by Natalie Gubbay, ’20

Why study drought?
Across the Western United States, farming communities are preparing for drought, flood, hail, and water scarcity; they are navigating stagnant commodity prices, declining small farm viability, and a growing rural-urban divide. In 2011 alone, drought was responsible for $83 million in total economic losses in Southern Colorado.[1] Meanwhile, climate models for the region project droughts will increase in frequency and intensity, leading some experts to suggest the most recent series of droughts is in fact the “new normal.”[2]

In an agricultural context, drought’s effects are far-reaching, and include outmigration, increased household and family tension, unemployment, and altered community structures.[3] Thus, drought is considered a shock or disturbance to the entire community system, not simply to the agricultural sector. Affected communities are challenged to respond in ways that support and empower farmers and residents while preserving economic viability.[4] Doing so requires coordinated work across a variety of community actors, who have the opportunity to build local capacity in creative and lasting ways. As they address drought events, farming communities may improve their resilience to future shocks and challenges, climate-related and otherwise. They may also pursue goals for growth, strengthen social networks, diversify economic opportunities, or address a variety of other local priorities—actions that are most often conceived of as community development.

This complementarity is interesting because climate resilience and community development are usually considered distinctly.[5] Community resilience is a property, while community development is a process. Resilience describes a community’s ability to cope with change and thrive through it, while development refers to an iterative, participatory process of community regeneration closely tied to theories of social justice. Yet a key tenet of both is that community change is most effective from the bottom-up: when communities leverage their unique local strengths, they build capacity—to manage climate stressors, react effectively to sudden change, and to shape a future in which they thrive. The purpose of my research was to study this process of capacity-building in rural Colorado, highlighting ways in which the state’s farming communities are leveraging local assets for both drought resilience and community development goals.

There are fifteen farming-dependent counties in Colorado: Sedgewick, Phillips, Yuma, Washington, Kit Carson, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Bent, Baca, Elbert, Jackson, Dolores, Conejos, Costilla, and Saguache (USDA, 2015). I developed and applied an adaptive capacity index to each of them, and conducted in-depth qualitative analysis in Kit Carson and Conejos counties. The index identifies local assets along the seven the dimensions of the Community Capitals Framework: social, cultural, natural, financial, political, human, and built. Indicators were drawn systematically from prior literature, and standardized against the range of values for all Colorado’s counties.[6] Interviews were conducted with a range of community leaders, including (for example) public health professionals, farmers, school administrators, and nonprofit directors. The resulting “profiles” offer quantitative and qualitative descriptions of each county’s unique local assets, intended to help community leaders strategize how those resources can best support its ongoing adaptation and capacity-building work.

Local Assets in Kit Carson County

  • Social networks are vital. Resource-saring, data-sharing, and joint grant writing are widely used strategies which bring financial resources into the community and enable the provision of essential services.
  • Partnerships lend credibility to new programs and allow businesses to adapt in times of economic stress.
  • Growing female labor force participation has diversified income sources for individual families, while efforts to revitalize historic sites like the Old Town Museum strive to diversify income across the local economy (building financial capital).
  • Community-based mental health initiatives (rooted in social capital) combat anxiety and depression spikes associated with prolonged drought, while reducing stigma associated with mental illness.
  • Community identity is rooted in agriculture and organizations across the county are committed to rural community empowerments.

Suggestions for leveraging local assets include:

  1. Mobilizing strong social resources to build access to mental health services,
  2. Working with cultural brokers to serve and include local Hispanic communities,
  3. Continuing to leverage cultural and human resources for economic growth, and
  4. Engaging the agricultural cooperatives’ leadership, CSU extension’s resources, and Kit Carson County’s strong agricultural identity to promote water conservation.Local Assets in Conejos County
  • Residents described the San Luis Valley as having “a strong can-do spirit,” “a collaborative self-identity,” “a long, cohesive history,” and “a strong, proud, and resilient people,” which together cultivate a sense of unity and urgency in protecting the community’s future. Appeals to justice resonate, and civic engagement is high.
  • Tangible cultural and historical resources allow organizations to generate tourist income, educate local residents, diversify the economy, and access the resources of federal agencies.
  • Community leaders market the county’s “rural lifestyle,” using natural, financial and cultural resources—outdoor attractions, affordable housing, and a slower-paced lifestyle—to generate employment and attract a skilled workforce.
  • The climate of the San Luis Valley is perfect for hemp production, and thus the county is poised to benefit from rapid growth in this industry.

Suggestions for leveraging local assets include:

  1. Build off strong grassroots engagement to outline a development strategy that respects Conejos County’s cultural identity and agricultural roots.
  2. Market natural amenities and the benefits of rural lifestyle to prospective businesses and would-be employers.
  3. Develop infrastructure to better capture the San Luis Valley’s tourism and outdoor recreation dollars while meeting community needs.
  4. Leverage the community’s commitment to food justice—and build off existing work to support local food systems—to advocate state- and federal-level policies that better support local agriculture.

 Key Findings
Community regeneration in Kit Carson and Conejos Counties hinges on agricultural sustainability, which requires drought resilience. The primary effects of drought in both Kit Carson and Conejos County communities are increased agricultural consolidation, increased outmigration, financial stress, job loss, depression, anxiety, and generational division. Together, these have led to a sense of loss of community identity and community vibrancy, a collective feeling of “down-ness” that affects community members’ social and emotional health as well as their economic stability. As such, drought responses are perceived as part of a broader effort to keep farming communities thriving and competitive into the future.

  • The actors most involved in responding to drought are the same as those engaged in community development: they are schools, churches, nonprofits, public health officials, and individual residents deeply committed to building community and opportunity. Collaboration and partnerships are instrumental to their work in both community resilience and community development.
  • Social, cultural, and natural capitals interact as shared histories, collective identities, and a strong sense of place, which together form a basis for agricultural community strength.
  • Local assets serve to support and catalyze community resilience and community development as interconnected and complementary goals. For example, social capital enables work addressing drought’s health and employment effects while also building other community capitals (shown below).
  • Grants are an important means of bringing financial resources into the community. In both counties, grants have allowed local governments to build needed infrastructure, and supported organizations and nonprofits as they to expand and transform.

[1] Bauman, A., Goemans, C., Pritchett, J., & McFadden, D. T. (2014). Estimating the Economic and Social Impacts from the Drought in Southern Colorado. Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education, 151(1).
[3] Vins, H., Bell, J., Saha, S., & Hess, J. J. (2015). The mental health outcomes of drought: A systematic review and causal process diagram. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
[4] Emery, M., & Flora, C. (2006). Spiraling-Up: Mapping Community Transformation with Community Capitals Framework. Community Development, 37(1).
[5] Cavaye, J. & Ross, H. (2019). Community resilience and community development: what mutual opportunities arise from interactions between the two concepts? Community Development, 50(2).
[6] Using the appendix provided in Siders, 2019, and a method similar to that in Hahn et al., 2019.