Ho-hum ski season as severe drought enters second year

Waldo Canyon hillside

The Waldo Canyon fire that raced through the edge of Colorado Springs last June put mountain towns across the West on alert of the dangers facing them given the wrong conditions of drought and intense heat. Photo/Allen Best

It will take a miracle dump to keep Colorado out of trouble this year

by Allen Best

Apprehension continues to grow in Colorado as snowfall, although improving, remains far below average. Coming on top of severe drought last year, water managers and fire marshals fear a hot, dry summer ahead.

Oh yes, significant storms moved through the Rocky Mountains in recent weeks, allowing ski areas and trade organizations to dispatch flurries of photos showing face shots and other delights.

“The best skiing in two years,” said one instructor at Vail over Presidents’ Weekend.

But the larger story is of catch-up. Storm sequences have been like Just-in-Time shipping. After an awful December, just enough snow arrived to meet minimum needs of Christmas. Then, following a sunny, dry and cold January, more storms arrived just in time for Presidents’ Weekend.

Still, the Aspen Skiing Co. was unable to open all the terrain at its four ski areas until February. Around Vail, south-facing slopes are mostly bare.

Hundreds of homes were destroyed last summer at the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs, above, and at other fires southwest of Denver and west of Fort Collins. Photo/Allen Best

Hundreds of homes were destroyed last summer at the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs, above, and at other fires southwest of Denver and west of Fort Collins. Photo/Allen Best

Steamboat has fared better than most. By mid-February, according toSteamboat Today, the ski area had received as much snow as it did on closing day in April last year. That’s not saying all that much, however.

By the measure of snow-water equivalent of snowpack, conditions are on-the-edge-of-your-seat scary. The Vail-based Eagle River Water and Sanitation District has a chart on its website that compares snow-water equivalent conditions for this winter with conditions in 2012, the terrible drought winter of 2002, and then the 30-year average. If average is Pikes Peak, this year so far looks like one of the foothills on the edge of Colorado Springs. The snow-water content on Vail Mountain is 54 percent of average as of early this week.

Dillon Reservoir, located between Breckenridge and Keystone, is one of the major sources of water for metro Denver, and it’s only now 66 per cent full, compared to 90 per cent on average this time of year, reports theSummit Daily News. A huge spring storm could yet help refill reservoirs. It’s happened before, most memorably in March 2003, when three feet of snow fell on Denver after a drought in 2002 left the city so dry that grass had to be spray painted for the commemoration of a  Martin Luther King monument.

“Can you get me one of those?” joked  Jim Lochhead, general manager of Denver Water, referring to that miracle snowstorm of 2003, when I interviewed him this morning about a separate topic. He said the conditions right now are worst in recorded history in Colorado.

Last year had less snow, but the ground was more saturated  and reservoirs had been  full going into the drought. Now,  water managers are thinking ahead, contemplating the straits they’ll be in if the drought should continue through this winter — and then next winter again.

For now, Denver officials have barred use of parks for soccer play, to prevent damage to fragile grass. But if things don’t improve rapidly, Denver will begin ramping up more restrictions.

Others are thinking about fires. Colorado had three major wildfires last year, the first in March, and two more in June, including the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs. In that fire, 345 homes were destroyed in just three hours.

Across Colorado, seven people died of flames or smoke, and hundreds more  homes were destroyed.

Frank Eckhardt Jr., who farms with his sons along the Front Range between Denver and Greeley, had to let their corn crop dry up last July because of lack of water. Photo/Allen Best

Frank Eckhardt Jr., who farms with his sons along the Front Range between Denver and Greeley, had to let their corn crop dry up last July because of lack of water. Photo/Allen Best

“It’s just so dry here,” Tom Grady, the emergency manager in Aspen and surrounding Pitkin County, told the New York Times.

The Aspen area avoided significant fires, owing to the timely arrival of rain during the Fourth of July but also general observance of prohibitions against fireworks and open fires.

The Aspen Daily News explains that a new state law in Colorado puts a great financial onus on local governments to contain wildfires. There’s no big purse to pay for those costs in the state government any more.

Farmers are also wary. Early last August, I visited the farm country between Denver and Greeley, meeting Frank Eckhardt, who grows corns, beans and other corps near the town of Platteville. he and his sons had been forced to let a portion of their corn crop dry up when neither rain nor snowmelt was sufficient. Worse were the temperatures, frequently rising above 100 degrees and too often accompanied by hot, eviscerating winds—just the sort of conditions  that produce big forest fires. And there was a big one not far away, west of Fort Collins.

 

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
This entry was posted in Aspen, Denver, Environmental, Mountain towns, Steamboat Springs, Vail, Water, Wildfire. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Ho-hum ski season as severe drought enters second year

  1. Patrick Hunter says:

    Read your column “Smug Alert” (titled) in Glenwood Spgs. Post Independent. Spot on! I have written on the subject in the Carbondale (note “carbon”) paper Sopris Sun. In the same vein; excuse the pun. Of course, the local opposition is blatant hypocrisy. It is also a terrific fundraiser for ngo’s.
    There is some exciting developments in methane capture from coal mines. To take that a step farther, our local coal mines could be a future source of methane to replace natural gas. The gas line network already exists, in large part. The process is “in situ” so the effect on the surroundings could be minimal.
    There are also some very troubling stories emerging about a natural gas “bubble”.
    http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-fracked-up-usa-shale-gas-bubble/5326504
    And earlier in the NY Times. The NYT article came in for much criticism. Not disputed is that current “actual” “reserves” are estimated at about 11 years at current rates of consumption. Consumption is supposed to increase enormously in a shift away from coal and to add use in transportation. THAT’S ALL? So what are we supposed to do 12 years from now?
    Thanks for making such a good addition to the dialog.
    Best regards,
    Pat

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