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Summit County officials to change public health order, giving short-term lodging companies more leeway

Townhomes at the base of Peak 8 in Breckenridge are pictured Nov. 20. Many of the residences in Breckenridge are used as second homes and for short-term rentals. Photo by Jason Connolly / Jason Connolly Photography

Summit County officials will be releasing a new public health order next week to clarify how short-term lodging companies should go about confirming the number of households in one reservation.

Summit County Manager Scott Vargo announced the change at a Board of Health meeting Thursday, Jan. 14. Vargo said the new order likely won’t go into effect until Friday, Jan. 22, to allow for lodging companies to adjust.

The current order states that “owners and/or entities responsible for the booking and renting of short-term lodging units must confirm the identity of all renters upon arrival” to ensure that the group doesn’t violate the state’s public health order, which limits gatherings to two households under level orange restrictions.

The proposed language for the new order says short-term lodging companies must “confirm renters are aware of and are in compliance with gathering size limits” mandated by the state’s public health order.

The goal of the change is to simplify the process for confirming customers’ identities. Under the current order, short-term lodging companies are liable if a guest breaks public health rules. The change will put that liability on the guests instead.

“The change is trying to clarify what the expectation is and simplifying how property managers, property owners, are able to verify or confirm the folks that are renting those properties are aware of the rule and in compliance with the rules,” Vargo said.

The county also created a sample form for short-term lodging companies to give to guests ahead of arrival. The form requires the person who made the reservation to certify that they have reviewed the local and state public health order and are aware that a violation could mean a fine of up to $5,000 or up to 18 months in jail.

“They don’t have to use this form, but I would suspect that most will take advantage of something that’s been prepared or take the language from this form and plug it into whatever electronic system that they may be using or other check-in model that they’re taking advantage of,” Vargo said.

At a Board of Health meeting on Thursday, Jan. 14, Summit County Manager Scott Vargo presented a sample form for short-term lodging owners and managers to use to confirm that guests are aware of COVID-19 rules.
Screenshot from meeting

Commissioner Tamara Pogue said the goal of the change is to make the process as easy as possible for lodging companies.

“The idea is they’ll not be required to look for any more form of ID from their guests,” she said. “By asking their guests to sign the affidavit, it limits and mitigates some of the liability to the personal company if folks choose to misrepresent what is actually happening.”

County officials also hope the change will create some parity between what the county is doing for lodging companies and the rules for restaurants, which are not required to confirm the identity of guests unless they are five-star certified.

At the meeting, Vargo also said the county will not be making adjustments to alcohol-consumption rules for restaurants that are in the 5 Star Business Certification Program for at least a week.

Currently, all restaurants must cease the sale and consumption of alcohol at 9:30 p.m. However, some restaurant owners are pushing for the county to allow alcohol to be on a table until 10 p.m. at five-star certified restaurants.

Because the county is in the midst of a bump in cases due to the holidays, officials are putting a pause on making that change.

“Our recommendation from staff and from (Public Health Director Amy Wineland) is that we push and wait and see where do those numbers go?” Vargo said. “Do we start to settle back down? Or do we start to see that trend continuing to go up?”

Wineland said the county should know by Thursday, Jan. 21, whether the bump in cases has been suppressed.

Pogue said she hopes the county will be able to make the change sooner rather than later.

“I really don’t want to drag this on,” Pogue said. “I don’t think there’s great data to justify the change from the state’s restriction in this space.”

Pitkin County moving to Level Red restrictions, closing indoor dining

A banner is changed above Main Street in Aspen on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

With the highest incidence rate of COVID-19 in Colorado, Pitkin County will close indoor dining at restaurants Sunday and move fully into Red-level restrictions.

Monday’s unanimous decision by the seven members of the Pitkin County Board of Health also includes a 50% capacity limit on lodging in Aspen and Snowmass Village and assurances by Aspen Skiing Co. to improve COVID-19 protocols.

Ski mountains will remain open without a reservation system for the time being, though indoor dining at on-mountain restaurants will cease.

“We’ve communicated until our eyes are falling out,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, also a member of the board of health. “Yet we still have a lot of people … not agreeing with us.

“It’s time. We have to do this. It’s painful. It’s not forever.”

Outdoor dining, takeout and delivery at restaurants still will be available, though there will be an 8 p.m. last call and tables can only have people from the same household.

