Mountains brace for drought
GRANBY – Records continue to topple at the headwaters of the Colorado River and its tributaries in this unusual year in which winter ended in February. The Colorado River Basin has its lowest snowpack recorded in the last 45 years.

On Lake Granby, a reservoir near the river headwaters created for transmountain diversion, the ice had cleared  by April 10. That’s earlier than even the warmer, droughtier years of the last decade, 2002 and 2004 being the most memorable.

Aspen has approved regulations that, if the drought persists into summer, will allow city officials to impose surcharges of 175 to 200 percent on customers who continue to use high volumes of water. The city last enacted such a water shortage law in 2002,  notes the Aspen Daily News.

The Steamboat Pilot & Today reports that Routt County commissioners have banned open fires, including the smoking of cigarettes in the open. Of 11 wildfires this spring, nine were human caused, mostly the result of ranchers burning vegetation to clear ditches.

Average temperatures in the Vail area during March were 4 to 6 degrees higher than average, launching the spring snowmelt a month early.

So far this year, weather is tracking as even hotter and drier than 2002. That year ended up as one of the driest in centuries, helping draw down Lake Powell to levels form which it hasn’t fully recovered.

Last year was phenomenally wet, so reservoirs are full in Colorado and the soil remains more saturated than was the case in 2002. Taken together, the last two years have been about average.

Will it stay hot and dry? Two benchmark years for winter drought, 1976-77 and 1980-81, ended up being not too bad because of summer storms, says Nolan Doesken, the Colorado state climatologist.  

But seeing trees leaf out in April, three weeks earlier than usual, does create a sense of uneasiness. “It’s an uncomfortable balance,” says Doesken.

Anglers hope Ike will help the Fraser
FRASER – Segments of highway get named after people. Why not rivers, too?

That’s the intention in the Fraser Valley, which includes the Winter Park ski area. It’s the closest valley of the water-rich Colorado River accessible to Denver, located on the more arid lee side of the Rocky Mountains. Beginning in 1936, Denver began diverting water – and it hopes to tap even more, up to 80 percent of the  river’s annual flows.

Local fishing groups continue to object. As part of their campaign, they now propose to name a 2-mile segment of the Fraser River after former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. It would be called the Eisenhower Memorial Reach.

“These are presidential waters, plain and simple,” says Kirk Klancke, from the local chapter of Trout Unlimited.

Eisenhower fished the Fraser River and tributary creeks from 1952-55, before he suffered a heart attack. Because his wife, Mamie, was originally from Denver, they vacationed there.

The designation, if approved by the Colorado General Assembly, would “draw attention to the fact that the Fraser River is a pristine environment, pristine enough to have drawn the leader of the free world back in the ‘50s,” Klancke told the Sky-Hi News.

If the river gets so designated, it would join the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway, otherwise known as I-25 as it goes through staunchly conservative  Colorado Springs. Also in Colorado, the Gerald Ford Memorial Highway goes through Vail and past Beaver Creek, where Ford kept a vacation home. It is otherwise known as I-70.

Cow carcasses pose a conundrum
CRESTED BUTTE – What now brown cows? That’s the question the Forest Service is being asked as it considers the plight of frozen cattle that were found in a cabin near treeline, adjacent to the Conundrum Hot Springs.

At 11,200-feet in elevation, Conundrum is said to be the highest-elevation hot springs in North America. It’s 9 miles from Crested Butte and about the same distance from a trail originating on the outskirts of Aspen. In March, two cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy snowshoed into the springs and found six dead cows.  A Forest Service team that got to the site last week found several more.

The working hypothesis of forest rangers is that the cattle wandered away last fall from a herd grazing above Crested Butte and took shelter in the cabin from an early storm. Somehow, the door closed, and the cattle couldn’t figure out how to open it. And so they died.

The Forest Service is uncertain about what to do. As people start trekking into the hot springs, the cattle will be creating a sanitation issue. Plus, there’s a strong possibility that black bears, an omnivorous species, will be drawn to the putrid smells for easy meals.

Because the cabin is remote and within a designated wilderness area, there’s no easy way to remove the carcasses. Scott Snelson, the district ranger for the Forest Service in Aspen, told National Public Radio last week that options include creating a big bonfire or exploding the cabin and its contents.

However, there are also worries that the cabin may contain asbestos, reports Bill Kite, public information officer for the agency. In that case, neither explosion nor fire is viable.

Charges finally filed in dog-killings
WHISTLER, B.C. – Two years after he killed an estimated 54 sled dogs that he could no longer keep, Bob Fawcett has been charged with animal cruelty by provincial officials in British Columbia.

Fawcett was general manager and part owner of a Whistler-based dog-sled company. In April 2010, following the Winter Olympics, when business was lighter than had been hoped, Fawcett told the other owners that he had to kill the dogs because of quality-of-life issues.
He then killed the dogs in a macabre two-day session. He had tried, although perhaps not very hard, to get the dogs adopted.

Months later, he sought, and obtained, government aide for a disabling case of post-traumatic stress. His application was leaked to a news agency and the case quickly drew world-wide attention.

Owners of sled dogs in British Columbia are allowed to kill unneeded dogs, a process euphemistically called “cull.” In this case, all were healthy. Permissible is killing by a veterinarian or, if no vet is available, then a single shot fired away from all other animals.

