SAN LUIS VALLEY — Last week, Senator Michael Bennet held a videoconference spotlighting a small but diverse group of leaders from the San Luis Valley and beyond, all of whom had one thing in common: taking specific, well-researched steps that are yielding measurable, positive results in building resilience to the impact of climate change.
Included among the five presenters were Cleave Simpson, General Manager of the Rio Grande Conservation District, and Erin Nissen of Nissen Farms, LLC near Mosca.
The videoconference is reflective of a two year, on-the-ground effort referred to as the Colorado Resilience Project initiated by Senator Bennet and his team in 2018.
In that time, Bennet and his team have met with more than 100 Colorado farmers, ranchers, leaders in water and local governments and public health as well as experts in forest health and other areas, all focused on sharing the innovative steps they’re taking to increase their resilience to a climate that is changing. One goal, among others, is to spread the word about these lasting, successful measures in hopes that they will serve as models for other farmers, ranchers and business owners to replicate in their own operations.
The conversations, presentations and sessions where successful mitigation practices are shared are key components of a larger strategy to, literally from the ground up, grow awareness and build increasing momentum toward a Western state approach to climate change constructed of tested, workable solutions developed with input from those Coloradoans who have seen what works and what doesn’t within their own operations.
This approach would include not just Colorado but all those Western states seeking climate solutions as they face challenges such as drought and wildfires with ever greater frequency.
Pat O’Toole, owner and operator of the nearly 140-year-old Ladder Ranch in Routt County, raises hay and was the first to irrigate national forest land. O’Toole, whom Bennet credits with teaching him the importance of headwaters watersheds, opened the call with a sobering description of the impacts of climate change in the national forests that surround his ranch and provide the public land where his livestock are allowed to graze in the summer.
“I’ve spent my adult life riding horses through trees [in the national forest]. We don’t do that anymore. The trees are, essentially, pick-up sticks, and they’re not accessible to wildlife, livestock, ranchers…anybody.” The combined effects of a blowdown, the pine beetle and aspen death syndrome have left the forest in great need of work and not up to “the level where it needs to be.”
O’Toole’s community is currently working with the USDA on forming a national-regional partnership, beginning with the Yampa River. But questions remain. “How do we take our landscape and…motivate people to work on it? We have the vision. We just need the tools to implement it.”
Following O’Toole, Senator Bennet praised the innovation he’s seeing in Colorado leaders, stating that steps being taken to increase resilience are helping with carbon sequestration as well as their “bottom line, making it a little easier to pass farms, ranches and businesses on to the next generation.”
In recent years, Bennet has been at the helm of at least six different policy initiatives related to climate change focused on soil health, farm resilience and carbon sequestration; activities promoting forest treatments plus partnerships with downstream water users; establishing a water source protection program; and economic incentives to encourage and support practices in mitigation of the impact of a changing climate.
During the call, Bennet also touched on the key points of his Western Approach to Climate Change, referencing a conversation with colleagues in a Democratic caucus of western states where he emphasized the need for Colorado and a coalition of western states “to push for things that matter to us, for funds for water infrastructure and soil health to protect the next generation,” further stating that “national forest infrastructure was every bit as much infrastructure as the Lincoln Tunnel” and emphasizing that headwaters watersheds are vital not just to agriculture but the national economy.
“We can work in Colorado and across the region in the new Congress. And none of this would have been done or begun without the conversations I’ve had with Colorado leadership.” Bennet expressed confidence that the Biden administration would be receptive to funding priorities identified by Colorado leadership as well as a Western approach to climate change.
Information shared by presenters during the call seemed to back up Bennet’s claims that well-researched steps were yielding results.
Mike Preston, former General Manager with the Dolores Water Conservancy District, discussed the Ute Mountain Ute tribal farm whose innovative irrigation techniques, such as using center pivots and other elements, on 7600 acres of land have resulted in the highest development of water efficiency in this part of the world. Greater water efficiency has resulted in more water in the reservoir and, consequently, more water available for use in weathering droughts. He also emphasized treatment and scale of national forest land as paramount to good water infrastructure.
Erin Nissen, fourth-generation farmer with Nissen Farms in the San Luis Valley, discussed the challenges of farming in an area of sustained drought where they “could just blow away and become part of the Great Sand Dunes”.
As a result, her family has significantly changed their practices. Instead of devoting 140 acres to cash crops, they now farm in 30 4-acre blocks of land while practicing crop rotation, such as one block for cash crops and one block for grazing. And they’re starting to see positive impact. In the past, it would have been difficult to see 1% of biomass; now, they’re seeing the “soil starting to build up” with the presence of worms and other organisms. They’ve also voluntarily cut back on irrigation to help with the water situation in the valley and are taking steps to keep the ground covered, which increases water retention in the soil. They will also change their irrigation schedule if, for example, they have a cloudy day. These practices, and others, are showing them they can irrigate less and still have production. Planting grass along borders to attract wildlife and pollinators has resulted in exciting, positive effects from those efforts.
For Cleave Simpson, General Manager of the Rio Grande Conservation District, the drought that began in 2002 and has continued since then has taught him that resilience has become the path to self-preservation. A number of steps must be employed to increase resilience to climate change, from conservation easements on aquifers to growing cover crops to retain moisture in the soil to working to obtain funding for water infrastructure and working across agencies to maximize efforts. But there is reason to be optimistic given that practices, such as less pumping, will recharge the aquifers that contain the groundwater which farmers rely upon.
At the conclusion of these presentations, Bennet summed it up in a single sentence. “No matter where I go, it’s clear to me that the country has a lot to learn from Colorado.”