Summit County, Colorado - The Colorado River Basin is heating up faster than nearly any other part of North America, with potentially serious consequences for the region's economy and environment.

The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization (RMCO) and Natural Resources Defense Council focused on the regional warming trend in a March report. Compiling the latest climate change research, the Denver-based group said that temperatures in the past five years in the West have jumped 70 percent more than average world temperatures, as compared to 20th century averages.

For the last five years (2003-2007), the global climate has averaged 1 degree warmer than the 20th century average. For that same period, the RMCO data show that the 11 western states averaged 1.7 degrees warmer than the region's 20th century average.

The jury may still be out as to whether the temperature increases are part of long-term trend caused by human emission of greenhouse gases. But regardless, the warmer weather in recent years has had tangible economic and environmental impacts, according to the report.

Economic costs

Part of the recent report shows the impact of warming temperatures on business, recreation and tourism. Culling data from more than 125 sources, the report shows that wheat and cattle production in Montana have dropped; that Colorado sunflower yields are down and a five-year drought in Wyoming cost farmers and ranchers an estimated $565.5 billion.

Drought in Arizona has had a significant impact on deer herds. With less forage available, does are going into the winter in poor shape and there is less reproduction. The number of deer-hunting licenses issues by Arizona dropped by 48 percent after a recent drought, costing the state $1 million in lost revenues, according to Theo Spencer, one of the report's co-authors.

The regional bark beetle epidemic is another area where the cost of global warming is becoming evident, Spencer said. The spread of the bugs has been tabbed to warmer temperatures, and government agencies have been spending millions of dollars to try and reduce the fire danger from beetle-killed forests.

"Just because we've had a lot of snow this winter doesn't mean we don't have a problem," Spencer said.

"Scientists say that, in the West, human-caused climate change will lead to more heat, less snow, less water when we need it, and possibly more drought," said Rocky Mountain Climate Organization president Stephen Saunders. The recent report draws from a wide variety of legitimate scientific studies to show that the region is already feeling the effects of global warming, Saunders said.

"Our analysis shows that this climate disruption is already underway. In the West's four largest river basins, temperatures are up and snowpack levels are down. These changes hit at the West's greatest vulnerability, not enough water, because snowmelt provides 70 percent of our water in the region," Saunders said.

Water planning

"All of us, water utilities included, act on the assumption that the future will be a lot like the past. I'm now a lot less confident of that than I used to be," said Denver Water manger Chips Barry. "We know that global warming is occurring, and that means much greater uncertainty about our future water supplies," Barry said.

Warming temperatures are also expected to hit fisheries hard. Lower stream flows and warmer water will probably reduce the number of trout in many parts of the Rocky Mountains, impacting another key recreational use. Tourists spend millions of dollars each year to fish in Colorado's Gold Medal trout streams.

Lower water levels reduce spawning habitat. In some cases, resource managers end up closing popular streams to try and preserve the aquatic ecosystem in stressful conditions. Fishing and tubing on the Yampa River, running through Steamboat, were curtailed during the 2002 drought, much to the dismay of visitors and local business owners alike.

The 2002 drought reduced business for Colorado outfitters by 40 percent. About 1 million fishing recreation days were lost, adding up to about $1.8 million in lost revenues for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, according to state documents cited in the report.

Under most climate change scenarios, such droughts are likely to become more frequent and more extreme, Spencer and Saunders said.

Finally, the report once again highlights the already well-publicized potential impacts to Colorado's economically important ski industry. A shortened winter season is one of the most reliable predictions in most climate modeling scenarios. A loss of several weeks at either the beginning or end of the season could cost the state in a big way, according to the report.

Spencer said it's important to remember that it's not all gloom and doom.

"It's not something that's going to kill the economy," Spencer said. "It's going to be one of the greatest economic transformations ever in this country. There's a lot of money to be made in this transformation," he said. "There's a huge opportunity for the West to take a lead in the transformation.

Comment: Lots of "wishful thinking" in that statement.