High and dry
Ski industry officials would rather talk about dumping (snow) than pumping (water) this time of year, but local and state water officials say the “D” word they’re still most concerned about, despite a bounty of early-season snowfall, is drought.Last summer’s media saturation about record-breaking drought and massive wildfires seems like a distant memory now, buried under soft, pillowy piles of powder snow, and that’s been a bonanza for the snow-farming ski industry. Reservations are up in local lodges, and so is the marketing hype aimed at enticing even more snowriders to the slopes of Colorado.Vail Resorts CEO Adam Aron’s face was everywhere last week, as he played weatherman on financial cable networks like CNBC and told the world that not only did the ski company beat first-quarter financial predictions but that more than 10 feet of snow had piled up on the slopes of Vail since October. Aron even ended a conference call with Wall Street analysts by telling them, “Our conditions are fabulous; hurry and make a reservation, because we’re selling out fast.”You can’t blame a guy for pimping the product, and the fact is, he’s right. Conditions have been remarkably good so far this season, especially when compared to the extremely sub-par snowpack of the last few ski seasons.The statistical data demonstrates, however, that, even with more than a foot falling Tuesday and Wednesday of last week (Dec. 17-18) and more snow forecast over the weekend and into next week, the Vail Valley and the state of Colorado are only slightly ahead of the pace for an average snow year. And that won’t cut it, water officials say, when it comes to replenishing drastically depleted reservoirs and aquifers.So while the skiing is great, our lawns and golf courses may take on a crispy, brown hue next August unless the snow continues to fly at a fast and furious clip.”Other than the recreational aspects, it’s rather pointless to talk about snowfall accumulations this early in the season,” says Nolan Doesken, research associate for the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University. “It’s fun to talk about, it’s interesting, but it just flat-out takes a whole lot more snow over the rest of the winter before we make a full recovery.”An even more immediate concern than whether we’ll be able to wash our cars and water our lawns with our accustomed regularity next summer is the potential for water restrictions in January and February, typically the lowest streamflow months, because of cold temperatures that put an icy damper on snowmelt.”We’re still being cautious,” says Dennis Gelvin, general manager of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. “We had a pretty rough summer, and we’re thinking in terms of how do we proceed if the drought continues. We’re still concerned about what’s going to happen to streamflows in January and February when temperatures drop.”For the first time ever, the water district has launched a winter marketing blitz to get water users to conserve at a time when most people just aren’t thinking about it, and Gelvin says his crews have been scrambling to make sure there will be enough water to avoid more drastic measures in January and February.”If we didn’t have other sources, it could mean that we would be unable to meet the full demand of our customers and would have to impose some sort of restrictions,” Gelvin says.The numbers don’t lieThe Colorado Climate Center’s Doesken says you never know what you’re going to get in an El Nio year. The Pacific weather pattern typically means more snow to the south of us and less to the north, he says, putting Colorado in the “battle zone,” where there are too many variables to accurately predict snowfall for the season.But so far this season, Doesken says, we’re having a fairly average year.As of Monday, Dec. 16, the most recent federal satellite imagery available showed that snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin, which includes the Eagle River and the Vail Valley, was just 99 percent of average. That’s the best in the state, but it’s off from being 23 percent above average on Dec. 2. Doesken says that doesn’t mean we lost snowpack; it means that the first two weeks of December were inordinately dry.The numbers from the local ski areas, despite ads in Denver newspapers showing cars mounded over with four or five feet of snow and reading, “Get the rack on the car. Hurry,” reflect snowfall only slightly ahead of last season’s pace a season that wound up dismally below average.Beaver Creek had received 124 inches of snow as of Thursday, Dec. 19, just ahead of last season’s pace of 108 inches as of Dec. 17. The 23-year average for that date is 91 inches, and the average total snowfall for the winter is 307 inches. Despite a strong start, Beaver Creek wound up with just 269 inches last season.Vail has done better so far