Mountain Town News: As winter returns, questions of doom on Colorado River |

Mountain Town News: As winter returns, questions of doom on Colorado River

Snow has arrived in the Rocky Mountains. In southwestern Colorado, editor Missy Votel reports almost nonstop storms in Durango since Christmas. It’s become a good, old-fashioned winter, she says.

Last year was sketchy or worse in the San Juans. “We are thankful for the improved snow conditions this year,” reported Telluride Mayor Sean Murphy in his State of the Town address last Friday, “not only for the positive economic impact, but also for the reduced pressure it places on the San Miguel River.”

If this keeps up, the San Miguel will gush with snowmelt in May and June. In Utah, that water will join a Colorado River already engorged with runoff from creeks and rivers originating near Crested Butte, Aspen, Vail and Winter Park.

This rush downhill gets halted in Lake Powell, just short of the Grand Canyon. Powell is the second largest reservoir in the United States. The largest, Lake Mead, lies 300 miles downstream, below the canyon.

Those two reservoirs entered the 21st century nearly full. The declines since then can be discerned in the bathtub ring-like white bands on the canyon walls, whose minerals were leached when submerged in water. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported in mid-January that Mead was at 39 percent of capacity and Powell at 41 percent.

Might just one reservoir suffice instead of two? Environmentalists have been itching to take down Glen Canyon, the dam that creates Lake Powell, almost since it was completed in 1963. Desert lover Ed Abbey even fashioned a mischievous plot around a fractured dam in his 1975 novel, “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”

In recent years, the idea of emptying the reservoir has been discussed with growing seriousness. On Sunday, the question was posed once more by the Salt Lake Tribune.

“Without a change in how the Colorado River is managed, Lake Powell is headed toward becoming a ‘dead pool,’ essentially useless as a reservoir while revealing a sandstone wonderland once thought drowned forever by humanity’s insatiable desire to bend nature to its will,” the paper’s Brian Maffly reported.

Maffly sorted through the complicated reasons for concerns about overuse of the Colorado River. A warming, more desiccating climate accompanied by more frequent droughts has caused declining flows from Colorado and other upper-basin states.

Over-consumption has also been a big cause of reservoir declines. Water use of the river is governed by the 1922 Colorado River Compact and other agreements. Upper-basin states use less than two-thirds of their apportionments. California and Arizona use their share — and all else. Mexico also gets a substantial allocation. It also matters that the river compact fashioned by the seven states in 1922 assumes more water than the river has delivered since then.

“The conversation now is how to do we manage the pain and spread it around so it’s not too devastating to one party,” said Doug Kenney, who leads the Boulder-based Colorado River Research Group.

All seven basin states have been involved in efforts to reduce consumption. Progress has been slow.

One experimental program has cities, primarily, paying ranchers to reduce their legal use of water.

On Colorado’s Western Slope, there’s worry that cities — who have the money — will intentionally or unintentionally shift water use away from rural areas predicated on growing hay for cattle. This would, as the Crested Butte News pointed out, “change the character of this area of Colorado.”

Jim Pokrandt, a spokesman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which represents most of the counties in which ski areas are located, explains the district’s insistence that the water be shared in “voluntary, compensated, and temporary” arrangements. Any permanent transfers will be opposed, he told the Crested Butte paper.

Climate studies strongly suggest runoff will continue to decline. “Lake Powell is doomed,” proclaims Gary Wocker, who leads an advocacy group called Save the Colorado. “The sooner we accept that inevitability, the sooner we will find a permanent solution,” Wockner, who is based in Fort Collins, told the Salt Lake newspaper.

Nonsense, says Albuquerque-based author John Fleck, a long-time student of the Colorado River. In a post on his website,, Fleck said the Powell-is-doomed thesis is predicted on cherry-picked data.

Fleck, the author of “Water is for Fighting Over: And Other Myths about Water in the West,” said Powell levels have been relatively stable since 2005. Importantly, the reservoir has been used to deliver more than 9.4 million acre-feet of water from the upper-basin states to Lake Mead. The reservoir that seems to be headed far more inexorably toward disaster is Mead, not Powell,” he wrote. Despite the bonus water, Mead has continued to decline.

Jack Schmidt, a hydrologist at Utah State University, told a water conference in Grand Junction in 2016 that he wasn’t convinced decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam can be justified yet. But, he added then, it’s an idea worth talking about.

Government shutdown may delay study of snow surveys

CRESTED BUTTE — Effects from the shutdown of broad swathes of the U.S. government will likely linger far into coming months. In Crested Butte, news editor Mark Reaman points attention to the nearby Rocky Mountain Biological Lab.

The laboratory at the foot of the Anthracite Range has many scientific studies, including some devoted to understanding the effects of climate change. But there’s also a project called SnoEx, in which some of the scientists are working with NASA to develop new technology to measure the water content of snow to improve water predictions.

“The intent has been to do a series of major flights in the Gunnison (River) Basin and coordinate those ground measurements by RMBL scientists to better calibrate and interpret air-based measurements,” Reaman explains.

