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Mountain News: What mountain rivers will help Denver grow?

GUNNISON, Colo. - Mountain towns in the Rockies have a symbiotic relationship with Denver and other cities along Colorado's urbanized, Front Range corridor. It is typically also one of ambivalence.

GUNNISON, Colo. - Mountain towns in the Rockies have a symbiotic relationship with Denver and other cities along Colorado's urbanized, Front Range corridor. It is typically also one of ambivalence.

That Front Range corridor already consists of four million people, the single largest source of skiing customers in North America, perhaps anywhere on the planet. That base allows Colorado ski areas with relative proximity to survive even when the more distant-but more lucrative-destination skiers stay at home.

That was evident in last week's report from Vail Resorts, which has four major ski areas within a two-hour drive of that Front Range population, plus another at Lake Tahoe. While destination skiers dropped to 57 per cent of the total visitation this past winter, compared to 63 per cent the year before, Vail Resorts had a total decline of skier visits of only 5.3 per cent.

But the need of Front Range cities for water causes continuing tension, with reverberations as far away as Jackson, Wyo.

Native supplies were proving inadequate even 125 years ago, when farmers discovered they had insufficient water during late summer to finish their crops. To accommodate their needs, creeks from the western side off the Continental Divide, in the area of Rocky Mountain National Park, were diverted eastward.

Since then, the headwaters areas from Granby southward to Winter Park, Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen, have become configured with an intricate labyrinth of ditches, reservoirs, canals and tunnels, all with the intent of achieving what historian (and Telluride native) David Lavender described as a "massive violation of geography."

With the easy diversions completed decades ago, Front Range interests began to look for the small increments close in, what has been described as the "last drop," or with big straws in mind to draw from more distant sources.

The drought of 2002 provoked an even greater intensity of focus. So do population projections that envision the state's population doubling by the year 2050, with four-fifths of that population growth occurring along the Front Range.

One idea still being studied calls for pumping of water from Green Mountain Reservoir, located on the Blue River, about 20 miles to Dillon Reservoir, for diversion to Denver. A compensatory dam on the Eagle River west of Vail might be the quid pro quo to the Western Slope.

Other ideas look at more distant sources. Aaron Million proposes to withdraw water from the Green River, which starts in Wyoming's Wind River Range, an hour or two south of the town of Jackson. The river briefly enters Colorado before continuing down to a confluence with the Colorado River near Moab. As such, Million says, Colorado is entitled to the water from the Green as per river compacts reached in 1922 and 1948. But Wyoming isn't so sure. Even people in Jackson, Wyo., who would be unaffected, have been testy about the idea.

Another idea calls for a diversion from the Yampa River, about 65 miles west of Steamboat Springs. The Yampa is tributary to the Green.

Still another thought sees a potential water source in Blue Mesa Reservoir, west of Gunnison. The water, some 200,000 acre-feet annually, might not actually be withdrawn from the reservoir; but the water stored within the reservoir might be appropriated for diversion to the Front Range.

Recently, reports the Crested Butte News , state representatives visited water district officials in the Gunnison area to talk about the long-term big picture. Harris Sherman, the executive director of the state's Department of Natural Resources, said the state needed to be "looking 20, 30, 40 years out."

Complicating the envisioning is the likelihood of reduced water supplies because of warming temperatures and changed precipitation patterns. While scientists remain uncertain, one study at Colorado State University sees a 2 to 20 per cent reduction in flows of the upper Colorado River, Sherman noted.

None of the world's problems were solved at the meeting. But, from the report in the News, it was an uncommonly good one for quotes.

Consider the remarks of Steve Glazer, a long-time water activist from Crested Butte. "There are a plethora of poison pills here," he said. One such "pill" is that Colorado really is not entitled to as much water as this plan envisions. A study is underway to help sort that out.

Ken Spann, who ranches between Crested Butte and Gunnison, also added some folksiness to the proceedings. He said not enough details about the plan have been provided about the Blue Mesa idea for him to have an informed opinion.

"Without meat on the horse, I can't tell whether to feed it hay or grain," said Spann.

