APRIL 26, 2019 BY 

by Eleanor C. Hasenbeck
The Yampa River flows through Dinosaur National Monument around Aug. 18. Low flows in the lower stretch of the river led water managers to curtail some use of water from the river.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Drought impacts more than a farmer’s field and an angler’s cast. It touches many aspects of the Yampa Valley’s economy.

Routt County is among the most drought-vulnerable counties in Colorado, according to a state report compiled in conjunction with 2018’s Colorado Drought Plan.

Routt County’s economy is reliant on several water-dependent industries including energy, agriculture and outdoor recreation. This reliance contributed to the county receiving the highest score in the state in the socioeconomic category, making the area the most vulnerable county in Colorado when it comes to the socioeconomic impacts of drought.

How does drought impact our economy?

Less snow on the mountain and less water in the river impacts a large sector of the economy, harming those who make their living in agriculture and tourism largely tied to outdoor recreation.

“In the West, our local economies have a long history of being hitched to natural resources, especially water,” said John Bristol, the Steamboat Springs Chamber’s director of economic development. “In some ways, I would say that we have a natural resource-based economy, and water really is the lifeblood that keeps it going, so it’s hard not to think about it.”

Low flow in the river shuts down tubing outfitters and can force irrigators to spend more money on reservoir water to keep their crops growing strong. Slight snowfall at Steamboat Resort brings fewer visitors, who take their lodging and restaurant dollars elsewhere.

According to data from Headwater Economics, jobs in agriculture, natural resources, mining, utilities, tourism and outdoor recreation make up about 36% of the workforce in Routt County. This number is slightly overstated, as it’s impossible to separate land managers such as U.S. Forest Service employees from municipal government employees in Headwater’s data about government employment. It also includes arts and entertainment in the same category as recreation.

Even without including jobs in those categories, these sectors make up a significant block of the economy — about 20%.

The direct impacts of a drought-impacted industry spread to other areas of the economy. As less income comes in, a person also decreases their spending for other goods and services in the area.

For those in drought-impacted businesses, it’s part of life.

“I think for ag producers, there is a constant — whether it’s a good or bad water year — awareness of our vulnerability to drought … They live it more on a daily basis,”  said Michele Meyer, executive director of the Community Agriculture Alliance.

Bristol said while drought comes with the territory, these businesses have to find ways to moderate the extremes of bad years with other revenue streams.

What are social impacts of drought?

Beyond dollars and cents, drought impacts our well-being.

The report found that financial stress caused by drought “can have disproportionate impacts for different demographics, particularly if those demographics are highly reliant on industries like agriculture or recreation and tourism to maintain their way of life.”

The report considered suicide rates in drought years and nondrought years. In 2002 — one of the worst drought years in Colorado’s history — suicide was the leading non-natural cause of death for Colorado’s farmers and ranchers. This problem is compounded by the fact that Routt County has a shortage of mental health professionals in proportion to how many people live in the area.

There’s also the problem of pollution, as drought-induced wildfires decrease air quality and as more small particles can enter the atmosphere in extended periods without rain, according to the report.

With less water in it, the Yampa River rises to temperatures that are unhealthy for fish and other aquatic species, a problem that has landed the river on Colorado’s list of impaired water bodies.

Adapting to drought

While this winter is a good reminder of what the average year feels like, climatologists predict droughts will become more severe.

The report also identifies ways to adapt to drought, the keys to these being economic diversification, planning and increased awareness and monitoring of the impacts a drought can have.

“The larger issues is climate change and how temperatures and weather variability impacts communities and impacts livelihoods — jobs and livelihoods,” Bristol said. “That’s really why communities need to take action around climate change while also looking at ways to diversify economies and finding ways to reduce exposure to extreme events such as droughts and floods and fires.”

The report recommends economic diversification at regional and individual levels.

In some ways, Routt County businesses are already doing this. Numerous ski and snowboard shops flip their inventory to bikes in the summertime, and the ski area has revenue sources that aren’t snow-dependent in the Outlaw Mountain Coaster and summer bike park operations.

The report also calls for collaborative efforts between businesses which can establish good working relationships before it occurs. It specifically names the Community Agriculture Alliance as an example of this in creating partnerships between producers and tourist-based businesses.

“One of the best things that we have going for us in this community — and this is beyond the Ag Alliance — is that we work together,” Meyer said. “We are very fortunate that our rec community talks to the environmental community and works with agriculture and works with business and industry and talks to the ski area.”

In meetings making plans for water issues, she said, “everyone is at the table.”

“That’s such a Routt County thing,” she continued. “I think people recognize that we have to work together, and we do a pretty darn good job of that.”

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email ehasenbeck@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.