Mountain Town News: Colorado River Basin sees lowering reservoirs, rising temperatures |

Mountain Town News: Colorado River Basin sees lowering reservoirs, rising temperatures

Parts of Summit saw 4 inches of snowfall on Thursday night leading into a full day of snowy weather on Friday.
Bill Linfield / Special to the Daily |

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. – The Colorado River originates in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, gathering water from tributary rivers that arise near Winter Park, Breckenridge, Vail and Crested Butte.

More than halfway on its 1,450-mile route to the Pacific Ocean, the Colorado River gets blocked by a giant slab of concrete called Hoover Dam. This dam creates Lake Mead, the primary water source for Las Vegas.

Since 2000, water levels have declined in Lake Mead and the other major Colorado River impoundment, Lake Powell. The usual explanation is of drought. Certainly, there have been some very bad drought years, and at one point the Southern Nevada Water Authority decided that its two tunnels into Lake Mead might not be enough if the reservoir declined further. So, a 3-mile tunnel was engineered to come in at the very bottom of the reservoir.

That tunnel, completed at a cost of $817 million, was unplugged in late September, giving Las Vegas a resource in case the reservoir empties. Engineers compared the challenge of the work to construction of the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnels for Interstate 70 in Colorado. The two-mile-long tunnels are at over 11,000 feet in elevation.

Last week, speaking at a water conference in Grand Junction sponsored by Colorado Mesa University, Doug Kenney warned against thinking that the drought will end.

“There’s a lot of thinking that when the drought ends, the reservoirs will come back,” observed Kenney, a research fellow in western water policy at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s law school.

Kenney also pointed out that over the last 15 years, the good years and bad years of snow have more or less evened out. The total precipitation has declined only a few percentage points from the longer-term average.

Drought is only third on the list of what explains the declining reservoir levels in the Colorado River Basin, he observed. The larger story is that demand has now outstripped supply. Las Vegas, for example, exceeded the population of Manhattan about a decade ago and now has two million people.

But there’s also a second reason why the levels have been declining, said Kenney. Temperatures in the Colorado River Basin have already been rising, causing greater evaporative losses, both in the soil and from reservoirs.

These rising temperatures have broad implications: Hay, corn, and cotton crops need more water, and soils dry out more readily. “The warming climate affects the water cycle in ways that are problematic for the basin,” he said.

Another speaker also talked about the effect of rising temperatures, this time around Albuquerque, New Mexico, Dagmar Llewellyn, of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said that rising temperatures predicted by climate models will increase demands for agriculture and municipal lawn watering.

But hotter temperatures will also increase evaporation of existing reservoirs, such as Elephant Butte, on the Rio Grande in New Mexico, which already loses a quarter of its annual storage to evaporation.

Better storage mechanisms will be needed as the climate warms, she said, and suggested that recharge of a partially depleted aquifer underlying Albuquerque might be one answer.

El Niño may wait until spring to deliver… rain

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. – Some meteorologists have been predicting this El Niño will be among the most powerful in the last century, comparable to those of 1982-83 and 1997-98. That means lots of snow, right?

Not necessarily. And in fact, it might be kind of a dud in Colorado — at least until next spring.

Snowpack could drop below average by March of next year, said Klaus Wolter of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Earth Systems Research Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

If this winter’s El Niño is like four of its five predecessors, the big precipitation in Colorado will come next March and April, he said at the Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum, an event sponsored by the Colorado Mesa University Water Center. But big precipitation is not a given, he said.

The Lake Tahoe Basin, on the California-Nevada border, will almost assuredly get more precipitation than it did last winter. But climatologist Kelly Redmond told an audience at Incline Village, Nevada, that there is little to suggest that a big El Niño will produce more snow. Instead, he said in a presentation covered by Lake Tahoe News, it will likely produce precipitation in extreme events.

Redmond is deputy director and regional climatologist for the Western Regional Climate Center at the Desert Research Institute in Reno.

Models indicate that it will be a warm winter, although not as warm as last year. Still, that might mean more rain instead of snow. But even when it snows, overnight temperatures need to remain below freezing. There’s been a drift upward in recent decades, especially during spring months.

Data from 1948 through 2014 for the months of October through March show the average freezing level in the Lake Tahoe Basin being 8,700 feet. Last winter, the snowline was 2,000 feet higher, or about 10,700 feet. In other words, when storm clouds arrived, they produced mostly rain at lower portions of the ski slopes.

Ski town newspaper scoffs at Obama plan

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – Can a ski town also be a coal town? They don’t usually come together, but they do in Steamboat Springs, a place that calls itself Ski Town USA.

Steamboat can best be understood as an island in a valley that has three coal mines, two power plants, and a railroad that hauls coal to distant markets. If you see no evidence of coal within Steamboat itself, you don’t have to study the Routt County property tax base very far to find a major coal-mining company, Peabody.

Coal companies, of course, don’t like the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, and neither does the Steamboat Pilot & Today. The newspaper, in an editorial on Halloween, said the “cost is too great, the rewards are too few, and there’s a very real chance the action may not even be legal.”

