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Vail area elected officials urge Biden administration to protect public lands

The Mountain Pact letter to President-elect Joe Biden urges, among other things, restoration protections for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments in Utah, reversing the recent oil and gas lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and working to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. (Rick Bowmer, AP file photo)

The Mountain Pact on Thursday urged President-elect Joe Biden and Deb Haaland, Biden’s pick to lead the Department of the Interior, to fight climate change and protect public lands.

The guidance was sent via a letter signed by more than 80 elected officials in mountain communities; the Eagle County Board of County Commissioners and the Avon Town Council signed the letter along with Vail Mayor Pro Tem Kim Langmaid.

The Mountain Pact was formed in 2014 and stepped up lobbying efforts in 2018 when the Trump administration proposed drastic cuts to the Land and Water Conservation Fund budget; the Mountain Pact lobbied Congress with trips to Washington, D.C., which Avon Mayor Sarah Smith Hymes joined.

Hymes, on Tuesday, described the Mountain Pact as an organization which lobbies in favor of “issues of most importance to mountain communities that have been impacted by the energy dominance policies of the previous administration.”

The Land and Water Conservation Fund was fully funded in 2020 as part of the Great American Outdoors Act, which was passed in the summer of 2020 and is set to provide a massive influx of funding for a maintenance backlog at national parks, wildlife refuges, public lands and American Indian schools.

The Great American Outdoors Act was included in Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 27.

In the Mountain Pact’s letter to Biden and Haaland, the pact urges the Biden administration and 117th Congress to consider three major courses of action. The first is to “fight the climate crisis with bold action” by halting new oil and gas leases on public lands and waters and rejecting any royalty relief and lease suspension provisions for the oil and gas industry in future COVID relief packages. The pact also urges, as part of that goal, to “support state and local clean energy building requirements and initiatives, emissions reduction programs, and utilities with renewable energy goals.”

The second course of action is to “help our western communities” by including conservation-friendly financial support for local governments in future COVID relief packages, modernizing the country’s public lands royalty system to “ensure that those who profit from them provide a fair return to the taxpayers,” ensuring the outdoors is a place for all by prioritizing environmental justice, and restoring environmental and public health safeguards.

The third goal is to “protect our public lands” by restoring protections for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments in Utah, reversing the recent oil and gas lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and working to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

The letter says mountain communities are shouldering the burden of increased unemployment, as well as public lands infrastructure needs and costly climate impacts.

“Over the last four years, we’ve watched as there has been an increase in antiquated fossil fuel development on public lands, weakened environmental regulations, and fast tracking or eliminating environmental reviews for proposed projects,” the letter reads. “Public lands should no longer be given away for pennies on the dollar, financial support should be provided to local governments amidst the pandemic, and meaningful actions should be taken to both address the climate crisis and protect our public lands.”

Vail revenue declined in 2020, but not as much as town officials first feared

Part of the decline in mountain resort business can be seen in traffic at the Eisenhower Johnson tunnels. Tunnel traffic in 2020 declined an average of 5,000 vehicles per day from 2019’s numbers. (Daily file photo)

When the Vail Valley’s economy virtually shut down in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, no one knew how bad the economic damage would be. It looks like the damage could have been much worse.

Vail officials almost immediately began planning for a loss of tax revenue — a way to track activity in the broader economy. As the town’s budget dropped into what officials call a “crisis” level, estimates showed that total town revenue could fall 20% or more. Through the end of November, the damage isn’t at that level.

The town’s most recent financial report shows that revenue across all funds declined by 11.6%. The town’s sales tax collections were hardest hit, declining by 15.4%.

On the other hand, the town’s Real Estate Transfer Tax — the use of which is limited to open space and similar uses — showed a 36% increase over 2019, the result of a booming real estate market.

The town’s parking revenue — which is used solely for parking operations — was a mixed bag. Pass sales declined 39% from 2019 — due in part to the completion of the Vail Health parking structure — but daily parking collections increased.

Vail isn’t alone, of course.

There was significantly less traffic on Interstate 70 in 2020 than the previous year. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, traffic through the Eisenhower tunnel showed a year-over-year decline of 14% from 2019. The 2020 average vehicle traffic through the tunnels was roughly 30,800 cars per day. That’s an average daily decline of 5,000 vehicles.

