What’s with the Weather?

A Community Perspective

By Peter Shelton

This is about climate change: about shorter winters, longer, warmer summers and diminished stream flows, about the very real likelihood of changing ecologies and adjustments to economies.

But as I write, in February ’08, the mountains around Telluride are experiencing a huge snow winter. Following a scary warm-and-dry November (some thought the future had arrived overnight), December brought record snowfalls. Then January did the same. The snowplows couldn’t keep up.

One big winter does not refute the science on climate change. In fact, climate models for the Southwest agree that weather extremes will be the norm and not the exception. Temperatures are for sure going up—2 degrees already in the Colorado River Basin since 1976, according to Brad Udall of Western Water Assessment in Boulder. And we can probably expect a further 4- to 5-degree rise by mid-century and 7 to 8 degrees by the year 2100. Precipitation—snow or rain—is harder to predict. As Connie Wodhouse of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told a recent climate conference in Durango: “The range of hydrologic variability will increase in the future.”

Variability notwithstanding, a Colorado College study predicts an 82 percent loss in April 1 snowpack by 2085 for San Miguel County. Another study suggests streamflows will decrease 10 to 20 percent by mid-century. And these numbers were generated using current levels of CO2 emissions, not the rising levels that appear inevitable if worldwide energy use is not redirected, and soon.

So, what does a warming climate mean for Telluride and its environs?

A drop in streamflow, perceived and predicted, contributed to Aaron Rodriguez’s decision to sell his Telluride Kayak School last year. “It is one of the reasons I sold,” Rodriguez, who has also worked as a ski patroller and a guide for Helitrax, says. “The majority of people who work in the summer on the river also work in the winter on the snow. Two sides of the same coin, as it were…. I think global climate change is very real, and it will have an impact on business…. This place is essentially a desert, so the river season is always a crap shoot.” But, he says, GCC (global climate change) was “an underlying factor” in his decision to sell in that it contributed to “the terminal stress about having a product to offer my clients.”

Telluride Outside co-owner Tom Craddock sounds a note I heard again and again from local business people. His flyfishing and rafting trips depend, obviously, on water—as do, perhaps less obviously, his jeep tours to the alpine wildflowers. He worries that the resource may be going away. (“It’s very much a part of our daily conversation.”) And he realizes that education is his best hope. “We kind of have a captive audience. When we’re on a float trip, it’s also about learning about where you are. Every one of our guides is passionate about the river. We hope our guests go back to Dallas or wherever, and then when they read something or see something on TV, they say, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s what that guy on the San Miguel was talking about.’”

“I like to think change is coming,” Craddock told me, meaning change in private and public attitudes toward carbon emissions. “But is it coming fast enough? What’s the time frame? …It’s the resource that matters. What’s it going to be like in 100 years? I’ll be gone. But it would be nice to keep the biodiversity in the high country.”

Carolyn Gunn is working to preserve a piece of that biodiversity. A one-time veterinarian in Telluride, Gunn works now for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. She told me, “Warming can mean a whole web of things: drought, increased wildfires and subsequent destruction of forests, increased ash in streams, increased runoff caused by the lack of leaves on the ground, increased water temperatures due to lack of shade. The fires in Durango a couple of years ago, for example, had severe implications for the aquatic wildlife in Vallecito Reservoir.”

Native cutthroat trout, Gunn points out, are a cold-water species. Their optimal thermal range is 53 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit. “If water temperatures start reaching lethal limits, the fish will move upstream to seek cooler water. But there could come a point where they can’t go higher.”

Like pikas, another indicator species. Round-eared, rabbit-like pikas live in rock piles near and above treeline. As temps warm, pikas move up the mountain. Every 5 degrees of temperature equals 1,500 feet elevation, according to Jonathan Overpeck, Director of the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth at the University of Arizona. On a number of peaks in the Great Basin of the western United States, pikas have run out of cool mountaintops to climb and vanished from the ecosystem.

Do we care about pikas? Their disappearance may not greatly impact human activities here. But a drop in real estate activity certainly would. Do realtors care?

Erik Fallenius of Nevasca Realty does. But he’s not so sure about his customers. “No. Very rarely does it come up,” he told me. The bottom line is: It’s still cool here compared to Phoenix or Florida. “We humans tend to be that way. If the water still comes out of their taps, they think: What drought? When the water stops flowing, then they’ll react.

“I’ve often likened global warming to our bodies having a slight fever. We feel badly with just a small change of a degree or two. Our little planet may appear healthy day-to-day. But when the tap water shuts off….” Fallenius’s parents live in Finland. “They have said the winters there are becoming more radical. Dad puts out these suet balls with birdseed for the birds in winter. Last time I was there, it was so warm the seed had sprouted and grass was an inch long on the balls.”

