My family and I recently moved back to my hometown of Lander, Wyoming. After 15 years of reporting on small town events, politics and happenings in Colorado, I dug into my first Wyoming story — a political piece for the non-profit news site Wyofile. It was a great way to toe my way into the issues, people and landscapes of this beautiful state.
National publicity surrounding a well-known Wyoming family’s political infighting has resulted in an unexpected windfall for Laramie’s free clinic.
According to its director, the Downtown Clinic has received more than $20,000 in donations of cash and medical equipment since a prominent article ran in the Washington Post on Jan. 12. Donations have poured in from across the country and beyond, along with notes of support.
The lengthy piece by Greg Jaffe tracked the story of how the Gosar siblings, originally of Pinedale, came to be at odds with…
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman commended Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming for reaching a consensus on the Colorado River drought contingency plan. Now the states are seeking approval from Congress to implement it.
“It is time for us to work with our congressional delegations to move forward to make sure we can implement DCP this year,” Burman said on a call with reporters.
Under the drought plan, states voluntarily would give up water to keep Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border and Lake Powell upstream on the Arizona-Utah border from crashing. Mexico also has agreed to cuts.
The push for federal legislation comes after the Colorado River Board of California voted Monday to move ahead without a water agency that has the largest entitlement to the river’s water.
The Imperial Irrigation District was written out of California’s plan when another powerful water agency, the Metropolitan Water District, pledged to contribute most of the state’s voluntary water cuts.
Imperial had said it would not commit to the drought plan unless it secured $200 million in federal funding to help restore a massive, briny lake southeast of Los Angeles known as the Salton Sea. The district also accused others in the Colorado River basin of reneging on a promise to cross the finish line together.
“IID has one agenda, to be part of a DCP that treats the Salton Sea with the dignity and due consideration it deserves, not as its first casualty,” Imperial board President Erik Ortega said.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority called Imperial’s refusal to approve the plan “shortsighted” and “manipulative.” Burman has said the drought plan would have no effect on the Salton Sea, and Imperial could choose to join the deal later.
The Bureau of Reclamation had given states until Tuesday to submit comments on what to do next after California and Arizona failed to meet federal deadlines to wrap up their drought plans. The agency received no comments, and Burman canceled the request.
Arizona says it doesn’t expect its remaining work to delay implementation of the drought plan. But the state cannot officially sign on until Congress approves it.
At least two congressional subcommittee hearings on the drought plan are scheduled for later this month…
The latest study shows a shortage might be averted because of above-average snowpack, though the call for 2020 won’t be made until August. In New Mexico, the basin that feeds the Rio Grande is about 135 percent above median levels.
But officials say one good year of snowpack won’t reduce long-term risks for the Rio Grande or the Colorado River.
The drought contingency plan takes the states through 2026, when existing guidelines expire. The states already are preparing for negotiations that will begin next year for new guidelines.
“We all recognize we’re looking at a drier future,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
Arizona and the six other Colorado River Basin states took a big step toward completion of a drought plan by asking Congress to approve it.
The request is an acknowledgment by the states and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that they’ve now finished work on the plan to conserve Colorado River water to keep Lakes Mead and Powell from dropping to critically low levels.
The seven basin states’ representatives signed the letter to Congress at a ceremony Tuesday in Phoenix.
At a media teleconference held afterward, officials expressed hope for relatively speedy approval, and noted that both the U.S. House and the Senate are scheduled to hold hearings on the drought plan next week.
But the plan leaves behind a key player — Southern California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which controls by far the largest share of river water in the basin…
Congressional approval of the drought plan will kick in a series of gradually escalating reductions in river water use by the Lower Colorado Basin, first mostly by Arizona but eventually by California with lesser reductions incurred by Nevada.
The most serious reductions may well be forestalled for a year if not longer because of unusually heavy snows falling upon the colder Upper Basin states in February and early March.
Because of the snowpack those storms left behind, the Bureau of Reclamation dramatically raised its forecast for expected Lake Mead levels in 2020 to the point where a major shortage is no longer likely then.
Through Tuesday, snowpack in the Upper Basin was 136 percent of normal.
The predicted April-July runoff into Lake Powell, a key benchmark of the river’s health, is now at 133 percent of normal, which would be the 14th highest total on record.
By contrast, last year’s April-July runoff was 36 percent of normal, the fifth lowest on record…
But since this year would get only the river’s sixth year of above-average runoff since the drought started in 2000, state officials at Tuesday’s teleconference stressed the need for continued vigilance and conservation of river water.
“What we do know is that as temperatures increase, that should reduce the river flows” from evaporation, said Terry Fulp, director of the bureau’s Lower Colorado Region. “If we look at this particular drought, we believe that is due in part to increased temperatures.
“The real question is what about the future? The drought plan is a really good step toward insuring, ourselves, that the two reservoirs don’t reach critical elevations.”
Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said she’s pleased to see that the seven basin states’ work is finished for now.
She said she’s halting work on her previous plan to take written suggestions from the seven states on how to manage the river because of their then-unfinished business on the drought contingency plan, or DCP.
