As climate warms, Basalt nonprofit’s role gains urgency
Roaring Fork Conservancy celebrates 25th anniversary, tweaks mission as water crisis intensifies in West
The Roaring Fork Conservancy isn’t in danger of running out of things to do in its next quarter century.
The Basalt-based, homegrown nonprofit organization celebrated its 25th anniversary this month. And with drought, climate change and over-appropriated water plaguing the West, the staff has a laundry list of issues to tackle.
“Since I’ve been working for this organization, we’ve been collectively concerned about what’s going to happen if we have back-to-back drought years, and now we could be looking at three back-to-back-to-back drought years,” said Rick Lofaro, the conservancy’s executive director since 2005.
The region and certainly the Roaring Fork Valley used to reliably get substantial spring runoff after ample snowfall and the summer monsoon rolled in like clockwork in late June or early July. Neither the snowfall nor the monsoon is reliable any longer.
“The first substantial reality check was the summer of 2002,” Lofaro said, referring to a severe drought that made conditions ripe for wildfires across Colorado (burning more than 605,000 acres burned that year).
The Roaring Fork Valley has endured five droughts in the past 20 years.
“The water’s just not coming like it used to,” Lofaro said. “It certainly puts a stress on everything in the environment. Everything works pretty well in an average year. There’s enough water for trans-mountain diversions and in-basin diversions, and there’s enough water in the river for the rafting to be good. There’s enough cold water in the river to keep the fish cool and the fishing to be good. Every step we go down from an average year, we see the implications.”
There are obvious implications such as wildfires that have swept across Basalt Mountain (2018) and through Glenwood Canyon (2020) in recent years. Mudslides followed the wildfires after big rainstorms.
There are more subtle results from drier conditions, such as fewer flushing flows that keep the river and stream ecology healthy and replenish wetlands. Without flushing flows in spring, algae accumulate in waterways and sediment can fill the small spaces on streambeds where aquatic life thrives.
Throughout the river and stream corridors, there are dead and dying Douglas fir, lodgepole and spruce trees. In many cases, various species of beetles are overwhelming the conifer trees and leaving behind the telltale red needles.
“That’s happening around every corner. That’s happening on every mountainside, whether it is diminished precipitation or not getting the extreme cold temperatures to kill the beetles,” Lofaro said. “So the beetles are doing better, the weeds are doing better, the trout are not doing better.
“These are the concerning things, these are the cumulative effects, the death by a thousand cuts that maybe not everyone notices immediately but you might notice after five years, after 10 years,” Lofaro continued.
The changing conditions have spurred a tweak in the conservancy’s mission. RFC started in 1996 with the motto and mission of “Preserving and Protecting the Valley’s Rivers.” The area was just recovering from high runoff in summer 1995 that ate away a portion of Two Rivers Road just east of downtown and caused extensive riverbank erosion. The conservancy was focused on bank stability and river restoration.
During its second decade, the motto changed to “Bringing People Together to Protect Our Rivers.” The conservancy worked to attract more people into its fold and to inspire them to get involved in river and stream protection.
“Everybody has a vested interest in a healthy river,” Lofaro said. That ranges from ranchers with a cattle operation to rafters, anglers and even the person riding a bicycle alongside the river who enjoys a healthy riparian environment.
In the past five years, as the impacts of climate change started to come into focus better, it was clear Roaring Fork Conservancy had a role to play in educating people about the changes, what’s at stake and possible solutions.
“We could probably get along and be OK and still do the work that we do and maybe not fully bury our head in the sand, but maybe not lean into these issues as much as possible,” Lofaro said. “But we know what the reality is. We’re trying to adapt what we do as an organization. It’s not that different or far away from what we’ve done historically. It seems to be a natural fit — answering the call.”
As always, education will be a big part of its mission. The conservancy’s Watershed Institute regularly holds presentations that highlight and discuss the issues facing the Roaring Fork watershed and broader water issues facing the region.
A new headquarters and laboratory called the River Center was completed in 2018 and has proven invaluable during the coronavirus pandemic.
Public events were held in the outdoor courtyard while adhering to social distancing requirements. Teachers seeking alternatives to keeping kids bottled up inside while wearing masks spent more time outdoors at the River Center and the adjoining Old Pond, the Roaring Fork River and wetlands.
Being located within a stone’s throw of the pond and river is a tremendous boost to the credibility of the River Center.
“It’s a huge success story,” Lofaro said. “It’s been a complete game changer for us.”
At an anniversary celebration earlier this month, Jim Light, a founder of the conservancy, recalled the skepticism that initially met the idea of the conservancy.
He and his business partner, Jim Chaffin, were pursuing approval of the Roaring Fork Club, a private golfing and fishing endeavor with high-end real estate. Well before they had land-use approvals in hand, they proposed creation of the conservancy to pursue water quality and quantity issues in Basalt, and they provided seed money.
“This was kind of a strange creature,” Light said.
Once established, it soon became clear that the conservancy needed to focus on the entire Roaring Fork watershed, not just the waters in Basalt. The partnership between the Basalt town government and the conservancy blossomed. The town sold the land at a discounted price necessary for the River Center.
Light believes the relationship has been a model for public and private sector cooperation.
“I find the conservancy very unique as a ‘home grown’ nonprofit, which complements the many Aspen-based nonprofits,” Light said.
So the Roaring Fork Conservancy heads into the next 25 years with a long list of accomplishments and plenty of tasks remaining on its plate.
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