Is the changing climate making you anxious? You’re not alone.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – We love our rivers, our mountains, our forests, deserts and wildlife in the West. They’re part of our economies, our lifestyles and our identity. But that very connection makes us vulnerable to a growing mental health problem: climate anxiety.

Wander around any town center or school campus around Colorado Springs and ask people their feelings about climate change and you might hear the words “scared,” “worried,” “dread” or “grief.”

Things just got even scarier with the United Nations’ latest report on climate change. It said the world had already reached a 1 degree Celsius increase above pre-industrial averages and that, “Limiting global warming to 1.5ºC would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

This news alone is enough to make anyone anxious. And such groups as the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association are paying attention. They’re publishing reports on how the fear of climate change can harm mental health.

Sabrina Helm, a researcher at the University of Arizona, wanted to find out who among us is the most vulnerable. She did a survey of several hundred people and found that “people who have a concern about nature and the environment in general, plants and animals, those are the ones who also report highest ecological stress. Unfortunately, also depression,” she said.

Helm believes people in the deserts of the West are especially sensitive because they “are very aware about how fragile the natural environment is. It doesn’t rain one year, and the changes are tremendous,” she said.

For Helm, who moved from Germany to the desert West some years ago, all of this hits home.

“It seems very dire to me,” she said. “If you read so much of the research, which paints not such a nice picture of future developments. … It affects researchers as well.”

In fact, based on Helm’s research, people who study the environment may actually be among the most affected by climate anxiety.

That includes Michael Lucid, a conservation biologist in northern Idaho. A few years ago, Lucid and his wife discovered a new species of slug, only to find it’s vulnerable to climate change.

Michael Lucid, a conservation biologist in northern Idaho, says climate change is part of his everyday reality as a scientist. (Photo courtesy of Michael Lucid)

He said it was disorienting to add a creature to the known world and simultaneously fear for its future. But climate change is part of his everyday reality as a biologist, as a parent and as a mountain dweller, he said.

“The last two summers in August have just been horrific smoke,” said Lucid, “and that has really gotten people talking about climate change.”

He said it makes him sad, but it also motivates him to work harder to find solutions for wildlife to survive and adapt.

This positive attitude fits with Helm’s research, which found that people who are the most stressed or depressed about global warming also tend to be the most proactive about finding solutions.

Laura Schmidt is a perfect example of this. She’s a recent environmental humanities graduate from the University of Utah.

Schmidt said the more she learned about the environment in graduate school, the more her anxiety increased. “And then I realized, you have to do something,” she said.

So she started convening support groups in Salt Lake City for people to talk about their climate anxieties. The groups became what she now calls the Good Grief Network. She said climate anxiety is something mainstream psychotherapy just hasn’t addressed head-on yet.

“Seeing the world around us come crashing down or be changed in ways we can’t even imagine,” Schmidt said, “is definitely going to have a psychological toll on us.”

So she’s growing the Good Grief network beyond Utah, and even into Canada and Europe. While developing the program, Schmidt interviewed scientists, activists, and writers about how they cope during hard times.

“Almost everybody said that they had some sort of spiritual practice,” she said. For some people, it was taking a walk in the forest.

For some people, it could be their church. Tom Trinidad is the pastor at the Faith Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs. He said he has a number of congregants who are deeply concerned about the environment.

Tom Trinidad, pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs, says many of his congregation are worried about climate change. (Photo by Ali Budner/91.5 KRCC)

“Some folks come to the church and they just want to be able to unburden their concerns and their hearts,” said Trinidad. “And that’s all we can do sometimes. But if you only say ‘Just trust God and there’s nothing you can do about it’ then that also robs them of the dignity of their human responsibility. And so we try to do a little bit of both.”

He noted Pope Francis’ lengthy treatise on actively dealing with climate change and said “all of us need to be talking about this.”

For Schmidt, it boils down to a simple choice.

“You can see this as a great opportunity for connection and for meaning and for community building,” she said. “Or you can sort of shut down and look the other way.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

‘Somebody’s going to have to use less’: Colorado River managers grapple with drought

PAGE – Years into a record-breaking drought across the Southwest, officials of the seven states along the Colorado River finally forged an agreement in 2007 on how to deal with future water shortages. Then they quietly hoped that wet weather would return.

It didn’t.

Those states now are back at the negotiating table to hammer out new deals to avoid a slow-moving crisis on the river system that supports 40 million people from Colorado to California.

You can see the extent of the problem in a place like Page, Arizona, on the southern edge of Lake Powell, the second-largest reservoir in the country behind Lake Mead.