Canmore and Banff try to help tourism evolve

CANMORE, Alberta - With real estate development in the tank, Canmore has begun studying how it can foster its tourism economy. The city government has appropriated $80,000 for the study, which will include hiring consultants.

The tourism industry is not broken, said John Samms, who directs an organization called Tourism Canmore. But it is evolving.

Up the road at Banff, municipal representatives were plotting how to sell the Canadian Rockies as an affordable alternative to Whistler for ski vacations when Whistler hosts the Olympics next February.

A bit of grime not all bad in mountain towns

DURANGO, Colo. - Durango has never been a high-end destination resort. True, the town fills with tourists each summer, most drawn to take the narrow-gauge train to Silverton. And in winter there's a ski area up the road.

But Durango exudes a more earthy, blue-collar feel than even those ski towns that once were mining towns. Durango Telegraph co-editor Will Sands, formerly of Crested Butte and Telluride, says Durango has some hard edges, what he calls "a bit of grease in the town's silver spoon."

Yet with plenty of biking trails, whitewater through the middle of town, and sharply defined mountains in the distance, it's at no loss for outdoor amenities.

"Yep, I've seen the royal Hollywood treatment inflicted on two birds of paradise and can tell you first-hand that there are worse creatures lurking in the night than Desert Rock," says Sand, alluding to a proposed power plant about 50 miles away.

"We're a pint of excellent microbrew with a thumb-print on the glass," he concludes.

Sun Valley continues debate about airport

KETCHUM, Idaho - The Sun Valley Co., operator of the ski area, continues to argue against a new airport at a location more distant from Ketchum and Sun Valley. Most community groups seem to support a new airport, which would accommodate larger airplanes. But that tentative site will be about twice as far from Sun Valley as the current location at Hailey, about 20 miles from the resort center. Wally Huffman, the company's director of resort development, fears travelers will be unwilling to pay a premium to fly to the Sun Valley area, rather than to Twin Falls or Boise - Idaho towns that are more distant, but within a couple of hours drive.

Runway extension will increase airport traffic

GYPSUM, Colo. - Eagle County Regional Airport has been closed for the summer while the runway gets extended 1,000 feet. The airport accommodates traffic primarily to the Vail and Beaver Creek area, but also has become a significant portal for Aspen-Snowmass visitors.

When completed, the 9,000-foot-long runway will be better able to accommodate [NEW WORD] jets flying from distant cities, including New York City. Because of the relatively high elevation, about 6,500 feet, and mountain topography, larger planes taking off from the airport during warmer, summer months cannot carry full passenger loads. This decreases the revenue. A longer runway will also accommodate longer flights during winter, theoretically even from Europe.

As it has for much of the work at the airport during the last quarter-century, the Federal Aviation Administration will pick up 95 percent of the $22 million cost. Compared with the airport at Aspen, where the largest jet holds no more than 74 passengers, many jets at Eagle County Regional have room for up to 194 passengers

High-tech goodies in hospital at Park City

PARK CITY, Utah - While politicians in Washington D.C. debate how to contain spiraling health-care costs, an $88 million hospital prepares to open near Park City. The Park Record says that a crane was required recently to install a $1.6 million magnetic-resonance imaging machine. "It is rare for a hospital this size to have an MRI like this," said Jeff Kirk, the medical center's imaging coordinator. "We will have some really great equipment." The hospital, located approximately 30 miles from Salt Lake City, also has massive heat lamps, still wrapped in plastic, waiting for their first hypothermia patient. The hospital also has a state-of-the-art decontamination room.

Steamboat debates merits of ban on real estate signs

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - Real estate agent Michelle Avery says all real-estate signs should be prohibited by the city's sign code. "Other resort towns have adopted this ordinance, and I feel strongly that Steamboat should do the same," she writes in The Steamboat Pilot & Today. "Simple stated, the signs are an eyesore."

A slew of website bloggers beg to different. One blogger, Ralph Cantafio, contends that outright elimination for aesthetic reasons is simply inappropriate. "Government should be very careful to use only reasonable restrictions," he writes. Part of his reasoning is that eliminating signs eliminates communication, free communication being a hallmark of a democratic society.

