Colorado in uncharted avalanche territory as the climate changes

David O. Williams, The Gazette

VAIL • As snow scientists and highway officials literally and figuratively dig out from under a mountain of snow left by Wednesday’s bomb cyclone and a recent 5-foot-plus heavy, wet, avalanche-triggering snow cycle in the mountains, they’re collectively trying to grapple with what comes next and how it all connects to climate change in Colorado.

For the Colorado Department of Transportation, which has been dealing with historic avalanches along the Interstate 70 corridor into the mountains — along with stranded motorists scattered across the eastern plains by the bomb cyclone — that means coming up for air over the next week when milder weather is forecast and getting a handle on road repairs, melting and rock slides.

“It’s also really just about trying to get our folks rested,” said CDOT’s Tracy Trulove, who’s based in Glenwood Springs.

“We’re taking this break in the weather to try to repair some of the road damage. This kind of winter is really tough on us for potholes and sections of the roadway that get damaged. And our team will be taking advantage of this drier week to be sure we are well-stocked with what we need if we’re going into another cycle like this.”

Longer-term forecasts are calling for the return of this season’s consistent snowstorms this month, and avalanche experts and road crews are bracing for the worst. Part of the problem this season was above-average snowfall building up on steep mountain slopes without sliding. Then a very moist, Pacific storm cycle fell on top of it, triggering huge avalanches down to I-70.

It’s tough to connect one heavy, wet, Pacific storm cycle to climate change, said Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and he added such storms are not all that unusual in Colorado and climate change is playing a role.

“We often talk about things in terms of snow-water equivalent, and so we’re seeing these storms that are dropping 3 to 5 inches of water in a 24-hour period and that’s a significant and rapid load to the snowpack,” Lazar said, referring to the mountain storms this month that triggered huge avalanches along I-70 in Summit and Eagle counties.

“Maybe the number of them this year and just how wet and kind of juicy they’ve been is a little bit out of the normal,” Lazar added. “That’s not inconsistent with predictions of a warmer climate. That warm air can kind of just hold more moisture. Colorado is typically colder and drier, but if the air over Colorado were to get warmer, it can produce wetter storms.”

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center works with CDOT to predict avalanche paths along the state’s network of roads, with eight forecasters trying to figure out when and where avalanches will occur along the roads CDOT maintains. The avalanche center also has a team of backcountry forecasters.

“Avalanches were hitting along I-70 but look at other places that were also experiencing backcountry things — the (slide) in Hinsdale County that took out the sheriff’s house,” Trulove said, referring to a March 12 avalanche near Lake City. “Think about CAIC and how busy they stay with us, but they have that (backcountry) piece of what they do, too.”

During the March 13 bomb cyclone, while things were relatively quiet in the high country — just the usual spun-out semis and passenger vehicles shutting down mountain passes — Trulove said she was getting calls from Grand Junction media about rock slides. This was all just a few days after I-70 was shut down so crews could go up in helicopters and drop charges on slide paths.

CDOT has a specialty unit in its maintenance department of about 70 workers statewide who are trained in avalanche mitigation, including using explosives to set off controlled avalanches that can be cleared while the road is closed to vehicle traffic, which is what happened on March 10. Seven of those workers concentrate on Vail Pass and the west side of the Eisenhower Tunnel.

A week before that in an unplanned event on March 3, an avalanche in Summit County’s Ten Mile Canyon came all the way down to I-70, impacting vehicles but miraculously not causing injuries. That prompted CDOT mitigation in the area that hadn’t been necessary since the 1980s.

CDOT contracts helicopters, removes their doors and sends its avalanche experts up along with Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters to drop explosives on key “start zones” where a slide historically is most likely to trigger. Such flights are more common in the steeper, more remote reaches of the San Juan Mountains and much more rare along I-70, Trulove said.

Trulove said CDOT also has a relatively new administrative group focused on risk and resiliency along the I-70 corridor, factoring in climate issues. But trying to better predict avalanches by building climate change and warmer, wetter snowstorms into forecasting models will be difficult, experts say.

“This is what we would expect, that a warmer ocean and a warmer atmosphere mean that the atmosphere can hold more water and potentially rain or snow at greater intensity than in the past,” said Jeffrey Deems, a research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“One of the challenges is that the typical sort of climate standard and projection scale is a much longer timeframe than that over which avalanches operate,” Deems added. “What avalanches care about is this storm or this storm sequence and potentially this season as far as how weak layers develop and whatnot.”

Which means a much bigger sample size is needed to be able to say that climate change is making avalanches in Colorado’s high country more or less likely. The variability of snowstorms and water content will always make it tough to accurately forecast when and where slides occur.

What isn’t debatable is that Colorado is getting warmer and that previously unheard of midwinter rain events are becoming more common in the Colorado high country, said Lazar, who has a master’s degree in engineering focused on snow and ice mechanics.

“As avalanche professionals, the challenge for us is that we often draw on careers of observations and how we’ve seen storms play out in terms of avalanche cycles,” Lazar said.

