Precipitation patterns affecting western Colorado’s home life and agriculture

By: Olivia Dicks

Climate change affecting the predictability of snowfall, wind, and fires is substantially changing how farmers, workers, and the community live in western Colorado.

Western Colorado includes thousands of acres of farmland due to its weather, topography, and elevation. 

Higher up in western Colorado, beautiful scenic views from the mountain side are increasing the number of people wanting to live near forests in those communities. 

The primary challenge with living and working in Western Colorado is its water. Farmers who don’t have rights to divert sufficient water from rivers long have relied on pumping water up from underground aquifers to irrigate crops. 

“What our water storage is, is underground aquifers,” said Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. 

Over-pumping from the aquifers is creating a significant decrease in water levels resulting in many problems.

Along with pumping water, snowfall is the other significant factor that is depleting water levels. The water levels in the aquifer seemed somewhat steady until the worst drought on record hit in 2002, Simpson said. 

Farmers now are “forced to look to different crops,” that use less water, Simpson said. Since western Colorado greatly depends on its agriculture, less snowfall and droughts affect everyone.

Changing precipitation patterns also has a large impact on fires in the area making them bigger and longer. Some examples of western Colorado’s bigger, more recent fires are the Decker fire that burned more than 8,000 acres. The Hayman fire in 2002 burned over 137,000 acres of land along with houses and other buildings. And, in 2013, the West Fork Complex burned over 109,000 acres. All have similar attributes that kept them sparked and active. 

If there is less snowfall, the woods dry up much quicker, increasing the likelihood of it to catch, said Jerry Mallett, former county commissioner that built his dream home right in the middle of a burn zone. 

Living near burn zones “fire’s gonna be part of our lifestyle,” Mallett said. With the Earth getting warmer and the snowfall decreasing, communities live with a fear of fire every day, he said. 

Another driver of the fire was wind. One of the main reasons the recent fire in the valley lasted for so long was because of the wind, said Makoto Moore, an incident meteorologist for the National Weather Service. At night, there was less humidity than expected, and combining with fierce wind, it fueled the fire that lasted just under two months, Moore said.

The unpredictable wind patterns and humidity made it hard to anticipate where the fire was going to move. These factors affect communities near fire zones because, like what happened with Mallett, instead of receiving a pre-evacuation notice, they were instead called at two in the morning and were told to evacuate immediately.

This created a stressful situation for the community living on the mountain and also those farther down in the valley. People living in Mallett’s neighborhood had to rush and pack what they thought was necessary to live for an unknown amount of time.

Many people had places to go, but some people of lower socioeconomic status struggled to find a temporary stay, said Mike Rosso, next door neighbor to Mallett. 

People like Mallett and Rosso moving into these beautiful areas so close to possible fires is very problematic to people like Tom Kenney, helicopter supervisor for the United States Forest Service. 

Kenney’s job is to help contain fires and evaluate what strategy will be most effective and cost efficient to decrease and put out fires. With people moving farther up the mountains, it creates more problems for him and his team.

Even if the fire doesn’t destroy any homes, the after effects of it can be very harmful for farmers and fishing communities, Kenney said.

The fishing community can be negatively affected by fires because a lot of fish can be killed by contaminated runoff from fires, Kenney said. 

Fires also impact watershed health with can negative effect the farming community. As wildfires increase due to drought, the watershed health is decreasing, affecting the water farmers use for crops, Simpson said. 

These two effects of runoff and watershed can adversely affect the food source for many communities in western Colorado. 

Climate change is predominantly affecting most aspects of western Colorado. All the factors are intertwined, so when one aspect of life is affected by climate warming, the others also are.

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