The latter echoes the argument of Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican who has sided with attorney generals in 25 other states in seeking to overturn the Obama administraiton’s effort to shift electrical production from carbon-intensive fuels. They claim that the plan exceeds permitted authority in the Clean Air Act.

The Steamboat newspaper goes beyond the legal question and essentially echoes the arguments of the coal industry. It cites an argument that boosting renewables will “amount to a quadrupling of consumer energy costs through the next 15 years, in many cases…”

The newspaper adds that the “benefits of implementing the Clean Power Plan are miniscule, at best,” in terms of reducing the rise in global temperatures. As such, said the newspaper, the principal value of the plan is to “set an example for the world and hope the world follows.”

Not good enough, said the newspaper, to justify the cost.

There has been some pushback from the community. Sarah Jones, who directs the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, identified a whole host of reasons why the local coal mines have not ben dong so well. Rather than fight the Clean Power Plan, she wrote in a letter published in Steamboat Today, the better question is how to prepare for an economy that is less dependent on coal production.

Tiny houses one idea for ski town crunch

TELLURIDE, Colo. – Can tiny houses provide a tiny bit of relief to the affordable housing crisis in ski towns?

That’s the argument made in Telluride, where the town council has authorized the first steps to place five tiny houses on a vacant lot for the six months of winter. A tiny house by some definitions must be 400 square feet or less, notes the Telluride Daily Planet.

With something more permanent in mind, the town council has also allocated funds to begin the next phase of building affordable housing. Housing consultants say that next to Aspen, Telluride may have had the most ambitious affordable housing program during the last decade.

The Winter Park area was slower to come out of the recession than some of the larger destination resorts, but it’s catching up. The Sky Hi News reports that Winter Park Resort has decided it needs 50 more of its affordable housing units for employees, for a total of 200 employee beds. That bumps some of the previous tenants, who are not ski area employees, looking for new quarters.

In Wyoming, the Jackson Hole News&Guide reports that local officials still haven’t figured out their strategy. Town and county planners estimate 280 housing units will be needed each year for the next decade to meet workforce housing demand.

Local sentiments favor a few units here and there, rather than large, subdivision-scale affordable housing.

One key issue still unresolved is how much additional commercial growth should be allowed. The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance argues that new hotels should not be approved, because they add to the demand for housing for workers. “The easiest and least costly thing we can do is to limit new commercial and lodging development,” said Craig Benjamin, the alliance’s executive director.

But Benjamin also acknowledges the obvious. “Due to global and national economic trends, we need to be honest that we’re never going to solve our housing challenge,” he said. “Demand has outstripped supply for decade. This doesn’t mean we should throw our hands up and surrender; it means we should cowboy up and accept that this won’t be an easy ride.”

G.I. Hotel thought by some to be haunted

SILVERTON, Colo. – The Grand Imperial Hotel is a striking structure of Italianate-style architecture located on Silverton’s main street. It’s also haunted.

Or so say some who have been working at the hotel this year. Construction crews, according to the Silverton Miner, have reported nails thrown at them. Hotel maids have reported depressions in freshly made beds.

The Miner says that the fuss seems to be centered on a third-floor room where a 42-year-old man shot and killed himself the day after Halloween in 1890.

Elizabeth Green of Durango, co-author of a book about ghosts, told the Miner that she hopes to deploy a team of ghost hunters with recording devices and electro-magnetic field monitors to see if they can detect whatever is causing the disturbances.

Why do coyotes inspire so dog-gone much fear?

CANMORE, Alberta – A researcher at the University of Calgary has set out to find if humans and coyotes can co-exist more easily. Shelley Alexander, head of the Canid Conservation Science Lab at the university, says that people have emotional responses to coyotes, among them great fear and a perception of high risk.

“I calculate you are 200 times more likely to get struck by lightning than bitten or scratched by a coyote, but the perception is there, and the way people describe it, they are afraid to go out into their backyards,” she tells the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

She admits to an admiration of coyotes. “We have persecuted them for hundreds of years, and they are still standing there in our face, just reminding us that they are still there,” she says.

Banff looking into waste to energy

BANFF, Alberta – Banff has a high rate of recycling and repurposing, but it still has trash. Now, it is investigating whether it can convert the waste into energy. Town officials tell the Rocky Mountain Outlook that they are only committing to investigating the feasibility. Chad Townsend, the town’s environmental officer, says European countries with less space for landfills are far more advanced in converting waste into energy.

McCall voters decide on new minimum wage

McCALL, Idaho – Voters in the lake-side resort town of McCall were scheduled to decide this week whether to increase the minimum wage. Idaho law allows city councils to determine minimum wage, but McCall officials decided to put the issue up to a vote.

The proposal increase would boost wages from $7.25 an hour to $8.75 in January and a year later, to $10.25 per hour.

Aspen Skiing’s plans will have to wait a year

ASPEN, Colo. – The Aspen Skiing Co. had hoped to gets its alpine coaster, canopy tour, and ropes courses in place at the Snowmass ski area next year. Now, it’s looking like the summer of 2017 before the work can begin. Ski company representatives told Snowmass elected officials recently that the Forest Service has become overloaded with proposals by ski areas planning to use new federal authority for use of public lands during summer months.

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