You could call Fallenius a happy fatalist. “Hey, guess what? The physical changes may happen in my lifetime, and they may not. And if we end up skiing one month out of the year, great.” (I don’t know how genuine that last sentiment really is. Fallenius is an avid skier.) He also told me: “For the last three years, we’ve had rain during the winter here. I’ve always said I would never live in a ski town—Revelstoke, northern Idaho—where it rains.”

The ski company should be worried about all this, right? New Telski CEO Dave Riley isn’t concerned about the short term. (Imagine this guy’s luck, arriving for his first year on the job to record snowfalls.) “I think first that even the most aggressive projections show that this is a slow change,” Riley said. Though he does admit there could be impacts. “We’re fortunate to be very high, 8,750 feet in town, 9,500 feet in Mountain Village. It’s going to delay the impacts. Longer term, yes, we could be looking at a shorter ski season.”

I reminded Riley of studies the Aspen Skiing Company (ASC) has done in collaboration with the city’s Canary Initiative, which Aspen touts as “a plan to aggressively begin reducing global warming emissions.” They found that compared to 50 years ago, fall arrives 18 days later now, and spring arrives 10 days earlier. The frost-free growing season has increased by a full month. Ski company CEO (recently retired) Pat O’Donnell testified before Congress in March ’07 that skiing in Aspen lasts about 140 days a season now, and that the company needs at least 100 days to break even financially. “The loss of even a few dozen days,” he said, “would be an economic disaster.”

In order to forestall that disaster, ASC adopted a climate-change policy way back in 2001 and endeavors to “lead the ski industry toward more sustainable practices.” They admit to “struggling with the challenges,” but ASC has managed to buy wind energy credits equal to its total electricity use; developed a green building plan; installed solar arrays on several buildings, including Highlands ski patrol headquarters; operates a micro hydro generating station at Snowmass; and signed on to the Chicago Climate Exchange, which legally commits ASC to annual reductions in its CO2 emissions.

Auden Schendler, ASC’s executive director for community and environmental responsibility, takes the concept further, into the political realm: “The next step,” he has written, “is to use the whole industry as a lobbying force to drive large-scale legislative change. This isn’t [only] about making your resort more energy efficient. It’s about using the whole industry as a club to beat our legislators into action.”

Telski is not yet at Aspen’s level of commitment, but it does have in place programs for watershed protection; it’s adding cleaner, quieter four-stroke snowmobiles to the fleet; it’s retrofitting light fixtures; and it’s talking with ski lift manufacturer Poma about the possibility of installing a wind generator on one of the ridgelines.

CEO Riley is not “of the mind to pack it up and go home. I’m not a real fatalistic guy in terms of global warming. I believe in people. I believe we can turn this around. There will be economic opportunities to be found in the solution. It’s not an inevitability.”

Deanna Drew, Telski’s Environmental Program Manager, works the company’s day-to-day sustainability programs with a focus on conservation and education. “We’re doing our best,” she said, “to make our snowmaking, for example, the best, the most efficient it can be…. And we, like all ski areas, are trying to expand our summer programs, to be more of a four-season resort.” Just in case.

I talked with her as she was getting ready for Sustainable Slopes Day. She also organizes the area’s educational snowshoe tours, and its recycling, energy offset and Green Tag programs. Perhaps you have noticed the signs on the chairlifts that say: “Clif Bar and the Telluride Ski and Golf Company have teamed to purchase renewable wind power equivalent to the energy it takes to run Lift #4.” Purchasing a Green Tag on top of your lift ticket also contributes to the Bonneville Environmental (offset) Fund.

All good programs. But can a resort buy its way out of a carbon footprint? Can a relatively green ski area, or even a solidly green county, make a dent in a global problem? No, says San Miguel County Sustainability Coordinator Kris Holstrom, who also runs, in her copious spare time, an organic farm. “We can’t be sustainable. We can’t be self-sufficient. We import everything.” (Power, food, consumer goods, workers.) “We live at 9,000 feet. But we can be a model.”

Holstrom imagines a community where all the roofs have solar panels and heat from a natural gas compressor helps grow produce in a year-round greenhouse. Given “a constrained energy future,” she sees a shifting demographic and a shifting economy. “We can create a different kind of value-added product, one that is based on historic and cultural values, for example, community and localization. We can lead by example and be a part of the solution.”

Telluride Mayor Stu Fraser agrees. “We can set an example for people who come into the community—powerful people.” (Fraser was talking by mobile phone from his car on the way to Denver where the Colorado Supreme Court was to hear arguments on the Valley Floor condemnation.) “We are attempting to incorporate sustainability into everything we do as a town, even though I have folks come up to me and say, ‘If we have nine months of summer, that’s fine with me!’ You know, I don’t know that Telluride is willing to accept that we’re not the center of the universe.” (He laughs.) “You know the Margaret Mead statement?”

I had to look it up. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Fraser’s last words, before his cell cut out in San Miguel canyon, were: “We don’t have a lot of time to do it. But we have to try.”