“But we’re starting to see storm events that we haven’t quite seen before, and so our challenge is going to be going back to first principles and thinking about how avalanche cycles and avalanche conditions may change in a changing climate.”

Deems, who works for the National Snow and Ice Data Center and also does water assessment for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, concurs that Colorado is warming and that rain and wetter snow are therefore becoming more common. Known for its famed “cold smoke” powder storms, Colorado residents need to get used to more coastal conditions.

“The instrument record does bear that out, that we are seeing increased rain fraction and we are seeing higher snow lines in particular storms,” Deems said. “We’re seeing a shorter snow season, et cetera. Now making the leap from that to avalanche activity is where it gets a little more dodgy.”

Big and unexpected avalanches can occur in low snow years, he points out.

“You don’t need a big year to get a big avalanche cycle,” Deems said. “We can have a really crappy year with a ton of depth hoar and then get one of these atmospheric rivers on top of it.”

That’s what happened early in 2012, when there was very little snow deep into January and then a couple of big storms. Extremely rare inbounds avalanches at two Colorado ski areas — Vail and Winter Park’s Mary Jane — claimed the lives of two skiers on Jan. 22 that year.

Seven years before that, on May 20, 2005, water loading on the steep Pallavicini run at Arapahoe Basin caused a wet slab avalanche that killed a Boulder man in an inbounds slide. Wet slab avalanches move in one big concrete-like mass that can be slower but more destructive.

“That’s one of the other things that we should be looking towards with a warming climate is an increased frequency of wet-snow events and or wet-snow events earlier in the season than we typically see them,” Deems said.

And the idea of trying to base predictions on averages is becoming much more difficult, Lazar said, pointing to last season’s historically low snow totals followed by this season’s above-average snowfall.

At this point in the ski season last year, Vail and Beaver Creek needed a mid-April storm cycle just to get over the 200-inch seasonal total, which is well below the 330-inch seasonal average for the two resorts. This season, Vail has topped 300 inches, with more than a month to go in ski season, and Beaver Creek is just under 300.

“Talking about average is becoming more and more meaningless because we just have a lot more variability going on,” Lazar said.

Will Toor, head of the Colorado Energy Office, on climate change and the economic future of coal towns

The new energy chief will play a key role in implementing the governor’s challenging renewable energy plan

By John Herrick, Colorado Independent

The Colorado Energy Office has become a key battlefield in the fight over the state’s energy future. In 2017, disagreement over whether the office should provide grants to renewables like wind and solar or to fossil fuels like oil and natural gas led to a stalemate. Lawmakers denied state funding for the office — and the roughly two dozen employees who work there — for the better part of a year. That impasse ended, when last session, lawmakers restored funding and wrote into law that the office would promote all forms of energy production.

That consensus is now on shaky ground with the election of Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who is pushing an ambitious renewable energy plan that would largely wean the state off of fossil fuels.

To help implement this plan, Polis selected Will Toor, a 57-year-old energy wonk, as the new head the Colorado Energy Office. Toor, who says he has been hearing the alarm bells of climate change since the 1980s, powers his Boulder home with solar panels, uses public transit, and is matter-of-fact when talking about coal-fired power plant closures. He supported 2,500-foot oil and gas drilling setbacks, the most hard-fought measure on last November’s ballot. (Polis did not.) When asked if he has any anxiety about climate change, Toor replied, “how could you not?”

Toor and his staff of 26 full-time employees will have to navigate the ongoing tensions over Colorado’s energy future, a future the state’s politically powerful oil and gas interests have spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years to influence. The transition will be technically challenging, too: Currently, less than 20 percent of the state’s electricity comes from renewables, and there is no clear vision for how an electric grid as large as Colorado’s and one mostly powered by coal-fired generators can run entirely on renewables.

Toor grew up in Pittsburgh and moved to Boulder shortly before he earned a doctorate degree in physics from the University of Chicago. Since then, he has worn many different hats. He served as Boulder mayor and city councilor, as well as a Boulder County commissioner. He co-founded Better Boulder, a political organization that supports new urbanist candidates for office and advocates for urban density and affordable housing in a city where accomplishing either has been an ongoing battle. Over the last six years, he was the director of the transportation program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, or SWEEP, researching energy and transportation efficiency. He also served on the Air Quality Control Commission under former Gov. John Hickenlooper, visiting coal mines and coal-fired power plants on the West Slope.

Toor sat down with The Colorado Independent at his office near the state Capitol. We talked about how he commutes into Denver, the unknowns of the governor’s renewable energy agenda, and what he hears from coal miners who face grim job prospects in the age of climate change.

The following transcript of our conversation, which included follow-ups over the phone, was edited for clarity and length.

How did you end up living in Boulder?

A friend and I were hitchhiking back out to Stanford. And the car that we were in broke down at 28th and Colorado in Boulder in July of 1980. We knew one person in Boulder. We called her up and asked if we could stay. Thirty years later, I am still living there.

You bike to the Downtown Boulder Station and bus into Denver. Do you commute this way because of your carbon footprint?