Vail Resorts on Friday reported significant declines in some of its operations so far in the 2020-21 ski season through Jan. 3. The company doesn’t break down individual resort results, but across the firm’s North American operations, ski school revenue declined by 56%, with a 66% decline in dining revenue.

For more information about the Town of Vail, visit www.vailgov.com; Visit www.vail.com for more about Vail Resorts.

By the numbers

• 11.6%: Decline in all 2020 Vail revenue through Nov. 30.

• 15.4%: Decline in 2020 Vail sales tax through Nov. 30.

• 36%: Increase in 2020 Vail Real Estate Transfer Tax collections.

• 14%: Decline in traffic at the Eisenhower Johnson tunnels from 2019 to 2020.

Vail Resorts doesn’t break down individual resort results, but across the firm’s North American operations for the 2020-21 season, ski school revenue declined by 56%, with a 66% decline in dining revenue. (Ross Leonhart, rleonhart@vaildaily.com)

Elway steps down as GM: Now what for Vic Fangio, Drew Lock and Von Miller?

John Elway’s decision to step down as the Denver Broncos’ general manager on Monday leaves the future of many players, including Von Miller’s, in doubt. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

In the end, John Elway had the decency to quit.

He’s No. 7, the author of The Drive, among many other memorable comebacks. Elway is the Helicopter Play and his tenacious pursuit of the two Super Bowl wins in the 1990s. Given that Elway could run for governor of Colorado for either major political party and win with 80 percent of the vote, even after a decline from Super Bowl 50 with 9-7, 5-11, 6-10, 7-9, 5-11 records, no one could fire John Elway, especially with the Bowlen daughters fighting over the franchise.

So Elway did the right thing and kicked himself upstairs, retaining the title of president of football operations.

Immediate reaction: Thank the deity of your choosing. This franchise has been a mess for the last five years with the usual list of suspects — the quarterback position (or lack thereof), questionable coaching hires, and the entire AFC West progressing ahead of the Broncos. Since Peyton Manning left, the franchise has been spinning its wheels.

Immediate reaction No. 2: No, Peyton Manning will not be the next GM. Stop that right now. We did the legend quarterback as GM already. What’s more, the buzz is Manning is looking at ownership, not management.

Immediate reaction No. 3: Now, the work begins.

Decisions, decisions

• So what now? A new general manager usually means a lot of changes, so let’s start with coach Vic Fangio. Does he come back? In fairness to Fangio, did he have much with which to work these last two years? No.

Will a new general manager mean a new quarterback in Denver? Drew Lock’s future certainly is up in the air. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Joe Flacco, Drew Lock, Brandon Allen, Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien and Phillip Lindsay all started at quarterback for Fangio in 32 games. Ouch. FYI, Lindsay was officially the starting QB for Denver during the COVID-19 No Quarterbacks Bowl against New Orleans.

Speaking of which, Fangio’s second campaign in 2020 essentially ended when Von Miller went down in a heap six days before the opener.

But even if Fangio had the tools and just better luck, was he the right pick for the job? He’s a lifelong defensive coordinator in an offense-oriented league. Fangio’s clock management is also quite suspect. That was evident … again in the team’s Week 17 loss to the Cal-Neva Raiders.

Throw in that a GM usually likes to have his own coach to install his vision and Fangio doesn’t seem long for the Broncos.

Vic Fangio is doubtless wondering about his status after John Elway stepped down as the team’s general manager on Monday. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

• What about Lock? This was not the season for which he was hoping with 16 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 13 games. He threw for 300 yards or more, not exactly the milestone it used to be in the NFL, only twice and did not exactly show tremendous leadership by not wearing a mask in team headquarters before the New Orleans game, leading to Lindsay and Kendall Hinton playing under center.

Lock had some moments — the comeback against the Chargers in Week 8 — but what other moments do you remember, Broncos fans, that made you sit up and exclaim, “We’ve got our guy?”

Fair or not, we seem to be in an NFL world where you get about a year-and-a-half to prove yourself or you’re out. This is only exacerbated by the Chiefs having Patrick Mahomes, the Chargers drafting Justin Herbert, and even the Raiders having a better QB in Derek Carr.

The Broncos will be picking ninth in the first round of the draft. Early mock drafts have Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and BYU’s Zach Wilson long gone by No. 9.

