Water runs through Colorado’s Climate Action Plan

Why Colorado doesn’t create bold goals for greenhouse gas reductions

 by Allen Best

Colorado’s state government has produced an updated climate action plan, and it’s rich with detail about what Colorado has done in reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as in addressing the challenges of rising temperatures.

cover shot for Colorado Climate PlanBut what value does this information provide? The document, “Colorado Climate Plan: State Level Policies and Strategies to Mitigate and Adapt,” neither sets goals nor does it makes a strong case for a specific agenda. Instead, among several dozen strategies and recommendations are these:

  • Promote and encourage water efficiency and/or conservation at the local and state agency level.
  • Assist all electric utilities in incorporating all feasible efficiency activities into resource planning and the EPA air quality compliance plans, and
  • Partner with federal and local agencies to preserve and protect forest health and wildlife habitat and to reduce wildfire risk. This latter is under the tourism and recreation heading.

Taryn Finnessey, lead author of the document, says many of the specifics of these recommendations remain to be worked out. The next step, beginning late this fall, will be to begin having conversations with various water, business, and other interest groups.

When possible, she says, that outreach will be accomplished using existing events, such as when the Colorado Association of Conservation Districts meets. Climate change adaptation will be on the agenda when the state’s Department of Local Affairs holds sessions on land-use planning.

“We recognize this is the beginning of the conversation, not the end, and there needs to be more dialogue with stakeholders going forward about where we need to go from here,” she says.

Greenhouse gases by sector“But this is a really good first step, the first time when we have pulled together all we have done about climate change adaptation and mitigation and put it in one document. And it is not be understated. There are a lot of really good efforts underway, and we don’t want to slow those efforts down.

“There’s much more to be done. That’s clear not only in our strategies and recommendations, but also in our efforts to reach out to stakeholders and the public to see how they want to take the next steps of climate change and adaptation in Colorado.”

Other states and some local jurisdictions have proclaimed bold, even brash goals. Colorado officials aren’t persuaded that’s the way to go.

“When you drill down into the programs they have in place to achieve those goals, you find sometimes that the math doesn’t add up,” says Finnessey.

The document makes the case that Colorado has done much since the first climate plan was released during the administration of Gov. Bill Ritter in 2007. Much of that work has been in reduction of greenhouse gases.

The climate plan speaks to both transportation and cooperation with local entities. Photo/Allen Best
The climate plan speaks to both transportation and cooperation with local entities. Photo/Allen Best

State legislators have raised the bar of renewable portfolio standards for the investor-owned utilities and expanded the requirements to include the co-operatives and municipalities.

Already, the initiatives (including the first renewable mandate adopted by voters in 2004) have added up. Just 0.54 percent of electricity came from renewable sources in 2004 (excluding the big hydro sources); as of 2014, the percentage had grown to 14.36 percent.

Switching among fossil fuels has also reduced greenhouse gases. State legislation incentivized the replacement of coal by  natural gas at power plants in Boulder and Denver. And, in 2014, Colorado became a national leader in instituting rules to limit emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from drilling operations.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has said Colorado will go forward with efforts to meet standards of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan for 2030. (Another statewide elected official, Cynthia Coffman, the attorney general, has a different idea. She has joined her counterparts from 22 other states in challenging legality of the Clean Power Plan).

And in its internal operations, the state government has completed measures to reduce petroleum use by fleets by 25 percent and, more broadly, cut energy use by 30 percent.

“We have taken an incredibly multi-pronged approach. We don’t just rely on legislative actions or just on administrative actions or actions we have taken in the past,” says Finnessey.

A chart of greenhouse gas emissions in the report shows a rapid increase in greenhouse gases from Colorado during the 1990s and until about a decade ago. Since then, the growth has moderated and, looking forward, the state report expects emissions to essentially flatline even as population and economic growth continue.

changes in municipal water diversionsThe most extensive section of the climate plan speaks to water. Finnessey works within the Colorado Water Conservation Board as the climate change risk management specialist. But she says personnel from other agencies within the state government always bring up water as a chief concern about impacts of warming temperatures.

“It’s always about water. When you go to the agriculture folks, water is their biggest concern. When you talk to tourism agencies, it’s water. When you talk to all the sectors across the state, it always comes back to water.”changes in water diversions again

Water quantity gets most of the attention in Colorado. Finnessey, however, points to the marriage of water quality and quantity. With a warmer climate, flows in creeks and rivers are expected to drop, at least during certain times of the year and, perhaps in places, at all times of the year. That alone will have an impact on water temperatures and hence the ability of local jurisdictions to meet water quality standards.

Allen Best