Indoor dining and the lodging cap were the major changes made Monday in the newest public health order, as most Pitkin County businesses and services — with the exception of restaurants — have been operating under Red-level restrictions since Dec. 21.

The new public health order, which goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, alters the metrics for when the county will move into and out of Red-level restrictions and makes them more lenient than state guidelines. Pitkin County, however, must show a 14-day decline in the skyrocketing incidence rate before the county will go back to Orange-level restrictions.

NEW RESTRICTIONS

Pitkin County’s Board of Health voted Monday to move into Red-level restrictions starting at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. Here are some of the changes:

Indoor Dining

Indoor dining at restaurants is prohibited; use takeout, curbside or delivery options instead. Outdoor dining is permitted with those in your household.

Last call is at 8 p.m.

Ski areas

Improve mask and distancing enforcement.

No indoor dining.

Continue to monitor capacity and implement reservation system if target capacity is exceeded in accordance with the Ski Area Plan.

Lodging

Enforce one household per unit regardless of when reservation was made.

Limit capacity to 50% occupancy (determined on a weekly basis).

The incidence rate hit 3,046 on Friday, and stood at 2,934 on Monday, with the effects of Christmas and New Year’s not having hit yet, according to Josh Vance, the county’s epidemiologist, and local epidemiology data.

“Three thousand in a 14-day period is extremely high,” Vance said.

The highest incidence rate in the state — the closest second Monday was Bent County at about 2,500 — means 1 in 35 Pitkin County residents is currently infected with COVID-19, said Jordana Sabella, interim public health director.

“We’re not doing real well with preventing disease,” she said.

Vance said he’s done “a ton of research” into why Pitkin County is experiencing such a major surge, while none of the county’s neighbors and most of the rest of the state are not, to no avail.

“I can’t give you a great answer at this time,” he said. “We haven’t fallen on to any one indicator.”

Monday’s hospitalization rate showed two people were checked into Aspen Valley Hospital on Sunday with COVID-19, when they are automatically put into the ICU. The county’s positivity rate Monday was at 12.7%, according to the local data.

The state of Colorado previously kept most counties it moved to Red at that level of restrictions for five to six weeks, Sabella said. At that time, the state required the incidence rate to go below 350 in order to move out of Red, though the governor recently moved all counties that were in Red to Orange because of declining incidence rates.

On Monday, the Pitkin County Board of Health adopted a public health staff recommendation to move to Red if the incidence rate is above 700 for 14 days. The same thing would happen if the positivity rate hit Red level thresholds for 14 days and the hospitalization rate hit those thresholds for just one day, or vice versa.

The county will move out of Red-level restrictions and back to Orange when the incidence rate drops below 700 and has been decreasing for 14 days. The 700 level was chosen because county contact tracers and disease investigators can handle the number of cases associated with that number, Vance has said.

In an effort to try to get restaurants and other local businesses running at the highest capacity possible once the incidence rate decreases, the county will also begin preparations to start a state program that will allow them to operate with lesser restrictions provided they agree to certain COVID-19 protocols.

County officials will apply to the state to start the so-called 5 Star Program and have it in place for businesses that want to participate once the incidence level drops, Sabella said. The program cannot go into effect until the incidence rate declines for 14 days and lands below 700, the positivity rate is below 10% and less than 90% of hospital beds are in use.

As far as skiing is concerned, the area’s four ski mountains will remain open, though indoor dining at on-mountain restaurants will close Sunday when the rest of the county’s indoor dining stops, according to the new public health order. Aspen Skiing Co. has committed to improving facemask and social-distancing enforcement on ski mountains, but will not implement a reservation system, said Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock.

A line of skiers snakes to the road from the Silver Queen Gondola at the base of Aspen Mountain on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

That’s because Skico has not exceeded capacity limits outlined in its operating plan approved by the state in November for even one day so far this season, Peacock said. Those capacities were blocked out of a copy of the report provided to The Aspen Times because they were deemed proprietary information.

If the skier numbers begin to exceed those capacities, Skico officials are prepared to implement a reservation system, he said.

The lodging sector has agreed to continue to enforce the one-household-per-unit rule, Sabella said. The exception to that rule used to allow two households in the same unit if the reservation had been made by December. That exception no longer applies, and only one household per unit will be allowed under the new public health order without regard to when the reservation was made, she said.

County officials will also monitor lodging capacity in town on a weekly basis and cap it at 50%, Sabella said.

