Less water, more fire: Federal report outlines impact of climate change on Colorado communities
Climate change is already impacting the Vail Valley.
A report released last week shows warming global temperatures caused by human activity is affecting communities nationwide. The fourth National Climate Assessment, a federal report compiled with input from more than 350 experts and reviewed by 13 federal agencies, details these impacts and the research behind them.
In the Southwest region, which includes Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California, impacts to water resources, ecosystems, indigenous communities, human health and food and energy production were identified as key regional issues.
“(The National Climate Assessment) tells us climate change is not a distant issue anymore. It’s affecting every single one of us, no matter where we live in the U.S. across every single sector,” said Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and a lead author on the report. “The more climate changes, the more serious and even dangerous the impacts will become.”
A recent United Nations report said the world is currently on track to warm by 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2052 at current levels of greenhouse gas emissions. At this level, the mean temperature in most parts of the globe would rise, and heat extremes would increase in most inhabited regions.
Species are forecasted to decline with 8 percent of the world’s plants and 6 percent of the world’s insects losing at least half of their range.
Hayhoe studies the impacts of climate change and uses data to predict how continued warming at different rates would impact everything from crops to droughts to coastlines.
“By documenting those changes we can show that our choices do make a difference,” she said.
Increasing temperatures will lead to an increased strain on water resources in the Yampa Valley and the Colorado River Basin as a whole.
Higher spring temperatures trigger earlier spring snowmelt, altering the seasonal cycle of stream flow in the West. Earlier spring temperatures decrease the water content of snowpack, according to the report. These conditions exacerbate drought.
Since people started recording flow in the Colorado River in the early 1900s, the river has seen a decline in average volume of flow over the years, while average temperatures in the Upper Colorado Basin, including Colorado, have increased, according to the report.
In recent years, the amount of water in storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which is supplied by the Yampa and Colorado rivers, has fallen to its lowest level since the reservoirs were filled. As temperatures rise, heat-stressed plants use more water, reducing the flow of water in streams.
Water shortage, slight snowpack and low flows have implications beyond bad ski years and bathtub lines on reservoirs.
Both Hayden and Craig stations use water to generate power. The coal-fired power plants use water to spin steam turbines to create electricity and to cool generation equipment. This August, a large portion of flows the Yampa River was stored reservoir water released for use at Craig Station.
Increased demand for water is also expected to lead to a decline in irrigated land, according to the report, with water-intensive forage crops expected to see the greatest losses.
Drying forests and droughts driven by a changing climate have increased the number of acres burned by wildfires in the West. Analyses in the report estimate the area burned by wildfires from 1984 to 2015 was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred.
Reduced snowpack and earlier spring temperatures have lead to a longer wildfire season, according to the report.
The number of trees that have died in mid-elevation conifer forests doubled between 1955 and 2007 due in part to climate change, according to the report.
Climate-related factors, such as increasing temperatures and bark beetle infestations, outweighed non-climate related factors, such as fire exclusion and competition for light. These conditions disproportionately impacted larger trees.
This, as well as historic fire suppression policies, have led to an accumulation of debris and understory trees contributing to more intense and larger wildfires, according to the National Climate Assessment.
People are also building more homes in forested areas. Hayden, Steamboat Springs and corridors of homes along Colorado Highway 131 and Routt County roads 129 and 16 have concentrations of homes built in this risky, transitional landscape, according to the Colorado State Forest Service’s Colorado Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal.
Costs of fighting wildfires reached an estimated $130 million this year, according to the Colorado Sun.
The county has seen record-breaking fire years, as well.
Last year, Routt County spent $317,000 supporting area fire protection districts fighting wildfires on private land, exceeding the county’s $31,000 budget for the expense, according to Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan. This year, Corrigan said that expense exceeded $100,000.