Mountain Town News: Swollen Colorado rivers run wild and dangerous |

Mountain Town News: Swollen Colorado rivers run wild and dangerous

Allen Best
Mountain Town News
Backlit beauty
Bill Linfield / Special to the Daily |

RED CLIFF, Colo. – It was called the May miracle in Colorado. After a ho-hum winter, it looked certain that the creeks and rivers would deliver a runoff that walked, not ran, that murmured instead of shouted.

In March, the weather became so hot that something happened in the Gore Range that usually doesn’t occur until June. The couloirs on the Grand Traverse, the 13,000-foot ridge overlooking Vail, became so saturated with melted snow that they slid to the ground. It’s called a climax slide, and it rarely happens before June.

“It was the most crazy thing I’ve ever seen,” said Darryl Bangert, who has been studying snow and river runoff in the Vail area since 1976.

Then, in mid-May, it started snowing — again and again. And when it didn’t snow it rained, continuing into June.

Last week, that snow and rain was evident as Colorado’s rivers became as crowded as a Chinese train station on a holiday. The rivers thrashed, they gnashed, they splashed in a hurry to get out of the mountains. There have been longer runoffs and higher runoffs, but it was impressive nonetheless.

Taking note of 11 snow-monitoring sites that he tracks, Chris Landry, from the Center for Snow & Avalanche Studies, reported that the rivers were more boisterous than the snowpack statistics would suggest. The water in the snow was short of the median for 1981-2010.

“Snowmelt runoff behavior has been (arguably much) more intense than these data would suggest,” he wrote carefully in a posting on his website.

South of Vail, that unruly runoff was evident on June 17 in Homestake Creek. In a quarter mile before it flows into the Eagle River, the creek has an incline comparable to that of a green or beginner ski slope. The water was pounding, droplets flying high into the air. A misstep on the boulders adjoining the water would have meant almost instant death.

In the nearby town of Red Cliff, a longtime resident was asked whether the Eagle River had peaked yet. “Just a minute,” he said, “I have a rock that I can see from my house that I use for measuring the height of the river.” Returning a few minutes later, he observed that the water on the rock was indeed the highest it has been this year.

That was probably peak runoff for the Eagle River, a full 10 days later than the locally acknowledged long-term average for peak runoff. In recent years, the trend has been to earlier runoff.

Bangert, an owner of Sage Outdoor Adventures, said there were much bigger runoffs and longer runoffs, such as those of the early 1980s. But this was stood out because it was pushed by big rainstorms.

Several people have drowned in rivers and creeks, mostly the result of kayaking, rafting, or inner-tube accidents.

The most unusual drowning occurred near Silverton, in the San Juan Mountains. The victim, who was 19, had moved to Durango to be with his dad. They were walking up a snowfield and the victim slipped and fell into a creek that was running below them, disappearing under the snow. The family dog jumped in behind him, San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad told the Silverton Standard & the Miner.

The creek re-emerged from the snow 240 feet farther downstream, but the man’s body did not for three hours. The dog did later, but it was alive.

Beyond the individual tragedies, the big runoff in Colorado has implications up and down the Colorado River. Instead of 3 million acre-feet, Lake Powell will likely get 6.2 to 6.4 million acre-feet, said Eric Kuhn, general manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

That allows the upper-basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — to release more water from Powell to flow downstream to Lake Mead, near Las Vegas. This additional water in Lake Mead should help water-strapped California.

Now the big question mark is what the El Niño will produce. The last one was in 1997-98, and that is the last good water year for the entire Colorado River Basin.

Whistler reputation on trial after fatal stabbing

WHISTLER, B.C. – The simple evidence suggests that Whistler has a big problem to confront. In mid-May, during Canada’s long holiday weekend, called Victoria Day, there were two stabbings, one of them fatal.

Police have arrested five boys and men, four of them 17 and one of them 18. But that does not bring back Luka Gordic, who was from the Vancouver area. He was 19 when he was killed.

