Mountain Town News: The storm before the storm
January 1, 2019
We might need to do with far less water in the future
BERKELEY, Calif. – Delegates from the seven Colorado River states were at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas several weeks ago along with delegates from Native American tribes to try to put together the final details of how to use less water.
They haven't quite figured out the plan. The U.S. Department of Interior, as the arbiter of water allocations and use in the basin, has given the states until late January to get their plan figured out. If they don't, the Interior Department will do it for them.
Levels in the river's two big reservoirs, Lake Powell and Mead, have collectively been declining during the 21st century. There's a chance, if still small, that levels in Lake Mead could decline so much that electrical production would be impossible. That electricity benefits many of the ski towns of Colorado and other states.
Drought has been part of the problem. Just 10 percent of the land mass in the river's basin, mostly in an elevation band of 9,000 to 11,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains, produces 90 percent of the water in the system. Snowfall in the 21st century has trended downward overall.
Rising temperatures have also caused river flows to decline. Several studies have now concluded that increased evaporation and transpiration has caused more water to rise into the atmosphere instead of flowing down the rivers.
The great majority of water gets used in the lower-basin states, mostly for agriculture, but consumption has not been curtailed to reflect the reduced flows. That is what the negotiations among the seven basin states have all been about. The agreements brokered a century ago assumed more water than the river yielded even during the 20th century. Now, in the 21th century, there's less water yet, with even more substantial reductions predicted.
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California has much the same problem. A new report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory projects a dramatic decline in runoff from the Sierra Nevada. The study warns that water flows may drop 54 percent in the next 20 to 40 years. By the end of the century, if not before, flows could decline 70 percent.
For several decades, climate scientists have been warning that the hydraulic infrastructure built during the 20th century will be inadequate as winters turn warmer and weather turns more extreme. They have warned of longer, deeper droughts but also greater deluges.
A glimpse of what that future might look like came two years ago as California emerged from its worst drought to encounter its wettest winter ever. Some of that winter precipitation came as rain in February, which threatened to wipe out the tallest dam in the United States, Oroville. Repairs to the dam cost $1 billion. This is about 10 miles south of Paradise and the Camp Fire conflagration that killed 85 people in November.
Grizzlies submit to food coma after feasting on elk guts
JACKSON, Wyo. — Elk hunting season in Grand Teton National Park ended on Dec. 9, and soon after, park rangers saw what they believe will be probably the last grizzly bears out and about for several months.
Among those bears was Grizzly 399, followed by two cubs, who made their way to a den in the park's northern region. The 22-year-old sow has a habit of spending the closing days of fall in the park's southern reaches, where gut piles and gunshot-and-lost-animals from the annual elk reduction hunt provide an easy source of food.
"Watching her head north and east to the den, it's seriously heartwarming," wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen told the Jackson Hole News&Guide. "They're so damn smart, and the cubs learn everything that she knows. It's really magical that she's still surviving."
Why have avalanche deaths in Colorado been on decline?
DURANGO, Colo. — More people than ever have been journeying to the backcountry to play in the snow. Yet for whatever reasons, the number of avalanche fatalities has dropped off in recent years, at least in Colorado.
Colorado had 276 avalanche fatalities from the winter of 1950-51 to that of 2016-2017, by far the most of any state. Alaska was second at 152. Colorado's relatively large population explains its high death toll. Along with other Rocky Mountain states, it also has fickle snow, as the Durango Telegraph points out.
Colorado's most fickle snow may be in the San Juan Mountains, in the state's southwest corner. Snowfall is unusually inconsistent: long dry periods and then monster storms. Those long periods without fresh snow produce temperature-gradient snow, more like marbles at the base than interlocking snow crystals. This rotten snow slides more easily when a heavy new snowpack arrives on top. Or the weight of a skier or snowmobiler.
"If you can figure out the snowpack in the San Juans, you can do it anywhere," said Michael Ackerman, a faculty member of the Silverton Avalanche School.
Why so few avalanches deaths in the last few years? In 2016-17, for example, there was just one.
Ackerman suggested that luck might be part of it. Ethan Greene, who directs the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, suggests that education and outreach have made a difference.
Steamboat may liberalize rules governing pot sales
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Elected officials in Steamboat Springs in 2019 will be talking about whether to loosen restrictions on sales, cultivation, and manufacturing of cannabis within city limits.
When Colorado legalized cannabis sales in 2014, some Colorado ski towns chose to regulate cannabis stores similar to liquor stores. Aspen and Telluride were of this persuasion. Other ski towns wanted no part of cannabis. Mountain Village – the slope-side town next to Telluride – and Vail represent this no-thanks approach. It should be noted, however, that there's a marijuana store on the edge of Vail, in unincorporated Eagle County.
Steamboat was among many towns with cautious acceptance. It allowed just three licensed stores, and it tightly restricted where they could do business.
Sonja Macys is among the city's council members who favor loosening restrictions. She said she opposed the restriction on the number of licenses when regulations were adopted in 2013-2014. "I think it tends to legislate morality and also inhibit free-market competition, and I think it is not appropriate," she said at a recent meeting covered by Steamboat Today.
