From the valleys of the West Slope, Colorado rivers are a cornerstone of our communities, economy, environment, and shared way of life. However, our state’s landlocked status means that the rivers’ water isn’t naturally accessible for a lot of Colorado communities; most often, we have to bring the water to us. Snowpack melts from mountain peaks and irrigates through tunnels and pipes to reach communities throughout the state. Water, as a seasonal and limited resource, is increasingly scarce as snowpack peaks earlier and warm temperatures arrive earlier.

Learn more about how water travels from mountain tops to our taps in our latest edition of “Conservation Chats.”

Despite the fact that Colorado is home to some of the best water recreation opportunities in the West, we’re facing a prolonged drought — and all the environmental issues associated with it.

Consequently, many Colorado rivers aren’t in great shape. The damaging effects of climate change and lingering impacts of overuse, poor management, and energy development continue to devastate our water supplies.

Summer after summer, our rivers seem to be shrinking. However, something about this summer is remarkably different. Currently, abnormally dry conditions are impacting approximately 4,023,000 Coloradans — about 80% of the state’s population.

Let’s look at a few of the rivers across the state to reflect on the past and what our new normal may look like.

Hold On: How Do We Measure Water?


We use the measurement of cubic feet per second (cfs) to measure water in motion. One cfs represents 7.5 gallons of water flowing by a particular point per second.

Imagine one unit of cfs as roughly the size of a basketball. So when we say a river has 449 cubic feet per second, imagine about 449 basketballs bouncing downstream every second!

Colorado River


Image Credit: Don Graham.

Glenwood Canyon:

Flows on July 23, 2018: 2190 cfs

Average flows on July 23 over the last 51 years: 4270 cfs

That’s over 2000 cfs less than the past average; that’s roughly 51 percent less than the average.

Also known as the “American Nile,” the Colorado River supplies more water for Coloradans than any other river in the state through pipelines from the West Slope to the Front Range. As one of the southwest’s most utilized bodies of water, the Colorado River is also one of the most vulnerable to increasing demand and the long-lasting impacts of climate change. Decreasing flows, increased evaporation resulting from higher temperatures, and dwindling snowpack levels continue to increase the gap between supply and demand.

Yampa River


The confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers

Deerlodge Park:

Flows on July 23, 2018: 98.1 cfs

Average flows on July 23 over the last 33 years: 914 cfs

That’s over 800 cfs less than the past average; that’s roughly 10 percent of the average amount of water.

The Yampa River remains as the last major free-flowing tributary to the Colorado River, the backbone of the West’s water supply. As the Colorado River continues to get exhausted from increasing demand, the Yampa is emerging as a source to meet growing water demands. There have been a number of proposals over the years to dam and divert water from the Yampa to send it to thirsty cities east of the Continental Divide, which would be a disaster for one of the West’s last wild rivers.

Dolores River


Image credit: Gabe Kiritz

Near Bedrock, CO:

Flows on July 23, 2018: 6.04 cfs

Average flows on July 23 over the last 34 years: 93 cfs

That’s less than the past average; that’s roughly 6.5 percent of the average amount of water.

The Dolores River has faced numerous challenges over the years, including dams, high water demands, mining pollution, and climate change. This river is severely threatened, recently scoring a D- on our Colorado Rivers Report Card. However, recent local efforts to revitalize the water have helped build a drumbeat to reinvigorate one of the most unknown and underappreciated rivers in the state.

The steps we take now to protect and improve our rivers will determine the viability — and future — of Colorado’s water. More importantly, what we do now will determine if we have healthy rivers and enough drinking water in the future.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper today announced an executive order directing Colorado air quality officials to begin a process to adopt state advanced clean car standards in response to the Trump administration’s expected rollback of federal rules. The governor’s executive order will make Colorado the first state in the interior of the country to chart the path of enacting these standards, and it will give Coloradans strong safeguards from air pollution caused by gasoline and diesel vehicles.

By initiating this public rulemaking process, Colorado could join 13 other states and the District of Columbia as leaders in clean car technology and clean air. Ultimately, the implementation of the standards will save Coloradans money at the gas pump, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce pollutants from millions of vehicles.

 

Advocates for the environment and public health have released the following statements:

“Motor vehicles are a significant contributor to air pollution and climate change. As the federal government continues to roll back environmental protections to appease industry interests, it’s up to the states to take action. Colorado can’t — and won’t — be left behind. Governor Hickenlooper’s executive order ensures that Colorado is a leader in the nation and shows that Coloradans are committed to cutting air pollution for the sake of our health, economy, and environment.”  – Maria Handley, acting executive director, Conservation Colorado.