Jennifer Pitt, who works on Colorado River policy for the National Audubon Society, stands on an overlook peering down at the lake and the immense concrete dam holding it in place.

“Now you can tell that there’s a river here underneath this reservoir because it has somewhat of a linear shape,” said Pitt, tracing the red rock canyon with her finger. “And it’s wending its way towards where we’re standing, here, overlooking the Glen Canyon Dam.”

The canyon behind the dam is stained with a stark white ring. For the past 20 years, Pitt said, demands for water have outstripped the supply, meaning Lake Powell and Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam further downstream, continue to drop. Both are less than half full.

Without changes to how the two reservoirs are managed, Pitt said, levels could dip below the point where no water can be released, referred to as “dead pool.”

“If that happened, that would be a catastrophe for this region’s economy,” she said, “for all of the people who depend on the Colorado River and for all of the wildlife that depends on it as well.”

(The National Audubon Society receives funds from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

It’s not about blame

That dystopian future of abandoned farms, dried-up streams and water-stressed cities is one that James Eklund of the Upper Colorado River Commission and other water managers are attempting to avoid.

“Take Lake Mead. More is being taken out than comes into it,” Eklund said. “Like your bank account, if you do that over a sustained period, you will run a deficit, and if you’re talking about water for 40 million people and economies that are massive – fifth-largest economy in the world, the Colorado River Basin represents – then that’s significant.”

Managers are attempting to boost reservoir levels with a suite of agreements under the umbrella of “drought contingency planning.” The premise is simple: Cut water use now, use that saved water to bump up Powell and Mead, and doing so will help to avoid bigger problems in the future, when supplies are likely to be even tighter.

Calcium deposits on the rock formations at Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, show the impact of lingering drought on water levels. Hydrologists fear the reservoir will drop to the level at which no water can be released – a situation known as “dead pool.” (File photo by Alexis Kuhbander/Cronkite News)

Water officials in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming are working on a plan that covers the river’s Upper Basin and focuses on boosting snowpack with weather modification, better management of reservoirs and creating a water bank in Lake Powell.

The Lower Basin plan, being worked on by officials in Arizona, California and Nevada, is meant to create new incentives for farmers and cities to conserve water in Lake Mead and to agree to earlier, deeper cuts to water use so the reservoir can avoid dropping to dead pool levels.

Tuesday, water officials with all of the states, except Arizona, released draft agreements that spell out water cuts to boost levels at Mead and Powell according to azcentral.com. Arizona water officials plan to work through November to develop an agreement that state lawmakers would need to approve next spring.

“There is clearly enough evidence that if we were to have another 2000 to 2004 kind of a multiyear drought, the system is in very serious trouble,” said Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

When the current management guidelines were written in 2007, planners were optimistic, Kuhn said.

“Historically, we’ve always said, ‘Well, next year will be better,’” Kuhn said. “And that’s the easy way out.”

Now, after another of the driest and hottest water years on record, much of that optimism has evaporated.

Kuhn said Arizona has had the hardest time coming to an agreement because of intrastate battles over who will take cuts to water allocations and when they’ll take them. But states in the river’s Upper Basin have had issues, too.

One example is with the concept of demand management.

“It’s the difficult one,” Kuhn noted. “Somebody’s going to have to use less.”

Kuhn said there’s a fear that if those cuts aren’t doled out fairly, it could injure economies throughout the Southwest. Colorado River District officials and agricultural interests from Colorado’s Western Slope have said they’re on board with a demand management program only if farmers are given a choice about how much water they give up, and that they’re paid for forgoing water deliveries to their operations. But state officials have left the door open to mandatory cutbacks in a crisis.

Lake Mead sports a white “bathtub ring” more than 100 feet tall in this December 2015 photo, illustrating how far the water level has fallen after years of drought. (File photo by Alex Demas/Cronkite News)

Over the past three years, drought contingency negotiations have laid bare old tensions throughout the basin. Farmers and cities have blamed each other’s collective water uses for decades. And the same is true with water managers protective of their own interests in either the Upper or Lower basins.

“The thing we have to remember is (water use) in the basin is over 80 percent agriculture,” said Colby Pellegrino, who handles Colorado River issues for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the utility serving metro Las Vegas.

Current conservation programs, like the utility’s aggressive buyback of residential lawns, won’t be enough, Pellegrino said.

“We can take out all the lawns we want and still not solve the problems that climate change is going to throw at us,” Pellegrino said.

Climate change is just one pressure to get these deals done quickly. The U.S. Department of the Interior has given the Colorado Basin states an end-of-year deadline to get things done. If not, the assumption is the feds will step in to do it for them.

