Shrinking reservoirs and rising temps

GRAND JUNCTION – The Colorado River originates in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, gathering water from tributaries that arise near Winter Park and Breckenridge, Vail and Crested Butte.

More than halfway on its 1,450-mile route to the Pacific Ocean, the Colorado River gets blocked by a giant slab of concrete called Hoover Dam. This dam creates Lake Mead, the primary water source for Las Vegas.

Since 2000, water levels have declined in Lake Mead and the other major Colorado River impoundment, Lake Powell. The usual explanation is drought. Certainly, there have been some very dry years, and at one point the Southern Nevada Water Authority decided that its two tunnels into Lake Mead might not be enough if the reservoir declined further. So, a 3-mile tunnel was engineered to come in at the very bottom of the reservoir.

That tunnel, completed at a cost of $817 million, was unplugged in late September, giving Las Vegas a resource in case the reservoir empties. Engineers compared the challenge of the work to construction of the Eisenhower Tunnel.

Last week, speaking at a water conference in Grand Junction sponsored by Colorado Mesa University, Doug Kenney warned against thinking that the drought will end.

“There’s a lot of thinking that when the drought ends, the reservoirs will come back,” observed Kenney, a research fellow in Western water policy at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Kenney also pointed out that over the last 15 years, the good years and bad years of snow have more or less evened out. The total precipitation has declined only a few percentage points from the longer-term average.

Drought is only third on the list of what explains the declining reservoir levels, he observed. The larger story is that demand has now outstripped supply. Las Vegas, for example, exceeded the population of Manhattan about a decade ago and now has 2 million people.

The second reason why the levels have been declining, said Kenney, is higher temperatures, causing greater evaporation. These rising temperatures have broad implications: hay, corn and cotton need more water, and soils dry out more readily. “The warming climate affects the water cycle in ways that are problematic for the basin,” he said.

El Niño may not deliver until spring

GRAND JUNCTION – Some meteorologists have been predicting this El Niño will be among the most powerful in the last century, comparable to those of 1982-83 and 1997-98. That means lots of snow, right?

Not necessarily. And in fact, it might be kind of a dud in Colorado – at least until next spring.

Snowpack could drop below average by March, said Klaus Wolter, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Research Lab in Boulder.

If this winter’s El Niño is like four of its five predecessors, the big precipitation in Colorado will come next March and April, he said. But it’s not a given.

The Lake Tahoe area, on the California-Nevada border, will almost assuredly get more precipitation than it did last winter. But climatologist Kelly Redmond told an audience at Incline Village, Nev., that there is little to suggest that a big El Niño will produce more snow. Instead, he said in a presentation covered by Lake Tahoe News, it will likely produce precipitation in extreme events.

Models indicate that it will be a warm winter, although not as warm as last year. Still, that might mean more rain instead of snow. But even when it snows, overnight temperatures need to remain below freezing. There’s been a drift upward in recent decades, especially during spring months.

Data from 1948 through 2014 for the months of October through March show the average freezing level in the Lake Tahoe Basin being 8,700 feet. Last winter, the snowline was 2,000 feet higher, or about 10,700 feet. In other words, when storm clouds arrived, they produced mostly rain at lower elevations.

Steamboat paper scoffs at Obama plan

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Can a ski town also be a coal town? They don’t usually come together, but they do in Steamboat Springs, a place that calls itself Ski Town USA.

Steamboat can best be understood as an island in a valley that has three coal mines, two power plants, and a railroad that hauls coal to distant markets. If you see no evidence of coal within Steamboat itself, you don’t have to study the Routt County property tax base very long to find a major coal-mining company, Peabody.

Coal companies, of course, don’t like the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, and neither does the Steamboat Pilot & Today. The newspaper, in an editorial on Halloween, said the “cost is too great, the rewards are too few, and there’s a very real chance the action may not even be legal.”

The latter echoes the argument of Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican who has sided with attorneys general in 25 other states in seeking to overturn the administration’s effort to shift electrical production from carbon-intensive fuels. They claim that the plan exceeds permitted authority in the Clean Air Act.

The Steamboat newspaper goes beyond the legal question and essentially echoes the arguments of the coal industry. It cites an argument that boosting renewables will “amount to a quadrupling of consumer energy costs through the next 15 years, in many cases.”

The newspaper adds that the “benefits of implementing the Clean Power Plan are miniscule, at best,” in terms of reducing global temperatures. As such, the principal value of the plan is to “set an example for the world and hope the world follows.”

Not good enough, said the newspaper, to justify the cost.

There has been some pushback from the community. Sarah Jones, who directs the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, identified a whole host of reasons why the local coal mines have not been doing so well. Rather than fight the Clean Power Plan, she wrote in a letter published in Steamboat Today, the better question is how to prepare for an economy that is less dependent on coal production.

Tiny homes and affordable housing

TELLURIDE – Can tiny houses provide a tiny bit of relief for the affordable-housing crunch?

That’s the argument made in Telluride, where the Town Council has authorized the first steps to place five tiny houses on a vacant lot for the six months of winter. A tiny house by some definitions must be 400 square feet or less, notes the Telluride Daily Planet.

With something more permanent in mind, the Town Council has also allocated funds to begin the next phase of building affordable housing. Housing consultants say that next to Aspen, Telluride may have the most ambitious affordable housing program.

The Winter Park area was slower to come out of the recession than some of the larger destination resorts, but it’s catching up. The Sky Hi News reports that Winter Park Resort has decided it needs 50 more of its affordable housing units for employees, for a total of 200 employee beds. That bumps some of the previous tenants, who are not ski area employees, looking for new quarters.

In Wyoming, the Jackson Hole News&Guide reports that local officials still haven’t figured out their strategy. Town and county planners estimate 280 housing units will be needed each year for the next decade to meet workforce housing demand.

Local sentiments favor a few units here and there, rather than large, subdivision-scale affordable housing.

One key issue is how much additional commercial growth should be allowed. The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance argues that new hotels should not be approved, because they add to the demand for housing. “The easiest and least costly thing we can do is to limit new commercial and lodging development,” Craig Benjamin, the alliance’s executive director, said.

But he acknowledges the obvious. “We need to be honest that we’re never going to solve our housing challenge,” he said. “Demand has outstripped supply for decade. This doesn’t mean we should throw our hands up and surrender; it means we should cowboy up and accept that this won’t be an easy ride.”

Aspen’s plans will have to wait a year

ASPEN – The Aspen Skiing Co. had hoped to gets its alpine coaster, canopy tour, and ropes courses in place at the Snowmass ski area next year. Now, it’s looking like the summer of 2017 before the work can begin. Ski company representatives told Snowmass elected officials recently that the Forest Service has become overloaded with proposals by ski areas planning to use new federal authority for use of public lands during summer months.

– Allen Best

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