If Lock isn’t “The Guy,” do the Broncos trade up for a shot at Lawrence, Fields or Wilson or do they look at Florida’s Kyle Trask or Alabama’s Mac Jones? (I don’t touch Jones unless he comes with Devonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Najee Jones. That would probably make Jerry Jeudy happy.) Or do the Broncos stick with Lock?

The elephant in the room

What about Von Miller? He’s 32-years -old, coming off a severe right-ankle injury, makes $17 million in 2021 and is a free agent after next year.

Stipulated, Miller is awesome, a Broncos legend, an honest-to-God good draft pick by Elway (No. 2 overall, behind Cam Newton in 2011) — OK, it was pretty obvious, but give No. 7 some credit — a surefire Hall of Famer and the stud who anchored the Super Bowl 50 win.

But … if Denver fires Fangio (bordering on certain) and goes shopping for a new quarterback, Miller’s value to the Broncos changes. The Broncos can’t resign Miller after the 2021 season if they’re going through a hypothetical rebuild. In this scenario, Miller becmes a tradeable asset.

It’ll be hard to tell how healthy Miller is until offseason activities begin — hopefully — or even training camp. That will diminish his trade value initially, but if Denver can get him back playing and show he’s as best he can be, Miller is primed for a regular-season deal next fall.

It’s tough to think this way, but one cannot afford to be nostalgic in personnel decisions.

Get a football person

The Athletic is reporting Champ Kelly (Bears, but formerly with the Broncos), George Paton (Vikings), Lake Dawson (Bills), Rick Smith (Texans), Louis Riddick (Most recently of “Monday Night Football”) and Adam Peters (49ers and formerly with the Broncos) as potential candidates for the job.

Smith has been a GM with all but Riddick as candidates with major front-office experience, seemingly ready to make the step to GM. I’m not crazy about Riddick coming from the TV booth. That only works so often.

Yes, I’m a Niners fan, but look at how San Francisco has drafted the last few years — Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk (2020); Nick Bosa (yes, obvious at No. 2 in 2019, like Miller in 2011) and Deebo Samuel and Dre Greenlaw (not as obvious in 2019); Mike McGlinchey and Fred Warner in 2018 and George Kittle in the fifth round of 2017?

That is Peters’ work as the executive vice president of player personnel for the 49ers. Whether it’s Peters or someone else, it needs to be a true football guy, a person who’s observed how organizations are going to more analytics and knows how to implement newer thinking to the Broncos.

No one said this was going to be easy, but, thanks to John, Broncos fans are looking at a whole new world.

COVID-19 fuels conservative 2021 Eagle County budget

An Eagle County crew completes a section of the Eagle Valley Trail during 2019. While the county’s budget for 2021 is a conservative spending plan, $2.4 million has been allocated to complete an EagleVail section of the trail, which will eventually run the length of the valley. (Daily file photo)

In these uncertain times it can be difficult to figure out household spending from one week to the next, so planning a $131 million budget for 2021 presents a unique challenge for Eagle County.

This week the Eagle County Board of Commissioners approved its 2021 budget — a spending plan that anticipates a 15% drop in sales tax receipts at the beginning of the year and flat revenues over the coming 12 months as the county, nation and world hopefully begins its emergence into a post-COVID-19 era.

“There is a lot of uncertainly right now so we have put together a budget that keeps all of our services running and funds some of our top strategic funding priorities,” said Eagle County Finance Director Jill Klosterman. “It is more conservative than we have been in the past several years just because of all the uncertainty out there.”

For 2021, the county is anticipating revenues of $132 million from sales tax, property tax, service fees, grants and other revenues. Estimated expenditures are $131 million, but the county also estimates its total fund balance will be $172 million. Having that much money in reserve has been vital, county official say, during not only the COVID-19 pandemic but also during large emergencies such as the Grizzly Creek and Lake Christine fires.

2020 reductions

Even though the current data trends are promising, Klosterman noted figuring out next year’s spending plan has been a challenge.

“Through October’s sales tax collections, we have collected essentially the same amount that we did for the same period in 2019, down less than 0.5%,” Klosterman said.

