Islands of resilience: Community challenges and responses to the 2018 Colorado Plateau exceptional drought

TitleIslands of resilience: Community challenges and responses to the 2018 Colorado Plateau exceptional drought
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsElias EH, Steele C, Reyes J.T., Brown DA, Behery S, Weight E
Conference NameUniversities Council on Water Resources
Date Published06/2019
Conference LocationSnowbird, UT
ARIS Log Number364387

Exceptional drought persisted over the Colorado Plateau and adjacent regions for nearly all 2018. This area serves as the headwaters for major rivers including tributaries to the Colorado River and the Rio Grande. Historic agriculture, extensive public lands, and recreation and tourism were impacted by unprecedented drought. We explore factors conferring community resilience in the context of drought typology and impact time-frame. Drought typology includes 1) meteorological drought (precipitation deficit), 2) agricultural drought (soil moisture deficit), 3) hydrological drought (deficit in water resources), and 4) socioeconomic drought (when the former definitions impact the supply and demand of goods). Impact time-frame includes short-term impacts lasting weeks to months and long-term impacts potentially lasting a year or more. Specific short-term impacts observed in 2018 include dry stock tanks, limited forage quantity and quality and the immediate response to the 416 fire, which burned 55,000 acres in the San Juan National Forest over 61 days. Longer-term impacts of the 2018 drought include local and regional diminished water supply, poor water quality, fish kills, post-fire mudslides in the burn scar and producer decisions to permanently transition out of agriculture. Community drought resilience efforts began in January, when dismal snowpack led to community leader meetings followed by drought informational meetings with irrigators. Water-specific factors conferring resilience include plentiful initial reservoir water storage, sophisticated irrigation system planning, owning senior water rights or having access to groundwater, and establishment of shortage sharing agreements (e.g. Animas River irrigators). As drought conditions continued, producers hauled water for livestock and wildlife. Others had to fallow lower-value crops and hand-water high-value crops. Local service-based organizations (Good Food Collective and Spring Creek Horse Rescue) and established supportive relationships between land-owner and rancher led to resilience in specific instances. Geographically decoupled water sources from demands led to longer-term, distant impacts of exceptional drought in this headwaters region. Throughout the drought webinars featuring weather and climate experts provided updates which were used by local managers and the media to communicate drought progress and resources.