The Vancouver Sun relates that Fawcett, in a posting on a website for people suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, described how the panicked animals were shot or had their throats slit before being dumped in a mass grave.  In his application for workers’ compensation he stated that he had to wrestle the dogs to the ground then put his foot on their necks and shoot them execution style. He sometimes shot the dogs as they were running away.

Fawcett said he was complying with an order from owners of the sled-dog touring operation. The owner has denied that allegation.

As a result of the case, new regulations were adopted. Sled-dog operators can continue to kill healthy dogs, but only after efforts have been made to find homes, reports Whistler’s Pique. How successful that will be is unclear, as there is anecdotal evidence that the dogs do not make for good domestic pets.

Women head up police, fire agencies
BRECKENRIDGE – One of Colorado’s oldest communities, with roots dating to the gold rush of 1859, Breckenridge now has a distinction in that both its police and fire departments are headed by women.

Lori Miller last year became chief of the Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District. That made her the first female fire chief of an all-career fire department in Colorado. Last month, Shannon Haynes became the police chief.

As well, notes the Summit Daily News, two of the Town Council members are women, although that’s hardly an anomaly. The Mormon-founded town in Utah, Kanab, had an all-female council in 1912, the first in the country.

Ironically, this same town of 4,000 people, located between Lake Powell and Zion National Park, in 2006 adopted a resolution that identified a “natural family” as consisting of young women who grow up to become wives, homemakers and mothers. And homes, according to this definition, are to be open to a “full quiver of children.”

Truckee tilts hard against use of coal
TRUCKEE, Calif. – In 2007, the utility that delivers power to the Truckee area got 92 percent of its electricity from coal-fired generation and just 8 percent from renewables. Now, the utility claims only half of its power from coal and 33 percent from renewable sources.

How did it achieve such a sharp change in such a short time? A report in the Sierra Sun points to a variety of sources, including small hydropower and landfill gas. This summer, a new wind farm in southern Idaho also will begin generating electricity for the utility.

Lynx filmed using highway overpass
BANFF, Alberta – A rare image of a lynx using a highway overpass in Banff National Park has been getting considerable attention. It’s the sixth lynx recorded using either the underpasses or overpasses since monitoring began in 1996.

But the larger story is that it represents what may happen in other places, such as in Colorado. Advocates for years have been pushing for a highway overpass across Interstate 70, somewhere between Vail and Georgetown. At least four lynx have been squashed in that segment of highway since lynx were reintroduced into Colorado in 1999.

“If we can educate people about these safe passage measures and the importance of them, we’ll get better traction when we try to mitigate highways elsewhere,” said Tony Clevenger, of the Western Transportation Institute.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook says at least 11 species of large mammals have used the crossing structures in Banff National Park, including grizzly and black bears, wolves,  coyotes, cougars, moose, elk, deer, bighorn sheep and, more recently, wolverine and lynx.

Composting toilets good to go in Aspen
ASPEN – What do you do when you have the need for 40,000 to 50,000 trips to the bathroom each year at a very public location?

At Aspen’s Rio Grande Park, the answer lies in composting toilets. They will cost $400,000, enough to raise eyebrows even in Aspen. But that’s no more than laying a new sewage line.

Human waste shrinks to 20 percent of the original volume, thanks to bacteria used in the composting process. The vaults can be pumped just once every 12 to 14 months, producing a product that can be sold to landscapers.

Aspen is also planning to use nonpotable water to irrigate the ball fields, and is adding settling ponds and wetlands to clean storm water runoff before it enters the Roaring Fork River.

Whistler community debates export of oil
WHISTLER, B.C. – Two weeks after the Whistler Council unanimously adopted a strong stand against the Northern Gateway pipeline, there’s both pushback and support from local residents.

The pipeline proposed by Enbridge would transport crude oil from the oil sands of Alberta to a port at Prince Rupert for export, presumably to China and other developing countries.

Instead of becoming a “third-world gas tank,” writes Brian K. Buchholtz, in a letter published in Pique Newsmagazine, “Canada should become a first-world leader in sustainable economic development.”

Mark Manze takes the same facts and sees hypocrisy. “All these cool skiers and riders seem to have forgotten that they are much a part of the energy-consuming problem as certain ex-governors of California and their six Hummers and poor English,” he writes, also in a letter published in Pique.

“Coming from (South) Africa, I am used to seeing ostriches with their heads in the sand. But I didn’t know that the Canadian equivalents put their heads in the snow.”

What’s good for developed countries, he says, should also be available to developing countries.

“We seem to feel that we have a God-given right to consume everything in our path, yet we deny the people of China that same right by not supplying them with oil via the Northern pipeline.”

Corporate travel on the rise again
AVON – Corporate and business travelers are returning to the resorts of the Vail and Beaver Creek area in greater numbers, reports the Vail Daily.

“Not only are the corporate meetings coming back, but so are the incentive trips, the corporate rewards,” said Bob Trotter, general manager of the Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa.

That hotel opened just as the financial meltdown was occurring in 2008. For the first few years, group business was split between corporate travel and social affairs such as weddings. Now corporate gatherings have edged to 60 percent of all group sales.
The Vail Valley Partnership reports a 14 percent increase in corporate travel year over year.
– Allen Best publishes a monthly magazine called Mountain Town News. He can be reached at