“While sales tax has been higher than estimated, we aren’t in our highest collection months,” Klosterman said. “What we are looking at for our 2021 projection is a larger decrease in our busiest months, from January through March. That is not because we are pessimistic but because we don’t know what to expect for the winter months, when the visitors are normally here.”

Uncertainty about the effects of COVID-19 on tourism and what that could mean to its revenue stream prompted the county to reduce its workforce by nine positions in 2020.

“We were happy to be able to do that under natural attrition and not any mass layoffs,” Klosterman said. “That was the goal when we entered into the world of a mass pandemic.”

Klosterman noted that 16 county employees accepted early retirement packages this year.

“We also had to fill new positions this year,” Klosterman continued. “A place where we have been actively hiring is nine temporary workers in the public health fund and one in the human services fund. Most of those jobs are grant-funded and in direct response to COVID.”

Salaries and benefits comprise the largest portion of the county’s annual budget. Overall, 43% of the county’s 2021 operating fund — nearly $57 million — will go to salaries and benefits.

Emergency funds

Looking ahead, the county has beefed up its emergency management and public health funds by allocating approximately $800,000 in additional funding for a total budgeted amount of nearly $5.4 million.

“We don’t know what the No. 1 need will be next year, but we anticipate there will be a need in the first quarter of 2021,” Klosterman said. “The board is trying to figure out where the disease trends are going and what the highest need will be.”

For example, the increased funding may help vaccination efforts or augment the $3 million business bridge grant program announced last week, Klosterman explained.

Other priorities

While COVID-19 needs colors much of next year’s county budget, there are a number of other spending priorities for 2021.

The county has earmarked $2.4 million for construction of the Eagle Valley Trail, a section in the EagleVail area.

“The commissioners have made that one of their very top priorities because it reflects the strategic priority of providing a diverse and resilient economy for Eagle County,” Klosterman said.

The county approved $750,000 for mental health initiatives and $1.5 million for early children programming — priority objectives that will be carried forward from 2020. Another top county priority — affordable housing — will be addressed in the 2021 budget with $200,000 allocated for West Eagle planning and due diligence in anticipation of moving forward on a long-discussed housing development in the area.

Ester Ledecka adds World Cup win to Olympic title as Shiffrin sits out speed races

Ester Ledecka, a Czech Republic alpine skier and snowboarder, won the women’s World Cup super-G in Val d'Isere, France, on Sunday. (Gabriele Facciotti
AP)

Ester Ledecka edged Corinne Suter for her first win in a women’s World Cup super-G on Sunday, nearly three years after winning Olympic gold in the discipline.

The Czech skier finished three-hundredths ahead of Suter, the World Cup super-G champion from Switzerland who won a downhill on the same slope Friday.

“It’s an amazing feeling. I’m very happy to give myself this gift for Christmas, it’s very nice,” Ledecka said.

Defending overall champion Federica Brignone came 0.35 behind in third, a day after sitting out the downhill following her crash in Friday’s race.

Brignone’s Italian teammate, Marta Bassino, was fourth, and overall World Cup leader Petra Vlhova finished sixth.

After celebrating her biggest successes in snowboarding, Ledecka stunned the world of Alpine skiing by scooping the Olympic super-G title in Pyeongchang in 2018.

However, Ledecka failed to replicate her achievement on the World Cup, getting only two top-10 finishes in 20 super-G starts, although she had three podium results in other disciplines, including a downhill victory in Lake Louise, Alberta, a year ago.

“I went from Pyeongchang to here, every single race gave me something. I was able to show it today,” Ledecka said.

However, it didn’t seem likely her fortunes would change in Sunday’s race.

“I was having a bad day from the start of the day. I didn’t get a good warmup and I didn’t feel that the run was good. I felt that I had many mistakes.” Ledecka said.

“Anyway, it is a great result. In the end the run wasn’t as bad as I felt it was.”

Many racers were faster than Ledecka in the first section before losing about half a second in the middle part of the course.

Suter still led by eight hundredths at the final split time but she failed to match Ledecka’s pace on the bottom section.

Ledecka keeps competing on both World Cup circuits, and landed her first snowboard win of the season a week ago at a parallel giant slalom in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.

Coming off two third-place finishes in downhill the past two days, Breezy Johnson was more than three seconds off the lead in Sunday’s super-G and failed to collect any World Cup points.

However, her American teammate Keely Cashman scored her career best result, finishing in 10th while wearing bib 35.