“Transportation is the number two source of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado — and number one source of emissions in the nation. Adopting clean car standards means fewer bad air days and a better quality of life for citizens across our state.”  – Garrett Garner-Wells, director of Environment Colorado.

“Inefficient cars are just wasteful – they cost consumers every time we go to the pump and they hurt our health when they produce unnecessary pollution. Clean car standards result in more fuel efficient and cleaner vehicles, which benefit our wallets and our personal health. As technology advances, we need to take advantage of even cleaner, more fuel efficient cars. That’s why we applaud Governor Hickenlooper’s action to make Colorado a leader around fuel efficient, cleaner cars.”  – Danny Katz, director of CoPIRG (Colorado Public Interest Research Group).

“With the Trump administration abdicating leadership on cleaning up tailpipe pollution and saving consumers money on gas, states need advanced vehicle standards to ensure their citizens get to drive the cleanest, most affordable cars on the market. This action will help ensure Coloradans still get clean air and cleaner cars.”  – Noah Long, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Governor Hickenlooper deserves credit for taking bold action to make Colorado the first state in the Mountain West to adopt the Clean Car Standards. As the federal government continues to favor corporate interests over the public good, Governor Hickenlooper’s action will help save families from paying extra at the gas pump and help keep pollution out of our Rocky Mountain air.”  – Zach Pierce, senior campaign representative for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Colorado.

 

Background:

Thirteen states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) and the District of Columbia have adopted a set of state clean car standards designed to reduce the emission of smog-forming pollutants, particulate matter, and carbon pollution and to support the development of zero-emission vehicle technology. These states represent nearly 40 percent of the new vehicle sales market. Governor Hickenlooper’s executive order puts Colorado on the path to join these states by initiating a public process with the Air Quality Control Commission.

recently released report details some of the health and economic benefits of adopting the Advanced Clean Car Standards. Denver was ranked the 11th most polluted city in the nation for ozone levels, and vehicle emissions are one of the largest contributors. Adopting the advanced standards will not only protect Coloradans from illness, but it will save money. According to the report, with the clean car standards in place, by 2040 Colorado would save roughly $16 to $37 million in health care costs; reduce the number of work days lost due to illness from air pollutant emissions; and save $260 million per year in social costs from long-term damage caused by carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

The governor’s executive order comes in response to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ongoing efforts to roll back 2012 federal clean car standards designed to improve air quality and protect public health. The federal emissions standards have been good for Colorado, both in terms of cost savings and better air quality:

  • According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, no other federal policy is delivering as much oil savings, consumer benefits, and carbon emission reductions as the 2012 Federal Vehicle Emissions Standards.
  • According to AAA, the average cost of owning and operating a vehicle in 2017 is $8,649. Because of the federal clean cars standards, the average Colorado household was expecting to see $2,700 in savings by 2030 from lower gas bills.
  • Transportation is the #2 source of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado, and the highest in the nation. The federal standards were set to reduce carbon emissions in Colorado by 4.5 million tons per year.
  • In the Denver area, emissions of smog-causing air pollutants from vehicles is set to increase by about 15 percent if the federal standards are rolled back. For Coloradans, especially the 343,000 people who are living with asthma, more air pollution means more coughing and wheezing, increased risk of infection, and permanent damage to lung tissue.

 

CONTACTS:

Jace Woodrum, Conservation Colorado, 720-412-3772

Danny Katz, Colorado Public Interest Research Group, 608-215-0929

Garrett Garner-Wells, Environment Colorado, 321-536-6019

Noah Long, Natural Resources Defense Council, 860-515-6885

Thomas Young, Sierra Club, 719-393-2354

Written by Audrey Wheeler

120 days. 100 legislators. Among a storm of #MeToo scandals, teacher protests, civil rights debates, and more, we made progress and fought some important fights for our environment.

In case you haven’t been keeping up, here are the biggest wins, bad things blocked, and losses for our air, land, water, and communities coming out of this year’s legislative session.

VICTORIES:

Bicyclist riding through city: increased sustainable transitInvesting in transportation for all Coloradans. After two years of fighting, we notched a huge victory in passing SB 001, a bipartisan bill that includes major investments in transportation options like senior and disability buses, sidewalks for pedestrians, highway shoulders for tractors, and resources to keep everyone safe. It is a step towards funding our state’s massive transportation needs in a fiscally responsible manner, and it supports a system that will benefit all Coloradans. With 2.5 million more people expected to live in Colorado in the next 25 years, these options are more important than ever to combat congestion and improve air quality. While we believe additional revenues are needed to address all our transportation needs, this bill provides critical initial investments to move us forward.