“This is the best path forward,” Burman said. “The DCP will reduce the risks that the Colorado River Basin is facing.”
Even if Lake Mead doesn’t fall into the shortage trigger level of below 1,075 feet at the end of 2019, the new drought plan once approved will require Arizona to reduce its take of Central Arizona Project water from the Colorado by 192,000 acre-feet. That’s well below one-third of the entire CAP’s annual delivery.
Once Mead drops below 1,075, the cuts will gradually escalate, starting at about 20 percent of the total CAP supply and topping off at nearly half the total supply, at about 700,000 acre-feet.
The Imperial district’s participation in the drought plan wasn’t needed for its approval by the seven states. That’s because Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District recently agreed to conserve the water that Imperial decided not to leave in Lake Mead, thus boosting California’s total share of conserved water to the minimum required.
Imperial District officials said the $200 million in federal funds requested for the Salton Sea would match more than $200 million of state funds already approved. They said it would not only help boost the sea’s shrinking habitat for birds and fish, but prevent toxic dust from the drying sea from hurting surrounding air quality and causing human health problems.
“That money is not for us. It’s that Salton Sea in our backyard,” said Robert Schettler, an irrigation district spokesman, in a telephone interview. “We have citizens, lands and crops around the Salton Sea that are all suffering from the sea’s declines.”
Burman acknowledged the district’s concerns and said the federal government supports the Salton Sea restoration effort.
But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which controls the funding for such drought-related agricultural projects, is only now ramping the program up after Congress last year authorized such projects, and it’s impossible to say when the money will be forthcoming, officials said.
FromThe Arizona Republic (Ian James and Janey Wilson):
The set of agreements would prop up water-starved reservoirs that supply cities and farms across the Southwest and would lay the groundwork for larger negotiations to address the river’s chronic overallocation, which has been compounded by years of drought and the worsening effects of climate change.
The states’ delegates met in Phoenix and signed their joint letter to Congress alongside federal Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, who had set a Tuesday deadline for the states to complete the agreements.
“Today is a very important day in the history of the Colorado River,” Burman said after the signing. “Congratulations to all for a job well done.”
The first cuts in water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada could begin as soon as next year under the terms of the deal…
Tuesday’s meeting was held behind closed doors at the office of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Doug MacEachern, a department spokesman, said that due to limited space, “we simply cannot reasonably accommodate public access to these meetings.”
While the signing was underway in Phoenix, a veteran board member of the IID spoke angrily at a meeting on the shore of the Salton Sea, condemning his counterparts for writing his district out of the deal and suggesting they were sipping champagne while ignoring an urgent “environmental and public-health disaster” at the shrinking lake.
Burman and other officials said the drought plan was designed in a way that will avoid causing further declines in the Salton Sea, which has been receding as water has increasingly been transferred from the farmlands of the Imperial Valley to urban areas in Southern California.
Burman said IID decided not to join the plan but can sign on later if the district chooses.
In their letter, the states’ representatives asked Congress to promptly pass legislation authorizing the Interior secretary to implement the agreements. Hearings have been scheduled in the Senate and the House next week. Once the legislation is passed, the agreements still need to be signed by representatives of the states…
During a meeting on the shore of the Salton Sea on Tuesday, IID officials lashed out at those gathering to sign on to the drought deal without them in Arizona.
“I have six grandchildren who live on the Salton Sea and five of them have asthma. On behalf of them, I say, ‘Damn them. Damn them,’” said IID board member Jim Hanks.
“As we gather here today on the shore of the Salton Sea strewn with bleached bones, bird carcasses and a growing shoreline,” Hanks said, “and as champagne is being prepared for debauched self-congratulation in Phoenix, remember this: The IID is the elephant in the room on the Colorado River as we move forward. And like the elephant, our memory and rage is long.”
Hanks spoke at a meeting of California’s State Water Resources Control Board, where regulators received an annual update on the lack of progress on Salton Sea projects. Water board Chair E. Joaquin Esquivel said both the drought contingency plan and the Salton Sea are important, but that efforts can proceed on separate tracks…
Some conservation groups voiced concerns that fast-tracking the drought plans could mean that environmental laws are ignored.
Kim Delfino of the group Defenders of Wildlife noted that while the proposed legislative language sent to Congress had explicitly protected water rights, it did not mention environmental protections. Instead, the proposed legislation includes the exact language from an earlier court decision regarding the All-American Canal, part of the river delivery system, that allowed environmental reviews to be bypassed.
State officials said the intent from the beginning was for the new plans to abide by existing decisions on environmental compliance. They noted the drought plans rely on the seven states voluntarily leaving more water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell and not breaking ground on any new water projects.
Delfino said she understands that but still worries about the inclusion of the language in the legislation and what it might mean.
“They’ve actually made it worse than the original version by protecting water rights but not anything else,” Delfino said.
Audubon California raised similar concerns. Other environmental groups, including Environmental Defense Fund and Trout Unlimited, applauded the completion of the drought plans.