Mikaela Shiffrin sat out the speed races in the French Alps and opted to train her main events, slalom and GS. The three-time overall champion was expected back in action at technical races in Semmering, Austria on Dec. 28-29.

Switzerland's Corinne Suter reacts at the finish line after completing the super-G in Val d'Isere, France, on Sunday. (Giovanni Auletta
AP)

Eagle County cemeteries partake in Wreaths across America for the first time

Lorraine Vasquez places a wreath for her father Amadeo Gonzales, who served in World War II, during the Wreaths Across America Saturday in Gypsum. The event took place at more than 2,500 locations across the country, including Eagle and Gypsum as well.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

Several members of Eagle County resident Mary Ann Baker’s family are buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Her father, Edmund Koehler Daley Jr., fought for the U.S. Army in the Korean and Vietnam wars. When she saw his grave wrapped in a wreath, surrounded by thousands of others similarly decorated, the image stuck with her.

“It looks like an optical illusion, the way all the graves are decorated,” she said.

Baker is a member of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Eagle County Chapter (called the 10th Mountain Chapter), and began thinking about how the local chapter of the nationwide organization could participate in the National Wreaths Across America event. The event started in 1992 at Arlington; the organization’s mission – remember, honor, teach – is carried out in part each year by coordinating wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington and, now, thousands of other veterans’ cemeteries across the country. The celebration reached Colorado in 2017 with Kremmling, followed by Georgetown in 2019.

Harvey Latson, representing the U.S. Army, lays a wreath during the Wreaths Across America event Saturday in Minturn.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

Ricki Shaw Sherlin is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution’s 10th Mountain Chapter, and had attended the ceremony in Kremmling to help lay wreaths. This year, Sherlin, Baker and others began looking into bringing the idea to Eagle County.

“We hadn’t thought about being accepted to do our own wreath laying, but in October we reached out to Wreaths Across America with the idea to cover the Eagle County cemeteries,” Sherlin said. “We had to come up with a mapping plan so that we know that every veteran will be covered with a wreath.”

Eagle County cemeteries have war veterans dating all the way back to the Civil War.

“We have Gold Star families here, and it’s important to remember them,” Baker said.

A convoy of emergency responders helps deliver wreaths to Eagle County on Friday in advance of Saturday's Wreaths Across America service. Eagle County cemeteries were a part of Wreaths Across America for the first time in 2020.
Special to the Daily.

Remember, honor, teach

The 10th Mountain Chapter received approval to cover the Minturn, Eagle and Gypsum cemeteries; 275 wreaths were delivered on Friday.

“We were the last cemetery in Colorado to receive our wreaths,” Baker said. “A Colorado State Patrol convoy intercepted the truck and conveyed it to Gypsum.”

Locals sponsored individual wreaths for $15 each.

On Saturday in Gypsum, Baker shared with those in attendance the mission of the Wreaths Across America program, before the names of all the local veterans were read.

“This year, across the country at more than 2,200 participating locations like this one, there are millions of Americans gathering together safely as one nation to remember, honor and teach,” she said from Gypsum on Saturday. “Today, we show a united front of gratitude and respect across the United States of America as we remember the fallen, honor those who serve and their families, and teach the next generation the value of freedom.”

And then, on cue, as the ceremony was wrapping up in Gypsum, a bald eagle flew over the crowd.

“It was amazing,” Baker said. “Symbolic.”

Will be an annual event

While Saturday’s ceremonies served as a basic introduction to the Wreaths Across America program, the 10th Mountain Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution is now seeking to make it an annual event.

“In the future, we’d like to include other cemeteries, get someone out here to play ’Taps,’ and make an annual event of it,” Baker said. “These live balsam fir wreaths symbolize our honor to those who have served and are serving in the armed forces of our great nation and to their families who endure sacrifices every day on our behalf.”

To get involved, visit wreathsacrossamerica.org.

“Every $15 wreath sponsorship is a meaningful gift from a grateful American who knows what it means to serve and sacrifice for the freedoms we all enjoy,” said Karen Worcester, executive director of Wreaths Across America. “Whether the wreath is placed this December, or next, know that your gift will be honored. We are so grateful to the good people of this great nation for participating in our mission to remember, honor and teach.”

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