this season, with 145 inches (including the most recent pasting of 14 inches), which is more than half of last season’s sub-par total of 276 inches. The average annual snowfall at Vail is 334 inches, and the year-to-date average is 93 inches.But the water district’s Gelvin points out that last season started like gangbusters after Thanksgiving, then petered out with very little moisture in February, March and April, typically the snowiest months of the year.”You may recall that at the end of January, (the snowpack) was around 85 percent of normal, then the bottom dropped out,” Gelvin says. “In February, March and April, the times we get most of our snow, we got very little moisture. I think it’s way too soon to consider that the drought is over based on what happened in November and December.”Gelvin says the district’s engineer was asked to determine how much snowpack would be needed this winter to refill Eagle Park Reservoir on the East Fork of the Eagle River near Camp Hale the district’s primary storage facility for water augmentation and streamflow enhancement releases.The engineer came back with a figure of 24 inches of water content as of May 1. That doesn’t mean 24 inches of snow, but 24 of inches of water that the snowpack translates to once it melts.”We get that much snow one year in every 20,” Gelvin says. “That tells me it’s not really likely to happen.”Hydrologist Brian Avery of the National Weather Service office in Grand Junction told The Vail Trail in an earlier interview that another key factor to busting out of the drought cycle is the moisture content of the snow that does fall. Not only does it need to keep snowing into the spring, the flakes need to be fatter and wetter, which makes for heavier turns for powder hounds who prefer that classic, light and dry Colorado champagne powder.”It took us a long time to get into this drought, and it’ll take a long time to get out,” says Avery, who notes that last winter’s snow was not only less frequent, it was lower in moisture content than in years past. Twelve inches of snow usually melt down to an inch of water, he says, but last season it took 30 or 40 inches of snow to get one inch of water.Shower with a friendSo if you just got off the plane to spend a week playing in the powder and frequenting the fine establishments of the Vail Valley, not only is your timing impeccable, you have an opportunity to engage in some simple acts of conservation in our high and dry alpine valley. Social consciousness has never been so fun: drink beer instead of water and shower with a friend (or two).The water district’s unprecedented winter ad blitz has been focusing on simple things that both home owners and commercial users, such as hotels and restaurants, can do to ensure adequate water supplies in January and February to avoid restrictions. Things like getting restaurant wait staffs to ask diners if they want water rather than just automatically bringing a glass to the table, or having lodging owners ask guests if they need their linens laundered every day.Gelvin says restrictions on in-home and commercial use are unlikely and would only last a matter of days or a week or two at most, but he adds they are still a very real possibility. The district has had a very busy fall trying to improve the flow and availability of water so restrictions won’t be necessary.The district, which basically controls water supplies from the bottom of Vail Pass to the west end of Cordillera above Edwards, just completed a pipeline near Battle Mountain High School that will allow more water through Eagle-Vail into Avon and Beaver Creek. Crews also recently increased the size of the valves that control flows from Vail, which will allow up to two and a half million gallons a day to flow down valley instead of the current one and a half million.Other steps included making sure that wells in the Berry Creek and Edwards area are in good shape and can fully tap ground water in that area. The district also revived an old well in the Berry Creek area.Finally, Gelvin says a temporary pump at Prader Lane has been installed to get more water from the new Edwards treatment plant up to Avon, Vail, Eagle-Vail and Beaver Creek.While January and February are critical months for streamflows, with more guests in town putting pressure on municipal water supplies, one demand that decreases in late December is snowmaking. Vail Resorts usually ceases snowmaking by early January at the latest, particularly with an abundance of natural snow, Gelvin says.But snowmaking, he adds, isn’t much of a factor in the drought equation, because the ski company owns its own water rights and storage facilities and is very conscious of the need to conserve.”I think (snowmaking’s) not a factor,” Gelvin says. “In-home use and commercial customers use a lot more water.”
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