Kurt Dahl, the county’s environmental health director, told health board members he’s been charged with enhancing enforcement of public health orders, and is looking to the county’s Open Space and Trails rangers for a model. Plans also include more accountability measures for businesses that cater to private parties, like DJs, party planners, caterers, valets, property managers, party hosts and party guests, he said.

Board members also decided not to create a posting of restaurants and other businesses hit by outbreaks. Sabella said the problem has often been dealt with by the time of the reporting, which would needlessly penalize businesses if people used the posting to avoid them. Such action might also discourage disease reporting. That information is posted on a state outbreak website.

Businesses that receive citations or other enforcement actions, however, may soon see those posted, Dahl said.

Pitkin County’s communications team also plans to roll out campaigns to promote takeout at restaurants and better support businesses, post the state public health department’s Pitkin County Report Card issued three times a week online and post the local epidemiology report online, he said.

Officials also are working on providing information to individuals and families about the assistance available to them from local, state and federal sources. Pitkin County will host a community meeting Thursday at 6 p.m. to discuss the changes and the resources available. (Go to at covid19.pitkincounty.com for more information.)

People dine inside at Mi Chola in downtown Aspen on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Pitkin County will be going into red level restrictions, which includes the closing of indoor dining, on Sunday. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The fate of Aspen’s restaurants took up most of Monday’s four-hour board of health meeting.

Several local restaurant owners spoke up in favor of keeping them open at the current 25% indoor dining level.

Wendy Mitchell, owner of Meat and Cheese and Hooch, advocated for closing all businesses in town for the shortest amount of time possible to cause the least impact.

“We’re encouraging people to come here,” she said. “We’re encouraging people to travel. You have to take all of these aspects into affect and not just punish restaurants.”

However, other community members spoke up in favor of the stricter restrictions.

“I’m on the front line,” said Dr. Greg Balko, an emergency room physician at AVH. “I see first hand what’s going on. We’ve gotta do something. We can’t keep doing what we’re doing because the numbers keep going up.”

Board members did make one concession to restaurants, though. The new public health order was set to go into effect Friday, though the board postponed it until Sunday to give restaurants more time to cook and sell off perishable items in their kitchens.


Attorney alleges rights violations in case against snowboarders who caused avalanche

A pair of snowboarders are fighting reckless endangerment charges after triggering an avalanche above the Loop Road near the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels earlier this year.
Photo by Liz Copan / Summit Daily archives

Two snowboarders accused of reckless endangerment after triggering an avalanche near the Eisenhower Tunnel earlier this year are continuing to fight the charges.

On March 25, Tyler DeWitt of Silverthorne and Evan Hannibal of Vail were backcountry snowboarding above the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels when a slab of snow came loose and buried the Loop Road that runs above the tunnel.

Nobody was caught or injured in the avalanche, but the slide damaged a remote avalanche control unit and covered more than 400 feet of the roadway in debris up to 20 feet deep — a slide large enough to destroy a car or wood-framed house — according to a report of the incident from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The avalanche danger was moderate at the time of the incident.

In April, the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office issued DeWitt and Hannibal citations for reckless endangerment, a Class 3 misdemeanor defined in the Colorado Revised Statutes as recklessly engaging “in conduct which creates substantial risk of serious bodily injury to another person.” Prosecutors also are seeking about $168,000 in restitution for the resulting damage and cleanup.

Both DeWitt and Hannibal pleaded not guilty in the case and are set for a two-day trial in late March.

Jason Flores-Williams, a Denver-based attorney representing both men, said the case could have far-reaching implications across the entire West, where backcountry recreation is popular, and framed the charges as an effort to “criminalize the backcountry” by the district attorney’s office.

“Seeking almost $170,000 is an attempt to send a really chilling message that we are now going to be criminalizing backcountry behavior,” Flores-Williams said. “In taking these cases, our goal is not simply to prevail, but also to stop that message from being sent.

“In our minds, there are certain zones that we cannot let the state enter into and limit the few liberties and freedoms we have left. … They believe you can control everything in the majestic Rockies when anyone who has spent any time snowboarding, camping or hiking knows there are elemental, natural forces beyond human control — avalanches being one of them.”

District Attorney Bruce Brown said the case has nothing to do with trying to police the backcountry or set any sort of precedent, and that his office’s decision to prosecute the snowboarders is entirely based on their behavior on the day of the avalanche.

