Mountain Town News: Snow brings smiles, but empty tables remain | SummitDaily.com

Mountain Town News: Snow brings smiles, but empty tables remain

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

TAOS, N.M. – Smiles were ample last week at the Taos Ski Valley, but powder remained scarce. It had snowed about a foot several days before on top of the manufactured snow, the first substantial snowstorm of the winter.

Located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the resort has a base elevation of 9,300 feet but it's a badge of honor among adventurous skiers to hike the ridge to 12,481-foot Kachina Peak. But there's still not much snow for skiing those high steeps, even after the new snow. Just 25 of the 112 runs were open as of Monday, nearly all of them beginner slopes lower on the mountain.

Slopeside at the Hotel St. Bernard, there was merriment at the noon hour. But Tim's Stray Dog Cantina the evening before was almost empty.

A normal January? "The place would be full," answered the bartender/waitress/restaurant manager as a freestyle skier from Whistler flashed down the slopes of the X Games in Aspen on the nearby TV screen.

About an hour south of Taos, Ski Santa Fe has also struggled. The limited snow has had a telling effect on businesses within Santa Fe that normally have robust après-ski traffic.

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One of the few patrons, a retired architect from Albuquerque, recalled winters of storied snowstorms for visitors as they ate burgers smothered with green chile. One storm left 72 inches in just 18 hours, he said.

The resort is within the Rio Grande Basin. The river originates in Colorado, not far from the Wolf Creek Ski Area. The basin had 9 percent of the average annual precipitation going into January. This storm elevated it to 33 percent.

About an hour south of Taos, Ski Santa Fe has also struggled. The limited snow has had a telling effect on businesses within Santa Fe that normally have robust après-ski traffic.

But lodging managers told the Santa Fe New Mexican of still strong occupancies in the city, New Mexico's state capitol.

Sam Gerberding, general manager of the Inn of the Governors, said his hotel "has seen fewer skiers, but also simultaneously good business." Warm weather perhaps attracted tourists, or maybe people planning ski vacations had arrived anyway, figuring to make a vacation of it regardless.

"It's Santa Fe," he said. "It's not like (skiing is) all we have."

Why utilities want to make snowmaking more efficient

KETCHUM, Idaho – Snowmaking has saved this winter from total disaster at Sun Valley and many other resorts. The interior story is how much more energy efficient snowmakers have become.

Consider the report from Sun Valley. The resort has had snowmaking since 1974. The guns came in handy in 1976-77, when it snowed almost not at all until March of the year.

Sun Valley first got snowmaking guns in 1974, just a couple of years ahead of a major drought. Since then it has expanded its ability to make snow. But since 2014, a major transformation has taken place in how water is mixed with compressed air to manufacture snow.

One measure is how much it costs to manufacture snow from an acre-foot of water, or roughly 326,000 gallons. Using the older snowmaking guns cost Sun Valley $437 per acre-foot; with the new guns it costs $22.50.

In this conversion to new technology, Sun Valley was aided with $289,000 in grants by the local electrical utility, Idaho Power. Why would an electrical utility spend hundreds of thousands of dollars so it could sell less of its product?

Randy Thorn, the utility's energy efficiency engineer, explains that energy efficiency is the cheapest resource.

"Why would we give Sun Valley money to put in these new guns? What's the cheapest resource out there? It's energy efficiency," he told the Idaho Mountain Express.

For Idaho Power, he went on to say, it's cheaper and easier to save energy than developing and paying for a new energy source, such as a natural gas plant.

Throughout the Wood River Valley, where Sun Valley and Ketchum are located, the utility has aided 196 different energy-savings projects that have saved 6.7 million kilowatts of electricity since 2013.

The utility estimates the average home uses 1,050 kilowatt-hours per month. As such, the savings equate to the electricity used by 532 average homes.

This thinking about energy efficiency can be traced back to Amory Lovins, who in 1976 wrote an influential essay published in Foreign Affairs under the title "Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?" Soon after that essay appeared, he moved to the Aspen area and co-founded the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Law for trash and bears needs enforcement teeth

DURANGO, Colo. – A $15,000 donation will put some teeth into a law in La Plata County that is intended to keep bears from getting euthanized after getting into trash.

Last year, 11 bears were killed in La Plata County and another 25 inside the Durango city limits. More yet were killed in southwestern Colorado altogether.

Durango has cracked down on people leaving food in trash that might entice bears, and so did La Plata County. But La Plata didn't have anybody enforcing its law. With aid from a $15,000 donation from an unidentified resident of the Animas Valley, it will now.

The Durango Telegraph says that first-time offenders can be punished with a fine of up to $2,000. First-time offenders can have their fines waived if they buy bear-resistant containers.

Approved models cost about $200.

Airbnb puts a lot of bodies in beds at X Games Aspen

ASPEN, Colo. – Aspen had a lot of people in town last week, drawn by fresh snow but also the X Games. Airbnb took responsibility for pairing a record number of them with lodging.

The Aspen Daily News reports that Airbnb, in a statement, claimed 550 people had booked accommodations through the online short-term rental platform. Accommodations ranged from multimillion-dollar homes to condos that are part of the regular rental pool. Residents of deed-restricted affordable housing are prohibited from sub-renting their units in the short-term pool, but the restriction can be difficult to enforce, the Daily News noted.

