A series of storms has brought snow levels across the West up to above nail-biting levels
Reminder: We’re on our sporadic holiday dispatch schedule. We’ll return normality—somewhat—starting Jan. 3.
Also: New Founding and Sustaining Members (meaning you paid $100+ for a yearly subscription during the last several months): We’re preparing to send out swag to y’all in gratitude for your support. If you haven’t yet received your signed copy of Sagebrush Empire and Land Desk t-shirt or tote bag, please send your: 1. Mailing address and 2. T-shirt or tote bag preference and t-shirt size to email@example.com ASAP. And if you’ve been meaning to become a Sustaining Member, now’s the time! We’ll be sending swag out in late January or early February.
Back in early December, when the high country should have been blanketed in white, we reported on the unbearable bareness of the West’s slopes. Precipitation levels had been decent in many places, but warm temperatures mostly kept it in the form of rain, not snow. Snowpack levels going into the second week of the month were far below average in much of the West, ski areas—some of which were unable even to make snow—were freaking out, and water managers were biting their nails down to nubs. Then a series of moisture-laden, Pacific storms plowed across the region and dumped their loads on the mountains from the San Gabriels, to the Sierra Nevada (the Central Sierra snow lab so far recorded 193 inches this December, smashing the previous record—and it’s still piling up), to Utah’s Wasatch Front, to Western Colorado’s high country.
The collective sigh of relief was almost audible across the region. The snow water equivalent graphs tell the story. The black line (2022 water year) on this one shows how snow levels in basins that feed Lake Powell were tracking well below the norm into early December before shooting up to 115 percent of median now. That line should hold on to its upward trajectory into the New Year as more storms line up to pound the Rockies.
The San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado received a boatload of white stuff. Wolf Creek Ski Area is reports 91 inches of snow accumulation between Dec. 23 and Dec. 30, and the New Year’s Eve storm could bring another 30 inches, according to the National Weather Service. The San Juan Basin’s plot is looking good:
Still, even with all of the bounty, there are still the snow haves and have-nots. The Christmas storm covered the mountains in wet, heavy snow, but fell mostly as rain in the valleys (though this was remedied in the following days as temperatures dropped).
As of Dec. 29 snowpack in the Rio Grande watershed as a whole was still pretty meagre.
The first wave of storms missed Colorado’s Front Range altogether and even as skiers in nearby mountains floated through thigh deep powder a couple of days after Christmas, a grass fire west of Denver forced evacuations and shut down a major thoroughfare. Clayton, New Mexico, has gone 76 days without precipitation. Big swaths of the West are still in extreme or exceptional drought. Lake Powell’s surface elevation is now 3,537 feet, 44 feet below this date last year and just 47 feet above the minimum level at which Glen Canyon Dam can generate power.
But enough of that buzzkill, get out and enjoy the fresh powder while you can!
Or not. And you might think twice about heading to the backcountry to get away from it all. As of the morning of Dec. 30, avalanche warnings and watches were in effect across Colorado. Avalanches have killed six people this season in the West.
FROM THE Energy Transitions and Public Land BEAT:
The Bureau of Land Management approves two utility-scale solar projects on 4,000 acres of public land northeast of the Salton Sea. Together the photovoltaic installations will have 456 megawatts of generating capacity paired with 400 megawatts of battery storage. These are the first two projects approved under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a landscape-level planning process that identified suitable areas for development while putting other areas off-limits. That has helped temper potential opposition from most environmental groups. The Los Angeles Times’ Sammy Roth writes that the Center for Biological Diversity has concerns about the plans’ effects on dunes and lizards, but will not oppose them. The more hardline Basin & Range Watch is a little less enthusiastic.
A settlement has been reached which, if approved by the federal government, will remove a major obstacle in the way of construction of a 732-mile, high-voltage, direct current transmission line that would carry power from huge Wyoming wind farms to the California grid, providing “geographical smoothing” of the peaks and valleys resulting from California’s ample solar generation. The Anschutz Corporation has been slogging through the permitting process for 14 years, but a single land-owner put conservation easements on their sprawling Colorado ranch just as the line’s final path was approved, blocking the transmission line and bringing progress to a standstill. The agreement should clear the way for both the TransWest Express line and a separate, shorter line proposed by PacifiCorp.
WE’RE READING …
… Our National Monuments: America’s Hidden Gems, a gorgeous and informative coffee-table book by QT Luong and published by Terra Galleria Press. After the Trump administration announced its “review” of 27 national monuments established under the Antiquities Act since the 1990s, Luong set out to visit and photograph—in large format—all 22 of the targeted land-based national monuments. The result is an image-based atlas of these striking landscapes, both well-known (Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante) and more obscure (Vermillion Cliffs and Ironwood Cliffs). Luong’s lovely photographs capture the iconic, spectacular views as well as more subtle beauty—charred giant sequoia stumps or four shots of the same petroglyph panel in varying light. He even has an aerial shot of Michael Heizer’s monumental land art installation, City. Each set of images is introduced by an essay written by local-to-the-area conservationists and includes maps and other information about the monuments. Purchase the book from Bookshop.org.