The Pueblo Chemical Depot is one of the top 10 U.S. Army domestic installations "at risk" because of climate change. That's according to the Army, which lists "desertification" as its concern for the depot where tens of thousands of chemical weapons are in the process of being destroyed under international treaty.
The changing climate is expected to make the depot's already dry, largely treeless, semi-arid landscape more prone to drought and wildfire in the years to come.
Depot commander Col. Michael Cobb says the depot is prepared for any coming environmental changes. Existing fire and water plans, for instance, insulate the depot against harsh conditions.
Yet the depot has no specific climate change plans, a common theme for installations across the military, which is expected to increasingly contend with issues that could affect operations, including ocean surges, rising sea levels, floods, and fires.
In a collaboration with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, KUNC has reported numerous installations face such issues.
At one North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) radar station, $48 million is being spent to build a sea wall to shore up against erosion caused by melting sea ice in the Arctic. A former Navy secretary, Ray Mabus, told KUNC that the world's largest naval station in Virginia will disappear under water "within the lifetimes of people alive today" if nothing is done.
John Conger, a former comptroller with the Defense Department, and now director of the nonpartisan Center for Climate and Security, every installation should prepare.
"I think it is absolutely important for every installation to understand their vulnerability to climate change, to understand what steps they need to take to improve their resilience and protect themselves," Conger said.
The Government Accountability Office, which is the investigative arm of Congress, released a report in June of its surveys of 23 military installations. About one third of them had no specific plans for climate change. Installations might be "investing in facilities projects without considering potential risks," the GAO wrote, noting the potential impediments to military missions and costs to taxpayers.
That snapshot represents a vulnerability that should be addressed quickly, according to Congressman Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat and former Army Ranger. The response from the services regarding their climate change risks "has been very inconsistent," Crow said.
He is pushing the Military Installation Resilience Assuredness Act, legislation that would require installations to assess climate change vulnerabilities and address them if needed.
"It adds a component to their installation planning process to ensure that they are looking at extreme weather, environmental conditions, cyber issues, and the impacts of climate change on their resilliency," Crow said.
The legislation is included in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual defense budget, but there is no companion legislation in the Senate. That means a joint-chamber conference committee will determine the legislation's fate before the final budget is sent to President Trump for approval in the coming weeks.
Col. Cobb said the climate risk designation does not affect the Pueblo Chemical Depot's storage of chemical weapons that contain deadly mustard agent. Citing the same timeline as officials at a plant on the depot tasked with destroying the weapons, he added that the designation does not alter any deadlines.
"The target date is December of 2023," Cobb said, citing a congressional deadline. "We're shooting for December of 2022."
About a fifth of the depot's 780,000 shells and mortars have been destroyed since 2016.
Depot experts agree with Cobb that the installation is prepared for climate change even without a specific plan for it. On a hot morning, the sun hung over the depot, and those experts showed why.
"You pretty much see what we have to deal with, basically prairie," said depot fire chief Wes Huntley.
Huntley fights fire with fire here. Prescribed burns help to keep dry grasses and other plants that fuel fires at bay, he said.
"So we have a limit on how high that flame is going to get," Huntley said.
An air conditioner blasted as a van rumbled along a dusty road inside the high-security depot. Finally it came to a massive compound where the chemical weapons are stored and destroyed. Large pipes twist around industrial buildings. There are rows of what are called igloos — bunker-like buildings that look like soda-pop cans cut in half on their sides. Inside them, shells and mortars are kept at a constant cool temperature. It's all surrounded by a layer of security: fences and a guard tower.
What Huntley notices are the breaks, including the roads.
"We can defend that very easily," he said. "I mean we could cut a line or we use quick water spray and do wet downs in front of it and that will actually kill it."
Across from the plant is a fire station, staffed around the clock, with two giant tanks filled with more than 650,000 gallons of water. If there was a major fire, other departments in the region are ready to pitch in.
The van circles off to one of many small buildings on-site — a self-sufficient system of wells, works, tanks and towers. Edward Dunn, the depot's director of operations, hopped out of the van.
"Just be careful," he said, trodding through a dry patch. "Pueblo has snakes."
Highlighting the system at a waterworks building, he said the plant that is destroying the chemical weapons recycles much of its water. Every drop of water on the depot is considered precious.
To Dunn, desertification is not the biggest concern. Rather, it is the rising demand for water everywhere as the climate warms.
"So this is a problem that's going on up in Denver," he said. "You name it. Salt Lake City. It's how much water can I store? What is the demand on that water? And what is the long-term resolution on trying to manage those watersheds? So it's not unique to the depot."
Top 10 U.S. Army Domestic Sites 'At Risk' For Climate Change
- Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona
- Fort Irwin, California
- Fort Huachuca, Arizona
- Fort Bliss, Texas
- White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico
- Camp Roberts, California
- Hawthorne Army Depot, Nevada
- Tooele Army Depot, Utah
- Military Ocean Terminal Concord, California
- Pueblo Chemical Depot, Colorado
The "primary driver" for all sites — except Military Ocean Terminal Concord — is desertification, according to a U.S. Army letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee dated April 12, 2019. The driver at Terminal Concord is riverine flooding. Drought is listed as a secondary driver at all of the installations.