The battle over the future of a land of water and wilderness

BWCA fishing time

Lukas Leaf, far right, settles into his canoe as he and other anglers head out for an evening fishing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. Leaf is the outreach coordinator for Sportsmen for the Boundary waters, a group campaigning against a proposed copper/nickel mine near the BWCA border. Photo and story by Dave Buchanan

Tim Barton, a guide and outfitter for Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely, Minn., likely knows as well as anyone the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a 1.09-million-acre gem of public land in far-north Minnesota that stretches for 150 miles along the U.S./Canada border.

Barton, 31, has been journeying through the Boundary Waters since he was “6 or 7, I guess,” he said. ““By the time I was 13 I was guiding trips for my dad.”

This is a land that’s mostly water, where most of the estimated 1,100 lakes, spruce-dotted islands and rivers with white-water falls are accessible only by paddle or portage.

It’s also a land of contrasts. At night, an immense bowl of sky showers you with a king’s ransom of stars dancing across dark skies like a million candles to light your way, and in the day that expanse of sky cradles endless expanses of pristine water and an ever-changing vista of every imaginable shade of green, this month sprinkled with red, carmine and gold, the first changing of the leaves.

You hear the wind in the spruce, a loon’s distant whistle, the grunt of moose, maybe even the howl of a wolf.

Barton tried living in Colorado for a while but found irresistible the lure of the north woods.

“I couldn’t live anywhere else,” he said.

Last week, thanks to the efforts of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Barton and fellow guide (and forager par excellence) Lukas Leaf, outreach coordinator for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, herded four writers and photographers on a four-day trip into the bones of the BWCAW.

Thee, with a captive/receptive audience, Barton and Leaf preached the gospel of what the Boundary Waters means to the area’s estimated quarter-million annual visitors and the importance of saving this wilderness from the threat of a sulfide-ore copper/nickel mine proposed to be dug in the Boundary Waters watershed.

split supprt from MPR

Split emotions are evident during a recent hearing about an underground mine proposed near the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area. Courtesy Minnesota Public Radio.

Northern Minnesota is mining country, its past forged with a complex history and the millions of tons of iron ore dug from the ground and shipped to mills and foundries, many of them on the shores of Lake Superior less than 100 miles to the southeast. Many of those mines have closed, often due to competition from foreign ores and depressed national markets.

There still are many people in Ely and elsewhere who dream of the return of well-paying mining jobs.They are well-meaning and serious about what the mine could provide mean to the economic future of the area and their families.

But mining iron ore isn’t the same as mining copper ore with its sulfurous residue, Leaf said one night as the campfire burned low. One rusts, the other acidifies, and a spill into a river can quickly change a vibrant river into a lifeless stream.

And I’ve seen the destruction a failed acid-leach mine tailing pile can wreak on an environment. Colorado’s mining history (e.g., Leadville, Del Norte, Silverton) is replete with what happens when a tailing dam fails or acid drainage leaches into a nearby stream or river.

“Over time, the structural integrity and the general competency of all tunnels and underground mine workings will continue to deteriorate without regular maintenance,” states an Environmental Protection Agency handout written about the Leadville acid mining drainage.

Today, tourism, mostly the year-round lure of the Boundary Waters and adjacent Quetico Provincial Park in Canada, is the one of region’s leading economic drivers albeit less (by about a third) of mining’s economic impact.

In 2016, the federal government said it would not renew two key mineral leases which had expired in 2013, saying the proposed mine posed too great a threat to the Boundary Waters.

But that was before the Trump administration came to power. Now, Twin Metals Mining has renewed its fight to have the leases renewed, feeling the chances are better with the de-regulation attitude popular in Washington, D.C.

Currently, the leases are being reviewed. The public comment period closed last month.

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Green Mtn. Reservoir latest to reach the “suspect” list for invasive mussels.

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The Heeney Marina on Green Mountain Reservoir near Silverthorne. Photo courtesy Heeney Marina.

The battle continues. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has listed Green Mountain Reservoir north of Silverthorne as “suspect” for invasive aquatic mussels.

Read the press release here and the Denver Post article here.

Winter’s unlikely weather may be new norm for water forecasters

Neversink 2017

Neversink was a popular fishing resort on the Gunnison River below Gunnison before Blue Mesa Dam backed up the river to nine miles west of Gunnison. Photo and story by Dave Buchanan.

This past spring year was particularly mettlesome for water managers seeking to balance water supplies and demand in the Upper Gunnison River Basin.

Although there currently are no shortages of water this year, the vagaries of last winter, from unseasonably warm to unseasonably cold, may hold some warning about future water forecasting for regional hydrologists, cautioned Greg Smith, Senior Hydrologist for NOAA’s Colorado River Basin Forecasting Center in Salt Lake.