There are multiple motivations. I think my whole family tries to minimize our energy use and carbon footprint. I would have to say I like to get some exercise. And being on my bike has multiple benefits. Commuting back and forth between Boulder and Denver, if I had to sit there in traffic, as opposed to getting work done on the bus, my life would be a lot worse. It’s a much more pleasant way to commute, and a much more low-impact way. At home, we remodeled to install solar electric and hot water. Our vehicle is a plug-in electric vehicle. We have a Prius Prime. We try to do local driving that’s all on electricity. Longer distance trips are 55 miles per gallon.

Do you think individual acts of conservation matter?

I would say the most important thing we can do is to change our energy systems. I think that end-use efficiency matters a lot … whether it’s building codes or whether it’s investment from utilities in energy efficiency programs or whether it’s financing programs, to make sure that we are making our buildings as efficient as possible. … Personal things matter because you need to add up billions of people doing those personal things. But in order for them to really make a difference, we need to have the right system in place so that things happen on a large scale.

When did you first learn about climate change? What was that like?

This first time I gave much thought to it was when I was in graduate school. I went to graduate school at the University of Chicago to study physics. It was the mid-‘80s. I took an atmospheric science class. … And then the first time I remember really thinking about the implications, I drove out to Colorado for a conference in 1989. I remember people saying at the time that we had a decade to get the policy right. It’s now three decades later and we’re still trying to get the policy right.

Do you deal with any climate change anxiety?

How could you not? As I think about climate change, it can be somewhat overwhelming — the scale of the transition we need to make. Given the pretty clear imperative that we need to do deep reductions quickly and we need to get to somewhere near net zero by 2050 … that’s really daunting.

Things that give me hope are that given the right incentives, people are really smart, and there is enormous room for technological innovation that will help us reduce emissions and react to climate change. Here in Colorado, after 2004, with Amendment 37, we created a 10 percent renewable standard by 2020. At the time, the utilities were bitterly fighting it, arguing that no one even knows if we can do this. ‘How expensive is it going to be?’ ‘Are we going to crash the grid?’ And then, here we are, 15 years later, and the largest utility’s basically up to around 30 percent. … Now you have this cost curve going down, down, down so that now it’s cheaper to build new wind and solar than it is to operate coal-fired power plants. That just opens up enormous possibilities. We’re seeing the same thing in transportation. Batteries are increasingly cheaper. All the sudden that means you can really foresee widespread electrification of transportation.

Would you say that technology will save us? What about people who say we’re doomed?

I don’t think it’s a very helpful way of thinking about things. I think there are plausible pathways that can get us to the change that we need.

Do you think Gov. Polis’ 100 percent renewable by 2040 plan is possible?

I do. I think we have a clear roadmap to an 80 percent clean electricity mix. The last 20 percent is harder. And I don’t know that we have the roadmap how we get all the way there. … Despite all the great changes that have happened, we still have a relatively coal-heavy mix. There is currently no way we can achieve the emissions reductions that are required without that transition from coal. How do we leverage that to encourage utilities to retire those legacy coal plants? And how do we do that in a way so that we are thoughtful about engaging those coal plants that really are a key part of certain communities?

The brilliance of setting the 100 percent target is that it sets a goal for the utilities and the markets to work toward. I think that will help to spur the innovation in technology and business models needed to meet the goal. … It does get more challenging and requires more innovation when you move toward the very high levels of renewable energy. With wind and solar, because they’re variable generating resources — the sun is not always shining and the wind is not always blowing — as you get to higher and higher percentages, you have larger challenges with balancing the grid.

Have you visited a coal mine or coal-fired power plant here in Colorado?

Yes, I have been to a couple of coal mines and a couple of coal power plants. Back before it closed, I visited the Valmont Power Station [in Boulder]. And I spent a couple days touring a coal mine and power plants in Craig. … And then just last summer, spent some time down at the coal mines outside of Paonia.

What do you tell the workers there, given what you know about the effects of coal on the climate and what needs to happen to stop climate change?

I think it’s clear that there is a transition coming. The economics are going to be driving a transition away from coal. And I think that the imperatives of climate change are going to make that happen faster. But it’s going to happen either way. What I think is really important is to ensure that there is attention given to promoting economic development that will work for the people in those communities.

Have any miners or plant workers said anything that stuck with you?

Coal really has been an economic base. It brings good-paying jobs. It was clear that people were very concerned that they are making $80,000 to $90,000 per year and do not know what jobs will be there when this goes away.

The Colorado Energy Office has a legislative mandate to promote all-the-above energy. Are you promoting natural gas development?

I think that our job is to really help implement the governor’s agenda. We work for Gov. Polis. And the governor’s energy agenda is really about moving toward 100 percent renewables by 2040, supporting the transition to zero-emission vehicles, and acting on climate change. … There are a lot of opportunities to increase the efficiency of [oil and gas] operations in ways that will both save energy and reduce fugitive emissions. So I’m hopeful that we will be able to engage with the oil and gas industry in a productive way.

How is this an opportunity for the industry?

