Five environmental issues to watch in 2021

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With 2020 in the rearview mirror, it’s time to look at the most pressing environmental issues that face Southwest Colorado in the year to come, and there’s no shortage of them.

How will the prolonged drought affect water supplies if winter doesn’t deliver a strong snowpack this year?

Will the Environmental Protection Agency, now five years into the Superfund program, finally begin to make water quality improvements in the Animas River?

And, after the COVID-19 pandemic sent record numbers of people into the backcountry, how are public land management agencies going to respond to what could be an even more chaotic summer?

Here’s a look at a few of the key environmental issues expected to make headlines in 2021.

Winter to the rescue?Southwest Colorado has been in a prolonged drought for the past few years, but every time conditions looked like they were going to become critical (i.e. not enough water supply), a strong winter showed up for the save.

In 2018, for instance, a brutal drought period was spelled by the 2018-19 winter, which replenished the region’s reservoirs and water supplies.



The Animas River, left, was reduced to a trickle this fall because of prolonged drought. The picture on the right shows the river in May when flows were higher.

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file

Five environmental issues to watch in 2021

The Animas River, left, was reduced to a trickle this fall because of prolonged drought. The picture on the right shows the river in May when flows were higher.

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file

But what if that winter had been a flop?

That’s the question Southwest Colorado water managers are asking, while at the same time, hoping for storm after storm. But that might be tricky given that most weather experts are predicting a below average year for snow.

“Frankly, my concern is next spring,” Jarrod Biggs, the city of Durango’s assistant utilities director, said in October. “I’m crossing my fingers that all the meteorologists are wrong … but when I’m looking at all the data put in front of me … next year does not look great.”

Loved to deathWith normal activities curtailed this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as traveling abroad or going to sporting events, people around the country instead looked at their road maps and circled Southwest Colorado.

It was a year of incredible (and unsustainable, land mangers say) use of public lands across the region.



Public land agencies say people unfamiliar with backcountry travel disregarded rules this summer, resulting in more damage to fragile landscapes. Ridgway photographer Tony Litschewski took this photograph near Clear Lake outside Silverton.

Courtesy of Tony Litschewski

Five environmental issues to watch in 2021

Public land agencies say people unfamiliar with backcountry travel disregarded rules this summer, resulting in more damage to fragile landscapes. Ridgway photographer Tony Litschewski took this photograph near Clear Lake outside Silverton.

Courtesy of Tony Litschewski

People drove ATVs off marked roads into fragile alpine tundra, left feces near campsites, trashed local trails, camped in off-limit areas, hiked off trails and damaged vegetation – the list goes on.

“It’s just like we have a different mentality going on these days where people think they’re too special for the rules to apply to them,” San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad said in August. “This year has just been insane.”

Case in point: At the popular Ice Lakes Trail west of Silverton, a typical day could see anywhere from 400 to 600 hikers.

The sheer number of visitors has public…



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