New federal grants will help Colorado groups address environmental injustices across the state

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Molly Cruse/CPR News
Kitila Beyan holds up anchotes, a potato-like vegetable, that he grew in the Horse Barn Community Garden operated by Denver Urban Gardens in the RiNo neighborhood in Denver.

Six Colorado organizations will share up to $4 million in funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to advance environmental justice programs across the state.

The projects — selected alongside 186 others by the federal agency — are expected to receive funding for three years. The two EPA grant programs are funded through the Inflation Reduction Act, a package of legislation signed by President Biden in August 2022 that includes the largest climate investment in U.S. history.

“The fact that we have received sort of a nod and an acknowledgment that our work is climate-related and is part of the solution gives me chills,” said Linda Appel Lipsius, the Executive Director of Denver Urban Gardens and one of the four Colorado recipients of the Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem Solving Grant.

Denver Urban Gardens — known as “DUG” — will receive $500,000 over three years from the EPA. Lipsius said the group will use the money to expand its Food Forest Initiative by planting fruit-bearing trees in west Denver neighborhoods — particularly in communities with some of the city’s lowest tree canopy — and plant more urban gardens in neighborhoods with poor air quality.

Studies have long shown that marginalized communities — particularly low-income and communities of color — are disproportionately burdened by the consequences of climate change. 

“The EPA acknowledging the importance of environmental justice and the disparity between different neighborhoods is just a thing of beauty and something that definitely gives me hope,” Lipsius said.

In the western part of the state, EcoAction Partners and the Sheep Mountain Alliance will split $150,000 over three years. The two groups have partnered to provide educational programming for underserved residents in San Miguel and Montrose Counties. The funding will pay for bilingual workshops on wildfire and drought response and bilingual flyers about funding and grant opportunities for climate action. The federal money will also help support Sheep Mountains' Latinx outdoor programming and EcoAction's Colorado Affordable Residential Energy program, which helps pay for energy efficiency upgrades for low-income households, including installing storm windows, replacing attic insulation, weatherstripping around doors and windows or replacing homeowner’s out-of-date refrigerators or furnaces.

“EcoAction Partners, as an organization, has important programming and does a lot of impactful work, but we struggle to make sure that that work is available to those who will benefit from it most,” said Emma Gerona, Executive Director of the nonprofit. “So the grant is going to be a huge support in expanding our impact and making sure that everybody is aware of the resources that we have to offer.”

The San Miguel and Montrose Counties have a combined population Latino population of 32 percent, so Gerona said that the funding will enable EcoAction Partners and Sheep Mountain Alliance to provide crucial translation and interpretation services to their educational programming. Those services include educating residents on how to save money on their energy bills, natural disaster preparedness, and creating inclusive spaces outdoors.

Other organizations that received funding from the Collaborative Problem Solving Grant include the National Wildlife Federation for its tree planting initiative in the Globeville neighborhood in Denver and the Bessemer Historical Society for providing electric bicycles to Pueblo residents.

In addition to the Environmental Justice grants, the EPA also selected two Colorado government agencies — including the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the City and County of Denver — to receive $1 million each in funding from the Environmental Justice Government-to-Government Program.

Denver will use the funding for an electrification program that will help 12 households in disproportionately affected neighborhoods replace their natural gas appliances and weatherize their homes. The state plans to use the funding to start a three-year pilot program to address drinking water and wastewater challenges in rural communities across the state.

Nicole Rowan, the director of the Water Quality Control Division at the state health and environment agency, said the project will not only advance conversations about rural water systems but also provide support and solutions for rural communities that face technical, managerial, and financial challenges in maintaining water quality.

EPA officials said the two grant programs are the first of a series of environmental justice grants the agency will announce before the end of the year.

Editor's Note: Linda Appel Lipsius is a member of CPR's board of directors.