Navigating Drought, Uncertainty in Kit Carson County

A recent trip to Kit Carson County explored how agricultural communities prepare for and respond to drought, and highlighted collaborative work done by leaders in public health, nonprofit work, education, and the faith community to support residents and promote opportunity in a rural setting.

Community leaders emphasized that drought exacerbates challenges already facing rural communities, and that drought resilience is deeply intertwined with the work it will take to keep their towns thriving and competitive. Drought conditions have dominated the region’s past seven years, and many small-scale farmers have struggled to remain financially solvent. Drought-related stress has increased rates of anxiety and depression, and created an overall “down” atmosphere. Small businesses have had to deal with reduced foot traffic, as farming families look to reduce expenses.

Yet, bettering access to mental health services, providing opportunity for local business growth, and preserving the viability of small-scale farming are priorities for the county even in wetter years. For example, Communities that Care, a program run in conjunction with the Department of Public Health, is working to better access to early childhood care in the county—a key resource allowing families to seek dual sources of income. Concurrent enrollment through Morgan Community College allowed two Flagler students and five Burlington students to graduate high school this year with associate’s degrees. The Department of Public Health has integrated mental health check-ins into routine visits, in an effort to destigmatize mental illness and encourage community members to seek support when they need it. The Prairie Family Center, a local nonprofit, fosters community “togetherness”, offering financial assistance for families in short-term emergencies as well as classes on cooking, nutrition, and parenting. This year, they partnered with the Arriba-Flagler school district to bring a class called “all about being a teen” to fifth graders, providing important resources for navigating challenging teenage years.

Dawn James, director of the county’s Department of Public Health and Environment, put it this way: “drought is absolutely devastating to an agricultural community. In so many ways, not just financially, but it’s social, emotional, physical — the whole nine yards. And so, our role in public health is to have prevention services in place to be able to address all of those medical, physical manifestations that come from the effect of long-term drought.”

Leaders reiterated that the community derives strength from the engagement and involvement of local residents. Deena Ziegler, Executive Director of the Prairie Family Center, recalls: “It’s been thirty-something years since I graduated. One of our county commissioners graduated in my class. He left, and came back to raise his children here. The superintendent of Burlington schools graduated in my class, and came back to raise his children here. My husband and I left for twelve years, and we came back to raise our children here… Parents and grandparents know the beauty of it. So we’re giving back and volunteering.”

Image A look into the future of water demand and supply in the South Platte

The purpose of this tour was to further understand the diversity of water usages and water conservation in the Lower South Platte River Basin of Colorado’s northeastern corner. To learn about the diversity of water usages, representatives from Quail Ridge Dairy, Pawnee Station Power Plant, Western Sugar Cooperative, and the L7 Trade Group hemp farm spoke about the necessity of a dependable water supply in sustaining their daily operations.

A cautious Quail Ridge dairy cow panhandles a tour group member. Photo by Cyndy Hines

At Quail Ridge Dairy, water goes toward producing feed, sanitizing the automated milking machines, and cooling the milk to a temperature at which it can be processed and packaged. With a total of 4,500 cows, each cow uses 50 gallons of water per day

Agriculture is a large driver of water consumption in the South Platte, as in the state of Colorado, where over 85% of water is consumed by agriculture.

Additionally, the L7 Trade Group hemp farm uses an extensive system of monitoring and drip-irrigation in order to cultivate seeds for CBD production, an emerging, lucrative market. Hemp is often touted as a water-efficient crop that will buffer Colorado farmers from the effects of drought. In actuality, hemp requires significant up-front costs in equipment because the is not suitable to dry-land farming in Colorado and must be grown in greenhouses. These are just several examples of how businesses are harnessing South Platte River water, and in doing so, shaping the local economies of Sterling and Fort Morgan.