Two kids point across a streamRenewing funding to protect our public lands. A massive funding stream for Colorado’s outdoors was reauthorized through Colorado’s lottery! This dedicates funding for parks, open spaces, and outdoor recreation in all 64 counties of Colorado. This bill (SB 066) will help boost local projects to protect our outdoors.


Solar panels: Increased Solar StorageAdvancing renewable energy through storage. Energy storage is an essential companion to renewables that will enable a clean energy future. Two bills tackled this need (SB 009 and HB 1270). SB 009 declares that power customers have a right to install, interconnect, and use energy storage systems, making sure that homeowners can store their renewable energy, while HB 1270 directed the Public Utilities Commission to consider storage in as utilities make plans for future energy sources.


Commercial irrigation at sunset: Conserved WaterConserving Colorado’s water. We helped pass three bills to allow reused water for flushing toilets (HB 1069), growing hemp (SB 038), and farming edible crops (HB 1093)! “Reuse” water is when water is used for one purpose, say to wash dishes, and then treated to a safe standard to be used again, like to water a garden. When a water provider is able to use the same water multiple times, it means more demands can be met without increasing their overall water consumption. Reusing water helps conserve our limited water resources, and these bills will save thousands of gallons a year.


A single deer in an aspen grove: protected our wildlifeProtecting state parks and wildlife. Coloradans depend on Colorado Parks and Wildlife to deliver on its mission and ensure future generations have access to the recreational opportunities available today. SB 143 allows CPW to prevent budget shortfalls and meet its goals by increasing user fees and adjusting them to keep pace with inflation.


Rural landscape with one home: Supported rural communitiesSupporting rural communities. Two bills were passed this year: first, the Rural Economic Advancement of Colorado Towns (REACT) Act aims to provide assistance to rural towns that have experienced significant economic shifts such as industry closure. This bill (SB 005) will help make sure our rural communities have support from the state of Colorado as they face transitions, often related to the shift to clean energy. Second, SB 002 adds funding for increasing broadband to rural areas across Colorado. Currently, many rural communities do not have access to broadband internet, or if they do, its poor and unreliable quality. Rural communities deserve high-speed, functional infrastructure so their opportunities to earn a good life are not limited.

These are just some of the 27 bills we helped pass this year with the support of our 36,000 members!

But not everyone was in line with conservation interests. We also worked to kill 11 bills this legislative session that would have been bad for our air, land, water, or people.

BLOCKED:

  • Stopping Colorado from fighting climate change. SB 226 sought to prohibit Colorado from being involved in the U.S. Climate Alliance, which Governor Hickenlooper signed onto last summer. This bill was a thinly veiled attempt to stall Colorado in its efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This bill passed the Senate but was soundly killed in the House, thanks in part to our members’ advocacy.
  • Repealing electric vehicle tax credits. Colorado’s innovative tax credits make our state the best in the country for buying electric vehicles. The credits have helped spur consumers to switch to EVs, giving us the 6th highest market share in the country for EVs. At the same time, EVs benefit our air quality and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. SB 047 would have ended these tax credits early, cutting off the benefits of EVs to our air and our economy, but we ensured the death of this shortsighted legislation.

And of course, we weren’t able to win in every fight this year. Some of the bills we worked hard to pass this legislative session met their ends in the state Senate, which is under anti-conservation leadership.

LOSSES:

  • Protecting Colorado’s water and rivers. A bill (HB 1301) to hold mining companies responsible for water cleanup would have updated our state’s hard rock mining laws to protect the rushing rivers and drinking water we rely on. Unfortunately, this bill was killed in the Senate by pro-industry voices.
  • Fighting climate change. One bill (HB 1297) would have allocated funds to prepare Colorado for climate change. Another (HB 1274) would have set a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 from 2005 levels. Despite passing the House, both bills were sent to kill committees in the Senate.
  • Expanding electric vehicle infrastructure. Our transportation sector is changing, and we need the infrastructure to keep up the pace. SB 216 would have done so by lifting a restriction on utility companies’ ability to invest in electric vehicle infrastructure to meet the growing need and demand across Colorado. Despite electric cars like the Nissan Leaf gaining in popularity around the state, Senators voted to let Colorado fall behind.