“The charges are narrow, and there’s no subtext to the prosecution,” Brown said. “The underlying charge is used every day. We think the facts in the case fit the charged crime by virtue of probable cause determination, and it will be up to a jury in Summit County to determine whether it does or not. But there’s no broader aim.”

Earlier this week, Flores-Williams entered a motion to the court to try to suppress evidence in the case, including all statements and videos obtained by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

In the motion, Flores-Williams claims that the information center collected evidence in the case — including GoPro video footage of the avalanche — and later disclosed it to law enforcement without previously informing the snowboarders it may be used in a criminal investigation.

“It’s a real basic constitutional right to know that when a state agency requests that you give them something in the course of a potential criminal investigation, that they have a duty to inform you that the things you’re giving them could be used against you,” Flores-Williams said. “That’s called informed consent, when a person is empowered based on their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights to make that decision for themselves.”

Colorado Avalanche Information Center Director Ethan Greene said he was unable to comment on the case amid ongoing court proceedings. The center operates as a partnership between the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Colorado Department of Transportation and the Friends of the CAIC nonprofit.

Brown said his office would file a response to the defense’s request to suppress the evidence but that he ultimately felt it would be allowed in trial.

“It’s not uncommon that people seek a court order precluding admission of certain evidence,” Brown said. “It doesn’t appear to me that this is the type of evidence that was gained by any form of coercion. So I would expect that the evidence that was gathered during the course of the investigation would be presented at trial. But that will be for a judge to determine.”

A motions hearing in the case is scheduled for Feb. 16. DeWitt and Hannibal are scheduled to begin their trial March 25, exactly one year removed from the avalanche.

 

Coronavirus outbreak at St. Regis hobbles intern program

St. Regis hotel in downtown Aspen. (Aspen Times file photo)

An outbreak of COVID-19 cases among aspiring hospitality workers at the St. Regis Aspen Resort has temporarily dismantled the hotel’s winter internship program.

As of approximately 6:20 p.m. Wednesday, 22 St. Regis interns had tested positive for the virus and were in isolation, as well as another three who were presumptive positive, according to Pitkin County health officials. All told, an estimated 60 interns have been in either quarantine or isolation; some are no longer in quarantine, said Kurt Dahl, Pitkin County environmental health manager.

“We’ve got an outbreak that we’re working on at the hotel, and it appears that most of the impact is on the interns,” Dahl said Wednesday night.

That outbreak is likely due to intern training held at the Regis, Dahl said.

From Nov. 16-19, some 60-plus interns, as well as St. Regis staff, gathered in the hotel’s ballroom for orientation, said intern Prophecy Lorreign, who currently is in quarantine.

The ballroom covers 9,146 square feet and can hold up to 1,000 people, according to online booking sites.

Interns and staff wore masks and kept their social distance, she recalled.

The hotel remains open; there are no guest-capacity restrictions on lodges in Pitkin County or elsewhere in Colorado. The county’s current Orange Plus phase does apply to the lodges’ restaurants, which are restricted to 25% dine-in capacity, and gyms, which are limited to 10%, for instance.

“We are communicating directly with Pitkin County Health Department regarding employees who have tested positive for COVID-19,” said St. Regis General Manager Heather Steenge-Hart in a statement given to The Aspen Times. “While it is unclear at this time if the source of the exposure is located within the hotel, we are cooperating fully with the health authorities’ investigation, and are following their guidance.

“In addition, we continue to undertake enhanced cleaning protocols and operational steps within the hotel to enhance safety. The well-being of our guests and employees is always of utmost priority.”

Additional light is shed on how the hotel is addressing the situation in a notice sent to interns last week by St. Regis management.

“Good morning, by this time you should have been contacted by me, your manager, or Pitkin County,” the notice said. “As you are aware, when I am informed of a positive COVID diagnosis, we immediately stop what we are doing and conduct an investigation. Contract tracing then takes place. In some situations, the Aspen Pitkin Board of Health may decide to extend an investigation and take a different stance in quarantining individuals.

“The goal with Aspen, Pitkin and St. Regis Aspen is to lookout for the safety and well-being of our hosts and guests.”

The St. Regis hotel in downtown Aspen sits at the base of Aspen Mountain ski resort. (Aspen Times file photo)

Dahl said he did not believe that any guests of the five-star luxury hotel, located on the west side of Aspen Mountain, were exposed.

