Colorado Springs has been getting hotter. Climate change and subsequent extreme weather like drought and scorching-hot temperatures create prime conditions for both residential conflagrations and wildfires.
What’s worse, a recent report by The Pacific Institute, a research advocacy group focused on the world’s most pressing water issues, says, “The American West has entered another drought crisis, with nearly the entire region (97 percent) facing abnormally dry conditions and over 70 percent of the region already in severe drought.”
This is disastrous news for farmers and farm workers.
East of the Continental Divide, significant spring storms have relieved some of the state’s drought conditions, but the Western Slope is still in trouble. And, given that 40 million people, seven Western states and Mexico rely on the Colorado River, it is only a matter of time before reservoirs are exhausted. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs in the United States, are not expected to be filled to needed levels by August, according to Discover magazine, meaning the federal government may have to declare, for the first time ever, disastrous shortages. But the consequences won’t impact all growers equally.
Traditionally BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) farmers and communities feel the brunt of water shortages due to underinvestment in technology and poor infrastructure, further burdening their physical, mental and emotional health. Additionally, the farming industry has seen a recent uptick in suicides and farms left unable to produce exacerbates food insecurity in a system that is already threatened, leading to empty shelves at the grocery stores. Water shortages will worsen hardships in these challenged communities and advocacy for these populations needs to be ever-present in any and all upcoming relief packages.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said there will be targeted federal help for farming demographics that have historically seen discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In April, Vilsack told Colorado Public Radio, “This provision in the American Rescue Plan is designed to provide debt relief as a way of responding to the cumulative effect of discrimination, and also to recognize that in previous COVID relief packages, white farmers received anywhere from 95 to 99 percent of the nearly $30 billion that was paid out in those previous COVID relief packages.”
But let’s not forget those who actually work the fields who also suffer the effects of drought — undocumented folx who are still fighting for basic work and housing protections, like the ability to unionize, or take breaks, or have access to safe housing, drinking water and livable wages. Colorado Senate Bill 21-087, the Agricultural Workers’ Rights bill, has passed both the House and the Senate and is heading to the governor’s desk. There is still fierce opposition to the bill. During Senate floor debates, Republican lawmakers said that unions, minimum wages and overtime pay (workplace protections provided in many other industries) will bankrupt farmers and ranchers.
The lives of these workers shouldn’t be used as tools for negotiations. And there is no room for partisan BS. Relief packages should specifically include protections for these farmers and workers at both the state and federal levels. Without sweeping legislation and protections to aid all farmers, ranchers, growers and their workers, the effects of drought on the food system and the health of farming communities will only grow worse.