“But, NASA is closed and so planning for the flights has stopped. If the project does not resume in the next several weeks, it will be delayed a year, since the timing of the flights is critical. Snow measurements cannot be pushed into the summer.”

As cannabis becomes more available, questions remain

BANFF, Alberta — Mountain towns continue to smooth the rollout of stores selling cannabis to recreational customers. In Alberta, Banff has five applications for retail shops. In Colorado, the town of Fraser has adopted new regulations that permit extended business hours and locations.

But is this increased access truly a good thing? Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter, has written a short book called “Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence.” In it he argues that cannabis poses more risk than has been commonly acknowledged.

That there is correlation between mental illness and cannabis consumption is undisputed. Whether cannabis use causes mental illness is disputed by the industry. The National Academy of Medicine, however, does see causality. “Cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of developing schizophrenia and other psychoses; the higher the use, the greater the risk.”

This and other parts of Berenson’s book are dissected by Malcolm Gladwell (think: “Outliers”) in The New Yorker. He points out something that cannabis users probably know very well. Recent developments in plant breeding and growing techniques have caused the typical concentration of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, to go from the low single digits to more than 20 percent. It is, he says, a difference like that between a swig of near-beer to a tequila shot.

Student vows life of zero waste for a year

WHISTLER, B.C. — A 17-year-old student in Whistler has taken it upon herself to attempt zero waste for an entire year.

She began this odyssey on Oct. 1. She refuses to get goods that can’t be recycled or composted. What can’t be recycled or composted goes into a glass Mason jar. It includes such things as Band-Aids, receipts and stickers from fruit.

At first, she told Whistler’s Pique, she found it “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” But now, just a few months into the year-long commitment, she finds that she can’t imagine returning to her former consumption habits.

A cat-eat-dog world in Banff National Park

BANFF, Alberta — It was a cat-eat-dog world on the edge of Banff, the town in the eponymously named Banff National Park. Dan Rafla, a human-wildlife conflict specialist for the park, told the Rocky Mountain Outlook that two cougars had made quick work of a coyote carcass. He surmised that the cougars had been drawn to elk in the area.

As for the threat to people, he downplayed any risk. The behavior is not alarming,” he said, while pointing out that attacks on humans are rare.

In Colorado, cougars have been seen in the residential neighborhood of Glenwood Springs, which is about an hour downvalley from both Aspen and Vail. One video widely circulated on social media showed four of the cougars, also called mountain lions, walking through a neighborhood on the edge of the pinyon-and-juniper forest that surrounds the town. A state game warden told the Glenwood Post he believed it was a mother and her three maturing cubs.

Another mountain lion had been trapped and killed. Why wouldn’t it instead be transplanted? Dan Cacho, the state game warden, said any place it would have been transplanted likely already has a mountain lion.

“If there is a healthy lion in that area, then we are just setting them up for failure,” Cacho explained. “We have to euthanize them for human health and safety.”

Colorado electrical co-op sets decarbonization goal

DURANGO — Directors of La Plata Electric, the cooperative that serves Durango and adjoining areas, last week adopted the long-term goal of reducing the carbon footprint 50 percent by 2030 while keeping the cost of electric lower than 70 percent of its peers among rural electric cooperatives in Colorado.

La Plata has no clear idea of how it will attain these goals.

“There’s a process we’re going to need to go through to put some substance into what 50 percent reduction means,” said CEO Mike Dreyspring. “The overarching objective is decarbonization in time. That’s what we’re shooting for. This is the beginning of a challenging and exciting journey for us.”

Dreyspring and Ron Meier, La Plata’s manager of engineering, point out that reducing their carbon footprint is different from increasing local renewable generation, but it doesn’t preclude it. New technologies that have not been put into place or even invented yet, may not be “renewable” by current definition, but they will reduce LPEA’s carbon footprint.

Part of La Plata’s thinking pivots on the shift to electric vehicles. EVs use electricity, displacing oil and diesel. What is also pertinent is that EVs transfer energy into motion six times more efficiently than do internal-combustion engines. As such, even electricity produced from fossil fuels could have a lower carbon footprint overall.

La Plata is a member of Tri-State Generation and Transmission. Other members include the co-ops that provide power for Telluride, Crested Butte and Winter Park.

Tri-State has a high proportion of power from renewables, primarily hydro-electric generation, and last week announced the addition of a 100-megawatt solar farm on the high plains east of Spanish Peaks, in southern Colorado beginning in 2023. However, by some measures, well more than half of the power to Tri-State members will come from coal and natural gas plants.

Major increase in business out of Jackson Hole Airport

JACKSON, Wyo. — Air travel in and out of the Jackson Hole Airport rose 11 percent compared the previous year, which itself was also a record. Some 391,000 passengers boarded commercial airlines at the airport, the only one in the United States to be located within a national park. It’s in Grand Teton National park, a few miles north of Jackson.

Jim Elwood, the airport director, told the Jackson Hole News&Guide that the growth was based on a big winter for the ski area. While Colorado resorts suffered through marginal snow, it was blessed. But growth in the shoulder seasons was also substantial, especially among locals. Elwood expects that shoulder season growth to continue.

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