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Climate challenges

By Dave Carter

Nearly a century ago, agricultural settlers were lulled to the high plains region by the promise that rain would follow the plow. Immigrants staked out homesteads across the Rocky Mountain West on the assumption that the farming practices that had worked well in the East could produce bumper crops in the West.

And it worked. For a while. The West enjoyed a period of above-average moisture in the early 20th Century, instilling unfounded confidence in the new settlers. New waves of homesteaders flocked to the region, staking out their piece of the new Eden. It all collapsed as soon as nature changed course.

We have gotten complacent again in the West. Recent years of mild winters and above-average moisture have lulled the public to sleep. Thirsty cities have been busily grabbing agricultural water rights. The watershed forests along the Front Range are now peppered with new subdivisions and mountain ranchettes. Homeowners seem intent on surrounding their houses with lush lawns and dense clusters of trees, just like back East. Some acknowledge that Colorado may not have enough water to supply every new development but dismiss the problem with the idea that technology will produce answers. In other words, technology is now the substitute for “rain follows the plow.”

Despite the shift toward a high tech economy, the West will continue to be governed by the rules of an arid climate. Those rules demand that we respect, and protect our precious natural resource base. And if we don’t, Mother Nature has a way of sending us a wake-up call.

Two forest fires raging along the Colorado Front Range, following on the heels of the disastrous Los Alamos Fire, send a stark reminder that nature tends to periodically enforce some discipline. As well, combines moving across Colorado this month are gathering up a wheat crop stunted by a dry winter and hot spring wind. The anticipated harvest of 94 million bushels will be ten percent below last year’s crop.

It could be much worse. Colorado wheat farmers have learned through the years to embrace new information and technology that respects the realities of our climate. Summer fallow strips, terraces, and no-till farming all conserve every drop of moisture nature provides.

Urban planners and real estate developers would be well advised to study the lesson learned by the region’s agricultural community. Agriculture learned the hard way early in the last century. Their lessons could spare the residents of the “New West” a lot of pain in the coming years.