The owner of a chain of cannabis stores, including one that operates in Aspen, testified for the liberalized restrictions. Aspen's eight licensed dispensaries competed for $11.3 million in revenues in 2017. Steamboat's three cannabis stores competed for $12.25 million in sales. In Steamboat's current structure, cannabis stores enjoy semi-monopolistic status, he said.
The owner of an existing store in Steamboat agreed that the market could stand more competition but warned against rapid changes. All the local stores are currently locally owned, he pointed out, but apparently did not indicate why that matters.
How can Whistler tidy up its own little greenhouse?
WHISTLER, B.C. — The debate continues in Whistler about the letter sent by the town government to 20 oil and gas companies, including one in Calgary. The letter blamed them for Whistler's cost of adapting to a changing climate, including an increased risk of wildfires, and demanded financial aid.
Only the letter to the Calgary-based company stirred up controversy. The city is on its heels, as Alberta is altogether, the result of slackened demand for high-cost oil made from oil/tar sands. Alberta as of 2014 was responsible for nearly 79 percent of Canada's production of fossil fuels, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
"I work in the oil and gas industry and I will not ski at Whistler until the mayor who wants compensation for climate change is out of office," wrote Walter Loeppky, of Calgary, in a letter published in Whistler's Pique Newsmagazine.
But a local resident suggests Whistler has gone public with the equivalent of its zipper open. "Whistler could easily eliminate a lot of CO2 emissions simply by forcing shops along Village Stroll to close their doors," wrote Colin Green. "I am willing to bet that close to 100 percent of the heat generated in the shops comes from natural gas. How can such an environmentally focused municipality be so wasteful?"
From Vancouver to Toronto, newspaper columnists took aim at the hypocrisy of Whistler, a resort dependent upon long-distance travel, in asking for compensation from fossil fuel companies. Adding fuel to their invective was the discovery that the mayor who signed the letter, Jack Crompton, owns a transportation company that ferries some of Whistler's 3 million annual visitors to and from the airport in Vancouver.
Last week Crompton apologized for the tone of the letter and admitted to the hypocrisy. But he did not apologize for bringing up the cost of emissions that is the foundation for the oil and gas industry business model. It's a conversation, he said, that must happen.
But Whistler itself continues to struggle to make its own transitions, and it's not just shop doors left wide open on all but the coldest winter days. Community emissions fell for several years then picked again for the last several years, including a 4 percent increase from 2016 to 2017. Private vehicle transportation and natural gas make up more than 50 percent of Whistler's annual emissions.
How to move the needle? Arthur De Jong, a new member of the municipal council, makes the case that an excellent climate-action plan has been formulated but now needs a champion on the municipal staff.
Ski patrollers work through holiday without a contract
CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – Negotiations between Vail Resorts and the Crested Butte Professional Ski Patrol have been put on hold for the holidays.
The ski area has 49 unionized ski patrol members, compared to 200 at Park City. Negotiations began on Nov. 1 to replace a two-year contract. That contract expired Nov. 28, reports the Crested Butte News, but the president of the local union said members do not intend to strike at this time. "And we understand from Vail Resorts that they do not plan to lock us out," said Chad Berardo.
The union wants the settlement to reflect rising living costs in Crested Butte.
Carbon tax part of prod to shift from natural gas
CANMORE, Alberta — A cement plant near Banff National Park, wants to substitute up to 80 percent of the natural gas it uses to heat kilns by burning other materials, including carpet and textiles, treated wood products, asphalt shingles, non-recyclable plastics, and tire fluff.
Plant owner LafargeHolcim, which calls itself the leading global building materials and solutions company, has a goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions 40 percent by 2030 as compared to 1990 levels. A cement plant near Vancouver has an even more ambitious goal by using the same strategy, reports the Rocky Mountain Outlook.
The cement industry alone is responsible for 5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a recent report from the Chatham House.
British Columbia kilns are subject to a 30 percent carbon tax. In May, a representative of the Cement Association of Canada told a legislative committee that imports of cement into British Columbia had climbed from 6 percent to 40 percent since the province adopted its first carbon tax in 2008.
In its 2017 sustainability report, LafargeHolcim called for pricing carbon emissions in an international agreement as a way to limit global warming to below 2 degrees C.
How the French could have done the carbon tax better
TRUCKEE, Calif. — In France, the government faced severe backlash to its increase on prices of diesel fuel on people in rural areas. Where the French government got the carbon tax wrong, writes Diana Hitchen in the Sierra Sun, is that it should have diverted revenues to create rebates.
That's exactly what a proposed law recently introduced in Congress would do. The bill, proposed by both Republicans and Democrats, would allocate revenues in the form of monthly dividends to households, particularly those of low and middle incomes.
The legislation parallels the advocacy of Citizens Climate Lobby, of which Hitchen is a member in the Lake Tahoe area.
Huge snowmaking increase approved for Vail Mountain
VAIL, Colo. – The Forest Service wants to allow a giant increase in snowmaking on Vail Mountain, increasing snowmaking capacity on Vail Resorts flagship mountain by about 25 percent.
"Currently, Vail cannot ensure high-quality conditions during the early- and mid-season, nor reliable conditions through mid-April," said Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest, in a decision subject to appeals.
The Vail Daily reports the expansion, which is still subject to objections, will add 262 new acres of snowmaking coverage on the mountain's upper slopes. To accommodate this, Vail will add 32 miles of snowmaking pipeline and 14 new valve stations.