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Mountain News: With more snow, is Sierra drought over?



LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Precipitation has been coming off the Pacific Ocean to drench California. The Sierra Nevada snowpack was at 107 per cent of its historic average approaching mid-January, with more storms barreling inland and meteorologists confident that El Niño will continue at least through March and maybe May.

But how will you know when the drought is over, asked the Los Angeles Times.

Mike Anderson, the California state climatologist, said that if California receives 150 per cent of its snowpack by April, that should be enough to fill the biggest reservoirs and probably end the drought.

After three years of eye-popping drought, water officials have been ecstatic. "It's glorious. I went up to the Sierra last week and I wanted to kiss each snowflake," said Felicia Marcus, director of the State Water Resources Control Board.

But this glass is far from half full. While rains since December have boosted Shasta Lake, the state's largest reservoir, by 3.7 metres, this only increased Shasta's storage by four per cent. It's now 33 per cent full, the Times noted.

A river still free-flowing but not without changes

DENVER, Colo. — In 2013, Colorado landscape photographer John Fielder took a raft trip down the Yampa River, starting at Steamboat Springs, in preparation for his latest coffee-table book.

An accountant by training, Fielder is that rare individual who has figured out a way to actually earn a living from his love of being in wilder places. When working at a department store chain in metropolitan Denver, he started heading out to the mountains on weekends, lugging around a large-format camera, then began producing books of his photographs, 32 altogether now, along with wall and engagement calendars, notecards, and other merchandise.

He keeps hours that most would consider eccentric. He's usually out before dawn, to get the special effects of first light, and just as often will return to camp after dark, again in an effort to capture the loveliness of evening light.

For this latest book, Fielder and Patrick Tierney, a former river guide on the Yampa who wrote a 50,000-word text, gamboled on the Flat Tops, a volcanic range between Steamboat Springs and Glenwood Springs, where the Yampa River originates under the name of Bear River.

Four dams block the river in the first 80-kilometre segment of bucolic hay meadows before it reaches Steamboat. From there, however, it flows without interruption for 322 kilometres to Dinosaur National Park, where it joins the Green, which itself is swallowed by the Colorado River near Moab, Utah. It's this latter segment of the Yampa that is referenced when people say it's the last undammed river in the Colorado River system.

In the 1950s, that was in question. The Bureau of Reclamation wanted to erect a dam in Dinosaur to hold back the waters. David Brower of the Sierra Club, the writer Wallace Stegner, and others snorted loudly with indignation and the plan was eventually quashed — although, as a tradeoff, they did begrudgingly accede to the drowning of Glen Canyon, downstream in Utah, creating what is now called Lake Powell.

Showing his photographs to a sold-out crowd at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science last week, Fielder conceded that the Yampa was not entirely the story of unblemished nature that his photographs generally showcase. The river passes two major coal-fired power plants.

But even Steamboat Springs has altered natural flows of the river, said Bill Atkinson, an aquatic biologist who works for the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. He said the river is best understood as a canyon in Steamboat, because of adjoining railroad tracks, roads and other intrusions. They together create channel-forming flows, delivering sediment, and altering the biology of the river downstream.

Even so, said Atkinson, the Yampa ranks as No. 1 among the 13 major tributaries to the Colorado in terms of ecosystem function.

Will it stay so relatively pristine? Probably not, if for no other reason than local population growth. But there's always the Front Range of Colorado. Since at least the 1950s, entrepreneurs have considered what it would take to get some of that water several hundred miles to cities from Fort Collins to the Boulder-Denver metropolitan area. In 2006, that vision was articulated with a conceptual plan — not quite a proposal — to divert water from near Dinosaur National Park, requiring about 300 miles of pipeline.

Colorado's Dan Birch, deputy general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, cautioned against assuming much water exists available for appropriation. Downstream the water levels in Lakes Mead and Powell continue to drop, he said, even after some good water years.

For now, though, the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas continues its oohs-and-aahs inspiring fountain shows, and the lettuce and broccoli fields of California's Imperial Valley continue their steady succession of planting and harvesting, some of the water coming from the Yampa.

Uber elbowing its way into Sundance festival

PARK CITY, Utah — Uber, the car-sharing business, has been disrupting the commercial and physical landscape in Park City, as will likely be evident during the Sundance Film Festival from Jan. 21 to 31.

The busiest time of year for Park City, Sundance used to be a profitable couple of weeks for taxis. But last year, an estimated 150 to 200 Uber drivers shoehorned their way into the marketplace. And the local taxi drivers were upset — rightfully so, said The Park Record.

Local taxi companies pay taxes and contribute to local non-profits. As for the Uber riders, they don't, and apparently escape local regulation. Salting this wound, Uber has gotten the right to a prime spot to do business at this year's festival.

The newspaper reported an effort to create taxi stands, but also advised taxi companies that they'll need to adjust their business models to compete with Uber by lowering rates and adopting mobile apps.

Can autonomous cars operate safely in snow?

DETROIT, Mich. — OK, it's one thing to have a self-driving car in the Silicon Valley of California or in Las Vegas. But how about snow country? How well will they do there?

The Colorado Department of Transportation has started betting on autonomous-driving vehicles by putting together an information network on Interstate 70 between Denver and Summit County.

But another piece of this puzzle comes out of Detroit, where Ford has plans for what it calls the industry's first self-driving car tests in winter weather, according to the website re/

"It's one thing for a car to drive itself in perfect weather," said Jim McBride, Ford's technical lead for self-driving cars. "It's quite another to do so when the car's sensors can't see the road because it's covered in snow."

Re/code said that wintry weather is cited as the primary technical hurdle for self-driving cars getting on the road nationally. In particular, snow hides other vehicles, lane markings, and signals from the car sensors.

Ford hopes to leap the hurdle by using Lidar sensors combined with its own 3D maps that, according to Ford, read things like signs, landmarks and topography.

Packed Christmas, but now the January lull

ASPEN, Colo. — What a busy Christmas it was in Aspen. But what a lull for January, with the distinct absence of Australians and their week-long visits.

Reporting on Christmas, Bill Tomcich, director of Stay Aspen Snowmass, a central reservations agency, reported eight consecutive nights in Aspen with occupancies of 90 per cent or greater. That included four nights in excess of 97 per cent. Nearby Snowmass was packed too, but not quite so much, with just five nights in excess of 90-per-cent occupancy.

The normal January lull in bookings this year is longer but also noticeably deeper, in part because of the drop in business from Australia.

The Aspen Times fingered the strength of the American dollar, which makes a trip by Aussies to the U.S. 40 to 50 per cent more expensive as compared to two years ago.

That figure comes from David Withers, managing director of Travelplan Australia, a major ski tour operator. He said the company's business fell 30 per cent in trips to Colorado this winter.

Australia is the top international market for Aspen-Snowmass, which gets up to about 20 per cent of its business from the international market. International business is especially important in mid-winter.

With the economy pounding on all cylinders and storms delivering good snowfall, Aspen reported a 12.9-per-cent increase in skier visits during the first third of the year. Colorado Ski Country USA also reported major gains in visits in the early season.

But there is evidence of a slowdown. Ralf Garrison of DestiMetrics, a research firm that tracks occupancy and booking trends at mountain resorts, said there has been very small growth in overall bookings rates during the last four or five months. This comes after double-digit gains in years past.