Mountain News: West saw exceptionally warm winter 

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK PHOTO - UNseasonable Winter felt more like spring for much of the western United States this year, including in Crested Butte, Colo., pictured.
  • Shutterstock Photo
  • UNseasonable Winter felt more like spring for much of the western United States this year, including in Crested Butte, Colo., pictured.

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — More than drought, the story in the West this winter was of warmth. Winter this year felt like spring, notes the Crested Butte News, and the records kept at the nearby hamlet of Gothic testify to the unusual warmth.

Billy barr, who doesn't capitalize his name, has been tracking weather and snowfall at Gothic since 1974. During summer, it's a haven for scientists who come from all over to conduct studies amid the wildflowers at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. During winter, barr has the place pretty much to himself.

This winter, he tells the News, he measured 38 record-high temperatures, compared to four or five temperature records set most seasons.

But barr also recorded a temperature of 10 degrees Celcius on Feb. 6, a full month earlier than the previous earliest date. He recorded rainfall on March 19 at Gothic, elevation 2,895 metres, and that is 25 days earlier than previously recorded.

"This winter is so exceptional, but lack of snow is less concerning because that has to do with where the weather patterns go. We don't get it, New England does. That doesn't cause me as much concern as the heat. To me this heat has been outrageous," barr said.

All of barr's record highs on his books have happened since 2000.

Elsewhere across the Rocky Mountains, newspapers last week reported raised eyebrows about snowpacks that were eviscerated by warm temperatures in March.

"March precipitation roared in like a lion and left like a thirsty little lamb," reported The New Mexican of Santa Fe. Temperatures around Albuquerque were three degrees above the three-decade average. And now, water flowing into New Mexico's major reservoirs is expected to be half or less of the 30-year average through July, the newspaper reported, citing federal agencies.

In Idaho, it was much the same. In Ketchum and Sun Valley, the Idaho Mountain Express reported it was the warmest winter ever recorded in the Wood River Valley. Peak snow accumulations usually are measured on April 6 in the higher valleys of central Idaho. This year, those snow depths were between 34 and 68 per cent of average.

In southwest Colorado, the snowpack of early April was 49 per cent of the 30-year median. In lower elevations, such as Lone Cone, west of Telluride, snowpack was just 11 per cent of average.

Colorado continues to talk about a statewide water plan. Nearly all of the state's water is allocated, primarily to farms, but with about eight per cent going to towns and cities. The population, now at 5.3 million, may grow to nine to 10 million at mid-century. Still uncertain is the effect of rising temperatures on water supplies.

"Things are extremely serious right now," Steve Child, a Pitkin County commissioner, said at a recent meeting covered by the Aspen Daily News. "Given all the climate change issues added on top of the doubling of the population of the state ... we're bordering on a crisis situation right now. Most people don't realize where we are and how serious it is."

Allowing rivers to be lazy — and even kinky

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Originating nearby in the high San Juan Mountains, the San Miguel River flows fast and straight through Telluride before tumbling toward the Colorado River.

But that straight shot through Telluride is by no means natural. Local residents are now talking about recreating a river of lazy meanders through a parcel of land called the Valley Floor. The 570-acre gateway meadow was purchased by the town in 2008 at a cost of $53 million in order to preclude future development. In past development, however, the river had been channelized on an arrow-straight path.

Putting creeks into channels isn't all that uncommon in either the cities or mountain valleys of Colorado. The baby Eagle River, for example, originally meandered among wetlands in a valley between Leadville and today's Vail.

In 1942, engineers arrived with instructions to create a camp for the 10th Mountain Division. Wetlands were filled, the river was yoked into a five-kilometre-long ditch, with city streets laid parallel to it. Soon Camp Hale was home to up to 14,000 people, Colorado's second largest city for a brief time.

The city was quickly vacated and buildings disassembled after the soldiers were shipped to Italy. The ditch, however, remains.

In Telluride, the Daily Planet reports that a $1.7 million plan presented to elected officials seeks to reverse the "crime against nature" when the San Miguel River was channelized. No decision has been made to move forward.

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