Mountain Town News: Early runoff at Steamboat, but ‘normal’ in most places |

Mountain Town News: Early runoff at Steamboat, but ‘normal’ in most places

A roundup of news from other ski resort communities

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

Early runoff at Steamboat, but 'normal' in most places

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Spring runoff of the Yampa River likely peaked on May 14 this year as it flowed through northwestern Colorado. That makes it an anomaly in the precipitation-dripping mountains of the West.

In most other locations, the peak runoff — the time when the largest volume of water in rivers occurs as winter's snow melts — happens in early June after temperatures finally warm. This year looks to be more or less normal, despite a trend to earlier runoff in many locations during the last several decades.

"The Yampa did have an early runoff, and that was the result of the warm temperatures and below-average snowpack," said Ashley Nielson, senior hydrologist with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, when interviewed last week by Mountain Town News. The Yampa, she noted, will probably rise again in the next week or so, if not to the same high mark.

But elsewhere, the show is now, not a month ago. Peak runoff of the Green River was expected this week or next. It originates in the Wind River Range of west-central Wyoming. Unlike the Yampa, the basin still has significant snowpack. That was also reported to be the case in Jackson Hole, at the headwaters of the Snake River. The snowpack there was 181 percent of average in late May, not a record but "up there," in the words of one water official cited by Jackson Hole News&Guide.

Peak runoff in the upper Colorado River at its headwaters along the Continental Divide in Colorado was also expected to occur in early June.

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Winter had wild swings: barren until late fall, then torrents of snow in December and January. Temperatures were unseasonably warm in February and almost hot in March. It looked like an early runoff everywhere. Then May turned cold and snowy.

What explains the Yampa's aberrant behavior? Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Denver, said the peak snowpack in northwestern Colorado arrived about a month earlier than usual. The snowpack around Steamboat Springs occurred on March 12, compared to a more typical April 10.
Instead of mid-May for the Yampa, he says that rafters floating through Dinosaur National Monument more often experience the highest water flows of the year in early June.

Flows in the Animas River through Silverton and Durango have had some "pretty wild swings," Wetlaufer says.
The Snake River of Wyoming and Idaho has a very different story than the Yampa, with around 200 percent of snowpack this year. The Snake originates in Jackson Hole and picks up water from the Big Wood River, which originates in the Sawtooth Mountains above Ketchum and Sun Valley, before joining the Columbia at the Idaho-Washington border.

"My takeaway is that this year is pretty normal" in terms of timing, said Bruce Anderson, the senior hydrologist at the Northwest River Forecast Center in Portland, Oregon. It was cooler and wetter in spring, but the big story was the amount of precipitation that fell during winter. "We are hugely above normal for precipitation."

In the Tahoe-Truckee area of California's Sierra Nevada, the snowpack was among the deeper ones on record after three bad drought years and then a so-so winter in 2015-16. Snowfall this winter was not a record, but it was a record for total precipitation. Being somewhat lower and closer to the coast than Colorado, the Sierra Nevada gets more rain during winter. This year it got a lot of rain.

Colorado, too, had rain on snow, which is not unprecedented. But it happened frequently this winter. The result was telling for travelers on I-70 crossing Vail Pass.

"In general, there was less snow than you would expect," says Klaus Wolter, a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder.

Were those rain-on-snow-storms of this past winter a result of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions? Wolter told Mountain Town News that he thinks this is "probably partially climate change."

Wolter, whose focus is empirical climate research, using statistical methods to solve climate problems, is reluctant to pin climate change on much of what we have seen this year. True, he says, one storm during May left 42 inches of fresh snow in the foothills above Boulder, a storm unprecedented since the 1920s. As extreme as that storm was, proving causality is difficult, he says.

A scientist in Oregon also shared the difficulty of proving causality. John Stevenson, climate specialist at Oregon State University, told Idaho Mountain Express in Ketchum that it's "really difficult to judge any one year" to be a result of rising global temperatures.

"That's one of the challenges we run into in the science world where people say, 'Oh, it's climate change.' We're not at the point where we can take any one random event and say it's climate change," he said.

That said, his 2015 study concluded that the point each spring when half of the year's streamflow had run off was occurring an average 1.9 days earlier per decade.

But more extreme events are happening with greater frequency, said Mark Davidson, director of conservation initiatives with The Nature Conservancy. He pointed out the Big Wood River has had two 100-year floods in the last 15 years.