I think we will be exploring ways to work with the industry that will increase their energy efficiency … and trying to do that in ways that would reduce the emissions of methane. If you’re not losing that methane, you’re able to capture it as an energy source.

Have you spoken to anyone in the oil and gas industry about this plan?

No, not yet. This is very early-stage thinking.

Do you foresee continued drilling in Colorado under the new administration?

I can’t speak to that. The regulation of oil and gas drilling falls under the Department of Natural Resources and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Do you think there is any conflict between what the law says about the role of the Colorado Energy Office and the governor’s agenda?

I think that the statute is fairly broad. I think it gives a lot of room for the office to work on the governor’s agenda.

The Colorado Energy Office has at times been a political hot potato. How do you navigate the politics of this office, especially given the prospects that there may not be a Democratic trifecta in future years?

My job as director of the energy office is to follow the governor’s lead and help implement the governor’s agenda. I think the governor has been clear that his priorities are getting to 100 percent renewable, clean electricity generation and moving toward zero-emission vehicles. So I think those need to be the priorities of the office. … That said, we work in a wide variety of areas and much of what the office does is administering programs: agricultural energy efficiency and commercial energy efficiency and industrial energy efficiency and low-income weatherization and financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements. We will continue with all of those programs.

Let’s say there is a divided legislature in 2020. And Republicans will not fund this office if it pursues the governor’s agenda. How do you make sure that your office stays running and the two-dozen or so employees stay employed?

While there is clearly some history of partisan divides, not everything lines up along partisan lines. We’re seeing the cost of renewable energy getting so low. There are opportunities to meet the renewable energy goals while also lowering electricity rates and saving ratepayers significant amounts of money … I think we’re seeing a transition because the economics are shifting so much. I think the politics are shifting as well. I’m hopeful that an agenda that is focused on moving toward very high levels of renewable energy is something that will be able to attract bipartisan support. Given the economic realities that are out there, I think that it will.

Making sure that policies are really focused how we ensure a just transition for communities where their economic base is going to shift is also going to be really important so there can be broad support for the agenda moving forward. But I think for the vast majority of people, regardless of their party, the idea that we can have cleaner electricity that lowers rates, I think that is something that everyone can embrace. I think it transcends party lines.

Fouled waters in Colorado reveal lasting legacy of US mining industry

By The Associated Press

RIMINI, Mont. (AP) — Every day many millions of gallons of water loaded with arsenic, lead and other toxic metals flow from some of the most contaminated mining sites in the U.S. and into surrounding lakes and streams without being treated, The Associated Press has found.

That torrent is poisoning aquatic life and tainting drinking water sources in Montana, California, Colorado, Oklahoma and at least five other states.

The pollution is a legacy of how the mining industry was allowed to operate in the U.S. for more than a century. Companies that built mines for silver, lead, gold and other “hardrock” minerals could move on once they were no longer profitable, leaving behind tainted water that still leaks out of the mines or is cleaned up at taxpayer expense.

Using data from public records requests and independent researchers, the AP examined 43 mining sites under federal oversight, some containing dozens or even hundreds of individual mines.

The records show that at average flows, more than 50 million gallons (189 million liters) of contaminated wastewater streams daily from the sites. In many cases, it runs untreated into nearby groundwater, rivers and ponds — a roughly 20-million-gallon (76-million-liter) daily dose of pollution that could fill more than 2,000 tanker trucks.

The remainder of the waste is captured or treated in a costly effort that will need to carry on indefinitely, for perhaps thousands of years, often with little hope for reimbursement.

The volumes vastly exceed the release from Colorado’s Gold King Mine disaster in 2015, when an EPA cleanup crew inadvertently triggered the release of 3 million gallons (11.4 million liters) of mustard-colored mine sludge, fouling rivers in three states.

At many mines, the pollution has continued decades after their enlistment in the federal Superfund cleanup program for the nation’s most hazardous sites, which faces sharp cuts under President Donald Trump.

Federal officials fear that at least six of the sites examined by AP could have blowouts like the one at Gold King.

Some sites feature massive piles or impoundments of mine waste known as tailings. A tailings dam collapse in Brazil last month killed at least 169 people and left 140 missing. A similar 2014 accident in British Columbia swept millions of cubic yards of contaminated mud into a nearby lake, resulting in one of Canada’s worst environmental disasters.

But even short of a calamitous accident, many mines pose the chronic problem of relentless pollution.


In mountains outside the Montana capital of Helena, about 30 households can’t drink their tap water because groundwater was polluted by about 150 abandoned gold, lead and copper mines that operated from the 1870s until 1953.

The community of Rimini was added to the Superfund list in 1999. Contaminated soil in residents’ yards was replaced, and the EPA has provided bottled water for a decade. But polluted water still pours from the mines and into Upper Tenmile Creek.

“The fact that bottled water is provided is great,” said 30-year Rimini resident Catherine Maynard, a natural resources analyst for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Where it falls short is it’s not piped into our home. Water that’s piped into our home is still contaminated water. Washing dishes and bathing — that metal-laden water is still running through our pipes.”

