Climate change still threat to Grand County
June 6, 2017
President Donald Trump made waves last week when he announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, a near universal accord designed to mitigate human caused climate change.
The United States signed the agreement last April under President Barack Obama.
As federal support for reducing environmental impact dwindles, the effects of climate change on snow melts, water supply and tourism still threaten Grand County and Colorado, as a whole.
Colorado has been warming in recent decades due to manmade greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Colorado Climate Change Vulnerability Study published by the University of Colorado Boulder and Colorado State University in 2015. Climate models suggest that the trend will continue into the future.
Last year was the hottest in recorded history, breaking the record for the third straight year. Last year was also the fifth hottest year in Colorado history.
Affects on water
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Water is the lifeblood to industries in Colorado supporting agricultural production, recreation and other industries. It is also one of the most important factors in determining Colorado's susceptibility to global warming, according to the study.
"Virtually every aspect of Colorado's economy is tied to water," the study stated. " In particular, two critical industries in Colorado – agriculture and outdoor recreation – are highly dependent on water and snow availability and are therefore likely to be particularly vulnerable to climate change."
Almost all water within Colorado stems from precipitation as no major rivers flow into the state, and runoff provides water to the headwaters of four major rivers: the Colorado, the Rio Grande, the Arkansas and the Platte. Together these rivers produce an average of 16 million acre-feet of water per year.
Increasing temperatures are expected to lead to earlier spring runoff, higher evaporation rates, and more rain instead of snow.
Earlier runoff could mean disaster for water supply entities with inadequate storage, especially agriculturally. Longer growing seasons will result in an increase for the demand of water in rivers already stretched thin by a myriad of water rights claimed throughout the western part of the country and into Mexico. It also means irrigators may not be able to match up streamflow to meet their crop's water needs.
Increased evaporation from lakes, reservoirs and soil could exacerbate the issue and lead to a decline in streamflow. Streamflow is largely dependent on precipitation, which is considerably more difficult to project than temperature, although the potential ramifications of declining streamflows could mean longer, and more severe droughts.
"If streamflows do decline in Colorado, as indicated by most climate projections, then hydrological droughts – as indicated by persistent below-normal streamflows – will likely increase in frequency and severity by mid-21st century," according to the study.
Colorado's water quality may also become an issue as temperatures rise, as contaminants in the water such as metal and sediment share an inverse relationship to water levels, increasing as streamflows decrease.
This will inevitably impact aquatic habitats and recreation activities dependent on water.
Affects on outdoor recreation, tourism
Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in Colorado drawing millions of visitors each year to experience world-class ski slopes, rafting, fishing and many more activities that make the state attractive to outdoor recreation enthusiasts. But these activities will also be affected by climate change, and so will the economy.
Resorts such as Winter Park in Grand County are committed to improving sustainability in efforts to combat rising temperatures.
"Climate change is a significant issue throughout the ski industry right now and is a major concern for resorts throughout the country and the world, including Winter Park," said Steve Hurlbert, director of public relations and communications for Winter Park Resort. "We have a number of programs designed to reduce ecological impact, reduce water usage, and increase energy efficiency and we will continue to strive to always improve our sustainability efforts."
The main issue for the skiing industry is snowpack and maintaining the length of the ski season. Colorado's elevation and cold temperatures mean that, at least in the short term, the state's ski areas are able to weather negative impacts from climate change better than those in Arizona or California.
But warmer temperatures in the fall and spring could mean shorter ski seasons, regardless of a mountain's snow making abilities or water supply. This could mean a crushing blow to Colorado's $5 Billion ski industry, and rural communities like Grand County relying on tourist revenue.
"Ski areas are the economic drivers in rural communities, including Grand County," said Geraldine Link, director of public policy for the National Ski Areas Association. "Long term impacts of the ski industry are going to affect those rural communities. We're concerned and that's why we're taking action."
Climate change may also affect the length of the rafting season, fly fishing and virtually all summer activities which are vulnerable to wildfires, which can destroy trails and campgrounds and result in poor air quality.
"We don't focus on the doom and gloom," said Link. "We know we need to act so we focus on solutions, and on uniting people rather than dividing them. It seems to me that everyone is becoming more willing to talk about reducing the carbon footprint energy efficiency and all of the benefits that come with that."