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.
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.
“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.