Estimates of the number of such abandoned mine sites range from 161,000 in 12 western states to as many as 500,000 nationwide. At least 33,000 have degraded the environment, according to the Government Accountability Office, and thousands more are discovered every year.

Officials have yet to complete work including basic risk analyses on about 80 percent of abandoned mining sites on federal lands. Most are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, which under Trump is seeking to consolidate mine cleanups with another program and cut their combined 2019 spending from $35 million to $13 million.


Problems at some sites are intractable.

Among them:

— In eastern Oklahoma’s Tar Creek mining district, waterways are devoid of life and elevated lead levels persist in the blood of children despite a two-decade effort to clean up lead and zinc mines. More than $300 million has been committed since 1983, but only a small fraction of the impacted land has been reclaimed and contaminated water continues to flow.

— At northern California’s Iron Mountain Mine, cleanup teams battle to contain highly acidic water that percolates through a former copper and zinc mine and drains into a Sacramento River tributary. The mine discharged six tons of toxic sludge daily before an EPA cleanup. Authorities now spend $5 million a year to remove poisonous sludge that had caused massive fish kills, and they expect to keep at it forever.

— In Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, site of the Gold King blowout, some 400 abandoned or inactive mine sites contribute an estimated 15 million gallons (57 million liters) of acid mine drainage per day.

This landscape of polluted sites occurred under mining industry rules largely unchanged since the 1872 Mining Act.

State and federal laws in recent decades have held companies more accountable than in the past, but critics say huge loopholes all but ensure that some of today’s mines will foul waterways or require perpetual cleanups.

To avoid a catastrophe like Gold King, EPA officials now require advance approval for work on many mining sites. But they acknowledge they’re only dealing with a small portion of the problem.

“We have been trying to play a very careful game of prioritization,” said Dana Stalcup, deputy director of the Superfund program. “We know the Superfund program is not the answer to the hundreds of thousands of mines out there, but the mines we are working on we want to do them the best we can.”


To date, the EPA has spent an estimated $4 billion on mining cleanups. Under Trump, the agency has identified a small number of Superfund sites for heightened attention after cleanup efforts stalled or dragged on for years. They include five mining sites examined by AP.

Former EPA assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus said more money is needed to address mining pollution on a systematic basis, rather than jumping from one emergency response to another.

“The piecemeal approach is just not working,” said Stanislaus, who oversaw the Superfund program for almost eight years ending in 2017.

Democrats have sought unsuccessfully to create a special cleanup fund for old hardrock mine sites, with fees paid by the mining industry. Such a fund has been in place for coal mines since 1977, with more than $11 billion in fees collected and hundreds of sites reclaimed.

The mining industry has resisted doing the same for hardrock mines, and Republicans in Congress have blocked the Democratic proposals.

Montana Mining Association director Tammy Johnson acknowledged abandoned mines have left a legacy of pollution, but added that companies still in operation should not be forced to pay for those problems.

“Back in the day there really wasn’t a lot known about acid mine drainage,” she said. “I just don’t think that today’s companies bear the responsibility.”

In 2017, the EPA proposed requiring companies still operating mines to post cleanup bonds or offer other financial assurances so taxpayers don’t end up footing cleanup bills. The Trump administration halted the rule, but environmental groups are scheduled to appear in federal court next month in a lawsuit that seeks to revive it.

“When something gets on a Superfund site, that doesn’t mean it instantly and magically gets cleaned up,” said Earthjustice attorney Amanda Goodin. “Having money immediately available from a responsible party would be a game changer.”

Kate Greenberg, Colorado’s new ag commissioner, on climate change and mental health in rural America

By John Herrick, Colorado Independant

Kate Greenberg, 31, has spent most of her adult life advocating for agriculture, a calling that’s taken her from farmers’ kitchens in the rural West to the halls of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. When Gov. Jared Polis selected her as Colorado Department of Agriculture commissioner in December, Greenberg became the first woman in state history to serve in that role.

Greenberg, who now lives in Durango, grew up in Minneapolis and later moved to Washington, where she graduated from Whitman College with a degree in environmental studies and humanities. It was in college when she developed an interest in agriculture. In 2013, she was named western program director for the National Young Farmers Coalition, a New York-based nonprofit that lobbies for sustainable agriculture and helps young farmers find affordable land. In 2016, she won the Western Resource Advocates’ “Emerging Leader Award.”

As Colorado’s ag chief, she oversees 300 employees across eight divisions, including the state fair and plant and livestock health. She takes the job, which paid $167,000 last year, according to the Denver Business Journal, at a time when climate change and water scarcity pose major challenges to western farmers.

She does not view her age, gender or urban roots as barriers in her new role. She believes her willingness to listen is more important than where she comes from. “I see people with struggles. And I have compassion for their struggles. And I have an interest in understanding how we can provide services to alleviate what they’re up against,” Greenberg said.

The Colorado Independent sat with Greenberg in her Broomfield office, the department’s headquarters. We talked about how she’s settling into the new digs, her history of sleeping overnight in her car, and what challenges to farming in Colorado keep her up at night.

