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Mountain News — hard times on the Colorado River

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BOULDER, Colo. — In due course, the Colorado River goes past Las Vegas on its way, at least in theory, to the Pacific Ocean. But it originates in Rocky Mountain National Park, flowing through Grand Lake, picking up additional water from tributaries that go through Winter Park, Vail, Telluride and other ski towns.

Fully half of the Colorado River's water comes from Colorado, with lesser amounts from other states before the river is stopped at Glen Canyon Dam to create the reservoir most people call Lake Powell.

Now comes the news that because of the drought that has continued more years than not since 1999, less water will be released from Powell downstream to Las Vegas, Arizona and California. Also as a result, less electricity can be produced at Hoover Dam.

This was not surprising news. Water experts for some years have spoken with increasing alarm about the razor-thin margin between supplies and demands in the Colorado River Basin.

Bull's eye for this story is Las Vegas. A century ago, it wasn't much more than a railroad depot in a place that annually gets only four inches of precipitation. Mafia dons and gambling and giant hotels all came later. When the Colorado River Compact was drawn up in 1922, only 700,000 acre-feet out of what the compact framers optimistically estimated were an annual 16 million acre-feet of flows were allocated to Nevada. California could see its future needs, and Colorado presciently saw the need for a compact before California slurped up all the water. But nobody foresaw The Strip.

Pat Mulroy looks after the water interests for The Strip and all of Clark County. The county, which includes Henderson, a decade ago surpassed Manhattan in population. This was about the time that she and others decided it was not wise to depend upon a Lake Mead brimming with water. Or any water, for that matter.

With that in mind, Mulroy's Southern Nevada Water Authority began boring a new tunnel to the reservoir, its third. This newest one will come up from deeper, burrowing into the bed of the lingering Colorado River, just in case the reservoir ceases to exist. Cost of tunnelling has now reached a projected $820 million.

Meanwhile, in her many talks through the West, Mulroy has hammered away at the same message: cooperation and not conflict, sharing instead of fighting, innovation and the future — and the great challenge of climate change.

"We need to find the language that the public can understand. If we talk about winners and losers, the public will talk about winners and losers," she said at a recent water conference sponsored by the University of Colorado's Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment.

"The last conversation we need is who is on first, who is in charge," she added.

Mulroy called for more innovative partnerships, such as her organization forged with Arizona, to store more water in wet years for use in tight times.

"Some day it will snow again in Colorado. One day it will snow again in New Mexico," she said.

Just what part of this drought and increased temperatures is natural and what part is a result of human-caused greenhouse effect, scientists cannot say with precision. Tree rings document decades-long droughts in the Colorado River Basin a millennium ago similar to the one now underway. But while climate models haven't figured out how increased greenhouse gases will affect precipitation, they are clear about rising temperatures — which are almost certain to exact much higher tributes of water for everything from corn fields north of Denver, to residential lawns in Salt Lake City to fountains in Las Vegas. All depend on the Colorado River in some way.

Mulroy long ago accepted the science of climate change. "It's time to stop the religious discussion about climate change," she said.

She also called for greater federal involvement in drought planning and mitigation in advance of climate change. "We have an interesting attitude in this country," she said. "We think we only have to pay once the destruction has occurred."

Barton "Buzz" Thompson, a professor at Stanford University, said that the evidence about effects of greenhouse gases has strengthened — and the outcome is likely to produce more weather extremes. This will require planning for solutions that "are not really within our range of experience," he said.

He called for consideration of higher rates for water, greater development of technology to expand conservation and recycling, but also more serious thought about limiting population growth in the Southwest. That's an idea anemic to Las Vegas.

Thompson also noted the need to increase costs charged consumers for water even while asking them to conserve. That, observed Mulroy, is a "very, very difficult conversation to have" with water customers.

Puzzling story of our fires

DURANGO, Colo. — Examining the trend of increasingly big wildfires in the West, the Durango Herald observes that even during the 1960s foresters had come to realize the fallacy of trying to suppress all fires.

Suppressing fires, they had come to understand, only delayed the inevitable, usually leading to much bigger fires.

Those bigger fires have arrived. Six of the 10 biggest fire years of the past century, in terms of acreage, have happened in the past decade reports the paper. "Nine of the 10 most expensive seasons for fire suppression costs have happened since 2000," it states.

Sifting through records, the Herald finds that the U.S. Forest Service continues to put out fires rapidly, in 98 or 99 per cent of all cases, and does not let fires continue to burn.

Why not? Mark Stiles, supervisor of the San Juan National Forest, says scientists support the let-burn policy, but not the general public. "There's definitely not a huge level of support out there."

Planning Magazine this summer also looked at the same subject through the lens of major fires in Colorado and came to the conclusion that more of the financial burden needs to be placed on local and state governments. Specifically at issue is the number of homes being built in what is called the wildland-urban interface. Such places are typically in forested areas, often close to public lands.

If local governments had to pay for more of the fire-fighting costs, says Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont., they'd be more strongly motivated to calculate potential costs of putting out fires to save homes in forested areas.

"The fundamental problem is that if we don't have that incentive at the local level, where land-use decisions are being made, then where is the accountability? How do you shift it from the federal taxpayer to the local level? That's what I'm trying to figure out."