Hemp seeds growing in one of the L7 Trade Group’s greenhouses. Photo by Grace Harmon

The Groves Pipeline, among other projects, illustrate the importance recharge operations to augment supply in the South Platte River Basin. Water is pumped from alluvial aquifers to the river during periods of drought and then stored in the aquifers when the demands of users have already been met. These pumps also ensure that compact compliance is fulfilled, including our obligation to Nebraska to receive their due share of water. However, because water is continuously cycled, this can lead to an increased salinity concentration, a water quality concern for some irrigators. As demonstrated by one agricultural producer, an increased salinity concentration can adversely affect soybean growth. While recharge pumps, reservoirs, and other projects work to continuously cycle and distribute water to various stakeholders, ultimately, the continuous recycling of this water reveals the root issue of water scarcity not just in this basin, but across the state.

Salt is visible on the leaves of this soybean plant, an indicator of the high salinity of the water used to irrigate these crops.  Photo by Grace Harmon. 

Finally, the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program works to conserve habitat for endangered species, such as the whooping crane, by restoring in-stream flows. This program operates across three states, including Wyoming and Nebraska, and uses existing recharge pumps and diversion projects to meet the demands of agricultural and municipal use. These conservation efforts also support the primary recreative activities in the basin, water fowl hunting and fishing, and work hand-in-hand with river restoration efforts after flooding in 2013. This program is currently authorized until 2020, and pending legislation could reauthorize the program for another 13 years.

This tour was coordinated by Water Education Colorado, a nonprofit organization created by the state legislature, whose mission is providing nonpartisan information about water issues in Colorado. The tour offered a range of perspectives – agricultural, industrial, and municipal, highlighting how governance structures on the state and  district level respond to the unique needs of the Lower South Platte River Basin.

Ongoing efforts by the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program support healthy floodplains and  endangered species conservation. Photo by Grace Harmon


Fellows’ Visit to Northern Front Range

We kicked off our summer research with a two-day trip up to Boulder and Larimer counties to meet with numerous experts on regional climate issues such as water distribution and flood recovery. The trip was very interesting and we learned a great deal about important local issues while having the chance to speak with key stakeholders. Below are short descriptions of our five meetings.

The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District  

Frank Kinder and Jeff Stahla

A visit with Frank Kinder, the Water Efficiency Program Manager, and Jeff Stahla, a Public Information Coordinator. We visited their headquarters in Berthoud, Colorado that includes their Conservation Gardens. These gardens are meant to inform and educate property owners about planting and landscaping methods to decrease water use. We then headed out to visit a few of the District’s major reservoirs to get a better understanding of the system at large. One site we visited is the Windy Gap Project, where Northern Water plans to build a new dam to allow greater water storage capacity. We discussed the intersection of agriculture and development occurring in this geographical area and how this intersection affects regional water.


City of Longmont Community and Neighborhood Resources Office 

Carmen Ramirez and Wayne Tomac

We then met with Carmen Ramirez and Wayne Tomac, who work in Community & Neighborhood Resources for the City of Longmont, to discuss Longmont’s Resilience for all/Resiliencia para todos program. Resilience for all focused on connecting Boulder County’s Latinx community to members of county and city government and to community resources, working specifically to address inequity in the emergency response to Boulder’s 2013 floods. Ramirez and Tomac spoke to us about their work to strengthen community groups, identify community assets, and ensure information regarding public resources and emergency response plans were available in English and Spanish. They also introduced us to the concept of a cultural broker, which is central to Resilience for All and describes individuals whose skills and positionality allow them to bridge distinct cultural groups. Resilience for all seeks to work with and compensate these individuals to better connect the City of Longmont to vulnerable segments its population.


Boulder County Flood Recovery 

Carolina Van Horn

We met with Carolina Van Horn, a Flood Recovery Planner for Boulder County. We began in Fourmile Canyon, which sustained extensive damage following the 2013 floods. Van Horn works extensively coordinating Boulder County efforts with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and we discussed the process for home buyouts following major disasters. These buyouts provide the option to homeowners whose homes were substantially damaged to take a buyout option on the pre-disaster value of their home rather than pursue rebuilding in the same location. The buyout program aims to disincentivize rebuilding in hazard areas, both to protect human life and to avoid repeat federally-funded rebuilding. We also discussed some other aspects of the recovery and how Boulder County is attempting to leverage rebuilding to also make the new infrastructure more resilient to future hazards. This includes rebuilding with an eye towards 100-year flood standards as well as using technology to map and better understand future flood potentials.