Temperatures in the Ketchum and Sun Valley area were 6 to 13 degrees warmer than normal for early May, producing a flood in the Big Wood River that peaked on May 8. It was regarded as the largest in 101 years of recorded history, reported the Idaho Mountain Express.

More warm weather was producing another surge in early June, threatening to surpass that peak of a month before, the newspaper reported last week.

Tahoe climber joins elite group of Everest climbers

LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The great Italian climber Reinhold Messner was the first to climb Mt. Everest by what he called "fair means," forsaking supplemental oxygen. Since then, about 200 people have also done the same.

Recently, Tahoe-area climber Adrian Ballinger joined that elite club. It was his seventh time to the Everest summit but just his first without supplemental oxygen. The Reno Gazette-Telegraph explains that Ballinger tried a non-oxygen climb last year but suffered hypothermia, forcing him to stop 300 meters from the summit.

Joining him this year was Colorado climber Cory Richards, who climbed within 36 vertical meters before using supplemental oxygen. He had attained the summit last year without oxygen.

But Spanish climber Kilian Jornet is said to have broken speed records by ascending twice in a week without oxygen.

Avon looking into a ban on polystyrene products

AVON, Colo. — A proposal moving toward a July discussion would have Avon going where no other ski town has gone before, banning polystyrene containers used by restaurants for take-out food.

The town, located at the base of Beaver Creek, is also moving toward a ban on single-use plastic bags, such as are distributed by grocery stores. The town has two major stores, a City Market and a Walmart, and together they issue 3.15 million plastic bags per year, said Preston Neill, the town manager's executive assistant.

Although Avon officials have started meeting with grocers, there is little expectation of resistance. Vail two years ago adopted a similar ban.

But the conversation about a ban on polystyrene, including the brand-named material called Styrofoam, is just starting.

"We're still in the infancy of how to structure the ordinance," Neill said.

Neill said he's unaware of any other municipalities in Colorado or other ski towns that have adopted similar legislation to address non-compostable plastic materials commonly given out by restaurateurs. However, a number of jurisdictions on the East Coast but also in California, Oregon and Texas have already done so.

Mayor Jennie Fancher described the issue as one of public health. "Styrofoam is bad for you," she said in a report in the Vail Daily. "It's bad even to have your food in it."

The idea was broached by Mayor Pro Tem Sarah Smith Hymes when the town's climate action plan was adopted in December. In February, the council designated action on plastic, both bags and the throw-away restaurant items, on the top of the to-do list for the year.

Smith Hymes cites the impacts of polystyrene, from health concerns to greenhouse gas emissions to damage to water quality and harm to marine ecosystems and wildlife. "It's difficult to defend," she said.

She said that policies like plastic bag and polystyrene bans push people in mountain towns in a "direction they already want to go."

Smith Hymes also believes Avon and other local communities need to pick up the pace in addressing climate change. Avon had embraced a climate action plan in 2006, but the goals were limited to municipal facilities and no measures were taken to monitor progress.

Individual action is the key to solving the crisis of climate change, she said, adding, "Our challenge as a local government is to facilitate and accelerate action."

Far fewer complaints five years into plastic bag ban

ASPEN, Colo. — Five years after Aspen banned disposable grocery bags, the ban seems to be working. City staff recently did a visual survey, and they found that 45 percent of shoppers left the stores without using any bags, while 40 percent took their own reusable bags for shopping. The remaining 15 percent bought paper bags at a cost of 20 cents each.

In comparison, in a grocery store located 20 miles down-valley from Aspen, where there is no ban, 74 percent of shoppers used the disposable bags.

Might Aspen want to expand its ban? City staff said no. They said eliminating the paper bags might make tourists cranky. And the plastic bags sold by other stores, such as for clothing, just aren't that many.

A local grocery store manager interviewed for the report said customers initially reacted with anger to the bag ban, but now he gets complaints only once every few weeks.

How Vail helped create Aspen's pedestrian malls

ASPEN, Colo. — Aspen came before Vail as a ski town by about 15 years, but in one respect, creating a pedestrian-friendly mall, Aspen learned from Vail.

Aspen was shaped by people from the Midwest in the 1880s who created a rectangular street grid pattern in the relatively broad valley where Aspen is located. When horse and buggies gave way to cars, the streets were readily converted. But even in the mid-1950s, a decade after ski area operations, the streets remained unpaved.