Here’s the release from Governor Polis’ office:
The seven Colorado River Basin States of Colorado, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming signed a letter to Congress today requesting legislation to implement a negotiated contingency plan that responds to the historic dry conditions and the effects of climate change on the Colorado River.
“Water is the lifeblood of the West. We all have a vested interest in the management of the Colorado River,” Governor Jared Polis said. “Thanks to the excellent work from each of the Basin States, we are in position to ensure lasting success for the Colorado River, its environment, economy, and future.”
The announcement comes on the deadline set by the Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman for the Basin States to address the situation or provide her agency with input as to Colorado River operations and management.
Gov. Polis’s principal representative on Colorado River negotiations, James Eklund, echoed the call for action, “As we finish this race, we begin another… and our pace needs to quicken. Our exceptional snowpack this year merely signals that the more extreme swings in precipitation and the warmer temperatures of climate change require effective and efficient implementation of the tools we are creating in the contingency plan.”
While the state of California chose to join Colorado and the other Basin States in signing the letter to Congress, an important water user, the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California unfortunately could not move forward at this time due to an outstanding request for federal assistance. “We support regional, state and local stakeholders in their efforts to obtain federal funding through existing and future programs to help address impacts to the Salton Sea. However, as negotiated, the DCP is not linked to and does not result in adverse impacts to the Salton Sea. The flexible tools found in the DCPs are needed now,” said Eklund.
The Colorado River provides water to approximately 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of irrigated agriculture in the Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and Lower Basin (Arizona, California and Nevada). The river originates in Colorado and Colorado contributes approximately 70 percent of its flow. Since 2000, the Basin has experienced historically dry conditions and combined storage in Lakes Powell and Mead has reached its lowest level since Lake Powell initially filled in the 1960s. Last year’s runoff into the Colorado River was the second lowest since 2000, and there is no sign that the trend of extended dry conditions will end any time soon even if 2019 provides above average runoff. Lakes Powell and Mead could reach critically low levels as early as 2021. Declining reservoirs threaten water supplies that are essential to the environment, economy, and overall health of the Southwestern United States.
Las Vegas could face up to a 10 percent cut in its water right if Lake Mead falls below a shortage elevation, a reduction water managers said they are prepared for…
In a statement, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, called Imperial’s decision “shortsighted, manipulative and simply not supported by any reasonable view of the facts.”
As always, the congressional process could spark debate on other issues. Last week, the trade publication E&E News reported that there was some concern that some proposed legislation could override laws that require federal agencies to conduct environmental reviews.
Congress is expected to begin discussing the plan in a Senate hearing on March 27. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is the ranking member of the subcommittee that will review the plan.
“I look forward to discussing the drought contingency plan at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee hearing next week and will continue to collaborate with my western state colleagues to solidify a plan that protects Lake Mead, the Colorado River and the water resources of those who live in Nevada and across the west,” Cortez Masto said in a statement.
John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, is scheduled to testify at the hearing. On Tuesday, he called agreement on the drought plan a “historic” day. He said negotiators have briefed their delegations and see a nonpartisan path through Congress…
John Fleck, the director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, said he had mixed feelings about the approval of the drought plan. He said the plan is necessary. At the same time, he said it was concerning the river’s largest water user was left out.
“There is the moral problem of poor people whose health is being impacted by these decisions being left out of the decision-making process,” he said. “And there is the practical problem of the largest water users with senior water rights being left out of the process.”
“That could really bite us in the long-run,” he added.
The district had planned to cut its use under the drought plan, with the condition that it received a commitment for $200 million in Farm Bill funding to restore the Salton Sea. The Metropolitan Water District, a powerful wholesale water provider for Southern California cities, said that it would cover the district’s cuts to allow the drought plan to move forward by March 19.
It is possible that funding could still come in the future through U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that are still being developed. However, those programs will likely be competitive.
During the call, Entsminger noted that the states had written a letter one week ago, emphasizing the importance of finding a solution to the Salton Sea crisis. But he also said that the plan would not worsen the problem and needed to move forward. Once implemented, the states can begin leaving more water in critical reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, to prevent shortages on a binational river system that supports agriculture and about 40 million people in the Southwest.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority released a statement after the call, saying that the the drought plan was of “critical importance” and that the district’s claims were unfounded.
“The Imperial Irrigation District’s refusal to approve the plans supported by every one of its counterparts in the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basin is shortsighted, manipulative and simply not supported by any reasonable view of the facts,” the water authority said, adding that the plan complies with environmental laws. “The DCPs have no effect on the Salton Sea, a fact acknowledged by [the district’s] own Board of Directors during a September 2018 meeting.”
The disagreement in California comes after months of infighting between water users in Arizona, the state would require to take the sharpest cuts under the drought plan. Many of Arizona’s issues have been resolved, although the state is still finalizing some agreements.
Peter Nelson, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, said Tuesday at the press conference that he was disappointed California could not move forward in complete consensus. But he said that the drought plan would not make the impacts to the Salton Sea worse.