Boulder County Transporation Department  

Stacey Proctor

Our visit with Stacey Proctor, the Communications Specialist with the Boulder County Transportation Department, informed us of Boulder County’s priorities for creating resilient infrastructure under various climate variability scenarios. The goals of the resiliency study were to enhance 1) institutionalized resiliency; 2) withstand shocks; 3) reduce shock, and 4) responsiveness to stresses. The action categories included improving infrastructure, regulation of flood plains, and incentives and education. This resiliency study will then inform the 2012 transportation master plan, which is to be updated this year. A 2019 survey revealed that the majority of Boulder County residents were in favor of increasing expenditures for flood response efforts, indicating that flood response was a high priority issue. Additionally, the group discussed how increasing housing costs and strict development laws will create opportunities to expand upon existing transportation services, such as bike lanes and public transit throughout the county.

City of Boulder Department of Climate Initiatives  

Brett KenCairn

For our final visit, we met with Brett KenCairn, Senior Sustainability and Resilience Policy Advisor for the City of Boulder. KenCairn discussed his views on the concepts of resiliency and sustainability, which are currently buzz words whose meanings are not always locked down. Resilience for KenCairn and his department means change. Sustainability means stability. The two together lead to the question of how to create stable change, especially in the face of climate change and a rapidly changing natural world surrounding us. KenCairn also discussed how his department is recentering its resilience efforts to community benefits and equity. With these goals at the center of the plans, the city of Boulder hopes to build stronger networks and solve adaptation, mitigation, and resilience issues more efficiently and with the community in mind.

Image Meet the Fellows: Ethan Greenberg

Hello, and thank you for visiting the Colorado College State of the Rockies blog. My name is Ethan Greenberg (he/him pronouns) and I am a rising senior here at CC. I study political science and am especially interested in environmental and education policy/politics. Born and raised in Denver and a product of Denver Public Schools, my involvement in State of the Rockies stems from my belief that this rapidly-changing region deserves a depository of socio-environmental scholarship that is equally dynamic. In my free time you can usually find me on the soccer field or with my nose in a newspaper.



Meet the Fellows: Grace Harmon

Grace Harmon is a third-year Environmental Policy major from Darien, CT. During the school year, she enjoys serving as member of the Honor Council and guiding tours for prospective students. She is thrilled to learn more about water management and how Colorado cities are adapting to more frequent drought conditions. In Grace’s free time, you can find her listening to NPR or exploring a new running route.

Meet the Fellows: Natalie Gubbay

Natalie Gubbay is a rising senior from Wellesley, Massachusetts. She is a Mathematical Economics major, avid gardener, and works at Colorado College’s Quantitative Reasoning Center. She loves hiking, cooking, and, depending on the day, math problems. Natalie is looking forward to exploring questions of environmental justice while spending the summer in beautiful Colorado!

Meet the Fellows: Britta Lam

Britta Lam is a rising senior from Hong Kong who is double majoring in Environmental Policy and German Studies. She is currently working as one of the Events Interns under the Office of Advancement and is also the president of the Consulting Club on campus. She is interested in environmental consulting, environmental law, electric vehicles, and energy markets. In her free time, she plays pickup basketball with friends.

Meet the Fellows: Luci Kelemen

Luci Kelemen is a rising senior studying integrated environmental science. She is from a small town just north of New York City, but is an avid Red Sox fan. In her free time, she likes cooking with friends and hanging out with her dog. Luci is very excited to be working with State of the Rockies this summer as the project represents an incredible opportunity to dive into her passions. She hopes to have some nice barbecues with the Rockies cohort in the coming months!

Meet the Fellows: Lily Weissgold

Lily Weissgold is a rising senior from Burlington, Vermont. She is double majoring in Microeconomics and Environmental Policy. She currently serves on the Trails Parks and Open Space committee for the city of Colorado Springs. In her spare time, Lily enjoys reading the New Yorker, baking bread, and enjoying the Colorado sunshine. She is very excited for her Fellowship and to conduct academic research on a community about which she cares so much!