County health officials are investigating the matter and are in the process of notifying the state, Dahl said.

Meanwhile, those participating in the luxury internship program put on by Marriott, which owns the St. Regis Hotels & Resorts brand, are spread throughout the valley.

That includes Lorreign, who flew cross-country from the East Coast to participate in the program, which is providing interns bus passes for work, ski passes and other perks.

She is living with 17 other interns in a nine-bedroom home outside of Aspen.

“I’ve been holed in my room, not socializing,” she said.

Still, “It’s hard to quarantine and keep your distance when you share a house with so many people,” she added.

Lorreign said at least three interns on her house’s floor have COVID-19. Lorreign, who said she was initially exposed Nov. 18, said she is getting tested again Thursday.

Majoring in hospitality at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, Lorreign came to Aspen on Nov. 13 to participate in the internship program.

“Thanksgiving Day is when this blew up,” Lorreign said. “We were all at work and I got pulled off the floor. I was in the middle of serving tables and my manager said I have to go home and quarantine.”

Lorreign said she was tested Nov. 20. It came back negative on Nov. 27 — the day after Thanksgiving.

On Saturday, Pitkin County reported 21 positive cases returned from the lab, one of the biggest totals recorded in a single day since the pandemic broke in March.

“It’s one of the highest, if not the highest,” Dahl said.

Pitkin County had another 20 positive cases reported Wednesday, Dahl said, noting at the time — approximately 6:30 p.m. — that the day was not over yet.

Neither figure can’t be pinned exclusively on the St. Regis group, he said, explaining the uptick in local cases is coming from elsewhere also.

“They were within their protocols,” Dahl said of the St. Regis operation, but said the county is “giving them advice about thinking about people who live together in households.”

The parent of an intern, who asked not to be identified, said the student is living with another intern at an area lodge provided by the Regis. They were both under quarantine Wednesday, the parent said. It’s a troubling situation, the parent said, given the risks involved.

Lorreign said she plans to leave the intern program to return home as soon as she can. She said she gave up her job and broke a lease on an apartment to be an intern in Aspen this winter.

“It’s been very difficult,” she said. “It has been very challenging.”

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

Battling Mother Nature: How CDOT keeps I-70 open during snowstorms

SILVERTHORNE — Summit County thrives on snow.

It serves as the essential driving force that brings guests from around the world to enjoy the area’s ski slopes and backcountry chutes. But the snow also brings considerable challenges for transportation workers trying to contend with Mother Nature to keep the Interstate 70 Mountain Corridor open during the winter — one of the state’s biggest thoroughfares and an important economic driver for the entire region.

With businesses and industries relying on heavy traffic loads across Vail Pass and the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels, along with locals trying to get to work in treacherous conditions, officials understand what’s at stake, and take pride in their efforts to keep things moving smoothly.

“For me, the most rewarding piece is seeing the dedication of all of our employees and what they sacrifice on Thanksgiving and Christmas to get everyone where they need to go, and making sure school buses can continue to run and that EMS can get to the hospital,” said Kane Schneider, the region’s deputy maintenance superintendent with the Colorado Department of Transportation. “It takes a statewide effort to support.”

Local transportation officials have more than enough territory to keep them busy during a winter storm, and the delineation of responsibilities is important. CDOT breaks the state up into five separate regions for operations. Summit County is on the eastern boarder of Region 3, along with the rest of the northwest part of the state. The I-70 Mountain Corridor runs as part of a joint operations area with Region 1 to the east of the Eisenhower Tunnel, about a 130-mile stretch between Dotsero and Golden in all.

The Region 3 section is further broken down into two maintenance areas: “Mary,” from Dotsero to the top of Vail Pass; and “Paul,” from Vail Pass to the tunnel. In the Paul area alone, workers are responsible for maintaining more than 800 lane-miles of roadway on I-70 and detour routes like Loveland Pass and Colorado Highway 131 among others.

With so much ground to cover, each new storm brings a unique challenge.

“We plan ahead, communicate during the storm, adapt, change and shift depending on what’s happening around us,” Schneider said. “There’s a lot of self-gratification in combating a storm, and being successful in keeping the road open in inclement weather.

Plowing ahead

The breadth of the operation requires considerable staffing and equipment.

There are about 85 employees between the two maintenance areas in Region 3. But during winter months there’s a concerted effort to better support the joint operations area, annually bringing in about 18 additional staffers from places like Pueblo, Craig, Greeley and Durango to stay for the season. More drivers can be shifted around from other areas when necessary.