“It is my feeling we would have been better served with the Imperial Irrigation District participating with the state of California, but that was unable to happen,” Nelson said.
The water in Lake Mead, the vast reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam that supplies the lower basin, has dropped to levels not seen since it began to fill in the 1960s. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, another reservoir on the river, are essential sources of water for Southern California and Arizona, and sit at less than 40 percent full…
By the beginning of March, the water level in Lake Mead had dropped to 1,088 feet above sea level. At 1,075 feet, under guidelines agreed to in 2007, the federal government would declare a shortage on the lower Colorado River, and mandatory water restrictions would go into effect.
Without sacrifices by the states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the upper basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada in the lower basin — the reservoir could reach the trigger point next year, though recent heavy snowfall in the mountains that feed the river may help for a time…
The federal government regulates the water, but the states own the rights to it, said Jennifer Pitt, an expert on river issues with the Audubon Society. “So there’s a tension there,” she said. “The federal government’s consistent approach is to use that authority as a stick, but not ever go so far as to have to claim it.”
The river is important to the people who use its water, but also to “all of nature that depends on the river in the arid landscape of the Southwest,” Ms. Pitt said.
Another big risk is that Lake Mead could eventually drop below 950 feet, when water could no longer turn the dam’s turbines, or even 895 feet, when the lake would reach “deadpool” status and no water could flow out. That, said Patricia Aaron, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation, need never happen. “That’s what the drought contingency planning on the river is about,” she said.
Brad Udall, a senior scientist at Colorado State University and an expert on water supplies in the West, told a congressional panel last month that the lower basin uses about 10.2 million acre-feet of water from the river each year, while upstream flows provide just nine million. (An acre-foot is the volume of one foot of water over one acre, about 325,000 gallons.)
Beyond that drain, climate change is bringing on a long-term crisis. “The Colorado River, and the entire Southwest, has shifted to a new hotter and drier climate, and, equally important, will continue to shift to a hotter and drier climate for several decades after we stop emitting greenhouse gases,” he said in his testimony.
In an interview, Mr. Udall said the influence of climate change was already apparent in the West. “Climate change is not some distant process,” he said. “It’s here, it’s now, it’s in our faces. It’s creating messes we have to deal with.”
Jonathan T. Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, said that politicians and policymakers needed to factor climate change into their plans. Lack of river water will lead people to pump more groundwater, which was deposited in the ice ages. “We’re using this fossil groundwater in unsustainable ways,” he said.
In a warming world, Dr. Overpeck said, less water in rivers and lakes is inevitable, whatever relief a wet season might bring. But for the most part, Western political leaders “don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “It is the disaster that’s over the horizon, if we don’t talk about it.”
In a teleconference from Phoenix announcing the plans’ completion, Wyoming State Engineer Pat Tyrrell said the general intent of the plans and the subsequent legislation will be to protect water levels at both Lake Mead and Lake Powell by incentivizing additional conservation of water…
A generous snowpack in the West is sitting at nearly 140 percent of average and may actually stave off an anticipated water shortage declaration in 2020 for the lower basin states.
But Burman warned Tuesday that one wet year doesn’t erase 18 years of the driest period on the river in 1,200 years.
“It takes years to recover from the type of intense drought this region has experienced,” he said.
Eric Millis, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said the plans are the culmination of years of hard work.
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“The significance is that it provides protection to the upper basin uses and the state of Utah, and the entire basin and helps us deal with drought and climate change. It offers us that security and protection.”
The components of the plans for the upper and lower basin states have to work in tandem, he added. For the upper basin, the magic number is keeping Lake Powell at 3,525 elevation, or 25 feet above the power pool elevation, Millis said.
Take a helicopter ride with the Colorado Department of Transportation and see for yourself what they are up against on Red Mountain Pass.
US 550 Red Mt. Pass is a major mountain highway in southwest Colorado. The high-country mountain corridor links the mountain communities of Silverton and Ouray. The highway is part of the San Juan Skyway (scenic byway) and is also known as the “Million Dollar Highway.”
Footage of US 550, Red Mt. Pass, traveling north from Silverton to Engineer Pass Rd., then views of the highway returning back, south to Silverton.
Severe snowstorms and epic avalanche activity have closed this highway, located in southwest Colorado, since Sunday, March 3, 2019.
This video was captured on March 15, immediately following avalanche mitigation operations intended to knock down potential existing avalanches and snow slides that have kept road maintenance crews from working on the highway. Mitigation efforts were successful, and crews can now work safely (from avalanche danger) to clear snow and debris from the roadway.
Operations are expected to be slow-going because many of the snow slides are “dirty,” containing rocks, limbs and even trees brought down from the mountain sides.
This story by Jonathan P. Thompson ran in the Silverton Mountain Journal in winter of 2002. Given the historic avalanche cycle, and the lengthy closure of Red Mountain Pass, it seemed like an opportune time to re-up it. Spoiler: Silverton has been shut off from the world by avalanches many times in the past. In 1932, the roads and railroad were shut down from February until the end of April. Yikes!