The following transcript of our conversation, which included a phone interview, was edited for clarity and length.

The Independent: You’re the first female commissioner for the Department of Agriculture. What has the reception been like?

Greenberg: Overall really positive. … I am among at least 13 women holding this position across the country, which I believe is the highest number to date. It’s been so exciting to be out meeting young women in agriculture — exemplifying, illustrating and hammering home that ag is a place for women to be in leadership positions.  

The Independent: As a woman trailblazer, what has the culture here been like?

Greenberg: Nothing that has shocked me. I don’t think any woman would be shocked by entering a leadership role. There is always change, and folks deal with it in different ways. I’m just kinda going on as I would. We’ll put it that way. … There has been nothing but support from inside the department.

The Independent: What drew you to farming?

Greenberg: I loved working outside and being outside. I have a love for the land. And until I left Minnesota, I never thought about where my food came from. And once I started thinking about that, it was just a natural next step for me to start the work of growing food, and figuring out what it takes to that. From there I was hooked.

The Independent: Tell me more about your background in farming.

Greenberg: I interned as a student on a draft horse farm. After I graduated (from college), I farmed full-time for a season in western Washington. From there I continued to do seasonal work on farms and in natural resources across the West and northern Mexico. I worked on two winery farms in northern California and volunteered on a farm in Tucson while I was living in Mexico. My other work was in natural resources, so I was managing field programs that focused on the policy and ecology in the Intermountain West. When I lived in Mexico, I wasn’t growing food, I was growing trees. But I was helping to manage a greenhouse operation and restoration field site, which included flood irrigation, seed management, planting, volunteer management, monitoring, etc.

Blue Mesa Reservoir on Oct. 22, 2018. (Photo by John Herrick)

The Independent: At the Colorado Water Congress last month, you said one of the issues facing farmers is mental health. Do you know anyone personally dealing with this issue?

Greenberg: This is something that we worked on at the Young Farmers Coalition. It started with a previous staff member … who published a piece in The Guardian really exposing the mental health crisis across the U.S. in the ag community. That helped spur a dialogue. Our farmers started to mobilize around both state and federal policy that can assist in rural mental health. Around the same time, a member of our Washington Young Farmer Coalition … had died by suicide. And it rattled the entire community. There was actually a subsequent death by suicide in our network, in California, as well. … Of course, the ag department here has the Crisis Hotline. The work that Christi Lightcap and former Commissioner Don Brown and the rest of the team has been doing is not only providing a pathway for Colorado producers to access mental health resources, but also breaking down the taboo of talking about it when you’re struggling. This is a big deal to me — supporting what we started. Growing it. If you’re struggling, it’s not because you’re a failure. It’s because you’re struggling and there are resources here to help you. … Farmers and ranchers pour their lives into their business — life and work and family and land and income are all intertwined in a farm business. For most people, a hail storm means you might get some dents in your car, you might have to pay for some repairs. If a farmer gets a hail storm and it wipes out their crop, that’s their income. … I think it can’t be overstated how much you pour your heart and your sweat and blood into the work, and a single event or a change in the market or a change in federal policy can kinda take you out at the knees.

The Independent: Have you been in that kind of situation?

Greenberg: I’ve always worked for other people. I have never been the one bearing all the decisions, which is a totally different place to be.

The Independent: You’ve worked in the water community and are well aware of the issues facing Colorado in terms of water scarcity. Does that keep up you up at night — the future of agriculture in the West?

Greenberg: That is one deep concern that I bring to this role. Without water, we don’t have much of anything. For agriculture, it is fundamental. I see this as a critical moment of agriculture to be part of the water plan process — the implementation, the funding, how it comes out on the ground. … Essentially what I said [at the Colorado Water Congress on Feb. 1] is that this is a time for agriculture to step up. One reason I’m here is because I don’t take it for granted that we are going to have water for agriculture in the future. With the rate of growth in the Front Range, in urban areas of the Front Range, the trend has been toward ‘buy and dry.’ A lot of the transactions are voluntary and compensated. But farmers should have options. … Climate change is a big — one of the biggest — challenges we face in agriculture, and farmers and ranchers should be at the forefront of dealing with that.

I split time in Denver, and I was talking to folks here who didn’t know we had a drought this last year. I live in Durango, where you step outside and the 416 Fire is burning up, the valley is filled with smoke, we have producers who had to cull their herds because there is not enough forage or hay — hay prices went up — and producers are making the decision, ‘Is this the year I have to call it quits?’ I guess I see that distinction, where you can be buffered in the city and not know we’re in the drought.

The Independent: What is it like living on the West Slope and working over here? How much time to you plan to spend in the Front Range versus the West Slope?

Greenberg: I like to spend as much time in the field as possible. And I have to get to a lot of places I haven’t been yet, like the Eastern Plains. … Home base is Durango. Work is Denver. Fieldwork is statewide. I worked with hundreds of producers and organizations across the state before this job. And I was also kind of living life out of my car before this job. And I thought maybe at some point I would get away from the whole living-out-of-your-car thing but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. I’m still going to be out roaming the state.

