The bright spot in our drought

  • Liebl

The warm, sunny weather brought on déjà vu as I walked up the stairs to the Brown Lab Pub and Bakery at Crested Butte Mountain Resort on Sunday. It was nearly t-shirt weather, and the usual suspects, drinking and smoking cigarretes were there on the patio. It felt and smelled like any other spring day at the resort. But it wasn’t March, and this wasn’t the pre-pandemic world. It took someone saying “I’m tired of this mask BS” to snap me out of it.

For tourists and locals alike, the mild weather made for a beautiful weekend at the resort. But for those of us who got away from the snowguns and into the natural snowpack, it was rotten. White covers many backcountry spots, tempting skiers. But the snow has become two feet of sluffable sugar. What protection we had from rocks and stumps thanks to the thick November snows has turned into a faceted mess that’s unnerving to recreate on and will haunt us with slab avalanches for the rest of the winter.

Thankfully, there is no more sure way to make it snow than to write a column about dry weather. If you’re reading this while we’re getting dumped on this weekend, you’re welcome.

But it may not be enough. Last week we fell off the normal snowpack curve. Telemetry sites on Dec. 4 showed the Gunnison Basin at 64% of average snow depth. Expectations that this La Nina winter would park the storm track to our north have so far been fulfilled.

The dry weather got especially bad this week when a low dropped down the West Coast and parked itself over Southern California, creating what meteorologists call a Rex Block pattern: a backwards ‘5’ wind track that steers incoming Pacific storms right back out to sea. Looking at satellite images, it felt like the atmosphere had set out to spite us.

State water managers expect the situation to get worse. Gov. Jared Polis last week issued a memo moving Colorado into Phase Three, “Full Activation; of the Colorado Drought Plan.

“For nearly 15 weeks, deep and persistent drought conditions have covered 99-100% of the state. The last time the state experienced this intensity and coverage of drought was early 20137 Polis wrote to the directors of state government departments.

“It is strongly recommended that water providers, local governments, agricultural producers and water- and open spacebased businesses proactively plan for the continuance of drought through 2021.”

The present drought is especially unnerving given how easily we fell into it. “Miracle March” in 2019 brought our basin’s snowpack to well above average, helping to fill Blue Mesa Reservoir after the dry winter of 2017-2018. We then finished the 2019-2020 winter with a nearly average snowpack. An unusually warm spring and summer melted that away, however, and we’re back to conditions that mirror 2013, when Colorado had its driest year in 50 years. Are dry conditions like this, the new normal?

Thankfully, good fortune has rained down on our valley with regards to water management in the past two months.

First was approval of ballot measure 7A, which will fund water conservation projects across the Western Slope to the tune of $4.2 million annually through the Colorado River District.

Second, one of our valley’s most capable water managers will help to decide the amounts and purposes of 7A funding that will come to Gunnison County. Sonja Chavez, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, and Kathleen Curry, former state legislator and current rancher and water consultant, have both put their names in for the spot on the river district board that Bill Trampe will vacate in January.

According to Commissioner Liz Smith, two additional county residents have stepped forward to be considered for the position. Regardless as to who the two other applicants are, Chavez and Curry will surely rise to the top of the list. Commissioners will have a tough choice between them, but they cannot choose wrong. Both would continue Trampe’s tradition of bringing a strong, wellinformed and even-handed presence to the river district.

We need that leadership more and more with each cruel, bluebird day this winter.

(Sam Liebl can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or