Best of the West: Drought conditions grip the region; rural Alaska struggles to maintain food security; fears of census undercounting in Native communities

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Aug. 10, 2020. Photo courtesy of the United States Drought Monitor.

Arid conditions are sweeping across the West, causing interruptions in agricultural operations, water management, and exacerbating the risk of wildfire.

In Colorado, drought or abnormally dry conditions are present across the entire state for the first time in almost 10 years, NBC News reports. Moreover, approximately 27% of landmass is under “extreme drought” conditions, characterized by the potential for major crop loss and widespread water restrictions.

 “We had some pretty brutal, dry winds, which are the perfect storm for drying things out on our farmlands,” said Peter Goble, a climatologist at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University. “That came at the worst possible time of the year.”

Those conditions have enabled the Pine Gulch Fire outside Grand Junction to grow to more than 68,000 acres by Thursday. Now one of the largest blazes in state history, the wildfire sparked by lightning on July 31 is just 7% contained. Not far east from there, the Grizzly Creek Fire outside Glenwood Springs has grown to more than 6,000 acres, closing Interstate 70 to traffic through Glenwood Canyon since Tuesday.

Utah is facing a similar problem, with approximately 99% of the state experiencing some form of drought, according to The Standard Examiner. In comparison with Colorado, however, only 10.2% of the Beehive State has reached the “extreme drought” classification. 

Thanks to a dwindling monsoon season, the majority of Arizona is also under drought conditions, KTAR News reports, as its neighbor, New Mexico. In Nevada, a troublesome lack of moisture has prompted public land agencies to heighten fire restrictions across the state, prohibiting all campfires as of Aug. 8.

Even South Dakota, coming off its wettest year on record, is struggling with a dry spell, according to South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

Check out the United State Drought Monitor’s interactive map for the latest on the conditions in your state.

Food Security: Although restrictions, such as those on inter-village travel, have helped keep communities in western Alaska safe from COVID-19, they have also made it harder for residents to get needed supplies, Alaska Public Media reports. In the community of Stebbins, residents rely on the Alaska Commercial Company Store in nearby St. Michael to fulfil their grocery needs. When the road between the two municipalities was closed for three weeks due to the pandemic, however, locals were forced to adapt in whatever ways they could. Here’s how they did it.

Census Count: The U.S. Census Bureau’s announcement that it will end its 2020 count a month early has many advocates for tribal communities worried about the possibility of an undercount of reservation populations. So far, only 8.6% of households on the Crow Reservation in Montana have filled out their online census, according to Wyoming Public Media. Numbers on the Navajo Nation and South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation are slightly better, with response rates of 14.7% and 16.6% respectively, but still pale in comparison to the national average of 63%. "That affects funding, it affects legislative representation of our Native communities," said Marci McLean, director of Western Native Voice. Read more.

Economic Impacts: The spread of COVID-19 has prompted the cancellation of countless public gatherings, including a slew of agricultural festivals in Oklahoma, delivering a blow to the state’s rural economies in the process, KOSU reports. The Rush Springs Watermelon Festival typically draws crowds of 20,000 or more, for example, but organizers have been forced to cancel for the first time since World War II. “I don't know what kind of economic impact it will really have yet, but it'll definitely have some because it'll sure hurt our business,” said Joel Tumbleson, a local watermelon farmer. “We have a fruit stand and we have a lot of visitors and a lot of people buying watermelon and cantaloupe that day.” Find out what other events have been impacted by the pandemic.  

Cold Case Investigations: A federal office, tasked with investigating cold cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people, opened in Billings, Montana on Aug. 6, according to Montana Public Radio. “I’m hoping in the long term that it achieves some sort of healing for the families that have cold cases and that it facilitates community healing because we suffer from the grief at a level that we all feel it in within our tribes," said Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples advocate Charlene Sleeper. The new facility makes Montana one of seven states to get a Cold Case Task Force office, intended to address the region’s disproportionately high number of unsolved murders of Native Americans. Learn more.

ICYMI: COVID-19 in the West: A state-by-state breakdown of the Governors’ work (updated weekly)

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