Eddie Imel died 10 years ago this March (editor’s note: in March 1992). Imel was a plow driver for the Colorado Department of Transportation on the Ouray side of Red Mountain Pass. Like all the plow drivers between Ouray and Cascade, Imel was part of the infantry; he was a foot soldier in the war to keep Highway 550 into Silverton open and keep the town it feeds alive. Imel was the third soldier to die in that war in 22 years and, like the other two, he was slain by the deadliest enemy of this unending conflict: the East Riverside Slide.
The winter of 1991-1992 was not an especially heavy one in these parts. In fact, after a good start–43″ of snow fell in Silverton in November–the snowfall petered out. December (15″), January (10″), and February (15″) were all unusually dry months for snow in the San Juans. Long periods of sunny days and cold, clear nights between storms served to rot out the early, scant snowpack. In other words, conditions were ripe for a serious avalanche season upon the arrival of the big, spring storms.
And arrive they did: Over 30 inches of snow fell in the San Juan Mountains and the slides were running all over the place. Highway 550 was finally closed, but by the time the gates were shut, it was too late. The CDOT truck that swept the road to make sure all motorists were out of danger dodged big slides before being blocked by a portion of the East Riverside Slide that had hit the road just north of the snowshed. Edie Imel and Danny Jaramillo were piloting a CDOT plow, attempting to clear the road so that the sweep truck and other motorists inside the snowshed could get to safety. The plow came to a stop, the two soldiers got out to adjust the chains, and, as the East Riverside is apt to do, it ran again, burying the plow and the drivers.
Everyone in the snowshed, CDOT officials, and local law enforcement reasonably assumed both victims of the slide were dead. A body recovery effort would have been too risky, so it was delayed. The motorists in the shed were escorted back to safety, the mourning began, and, 18 hours after the slide ran, a call came in from the emergency telephone in the snowshed. Danny Jaramillo had tunneled his way out of the cement-like snow. Imel’s body was recovered not long after.
The system, or rather the lack of a real system, for determining avalanche hazard and deciding when to close the road had failed one too many times. Things had to change.
Silverton’s connection with the outside world has always been vulnerable to snowslides. Before there were plow drivers risking their lives to keep the arteries and veins of San Juan civilization from being blocked, there were mail carriers. Before the railroad arrived in 1882, Silverton’s winter link to the lowlands usually consisted of no more than one man on a set of “snowshoes,” or long, wide, heavy wooden skis. Men with names like Greenhalgh, Aspaas, Bales, Mears, and Nelson skied regularly over Cunningham Pass (south of Stony Pass) with huge, 50- to 60-pound sacks on their backs or dragging sleds full of mail and supplies. It was not a job for the faint at heart — avalanche danger was ignored, at least one froze to death, and others, somehow, survived both snow and cold — but it was a necessary one. Without their efforts, Silverton would have had to shut down come winter.
In 1882, the railroad finally reached the heart of the San Juans, but by no means did this signal an end to avalanche troubles. The snowshoe-riding mail carriers of old, as long as they avoided being hit by slides, could simply ski over the top of the slide debris, but the train could not. From Needleton to Silverton, the tracks pass through the depository for dozens of slides, some of significant size. Dramatic photos of the Saguache slide (probably also known as the Snowshed slide north of Elk Park) show a trench dug for the train through a 60 foot pile of snow and debris. Nearly every winter saw at least one avalanche-caused blockade during which the train could not reach Silverton. Sometimes they only lasted a few hours while tens or even hundreds of men cleared the tracks. But there were times when Silverton was cut off from the world for days, weeks, and, in one case, three months. In 1884, Silverton was without a train for 73 days. Food ran short and milk cows were killed for beef.
The winter of 1906 will long be remembered as the most tragic, avalanche-wise, in the San Juans. Big January storms pounded the region following a relatively dry November and December, and the slides came down. Five men were killed at the mouth of the tunnel of the Sunnyside Mine near Eureka when they were engulfed by a slide. Eleven avalanches were reported between Silverton and Elk Park that ranged from seven to 30 feet deep and 50 to 450 feet long; the train was kept at bay for 18 days.
All of that was minor compared to what followed in March when an enormous storm sat over the region for about a week, relentlessly pounding the San Juans. Slides swept away the Shenandoah boarding house, killing twelve men, and ravaged a number of other structures in the area, often killing their inhabitants and making that the most deadly avalanche season ever in the San Juans. Twenty-four people lost their lives to snowslides in San Juan County that winter.
Transportation in and out of Silverton came to a standstill. Two-hundred men of Japanese descent worked to clear 50-foot deep piles of debris that at least 15 slides had deposited on the tracks between Needleton and Elk Park. It took 33 days for them to break through. Local newspaper editors blamed the Railroad, not the snowslides, for the delay in opening the tracks, a sentiment that would echo throughout the years, even after the highway became the main link between Silverton and everywhere else.
