Eyes on the skies have winter in sight
SUMMIT COUNTY – Blue River Basin Water Commissioner Scott Hummer shocked county leaders Thursday when he told them if Summit County doesn’t start conserving water soon, there may not be enough to make snow at area ski resorts this fall.
“It’s no longer a case of “critical,'” said County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom. “It’s beyond that. It’s now a case of it being a crisis – an emergency.”
Water levels in Lake Dillon already are more than a third below capacity – and expected to drop more before the summer is over. Water flowing down the Upper Blue River is at a level it usually is – for October.
“It’s not rocket science to say if we’re seeing fall flows in the middle of July what we might be up against in the snowmaking season,” Hummer said at a Summit Leadership Forum meeting Thursday. “It’s a very serious situation.”
The Summit Leadership Forum is a group of ski area, town, county and Forest Service officials that meets to discuss current issues of concern to the county. Lately, forum discussions have surrounded issues of wildfire and drought.
“There’s no water,” Lindstrom said. “I don’t care if you want to talk water rights, or need, or anything else. If there is no water, there will be no snowmaking. This is the worst year ever on record, and there’s no water in storage that can be used for snowmaking, so therefore there will be no snowmaking in Summit County this year.”
Ski area officials can only monitor the situation at this point, said Matt Sugar, director of community relations for the Breckenridge Ski Resort.
“Water is the lifeblood of the early season,” he said. “Water’s not a new issue for us. We pay very close attention to it. We’re as well-prepared as we possibly can be. This is something that nobody in Colorado has had to deal with. There are some dire ramifications if the drought extends and extends.”
Jim Spenst, vice president at Copper Mountain Resort, and Dawn Doty, communications director at Keystone Resort, agreed that all ski area officials can do is wait and see.
“I’m always nervous,” Spenst said. “We’re in a business where you’re totally dependent on Mother Nature. You’re labor-intensive, you’re capital-intensive, it’s highly competitive and your landlord is the federal government. Wouldn’t you be nervous? All we can do is monitor it and see how this whole thing plays out.”
“Thankfully, we have a very efficient, state-of-the-art snowmaking system,” Doty said. “And we have the ability to supplement the flows in the Snake River through our pumping system in the Roberts Tunnel. It’s a top priority for us to monitor the situation day by day.”
Whether the spigot to snowmaking machines is turned off this fall remains to be seen. According to Hummer, if streamflow levels are above the minimum required to keep the Blue River flowing, the ski resorts can turn on the faucet. But making that call will be difficult, because no one knows what this winter – or next summer – will bring. Draining tomorrow’s water for today’s snow might not be the wisest decision, said Breckenridge Mayor Sam Mamula.
The town of Breckenridge owns water in Goose Pasture Tarn in Blue River, from which Breckenridge Ski Resort obtains water for snowmaking. Right now, that body of water is full. If it were needed, town officials could allow a release of tarn water to help put manmade snow on the slopes.
But, if as many believe, Colorado gets another poor snow year followed by another summer drought, it could be difficult to make that decision.
“It depends on minimum stream flows,” Mamula said. “If the town has an adequate water supply, we’ll have some obligation to help the ski area out. And not because we want to help the ski area out, but because we have to help the economy out. If we go through a dry winter, we could be in trouble. A drought this summer with no snowmaking this winter – that’s a double whammy.”
“The ski areas will be trying to come up with a solution, and I don’t know if there is one,” Hummer said. “It is scary. The people who provide water say they’re scared. People better perk their ears up and start listening.”
County officials Friday afternoon issued an order banning any irrigation of county landscaping. They also have “strongly recommended” water and metropolitan districts implement mandatory water restrictions. Mamula plans to bring the issue up at the town council meeting Tuesday.
Lindstrom said he’s been approached by citizens who want to know why the county can’t obtain water elsewhere.
“They want us to wave a magic wand and create water,” he said. “There’s no water left. There’s nothing out there. They (water experts) are saying wells will be drying up by January, and people will be taking showers in public facilities. It’s something I’ve never seen in my lifetime.”
“We sit out on our back porch every afternoon and watch the rain clouds roll in – and leave,” Mamula said. “What’s up with that? Even if we get the monsoons, it won’t do a lot to help us. It’s absolutely scary.”
Water can’t be created, but citizens can learn to conserve.
Hummer said he’s tired of people not grasping the severity of the situation. He notified an employee at a local fast-food restaurant that the store’s sprinkler was on in the middle of the day. She said she hadn’t heard of the voluntary water restrictions.
“It’s time we as a county start looking at what we can do to conserve water,” Mamula said. “The community cannot be cavalier about water use. It doesn’t make sense for people to continue to water lawns when we’re in the worst situation we’ve been in in a half-century. People are operating on the basis that we just have to get through this summer and everything will be OK. That’s just not going to happen. We’re in this situation together. None of us can say we can tolerate a prolonged drought. Conservation has got to be foremost in our minds.”
Gauge Friday’s water Historic Mean Historic Years
location level (cfs) minimum maximum recorded
Four Mile Bridge 18.8 20 not available n/a 12 years
Goose Pasture Tarn 8.6 18 78.7 328 18 years
Swan Mountain 45 61 183 688 44 years
Below Dillon Dam 52 52 387 1,830 42 years
Below Green Mountain 620 57 796 2,830 59 years
Tenmile Creek 31 34 161 555 44 years
Snake River 29 45 124 376 54 years
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