Aspen & T'ride tumble, but not so Jackson Hole

ASPEN, Colo. - Nothing in the numbers being reported in the Aspen area suggest that the economy there has started a comeback. Very much the opposite.

Sales tax collections through the first four months of the year in Aspen were down 20 percent. At nearby Snowmass Village, the drop was more precipitous yet, 30 percent, while real estate transfer tax collections were down 80 percent.

Citing Land Title Guarantee reporting, The Aspen Times says that dollar volume for real estate sales across Pitkin County was off 30 per cent compared to 2008 - which ended up being the lowest-volume year since 2004. Down-valley in Garfield County, where the resort economy intersects with the now faltering boom in natural gas drilling, the real estate sales volume was down 80 per cent.

In Telluride, the story is the same: sales tax revenues this year have been down 12 to 15 per cent, and the real-estate transfer tax at year's end may total only $750,000, compared to $5 million just two years ago.

Inexplicably, the story in Jackson, Wyo., seems to be different, at least in regard to retail sales, which have been down only three per cent. Moreover, the Jackson Hole News and Guide reports hope among locals that the economy in Teton County will actually start growing again. Visitation to Yellowstone, after being down for several years, has actually been up 11 percent this year, and at Grand Teton National Park it was even.

Solar panel installations likely to slow down, too

CARBONDALE, Colo. - While other construction hands have been looking for work, installers of solar panels were working overtime through much of 2009 in the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys. But now that work will likely slow down, too.

The problem, explains The Aspen Times, is that several organizations that were providing rebates to consumers installing photovoltaic panels have already exhausted their budgets.

For example, when Holy Cross Energy debuted its incentive program in 2004, nobody took advantage of the credits. But last year, 55 projects got rebates. This year, 92 projects had been allocated credits by the end of May.

Causing the surge this year was an additional stimulus, a change in the federal tax code, which added another inducement: a tax credit equal to 30 per cent of a solar PV installation cost, minus any rebates.

Mammoth talks about

seeming to be on move

MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. - The Sheet, with a touch of sarcasm, reports on a recent economic development meeting in Mammoth Lakes, at which one speaker suggested a slogan for the community: "Mammoth on the Move."

For a logo, however, she stops short of suggesting a U-Haul truck, says the newspaper.

The town seems to have its fair share of vacant lots and boarded-up buildings. One of the proposals is to erect signs on vacant lots saying, "Future Site of Mixed Use Development."

Good enough, said one council member, as long as the signs give no completion dates.

Summit County prepares to help Senegalese villages

SILVERTHORNE, Colo. - Labor-strapped employers in Summit County a decade ago began recruiting employees from Africa. Among the countries sending residents to work the fast-food joints, clean the hotel rooms and so forth was Senegal, a country considered stable but with a high unemployment rate.

From this intersection of needs now comes an intercultural exchange. The Summit Daily News reports a recent spaghetti dinner at the local Elks Lodge at which Senegalese culture was to be exhibited and funds collected. Plans were to purchase medical supplies, buy mosquito nets, and donate computers to Senegal.

Banff wardens allowed to carry guns in park

BANFF, Alberta - Seven wardens in Banff National Park can now pack Heckler and Koch 9mm handguns while patrolling trails, campgrounds and roads. While it is not their main job, the wardens have the power to deal with dangerous, drunken, or speeding drivers on the park's roads and highways. Parks Canada has authorized 100 wardens across the country to carry guns. A 2001 ruling found that wardens were at risk of grievous bodily harm, possibly death, unless they carried self-defense equipment.

Teachers' starting pay going up to $54,500

JACKSON, Wyo. - Teachers in Jackson and Teton County may get raises next year, with the starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor's degree moving up to $54,500, while one with a master's degree getting not quite $60,000.

In Colorado's Summit County, base pay for teachers will be at $37,000 during the next academic year. In Aspen, the beginning pay is $40,200. In the Carbondale-Glenwood Springs area, it will be $35,000.