The Climate Training Experience: Fostering a Culture of Resilience in Durango

By Imogen Ainsworth

Exposed rocks in the Animas River and on mountain slopes where one would normally expect to see snow drifts and hardy adventurers. A summer spent watching flames, smoke plumes and eerie orange sunsets. A collective sigh of relief for containment drowned out by the arrival of monsoon rains. The moisture we craved bringing more damage than the flames that came before as mud and debris washed off the burn scar and into the valley.

Though the 416 fire that began on June 1st, ten miles north of Durango, was officially declared ‘out’ on November 30th, its impact on the landscape, ecosystems and community will be felt for years to come.

This may be a familiar tale to many compact members as drought persists across much of Colorado, the area of land burned each year grows, and development in the state’s 6.6 million-acre wildland-urban interface continues.

However, this summer also created an opportunity for open conversation and engagement about climate, vulnerability and resilience. After months of extreme weather, damaged property and economic losses, many were left wondering whether Durango could survive two, three, four ‘2018s’ in a row and whether this could be the ‘new normal’.

On October 22nd, a group of 29 City of Durango employees and 4 representatives from La Plata County gathered for a workshop on climate change and resilience. Funded through the National League of Cities Leadership in Community Resilience program, the workshop supplemented training resources available through Durango’s Compact of Colorado Communities membership. Association of Climate Change Officers Executive Director, Dan Kreeger, facilitated the workshop with support from state climate experts - Tarryn Finnessey (CWCB), Brad Udall (CSU) and David Herring (NOAA Climate Program Office).

The aim of the half-day workshop was to foster an organization-wide understanding of climate change and what it means for our city.

Meaningful action on climate change and resilience will not happen in isolation as a result of the city’s sustainability programs. Rather, action relies on the embeddedness of shared understanding and core concepts in decision making across the organization. With almost every department in the City represented - including the City Manager and Directors or high-level staff from Community Development, the Police Department, Parks & Recreation, City Operations, Utilities, the City Clerk’s Office, HR, IT, Finance, Legal, and the Public Information Office – this workshop was the first step to getting us there.

A follow-up workshop to be held on December 12th will equip staff with methods and solution-based planning exercises that can be used to assess the vulnerability of our operations to climate change and build organizational resilience. The same evening, a public event will expand the resilience conversation to include regional stakeholders and community members.

As with the 416 fire, the full impact of these workshops will only become clear over time. However, I have already heard anecdotal results from staff, such as the City’s Water Treatment Plant Superintendent who worked with his team to save energy through process modifications following the event; or Library staff who are talking about how to better serve the community as a haven for those forced inside by evacuation, poor air quality, or extreme heat. Outcomes from the December 12th workshops will inform an update to the City’s Sustainability Action Plan in 2019.

While we have learned not to expect anything as predictable or benign as a ‘new normal’, by taking into consideration climate projections for our region, and by working across departments and jurisdictions, we will be able to build resilience and adaptive capacity with which to face an uncertain future.