar la llave de agua. Saving water in our communities will help save water on the state level, so we can prevent water shortages and costly projects to move water from mountains to cities!

As can be seen, trained environmentalists and nuestras mamás share the same values, we just express them differently. Coloradans want to reduce our carbon footprint, preserve our natural resources, improve our quality of life, and be smart about water use. We understand that protecting madre tierra is not all about science and numbers; as we have learned from our moms, we have to act now to protect Colorado for future generations!

Written by Micha Rosenoer, Southwest Field Organizer

The recent disaster on the Animas is news to no one at this point. Headlines across Colorado and national outlets have spread this recent development far and wide; the Animas turned orange, and that’s a big problem. That’s true — an abandoned mine leaking toxic chemicals into one of Southwest Colorado’s primary rivers, which sustains countless residents’ livelihoods, is a tremendous problem.

This is a tragedy. There’s no doubt about that. We’re all angry and profoundly saddened to see the lifeblood of Southwest Colorado spoiled. And the question on most of our minds is: how on earth was this allowed to happen?

So what actually happened?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was trying to clean up the Gold King Mine when a plug failed, which sent 3 million gallons of yellow toxic sludge into the Animas. Efforts at Gold King are one of many projects the EPA is undertaking to clean up the thousands of abandoned old mines that remain from Colorado’s mining legacy.

Yep, that’s right — there are thousands of mines like Gold King across our state, and many are like ticking time bombs. As anyone who has lived in Southwest Colorado for longer than a few years will tell you, the region is no stranger to mining-related catastrophes. This time around, the EPA’s hand happened to be on the shovel, but disasters like this one demonstrate the need to recognize our history of reckless exploitation.

What can we do to confront that history?

Quite a bit, actually. Here are some ways we can prevent future disasters, and how YOU can get involved:

  • Support efforts of local science-based groups conducting independent monitoring in conjunction with the EPA
  • Get involved — contact your elected representative and engage in public comment opportunities like town hall meetings and opportunities to speak with elected officials
  • Get involved with current and future BLM planning processes. Many of these plans  invite public input on where and how industry should be allowed to mine and drill within our communities. Strong standards and limitations for industry could prevent accidents like this one decades down the road.

Remind me again why we’ve been having to deal with such rampant pollution?

It’s because, in the late 19th century, westward expansion was largely about mining. People broke their backs to glean their wealth out of the ground in the form of gold, silver, or other metals. And they found that wealth in mineral-rich Southwest Colorado, which led to an explosion in mines in the area.

Here’s the big problem; many of these mines were established far before environmental protections were even a part of our country’s vocabulary. But they continued to provide welcome financial support to the area, so the mining industry continued until the 1990s. After a they ceased to be financially viable, those mines largely closed, but cleaning up their toxic sludge has fallen to the EPA, which leads us to our current situation.

Looking ahead

At this point, it is absolutely imperative that we work together to find solutions. The legacy of mining in the Southwest and across Colorado is a massive problem, but it’s a solvable one. We need to ensure that the mining industry is held accountable for the messes they make. They’ve been allowed to pass the buck for far, far too long.

One silver lining in this disaster is that it has brought worldwide attention to the sorry state of our mining legacy here in Colorado and the thousands of mines that pose similar unacceptable risks to our water, recreation, and wildlife. While the spill is awful, the Animas has struggled with water quality for decades thanks to runoff from mines like Gold King across the watershed.  It’s unfortunate that the river turning such an alarming shade was required to increase our sense of urgency on this issue, because conditions have been deplorable for a long time. Whenever it rains reasonably hard in Southwest Colorado, zinc and cadmium levels go up 100% on the Animas. This is not a hazard that we should be comfortable with in Colorado. So while it’s a shame that it took an incident of this magnitude to generate the appropriate alarm and urgency, perhaps we will see some real improvements as a result.

The best result from this disaster would be political will to take decisive action to clean the mines around Silverton and developing long term solutions for the hundreds of miles of Colorado rivers currently impacted by mine drainage.  Returning to the status quo of ignoring pre-spill contamination levels is not good enough for our town or the future of Colorado’s rivers.

For more detailed information on the spill and its roots, click herehere, and here.

Your Southwest Field Organizer,

Micha Rosenoer