High in the San Juan Mountains and rising from the porous geology of the Grand Mesa, the headwaters to the Gunnison River — the second largest tributary to the Colorado River system — are among the areas in our nation most threatened from climate change.
The Gunnison heads on the northern slopes of the San Juans at its southern edge, in the Sawatch and Elk mountains just west of the Continental Divide; the West Elks and Grand Mesa, and on the eastern flanks of the Uncompahgre Plateau. It starts at some of the highest elevations in the U.S. and joins the muddy Colorado River in the desert at the edge of canyon country in Grand Junction —ºº the confluence being that city’s namesake.
It’s a storied river, for the Ute tribes that lived and farmed there for centuries, and for Spanish priests searching for a route to connect New Spain with the missions on the coast; for French fur trappers, mountain men, and miners. Finally, for settlers who turned the valley lands to agriculture. Some of Colorado’s most productive farms and ranches are watered by the Gunnison, and 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 August 13 report, “2°C: Beyond the Limit: Extreme climate change has arrived in America,” identifies seventy-one 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 benchmark to avoid even more catastrophic climate disruption. And eight of those 71 counties are in Colorado, seven on the Western Slope — which is to say that 10% of U.S. counties that have already crossed the threshold. Five counties on that list comprise major portions of the Gunnison River, together representing 7 percent of all the nation’s 71 identified climate critical counties. The climate crisis is real — and it is already here in Colorado.
The politics of Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, and San Miguel, Rio Blanco and Moffat counties vary — from strongly Democratic to staunchly Republican. But protecting our at-risk water resources ought to be something that unites everyone. And, of course, just because these seven counties made the list, it is not the case that their neighboring headwaters counties are not likewise imperiled.
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 Washington, D.C.
Fortunately, the State is stepping up, and recently enacted new laws to begin addressing climate change. Governor Jared Polis has been using his executive power to begin shifting Colorado away from carbon-heavy fuels and toward renewable power, and into electric vehicles.
U.S. Representatives Crow and Neguse have made climate change central to their work, and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet has also championed addressing climate change. None of these efforts are yet enough, but at the state level and among some of the delegation, momentum is shifting. Few expect much from Reps. Tipton, Lamborn, or Buck, and thus most attention is now focused on Senator Cory Gardner.
And while Sen. Gardner has gone so far lately as to acknowledge that climate change is real, he mostly attempts to dodge the topic and talk instead about batteries or windmills or NREL funding. Sen. Gardner prefers to talk very little, if at all, about the climate crisis down on the Rocky Mountains and America’s headwaters. Coloradans ought to find this lack of leadership unacceptable, and make that feeling known. If Sen. Gardner will not use his position to take 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.