Fires, Snowslides, and Floods — Oh my! And a variety of other news tidbits — @Land_Desk #runoff #SanJuanRiver

Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):

It’s avalanche season! It’s flood season! It’s fire season! And it’s happening all at the same time in a relatively small geographical area. I mean, so far there aren’t fires setting off avalanches, or avalanches dousing fires, at least not that I’ve heard of, but still.

Big Water: We filled you in on some of the flooding and its consequences last week. Parachute, Colorado, was partially inundated at around the same time. The Yampa River in northwestern Colorado cranked up to nearly 20,000 cubic feet per second, which isn’t a record or anything but is still impressive. The San Juan River near Bluff got up to 5,800 cfs and is likely to go significantly higher in the second half of the month, as Navajo Dam operators start releasing 5,000 cfs — yeehaw! — beginning May 15. That will combine with high-elevation snowmelt to make for some fast and fun rafting, I reckon. Inflows into Lake Powell (from the San Juan, Colorado, Dirty Devil, and Escalante Rivers) have totaled more than 56,000 cfs at one time during the last couple of weeks, causing the reservoir’s surface level to shoot up about 12 feet since it’s mid-April low-point. And flows in the Virgin River in southwestern Utah are hovering above 1,000 cfs, making it likely that the popular Narrows area in Zion National Park may not be open for a while.

There’s more water on its way. While the snow has completely melted from most low- and mid-elevation areas, the mountains still hold a substantial amount of frozen water. In fact, it’s enough to form harmful or deadly …

 Avalanches: Twenty-five people have been killed by sliding snow in the U.S. so far this season, with 12 of the fatalities coming in March, April, and May. Eleven of the fatalities were in Colorado, making this season among the state’s deadliest since 1951. While the big snow may have contributed to the high numbers, it should be noted that the deadliest avalanche year was 2020-21, when the snowpack was generally pathetic. The number of fatalities in any given year are more likely a function of the number of people in the backcountry combined with the snowpack’s stability, no matter how much of it there is.

Source: Colorado Avalanche Information Center

One of the more dramatic accounts of an avalanche doesn’t end with a fatality, thankfully, although it sounds like it was darned close. It occurred on King Solomon Mountain near Silverton, Colorado, earlier this month, when a group was getting in some spring skiing. First one skier set off a slide, escaping relatively unscathed. Then another did the same, with graver consequences. Connor Ryan, the first skier, described the harrowing events in an Instagram post:

“I was caught & carried a few hundred feet and left in an exposed place with tremendous overhead hazard and additional avalanche risk. My friend Ryan (@rymcc199) was caught and carried over 1600 feet and suffered a severe compound fracture of his femur, which separated his leg almost entirely at the knee.”

Ouch. Thanks to the efforts of Connor and their companions along with the Silverton search and rescue folks, all ended as well as one could hope, given the circumstances. Read about it in Connor’s Instagram post by clicking below. Be sure to watch his videos, too — if you want to be eternally terrified of skiing, that is:

A post shared by Connor Ryan (@sacredstoke)

But hanging out up high in the snow probably will keep you safe from … Fires: Yes, it seems that even with the big winter snows and the wet spring and all the water in the rivers the landscape in some places remains flammable. The Las Tusas Fire in San Miguel County, New Mexico, reportedly was sparked around mid-day on May 10 and reported that afternoon. By that evening it had blown up to 1,000 acres and burned several structures with zero containment. The fire is near the burn scar of last year’s massive Hermit Peak-Calf Canyon blaze.

Random Real Estate Room

Last week I wrote about Bluff, Utah, getting gentrified. What I failed to mention is the effort to mitigate some of that gentrification. So let’s re-up this one, since these folks still need to raise more funds for this important purchase:

The Wildlands Conservancy has launched an effort to acquire a 320-acre private parcel at the lower end of Cottonwood Wash near Bluff, Utah, and at the far southeastern edge of Bears Ears National Monument. Why bother with 320 acres when you’ve got a 1.3 acre national monument right next to it? Because if it remains in private hands, the parcel — through which Lower Cottonwood Wash is accessed — could be developed, disturbing cultural sites in that stretch of canyon, and/or closed off to passers-through, potentially putting an important chunk of public land off-limits to the public. The effort needs a lot of cash to buy this valuable parcel. To learn more about the project and to donate, check out the Cottonwood Wash Acquisition site.