You may notice one big issue is missing from this list: oil and gas! In fact, oil and gas was such an important and divisive issue in this year’s legislative session that we’re writing about it separately just to relay what went down. Read it here!

In all, it was a successful legislative session, despite the anti-conservation leadership we’ve seen in the state Senate. We are proud to have worked to pass bills that will be good for the future of all Coloradans, and we’re ready to keep fighting for the big issues that didn’t get addressed in this year’s legislature.

We couldn’t do this work without the support of members like you. But there is more to be done as we gear up for the next election. Sign up now to volunteer to help elect a pro-conservation legislature!That way we’ll be able to see even more victories next year.

Conservation Colorado and Western Resource Advocates released the following statements today, praising the Colorado House of Representatives for passing HB18-1069 on a vote of 47 to 14. The bill expands the use of reclaimed water for toilet flushing; it will now move to the Senate for further debate.

“Colorado faces a future where our demand for water will outgrow our supply. That’s why we need to implement innovative policies like this bill, which will stretch our current water resources,” said Kristin Green, Water Advocate, Conservation Colorado. “The future of Colorado’s communities, environment, and economy depends on healthy rivers. This forward-thinking solution is one way to help provide all Coloradans with the water they need while also preserving our precious waterways.”

“Water is the lifeblood of our region, and we need to implement proven solutions that safely and cost-effectively reuse existing water resources. A growing number of states, including, Florida, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, have already successfully supplemented their water supplies with recycled water,” said Laura Belanger, Water Resources and Environmental Engineer, Western Resource Advocates. “Water reuse, in concert with other water-smart tools and strategies, can help us provide for our communities while also protecting our beloved rivers and lakes.”

This legislation is related to three other bills moving through the Colorado legislature to allow reclaimed water to be used for edible crops and community gardens, marijuana cultivation, and industrial hemp use. HB18-1069 now moves on to the Colorado Senate for consideration.

Representatives Dylan Roberts and Barbara McLachlan today introduced HB18-1301, a bill to protect water quality after hard rock mining takes place. This bill ensures protecting water quality is a priority when issuing new mining reclamation permits and requires adequate financial tools to be in place for cleanup of potential mining pollution.

“It’s simple: our drinking water should be clean,” said Kristin Green, Water Advocate for Conservation Colorado. “That’s why HB18-1301 is so critical. Our state’s mining laws are in dire need of an update to protect the rushing rivers and streams we all treasure. Coloradans across the board want to see mining pollution addressed, and we can all agree that it’s a good idea to protect the rivers we count on for our drinking water from toxic mining pollution.”

Colorado has a rich history of mining, and past mining operations have created significant water quality and public health issues for the state. More than 1,600 miles of rivers and streams have been impacted by mining pollution.

Public opinion research shows that 88 percent of Coloradans believe it’s a problem that tens of thousands of Colorado’s polluting mine sites have not been cleaned up, while 70 percent say mining companies should be held financially responsible for the damage and pollution that they cause.

Specifically, HB18-1301 would:

  • Give the state of Colorado the authority to include water quality protection in the bond amount when issuing permits for hard rock mining. Bonds are the money provided by mine operators to help cover costs for protecting public health and the environment, even if the company goes bankrupt or abandons operations.

  • Hold operators accountable by ensuring they have a plan for water quality treatment that includes an end date, to avoid creating more chronically polluting mines in our state.

  • Outlaw “self-bonding” in Colorado, aligning our laws with the majority of states and federal agencies. Colorado is one of just seven remaining states that allows self-bonding, which leaves taxpayers vulnerable to footing the bill for mine cleanup.

    Contact:

Contact: Jessica Goad, 720-206-4235
Eight Major Rivers Across the State Given Grades for Their Health and Well-being

Conservation Colorado today unveiled its first-ever “rivers report card,” an assessment of the health and well-being of eight rivers across the state based on several factors including water quality and flows. Only one river received an “A” grade, while four received grades of “C” or worse.

“Colorado’s rivers sustain our communities, economy, environment, and way of life,” said Kristin Green, Water Advocate at Conservation Colorado. “They provide us with clean drinking water, irrigate Colorado crops, support wildlife habitat, and provide world-class recreation opportunities. In order to protect our rivers, we must first have a clear understanding of what threatens them. This report is a call to action for anyone who cares about our rivers to get involved and fight to ensure they are clean, healthy, and flowing.”

