Gunnison basin bears brunt of climate change
High in the San Juan Mountains and rising from the porous geology of Grand Mesa, the headwaters to the Gunnison River — the second largest tributary in the Colorado River system — are among the nation’s areas most threatened from climate change.
The Gunnison Basin and its tributaries drain lands that stretch from the northern slopes of the San Juans at its southern edge, from the Sawatch and Elk mountains just west of the Continental Divide, from the West Elks and Grand Mesa, to the eastern flanks of the Uncompahgre Plateau. It starts at some of the highest elevations in the U.S. and joins the Colorado River in the desert in Grand Junction — the confluence being that city’s namesake.
It’s a storied river. The Ute Tribes lived and farmed there for centuries, and Spanish priests and explorers passed through, before America was a nation. French-Canadian fur trappers, mountain men and miners followed. And settlers arrived, who turned the valley lands to agriculture. Some of Colorado’s most productive farms and ranches are watered by the Gunnison and its tributaries, square in climate change’s crosshairs.
Now a new county-by-county look from the Washington Post shows just how threatened the Gunnison Basin is from the climate crisis. The Aug. 13 report, “2°C: Beyond the Limit: Extreme climate change has arrived in America,” identifies 71 U.S. counties that have already hit the “two degree” threshold of warming.
But global warming does not heat the world evenly.
A Washington Post analysis of more than a century of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration temperature data across the Lower 48 states and 3,107 counties has found that major areas are nearing or have already crossed the 2-degree Celsius mark.
…Seventy-one [U.S.] counties have already hit the 2-degree Celsius mark.
This 2°C threshold is broadly identified as the too-far-gone global benchmark to avoid even more catastrophic climate disruption. Eight Colorado counties are among the 71 on the list. And seven of those, or about 10% of the national total, are on the Western Slope. Five counties on that list overlap the Gunnison River Basin. The climate crisis is real, and it is already here in Colorado.
The politics of these five counties: Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel vary — from strongly Democratic to staunchly Republican. But protecting our at-risk water resources ought to unite everyone. The two other Western Slope counties are Rio Blanco and Moffat. The report also makes clear that it is not only these seven counties that are imperiled. Neighboring counties, also in the headwaters of the Colorado River and its tributaries, are all approaching the climate critical benchmark.
Water resources are a state matter, and the Colorado River Compact is a federal concern. Counties and municipalities can take important and meaningful climate action, but much of the biggest shifts need to come through policy in Denver and D.C. The state is stepping up, and recently enacted new laws to begin addressing climate change, and Gov. Jared Polis has been enacting policy to begin shifting Colorado away from carbon-heavy fuels, toward renewable power, and into electric vehicles.
And while most observers expect more inimical action from the Trump administration, and few expect much from Reps. Scott Tipton, Doug Lamborn or Ken Buck, among Colorado’s congressional delegation there is momentum building. Freshmen legislators Rep. Jason Crow and Rep. Joe Neguse have both made climate action a top priority. Sen. Michael Bennet has also championed addressing climate change. But none of these efforts are yet enough. So now attention is focused on Sen. Cory Gardner.
While Sen. Gardner has gone so far as to acknowledge climate change is real, he mostly dodges the topic and regularly votes against taking even small steps to address it. Sen. Gardner might mention batteries and windmills, or chair a committee meeting on science, but he provides very little substance about what he’ll do to address the climate crisis bearing down on the Rocky Mountains.
Increasing numbers of Coloradans find Sen. Gardner’s lack of leadership unacceptable. Colorado’s Rocky Mountains are bearing the brunt of climate change right now. But voting that science is real is not leadership. If Cory Gardner will not use his position to take meaningful climate action, then let’s remind him that we can find someone who will.
Pete Kolbenschlag works on climate, public lands, and conservation issues from the North Fork Valley in the heart of Colorado’s Gunnison Basin.
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