CDOT officials receive daily weather forecast updates from an in-house CDOT meteorologist, and begin planning for winter storm events days in advance during resource and operational readiness discussions between the Paul and Mary areas and the rest of the state.

Snowplow drivers get their schedules and their set patrol areas ahead of time. They often work 12-hour shifts. They’ll slide into the seat of the plow and get on the road after a quick conversation with the previous driver about how the plow was running, and a maintenance check.

The job has its pros and cons.

“I love moving snow,” said Ken Garcia, one of CDOT’s local snowplow drivers. “Running the heavy equipment has always been a joy of mine, and something I like to do for work. And it’s a really good team effort between the plow drivers, state troopers, dispatchers and supervisors. Everyone is working with one goal: to keep the roads open. … But it’s pretty mentally draining. You’re focused, you’re on high alert watching our for changing road conditions, for other traffic and all sorts of stuff like that.”

In a given storm there are about 30 plows making patrols throughout the region, laying down liquid de-icer, salt and sand (picked up from a 1,200-ton pile at CDOT’s Silverthorne maintenance facility). Many plows are stationed on routes through high-priority areas like Vail Pass and the Silverthorne hill.

Still, there are always surprises, and much of the work is reactive. CDOT often has to move drivers around to replace sick employees or broken down plows, or to remove a “clogged artery” after an accident or major spin out.

“In a lot of ways you just have to deal with each situation,” said Todd Anderson, highway maintenance supervisor for the Paul area. “We do have some planning in place for how many trucks we have, and where they’re going to be. But when a semi crashes, you can’t plan for that.”

Road closures require efficient communication between CDOT crews and law enforcement to shut off the flow of traffic and get heavy tows and other equipment in place. Schneider said having experienced workers who know their turnoffs and can stage backed up traffic on appropriate grades to get it moving again quickly is key. Frequent driver turnover from season to season creates additional difficulties.

Poor weather can also be troublesome for plow drivers — whiteout conditions in particular — but Garcia and other CDOT officials said that other drivers on the road are often of bigger concern.

“This is such a high volume, high profile area,” Garcia said. “Everyone is coming up here to get their turns, and there are a lot of out-of-staters and people who don’t know what they’re doing. But what’s really the worst are the people who are too confident. People are speeding and trying to pass you on the shoulder, or creeping up on your formation. That’s probably the most challenging aspect. It adds a whole other element of danger you’re looking out for.”

When there’s snow in the mountains, there’s always a chance of avalanches.

Explosive solutions

One vital aspect of CDOT’s winter operations is avalanche mitigation.

Historically, avalanche mitigation in highway programs has always been reliant on helicopters, howitzer cannons and “avalaunchers” firing explosives into the mountainside. But the department has begun to step back its dependence from traditional methods on advice from the U.S. Army, which provides the weapons, according to CDOT State Avalanche Coordinator Brian Gorsage.

“There’s more and more people out (in the backcountry), so shooting long-range projectiles kind of gets their hackles up,” Gorsage said. “Plus those missions take a while, and we’re having to handle live ordnance alongside the road. In the past 20 years there’s been a major step forward in mitigation technology, and CDOT has done a fantastic job jumping on board with that.”

Today, CDOT uses remote avalanche control systems, on more than 80% of avalanche operations along on the I-70 Mountain Corridor. Installations like the Gazex and O’Bellx systems create gas mixtures that allow for officials to trigger detonations at the flick of a switch. Earlier this year CDOT also installed two new Avalanche Guard systems, a cache and mortar system that launches explosives into designated areas.

Gorsage said the control systems are safer and provide officials with more flexibility, allowing them to conduct operations during early hours when traffic is lightest, or when a snowpack is at the peak of instability. CDOT officials have been tracking snowpack since the first snowfall of the season, and work closely with forecasters at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center to determine when avalanche chutes above roadways are in need of mitigation.

“Those guys are out and about in the field digging holes in the snow, getting a feel for the layering in the snowpack, and determining how much snow water equivalent, with combined wind and temperatures its going to take to produce a natural slide,” Gorsage said. “What we do is very different from what a ski area does. We’re trying to prevent the large-scale, natural slides from reaching an open roadway.”