Perhaps the worst winter, in terms of Silverton being cut off from the outside, was 1931-1932. By then the highways to Ouray and Durango were gaining importance as supply routes through the San Juans. That gave the newspapers someone else, the highway department, to blame for closures. After a December storm, the editor of the Silverton Standard wrote: “Now during the recent storm it was not deemed expedient for men to attempt to keep the highway open, but after the storm settled it was clearly the duty of the maintenance department of Colorado to open the roads, or at least determine that they should not be opened. What was done? Nothing. How long in our case did the situation continue? For at least one week.”
Silverton continued that year to be pummeled by storm after storm. In February, following a devastating “San Juaner,” all highways were closed, including those to Howardsville and Gladstone; a slide wrecked the Iowa-Tiger boarding house at Silver Lake; all telephone lines in and out of Silverton were down; and the train crashed near Rockwood while attempting to reach Silverton. One couple hiked out to Ouray in order to escape the confines of Baker’s Park, some snowshoed to Rockwood in order to catch the train, and a 350-pound load of butter, eggs, and meat was brought by toboggan from Ouray. In April, it was reported that the Riverside Slide had deposited a pile of snow 300 feet long and 60 feet deep. The road to Durango (which at that time traveled down avalanche-riddled Lime Creek, not over Coal Bank Pass) was opened on April 30, and the Ouray side was cleared shortly thereafter.
Only four years later Silverton was shut off again by slides for weeks, prompting a team made up of Louis Dalla, E.F. Sutherland, James Baudino, John Turner, and Carl Larson to snowshoe down the canyon to Needleton to fetch the mail.
By the time one of the biggest winters in San Juan history hit in 1951, the railroad’s importance had been diminished somewhat by the improved highways, especially to the south. But in the San Juans even good highways, which traveled through slightly less avalanche-prone areas, are liable to be shut down, and that’s exactly what happened that year. There was so much snow that people had trouble getting around town, not to mention over the passes. The Highland Mary Mill in Cunningham Gulch was wrecked by a slide, killing one. The highway to the north opened after six days, and it took several more days of around-the-clock effort, to break through the dozens of slides that covered the road to the south.
In spite of the huge winters, the series of avalanches that hit the roads with regularity, and the lack of any avalanche policy governing Highway 550 at the time, not one motorist had been killed by an avalanche on the highway by the middle of the 20th century. Nevertheless, following the huge winter of 1952, the Colorado Highway Department implemented an official policy dealing with road closures and avalanche hazard. The policy said that if avalanche danger was determined to be high, the road would be closed, control work would be done, the debris would be cleared, and the road re-opened.
At first glance, the system seems identical to the current one. In practice, however, the road was usually kept open until the slides were coming down so big, and with such frequency, that the plows were simply unable to punch through them anymore. It was a policy that, at best, was unscientific. Louie Dalla, road supervisor for the Silverton district, who was known as a man who almost always kept the roads open, described the non-policy policy in a 1963 interview with Allen Nossaman: “About the only good rule is not to go in a storm. They ask us how an accident could have been prevented in many slides. The best answer to that is — They should have stayed in bed. The study of slides is a science, and the study comes pretty close to getting the answers but not close enough.”
In other words, it was up to the motorist, not the highway department, to ultimately assess the danger and make the decision about whether to travel the road or not. It is a noble sentiment, and one from another time before liability and lawsuits were the norm. Up until 1991, the only avalanche forecasters were the plow drivers themselves, their command centers the cabs of their plows. The policy was imperfect, at best and, in 1963, its fatal flaws were first revealed.
On March 3, 1963, Reverend Marvin Hudson made his usual trip over Red Mountain Pass to preside over services at the Silverton Congregational Church. He had his daughters Amelia and Pauline in the car with him. A large storm had hit and the East Riverside Slide had already run once. His car was slip-sliding across the road as he passed under the ominous East Riverside slide, so the Reverend stopped to install his chains. That is when the Riverside ran again. It took rescuers a week to find the Reverend’s body and another to find Amelia’s. Pauline was not recovered until May 30.
The tragedy inspired a Colorado Highway Department Engineer to recommend the construction of a snowshed under the Riverside, a suggestion made by a Swiss avalanche expert two years earlier. The shed was not built, the road closure policy remained the same, and, in 1970, plow driver Robert Miller was killed by the Riverside’s infamous second release.
Angered citizens demanded the construction of a snowshed but Highway 550, which is still one of the last places to get funding from the state transportation coffers, would get no protection. Nothing was done.
It took yet another fatality, under similar circumstances, to motivate the state to finally build the snowshed. This time it was plow driver Terry Kishbaugh who was taken by the East Riverside on February 10, 1978. Seven years later, the snowshed was built. At least one expert recommended the snowshed be 1,200 feet long; others said that the absolute minimum length for it to be effective was 400 feet. When all was said and done, the snowshed only covered 180 feet of highway (as it does today), leaving cars, and plow drivers, and Eddie Imel and Danny Jaramillo exposed to the deadly torrent known as the East Riverside slide.
