Southwest states bank on cloud seeding

DENVER – A half-century after cloud-seeding began in the West, it continues to be regarded by many as something akin to chicken-noodle soup for colds. Or, on the more sinister side, snake oil.

But water authorities in thirsty states of the American Southwest have no such doubts. For several winters, they have been increasing their budgets for seeding clouds passing over the mountains of Colorado, where about half of the total volume in the Colorado River originates.

“We’re believers down here,” says Tom Ryan, resource specialist with the Metropolitan Water District of Southwestern California. “The lower-basin folks believe it works. We believe that the science is adequate to move forward.”

While still relatively small, just $152,000 this winter, the money from lower-basin states has more than tripled since 2006. The money has been used to spew silver iodide particles into clouds over the San Juan Mountains, the Gunnison Basin, and Grand Mesa, all regions with ski areas. The states also contributed to renewed seeding operations at Winter Park in partnership with ski-area operator Intrawest. Vail Resorts also continued its seeding operation for Vail and Beaver Creek, a program that began in 1978. It’s Colorado’s longest-continuous seeding operation.

The lower-basin states see cloud-seeding as a viable way to increase water supply from the stressed Colorado River Basin. On behalf of those states, consulting firm Black & Veatch two years ago completed a study that evaluated ways to augment existing water supplies. Desalinization was deemed highly effective but extremely expensive.

The study even evaluated the feasibility of building a pipeline from the Mississippi River to the Southwest. (Very reliable water, but enormously expensive and fraught with political issues).

Cloud-seeding, along with removal of thirsty tamarisk plants, an invasive species found along rivers, was deemed most cost-effective. It’s relatively inexpensive, requires few permits, and can be rapidly deployed.

But seeding operations remain under a general cloud of suspicion during any season. Cloud-seeders insist they can augment snowpacks 10 to 15 percent – provided they have clouds to seed. Seeding, they say, cannot break a drought.

The most firm scientific record comes from experiments conducted during the 1960s above Fremont Pass, between Vail, Breckenridge and Leadville. Those control group studies did suggest a 10 percent or better increase.

Wanting firmer evidence the Wyoming Legislature appropriated funding for additional experiments. After three winters of tests in the Sierra Madre and Medicine Bow ranges of southern Wyoming, scientist Dan Breed reports “teasers” and “trends,” but not enough cases for conclusions with strong confidence levels. The Wyoming Legislature this winter agreed to bankroll another three years of experiments.

Economist calls the financial bottom

JACKSON, Wyo. – Economic analyst Jonathan Schechter seems to have correctly predicted last autumn the bottoming-out of the real estate market in Jackson and Teton County – a bottoming that seems to have been occurring in other resort markets as well.

More recently, he took on the challenge of the economy there more broadly. Given the challenge of predicting economic highs and lows, he says he might have more wisely quit while ahead.

But he plunged ahead, studying the classified advertisements of theJackson Hole News&Guide, in which his analysis appears, going back to January 2005. Specifically, he measured two barometers: the column inches of help-wanted and rental housing listings.

The help-wanted ads suggest the economy crested in the winter of 2007-2008, then began slowing in spring of 2008, around the time that investment bank Bear Stearns imploded. After that, he reports, things went into an 18-month free fall, finally stabilizing late last year.

Rental-housing ads hit an all-time low in summer of 2008, lag

ging a bit behind the peak in help-wanted advertising. Mirroring the help-wanted ads, rental housing ads peaked this past fall, and since then have leveled out.

Using these and other statistical tools, he concludes that “starting in October or so, the tide seems to have turned, and at a minimum, the rate of decline has flattened out.”

Schechter adds: “Whether growth will occur anytime soon is anyone’s guess, but judging by newspaper advertising, it does seem that … the local economy has hit bottom.”

Group pushes health as economic driver

VAIL — As part of its perpetual conversation about economic diversification, Vail is now talking about more aggressively encouraging outdoor sports, wellness, and fitness as an economic driver. In particular, the target seems to be women.

Business interests in Vail last year retained James Chung, of Boston-based Reach Advisors, to help come up with economic diversification strategies. He says that people are spending more of their discretionary income on fitness and wellness, which are becoming the “new marker of wealth.”

Chung points to seminal civil rights legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in 1972. Called Title IX, it mandated that females be given more-or-less equal access to sports programs in schools. As a result there’s been a shift away from gender-segregated sports.

Called Vail 360, as in degrees, the name is also similar to another initiative in recent years called 365, as in days. The obvious goal is to keep hotels and restaurants filled to a greater extent.

Many of the things that he calls for aren’t particularly new. But he maintains that they need to be expanded. Chung does point out, however, that incomes have been shifting. While most Americans have seen their incomes decline during the last decade, households headed by couples with bachelor’s and master’s degrees have grown. And second, he points out that women in their 20s are actually making more money then men in their 20s – a profound change with consequences sure to have telling changes in not just ski towns during coming decades.

Wildlife agency targets bears in Aspen

ASPEN — The Colorado Division of Wildlife wants to encourage hunters to bag more bears in the Aspen and Vail areas. Last year, 630 hunting licenses were available. But wildlife biologists propose to make 1,200 licenses available this year.

Why so many? Now that they cannot use dogs, bear hunters seem to have a very low rate of success. Last year, for example, only 33 bears were killed by hunters in the Aspen, Vail, and Glenwood Springs area, a success rate of just 5.2 percent, an agency spokesman told theAspen Times.

In contrast, police and wildlife officers killed 20 bears in the Aspen area last year after various conflicts. Aspen more recently adopted regulations requiring wildlife-resistance trash containers and rules limiting the hours when trash can be placed outside. Vail and Snowmass Village have had somewhat similar rules for several years.

New avalanche rating scale in the works

REVELSTOKE, B.C. –A new North American avalanche danger rating system has been announced and will be put into use next winter.

The new rating system has five levels of warning, replacing the existing three levels. Also, avalanche forecasters say that they believe the new system will more easily convey inherently complex information in a simpler, more unified format.

“The new system really spells it out in a very digestible manner using colors and numbers and icons,” said Cam Campbell, forecaster for the Canadian Avalanche Center.

“It really reaches out to a wide variety of learning types and catches the attention of a wide variety of people,” he said. TheRevelstoke Times Review also notes that the new system overcomes some ambiguities present in the existing system.

– Allen Best