Avalanche crews are given about 24 hours notice, wherein they’ll start organizing a plan internally to get road closures in place with law enforcement, and get heavy duty snowblowing machines ready for cleanup.

“You kind of cheer the success once the snow and debris is on the roadway under our terms, but the work is really just beginning,” Gorsage said.

The scope of avalanche mitigation work along different slide paths can vary considerably from season to season, and is typically focused along chutes that pose the biggest dangers to roadways. Gorasage said last winter CDOT performed a few missions on Vail Pass, four to the west of the tunnels, and another in the Tenmile Canyon.

Meanwhile, CDOT conducted about 25 missions on the Seven Sisters chutes near Loveland Pass.

“Those paths are so steep, and the road is built right in the track of the avalanche path,” Gorsage said. “So if you do get snow movement, it’s going to end up in the roadway. It’s high priority to make it as safe as possible. Our tolerance in those areas is very low.”

It takes a considerable effort across numerous individuals to help keep roadways open during the winter, and officials say community members can do their part by being prepared, driving responsibly and allowing their crews to work safely.

“What we ask is that our stewards give us the room and the respect we need to do our jobs,” said Schneider. “Be patient with us, be understanding. We have a very complex and unique job that can be dangerous at times. But we have the best interest of everyone’s travel plans in mind, and we’re not just closing down roads to inconvenience someone. If we’re closing the road down is means there are legitimate safety concerns.”

 

State water board approves second phase of investigation into demand-management program

Water from the Colorado River irrigates farmland in the Grand Valley. The state of Colorado is beginning phase two of an investigation into a program that would pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell.(Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism)

The state of Colorado will embark on the second phase of studying a potential water-savings plan, this time by developing a draft framework to test how the structure and design of such a program could work.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board approved at its regular meeting Nov. 18 a Step II Work Plan for its investigation into the feasibility of a demand-management program.

“People in my basin, including myself, are very excited to get down the road of this next phase,” said CWCB board member Jackie Brown, who represents the Yampa, White and Green river basins. “I think it will bring us a lot of certainty with where we end up on this really heavy issue.”

Since June 2019, eight workgroups composed of water experts from different sectors around the state have been hashing out the potential benefits, downsides and challenges of a voluntary and temporary program that would pay water users to cut back in order to leave more water in the Colorado River. The workgroups tackled eight subject areas: law and policy; monitoring and verification; water-rights administration and accounting; environmental considerations; economic considerations and local government; funding; education and outreach; and agricultural impacts. A ninth workgroup, led by the Interbasin Compact Committee, focused solely on equity.

Their work is now done. The results of a year’s worth of meetings, in-depth discussions and workshops resulted in a 200-page report, released in July.

A project management team, made up of state officials from the CWCB, the Division of Water Resources and the attorney general’s office, will now take the input from the workgroups and use it to begin Step II. The overarching goals of this phase are to figure out if demand management would be achievable, worthwhile and advisable for Colorado.

“Ultimately, again, the question is: Is demand management a feasible tool to protect Colorado water users against the risks and impacts of a potential curtailment, and can we create some additional benefits as well?” said Amy Ostdiek, CWCB deputy section chief for interstate, federal and water information.

At the heart of a potential demand-management program is a reduction in water use in an attempt to send water downstream to Lake Powell to bolster levels in the giant reservoir and meet 1922 Colorado River Compact obligations. If Colorado does not meet its obligation to deliver water to the lower basin, it could face mandatory cutbacks, known as curtailment.

Under such a program, agricultural water users could get paid to temporarily fallow fields and leave more water in the river, in order to fill a 500,000 acre-foot pool set aside in Lake Powell as a modest insurance policy. But developing a program raises many thorny questions such as how to create a program that is equitable and doesn’t result in negative economic impacts to agricultural communities.

In Step II, the project management team, with the help of consultants SGM, CDR Associates and WestWater Engineering, will develop a draft “strawman” framework of a demand-management program. Step II does not include a large-scale pilot program, but it leaves the door open to develop one in the future, potentially in collaboration with other upper-basin states. Ostdiek said the project management team should have the initial draft framework ready for the board to look at early next year.

CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell reminded board members that demand management is just one tool — but an important one — that the state is looking at to deal with looming water shortages.

“When we look at the challenge of a changing climate or a changing hydrology and the frequency and drought and the intensity of drought, it would be irresponsible of us not to look at every tool available,” she said. “I think this is the next, right, appropriate step.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift