Two dry winters in a row have left Colorado's mountains bare and our reservoirs dangerously low. Dealing with unpredictable weather is part of our way of life in the West, but the long-term effects of this ongoing drought demand that we act now.
The latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows large swaths of Colorado suffering from extreme heat and drought conditions, leading experts to liken last year's drought, one of the worst in Colorado's history since the 1890s, to the Dust Bowl years. And despite recent snowfall, this year is shaping up to be just as bad.
Given such extreme conditions and the certainty of wildfires, water supply disruptions and agricultural challenges, what can we do?
In the short term, we need to address the problems the ongoing severe drought has created.
To start, we need to be proactive and secure essential tools that will help us battle wildfires now. We must ensure that we have a modern air-tanker fleet, including repurposing surplus Air Force planes. Our existing fleet consists of Korean War-era planes. These simply will not cut it in this age of mega-fires.
Concurrently, we need to better manage our national forests. Four million acres of Colorado forests have been decimated by insect epidemics, fueled in part by warmer weather patterns. We must continue to support Colorado's timber industry and foster partnerships that reduce fuel loads and create jobs repurposing this otherwise-strong high-country timber. And we also need to encourage the private sector to turn this abundant biomass into energy. It's a win-win-win for Colorado.
We also need to ensure that we are properly managing and maintaining our most precious resource: water. We must review present and future demands on our water supply and agree to look critically at energy sources, such as oil shale, that may require too much of our valuable water during these drought years.
And what good is water we cannot use? After the mega-fires outside Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, made larger by hot weather and dry conditions, sediment and ash from fire-charred hillsides flowed straight into drinking water supplies for Coloradans living 50 miles or more away. Congress needs to adequately fund the Emergency Watershed Protection program to protect our drinking water supplies and restore the eroded watersheds damaged by last summer's wildfires.
Finally, it has been dry enough over the past three years to designate many Colorado counties as national disaster areas. Disaster-relief programs can make up for low crop yields and revenue losses during drought years, but Congress needs to pass a strong Farm Bill like the bipartisan legislation I helped push through the U.S. Senate last year, in order to give farmers and ranchers long-term certainty to reform the way they use land and water resources.
These are crucial steps for the short term, but Congress also needs to address climate change, which is exacerbating our ongoing drought, forest health and water supply challenges.
Climate change has very real economic costs. Without action, wildfire threats will grow and droughts will become more frequent and more severe, hurting our economy and job-creating industries, such as farming and tourism. In fact, just a few weeks ago, Colorado's rafting industry calculated that in 2012, it lost about $24 million in economic impact due to fewer user days than 2011. And due to last year's warm weather and low snowfall - conditions that may become more common and severe as the climate changes - visitation to ski resorts dropped by almost 16 percent, the sharpest decline in more than 30 years.
Addressing the challenge of extreme and ongoing drought with the common-sense proposals I mentioned above will help protect Coloradans from wildfires, strengthen our watersheds, support agricultural producers, and solidify our efforts toward combating climate change. The solutions I propose are the right thing to do and should benefit every American and help our country remain a competitive leader in the global economic race.
The belief that our water supplies will always be there is a mirage. Coloradans shouldn't wait until they're forced to scrape the bottom of our reservoirs before we act to address the effects of climate change and drought.
This ongoing drought may be severe, but we can make a difference. Our forests, water supplies, farmers, ranchers and the job creators who rely on our Colorado quality of life are counting on it.
Mark Udall is Colorado's senior senator and serves on the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.