  • Remember the Land Desk dispatch about Rico and the land-sale there? If so, you might also remember the mention of Atlantic Richfield, the mining company doing reclamation there, suing the corporate descendants of other mining companies to get them to foot a bit of the hefty ($63 million or more) cleanup tab. The court finally handed down a decision and it’s not so good for Atlantic Richfield: Quite simply, they waited too long to sue, so the only relief they’ll get is reimbursement of a $400,000 payment to the EPA. I gotta say, that kind of sucks. I mean, it’s true that Atlantic Richfield knowingly took on liability for the site when it purchased it back in the 1970s. But they never actually mined it; most of the mess was made by their predecessors. So shouldn’t the predecessors have to help out a bit? Probably so. But I guess the law doesn’t agree.
  • Last October, at the same time that President Biden designated Camp Hale National Monument, he also announced a proposal to ban new oil and gas development or mining on 220,704 acres along Western Colorado’s Thompson Divide. Biden’s proclamation was all that was needed for the national monument to become official, thanks to the Antiquities Act. But the Thompson Divide mineral withdrawal requires a more lengthy process, which got under way earlier this month. The Forest Service will be accepting public comments until June 16.
  • Enchant Energy just won’t give up on its quest to keep Four Corners area coal plants cranking out juice and polluting indefinitely. Enchant is the startup that emerged in 2019 for the sole purpose of taking over the San Juan Generating Station in northwest New Mexico and spending $1.6 billion to install carbon capture and keep operating the plant for years into the future. That effort fell through and the San Juan plant stopped mucking up the air last September. So now Enchant has just shifted its plans about a dozen miles to the south, to the Four Corners coal plant on the Navajo Nation. The U.S. Energy Department has selected the Navajo Transitional Energy Company — which owns a small percentage of the power plant — “to begin award negotiations” to vie for federal subsidies for its carbon capture proposal. This project would have all of the same drawbacks as the San Juan proposal. So …
Foto Friday

Satellite photos, that is, along with some snowpack charts that show:

  1. How much more snow there still is in the high country to feed runoff;
  2. How much more show there is now than there was one or two years ago;
  3. What a snowpack chart looks like on the ground, if you will.

Let’s start with the summit of Wolf Creek Pass and surrounding areas. Here’s the snowpack chart. You can see that they in late-March/early-April the snowpack was reaching the highest levels on record. But it started to melt off very quickly — possibly in part due to dust on the snow — and it looks like a few warm days could bring it down to median levels or even below. Still, significantly more snow remains than at this same time in 2022, boding well for the San Juan River and the Rio Grande.

In early May 2022 snow remained only at the highest elevations. And even then it was all covered with a thick layer of dust, decreasing albedo and speeding up snowmelt and evaporation. Source: Sentinel Hub
This year there’s still snow almost everywhere but on the valley floors and south facing slopes. And while there’s also dust on the snow, possibly contributing to the relatively rapid melt off, it’s still not nearly as bad as in 2022.

Now we fly our satellite to the west, and zoom in on the La Plata Mountains and the surrounding lowlands. This time the comparison is between this year and 2021, which was especially dismal in the La Platas, snow-wise, leading to one of the driest summers for farmers in recent memory. It’s probably safe to say the ditches won’t run dry this year. While snow levels didn’t get into record-breaking territory, they were substantial (poking into the 90th percentile), and the snowmelt seems to be a bit slower than usual, thanks to cooling and a bit of new snow in the last couple of days.

In 2021, melt-off was almost complete by May 11.
This year there’s even still snow on lower-elevation north-facing slopes. And there was enough moisture to allow officials to conduct a controlled burn on Animas Mountain just outside Durango.

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