On the Western Slope, a truly cataclysmic summer is emerging. The next few months look to be the driest in anyone’s memory.
At the headwaters of the Colorado River, water scarcity is now creating dire consequences for ranchers and their surrounding rural communities. Poor snowpack and sporadic rain have turned once lush pastures into meadows of weeds and dust. Livestock and native grazers are competing with wild horses for shrinking water sources. Catastrophic wildfires are threatening to change entire watersheds, reducing grazing capacity and even shutting down some farmers permanently.
Federal forest lands, a critical source of the west’s water supply, are in poor and unnatural condition. Forest health has a direct connection to watershed health and the water supply that millions depend upon. The reduction in upper watershed flows is directly correlated to the health of the forests.
Without new ways to capture altered streamflow patterns, we will be left with collapsing systems that will impact food production, migratory birds, fish and ecosystem biodiversity.
Across the country, extreme weather events are only getting worse, totaling billions of dollars in damages each year. It is clear that we need solutions that will address the very real and present threat of climate change. With dry years increasingly the norm in Colorado and much of the West, the infrastructure package currently being debated in Washington, D.C., takes on an added sense of urgency and must include significant federal investments in Western water infrastructure.
Persistent drought conditions place at risk our thriving population centers, deep ecological heritage, and world-class farms and ranches.
Eleven national forests and four national parks are a source of state pride and provide millions of acres for environmental benefit and year-round outdoor recreation. Warmer, drier conditions will increase the frequency and severity of wildfires and make our forests more susceptible to pests such as the mountain pine beetle.
Rural communities across the state depend on Colorado’s $7.4 billion agriculture industry, from the famous Palisade peaches to the iconic Rocky Ford cantaloupes. Our state is a top-10 producer of more than a dozen farm commodities, including cattle, hay, potatoes, barley and wool.
Less water will mean fewer locally grown products on our grocery store shelves and restaurant menus, and likely the gradual disappearance of the family farms that grace us with their agricultural bounty.
The water we need to run our homes, power our businesses, maintain our natural habitats, and feed our communities depends on a complex system of dams, reservoirs, canals, pipes, treatment plants and other facilities.
However, most of the federal projects that store our water and move it around the state were built more than 50 years ago and were not constructed with the current population demands or changing hydrological conditions in mind.
To ensure water supply reliability in Colorado and keep water flowing to farms, ranches, cities and the environment, Congress must allocate funding in the next infrastructure package to bolster deteriorating storage and conveyance facilities and build new ones, among other water management and conservation priorities.
Expanding our surface and groundwater storage capacity will allow us to withstand climate change and warmer weather patterns by capturing water during times of excess for use during times of scarcity, while also improving flood control during flashier and wetter storm events.
In addition, Congress must use this opportunity to “Build Back Better,” per the vision outlined by President Biden. This means leveraging other tools to enhance water supply reliability, including green infrastructure, water recycling, habitat restoration and forest management.
Taken together, these federal investments in “shovel-ready” projects have the potential to put thousands of Coloradans back to work as part of President Biden’s jobs and economic recovery plan.
But none of this works if otherwise feasible projects continue to be mired by red tape, which is why Congress must also streamline the regulation and permitting process, to ensure the timely construction of water infrastructure.
With the current infrastructure negotiations on Capitol Hill, our representatives have a once-in-a-generation chance to help us adjust to climate change, protect the environment, and maintain a safe and abundant local food supply. We call on Congress to act now in creating a better future for Colorado and the nation.
Christine Arbogast, a resident of Centennial, is president of the National Water Resources Association, which represents state water associations, irrigation districts, municipal water providers, end water users and their collective interests in the management of irrigation and municipal water supplies throughout the Western U.S. and portions of the South.
Patrick O’Toole, a cattle and sheep rancher from Wyoming, is president of the Family Farm Alliance, which advocates for reliable, affordable irrigation water supplies to farmers and ranchers in 16 Western states.