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Mountain News: Snow-short story seriously scary



STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Apprehension continues to grow in Colorado as snowfall, although improving, remains far below average. Coming on top of severe drought last year, water managers and fire marshals fear a hot, dry summer ahead.

Oh yes, significant storms moved through the Rocky Mountains in recent weeks, allowing ski areas and trade organizations to dispatch flurries of photos showing face shots and other delights.

"The best skiing in two years," said one instructor at Vail over Presidents' Weekend.

But the larger story is of catch-up. Storm sequences have been like Just-in-Time shipping. After an awful December, just enough snow arrived to meet minimum needs of Christmas. Then, following a sunny, dry and cold January, more storms arrived just in time for Presidents' Weekend.

Still, the Aspen Skiing Co. was unable to open all the terrain at its four ski areas until February. Around Vail, south-facing slopes are mostly bare.

Steamboat has fared better than most. By mid-February, according to Steamboat Today, the ski area had received as much snow as it did on closing day in April last year. That's not saying all that much, however.

By the measure of snow-water equivalent of snowpack, conditions are on-the-edge-of-your-seat scary. The Vail-based Eagle River Water and Sanitation District has a chart on its website that compares this winter with conditions in 2012, the terrible drought winter of 2002, and then the 30-year average. If average is Pikes Peak, this year so far looks like one of the foothills on the edge of Colorado Springs.

Dillon Reservoir, located between Breckenridge and Keystone, is one of the major sources of water for metro Denver, and it's only now 66 per cent full, compared to 90 per cent on average this time of year, reports the Summit Daily News. A huge spring storm could yet help refill reservoirs. It's happened before. For now, Denver officials have barred use of parks for soccer play, to prevent damage to fragile grass.

Others are thinking about fires. Colorado had three major wildfires last year, the first in March, and two more in June. Altogether, seven people died of flames or smoke, and hundreds of homes were destroyed.

"It's just so dry here," Tom Grady, the emergency manager in Aspen and surrounding Pitkin County, told the New York Times.

The Aspen area avoided significant fires, owing to the timely arrival of rain during the Fourth of July but also general observance of prohibitions against fireworks and open fires.

The Aspen Daily News explains that a new state law in Colorado puts a great financial onus on local governments to contain wildfires. There's no big purse to pay for those costs in the state government any more.

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