The grades for the rivers analyzed in the report are:

  • Arkansas River: C
  • Colorado River: D
  • Dolores River: D-
  • North Fork of the Gunnison River: B-
  • North Platte River: B+
  • Rio Grande River: B
  • South Platte River: C
  • Yampa River: A

Grades for each river were assessed by analyzing their flows, the amount of water diverted out of the basin, water quality, and the existence of major dams. 

Colorado’s rivers are threatened by climate change, overuse, poor dam management, energy development, and the needs of a population that is set to double by 2050. The report provides several ideas to protect our rivers, including conserving water, voluntarily sharing water rights, avoiding large new water diversions, building water-smart landscapes, and implementing Colorado’s Water Plan. 

Contacts:

– Elizabeth Whitehead, Children’s Hospital Colorado, 720-777-6388
– Mike Wetzel, Colorado Education Association, MWetzel@coloradoea.org
– Brian Turner, Colorado Public Health Association, 303-257-7142
– Jessica Goad, Conservation Colorado, 720-206-4235

The Colorado state legislature today passed HB 1306, a bill that would provide funds for Colorado schools to voluntarily test for lead in their drinking water. The vote count was 29-6, and the bill is on its way to Governor Hickenlooper’s desk.

“Clean water in our schools is an expectation everyone in Colorado can get behind,” said Brian Turner, MPH, President of the Colorado Public Health Association. “As a public health professional, but more importantly as a parent, I’m happy to see our state moving in the right direction for our kids’ safety.”  

The bipartisan bill would provide funding for schools to voluntarily test their water for lead, and it prioritizes testing for older schools and schools with younger children. Schools that discover lead in their drinking water have several routes for securing more funding to mitigate the issue. Just seven of Colorado’s 178 school districts have tested their water for lead, and in these districts, 100 schools were found to have lead in their water.

“There are no safe levels of lead,” said Dan Nicklas, MD, pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “The recent crisis in Flint, Michigan, brought the nation’s attention to this environmental hazard, though lead toxicity has always been a public health challenge. We fully support our state proactively addressing this risk to keep Colorado kids safe.”

“We recognize our school districts are badly underfunded and cannot perform this important work for student safety without assistance,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association. “We appreciate our legislators for stepping forward with funding to help older schools meet the challenge of providing safe learning conditions for their students.”

“A safe environment is a human right,” said Kristin Green, Water Advocate at Conservation Colorado. “We’re thrilled that legislators from both sides of the aisle stood up for Colorado kids and will help keep them safe from lead pollution.”

Contacts:
Elizabeth Whitehead, Children’s Hospital Colorado, 303-775-6601
Mike Wetzel, Colorado Education Association, MWetzel@coloradoea.org
Brian Turner, Colorado Public Health Association, 303-257-7142
Jessica Goad, Conservation Colorado, 720-206-4235, jessica@conservationco.org

The Colorado House Education Committee is taking testimony this afternoon on HB 1306, a bill that would provide funds for Colorado schools to voluntarily test for lead in their drinking water. Just seven of Colorado’s 178 school districts have tested their water for lead, and in these districts, 77 schools were found to have lead in their water.

“Lead in drinking water is extremely damaging to health, especially in young children, and research shows that there is no safe level for lead exposure,” said Daniel Nicklas, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “We must take every precaution to prevent children from consuming lead, and that starts with providing schools with the tools they need to take the first step.”

“School district budgets are in crisis across the state with the ongoing cut to schools known as the Negative Factor expected to increase in the coming school year” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association. “Rural school districts are struggling to keep teachers, so we certainly cannot expect them to divert precious resources away from the classroom to test drinking water. This bill provides necessary funding to give schools the help they need to ensure the health and safety of students.”

“From a public health perspective, lead poisoning can affect children throughout their whole lives and create impacts on the whole community,” said Brian Turner, MPH, President of the Colorado Public Health Association. “We must empower schools with tools to keep kids safe and ensure that they live healthy and fulfilled lives.”

“A safe environment should be the right of every child,” said Kristin Green, Water Advocate at Conservation Colorado. “Unfortunately, lead poisoning remains a problem in our state and across the country. It is our obligation to make sure that every kid is drinking clean water. This bill is an important move in the right direction.”

HB 1306 is co-sponsored by Reps. Barbara McLachlan and Tony Exum. Funding will come from an existing water quality improvement fund. It prioritizes testing for older schools and for schools with younger children. Schools that discover lead in their drinking water have several routes for securing more funding to mitigate the issue.

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.”

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.