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Allen Best

High Water in Colorado, With Ripples to Las Vegas

Colorado’s snowiest surveyed location, Buffalo Pass, on average reaches its maximum depth on May 9 and then begins shrinking. This year is not average. Snowpack at the 10,500-foot pass, located north of Steamboat Springs, this year got to 202 inches but has lost little bulk. Too much new snow keeps coming. That, in turn, means the water content keeps rising. The former record of 71.1 inches was breached long ago, and as of Monday morning the new record was 79.2 inches. Spring this year is looking over its shoulder at winter. But when the snowmelt finally begins in earnest, Colorado will have what kayakers and rafters call a big water year. The circumstances have some emergency service personnel a trifle nervous. Dam operators, worried about what will happen when the weather inevitably warms, have been draining reservoirs, confident that there’s plenty of water on the mountain slopes in replacement. Downstream in the desert, the giant reservoirs called Powell and Mead should have higher water levels. Half of the Colorado River’s water comes from Colorado.

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Western Utilities Aim For Increased Efficiency

In 1989, energy activist Amory Lovins noticed a simple typo — “negawatt” for “megawatt” — in a report. That simple mistake, thought Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, captured the essence of what he believed should be done. Instead of building new power plants, he advocated using existing electrical generation more efficiently. That idea of negawatts continues to gain purchase in the West as investor-owned utilities, which are overseen by state utility commissions, begin to bend down the growth in electrical demand even while earning profits. Last week, for example, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission set energy-saving goals for Xcel Energy, the state’s largest provider of electricity and gas. The PUC specified that Xcel should aim to institute electrical savings equivalent to 1.14 percent of sales beginning in 2012, escalating to 1.68 percent of sales in 2020. The PUC, in its written opinion, called these targets “properly ambitious yet realistically achievable.” The Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, an activist group, estimates that if Xcel succeeds, the savings in Colorado will shave electrical use by four billion kilowatt hours per year in 2020. That’s unlikely to close power plants, but it’s could eliminate the need to build a 575-megawatt power plant for base-load generation, says Howard Geller, the group’s founder.

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Winter Ebbs None Too Soon in Breckenridge and Crested Butte

At about 9,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, a longstanding belief among old-timers was that the pivot between winter and spring occurred on St. Patrick’s Day. Before that, snow piles kept growing. Afterward, new storms only added to the snow depths temporarily. The longer-term trend was melting. That we’re into the spring melt is probably a good thing in many mountain towns, including Breckenridge, which has a base elevation of 9,600 feet. There, impatience set in during early March with icy sidewalks, rising road-side berms and alleys lost under the winter coating. Part of the annoyance had to do with reduced snowplowing service. While the network of roads has expanded in recent years, the amount of staffing devoted to clearing them has declined. Town officials say they have reduced their Cadillac-level services to those of a Subaru. “When we go back and look at what we think is sustainable financially, those are some of the realities that have come about in trying to be financially responsible,” explained spokeswoman Kim DiLallo.

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$100 Lift-Ticket Barrier Passed by Vail, Aspen

Quietly this winter, a milestone was surpassed in the ski industry. Two ski areas have now charged more than $100 per day for lift tickets. Vail was the first, during the Christmas holidays, charging $108. Then, on the Presidents’ Day Weekend, Aspen came in with a $104 price. “It’s been looming there for a long time,” David Perry, senior vice president of the Aspen Skiing Co., referring to the $100 threshold. “Had the recession not occurred, the barrier would have been cracked more rapidly,” he told the Aspen Times.

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Backcountry Skiers Complain Snowmobiles Ruining Their Experience

Ski towns are like family, but as in many families, plenty of bickering goes on. Take Crested Butte. Everybody loves the b.c. – the backcountry, that is. But as has been occurring now for 15 years or more, some skiers and snowboarders are buying snowmobiles to eliminate the sweat and get dibs on the choice backcountry slopes. One local skier recently complained about planning to ski the Slate River, north of Crested Butte, and encountering seven snowmobiles while strapping skins onto her skis. “I almost threw up from the smell. I turned around and left,” said Melanie Rees.

