Ski industry woes aside, state water watchers and firefighters are nervously eyeing the miniscule mountain snowpack, which supplies so much of the water used by Front Range cities. As of Dec. 30, snowpack in the Colorado River basin was 44 percent of last year’s record level and just 63 percent of the annual average.
“[The drought] will make the beetle epidemic even more severe,” said state Sen. Gail Schwartz, a Snowmass Democrat who’s introducing a bill in the legislative session starting Wednesday that’s aimed at reducing the fire danger from a mountain pine bark beetle epidemic that has killed millions of acres of Colorado lodgepole pines. “What doesn’t burn down will blow down.” [...]
The last time Colorado’s high country was even close to this dry in mid-winter was during the 2001-02 ski season, which was followed by the worst wildfire season in the state’s history. June of 2002 saw the massive Hayman Fire scorch nearly 138,000 acres of land in the mountains southwest of Denver, darkening Front Range skies and loading key water storage facilities with debris from subsequent erosion.
Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, points out that the NASA global temperature anomaly maps show that December just keeps getting warmer, which creates the extreme swings. “It’s key to remember that warming might actually bring bigger storms to the Rockies due to there being more moisture in the air,” Schendler said. “At the same time, because the atmosphere can hold more water, it can suck the land dry of more water than before.”
And as greenhouse gas pollution continues to warm the planet, people will continue to face — and have to prepare for — unseasonably warm weather in January in one area and extreme amounts of snow in another.