Those were the fatalities. Then there were the close calls. According to CDOT statistics, 68 cars were hit by slides between 1951 and 1991 between Coal Bank and Ouray. These included a Trailways bus that was knocked off Molas Pass by the Champion slide and a bus bashed by the Brooklyns filled with miners coming home to Silverton from their shift at the Idarado Mine. Injuries were relatively minor. Finally, when the San Juans had to say goodbye to a third plow driver in 22 years, things changed.
In July 1992, CDOT announced its new Highway 550 Avalanche Hazard Reduction Plan. Weather and snowpack evaluation stations would be installed under the plan; avalanche control equipment such as Howitzers would be implemented; CDOT workers would all be trained in avalanche awareness; and fixed control-gun towers would be installed. Most significantly, however, the avalanche forecasting job would go to two Colorado Avalanche Information Center professionals based in Silverton (plow drivers, however, continue to serve an important role, communicating their on the road observations to forecasters).
Silverton’s forecasters are devoted, full-time, to assessing the avalanche hazard on the passes. Even during long periods between storms, they patrol the passes and analyze the snowpack, its structure, and its stability, allowing them to know approximately how much snow, and at what density, the current snowpack can hold in the event of a storm. When a storm does hit, the forecasters are out on the highway alongside the plow drivers, constantly monitoring conditions and passing recommendations on to the local road supervisor in Durango or Ridgway. Ultimately, it is the road supervisor, not the forecaster, that makes the decision to close the road.
The days of waiting for several big slides to come down before deeming the hazard high are over, according to Silverton Avalanche Forecaster Andy Gleason. This has sometimes caused impatience in Silverton, where people still remember the old days and where mail, supplies, and commuter routes are shut down along with the roads. And, of course, when the road is closed it means the precious few winter tourists and their money are kept out, an issue that may even get more urgent when the new ski area opens. Many citizens, especially those that have been around for a while, feel that it is premature to close the roads before any slides have come down.
Gleason disagrees. “When I recommend closure I’m always asked: ‘What slides hit the road,” said Gleason. “If we were doing our job really well we would answer that nothing hit the road, but this is what is about to hit the road.” Gleason concedes that, partly because of the importance of the roads to Silverton, the road is usually not closed until smaller “indicator” slides such as the Blue Point have run. Or, he says, if two inches of snow fall in one hour or less in the Uncompahgre Gorge, then it is time to lock the gates with or without indicator slides. “It will avalanche,” said Gleason.
The ultimate goal of the avalanche reduction program, according to Gleason, is to create more avalanches of smaller size. “Our perfect avalanche control day would be if every slide ran small to the edge of the road so that there is no clean-up necessary,” said Gleason.
Although this policy may mean more frequent and earlier closures, ultimately it could result in cumulative closures of fewer hours during a winter than under the old policy. Most importantly, of course, it means that everyone — the plow drivers, the motorists, the law enforcement people patrolling the roads — are safer.
Its first decade of existence has been a successful one for the Avalanche Hazard Reduction Plan. Imel’s was the last avalanche-related fatality on Highway 550, close calls are rare, and during the past five years, long, sustained closures have been kept to a minimum. In 1998-1999 Red Mountain Pass was closed for a total of 110 hours and Molas/Coal Bank for 17 hours; in 1999-2000, the road to the north was only out of service for a total of 33 hours and Molas was closed for a paltry 6.5 hours; and last year, an average snow year, Red Mountain was down for 83 hours and Molas/Coal Bank for 30 hours. These numbers are not small, but in earlier years it was not unheard of for the road to be closed in both directions for 83 hours at one time.
Improvements during the last five years have helped the forecasters and controllers immensely. Snow measurement stakes have been placed in the starting zones of the West Lime Creek and Mother Cline slides; Howitzers have returned to their traditional place in avalanche control work, making helicopters less necessary and allowing for more efficiency and quicker control work; and the forecasters learn more about the snowpack each year.
Still, the new plan is not perfect. Gleason would like to see more forecasters here (two, Silverton-based forecasters cover Coal Bank, Molas, and Red Mountain Passes in addition to Lizard Head Pass, which is two hours away by CDOT truck); more passive control measures such as snowsheds, snow fences, and snow defense structures; better automated weather stations; and a remote avalanche detection system (one is being researched here but Gleason signed a waiver promising not to talk about it).
John Greenell (a.k.a. Greenhalgh) and his trusty pair of snowshoes was one of the mail carriers that provided Silverton a link with the outside world in its earliest winters of existence. He was known as a man that could make the trip up Cunningham Gulch, over Cunningham Pass, into the Rio Grande Country and to Del Norte and back in any type of weather.
On Monday, November 27, 1876, Greenell set out from Carr’s Cabin on the other side of the divide on the return trip (over Stony Pass this time) to Silverton. He never arrived. A group of searchers found his body a few days later, frozen to death near the top of Stony Pass, his hand rigidly clutching his mailbag.
We have changed a great deal since Greenell’s days, but the mountains are just about the same. Winters are still hard, avalanches still rush down mountainsides, and Silverton is still, occasionally, isolated from the outside world.