“That’s I think a fear of everybody on the river, especially in the Upper Basin,” said Jennifer Gimbel, a former Interior undersecretary, now with Colorado State University. “And the last thing we want is interference by the federal government in that role.”

The fate of the entire region hangs in the balance, said Gimbel.

At Glen Canyon Dam, Pitt, with the Audubon Society, said more than the fates of people and economies are tied up in river politics: An entire ecosystem is at stake.

“I think a lot of people who care about wildlife in this region are concerned,” Pitt said. “And it’s not just birds. Seventy percent of all wildlife in the arid West rely on rivers at some point in their life cycle. So it has outsize importance for anyone who appreciates nature in this part of the country.”



This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

One of the country’s fastest growing areas is SW Utah, where water is cheap

ST. GEORGE, Utah – Brooks Kelly stopped at a display of smart sprinkler-system controllers.

“This six-station timer — it’s got a rebate,” said Kelly, who works the plumbing aisle at the local Home Depot. “You buy it (and the) Washington County water district gives a $99 credit to your water bill. So this is free.”

A conservation ethic is growing in the nation’s second-driest state, which requires all 21 Utah water districts to set conservation goals and incentives, such as the rebates Kelly talked about, that discourage water use.

But Utah also is pushing forward with a plan to tap more water from the Colorado River to serve two counties in the southwestern corner of the state.

St. George is the center of the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country in the driest part of Utah. It’s an oasis in red-rock country where the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin and the Mojave Desert overlap. Its location and popularity present a big challenge: how to keep growing with limited water.

It’s a problem the Mormon pioneers who settled this area faced.

“They were sent down here and people told them they couldn’t survive — but they did,” Thompson said. “Told them they couldn’t grow cotton — but they did. Told them they wouldn’t stay — but they did. And that can-do attitude has permeated this culture here for 160, 170 years, and I still see it there.”

For Thompson, working together on conservation now is important. But he’s said for more than a decade that conservation alone can’t support growth here, which is projected to swell from a population of 165,000 to 500,000 by 2060.

That’s why Thompson has led efforts to build the Lake Powell Pipeline — basically a giant straw to draw Colorado River water over 140 miles of desert. The project would deliver enough water for around 99,000 households, more than triple the current number. It would cost over $1 billion.

Developers of the West’s big water projects like the Lake Powell Pipeline are sometimes called “water buffaloes.” But Thompson has his own take on the term.

“I’m not sure I know what a water buffalo is,” he said, “but if it’s someone who’s dedicated their life to water and realizes its importance to the economy and that it is fundamental to the quality of life we expect for ourselves and children, then I plead guilty.”

Pipeline critics see Utah’s water situation in a different light. They question whether the Utah lifestyle really requires so much water.

Looking at the numbers, it’s a fair question.

The average person in the seven Colorado River Basin states uses 164 gallons per day (GPCD). Meanwhile, the state of Utah’s GPCD is 214.

St. George, Utah, is the center of the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country, according to the Census Bureau.


According to Utah’s federal application for the Lake Powell Pipeline, the state is planning for the project based on 325 GPCD in the St. George area from 2010.

“The real elephant in the room is the price,” said Nick Schou, conservation director for the environmental group Utah Rivers Council.

He said Utahans would consume less if utilities charged what water’s really worth.

“We have the cheapest water that you’ll find anywhere in the United States,” Schou said.

KUER tested Schou’s assertion by comparing a prices in the Colorado River Basin. The question was: What’s the cost of 28,000 gallons of water, the average amount used by St. George residential customers in July?

In nearby Las Vegas, the bill would be $111 dollars. In Denver, $144. And in Tucson, it would be $235.

The picture in Utah is dramatically different. Salt Lake City customers are paying $75 for those 28,000 gallons in hottest month of the year. St. George water customers pay less than $61.

Schou said Utah is decades behind in conservation.

“We’re really looking at a legacy of destruction for water projects we don’t need,” he said. “And it’s really a shame, because we have so many alternatives, so many different options to have a really prosperous growing community.”

Back at the Home Depot in St. George, Roy Schell headed out of the garden section. He lives north of Grand Junction along the Colorado River and travels throughout Utah for his job as a tech consultant.

Schell said he’s surprised by all the turf he sees and all the gushing sprinkler heads.

“We don’t have enough water to not conserve,” he said.

Schell said he and his wife watch their water bills closely. This year he’s watched the water levels drop especially low on the Colorado River, the source residents of the seven Basin states rely on.

But here in southwestern Utah, people don’t seem as concerned. And he said that makes him “a little angry.”


This story is part of a collaborative series from the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, supported by a Walton Family Foundation grant, the Mountain West News Bureau, and Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between public radio and TV stations in the West, supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.