An Airbnb representative told the Daily News that the average nightly price per guest for a booked listing in Aspen was $141. That's significantly less than the average hotel room price in the city.

Murder by strangulation, then a getaway by Uber

AVON, Colo. – A murder, rare in the Vail Valley, occurred last week. A 74-year-old woman who had recently moved into a high-end residential housing project west of the Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas was strangled to death.

She had relocated to be closer to hiking trails, according to an account in the Vail Daily.

A Denver woman and man, 24 and 23 years old respectively, were quickly apprehended outside the home.

One unusual twist to the story reported by the Vail Daily was that an Uber driver had been called to provide their getaway. But the young couple seems not to have gotten as far as the taxi before they and their dog were apprehended, shivering and suffering from hypothermia.

Cap-and-trade bucks go to forestry work in California

AUBURN, Calif. – Last fall's wildfires in California have renewed focus on the flammability of the forests in the Sierra Nevada. Meanwhile, the state continues to bear down on strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Can the effort to reduce wildlife risk and reduce greenhouse gas emissions be dealt with in the same program? CalMatters reports that a small state agency called the Sierra Nevada Conservancy is getting $5 million to address forestry management around Lake Tahoe.

The money comes from the state's cap-and-trade regime. Large polluters can continue to pollute in excess of emissions caps but are required to pay into funds. That money is then used to achieve carbon reductions in various ways.

By thinning forests, the remaining trees are expected to grow more readily, sucking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they do. But this process also stabilizes soils that hold water and reduces the risk of large wildfires.

CalMatters notes the smallness of this grant in comparison with the enormity of the work, though more funds may become available in the future.

Jostling and more in the Alterra-Vail competition

TELLURIDE, Colo. – The battle of the two ski giants is starting to get interesting. Alterra Mountain Co., the new skiing company, last week announced the name of its new pass, the Ikon, which will compete with the Epic Pass of Vail Resorts. Then Mikaela Shiffrin was named Alterra's skiing ambassador and a part owner.

This week, Telluride and Vail announced they have cut a deal. Telluride is cutting ties with the Mountain Collective after this season and will link with Vail Resorts, while remaining independently owned.

Season pass-holders at Telluride will get 50 percent off daily lift tickets at all 13 Vail Resorts-owned mountains. The most valuable Epic Passes will get access to Telluride, but not the Epic Local or Value passes.

Bill Jensen, chief executive at Telluride, said the new alliance between his resort and Vail Resorts is intended to reach additional skiers and snowboarders in "our core destination markets and will potentially generate an economic benefit three to four times greater than our current Mountain Collective alliance."

Meanwhile, local residents in the Alterra grouping were wondering what all this meant for them. The answer, in short, was nobody really knows. Alterra has not set prices and terms of its Ikon Pass.

Cap-and-trade bucks go to forestry work in California

AUBURN, Calif. – Last fall's wildfires in California have renewed focus on the flammability of the forests in the Sierra Nevada. Meanwhile, the state continues to bear down on strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Can the effort to reduce wildlife risk and reduce greenhouse gas emissions be dealt with in the same program? CalMatters reports that a small state agency called the Sierra Nevada Conservancy is getting $5 million to address forestry management around Lake Tahoe.

The money comes from the state's cap-and-trade regime. Large polluters can continue to pollute in excess of emissions caps but are required to pay into funds. That money is then used to achieve carbon reductions in various ways.

By thinning forests, the remaining trees are expected to grow more readily, sucking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they do. But this process also stabilizes soils that hold water and reduces the risk of large wildfires.

CalMatters notes the smallness of this grant in comparison with the enormity of the work, though more funds may become available in the future.

Biomass plant in Tahoe area just can't get off the ground

TRUCKEE, Calif. – A biomass plant to generate electricity by burning wood from forests and other woody debris would seem to make lots of sense. But one proposed for the area between Truckee and the Squaw Valley ski area has again been shelved.

The problem, explains Brett Storey, of Placer County's planning services department, is simple economics. Biomass plants cost more, even if there is wood available, and the electricity comes in at a much higher price than other renewable sources, particularly wind and solar.

"It's the right thing to do for the forest, but the problem is that nobody who purchases energy will pay the cost," he explains. The cost of biomass electricity comes in at 10 to 15 cents a kilowatt-hour, but other sources of electricity cost just 3 cents a kilowatt-hour on the wholesale market.

Colorado has a biomass plant that began operations several years ago between Vail and Glenwood Springs. It depends upon an undisclosed price support from Holy Cross Energy and has also benefitted from grants.

Placer County — which extends from the exurbs of Sacramento to the Nevada border, taking in the north shore of Lake Tahoe — has been pursuing a biomass plant for a number of years. The buyer of the electricity would be Liberty Utilities, which has a goal of dramatic reduction of its carbon content of electricity. In 2016, it eliminated coal from its mix and a year ago added a 50-megwatt solar farm in Nevada to its portfolio. It estimates that 36 percent of its power comes from renewable sources.

Storey says Placer County gave a little, and Liberty Utilities gave some, too, but they couldn't make the numbers work.

"It's the right thing to do," he said. "You go to Scandinavian countries, and that's all they have. But their energy costs are so high."

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