Here’s a report on the flooding in Nebraska from Peter Salter writing for The Lincoln Journal Star. Click through and read the whole article and check out the various videos. Here’s an excerpt:
From their offices in Lincoln early Thursday, hydrologists with the U.S. Geological Survey were monitoring the final few moments of a stream gauge more than 200 miles away, on the Niobrara River.
It was hinting at something catastrophic.
“We were watching it from here, and it looked like something incredible was happening that we couldn’t believe,” said Jason Lambrecht. “And suddenly, everything went dark.”
The gauge had been ripped away by the wall of water released when the 90-year-old Spencer Dam failed under the pressure of the river, swollen with rain and rapid snowmelt and broken ice. But its last readings allowed Lambrecht to measure the size of the surge.
Earlier, the Niobrara had been running at 5 or 6 feet of gauge height. After it broke through the dam, it measured nearly 17.5 feet. It wasn’t a gradual increase, either…
And in its wake, three Nebraska counties would learn how that much moving water can become immediately destructive and potentially deadly. How it can cause instant pain and long-term suffering. How it can harm not only those in its path, but those living miles away.
First, the wave swept away a section of U.S. 281, a nearby riverside saloon and at least one home, possibly occupied. And it continued downstream, barreling toward the town of Niobrara — and its mouth at the Missouri River — about 40 miles away.
Knox County: ‘It’s crazy’
The service station owners thought they were ready for the coming water.
They’d taken the tire machine and other equipment away. They brought the important paperwork home. They put their ’68 Camaro up on the lift. They moved the rest of what they could to higher ground, filling the rafters with inventory.
And the couple had a huge inventory. Vic’s Service has anchored the west edge of Niobrara for 25 years, and had enough hydraulic fittings and plumbing pieces to serve as a kind of farmer’s supply store, said Ruth Janak, who co-owns the station with her husband, Victor.
They checked on their business Wednesday, and found it already swamped with 4 feet of water, her desk upturned, pop machines on their sides. A mess, but nothing they couldn’t handle.
“We thought, when the water recedes, we’ll be able to get in and clean all that up,” she said.
They returned Thursday, and found most of it missing.
“Our main building, the one we did our business at, it’s gone. The gas pumps are gone. We lost the propane tank. So many tools are gone,” Janak said Friday. “Where’s all that stuff at? It’s crazy.”
Later, she would find a jug of hydraulic fluid — and someone else’s pontoon boat — on what remained of the town’s golf course. But their main building, and much of what it contained, had likely tumbled downstream.
Theirs wasn’t the only missing building. The wall of water had brutalized Niobrara’s west side, a low-lying commercial district, and the part of town closest to the river.
Jody Stark, the chair of the village board, listed the other casualties. Several buildings from a hay business? Gone. A state Department of Transportation garage? Gone. A Knox County road shop? Gone. The Mormon Bridge on Nebraska 12? Stark has video of the deck floating away. The Country Cafe? Still standing, but it had been nearly swallowed by water and ice, with maybe a foot of the roof visible at one point.
“A lot of buildings washed away,” he said. “They were pretty much swept right down the river and they’re in the Missouri somewhere.”
The good news? Almost all of the 300 or so residents of Niobrara live on higher ground, and weren’t directly hurt by the floodwaters…
Still, his town was struggling. The flooding compromised the town’s two wells, leaving its residents without a water supply, and the fire department was going door-to-door, filling containers. Getting in and out of town was also difficult; by Friday, the Standing Bear Bridge to South Dakota had reopened, and there was one passable gravel road south of town. Nebraska 14, the main route south out of Niobrara, was so strewn with ice it was only open for emergency travel.
The damage was unprecedented, Stark said, and worse than they had originally expected. But that was before they’d heard the Spencer Dam had failed and even more water was headed their way…
The Spencer Dam was a flow-through hydroelectric dam, with garage-type doors that let water through, and Becker said it wasn’t known whether the doors had been open or closed at the time. They disappeared downstream, he said.
Its breach triggered immediate and long-term problems. It swept away a Holt County house just downstream, and authorities were still searching for its owner.
“On March 14th at around 5 in the morning the dam on the niobrara river south of Spencer NE was overtaken by flooding and ice jams. 2 days prior to this there was significant snow melting. 1 day prior there was all day rain measuring 1-1.5 inches. The ground was still frozen from recent below normal temperatures. All that water broke loose ice chunks the size of cars and trucks. The dam was no match for this extreme force. The dam and the dike were both destroyed. The water then washed out Hwy 281 and flooding many communities downstream.” — Birkel Dirtwork
And the force of the flow severed the supply of water to the north, in Boyd County. Many of its 2,000 residents relied on the pipeline from Holt County that was buried beneath the river. Now that it’s gone, they don’t have the water they need for drinking, for livestock, for flushing.
They received a truckload of bottled water Friday, enough to last maybe a day, said Doug Fox, Boyd County’s emergency management coordinator. They need more…
And Boyd County was struggling to stay connected with the rest of the state. The failure of Spencer Dam took out a pair of routes over the Niobrara River, and the only ways out of Boyd County were north into South Dakota or west into Keya Paha County, Fox said.