Smoke on the horizon 

City Sage

We've had some memorable moments in local politics, haven't we? Ours is the longest running open-mic comedy show west of the Mississippi.

We've had Charlie Duke, Douglas Bruce, Mary Anne Tebedo, Tom Huffman, Cheryl Gillaspie, Charles Wingate, Betty Beedy and ... did I mention Douglas Bruce? That's just a start, and the names alone are enough. It's like listing the original cast of Saturday Night Live.

It was fun, it was crazy, it was bizarre — and it didn't seem to make any difference. Colorado Springs was an all-American city, one so powerful and secure that incompetent elected officials were of no consequence.

In 50 years, the city's population sextupled, going from 70,194 in 1960 to 416,427 in 2010. Growth and prosperity weren't fleeting phenomena, but entitlements. Fortune and the gods smiled upon us — ours was a city blessed with an equable climate, hardworking residents, an entrepreneurial business community, and an unsurpassed quality of life.

Of course we prospered, because ... well, because we're us!

Seen in that light, local elections have merely been a source of entertainment, especially when conservatives go toe-to-toe in Republican primaries. We're the most conservative city in America, so how can Rep. Doug Lamborn (the most conservative member of Congress for three years running, according to the National Journal) have a primary foe? How can you be more conservative than that? Give Robert Blaha credit for trying.

And what's the difference between Marsha Looper and Amy Stephens?

It's always been fun to watch GOPsters at war, but this year may be different. The folks whom we eventually elect to local and national office may find themselves faced with new realities, grave and intractable.

Ten years ago, the Hayman fire started in the forest 36 miles west of Colorado Springs. Before it was fully contained a month later, it had consumed nearly 138,000 acres of forest, as well as 133 homes. Actually, 2002 was a drought year throughout the Southwest, just as 2012 is. And once again, vast wildfires light up the Western night, including a New Mexico monster that had burned through 216,000 acres as of last weekend.

Droughts are the new normal in much of the West. The effects of global warming are being felt in higher temperatures, smaller snowpacks, diminished runoff and reduced stream flows. We have fire — we don't have rain. Ten years ago, it was possible to dismiss the most pessimistic predictions of climate scientists as theoretical scare-mongering, but no longer.

Reality conforms to those predictions, with one exception: It's happening a lot sooner than predicted. Nine of the past 13 years have produced below-average flows in the Colorado River, and that pattern will likely persist and deepen. Last year's bounteous snowpack filled reservoirs, but such events may become as rare as basin-wide droughts once were.

Colorado Springs gets 70 percent of its water from the Colorado River. Prolonged drought may mean permanent, severe water rationing, even with the Southern Delivery System online. Local water managers may make soothing pronouncements about water, saying the city has two years of consumption in storage, but on April 15 (the date of maximum readings), snowpack in the upper Colorado River Basin was 21 percent of normal. On June 1, it was 8.5 percent of normal. Those are the lowest levels ever recorded, rivaled only by those of 2002.

But maybe we'll see water demand plummet, even without rationing. Here's the word from a Lamborn flier:

"[Lamborn has ensured] that our military bases here at home have the full and necessary funding they need to bring our troops home safe and victorious." True dat, but what happens when all those safe and victorious troops are demobilized? Will there be a new round of base closures? And in a prolonged drought, will Fort Carson still be attractive to a downsized Army?

It would be nice if those wishing to represent us acknowledged the twin elephants in the room, but they won't. You can't talk about global climate change if your political base believes it doesn't exist. You can't talk about military downsizing if it presents an existential threat to your constituents.

You live on hope. The fires are burning ... will someone put them out?


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