The art of forecasting water supplies has as one of its main tools historical data and the rapidity of changes in the Earth’s climate recently has been handcuffing the best efforts of forecasters, said Smith during the last week’s Aspinall Unit Operations meeting in Grand Junction.

The quarterly meetings, sponsored by the Western Colorado Area Office of the Bureau of Reclamation, offer a look at what hydrologists and weather forecasters portend for future water supplies in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

“2017 was challenging,” Smith said when addressing the year’s weather. “When we go from one (weather) extreme to the other, as we have seen this year, that makes our job even more difficult.”

summer snotel

The Beartown SNOTEL site in Mineral County gets some summer maintenance from Zach Wilson. This winter, similar remote-sensing sites were buried by snow. Photo by Mike Ardison.

A pair of linked examples was the unusual warming in March, which caused some very early low-elevation melting and ensuing runoff, followed by an unseasonably cold May (“February-like temperatures,” Smith said) which drastically slowed that runoff and caused concern among water managers wondering when and if the runoff would begin anew.

All this was tied to the near-record snows of late December and January, which overwhelmed some of the region’s remote-sensing SNOTEL sites.

“Several sites quit reporting and we thought they had broken but in reality they had been completely buried by the snow,” Smith said. “In March, a lot of the sites (in the Upper Gunnison Basin) recorded their highest totals on record … some of which go back 39 years.”

Are the aberrant weather patterns of last winter just that or are they indications of a new normal that eventually will become part of the historical data?

Smith isn’t sure.

“Well, we try to use long-term records in making our (water-supply) forecasts, at least 20 years or more,” Smith said. “So even these recent weather patterns will take a while to become part of the permanent record.

“And we’re certainly aware of weather changes. Even a few degrees one way or the other affects snowmelt and eventually water supplies.”

Water managers face unusual dilemma: Too much water

Blue Mesa full 2017

A summer storm over Blue Mesa Reservoir west of Gunnison. At this writing, the reservoir was more than 98 percent full. Story and photo by Dave Buchanan.

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. It’s better to be rich.” – Gertrude Stein, American novelist.

Farmers, ranchers and domestic water managers all agree with Ms. Stein when it comes to matters of water. Rich is much better than poor.

And water-rich is what the Upper Gunnison Basin finds itself this year.

So much so, the Bureau of Reclamation faces some timing decisions later this summer and fall in emptying swollen reservoirs along the Gunnison River.

“It’s going to take a lot of work” to reach the winter operating level at Blue Mesa Reservoir, said Erik Knight, lead hydrologist for the Bureau’s Western Colorado Area Office in Grand Junction.

Speaking at Thursday’s quarterly Aspinall Unit Operations meeting, Knight said the reservoir, which Saturday was 98.5 percent full with 817,000 acre feet of water, needs to reach 7,490 elevation by the end of December to avoid icing problems upstream.

The current elevation is 7,518 feet elevation.

“We’re going to be running a lot of water (through Blue Mesa) to meet the Dec. 31 deadline,” Knight said. “But right now our lower reservoirs also are full and Crystal (Dam) is at full power plant release.”

The reason anglers, recreationists and Chamber of Commerce folks have a bank-to-bank Blue Mesa is the result of the late-season storms that blanketed the Upper Gunnison Basin and a cooler-than-normal spring that delayed the runoff.

At last count, inflows into Blue Mesa this year are around 136 percent of normal, and recent rains have continued the inflows.

Also brimming are Crystal Reservoir (88 percent) and Morrow Point Reservoir (98 percent).

Knight said releases out of Crystal are around 1,900 cfs, which is the most possible without spilling the reservoir.

“We have no plans to spill Crystal,” he said.

One beneficiary of all that water is Lake Powell, which currently is 67 feet down or 62 percent full. That level is 17 feet higher than the same time last year but don’t expect Powell to fill much more this year.

Most of the water released by Upper Basin states will be passing through to Lake Mead and then downstream to the Lower Basin and Mexico.

Around 9 million acre-feet of water is expected to be released this summer, more than the 8.25-million acre feet required by the Colorado River Compact and enough to delay concerns about water shortages in Lake Mead.

 

 

Sale of Steamboat ski area marks more change in state industry

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Steamboat Ski Area has new owners and now is part of a 12-resort package, which includes Mammoth Mountain and Squaw Valley plus the heli-ski operation, Canadian Mountain Holidays. Photo – Marty Foubister, Creative Commons 

The announcement Monday of the sale of Steamboat Ski Area, one of this state’s iconic (can I say that? It’s terribly over-used but in this case actually means something) ) resorts brings yet another major player into the ski biz in Colorado.

It also contributes to the rapid extinction of locally owned ski areas in the state.

The sale to the joint venture of KSL Capital Partners and an affiliate of Henry Crown and Company, along with the completion by the joint venture of the purchase of Mammoth Resorts in California, combines 12 mountain resorts, among them Winter Park, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows and the four Mammoth Mountain resorts plus other holdings, and an estimated 6 million annual skier visits. That’s a bunch o’ skiers, boarders and winter users.

