Regional Issues Summit: Northern Colorado faces challenges surrounding higher education, water, oil and gas | MyWindsorNow.com

Regional Issues Summit: Northern Colorado faces challenges surrounding higher education, water, oil and gas

Whitney Phillips
wphillips@greeleytribune.com

Improving higher education is one of the biggest challenges facing Northern Colorado, participants in the 2013 Regional Issues Summit said Wednesday.

Elected officials, area chamber of commerce members and other community leaders gathered at Wednesday's annual Regional Issues Summit in Loveland to discuss major challenges ahead for Northern Colorado that might be addressed by the Legislature.

The Northern Colorado Legislative Alliance holds the issues summit to mull over some of the biggest challenges the area faces and to discuss possible solutions in anticipation of the upcoming legislative session.

One panel discussed ways to keep up with changing dynamics in higher education while ensuring students graduate with skills necessary to compete in the job market.

"We view our role as being a catalyst for lifelong learning by our graduates," said Kay Norton, president of the University of Northern Colorado.

Norton said UNC is working to combat challenges that come along with higher costs of education and permanent changes to how people attend college.

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She said the university is promoting more interaction among students and local industries while evaluating how to balance "mission and money."

Norton added that the university has put out a campus-wide call for innovations in new types of teaching methods and learning environments.

"We've asked our college to think outside the gravitational pull of the ordinary," she said.

Jeff Reynolds, an academic dean at Aims Community College, said the school faces somewhat different challenges than state schools, partly because 60 percent of the school's programs are funded by local district tax revenue. The school also caters to a somewhat different student body.

"Overall, the students who come to Aims currently need some sort of developmental work — 70 percent when you talk about math skills," Reynolds said.

In order to prepare Aims students for the work force, Reynolds said, the school has programs that develop skills related to local industries like agriculture, and oil and gas. Reynolds said the college also promotes dual enrollment and may work with Greeley-Evans School District 6 to bus students to its Fort Lupton campus for programs there.

Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, said Colorado has traditionally "imported" people from other states who have higher skill levels required by the state's more advanced industries.

He said the important thing for the state to do in terms of education is to prepare its own students to qualify for those jobs.

"We need to have highly skilled, highly trained people come out of our schools who can help provide that work force," Young said.

Panelists also discussed the implications of recent natural disasters on water supplies in the area.

Municipalities that draw water from mountain sources, as do many in Weld County, are seeing that sediment left over from wildfires contaminates water, and filtering substances like ash from water for consumption is difficult.

Donnie Dustin, water resources manager for the city of Fort Collins, said September floodwaters may have helped to wash away some of the ash, but cities will have to continue to monitor supply.

While floodwaters may have been beneficial in some ways, they also left a lot of damage to infrastructure utilized to get water from the mountains.

Don Carlson, assistant general manager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said floods caused erosion that may make diverting water an issue, both in the mountains and for farmers and ranchers.

"We may have a problem diverting water because the water is much lower than it used to be," he said.

Summit participants also discussed benefits and challenges surrounding oil and gas activity — the vast majority of which takes place within Weld County.

Dr. Martin Shields, a researcher at Colorado State University's Regional Economics Institute, said the oil and gas industry is vital to the economy, especially to job growth among those without college degrees.

That industry has had a big hand in helping Colorado unemployment rates recover at a higher pace than the national average, Shields said.

Still, Shields said, the oil and gas industry is surrounded by controversy, most recently because of hydraulic fracturing, and the industry faces challenges as many municipalities have voted against fracturing within city limits.

Young said in Weld, residents understand that oil and gas is a huge money maker for communities, but they also want to know that the process is safe, especially when it's done near homes and schools.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't have further conversations (in the legislature) about how to strike that balance," Young said.

Panelists at the summit also discussed recovery efforts after flooding did major damage to travel routes and tourism in the area.

Officials in Estes Park and Loveland said they are working hard to restore the flow of tourists to their cities.

Johnny Olson, regional transportation director for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said roadways are crucial to the tourism industry, as well as the agriculture and oil and gas industries, and his department will spend the allotted $450 million in federal dollars to complete 150 road and bridge infrastructure projects to get travel in the state back to normal.

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