The Independent: You’ve been known to sleep in your car. Is that still the case?

Greenberg: I haven’t done that for a while. But there have been nights. I usually try to stay with farmers and ranchers who will host me. And have a home-cooked meal. I’m not much for hotel stays.

The Independent: Your walls here are bare. Your ‘Commissioner’s Office’ sign is on the floor. Is that a reflection of being on the road?

Greenberg: I’m not much of an interior designer. Thinking about how to fill my walls has been the least of my priorities.

The Independent: As the ag chief, you’re going to be talking to a lot of traditional farmers, many of whom are older men. How do you find common ground with them, and where do you see challenges?

Greenberg: It’s not really an issue for me at all. If folks want to fixate on differences, that’s fine. But really where I fixate is on what we have in common. There is nothing about my background or my age or my gender that is a barrier to me because I see people as people. I see people with struggles. And I have compassion for their struggles. And I have an interest in understanding how we can provide services to alleviate what they’re up against. I meet people where they’re at. I hope that folks will do the same. That’s what I’m interested in — building relationships and finding common ground.

The Independent: How much do you think Gov. Polis knows about farming?

Greenberg: Together we are excited about Colorado agriculture. … Agriculture has support here in Denver. I am excited, I’m honored, to be able to represent agriculture in this administration — to be a voice for all farmers and ranchers. It doesn’t matter where you come from. No on person can come from everywhere, right? So in order to represent the extent of the industry, it’s not about coming from that place. It’s about can you work with those people? Can you get out in the field and understand how people are struggling? Can you build coalitions and collaborations across differences? No matter where you come from or what your experience is, there are other skills and tools you can bring to build up the industry, to support people and their work, and to make sure the agriculture community knows they are represented here in Denver.

Polis: Poll Confirms Support for Conservation Agenda

DENVER – Voters in Colorado and other western states continue to support conservation policies for publicly owned lands, putting them at odds with the Trump administration’s energy dominance agenda, according to the ninth annual Conservation in the West Poll from Colorado College.

Gov. Jared Polis says the poll’s results show a clear mandate to keep public lands accessible for outdoor recreation, which he sees as a vital part of the Colorado way of life.

“That’s really one of the reasons that people choose to live here, why people move here, why people visit our state,” Polis says. “Over 500,000 people work in outdoor recreation and tourism that puts food on the table for their families.”

Polis says the survey also confirms that voters see climate change as a major threat to agriculture, skiing and water supplies.

The new governor is making the transition to 100 percent renewable energy from power grids by 2040 a top priority, and he says he’s committed to adding more clean energy jobs.

The Trump administration is taking steps to prioritize coal, oil and gas production on federal lands in an effort it maintains will reduce dependence on foreign sources.

Pollster Dave Metz says the survey shows voters overwhelmingly value conservation over resource extraction when it comes to public land management priorities.

“Almost two thirds of voters said that their priority was protecting sources of clean water, air quality and wildlife habitat – as well as opportunities for recreation – while only about one quarter said that producing more domestic energy was a priority for them,” Metz points out.

Nearly 9 in 10 Coloradans believe the outdoor recreation economy is important for the future of the

Conservation in the West is a bipartisan survey conducted by Republican and Democratic polling firms. The poll surveyed a minimum of 400 registered voters in eight western states, including Colorado.

Denver weather streak: 25 straight months of below-average snowfall is a new record

Denver’s been locked into a consistently dry and mild pattern for over two years running

By Chris Bianchi, The Denver Post

With only 6.2 inches of snow in January, Denver just completed its 25th-straight month with below average snowfall, the longest such streak in recorded history.

Denver’s official records date back to 1882, and an analysis of climatological records shows that there’s been no such previous stretch in recorded history.

KDVR/KWGN meteorologist Matt Makens first uncovered this remarkable bit of weather trivia.

The bigger question is why, and it may not be as obvious as a warming climate, though that may have played a role in consistently suppressing snow totals for such a long period of time.

RELATED: Could Denver be in for a cold, snowy February?

Within the 25-month stretch of below average snowfall, beginning in January of 2017, 16 of 24 months (and one tie) have featured above average temperatures, and while that’s undoubtedly contributed to the lack of snowfall, it probably doesn’t tell the story as much as the remarkably dry period, especially during the typically busiest snow months of the year. Nineteen of the 25 months within this period featured below average precipitation, including each of the five snowiest months on average within this timeframe: March, April, December, February and November, in order.

Sure, that’s a lot of numbers, but they add up to one firm conclusion: Denver’s been locked into a consistently dry and mild pattern for over two years running.

Statewide, Colorado remains in a persistent drought, though the mountains have enjoyed a snowy start to the winter season. That may improve somewhat this spring with healthy season-to-date snowpack in the mountains, but reservoir levels, particularly in the hardest-hit southern and western parts of the state, remain in trouble.