Henry Crown and the Crown family, as you may or may not know, is the owner of Aspen Skiing Company, which includes Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk. But don’t expect your Steamboat pass to get you onto Aspen slopes, at least not this winter. A report on the Steamboat website said the Aspen/Snowmass resorts and properties will remain separate from the latest dealings.

It’s not like the Steamboat or Mammoth sales were unexpected; many of the preliminary details of the pending purchases of Intrawest and Mammoth Resorts were made public in April. Nor was Steamboat sold because the resort is hurting financially or standing still in its quest to meet skiers’ wants. In fact, with an expansion planned for the Pioneer Ridge area and hopes for a new gondola into Bashor Bowl, Steamboat seems ripe for a new owner with deep pockets.

What remains are concerns as to how being owned by another aggressive investment company will affect Steamboat, meaning not only the resort but Steamboat Springs the city as well.  Intrawest Resorts Holdings, Inc., the former owner of Steamboat, wouldn’t have sold had it not thought the sale would bring a profit, which is how investment funds work.

Which means more changes at Steamboat should be expected.

Last May KSL joined with Crown in plans to acquire Intrawest Resorts Holdings, Inc., Steamboat’s now-former owner and the purchase of Mammoth Resorts, the owner of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, Snow Summit, Bear Mountain and June Mountain, all in California. Monday’s announcement finalized all the dealings.

All of which makes the whole ski world become that much more corporate.

 

 

 

CPW gets its poacher: Californian pinned with wildlife crimes

Here is something we can’t hear often enough: Colorado Parks and Wildlife stuck a California poacher with a pile of wildlife violations and now he faces not only big-time fines but also the potential loss of his hunting and fishing privileges.

Read the press release here.

According to CPW, Kyle Odle, 29, of Menifee, Calif., not only is an egregious repeat offender (many of the charges against him include the words “multiple counts”) but a Marine veteran who falsified his status as a vet to assist in committing wildlife crimes.

After reading the litany of charges against this clown, it’s hard to figure out if there is any  wildlife interest he didn’t offend. Properly licensed hunters, both resident and nonresident? Check. Vets? Check. Landowners? Check. Guides and outfits? Check. Biologists and mule deer conservation groups trying to restore Colorado’s mule deer? Check. License agents? Check. And so on.

Odle was sentenced to pay around $11,000 in fines (plus a $5,500 reimbursement to hunters he cheated by pretending to be a legal guide) and, pending a hearing, may lose his hunting and fishing privileges for life in this and 42 other states.

That he escaped jail time for potential felony charges is a pity since he deserves some time alone. Not that he would likely spend it thinking of where he went wrong, but sticking a felony charge (and its restrictions on owning firearms) on his record would insure he wouldn’t be able to hunt again.

The finding of the 14th Judicial District Court in Moffat County comes as good news because getting convictions on wildlife crimes has never been easy. Especially so in metropolitan areas where courts have backed-up dockets filled with horrific civil cases needing adjudication.

However, rural judges and attorneys have long had a better understanding of what wildlife means to the people of the state and have pursued convictions citing the crimes. I don’t know any over-worked wildlife officer eager to spend time testifying in court when that could be spent teaching the positive aspects of wildlife management, but here it was time well spent.

Power plant shutdown puts end to peak flows on Gunnison River

East Portal spring 2017

The Gunnison River at the East Portal diversion for the Gunnison Tunnel in May of this year when flows were around 10,500 cfs. This year’s spring peak-flow releases to meet various downstream demands ended today. Photo/story by Dave Buchanan

The Western Colorado Area office of the Bureau of Reclamation announced today (Friday, June 16) that the spring peak-flow operations on the Gunnison River have ended. “Due to an issue with the power plant at Crystal Dam, the ramp down was forced to end prematurely,” the announcement said. A BuRec official said the power plan “tripped offline” and as of late Friday the plant still was awaiting an inspection.

Initially the BuRec had planned to continue ramping the peak flows through Monday but the loss of the power plant meant river flows dropped to their previously set post-peak level.

“As of today (June 16) releases are being made through the bypass gates at a rate of 2,150 cfs. This has put flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon around 1,150 cfs,” Friday’s announcement said. The Gunnison Tunnel, which carries water from the Gunnison River to the Uncompahgre Valley, currently is taking about 1,000 cfs.

According to the Bureau, the releases will continue at this rate “for the foreseeable future,” with further adjustments possible depending on runoff into Blue Mesa Reservoir.

As of Thursday, Blue Mesa was at an elevation of 7,501.88 feet, which puts it at 81.6 percent of full pool and 18 feet below full pool (7,520 feet elevation).

Unless something unexpected happens to the current runoff forecast, Bureau officials it is expected the reservoir will fill this summer.