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A Report From Attending Possibly the Worst Ski Movie Ever Made

The movie was advertised as dreadful, probably the worst skiing movie ever made. And after a viewing on Saturday evening at the Denver’s Film Society, that seems a fair description of the star-starved “Snowbeast.” While some reviewers have tried to find redeeming value, this reviewer could only find solace in seeing Crested Butte, where the movie was filmed. A made-for-television horror film, apparently modeled on “Jaws,” it was first broadcast in 1977. The plot featured a certain Rill Lodge and Ski Resort, where a 50th Annual Winter Carnival was under way, as well as a thin love triangle, an aging Olympic skier coping with his post-skiing mission in life and then… missing skiers.

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Throughout the Rockies, Utility Companies Reluctantly Reconsider Coal Plants

Scores of new coal-fired power plants that were being planned across the nation six or seven years ago have mostly been shelved. Last year alone, utilities and power-generating companies dropped plans to build 38 coal plants, according to the Sierra Club, while announcing they would retire 48 aging, inefficient ones. Stepping into the void is natural gas and renewables. Utilities have also more aggressively embraced demand-side management strategies to bend down the growth curve.

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Snow and Economy Yield Surge of Western Skiers

Reports from the Aspen Skiing Co., Vail Resorts and Colorado Ski Country USA all suggest a very, very good winter so far for resorts in Colorado and, somewhat more broadly, the West. Healthy snow helps, but also clearly evident is an improved economy. Aspen logged a 7 percent increase through December at its four ski areas in the Aspen-Snowmass Village area. The snowpack in the Aspen area was 25 percent above average at mid-January. In addition, the company attributed the increase to boosted service levels that yielded return visits, plus its “value-added marketing,” a company official tells the Aspen Times. Vail Resorts reported a 10 percent increase through early January at its four ski areas in Colorado and two ski areas in the Lake Tahoe Basin of California and Nevada. The company said revenue for lift tickets, ski rentals and lodging was up at all resorts.

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UPDATED: Two Major Lodges at Telluride May Close

Both properties had entered the foreclosure process in October. A court-appointed receiver in November had assured the public that the properties would remain in operation through ski season. But, he now says, the revenues just don’t justify continued operations. The lodges employ 120 people. The Capella, in particular, has been described as a high-end property with extraordinary service levels, and it was expected to allow Telluride to compete with the highest-end resorts of the West. A condo-hotel, it opened at virtually the worst time imaginable, February 2009. John Volponi, general manager of both properties, told the Telluride Watch that the Capella financial model’s dependence upon sale of the condominiums to prepay the construction debt was the fatal flaw.

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Recent Deaths at Montana’s Whitefish Mountain Highlight Dangers Resorts Rarely Discuss

On a powder day, there are no friends. That saying is probably as old as the first ski lift, but it’s a dangerous wisdom — as was demonstrated at Montana’s Whitefish Mountain Resort during recent weeks. Two snow riders – one on skis, the other a snowboard – both plunged head first into the wells surrounding trees at the resort. Hung upside down by their boards, choked by the collapsing snow and wedged by the tree and branches, they could barely move. Or so the evidence suggested. The first victim 16-year-old Niclas Waeschle, an exchange student from Germany, was unconscious but still alive when he was fished out of a tree well. Several days later he was removed from life support. Then, in early January, Scott Allen Meyer, a 29-year-old probation and parole officer, was found dead after he failed to reunite with friends at day’s end. The particulars of these separate tragedies broadly parallel a statistical profile of victims of what is clinically called non-avalanche related snow immersion deaths, or NARSIDs. About one-third of victims die with no tree near. But whether in tree-wells or out, nearly all victims are young, male and were riding the snow alone during or shortly after a big storm. “It doesn’t happen every place every year, and it doesn’t necessarily happen every year,” says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, a trade group. Prodded by his group, ski areas have become more aware of the potential peril in recent years and have taken increasing steps to remind customers of dangers.

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