He added: "We think it's expensive and dangerous now, and you add climate change to this and it will become a much, much bigger problem."

Tahoe clarity returning

LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The famed clarity of Lake Tahoe that provoked the admiration of a young Mark Twain in Roughing It, the book recounting his youthful adventures, has been returning.

In the late 1960s, a white disk the size of a dinner plate could be seen to a depth of 31 metres. But, by 1997, when former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore met at the lake with various senators and other leaders, the clarity had declined to 19.5 metres. Now, the lake's clarity has increased by 3.4 metres.

What's responsible? So far, $1.7 billion has been spent. Some of the measures have included sweeping roads, virtually vacuuming them, to keep sediment from sullying the pristine waters.

Gore, returning to a summit at Incline Village, Nev., located on the north shores of the giant lake, commended the progress — but also pointed to future problems. Already scientists have documented warming temperatures in Lake Tahoe, more rapid snowmelt during spring, and a greater conversion of snow to rain.

"A single degree in temperature, he said, "is the difference between rain and snow."

The Tahoe Daily Tribune, which covered the event, said that Gore pointed to the cooperation that has resulted in progress at Lake Tahoe as being a model for taking action in dealing with the greenhouse effect.

But the Daily Tribune also reports deep disagreements about the progress. A coalition that includes the Sierra Club, Friends of Tahoe Vista and other conservation groups disagree with what would be permitted under the plan adopted last December by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

The plan, said a member of the Friends of the Western Shore, "will bring radical change to Tahoe's look and feel, with new tall buildings, intense urban development, and increased traffic and congestion around the lake."

Skiing under lights a go

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Night-skiing is a go at the Steamboat Ski Areas this coming winter. Steamboat Today reports that the city council approved night lighting of five trails.

In its night offering, to begin with three nights per week at start, Steamboat joins Keystone, but also Howelsen Hill, the small ski area near downtown Steamboat.

While Howelsen Hill doesn't get all that much traffic for its under-the-lights skiing, representatives from Intrawest, operator of the larger ski area in Steamboat, represented night skiing as an economic agent.

Part of the argument for the night skiing is that $35 million has been invested in hotels and public infrastructure at the base in recent years, and this will help make better use of those investments.

Controversy is also art

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo. — Oh the heartburn! The horror! The artist Christo plans to drape silver fabric over steel cables for sections of six miles in the Arkansas River Canyon in Colorado. To many, this is the dumbest of dumb ideas, sure to be the ruin of the canyon between Salida and Cañon City.

Christo takes it all in stride. It's part of the process, he said at a recent talk at a design conference in Snowmass Village, part of what will make it art.

"Anyone who thinks about the project, good or bad, is part of the work of art," he said. "It's irrelevant whether they like it or dislike it — they are affected by the work."

Christo and his late wife, Jean-Claude, did many similar landscape art projects around the world. One of them was also in Colorado, the draping of fabric over Rifle Gap, which is about an hour-and-a-half west of Aspen and Vail. That was in 1973.

The Aspen Daily News explains that around 1992, he and Jean-Claude began planning "Over the River." They investigated 90 American rivers, including the Salmon in Idaho, the Wind River in Wyoming, and the Poudre in Colorado.

In the Arkansas, they have a river running from west to east, so that fabric panels suspended over the water would appear rosy in the morning, platinum in the midday sun and, and golden in the evening. The panels will be opaque to drivers on Highway 50, above and to the side, and transparent to rafters below.

Christo now has permission from the various levels of government, but two lawsuits filed by a group called Rags Over the Arkansas River have yet to be resolved.

The slow movement of this process is not unusual. Winning approval to install "The Gates" in New York City's Central Park took 26 years.

"I'm not a masochist. This is how works of art develop," he said.

Grizzly polishes off black bear

BANFF, Alberta — It's a bear-eat-bear world, and only the strong survive. The Rocky Mountain Outlook reports that a 45kg (100 lbs) black bear was killed and eaten by a grizzly bear in Banff National Park. The same grizzly had also killed a black bear last year, but Parks Canada biologists think this happens more often than is documented.

This was a relatively easy meal for the grizzly identified as Bear 122. "He's an extremely large grizzly weighing between 500 and 600 pounds (227 to 272kg), versus a 100-pound (45kg) black bear," said Steve Michel, Parks Canada biologist. "It's probably not a difficult meal."

Bears eat berries and what not, but they are opportunistic feeders. They will kill elk and moose, for example, and occasionally cubs of their own species.

Other species also exhibit similar traits. Wolves often eat their cousins, the coyotes.

All in all, it sounds like it's not easy being a black bear in Banff National Park these days. The Outlook also reports of several other black bears killed on either the Trans-Canada Highway or on the Icefields Parkway to Jasper.

Bear's top snack is Diggity Sauce

TELLURIDE, Colo. — In the dark of the early morning hours, just after closing time, a black bear was found breaking and entering a food cart on the main street in Telluride. The business, Diggity Dogs, sells hot dogs, but the owner of the food cart, said the strongest enticement seemed to be Diggity Sauce. The Telluride Daily Planet says the bear was unavailable for comment.

The case did reveal an irony. While it's strictly against the law to leave food out in trashcans and in other ways that tempt bears, no such laws addressed food carts. Even so, this was the first raid on the Diggity Dogs cart.

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