Congress makes $2M+ investment in local projects

City of Gunnison and RMBL beneficiaries of earmarks

By Katherine Nettles and Mark Reaman

Two local entities scored big with earmarks from the U.S. Congress this past week. As part of the spending bill approved by Congress, so-called earmarks were awarded to various lawmakers including those from Colorado. With 120 requests totaling more than $125 million for the state, two entities in Gunnison County, the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) and the city of Gunnison, received earmarks amounting to more than $2 million. The earmarks came through U.S. senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and congresswoman Lauren Boebert, even though Boebert voted against the overall spending bill.

Representatives of RMBL got word last week that it was being awarded almost $1 million in funding to invest in remote sensing imagery data to measure forest and watershed health. This data is expected to be useful in identifying at-risk forests and helping land managers target conservation and treatment efforts early in the detection cycle. The same appropriations cycle also awarded $1.75 million to the city of Gunnison for water treatment plant construction and improvements.

Senators Bennet and Hickenlooper announced on Friday, March 8 that their offices had secured $970,000 in congressionally directed spending to enhance prediction and management of Colorado River Basin water and forest health through RMBL. 

According to RMBL executive director Dr. Ian Billick, the project will deploy the National Ecological Observatory Network’s Airborne Observatory over the Taylor and East River drainages to collect hyperspectral imagery, data that breaks the light reflecting off the ground’s surface into 500+ different visible and non-visible bands with a resolution of 1 meter across entire watersheds. Combining this data with micrometeorological measurements scientists will link vegetation and forest health to hydrology and fire. This will improve scientific understanding of the Gunnison Basin as well as enhance global interpretation of hyperspectral imagery from Landsat Next, an incoming generation of planned satellites. 

According to Dr. Ian Breckheimer, who will be leading the project, “Knitting together RMBL field data—which stretches back decades—with powerful new technologies will be a game-changer for understanding how ecosystems in the Gunnison Basin will respond to drought and climate change. More broadly, the hyperspectral imaging technology, which allows precise measurement of how light interacts with plants and soil, is poised to transform how we monitor the world’s ecosystems. So not only will this project matter locally, but it will inform science everywhere.” 

The impact of this project is magnified by the large number of scientists working at RMBL, including not only traditional ecologists and evolutionary biologists, but hydrologists and biogeochemists working through Lawrence Berkeley Lab (LBL). “This project will significantly advance Lawrence Berkeley Lab’s work in the Gunnison Basin to develop a predictive understanding of the nation’s watersheds by connecting patterns of vegetation distribution and mortality with water resources that are increasingly under stress in the Western US,” said Dr. Nicola Falco, research scientist LBL.

“As Colorado and the West face the worsening effects of climate change, this funding will support the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory’s work to manage the Colorado River Basin water and forest health to meet our state’s changing needs,” said Senator Bennet. 

This investment will also support a growing collaboration between RMBL and Western Colorado University’s Rady program, with opportunities for mechanical engineers to assist with sensors, computational scientists to analyze the large volumes of data, and aerospace engineers to help prepare for new satellite technology. 

Dr. Jenifer Blacklock, director of the Rady Program at Western Colorado University notes, “The funding secured for plane-based collection of hyperspectral data marks a significant leap forward for the Rady-RMBL partnership. It not only enhances the synergy between RMBL’s field research and Rady’s computational sciences and mechanical engineering but also paves the way for integration with our upcoming aerospace program because of anticipated hyperspectral imagery on future satellites.” 

Because of the potential to support local job creation, Gunnison County has also supported the collaboration. “It’s exciting to see the Tourism and Prosperity Project’s (TAPP) investment in the Rady-RMBL partnership validated so quickly. Bringing together RMBL’s long history of success in field science with Rady’s expertise in engineering and computational sciences will create unique opportunities to generate high paying jobs in the Gunnison Basin,” added John Norton, executive director of TAPP.

With investments in its infrastructure and staffing from private donors and federal funding agencies, RMBL has seen a dramatic increase in science and education over the last 10 years. “RMBL’s strategy of creating a data rich environment, integrating emerging technologies with the world’s largest collection of field scientists and long-term field studies, has led to unique scientific opportunities, significantly increasing our research community, bringing unique educational programs to local students, and changing science,” summarized Billick. “The expansion in RMBL science is very exciting. This would not be happening without our donors.”

Gunnison Water treatment plant also awarded money

Meanwhile, the city of Gunnison was awarded $1.75 million in the same appropriations decision for its planned water infrastructure improvements. That money was allocated through Bennet, Hickenlooper and Boebert. Funds will help construct an infiltration gallery and drill three new wells to increase resiliency by diversifying water intake sources in Gunnison.

“We are immensely grateful for the $1.75 million appropriation recently approved by Congress,” said city manager Amanda Wilson. “These funds will directly reduce the cost burden on water rate payers. The federal support enables the City of Gunnison to move forward with diversifying our community’s water supply sources which is essential in times of drought and during other events such as wildfires.” 

Wilson said that design work will begin next week. “The city is phasing the project with an initial priority on diversifying raw water sources,” she explained. “This recent funding represents approximately 43% of the $4 million needed in the first phase. The water treatment plant and associated piping is estimated to cost an additional $45 million. The city recently launched a detailed rate study to assess if and how these costs are viable.”

The Senate is currently working to pass a second round which could include additional funding for other Colorado projects, the deadline for which is March 15.

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