By JEFF SCHWARTZ

For businesses that rely on tourism, including those in Delta County, the 2020 summer season has been difficult, with no certainty ahead. Of course, uncertainty is nothing new for rural communities. But running a tourist-reliant business in the time of COVID-19 has been uniquely challenging.

So when it was in the news recently that several oil and gas-related measures won’t be on this year’s ballot that was a relief for some. That’s because here in the North Fork Valley, like other communities, oil and gas development also presents uncertainty for businesses. Proposed expansion of fracking in our watershed and around wineries, farms, and on popular public and recreational lands jeopardizes investment and hard work put into our businesses.

Even without the ballot battle, we still need to pay attention to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). This agency is updating its rules to enact legislation passed last year (SB 181) to regulate future oil and gas activity and update the overall mission of the COGCC. Under its new mission to regulate, rather than simply promote oil and gas, the agency must prioritize safeguarding human health, public safety and the environment.

The uncertainties that already grip our businesses are multiplied when oil and gas proposals arise, which happens with some regularity in the North Fork. That’s because the threat to our small farms, local markets, wineries and public lands is real, even before development begins.

That is also why a representative of our largest agricultural organization, a local ditch rider, and environmental groups from the valley all recently joined a virtual COGCC meeting to urge that rules protect rural communities and provide more certainty to businesses like mine, to the farmers and producers that I rely on, and to the rural economy my business helps supports.

In the North Fork, we are working to secure an economic future that is less reliant on faraway forces and volatile global markets, and less focused around boom and bust industries. Without the distraction of ballot measures this year, we have an opportunity for the COGCC to craft rules that aid rural communities in developing more resilient economies. While we cannot know when the current crisis will end, we can prepare for when it does. This rulemaking can help ensure that we have the certainty we need to look ahead and succeed.

When a shopper in Jefferson County selects the item marked “Colorado Proud” or a family plans that closer-to-home vacation to a winery or U-pick orchard, their experience relies on the clean water and healthy lands that produced those things and on the quality of the place visited.

Our businesses, clean air, and water supplies are no less important in rural Colorado than anywhere else. In fact, they are critical for our entire state’s safe and reliable food supply. We need to prioritize safeguarding our environment, and protecting health and safety, wherever this industry operates. Rules should allow consideration of a proposed development’s overall risk and benefit with the authority to reject outright any operation that is not compatible with protecting the community, public health, and the environment.

Western Colorado was already deep in drought, and in many cases our communities were not always prospering before COVID-19 hit. Now Colorado’s agricultural businesses — from markets to growers and everyone in between — are experiencing an especially difficult time.

The COGCC has the opportunity in this rulemaking to give us some peace of mind and a better chance to chart our own path. They can give assurance that a highly disruptive industry like oil and gas will always adhere to certain standards, with strong rules that ensure that health, safety and our environment will always take priority. Knowing that the clean air, water, and landscapes that we rely on are protected would give Colorado’s rural businesses the confidence we need to plan ahead, invest in ourselves and flourish, even in this uncertain time.

Jeff Schwartz owns and operates Big B’s Hard Ciders & Fabulous Juices, and Delicious Orchards Farm Market located just outside of Paonia, Colorado.

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