Since Gordic’s death, his family has criticized a Canadian justice system that they feel is too soft on violent crime. They also called out the lawlessness of adolescents that flock to the resort town during the holidays.

“We want to send a message that at all parts of the year, but particularly on the May long weekend … people go up to Whistler without understanding what really takes place,” Gianni Buono, uncle to the 19-year-old victim, told Pique Newsmagazine. The family wants to see the juveniles treated as adults.

Buono also questioned why juveniles are permitted to stay in hotels without supervision. He added that people of Whistler themselves stay away from the busy areas during the holiday periods, because of the unruliness. That, he suggested, is a powerful message that Whistler’s elected officials are not hearing.

Natives react to old assimilation policies

JASPER, Alberta – A common sorrow of aboriginals in North America is of forced assimilation through schools, where natives were punished for speaking their native languages and otherwise shoved into assimilating with the dominant Euro-based cultures of both the United States and Canada.

At the Southern Ute Museum in Ignacio, Colorado, for example, exhibits tell of Ute children forced to attend school and being punished if they spoke the native language of their people or otherwise tried to keep up the ways of their ancestors.

A Ute guide at the museum last October, his hair braided, explained to visitors of new efforts to preserve the tribal heritage. His children, for example, are in a Montessori school where they are learning the Ute language in addition to English. They are also learning tribal history as well as American history.

In Alberta 75-year-old Frieda Maynard was asked what it was like attending a school at Slave Lake. “They changed my name from Lilian Jenny, which is the name my mother had given me, to Frieda.”

The Jasper Fitzhugh says that the renaming of aboriginal children “is a small, yet poignant example of the abuse, neglect and shame suffered by thousands of aboriginal children who attended government funded residential schools across the country for more than a century.”

The newspaper was motivated to talk with local aboriginals because of the new 381-page report issued by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The report says the pain and suffering of the 150,000 children placed in the care of the Catholic Church, which ran the schools, amounted to “cultural genocide.”

Maynard said she was taught by the residential schools to be ashamed of her heritage. “I was 40 years old before I even admitted I had been in an Indian residential school. There was that much shame in just being who I was,” she told the Fitzhugh.

“The shame was not on me, the shame was on them, and I know that today. Every day I wake up and decide that I won’t let a horrendous past dictate what I’m going to feel today.”

Matricia Brown, who identifies herself as Cree, told the newspaper that she believes the abuse and neglect suffered by her mother at the Joussard Indian Residential School played a direct role in her mother’s suicide when Brown was 5 years old.

As mother of two now living in Jasper, the town within Jasper National Park, Brown still has a good relationship with her adoptive family in Calgary, but she has also made it a point to educate her children about her Cree culture.

“When I was 24 and pregnant I made a conscious choice to teach my children everything that was wonderful about my culture,” she told the Fitzhugh.

What’s the evidence of widening economic rift?

ASPEN, Colo. – Wages fell about 3 percent between 2008 and 2010, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but have now bounced back to nearly pre-recession levels.

But have the ordinary wage earners nonetheless lost ground in what is nationally believed to be a widening breach between the rich and the not-so-rich?

The Aspen Daily News asked the provocative question, but the evidence doesn’t provide a solid answer.

Citing state records, the newspaper reports that housekeepers and food-service workers make an average $632 per week before taxes, followed by construction jobs at $1,230 per week, and upper management salaries commanding $2,643 per week.

Those are good wages in lots of places. And maybe even for some of those who live in the 2,931 deed-restricted affordable housing units of Aspen and Pitkin County, of which 54 percent are owned and 46 percent are rented.

But what is the local rate of inflation for food and other goods and services? There seems to be no reliable measure of that. Colorado’s consumer price index is determined in metropolitan Denver. Rural areas in the West are lumped together, and there’s no way that Aspen compares with a place like Riverton, Wyoming, or Twin Falls, Idaho.

Real estate prices in Aspen are always nose-bleed high. The newspaper cites the research of, which earlier this year found that Jackson, Wyoming, is the highest among ski towns, at $2,000 per month for a one-bedroom apartment, while Aspen was second at $1,750. The Vail area came in at $1,450.