Part of the snow deficit, however, may also be attributed to the official climate observation site being located at Denver International Airport, which has kept Denver’s official records since only 2008. The airport’s location approximately 20 miles northeast of downtown Denver might seem fairly trivial compared to previous official climate record keeping at Stapleton Airport and, before that, two downtown locations. But, consider this: Last Monday’s surprise snowfall produced only 1.3 inches of snow at DIA, while most parts of the downtown and metro area received at least six inches. It was enough of a difference to keep Denver’s official January total at 6.2 inches, a hair below Denver’s 6.6-inch January monthly average.

That said, there’s virtually no set of logistics that can shake off this unprecedented snow-less stretch. If you took the snowfall statistics from Denver’s more centrally located Stapleton Airport climate site, for example, only two of the 25 months would’ve featured above average snowfall: January 2017 and January 2019, which still would’ve left Denver in a record-setting 23-month snow deficit. More so, the last two winters, 2016-17 and 2017-18, both rank among the top-five snow-less winters on record.

There may be some hope for snow-lovers on the horizon, though: There are at least a few signs that this month, and maybe this spring, may finally help break this remarkable stretch of below average snowfall.

Chris Bianchi is a meteorologist for WeatherNation TV.

Climate is the biggest risk to business (and the world)

By Ivana Kottasová, CNN

London (CNN Business) – Companies and investors are waking up to the dangers posed by climate change and extreme weather. Many now consider environmental risks, such as droughts and wildfires, to be even more dangerous than turbulent markets, cyberattacks or geopolitical snafus. Climate and environmental issues dominate a ranking of top global risks produced by the World Economic Forum ahead of its annual summit in Davos. Business leaders and experts surveyed by WEF said that extreme weather, migration caused by climate change and natural disasters are the three risks they’re most likely to face in 2019. Each of the climate-related risks also ranks among the top five issues in terms of potential impact. “There is more investor pressure and more requirements on companies,” said John Drzik, president of the global risk and digital at insurance broker Marsh. “They have been already facing pressure from consumers to make their products more climate friendly, but the amplified investor pressure is new.”

Wildfires hit California last year.

Wildfires hit California last year.

Climate risks

Natural disasters and extreme weather caused around $160 billion worth of damage in 2018, according to reinsurance company Munich RE. Control Risks, a consultancy, predicts that figure will be surpassed in 2019.”From storms to floods to droughts and forest fires, the costs of interrupted production, distribution, sales and travel will skyrocket in 2019,” the group said in its annual risk report.

Tense climate talks end in agreement

Tense climate talks end in agreement 02:19Climate disasters point to several areas where businesses face increased risks.The first is supply chains. A report from University of Maryland and software firm Resilinc showed that global supply chain disruptions caused by weather doubled in 2017.The risk doesn’t affect just the developing world, where infrastructure is often weaker. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria combined that year to make the United States the most disrupted region for the first time.

Investors with $32 trillion at stake sound the alarm on climate change

Investors with $32 trillion at stake sound the alarm on climate changeThe most dramatic example of a company coming under pressure from risks related to the environment is Pacific Gas and Electric.The California utility company is facing billions of dollars in claims over the deadly 2018 Camp Fire, and it said earlier this week that it would file for bankruptcy on January 29.The company cited at least $7 billion in claims from the Camp Fire, which caused 86 deaths and destroyed 14,000 homes. It is believed the fire was started when a PG&E power line came in contact with nearby trees.In the bankruptcy filing, the company cited the “significant increase in wildfire risk resulting from climate change” as one of the reasons for its decision.”We simply wouldn’t be seeing the catastrophic weather events we’ve witnessed in recent years if not for the amplifying effect of climate change,” said Michael Mann, director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center.

Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle in October.

Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle in October.

Business response

Top investors are demanding that more companies draw up environmental action plans. They’re also asking CEOs to consider risks to their business caused by shifting consumer attitudes toward climate change. Alison Martin, the chief risk officer at Zurich Insurance Group, said it doesn’t matter whether the company’s leadership “believes in climate change or [what they think] the causes of it are.”

“If you were a plastic straws manufacturer a few years ago thinking about your strategy going forward, maybe you weren’t anticipating that consumer sentiment could so quickly and so radically move against you,” she said. Shareholders are becoming increasingly vocal.Norway’s $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund launched a big push for sustainability in September, saying it will be using its power as the world’s biggest stock holder to influence companies to behave more responsibly.Last month, investors managing assets worth $32 trillion called on businesses to step up efforts to tackle climate change.

Shell is first energy company to link executive pay and carbon emissions

Shell is first energy company to link executive pay and carbon emissions.In a landmark climate report last year, the United Nations last year called for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” It warned the world has only 12 years to avert a climate disaster. Drzik said the UN timeline made companies wake up to the urgency.”View of risks tends to be dominated by the short-term horizon, and climate is still seen as more long-term than geopolitical risk … but that report has started to pull more focus on it,” he said. Maersk (AMKBY), the world’s biggest shipping company, recently said it’s aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050 and urged other shipping companies to do the same. Last month, Shell became the first energy company to link executive pay and carbon emissions.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the year that hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria struck the United States. It also incorrectly stated the year the supply chain disruption report was published.

Brandon Miller contributed reporting.