Why not turn Mill Street into a walking mall "where regular street fairs could take place?" That was the recommendation by a 1956 University of Utah architecture class. Continuing on into the 1960s, there was a growing national awareness of a walkable city as being part of a higher quality of life, according to a new account in the Aspen Daily News.

Still, business owners pushed back. Bil Dunaway, the long-time publisher of The Aspen Times, countered with an argument that Vail was more pedestrian friendly than Aspen. Even then, when Vail was just a decade old, there was a sense of rivalry.

"Aside from skiing, the most successful aspect of Vail is the pedestrian-oriented village center, where 4 or 5 blocks are reserved for walkers … and the vehicular-free atmosphere is tranquil and conductive to leisurely strolling or shopping," he wrote.

Finally, in 1976, Aspen's car-free outdoor malls were opened.

Now, the malls must be transformed again. The pavers originally acquired from St. Louis for the malls need to be replaced. Such bricks are in short supply, explains the Daily News, and the challenge will be to find surface pavers that meet the community's expectations regarding the bricks' ambiance.

Holy Cross goes to NREL to help create utility of future

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — When a utility needs a new chief executive, it usually promotes from within its ranks or finds somebody with a depth of experience running a utility.

But Holy Cross Energy — the electrical co-operative that serves six ski areas, including Vail, Beaver Creek, Aspen and Snowmass — has plucked Bryan Hannegan for its next chief executive. He is from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, located in suburban Denver.

Hannagan has been associate director of the Energy Systems Integration Laboratory. At that lab, NREL has been trying integrate the many things happening in energy. How will electric cars fit into the new grid? How can consumers be more actively involved in choosing when to use electricity to take best advantage of lower prices or renewable energy?

"Utilities don't like to experiment on their systems," Hannegan — who holds a Ph.D. in earth science systems as well as a master's degree in engineering — told the Vail Daily. The experiments are run at the laboratory.
Holy Cross was early among electrical co-operatives in trying to push the integration of renewables and carbon-reduction strategies.

For example, the co-op offered a premium rate for electricity generated by a plant that burns wood, mostly trees killed by bark beetle, from the Vail-Summit County areas. The co-op also offered a price premium for electricity that is produced by burning the methane being emitted by a nearby coal mine. The burning of methane still produces a greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, but CO2 is far less potent than methane.

Adam Palmer, a member of the board of directors from the Eagle area, said Hannegan "just really nailed the vision that was shared by the board."

That board sees utilities of the future operating very differently. Customers could be able to choose when to run their dryers, for example, to take advantage of lower rates. The utility will also have deeper penetration of renewables. Wind is now the cheapest form of electricity, but solar has been rapidly dropping in price.

Yes, but the sun doesn't always shine. True, but storage prices have been sliding downward. Palmer cited a report from Arizona on Monday about a solar-plus-storage deal that put the price of electricity at 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, lower than most fossil fuel generation.

In Telluride, there's news about efforts to pressure electrical providers to boost the renewables. The Telluride Daily Planet says that directors of the San Miguel Power Association — which is, like Holy Cross, a co-operative — are asking for permission to generate up to 10 percent of their power through renewables. The co-op is currently capped at providing 5 percent of its own generation. The rest must come from Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the wholesale supplier.

Tri-State points out that 26 percent of energy delivered to local co-ops in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico comes from renewable sources. Much of that comes from hydroelectric dams in the West. Other co-ops, including La Plata Electric, which serves Durango, are also limited by Tri-State's 5 percent cap.

Elsewhere in ski towns, Park City has set out to plant 500 trees in open space areas. The trees, city officials said, will become a sponge, soaking up carbon.

In Alberta, a former resident of Canmore, at the entrance to Banff National Park, wants to see historic designation given to the last building related to the coal mines that operated there until 1979. The Rocky Mountain Outlook reported that David Evans had relatives who worked at the mines, and he hopes to see the Lamphouse restored and protected permanently.

Ketchum dialing back the knob on polluting the dark

KETCHUM, Idaho — Ketchum and the Wood River Valley continue to take steps to seek designation as a dark skies community from the International Dark Skies Association.

The Idaho Mountain Express reported the planning commission recommends more rigorous regulations governing use of lights at night. Changes would include banning holiday lights between April and November, banning unshielded exterior light fixtures, and imposing a restriction on the type of lights to avoid the harshness of the new LED lights.

Allen Best has edited mountain town newspapers for 20 years. He has served as managing editor at four different mountain town newspapers and is now living in metropolitan Denver. Visit for more information.