A little less elbow room in Park City

PARK CITY, Utah – Elbow room will get a little more scarce in Park City and nearby areas. State demographers project that Park City, now at a population of 7,547, will grow to 17,722 by 2060, reports The Park Record.

Summit County more broadly is projected to grow from today’s 36,324 year-round residents to 107,671 by 2060.

Of course, if you’re arriving from Los Angeles, this doesn’t feel crowded at all.

Dueling experts about wisdom of Squaw town

TRUCKEE, Calif. – The argument about whether to create a municipality at the base of the Squaw ski area is now at the stage of dueling experts. Some experts are testifying that incorporation will cost a lot of money, and those paid experts on the other side disagree.

The debate was triggered by the announcement by KSL Capital Partners, owners of the ski area, of plans to sink $50 million in upgrades and greatly expand the bed base. Currently, because there is no town government in place, officials from Placer County would review the development plans. If a town is created, elected and appointed officials would ultimately decide on development.

Citing public records, The Sacramento Bee reports that in a 12-month period ending in April, a political action committee backed by the ski area owners spent about $570,000 in an effort to derail the incorporation bid. Those supporting incorporation have spent $70,000 in the last two years.

A consultant hired by KSL Partners finds that municipal expenses in just the first year of operations would exceed revenues by $1.7 million. But incorporation supporters reject that report as “flawed by incorrect assumptions, mathematical errors and internal inconsistencies.”

The Bee says that if Olympic Valley, as the base area of Squaw is called, is incorporated, it would have fewer than 1,000 residents, making it California’s 14th-smallest town.

Determining terms for vacation home rentals

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – The virtues of vacation home rentals continue to be discussed in South Lake Tahoe, the municipality where the Heavenly Ski Area is located.

Some 1,800 licenses have been granted for vacation rentals, some 1,400 of them in residential districts, says John Hitchcock, the city’s planning manager. Complaints there, as in most ski towns, revolve around noise, trash and parking, he says.

What makes some neighbors cranky is that if there’s a problem, they don’t know who to call. In traditional arrangements, professional property managers can be called when 12 guys host a party that lasts until 3 a.m. and then leave garbage scattered out on a lawn. In the case of a vacation home rental, the owner of the unit may be far more inaccessible.

The Lake Tahoe News reports that just a minority of the people who showed up at recent meetings support the city staff’s position of treating vacation home rentals as a land-use issue. Repeatedly, those testifying about vacation home rentals said enforce the rules on the books and then decide if there’s a problem.

Meanwhile, a report commissioned by the Colorado Association of Ski Towns was issued last week. The 57-page study reports how jurisdictions from New York City to San Francisco have been addressing this burgeoning component of the sharing economy. The report included specific examination of the experiences of 10 members of the organization, including eight in Colorado and also Park City, Utah, and Jackson, Wyoming.

While there are concerns about long-term housing being shifted into short-term housing, thus squeezing affordable housing stock for local workers, most jurisdictions have moved to embrace the vacation home rentals, as popularized by companies such as Airbnb.

Alpha males making same point 7 times

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – The town council in Crested Butte last week met for six hours about what to do with its perplexing pinch of long-term affordable housing. It was not only a long discussion but sometimes circular, reports the Crested Butte News, with relatively few decisions made.

Some council members argued for short-term solutions, while others urged effort be put into a more methodical, long-term strategy.

Newspaper editor Mark Reaman, who once sat at the same table as a council member, was not impressed. “I need to remember the Dalai Lama’s advice to practice kindness and compassion,” he said at the beginning of his self-described “rant.”

He likened the council discussion to “seven Ping-Pong balls on a wooden floor in an earthquake frenzy.” He also described “seven alpha males making the same point a dozen times.” In other words, not much got achieved.

But he also noted his own warning more than a year ago that the council needed to hasten to find affordable housing solutions in an economy that is heating up.

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